Atheists bristle at the old saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” – and rightfully so. It assumes that when faced with imminent death, people will abandon a carefully considered religious position that has served them well for years and come running back to the hope of life after death. I’ve never been an atheist nor have I been in a foxhole, but I’ve read and talked to plenty of people who have. When pushed to the wall, they stayed true to what they believe and who they want to be. I disagree with the religious choices they made, but I admire and support their commitment.
Not everyone is so well grounded in their religion (or lack thereof). Under stress, many of us will revert to the myths, doctrines, and practices of our childhood. A few years ago, someone close to me died after a long illness. Their religious life was one of exploration, albeit at a “mile wide and inch deep” level. They moved from Christianity to occultism to atheism and eventually settled into a vague Buddhist-flavored deism. But when the end was near, they called for the preacher to come listen as they confessed their sins and to assure them that they really were “born again.”
I cannot fault their decision. None of us know how we’ll respond in the face of death until we’re actually there. Our visions of cursing the witch hunters from the gallows or of serenely singing “We All Come From The Goddess” as we’re led to the stake are pure fantasies, for which we should all be thankful.
Yet while it is highly unlikely any of us will ever face martyrdom, lesser crises of faith happen all the time. Some of them tempt us to return to a previous religion, either for its familiar comforts or out of a deep-seated fear. More frequently – and more subtly – they encourage us to abandon our magical, animist, polytheist, experience-based worldview and to rationalize everything away according to the dictates of mainstream materialism.
It’s one thing to talk about Gods in an abstract manner. We can read Their stories, buy Their statues, and even pour the occasional offering to Them. But when They start making demands on our lives, it can be tempting to start thinking of Them not as mighty spiritual beings but as metaphors or as aspects of our own psyches – as something that can be dismissed at our convenience.
Sometimes a deity will grab a person by the neck, sling them around, and give them no real choice in the matter. That makes things very hard, but also very simple. More frequently They make a request and either you say yes or They move on to someone who will. You can say no, but in the process you lose the opportunity to build a mutually beneficial relationship with a holy power.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the fae exist, and even to nod with approval when Iceland reroutes a road to avoid disturbing the local elves. But when things start turning up missing or trees crash into your car, good Pagans can suddenly turn into virtual atheists. If the “OtherCrowd” really is real, then you realize that maybe next time they’ll break your glasses instead of hiding them for a short time. Or maybe you’ll be in the car when they drop a tree on it. That’s a scary proposition – it’s so much easier to blame it on carelessness or random chance than it is to start paying attention to the local fae and building respectful relationships with them. Pull the covers up over your head and hope it all goes away.
Because sometimes it does go away. Sometimes it is just carelessness or random chance. Most times, I’d argue. But not every time. If you thought the Gods and fae and all the other spiritual beings were real before you encountered them, why would you try to convince yourself they’re not real after you do encounter them?
For the same reason some atheists start praying when they think they’re about to die: the implications of their chosen worldview smacks them upside the head, the fear of ridicule from mainstream friends and family starts to rise, and they go running back to something that feels safe and comforting.
This is not something to be ashamed of. Sooner or later it’s going to happen to all of us. I started to do it myself when I saw an Otherworldly creature with my physical eyes – something that could not exist, but did. As I said at the time:
Do you see what I just did there? The Druid, who constantly emphasizes the need to accept our experiences at face value, reached for any explanation that would rationalize away the fact that he saw something our mainstream culture says is impossible.
When we rush to a materialist rationalization rather than accept the implications of an Otherworldly encounter, we push the Gods and spirits a little further away from us. We close ourselves off from their influences, unable to either appreciate their gifts and build on them or to effectively deal with the challenges they present. We give tacit support to a worldview that tells us to ignore our experiences, to seek meaning in buying more things, and to exploit the Earth and her creatures because life is all about us.
These crises of faith are going to come – they come to everyone, regardless of their religion. There are two ways to prepare for them, so that when stressful times hit us we respond like we want to respond.
The first way is to have a spiritual experience so strong you couldn’t deny it no matter how much you wish you could.
Perhaps you’re one of those people a God grabs by the neck and slings across the room. Perhaps you see a long-dead ancestor with your physical eyes and hear them with your physical ears. Perhaps you have a near-death experience. These things have a way of reordering your thoughts about the nature of life, death, and the universe. Or so I’m told – I haven’t experienced them myself. I’ve had a God grab me by the neck on several occasions, but I was always set down gently. For which I am thankful.
Initiations are supposed to provide this kind of experience. Those of us who plan and facilitate initiations are often reluctant to include traumatic ordeals, in part for fear of causing physical harm and in part because we like the people we’re initiating and we don’t want to risk having them fail. In Sharon Knight’s words, “There’s some wake mad, and some wake dead, and some will rise with a fire in their head.” Those aren’t good odds.
I’ve led initiations where six months later I thought “it wasn’t enough – I should have made it brutal and bloody.” But would that have produced a lasting transformation, or would it have just produced a broken candidate? The more initiations I’m involved with (from both sides) the more I’m convinced of the wisdom of the words of Tarot artist and author Robin Wood: “the Gods initiate. We just officiate.” The candidate has to do the work and be ready for transformation, and the Gods and spirits have to be willing to touch them. Without that, the initiators can’t do much. With that, the initiators just have to not screw it up.
So if spiritual experiences strong enough to change your world can’t be produced on demand, what’s left? A lot of work.
It starts with daily spiritual practice. If it seems like I’m always talking about daily spiritual practice, it’s because it’s that important. The Dalai Lama meditates about five hours a day. If someone at that level of spiritual development needs that much practice, how much do the rest of us need? Meditation, prayer, offerings, devotions, observations, and other spiritual practices form the backbone of a Pagan practice that builds a Pagan worldview.
It continues with reading, thinking, and talking about your Paganism on a regular basis. Paganism is a rational religion (or religions, if you prefer) but its rationality is not the same as the rationality of atheism or of Christianity. Develop a deep understanding of what you believe and do and why you believe and do it.
In the past few months, I’ve come across a lot of Pagans who take offense if you challenge their beliefs. They see it as not as an attempt to refine their theology and philosophy but as an attack on their identity. So be it – it’s not my job to drag them kicking and screaming out of Plato’s cave.
But no matter who you are, sooner or later someone or some thing is going to challenge your religion, and they’re not going to do it in the safe confines of a Pagan convention or a Facebook post. Maybe it will be a Christian evangelist. Maybe it will be a relative or a co-worker. Maybe it will be cancer. Maybe it will be the Gods Themselves. If you haven’t thought about it, if you haven’t challenged it, if you haven’t developed a strong foundation for your Paganism, it’s not likely to hold up under stress. Develop a deep understanding of what you believe and do and why you believe and do it.
And it requires that you experience the Gods and ancestors for yourself. It’s not enough to know the Gods intellectually, you need to feel them in your gut – and in other places too. Some people say they can’t experience the Gods. But when I listen to them talk about it, I suspect they don’t recognize the experiences when they have them. The materialists have led them to believe it has to be an overwhelming external presence or it’s not real. The Gods and spirits are usually more subtle than that.
I’m sure there are some people who want to experience the Gods but can’t, just as there are some people who can’t see the difference between red and green. I’ll address that condition in a future post.
Participate in group rituals. Perform your own private devotions. Meditate on a deity and ask Them to speak to you. Pursue the Gods – most times They’ll respond.
Over time (years, not months), regular spiritual practice plus a deep understanding of your religion plus first-hand experiences of the Gods will build a foundation that will weather any crisis of faith.
Gordon White of Rune Soup says there’s a third way to “immunise yourself against the monoculture” – entheogens. I have zero experience with entheogens. They scare me, a lot – and for good reasons. Perhaps that means I should try them anyway. Maybe I will. Probably I won’t. I like to think that after all these years of practice, I don’t need them. Maybe I don’t. Or maybe I do. YMMV.
When faced with the reality of the Gods and spirits, some Pagans revel in the confirmation of our magical worldview, despite the complications it brings. Others rationalize their experiences away in the hope they won’t have to deal with spiritual beings with minds and wills of their own.
Which group do you want to be in? Are you willing to do what’s necessary to insure that when the hopefully-metaphorical bullets start flying you respond the way you want to respond?
May we have the determination and the commitment to make it so.