“I don’t need faith – I have experience.”
“My gods don’t ask me to believe – they ask me to do.”
“Don’t say ‘faith’ when you mean ‘religion’ – my religion isn’t based on faith.”
These complaints are valid. The conflation of belief with faith and faith with religion is a result of the dominance of Christianity in the West and in particular the influence of Evangelical Protestantism in the contemporary United States. There is an assumption that religion is about what you believe – which set of unprovable propositions you affirm and which ones you reject.
This assumption has carried over into alternative religions. There’s a quote from Deepak Chopra floating around social media: “Religion is the belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.” This is a very weak definition of religion rooted in the assumptions of orthodox Christianity.
More inclusively, religion is a set of practices shown to be useful in facilitating religious experiences. Religion is a set of rituals and customs shown to be meaningful to individuals and communities. Religion is a set of values shown to be helpful in living a good life in a good community.
Religion is the collective experience of our ancestors. We don’t have to reinvent the proverbial wheel – we can use the wheels our ancestors left us to travel further down the paths to which we’ve been called, build on what they left us, and leave better wheels for those who come after us.
Our pre-Christian ancestors didn’t put much emphasis on faith. What was important was living virtuously and honoring the gods. Your beliefs about the gods were far less important, and the idea of blindly assenting to a creed, to a formal “this I believe” would have been meaningless. Rejecting the primacy of faith is part of the Pagan restoration.
But there is a place for faith in modern Paganism.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary gives two meanings of faith. One follows the common Christian-influenced understanding: “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion; firm belief in something for which there is no proof; complete trust.”
But there is another meaning: “allegiance to duty or a person; loyalty; fidelity to one’s promises.” For Pagans – and pretty much everyone other than orthodox Christians – faith isn’t about having faith, it’s about being faithful.
Are the gods individual beings or are they aspects of one Divine entity? Are they like us, only more, or are they categorically different? How important are we humans to them? Are they even beings at all, or are they archetypes and metaphors? I have some strong beliefs around those questions, beliefs I advocate on a fairly regular basis. Being faithful doesn’t require you to agree with me or anyone else – it requires you to honor the gods in the way they ask you to do, and to do your best to embody their virtues and support their values.
Is the Earth our Great Mother? Is it the body of the Goddess? Is it the creation of the gods? Is it a living organism? Being faithful doesn’t require you believe anything about the Earth – it requires that you live responsibly on the Earth and that you care for the Earth and its creatures.
Being faithful requires that you keep your word, your commitments and your honor. When Pwyll Lord of Dyved spent a year in the form of Arawn, he slept chastely with the Queen of Annwvyn every night. When Arawn discovered what had – and hadn’t – happened he proclaimed “what a faithful comrade I took for a friend!” Whether Pwyll was faithful to Arawn, the Queen, his wife or himself makes for an interesting cultural debate, but in any case, he was faithful.
Being faithful requires that you keep showing up and doing the work, day after day, month after month, year after year. You aren’t responsible for changing the world – you are responsible for doing what you’re called to do.
Being faithful doesn’t mean you don’t have doubts. It means you don’t let those doubts keep you from doing what you’re called to do.
It matters what we believe. It matters more what we do.
Having faith isn’t bad. Being faithful is better.