Yes, Belief Matters!

Yes, Belief Matters! June 11, 2013

Paganism is known as a religion of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy – what matters most is that you do what’s right, not that you believe what’s right. While the majority culture usually thinks of religion primarily in terms of beliefs, that idea is actually very modern, very Western, and very Protestant. I frequently mention this in terms of caring for the Earth: it doesn’t matter if you care for the Earth because you see it as the body of the Goddess or because you see it as God’s creation or because you see it as the only planet we’ve got. What matters is that you care for the Earth.

With this emphasis on action over belief, it is not surprising that the on-line theological discussions of the past few weeks have generated a backlash. In particular, two prominent Pagans have published essays downplaying the importance of belief.

Thorn Coyle has an essay on Huffington Post with the title “Why I Am Not a Believer.” She quotes Feri founder Victor Anderson, who said “perceive first, believe later” and she paraphrases Joseph Campbell: “I don’t need belief because I have experience.” In fairness to Thorn, most of her essay is devoted to holding beliefs lightly and remaining open to new experiences as well as new interpretations. Those are good ideas, but the title and the quotes send a strong message that belief doesn’t matter.

There is no such nuance in Galina Krasskova’s PaganSquare essay titled “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Theories.” Here’s a key quote:

As I was discussing this on Facebook, noting that as a result of this debate, I intended to write a series of articles on what I think are the fundamentals of polytheism, Teo Bishop asked me if I would be expanding on the ‘nature of real-ness’ of the Gods in my upcoming articles, if I would be positing a theory, what he (and I believe Halstead also) termed a theory of the ontological nature of the Gods.

The question really left me flabbergasted and I’m glad he asked it. I think it highlights a crucial, very crucial difference between polytheists and Neo-pagans. My theological approach is not based on theory. As a polytheist practicing my ancestral traditions, rooted in deeply engaged experience with the Gods and ancestors, I don’t need theories. They’re rendered irrelevant.

I’m in strong agreement with Galina that engaging with the gods is more important than theorizing about the gods. Again, orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy. But her dismissal of theory simply doesn’t work for me, and I suspect it isn’t helpful to the average Pagan and/or polytheist.

Galina looks back to a glorious pagan past where “the reality of the Gods would have been taken as a given;” where theories about the gods would have been hardwired into a community.

I grew up in a community like that. Only it wasn’t Pagan or pagan, it was fundamentalist Christian. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The men of the church might argue about the meaning of a particular passage of scripture, but that it was anything other than the inerrant Word of God was not open to debate. The saved were going to heaven, the unsaved (which included just about everyone but conservative low-church Protestants) were going to hell, and only a fool would believe otherwise.

Unexamined axiomatic beliefs didn’t work for me then and they don’t work for me now. I can’t simply take the reality of gods and goddesses as a given. I need a theory, a framework of belief. I don’t need proof, but I do need reason.

And I think most Pagans and would-be Pagans do too.

Religious experience is important. But experience by itself is literally meaningless – it has no meaning until we interpret it, and we interpret our experiences based on our beliefs. Put a Wiccan, a Baptist and an atheist on a beach at sunset. They will feel the same breeze, smell the same smells, gaze at the same horizon and hear the same waves. They will have the same experience, but they will interpret that experience in very different ways based on their beliefs about Nature, the god(s) of Nature, and their place in Nature.

Some people have intimate experiences of the gods that leave no doubts in their hearts and minds. Others – myself included – have experiences that are absolutely real in the moment, but afterwards, doubts begin to creep in. Perhaps my experience wasn’t strong enough. Perhaps I’m too rooted in the mainstream culture. Perhaps the fundamentalist religion of my childhood isn’t as gone as I think it is. Perhaps I’m simply too skeptical.

What are we to do? Are we to ignore the call of the gods? Are we to lie to ourselves and insist our experiences are more than what they really are?


We reinforce our experiences with beliefs. As Thorn says:

We humans are storytellers. Stories apply meaning to our experiences. This is a good thing. There is truth in our stories, as well as exploration, and a connection to the line of past and future.

We draw on the wisdom of others who have had similar experiences, both ancient and contemporary. We compare our experiences to theirs, we compare them to what we know of the Universe and the way it works. We form hypotheses of belief and we test those hypotheses with further practice, and that practice generates further experiences. As our experiences grow, we refine our hypotheses into theories – ideas about who and what the gods are and how we relate to them.

My experiences of the gods I serve may not be as strong as the experiences of some Pagans, but it’s been strong enough to give me a clear sense of direction. And a big part of that direction is introducing the gods to the people. Oh, the gods can speak to whoever they like – but will those people hear them? Or will they dismiss what they hear as fantasies, delusions, and mixed up brain chemistry?

People will only hear what they’re prepared to hear. People will only see what they’re prepared to see.

If I have heard nothing else from the deities I serve, it’s this: “make them ready.”

In order to be ready to hear and see the gods, people must first believe that such things as gods might actually exist and that we can interact with them. That’s a tall order for a culture where the loudest voices on one side scream there is only one god and the loudest voices on the other side scream there are no gods. People need stories, theories and beliefs.

Here’s what I wrote last year:

Belief comes as we try to interpret our experiences. What do they tell us about ourselves and our place in the grand order of things? What do they tell us about our place in the community? What do they tell us about how we should live our lives – what is of ultimate importance and what is trivial? Why did this practice generate this experience?

The meaning we take from our beliefs motivates us to practice deeper and more frequently. More and deeper practice generates more and deeper experiences. More and deeper experiences further reinforce our beliefs.

Practice, experience and belief are a virtuous circle.

I am envious of Pagans whose experience is so strong they don’t need belief. I’m not one of them. So I’ll continue to interpret my experiences and tell my stories. I’ll continue to discuss my theories with other Pagans. I’ll continue to refine those theories, trying to understand the gods intellectually as well as spiritually. I’ll do my best to avoid getting so caught up in thinking that I forget doing. Right action is still more important than right belief.

But I need belief. And I think most people do too.

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  • Aine

    I feel that the growing idea that ‘real’ polytheists don’t believe but have unfaltering knowledge that the gods are REALLY REAL is problematic. Discernment is a great thing, and I think we need to have some doubt to really get that to work. I also think the idea is purely reactionary and meant to try to get out of the fact that we /can’t/ actually be totally 100% sure. Anyone that has told me they KNOW for CERTAIN that the gods ABSOLUTELY work a certain way is someone I don’t trust. Partially because we’re dealing with personal experiences, and also because as someone who believes in many gods and spirits, I doubt one human can know how every god and spirit works or exists.

    I like theories. I like ideas. I like exploration, rather than ‘this IS the way it is and THAT IS FINAL’. I didn’t get to where I am today by not questioning. I question everything, especially my own perceptions. I have belief, and faith, and doubt, and all that lovely and difficult religious muck, as well as experiences, as well as action. All of those combined create my religious life, and it couldn’t really be any other way for me (at least, that’s how I feel right now!).

    Anywho, great post, and thank you for your wonderful writing.

    • Aine, I respect those whose experience is so strong they are certain what those experiences mean, but I have a hard time relating to them. I’m not going to tell them they’re categorically wrong, but their approach doesn’t work for me, and I don’t think it works for most other people either.

      • Aine

        I don’t think they’re categorically wrong, but…the way it is being promoted right now sets me on edge. For me there is a difference between knowing what our own experiences mean and trying to tell others what their own experiences mean (which is what I have been seeing a lot of, in the recent discussions of polytheism and what makes someone a polytheist), if that makes sense?

  • kenofken

    Belief is important to me as a pagan, but it can never be primordial or inflexible. For me, belief is the model, the theory, that I use to explain the experiences. It’s valuable because it can give me a framework and context in which to understand the experience and integrate it into my life and continue learning from it long after the experience itself passes. Belief has value only insofar as its predictive and explanatory values hold up to experience. The reason pagans are so leery of embracing belief is because belief was (and is) held to be the end-all in Christianity. “Belief says the nature of God is X, so if you experience Y, or anything else, it’s invalid. Belief is the off switch for the mind and the soul in most of Christianity. That does not mean it has to be so for us.

    • “Belief has value only insofar as its predictive and explanatory values hold up to experience.” – Yes, exactly.

  • Tommy Elf

    For me – “So I’ll continue to interpret my experiences and tell my stories”…that sums it all up. This is what works for you (and to a large degree, it also sums up where I am as well). Much like every batter in a baseball game approaches each at-bat in their own way. Some batters step into the box, ready to hit the baseball. Others step in after going through a wide range of motions, preparing themselves to hit. Each batter stands in the batter’s box in their own way. Some have an open stance. Some have a closed stance. Some stand rigidly up-right. Some crouch over and make their strike zone as small as possible. In the end, each approach brings the hitter to the same position, where the hands are in the appropriate location to bring the bat through the zone and strike the ball. Each outcome is singular in regards to that moment’s experience.

    What I’m getting at in a round-about way, is that everyone approaches their own spiritual practice in their own unique way. I can understand (to some degree) that some folks would set belief to one side, where others would set it first and foremost. Whichever way works best for them. So long as they get their hands into the proper hitting position prior to the pitch arriving at the plate. $.02


    • I respect people who have strongly held beliefs, and I respect people who advocate for those strong beliefs. Where I have problems are when people refuse to entertain the idea they might be wrong. In addition to being unpleasant, that removes the mystery, and a religion without mystery isn’t much of a religion… or so it seems to me.

      To continue your baseball metaphor, I shudder to think what a modern hitting coach would do with Ty Cobb. But his unorthodox approach (even for his era) worked very well for him.

      • Tommy Elf

        Totally agreed. You and I both work from an OBOD framework. That doesn’t mean we see eye-to-eye on belief or spiritual practice – nor should we. As I’ve pointed out before, we’re both individuals approaching similar concepts from different perspectives. Our experiences will be similar but will have some very distinct differences. You will place emphasis on things that I won’t – and vice versa. That is – in my opinion – the entire beauty of being individuals…no two are the same (do you hear me Mr. Data?).

        Continuing down the line with the batting approaches….Hank Aaron hit with his hands crossed (opposite of where they usually are). That weakens the swing, since the wrists don’t have the freedom to bend as they normally would. In essence, his approach should never have worked – and he increased the risk of physically breaking the wrist on his top-hand if a pitcher threw a “heavy” fastball (one with hard, downward breaking spin). Worked quite well for him too.

        Back to belief…”religion without mystery isn’t much of a religion…or so it seems to me.” I can see where you are coming from. But back to the Hank Aaron notation — religion without mystery may look odd for you (as it does to me), but for someone else it works quite well (which you’ve noted before – both here and in other blog postings). I would submit that its not the message that rankles, but rather the dogmatic manner (subtle in one respect, not so subtle in the other) in which it was served up by both of the authors in question.


  • Sabina Magliocco

    I really appreciate the way you look at the relationship between belief and experience. Yes, experience can lead to belief — but belief can also create the framework within which we interpret experience. It’s not either/or, or only one way. Both are constantly interacting with one another — not just in Paganisms, but in human experience.

    Here’s another thing to consider: belief is not the same thing as faith. As products of a Christo-centric culture, we’ve been conditioned to think of these as one and the same, but in fact, belief is much more tenuous: it is flexible, emergent, and based on context. As you so clearly explain, you might have a particular experience on the beach at sunset, then later question the nature of that experience. That’s not lack of belief or imperfect, but part of the way belief works. “Belief” implies some level of uncertainty or dubiousness about the thing being believed.

    Finally, even in traditional societies with polytheistic or animistic religions, individuals differ from one another in terms of their experiences and beliefs, and in the intensity with which they engage with their dieties. I think it’s mistaken to think that in the past, or in traditional societies, everyone took the existence of the gods for granted and lived in awe/ fear/ a state of worshipfulness towards these mighty beings. Belief varies tremendously within a single community.

    I have a deep respect for those who feel a visceral connection with the gods and communicate with them constantly, but I also recognize that it isn’t everyone’s experience, and that does not de-legitimize the experiences of those who feel differently. If we accept that the gods are real, can we not also accept that they choose to reveal themselves differently to different people?

    • VG Lovecraft

      I agree that the gods reveal themselves differently to different people. In fact, I believe that they reveal themselves in different ways to me as an individual.

      Before I get into that, however, I will briefly touch on my thoughts re: belief, faith, and experience. I agree that belief and experience interact. A brief example: Shortly after my father passed on, I had strange “electrical occurrences” happen to me for two months. My lights would rhythmically turn on and off, my TV would do the same (separately from the lights), and my land line phone would sometimes be unable to receive calls, with strange static on the line when picking up the receiver. I attribute these things as evidence that my father’s spirit was visiting me. However, when I tried to tell a friend about this “evidence for ghosts”, he dismissed it. When his mother passed on a few years later, he told me that he knew there was no afterlife, as his mother gave no evidence to him that she was still “there”. Strangely, his phone exhibited the same static as mine had previously. He would call me and say, “Sorry I took so long to call you back. My phone’s had this weird static on the line for hours.” I tried to tell him that was his mom, and he still dismissed the possibility.

      As for faith, I think belief can be closely related. Saying “I believe that the sun will shine today,” or “I have faith that the sun will shine”, are interchangeable. However, when speaking of “faith” relating to religion, we often associate that type of faith with being “blind” to any possible contrary evidence.

      As to the “reality” of the gods, I believe in all gods. Personally, I usually think of them as being created by humans, and that they are a formed by our “thought energy”. However, I can also see them as archetypes which have existed through time, which we can connect with on an ancestral level. I also see the possibility that the gods may be independent entities. Since I recognize these various types of “reality” within myself, I have no doubt that the gods can choose to reveal themselves differently to different people.

  • epredota

    John, thank you so much for writing this.

    The thing that dismays me most in these kinds of conversations is how people assume that everyone means the same thing by ‘belief’, when in fact it appears to me that there are (at least) two distinct things being talked about.

    The first is the kind of belief which means taking on board dogma and doctrine from an external authority. The second is the kind of belief which means what you are talking about – interpreting and predicting experiences based on past experiences.

    The first kind of belief is restricted to some very specific forms of religion – as you point out. The second kind of belief is simply part of being alive and human – we all have it, including Polytheists and atheists.

    • Tommy Elf

      Well stated.

  • Cat lover

    Where does that leave humanistic pagans?

    • Where ever they want to be. They do the practice, they have the experiences, and they interpret those experiences according to their Humanistic beliefs. As several commenters have pointed out, “belief” doesn’t always mean “affirmation of someone else’s supernatural proposition.” In this context, it means your theory, your model of the way things work.

    • “Where does that leave humanistic pagans?”

      There are many modern Pagans who consider ourselves to be “humanists” in the original sense of that term as it arose out of the Renaissance. The original “humanism” of the Renaissance did not in any way deny (or even doubt) the reality of the Gods, or of the divine or “celestial” realm more generally. Rather, humanists took the very reasonable stance that we should celebrate the unique position of humanity as partaking fully of and participating fully in both the material/terrestrial and the celestial/divine realms. “What a piece of work is Man,” etc, etc.

  • Thank you for this very thoughtful contribution. Personally I think that both of the essays you cite did a great disservice to the Pagan community. They both amounted to polemics in which the authors tried to privilege their own personal beliefs and theories by claiming that they were basing themselves only on “experience”, without any need for consciously integrating that experience.

    We all experience all of the divine wonders of the Cosmos every day. As Walt Whitman once observed, “every cubic inch of space is a miracle.” But what do we do with these experiences, these miracles?

    In one sense “beliefs” and “theories” can appear to be quite different and even opposites. But what they both have to do with is how we relate to and internalize and make sense of our experiences. Indeed, I think that without theories and beliefs there is little or no evidence that anything is going on inside of us, and that is where the real “experience” has to occur.

  • VG Lovecraft

    Many thanks for writing this, John! I think that many Pagans can be “reactionary” when it comes to words like belief, faith, and religion. “I’m spiritual, not religious” is a statement that I can”t relate to. I see a “religion” as a “world view”; an attempt to explain mysteries of the universe, and our role within it. I consider Atheism, and even science, as religions. They are both world views, though they lack a spiritual component or gods.

  • A well-stated and nuanced post, John, thank you! I think that belief matters in so much as what a person believes will affect and to an extent determine their actions (if you believe Jesus is coming back soon in the apocalypse, you probably won’t care about protecting the earth). Apart from that, I tend to see beliefs as just a subset of opinions. You have yours, I have mine and that’s ok as long as nobody forces their opinions on anyone else.

  • Sunweaver

    I talk about belief and experience in my last post:
    Religions are highly experiential things and experience is about as subjective as it gets. I’m a believer because of my experiences and my experiences are shaped by my belief. Add in faith and your graphic sums it all up nicely (maybe with more arrows?). That kind of subjective information makes for bad science, but great religion. I just can’t effectively make objective statements about the nature of the divine.

    I grew up in a community like that. Only it wasn’t Pagan or pagan, it was fundamentalist Christian.

    That’s me as well. I am deeply sympathetic.
    Gods bless,

  • tedseeber

    I’d even go so far as to call that attitude very Semitic. None of the ancient Middle Eastern religions I can name were animistic, having already moved on to idols and left nature worship behind. But all the most ancient pagan cultures were.

    I’m Catholic, but I have no doubt at all that Crow and Condor exist. I may no longer think of them as gods or ancestors (the pagans who lived on the land I now live on didn’t really distinguish that much) but I don’t doubt that they exist.

  • Patrick Wolff

    The triangle diagram of relationships has it right, I think; some my emphasize one point more than others, but no one only holds to one point. Any ritual performed assumes some kind of underlying belief system that makes rituals meaningful.

    On belief-centeric religions, I think we should be more specific than just “Christianity.” Within Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox often critique Protestantism for being too belief-oriented, while they would define themselves as more concerned with orthopraxy (or really, orthodoxy, which means right worship), than specific points of doctrine. The emphasis on belief is uniquely Protestant, but extraordinarily influential. Separation of church and state Supreme Court rulings are shaped by it (religious freedom means the right to hold a private belief, but not necessarily the right to practice), as is most of the history of the study of world religions.

    Even “belief” is not an unambiguous term. In Protestantism, it would typically mean affirmation of a creedal statement, and particularly an approach shaped by 18th century Protestantism’s reaction against the Enlightenment. But beliefs could also be stories, cosmologies. Even within Protestantism, the biblical theology movement attempted to reorient the notion of belief away from precisely worded confessional statements to the narrative sweep of the Bible. This broader, narrative notion of belief is less concerned with rational argumentation and apologetics and more concerned with creating a worldview, a web of meaning. Belief in this more broad narrative sense was, I think, an essential part of ancient paganism.