UPG and Religious Uncertainty

UPG and Religious Uncertainty July 25, 2013

There have been several good essays recently on the topic of unverified personal gnosis. Sam Webster started it with this piece calling UPG “an ugly, misguided notion.” There have been numerous responses, including this one by John Halstead here at Patheos.

While the term “unverified personal gnosis” can be used to denigrate religious experience and to privilege tradition and the keepers of tradition, taken at face value it’s an accurate and humble description of the moving but highly subjective experiences we have of our gods, ancestors and spirits. Beyond that, I don’t have any great wisdom to impart.

Instead of diving deeper into UPG, I find myself being pulled back to a topic I seem to revisit often: uncertainty. Uncertainty plays a key part in my understanding of universalism. Last year I wrote about the tension between faith and doubt, while this year I wrote about Professor Ronald Hutton’s statement that “we are the only society that both believes in witchcraft and doesn’t believe in it, and I’d like to keep it that way.

The human desire for certainty comes from two sources. The first is binary thinking. This is the evolutionary adaptation that made it possible for our pre-human and early human ancestors – at least some of whom did not have language and language-influenced thought processes – to quickly distinguish between friend and foe, predator and prey, balm and bane. Nuanced analysis was a luxury primitive humans simply didn’t have time for – they needed quick black and white answers, not shades of gray that might take minutes or hours to consider. When you spot movement in the trees, you’d better decide “predator or prey” very quickly. Guess wrong one way and you go hungry. Guess wrong the other way and you’re removed from the gene pool.

Ten thousand years of civilization and its complexities have not come close to overriding several million years where binary thinking was essential. We still like to classify everything as right/wrong, good/bad, hot/cold, helpful/harmful and so on. That’s one of the reasons “in between” times like sunrise and sunset are considered magical. They’re neither day nor night – our left-brain, conscious binary thinking can’t handle the ambiguity and breaks down (obviously this is a partial breakdown, not a total one), opening us to right-brain, unconscious thinking and the magic it brings.

True magical thinking (as opposed to the pleasant but impossible fantasies referred to when “magical thinking” is used as an insult) requires turning off the binary impulse and opening up to a wide range of possibilities. But that’s another post for another time.

The second reason we want certainty is that we want to build for the future. Our evolutionary impulses tell us to live for today because we may be dead tomorrow. If we’re going to sacrifice the present for some future benefit, we want to be sure our sacrifice isn’t in vain.

If you’re going to plant crops, you’d like to know there’s going to be a harvest. If you’re going to invest time and effort in building a house, you’d like to know that it’s not going to be washed away in next Spring’s floods. If you’re going to forsake all others and make a lifetime commitment to one partner, you’d like to know that partner is always going to be there for you.

Some religions combine the two desires. They propose that your present life determines your eternal fate, and then present that eternal fate as a binary proposition. If you think your only possibilities are eternal bliss or eternal torment you’d really like to be sure you made the right choice.

But where in the Universe do you see certainties? Drought, disease and insects can kill your crops. The Nile may flood every year (or at least it did before Nasser dammed it), but some rivers are fine for decades, then overflow. I don’t think I need to quote divorce statistics.

We can’t even be certain when someone moves from “living” to “dead.” When breathing stops? When the heart stops? When brain activity stops? We can’t be certain when life begins, either, which is one of the stickiest of points in the abortion debate (a subject I’m resisting writing on).

If we can’t be certain about things we can observe and measure, what chance do we have to be certain about things unseen?

In their understandable-but-unrealizable search for certainty, some people invoke binary thinking again and say “if you can’t be certain, then anything goes, and we can’t have that.”


As shown in the example given by Professor Hutton, the fact that we can’t be certain what Stonehenge was used for doesn’t mean you can believe anything you want about it. Some possibilities are more likely than others.

Some religious beliefs are more likely than others. More importantly, some religious beliefs are more helpful than others.

Do your beliefs help you live a peaceful life, or do they fill you with fear and anxiety? Do they help you live in harmony with other people and other creatures, or do they isolate you from whole segments of the world? Do they challenge you to build a better world, or do they tell you things are OK like they are? Or worse, do they tell you things would be fine if other people would quit screwing it all up?

It’s the same with UPG. Other members of your tradition may or may not accept your UPG as genuine. Members of other religions almost certainly won’t. But the value of your religious experiences isn’t dependent what on others think about them. It isn’t dependent on whether you can be certain they’re genuine. Their value is dependent on whether they are meaningful and helpful to you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, a Forest God is calling me. I can’t be certain it’s Him, but previous calls have turned out pretty well so I’m going to answer this one too.

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  • Tommy Elf

    I’ll be honest…I had to go to the article you linked to find out what a “upg” was…

    • I spelled it out in the first sentence!

      • Tommy Elf

        It didn’t register with my mind when I read it. 🙂 Hit me with the cluebat. 🙂

  • Ywen DragonEye

    I think if it were not for UPG, I would likely be an athiest. As someone rather logical and scientific minded (as many of we Druid-types tend to be), it UPG that confirms my faith. I don’t use it to convince others, though I may share the ideas, but it is personal, and along with history and tradition, guides me along the path.

    • For me, religious experience (UPG) was what finally got the deep emotional tentacles of fundamentalism out of my soul.

  • Mikal

    While I agree with many (if not all) of your points concerning UPG, I think a small caveat should be added. Some of the issues I’ve seen regarding the UPG thing isn’t so much about whether a person’s UPG is dismissed entirely as wishful thinking but more about the insistence of the individual that everyone accept their personal experience as real without questioning it in any form. Analyzing and reflecting on something as important as a UPG should be a crucial first step in finding what is helpful from the experience, and sometimes the best questions come from skeptics instead of yourself.

    • I totally agree, which is why I could only partially agree with Sam Webster’s post. Treasure your UPG, but don’t expect me to follow it without some corroboration.

    • Eithne-Nicole Kechari

      When I was going through and trying to self codify what it means to me to be pagan and heathen, I stumbled into the idea that I believe we can have personal experiences with deity, and more-over, that we can kid ourselves into believing we’ve had personal experiences that can lead down a path of self righteousness and alienation. Everyone’s mileage may vary but I suspect a dose of humble regard for it being *personal* makes a huge difference.

  • Eithne-Nicole Kechari

    Love this! This especially: But the value of your religious experiences isn’t dependent what on others think about them. It isn’t dependent on whether you can be certain they’re genuine. Their value is dependent on whether they are meaningful and helpful to you.

    Thank you!

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I think people get hung up on UPG.

    They see the U as meaning ‘Unverifiable’ and, thus, either beyond belief or beyond contestation.

    Personally, I see it as a challenge. Not ‘Unverifiable’ but ‘Unverified’. If a person has a religious experience, why not look to see if it cannot be corroborated, somehow?

  • Good job. I’m convinced that the day I stop allowing for the “I Don’t Know Factor” in science or belief (which aren’t divorced for me) is the day I’ve mucked up to the point of stupidity, and I should expect a large anvil with ACME on the side to fall from a clear blue sky on my head.

    UPGs give me my jumping off points. I have a habit of lab-ratting some of them by bouncing them off other people, and keeping track of the results. This isn’t as much to try to “prove” anything as it is to poke at how I interpret what I get out of them.

    I tend to get metaphorically smartassed with the “Blind Men & The Elephant” story to describe UPG and my IDKF. Just because I’ve only felt the ear doesn’t mean the guy who has the trunk is crazy or a liar. The guy who can touch the tail doesn’t have to accept that the foot exists, but he can extend the same civility. If we don’t all start hitting each other (or the elephant) with our canes for heresy, we can get on. I’m sure the elephant doesn’t care whether we can each see all of him or not as long as we treat him well.