One of the things I consistently emphasize is the importance of worldview – our foundational assumptions about the world and the way it works. These are the things we assume are true in part because they seem self-evident, but mainly because they’re what we were taught as children and we never thought to question them.
It’s like the story I told in the very first Under the Ancient Oaks video. I was talking about Paganism to someone who knew very little about it, and at the end he said “what I really want to know is how Paganism says you get to heaven.” He assumed that the purpose of all religion was to make sure you end up in the good place after you die and not the bad place. That assumes there are only two possibilities for an afterlife, which in turn assumes that there even is an afterlife.
These unproven and mostly unprovable assumptions severely limit our thinking. If something is counter to our worldview, we will reflexively assume it’s not possible and so we won’t consider it.
Changing a worldview is hard. It took years of struggle and practice for me to change mine. Last year I taught an online class titled Building a New Myth, about how to build a new worldview. Based on the feedback, I think it did a good job of teaching the techniques necessary to build a good, robust, resilient worldview. It’s on-demand – it’s still there if you’d like to take it. But it requires that you already understand the need for new foundational assumptions.
What if you just can’t get past your current worldview? What if you know (or just suspect) your core beliefs are wrong but you can’t figure out how they’re wrong?
Then you need to hack your worldview.
I’m a bit reluctant to use the term “hack.” It was overused in the 2010s – it became a buzzword that all too often meant doing questionably ethical things to exploit the system in ways not available to most people. But the core definition of hacking – using a back-door method to reprogram a system to do what you want it to do – perfectly fits what we’re trying to do here.
Does something deep inside whisper that there’s more to life than what you’ve always been told? Are you dissatisfied with your spiritual path but you can’t imagine leaving it? Does your current religion insist that you believe things you know aren’t true, but you’re afraid to challenge its authority?
Then it’s time to hack your worldview.
Requirements for hacking
There is only one requirement for spiritual hacking, but it’s an absolute requirement: honesty. You must be completely and totally honest – mainly with yourself. You must value honest answers over easy answers, over comfortable answers, and over simple answers.
A piece of the truth may be simple, but the whole truth is always complex and multi-layered.
No question can be off limits. No question is too unorthodox, too heretical, too blasphemous. Every question deserves investigation, contemplation, and where possible, an answer.
And we must be honest with our answers. No question is unaskable, but some questions are unanswerable.
When it comes to religion and metaphysics, most questions can only be answered tentatively. We must not assume certainty where all we have is probability. We must also avoid the error of assuming that in the absence of conclusive proof, all ways are equally true. Some answers are more likely than others, and some answers are obviously wrong.
Honesty demands that we examine all the evidence, including the messy evidence, including the painful evidence, including the evidence of our own religious experiences. The idea that the only real evidence is tangible evidence is itself a foundational assumption – one that I’ve found to be decidedly unhelpful.
Will you be honest with yourself? Will you ask hard questions, and refuse to settle for easy answers? Will you go where the evidence leads?
Then let’s get hacking.
What do you believe?
The hardest part of examining a worldview is figuring out what to examine. Most foundational assumptions aren’t just unstated, they’re unrecognized. They’re just the way things are. But we have to start somewhere.
Start by asking yourself “what do I believe?”
That’s a very open-ended question. “I believe chocolate is better than vanilla” is a perfectly valid belief, but it’s not particularly helpful here. Try to limit your questions to matters of religion, philosophy, and metaphysics, especially the “big questions” centered around life, death and what comes afterwards, the nature of the Gods, good and evil, and such.
Write your answers down. You’re looking for a list of bullet points, not a creed. This is best done in a computer file (Word document, text file, etc.) where you can easily add, delete, and insert things where you need them.
You’ll need multiple sessions. Work on this for 20 or 30 minutes, then when you start to get stuck, set it down and go do something else. Come back in an hour or in a day. Don’t worry about getting a complete list – you can always add to it later (and you probably will).
When you feel like you’ve got most of your important beliefs catalogued, it’s time to move on to the next step.
Why do you believe that?
Now go line by line and ask yourself “why do I believe that?”
“Because it’s true” is not an acceptable answer. Even if that’s correct, it’s too easy an answer. What makes you think it’s true? What evidence convinces you? What logic persuades you? What experiences confirm your belief?
What you will likely find is that some beliefs are supported not by evidence but by traditions, myths, and other beliefs – things that may very well be valid reasons to believe something, but that are still contingent on something else.
Add these to your list of beliefs and ask yourself why you believe them. Continue the process as long as you keep uncovering more beliefs.
The goal is to come up with a list of core beliefs – your foundational assumptions about life and everything in it.
Why do you not believe something else?
Now the process gets harder. For each belief – about the Gods, about death, about values and ethics, about whatever beliefs are important to you – consider alternatives.
For example, if you believe in many Gods, why do you not believe in one God, or in no Gods? Other people believe these things – why are you convinced you’re right and they’re wrong?
This is where the real hacking begins. If you’ve worked through your beliefs diligently and honestly, you’ve got a short list of concepts, ideas, and values that make sense to you – and that are meaningful to you. But other people who are just as intelligent and reasonable as you – at least on average – believe different things. Why are you right and they’re wrong?
There are two dangers here. The first is to assume you’re smarter and better educated and that everyone else is simply wrong. That way lies religious intolerance, ethnocentrism, racism, and other cultural ills.
The other danger is to assume that since other people have good reasons for believing different things, any answer is a good answer and it doesn’t matter what we believe. While integrity demands that we hold our beliefs loosely and always be open to new evidence and new lines of thinking, the benefits of beliefs come when we take one answer and explore it as deeply as we can.
When you examine alternative beliefs honestly and fairly, the false certainty most of us have around our foundational assumptions starts to crumble.
Learned beliefs vs inherent beliefs
Most of our beliefs have an external source: our parents, the religion of our childhood, the mainstream culture, or a process of study and evaluation. But sometimes you keep asking “why?” and the only answer you can come up with is “I just do.”
In 2018 I explored the idea of Paganism as an Orientation. When I rejected fundamentalism, why did I never consider atheism? How have I always felt that Nature is sacred? Why did I always believe the Divine has a feminine side, even though I had “God the Father” pounded into my head over and over again?
Why do most children believe in magic, and only stop when it’s “educated” out of them?
There are very few truly inherent beliefs, and the vast majority of them are very high-level. Polytheism may be humanity’s default religious position, but “I should worship the Morrigan” is not.
Be careful of jumping to this conclusion too quickly. But while most beliefs are learned, a few are something we’re born with.
Learn your history
Most people are ignorant about their own religious history.
I grew up going to Sunday School every week without fail. But I didn’t learn basic Christian history until I did some reading on my own in my late 20s. I didn’t learn the history of some of the doctrines of evangelical fundamentalism until I was well on my Pagan path and was trying to deal with the religious baggage of my youth.
I’ve tried to do better with my Paganism and polytheism. This is one of the main reasons why I disagree with many who say “I’m a polytheist, not a Pagan.” While my religion differs significantly from the generic Paganism we see on Instagram, it came out of the modern Pagan movement. I need to acknowledge that lineage, for better and for worse.
The goal here is to learn the history of your beliefs. Where did these ideas come from? How did they develop over time? Were they a response to a particular set of circumstances? Did they develop organically, or were they imposed by those with power?
Beware the mythologized history that religions (and politicians) often promote. That means you need to read professional historians. Now, historians can be biased, and sometimes they get things wrong. Newer history is usually better.
The main benefit of reading history is that you learn that beliefs and concepts weren’t handed down by the Gods – they came out of a human process, and that same human process can change them if necessary.
What to do with a hacked worldview
If you’ve worked through this process diligently and honestly, any false certainty you may have had should be gone. That’s a good thing. But there’s a good chance that you discovered at least a few of your foundational assumptions are something you can no longer believe.
Now you have a vacuum – you need to fill it with something. Because if you don’t, sooner or later those old beliefs will creep back in.
I have a class for that, but the purpose of this post isn’t to sell classes.
I recommend starting with science and the findings of science. Science doesn’t have all the answers, and it can’t answer questions of meaning. But what it does, it does well.
Study Nature, and learn to see the personhood of all beings.
Explore the beliefs and practices of our ancestors, especially our Pagan and polytheist ancestors.
Approach one or more of the Many Gods. Learn Their stories, embody Their virtues, promote Their values.
And out of all that, decide what new foundational assumptions make sense to you and help you live a better life.
Most people don’t even recognize that they have a worldview. They believe what they were taught or what they picked up from the wider society. They think that’s “just the way things are.” But that approach can hold us back – it held me back for many years.
Examining your worldview is hard work. But it’s useful, helpful work – even if you have to hack it.