Some years ago now, I wrote a book about speaking to the Gods, not too surprisingly titled ‘God-Speaking’ and I, as a lifetime first, went to and presented at a Pagan conference.
Heady stuff. I read a passage, talked a little extemporaneously, and then opened the discussion up. As it turned out, the locally-famous University-Professor anthropologist keynote speaker had attended my presentation and he asked what for him was a very cogent question,
“How did I know that I was really talking to the Gods?”
He offered me some choices that seemed, to him, applicable:
- Accuracy of my God-driven prognostications
- Ability to manipulate outcome because of my ‘in’ with the Gods
- Recognition (and, implicitly, respect) by other humans of my God-bothered status.
I had to stop and stare at him for a moment because his qualifiers were so odd-sounding to me when applied to my perception of religious occurrence….
“No,” I explained, “those are all external-to-me yardsticks you are suggesting. My system is internal— I believe in the Gods so when the Gods speak to me I believe that the Gods are speaking.”
Then we had a back-and-forth about the system by which I differentiate Gods-speech from wishful thinking and delusional ideation and closed the discussion politely, but I could see that he was wholly unconvinced (after all, he is an anthropologist, not a believer).
However you qualify it, whatever logic you prop it up with, wherever you reference lore or Deity to support it, belief is always a circular argument. Fundamentally, belief is a feeling. Feelings are like weather— here they are, now you must accommodate/plan around/take into account what the weather is before you act. I live in an area with a lot of weather— sometimes it’s literally killer cold in the Winter; in the Summer it’s often hot and humid (although not lethally so); we have earthquakes intermittently.
That’s what belief is like, I think. You have ‘strong convictions’ (aka deep feelings) about your beliefs and the actions that result from your beliefs can be devastating. But, unlike weather and feelings, we control our actions. No matter how much I believe that there are Spirits in everything, that the Gods speak to me, that the Earth is sentient I am never forced (by myself, by my beliefs, by my Gods, by the Spirits) to act, although sometimes feeling and ethics push very hard.
Quite a while after that very first time I presented at a Pagan conference (it still makes me paralyzingly shy but only for a moment, generally) just a few weeks ago (think of that device in old-style movies where the pages of a calendar flutter past, although that’s almost inexplicable now) I was talking to my sister and she alluded to the numerous times that she, as a child, was invited to attend church services, go to Sunday School, or participate in Vacation Bible School (we were raised by an Ethical Humanist and a lapsed Catholic, so we had absolutely no religious instruction as a part of our home culture).
“Why did it never ‘take’, do you think?” she said, “The families who took me had belief, but it never rubbed off on me….”
We thought about it for a moment
“Father trained us in logic and argumentation from when we could speak, and there’s a logical disconnect between the teachings of Christ and the dogma and culture of whichever church that we would be unable to look past.” was my opinion.
My sister wouldn’t have challenged the minister in the pulpit (that would be rude), but otherwise only reason and factuality applied in our young world. I can still make a discussion between us end in laughter by mimicking my father, “That’s Not Quite…..CORRECT. (devastation follows)”
Picture to yourselves the bitter argument my third grade teacher and I got into when I felt she failed to refute my disagreement about the ethics of Dick and Jane— her position was, “This is the RIGHT answer!!”
And that is the essential position of the average church-goer, “My beliefs are correct!”
My position (as per Dick and Jane as well as life) was “I think I have a defensible argumentation, a reasonable conclusion, a cogent opinion, here….. can you refute it?”
….in case you’re wondering….
*Dick, Jane, and Sally all went to bed. Dick fell right asleep; Jane was wakeful but quietly waited in bed for sleep to come; Sally kept getting up, demanding drinks of water, fretting, etc.
The teacher believed and got everyone in the class but myself to agree that Dick was ‘best’. I argued that Jane alone exercised self-control and so was ‘best’.*
Neither I, nor Teacher Mary (I went to Quaker schools where, in the facile and untrue name of equality, we addressed our teachers by their first names), nor the slightly-famous anthropologist can effectively argue about belief. She believed Dick was the ‘best’; the anthropologist thought real-world results must support belief. To them it just is or isn’t, no two opinions can apply.
But I believe for myself alone and the anthropologist for himself. The believers who took my sister to church events (although they were offering her a for them lifesaving chance) and my sister declining to believe can only be sure and in control of their own actions, not anyone else’s. Which is as it should be.
All of the above people, as well as all believing people everywhere, have a corollary belief that their beliefs (although all different and often conflicting) bring well-being and good outcomes into their lives. This is one of the main reasons (apart from the saving from hell-fire to follow) that people proselytize/share their beliefs. Even the anthropologist offered me good outcomes as the obvious support and lure for belief.
The disconnect is where you draw the line between selfishness and help from the Gods. Both spell casting and prayer for getting a job, finding the right home, winning the lottery et al always have the other-hand outcome that someone else does not get those benefits. Even spells/prayers for health and healing presuppose that those are the best results. But it is likely that we do not know what the best results are, globally, and even locally we may be wishing for short-sighted results.
Well, results in my real life do support my beliefs, but not in the way the anthropologist envisioned.
Speaking to and acting for the Gods benefits me— I achieve things I wouldn’t attempt without Their promptings, I perceive things differently through Their telling, I understand things that I found baffling before. But I’m not more right, nor richer, nor more respected through the agency of the Gods. I’m not even, strictly speaking, happier. I am more fulfilled but less comfortable, so how one defines ‘happy’ obtains here.
The distinction between ‘crazy’ and ‘God-bothered’ also isn’t about happiness or rightness. External to the Gods and our interaction am I participating in a meaningful way with ‘normal’ society (i.e. eating regularly, fairly appropriately dressed, maintaining a household, fulfilling my obligations) and not acting outside my previously-held moral system nor assaulting people against their will? That is, are the responsibilities I have taken on for the Gods ‘benefiting’ me? Benefit in the sense of not eroding and perhaps enhancing the well-being of my personal-self package rather than benefiting me by making me rich, famous, or ‘right’.
I hold that it is my responsibility to dedicate myself to Beneficent Gods, although clearly I have a fairly moderate standard about what’s beneficial. I undertake things which are challenging and difficult for me because They ask me to. I can see, although without complete understanding and narrowly, that the ends They are promoting through me are in agreement with my own ethical standards (Theirs are not fully comprehensible to me). As well, They acknowledge the necessity of my having down-time in which to eat, sleep, and interact in a non-God-driven way. And, in the end, I can refuse a task or association without punishment although, of course, I am also refusing whatever beneficial broadening of my character or widening of my understanding would then have occurred. In dedicating myself to one or some of the Good Gods I have a responsibility to listen and try. They have a responsibility to speak and instruct without abrogating my free will.
In my perception, the directive ‘EveryBeing has Free Will’ stands hand-in-hand with the Prime Directive ‘Don’t be a Douche’ and forms the root from which all ethics spring. So when I say, “I am sent messages by the Gods” and other-person says, “You are delusional” there doesn’t have to be an intrinsic disagreement between us; we are both making statements of belief. Although either one of us could easily slide over the line into douchey ass-hattery in the tone, delivery, or content of those statements they are not conflicting— I could be both delusional and God-bothered at different times, I could be receiving messages no matter how many other people thought me to be delusional, I could be straight-up crazy and other-person’s opinion wouldn’t change that.
Those infrequent times that the Gods send me a message for someone who’s not listening to Them I always try to make that perfectly clear, “This is what the Gods are sending… but you must make up your own mind about either believing or not and then about either following Their advice or not; I don’t have any stake in the exchange, it’s between you and Them.”
That example’s easy; so is the one when a believer says, “My God’s going to send you to hell.” Who hasn’t been consigned to the Tedious Lake of Fire? Generally, the fact that I don’t follow ( ‘believe in’) their God is what started the cascade and not really an answer. Strictly speaking, I do believe in their God but I don’t acknowledge Him as my God and so I believe that He has no power over me. Sometimes that’s a little too abstract for hell-fire believers; my fall-back is that if, contrary to my belief, Hell-Fire God is the Supreme Being than judgement is firmly stated to be His prerogative and hell-fire believer isn’t actually going to get a vote about me at all.
As I said, those are the easy ones. There are moderately challenging ones like ‘As a biologist, you cannot believe in Gods.’ even though I clearly do. My answer is that evolution is a tool of the Gods of Creation, although frequently I then have to explain how evolution really works. Finally, on the gripping hand, there are the difficult ones; the ones we feel strongly about. (Not that the believers consigning me to the Tedious Lake of Fire are wishy-washy about it but you need deep feelings on both sides to start a battle.)
- ‘Politics belong in the expression of my religion!’ ‘Politics and religion are quite separate!’
- ‘I identify as a follower of a well-known God. I am a racist/bigot/anarchist/an owner of a BMW…’
- ‘I follow That God! Ze does not permit followers that are pick-one-of-the-above!”
- ‘Some people who associate themselves with Specific Pagan Religion are racists/bigots/anarchists/owners of a BMW…’
- ‘I am an important/dedicated/long-term member of that religion! How dare you call me a racist/bigot/anarchist/an owner of a BMW!’
These are beliefs. The individual expression of one’s religion is necessarily belief, and cannot effectively be argued. People do, of course, argue about belief all the time because their beliefs are important to them but it always and immediately devolves into unreason… ‘You can’t believe that!’ ‘I do believe that!’
Even invoking the God of Logic does not work; look at what happened to people identifying as ‘Wiccan’. Eventually the followers of British Traditional Wicca had to create a new name in order to distinguish between themselves and ‘Self-Initiated Wiccans’.
Give it up.
You can’t stamp around inside other peoples’ heads; they’re not accessible to you. You can try to slide in a nice, well-oiled idea but sometimes it’s just in one ear and out the other. You can legislate against hate-speech and hate-action but not hate-thought. You can argue ideas but not with unsupported accusations.
We all have beliefs. We should try to express them with grace and cogency, to use internal logic in our belief system, to listen to well-expressed differing opinions, to accept that beliefs differ. However, you cannot beat me to death with a straw-man nor can I grab it away from you and beat you to death with it— scarecrows aren’t that durable.
“I hate what you said, so you’re a hateful person” is just a bad weapon, set it down.
is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).
Pagan Anarchism can be purchased here.