What Do You Believe? Belief, Knowing, and Neopaganism

A gentleman occultist whom I respect a good deal made a post on social media today which received a lot of attention. I want to respond to it, but I felt that responding elsewhere was more respectful because I have a very different perspective from him on this topic. I don’t want to give the appearance of attacking his perspective in front of his many friends; I only intend to present a separate and (I feel) needed slant on this matter. The gentleman in question is intelligent and thoughtful, and I have no quarrel with him personally.

The question was about the existence of ‘personal theologies.’ Someone asked him “I am confused by your theology. What do you believe?” And his response was “I believe in the theology of “I don’t know, and I don’t know that we can know fully, at least not right now.”

Of course (and predictably) a lot of people demonstrated high approval of his answer. I respect his right (or anyone’s right) to take the stance of agnosticism and position it at the center of his personal epistemology. I, however, take a very different approach. The reasons why I take a different approach might matter to a lot of people out there who are struggling through the confusions and conflicts of our modern world, and that’s why I’m writing this.

The Agnostic Urge and Neopaganism

Deep within Western intellectual culture there is what some have called an “agnostic urge.” Ever since Plato had his made-up Socrates outshine his debate partners by assuming the famous stance of “I know that I know nothing“, there has been (in some ranks of culture) a deep-seated approval for people taking the one-down display of knowledge, of rendering themselves both wise-seeming and harmless to the beliefs of others by making it clear that they take an agnostic position in many regards.

One of my very first encounters with a luminary member of the Neopagan community (ages ago now) was a shock to me, because he was a well-known spiritual leader of a large group but also a vocal and open agnostic/atheist. To me, these things collided unfavorably. I talked to him about it, and he said exactly what you’d imagine he’d say. Despite all his talk about this Goddess and that God, he himself didn’t even really know if it was all real or not.

I was very troubled by this, and remain so. At first I thought he was just taking advantage of people, but years later I realized that he wasn’t a bad person; he just had a problem with knowledge and with the nature of spiritual beliefs- a problem most of us in the West have inherited.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the  Neopagan world (in general) is a nightmare storm, a class five hurricane of confused and blended perspectives, ideas, beliefs, and worldviews. It is a hodge-podge of lots of modern esoteric beliefs blended haphazardly with some ancient cultural ideas about “Gods” and “Goddesses” alongside tons of Western modernist beliefs.

Neopagans in general suffer and struggle under the weight of trying to know what to believe, or trying to “figure stuff out.” I myself did this for years; it was a bad place to be in. There is no “making sense” of a massive mixture of so many different belief systems, and so many different metaphysics, so many different “magical” techniques, and so many different broken-off bits of ancient polytheism, all of it rammed together within a specific Western cultural approach.

Most Neopagans try to resolve all of this by taking shelter in the ideology of universalism; but as I have seen, and as so many others have seen, this is a very unsatisfying place for most people over time. This problem of epistemology is why so many Neopagans eventually abandon the Neopagan ship and either return to their natal Christianity (or whatever it was they came from) or they become hard agnostics/atheists.

Before they leave, while most Neopagans are trying to “make sense” of the ultimately non-sense-ical, they all eventually evolve their own self-contained belief systems. Cherry picked from different places, some people manage to get a few metaphysical “bits” from here and there that can cohesively work together if you tilt your head to the side and close one eye. That becomes (for lack of a better word) their “religion” or their “belief system”- and most of them defend these things quite stridently as their “personal path.”

That goes well (even if it does make them inacapable of connecting with others in any deeper sense, and causes a lot of fights and hurt feelings online) until they find something new that they like better, or find another bit that conflicts with some other bit, and then they have to re-arrange things. These “shake-n-bake epistemologies” are very unstable; ‘dynamic’ might be a kinder way of putting it. They change all the time. They offer little grounding or stability, and require major upkeep.

Most people defend this neverending task by saying “Well, life is change. We have to be open-minded and flexible, else we have dead, dogmatic belief systems. Then we’re just as bad as the (insert bad people here, whose full names we can’t say because that might make us look intolerant).

Most Neopagans don’t see it, but their “religions”, their “philosophies”, their epistemologies, their spiritual paths which must all change so often to reflect new understandings, and which are continually in need of being updated, are just little copies of Western science.

This is Western rationalism/scientism all over again, except now invading the space of people’s spiritual understandings. It’s the same mental choreography. It grows out of the same deeper cultural worldview of logical analysis, experimentation, and rationalism. This is a thing we’ve all deeply internalized. Few of us will stray from it, and we will find ways to scorn those who do.

The Neopagan of today must also be wary- forever cautious- of the need to make sure everyone around them feels completely spiritually validated, no matter what they believe. Those who do what that leader I met all those years ago did, and tell people “Ultimately, I don’t know” are rendering themselves very harmless-seeming.

If, instead, that leader had said “Yes, I believe in XYZ thing“, he might have instantly invalidated or isolated a good quarter to a half of the people listening to him, on the grounds that they simply didn’t share those beliefs. And that would have broken one of the golden rules of Neopagania: Thou shalt not invalidate anyone. All must be seen as equal and valid, and variance in beliefs or belief-systems represent a challenge that neat little formula. Neopagans (on the surface) praise the idea of great diversity in beliefs, but a brief walk through the conflicted Neopagan interaction-sphere will reveal the brutal extent to which that ideal fails in reality.

Anyone in the Neopagan world who dares to make too strong of a statement of sincerely-held belief about anything will become the target of a lot of attacks from others. They will be called “closed minded”; they will be called “rigid”; they will be called “fundy”, they will be subject to cliche philosophical counter-attacks making fun of those “people who think they know everything.” That happens, and I’ve watched it happen for years. When I finally found the strength to assert my own beliefs without appending an Agnostic Safety Clause to them, they took their shots at me, too.

Neopagans as a whole are (often unconsciously) terrified of believing in anything, while simultaneously privately trying on tons of different beliefs; and they are mostly very confused about the nature of beliefs, because Neopagania is not a place anyone comes to find a simple or direct belief system. Some Neopagans are actively hostile to beliefs; they are refugees from mainstream culture who think that being “Neopagan” means rejecting the worldview of “hard” beliefs as demonstrated in mainstream Chrisitanity, Islam, or Judaism.

Some Neopagans might read this and think “I’m not afraid of beliefs, I just don’t want other people pushing their beliefs down my throat!” And those people would be making my point for me. This reflects a worldview of belief-paranoia in which any belief can become harmful- just like the beliefs of mainstream cultural religions and their dominance. Almost no one will take the time to study individual beliefs to see if they are potentially harmful; all beliefs are simply categorically assumed to be (potentially) dangerous.

Many modern Western Neopagans or occultists refuse to do this dance at all, and just shelter in agnosticism. Agnosticism is a safe place to be, a place deeply approved of by the bedrock of Western intellectual culture.

The Great Unknowing

The idea that human beings “may not be able to know” deeper spiritual truths is likewise a perspective I’ve come across many times. It is, in all ways, a common agnostic plea; the assumption here is of a radical human insufficiency of perception or understanding/capability which leaves humans especially vulnerable to delusions.

It’s strange to me that agnostics should often hold such a position, because most agnostics simultaneously hold a great deal of respect for Western science, and in many other conversations they praise the power of human intelligence and ingenuity (through the vehicle of science) to discover amazing, incredible things about the world.

And yet, when it comes to anything else but science, everyone is expected to fall back on how much humans can’t know. This mechanism of thought seems almost tailor-designed to protect the institutions of Western Scientism against institutions of spirituality or philosophical insight, and to privilege empirical modes of thought over any other sort. This is a common cultural blind-spot for Western people; it is part of our deeper “culture religion” which we internalize without realizing that we’re doing it. And it is not, in my mind, compatible with genuine spirituality or spiritual insight.

If someone asks another about their “theology” or “what they believe”, it’s important that we first understand that “theology” (as we know it) is itself a Western cultural construction, a Western idea. Most ancient cultures which had organic religions didn’t produce brilliant and complex “theologies”; we only assume they did because we often back-project our modern ideas onto them. We back-project particularly Abrahamic notions of theology onto these Ancients, which leads to problems.

People would fight tooth and nail to claim that ancient Greek polytheists (for example) had complex theologies. I do not believe this to be true at all. Certainly, in later phases of Greek and Roman culture, right before they succumbed to Christian transformation, some intellectuals did try to make rational defenses of Classical polytheism. Some- like Emperor Julian- tried to create full-scale theologies to compete against the ideas of Christianity.

But this was not an example of the perennial character of ancient Pagan religious cultures; this was late-unfolding material which was a final gasp against a terrible cultural destruction which was completed not long after these attempts.

Some men (like Cicero) also turned their talent for literacy towards outlining different kinds of beliefs in the Gods; Plato, centuries before, had written out his ideas regarding divinity in conflict with the polytheism of his day. We back-project onto these men our ideas of “theology” because Christian culture has convinced everyone that writing about Gods and figuring out Gods and the Cosmos was something everyone was doing, since time immemorial- and we accept that belief.

Since we have been wondering ourselves about life and the universe, of course everyone else had to have been doing it, too. And, we are told, everyone finally accepted the Christian theological answers because they were just clearly the best out of all of the ideas that were fighting in the marketplace of beliefs.

This is a demented view of the past, told almost entirely from a Western rationalist perspective, which was ultimately created by Christian thinkers. Organic belief systems don’t have scriptures or complex theologies written out in charts and in text blocks; they have myths and sacred stories, often passed along orally. These things are not subjects of rational analysis or “theological” science, until long after those cultures have lost their power and are moribund, in their cultural death-spirals.

By the time a culture’s sacred stories or myths are being analyzed rationally, being compared to other cultural stories in an attempt to suss out a “theology”, it’s all over. People are no longer experiencing what the myths communicate; they are only reading about them. The “Pagan religion” or “mystical system” has ceased to be a vehicle of experience and become an object of study and debate at the hands of a new over-culture.

If you work to extricate yourself from the Western cultural limbo that we’re all placed in when it comes to beliefs and theologies, some desperately-needed perspectives emerge. It’s easier to just hit the “agnostic button” than it is to fight this battle, I admit. And our culture actively wants us to hit that button, because the prestige intellectual culture still owns us and still controls us if we do. We become non-threatening to all of our mainstream cultural institutions, scientific, social, academic, and religious if we just hit the button.

Notice I said “religious“- that’s correct; agnosticism is not a threat to any Church, Synagogue, or Mosque. The agnostic position: “I don’t know what’s out there, maybe something, I don’t think we can know” is comforting to Abrahamic religious authorities. They’d very much rather people believe that than believe in specific non-Abrahamic religious ideas or ideologies. They can work with agnostics who comfort them by admitting that their God might be real. They can’t work nearly as easily with people who have healthy, strong beliefs that are very different from Abrahamic beliefs.

The main “cultural danger” with agnosticism is simply that it often gives way to full atheism. Some have even called it “atheism light”: atheism without the full commitment. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it still fails to capture the final nuance of agnosticism which is always a bit more intellectually honest than full atheism: agnostics leave the door cracked open, and atheists close it. To close the door entirely is to make as strong a statement of belief as those who leave the door wide open.

Knowing and Believing Against the Western Grain

I am not afraid of having beliefs. I have beliefs. Those beliefs are based on personal experiences and shared experiences with others, and I hold these things as sacred. If, by “theology”, you charitably mean “a worldview in which powerful other-than-human persons feature and interact“, I also have a theology.

If someone asked me what my beliefs or my theology were, I would try to tell them, as best I could. I both believe in the other-than-human persons to whom I display reverence and respect, and I know them in those same relationships. I know them in the way they have visited my dreams, and shaped my interior life; I know them in how they have placed their influences upon the world that I sense and experience as exterior to me.

These beliefs give me strength. These beliefs, shared with others, give us all strength and a sense of wonder about life that matters to us. It co-creates who we are, individually and together.  I’m more than just a believer, I’m proud to be a believer. Just so, this category of knowledge gives me strength. This knowledge, shared with others, gives us all strength. We’re proud to be knowers of these things that have made our lives and our relationships much more complete.

I also believe that humans have the ability to know aspects of the Unseen, and the great other-than-human persons who indwell that place, just as readily (in some respects) as they have the ability to know the world that they see around them. I do not think we are forever cut off in the most critical ways from the fullness of this world which is our only home and our very sacred home.

Secure, healthy people can have beliefs that are different from others, and even share those, without “invalidating” other people. Secure and healthy people can hear of other’s beliefs and (assuming those beliefs aren’t actively malignant to the world and other people) smile and move along happily with their lives.

I can ask a Shaivite what they believe, and they usually will tell me their ideas about Shiva, and how he is the great Atman, and how they seek to live in accord with the Shiva within themselves. I’ve known Shaivites, and while I enjoyed talking to them greatly, It wasn’t lost on me that a lot of my Western cultural counterparts would scorn their simple ability to know Shiva as they do, and their ability to be comfortable with their beliefs and the theologies they embrace.

I can ask a member of the Caribou Inuit people about their beliefs, and some will tell me all about Qutlerpaat, the land above the sky, and about Pinga, the Caribou Mother who dwells there. They have beautiful and ancient beliefs- and even what we’d call “theology” (though it’s really just an organic worldview) and they know these beings and places. They know them from sacred stories handed down, they know them from the reports of Angakuks (what some call “shamans”) who can journey to those places, and they know them from personal visionary encounters.

Our modern Western belief in the radical insufficiency of human beings to really “know” anything (always in the service of Western models of scientific knowledge) is a terrible double-edged blade that harms indigenous people and traditional peoples around the world, and it harms us deeply, too. We (often unconsciously) embrace this notion of radical human insufficiency  because our culture has become confused and disordered, spiritually and mentally, and this stance is a deep reflection of it.

That the Neopagan world should be consumed by this particular confusion is not a surprise; Western Neopaganism is a very linear product of Western culture. Neopagan culture has taken this impulse (predictably) further by utilizing the appearance of “wise agnosticism” as a means of not invalidating or excluding anyone; but another paradox arises in the light of this: by being unwilling to allow for the existence of healthy, secure beliefs, by being ultimately unwilling to allow for real certainty to exist in other people’s belief-minds, all traditional religious beliefs from around the world, from any point in history, are invalidated to a very real degree.

All cultures the world over, from any age of the world, are expected to agree with Western culture’s deep uncertainty about everything, else they can’t be considered wise or profound.

People can defend the “skeptical principle” here, and you can be sure that people will; but at day’s end, human beings don’t want to live in a world of perpetual doubts, no matter how intelligent that might make people look within a particular Western community. People want belonging, they want sacred bonding, they want to feel connected to the world and its many entities, human and otherwise. This requires belief and knowledge of a very real sort. It requires people to finally take a stand, to commit to belief-ways and knowledge-ways that will not be universalist, nor in the service of Western intellectual cultural conceits.

People want healthy certainty, and the world isn’t trying to withhold that from us. We have simply evolved bad cultural ways of looking upon the world, and then we wonder why we can’t find a natural sense of organic certainty. It’s not because humans are ultimately insufficient to the task; it’s because some humans have embraced bad ideas which get in the way of connection.

Those same humans have taken those ideas and crafted them into intellectual institutions and positioned those institutions at the very heart of society. From that place, they shape us all into the sorts of people for whom uncertainty is the best we can ever rationally hope for. I reject this cultural error of conceit.

Disguised as a noble-seeming quest for the absolute ideal of “Truth” which must embrace a critical uncertainty about everything, it only reflects how isolated and alienated my culture feels from the world, and how alienated we all are from our Ancestral beliefs and Ancestral knowledge-bases.

We can’t find comfort or certainty in the world because of our prestigious and rational ideas about the world, and so we have to scorn those who apparently do feel comfortable here. They must be ignorant or uninformed somehow! How dare they believe different things about their own bodies, or about the cosmos, or their own communities? Is there some way we can convince them that they don’t really know what they think they know? Can we get them to admit that they don’t really know what they think they know, so that we can all be equals in uncertainty? So that we can all be equals in feeling disconnected and uncertain? That would make us all much smarter, wouldn’t it?

I have known people who were not under the power of this Western cultural assumption, and they were not stupid or benighted people. They were healthy, happy people, and if we can learn to fight against this particular curse our culture has put on us, I know that we can be healthy and happy like them.

* * *

Image above by William Noah

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