The new issue of Witches & Pagans magazine is out and it includes an editorial from Anne Newkirk Niven titled “When Nature Speaks, There Will Only Be One Question: Does Our Religion Work?” This is a reprint of a piece Anne did last August for Patheos on the Future of Paganism. I didn’t give this essay a lot of thought when it first came out, but perhaps since we’ve been talking a lot about the future lately, it made more of an impression on me this time.
The editorial chides Pagans for fighting among ourselves, for “fiddling while Rome burns.” It looks back nostalgically to the days when “‘We All Come from the Goddess’ was pretty close to a Pagan national anthem.” It concludes by saying:
In the end, our challenge is to create a culture that brings joy to the downtrodden and inspires us to campaign on behalf of Life, even when that work may seem hopeless. What we need from our religion — and what we owe to the Gods — is to build a faith that binds us in a single unbroken web to the living, to the dead, and to the generations that are yet unborn.
While I’m in sympathy with the sentiment behind this editorial, I find it telling that Anne – perhaps intentionally, perhaps unconsciously – begins by asking “does our religion work?” but concludes by saying “our challenge is to create a culture…”
Religion and culture are intertwined, but they are not the same thing. At a very high, simplistic level, culture is an expression of a people’s identity. Religion is an expression of their highest values and how they deal with the Big Questions of Life. A culture that works helps people build a common identity and work together to survive and succeed. A religion that works helps people deal with the deep questions of why we’re here, what’s most important in life, and how to deal with the inevitability of death.
The problem with religious questions is that they’re unanswerable. Not because we haven’t discovered the answers yet – as though every problem could be solved if only we had a stronger microscope, a faster supercomputer, or a bigger particle accelerator (or perhaps if the Library of Alexandria had survived intact) – but because they’re beyond the capacity of our amazing but finite brains. Because these big religious questions are unanswerable, some people assume they’re unimportant – and not just atheists. Any time someone says “deep down it’s all the same” what they’re really saying is “religion doesn’t matter.”
And yet these questions remain: where did we come from? Why are we here? How should we live? What’s most important? And perhaps the most troublesome of all, what happens when we die? We can choose to ignore religious questions, but they never go away. Neither do the questions that bore some people but intrigue others, such as the number of Gods (zero? one? two? many?), the nature of spirits, and how we can form and maintain meaningful relationships with persons who are other than living humans.
Religion that works does not distract us from the Big Questions of Life, it helps us struggle with them.
Religion that works deals with religious matters. It does so honestly, transparently, and unapologetically. If we water down our deepest traditions in the name of unity, we end up with a religion that doesn’t work.
Religion that works facilitates religious experiences. These experiences are among the most meaningful we can have, but the simple fact that we have them reminds us that there is more to Life than what we can discover with microscopes, supercomputers, and particle accelerators.The Deepak Chopra quote “Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience” is bullshit, but it resonates with many people because the Abrahamic religions that dominate the West and the Middle East have downplayed experience to the point that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims assume having a first-hand religious experience is something that only happened in Biblical times, or if it happens today it only happens to rare, saintly individuals.
No! Paganism is growing in part because the Pagan religions make religious experience available to everyone.
Religious experience is more than wonder and awe at pretty sunsets. Religious experience is unpredictable and messy. It can fill you with meaning and inspiration, and it can fill you with fear and dread. It can be a Mother Goddess holding your hand and telling you it’s all going to be OK, and it can be a Battle Goddess shoving a spear in your hand and telling you to get your ass on the front lines where you’re needed for something that’s more important than your safety and comfort.
Religious experiences rearrange your priorities and makes you hard to control. Is it any wonder the priests and preachers of the religions of the status quo (whether they’re tied to governments or just the rich and powerful) downplay and deride experiences unless they’re in charge of them?
Is it any wonder most people are happy to believe the priests and preachers so they don’t have to deal with this literal holy terror?
Religion that works gives us a framework for interpreting our religious experiences. It gives us a model of the Universe that does not contradict science (not if it’s any good, that is) but that goes beyond the reach of science. It gives us sacred stories to provide inspiration and context.
Religion that works gives us the thinking of our ancient ancestors and immediate predecessors. We are of course free to interpret our experiences in the ways that seem most right to us, but we don’t all have to start from zero. We can build on the wisdom and experience of those who came before us.
Religion that works gives us spiritual practices that reinforce our virtues and values, that strengthen our relationships with our co-religionists, and that build and maintain relationships with the Gods, ancestors, and spirits of Nature.
Religion that works understands that different Gods call different people to work with Them in different ways, something that should be obvious from a casual examination of the many religions of the world. We shouldn’t expect to all worship in the same ways, practice in the same ways, or come to the same conclusions about religious questions.
None of this is an excuse for not working together to “bring joy to the downtrodden and campaign on behalf of Life.” None of this is an excuse for religious bigotry or triumphalism. None of this is an excuse for aggressive proselytization or for making “truth claims” where none are justified.
Does your religion inspire you to struggle with the Big Questions of Life and to deal with the mundane requirements of life? Does it inspire you to explore the world of the Gods and ancestors and to live fully here and now? If it does, your religion works.
If it doesn’t, perhaps you should find a new religion.