Where Does Belief Belong?

I’m having a difficult time identifying the right place for belief.

I was brought up a Christian. Episcopalian, to be specific. Belief, for me, was connected to creeds. If you’ve never recited a creed, it goes like this:

I believe X, and X is this. X did this, was this, is going to be this.

I also believe in Y. Y is this relationship to X, and Y is this.

I believe in Z, too…

It’s a little math-like, when you remove all the personal pronouns.

Creeds are useful in the way that they unify a group, but they do little to inform the individual about beliefs. I didn’t really come to the believe in “One God” through any mystical experience. There just always was One. It was the first line of the creed, after all.

This morning I had a somewhat spirited conversation about the commonly held belief in certain Christian sects that the world is somewhere in the vicinity of 6-8000 years old. The notion raises my hackles a bit. An Earth timeline is nowhere to be found in the creeds of my youth, and it wasn’t something that ever came up in a sermon, either. We didn’t use the Bible to determine the age of rocks.

But, my resistance to this Christian belief was called into question. How could I, someone who has encountered a god that I believe to be Arawn, the Welsh god of the Underworld — which is quite specific an assessment for something so illusive as Deity — take issue with anything that someone else believes? Where exactly do I draw the line between empirical thinking and magickal thinking?

Schooled On Belief

I’m taking a class right now through Cherry Hill Seminary, a Pagan Seminary in North Carolina, called, “Why Magickal Thinking Isn’t Crazy.” The class is being taught by a Harvard schooled physicist, who is also a Wiccan. It’s a four week course that’s open to anyone, regardless of your level of education or experience.

We’ve been engaging a lot with the principles of scientific thinking in the first two weeks, looking at how information is gathered, calculated and researched. Magickal thought and practice, as we’re examining is, can be understood to encompass phenomenon that exist inside and outside of Pagan culture, including Meditation, Prayer, Remote Viewing, Psychokinesis, and Channeling.

The purpose of looking at things scientifically is to show that these phenomenon are real. They are measurable — at least, most of them — and they should be given legitimacy.

I’m mostly having an easy time with this class, but I’m running into some issues with reconciling imperial thought with magickal though. It turns out I’m more inclined to be a binary thinker than I would have guessed.

I want to say, without reservation, that the world is older than 8000 years. I also want to accept, whole-heartedly, that people can communicate with gods. I resist thinking that the world is 8000 years old because there is empirical evidence that speaks to the contrary. Yet, there is little to no empirical evidence that speaks to the existence of Deity in any form — singular or plural — and yet I have no problem with accepting my own personal experience.

Belief as a Catylst

Belief informs action. We believe something about the world, and then we relate to the world based on what we believe. If we believe that the world is constantly being held together by super-strong, invisible, winged and sparkly creatures, then we might live our lives giving thanks to those creatures. We might be on the lookout for them. Our actions, in many situations, would be informed by this belief.

I’m ok with that, even though I don’t hold that belief. I don’t see the potential for immediate harm done to me by another person holding that belief either.

But then I start thinking about the belief that some have the Deity bestows power, and that that power is being directed to a certain end. I’ve seen this in Christian circles (as has anyone been paying attention to the media these days), and I’ve seen it in Pagan circles, too. I was at a Full Moon ritual where the group raised energy and directed it to the universe in order to “bring to justice” a person who had inflicted harm on another person who was said to be “one of our own.” The working wasn’t explicitly malicious, but it had some ugly undertones.

People who do magick, who direct energy in a certain way, are operating on a set of beliefs about how that energy works in the world, and how it should work in the world. So, belief and action are connected there, too.

But should they be? What are we to do with belief, especially considering that belief has proven to be much more a divider than a uniter among peoples?

Should we throw belief to the wind, or can we imagine engaging with belief in a way that still allows for us to live in the world with people who believe something completely different than us?

I want to know what you think about belief. Do you see your belief influencing the way you interact with others? Did you come to your belief through a religious upbringing, or did you construct your beliefs outside of religion? Do you experience personal conflict when you encounter someone whose beliefs are radically different than you own?

Leave your thoughts and beliefs in the comment section. And, if you’d like to expand the conversation even further, share this post on Facebook and Twitter!





13 responses to “Where Does Belief Belong?”

  1. Jack Avatar

    Religious creeds always struck me as being more rhetorical/political than spiritual/theological. My, admittedly limited, experience of how the institutions that organize around them apply them has not typically proven that assessment wrong.

    I don’t generally self-apply terms like belief or faith but I think I’ll go ahead and give my opinion.

    Firstly to echo what Kenneth has already articulated with a dose of my own perspective I’d say that I break down knowledge into objective and subjective forms. I personally feel that both kinds of knowledge are, ultimately, within the realm of generalized agnosticism in as much as with human limitations we may never know the actual score so to speak.

    Functionally though we can act in the world, to varying degrees of success seemingly dependent on accuracy of information, with objective knowledge. Subjective knowledge on the other hand doesn’t have such an illustrious track record for practicality. No one ever survived in the wilderness by having a personal opinion about which wild berries tasted the best but they did survive by knowing which one’s were safely edible.

    For me science falls, mostly, into the category of objective knowledge. I say mostly to allow for politicization of scientific theory that leads to things like “scientific” racism. Scientists are people too after all and thus not perfect. Religion on the other hand falls, again mostly, into the category of subjective knowledge. Now I say it qualifies as subjective knowledge versus belief or faith because for me my religious opinions are a form of knowledge predicated upon experience, reason, etc.

    If I’m being honest, this means for me at least, that my religious knowledge has little to no basis in objective knowledge or what we might call “fact”. I cannot unequivocally prove to myself, let alone anyone else, that the Gods and Spirits are real and independent Beings. For me my subjective knowledge tells me that I gain both an objective benefit, in my case my problems are not solved by my life is otherwise enriched for the experience of being religious, and that subjectively I can come to some pretty good conclusions about theological matters.

    For instance, while I cannot confirm the “real” existence of the Gods, They are “real” enough to draw a subjective benefit from and They are convincing enough subjectively to merit treatment as though They are factually real whether or not They actually are. To achieve this stance takes no more compartmentalization than being willing to admit objectively They may well not exist and if they don’t I have gained merely a positive psycho-therapeutic benefit. On the other hand if They do exist and I don’t treat Them as real and independent Beings They may well be offended but if I treat Them as existent and They are not then I’ve merely derived more benefit from Them as psychological constructs for having taken Them more seriously.

    On a philosophical level everything is more or less a “leap of faith” to an eternally skeptical guy like me, but for day-to-day life I’m enough of a pragmatist to make it work quite well regardless of what the “Truth” actually is. No one harmed and my life enriched, as my grandkids would say, “win freaking win”.

  2. Average Buddhist Avatar
    Average Buddhist

    To say that you believe in a particular deity based on experiences with whatever energy is manifesting as that deity is in some ways a single-subject design experiment and can be scientific at its core. Reading a book and adding up the ages of the people it talks about and then saying “Yup the world is less than 8,000 years old” belies all of the actual experience that scientists have about the world. In fact, the only answer I’ve gotten from people who believe this is that God wants to trick us. Perhaps they have experiential evidence that God in fact gets off on tricking us…but that still does nothing to support that the ages of people in the Bible can be added together to calculate the age of the world. In the face of such strong evidence against a belief, how can it stand? When there is experiential evidence regarding a matter and no specific evidence against it, then the matter is open to debate.

  3. Sisterlisa Avatar

    My life history of ‘belief’ is too lengthy for a comment section, but currently I am on a journey of faith that is along the natural path that many pagans are on, only my Deity is Jesus. I no longer rely on what “pastor popular” says is “truth” I am now listening to my heart and God within for the answers I need for my own self and for my individual relationships. There are just so many issues in the world today and each person and family is so unique that ‘pat answers’ just don’t work. So I seek for inner wisdom from my Lord. I have wrestled with the idea of creeds and they always end up boxing me up and plastering a label on me and I don’t feel comfortable with that. There are some things that I believe firmly and other things I hold loosely because I might change my mind at some point as I continue to learn and grow.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you for the comment, Sister Lisa.

      Do you feel displaced from the Christian community, at large, on account of your own personal expression of Christianity? Are you able to connect with others who share your particular vision of Jesus and the Divine?

      1. Sisterlisa Avatar

        I did at first, yes. Many ‘friends’ dumped me, especially when I stood up for the Pagan Moms in that “Circle of Moms” ordeal. But I do have some conservative Christian friends who still love me, even when we disagree. So that’s been very helpful. And yes, I do have some Christian friends who are on a similar path that I’m on, so we have a bond that is inspiring and supportive. There really are more and more Christians coming away from the hard core fundamentalism that ‘seems’ to be taking over “Christianity”. I hold firm to the idea that there’s a difference between the Christian “Faith” and the Christian “Religion”. Although mainstream “Christianity” would consider me a heretic. 😉

  4.  Avatar

    My wife and I had a fairly long conversation about this last night.  She is what I would call a Deist, so we are coming at this from quite different perspectives.

    Belief is rationalization or deduction based on information that may or may not be able to be verified.

    Opinion is an emotional interpretation of facts or beliefs.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      How serendipitous, Eran. I was talking about it with my husband.

      Your definition of belief is interesting to me. It spells out with a lot of clarity why belief is connected to faith. As Themon wrote in the comment below,

      “Faith is what you exercise when you have to move forward and don’t have the information you need.”

      I’d never thought of opinion as being a product of emotion. I suppose scientific opinion would be something different, no?

      1.  Avatar

        I’m inclined to think the “scientific opinion” is just as emotional as any other. Most scientists would prefer the term “aesthetic,” rather than “emotional.” But elegance plays a huge part in scientific opinionizing, and I don’t think you are going to find a much better definition of “elegant” than “it feels good.”

        1.  Avatar

          Themon has it on the nose.  As a professional surveyor, part of my practice is to offer professional opinion on the location of boundaries – and emotions and aesthetics play a part in those opinions.  The more elegant solution, all things being equal, will be the one chosen, via Occam’s Razor.

  5.  Avatar

    Agreed. Big topic. I’ve wrestled with this all my life.

    I’ve come to view “belief” as mostly harmful: a kind of ossification of hypotheses. A hypothesis is something you pull out of the air and say, “Maybe this is true.” You say it out loud so you can argue about it, examine it, find evidence against it, etc. As long as it remains a hypothesis, you can easily discard it when the chips are down.

    You say, “The milk is fresh, I bought it yesterday.” This is a hypothesis: you think the milk might be good to drink, and you’ve thrown out a fact that may or may not be relevant. You open the container, take a whiff, and say, “Whew! Chuck that hypothesis!” Then you hold your nose while you pour the spoiled milk into the toilet.

    When the hypothesis ossifies into belief, you become invested in your hypothesis, and start making up increasingly weird theories to account for the bad smell. Your nose is off today. It’s just something the cows ate. It’s the container itself. If your belief REALLY ossifies, you declare there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with the milk, drink the whole carton on the strength of your belief, and end up with a stomach ache, for which you make excuses that have nothing to do with the milk (which was perfectly good, dammit.)

    I distinguish “belief” from “faith.” Faith is what you exercise when you have to move forward and don’t have the  information you need. In lots of cases, the information you need is difficult to get, or impossible. In those cases, faith is justified. For instance, there is an old saying: “LIVE today as if you will die tomorrow — but PLAN to live forever.”

    None of us knows for certain when we will die, or how. So to plan for tomorrow requires an exercise of faith. Every business deal is an exercise in faith. Every seed planted in the hopes of a harvest is an act of faith.

    If you knew for a fact that your field would be flooded with toxic waste in two weeks time, it would be crazy to “exercise faith” and plant seeds in it. Faith, IMO, should never be a substitute for quality information.

    This is where I part ways with the 6000-year-old earth “believers” —  1) quality information that contradicts this hypothesis is readily available, 2) unless you are in one of a handful of very specific professions, you don’t need to answer this question at all to move forward with life. There is simply no need to exercise faith.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      You are such a scientist. I wish you were in this class with me. You’d start SUCH a discussion!

      I love what you said about faith, it being what you exercise when you have to move forward and don’t have the information you need. I loved it so much I posted it all over the internet. I’m thinking about making a t-shirt out of it.

  6. kenneth Avatar

     Belief is a very big topic.  My approach to it is something like this: Belief picks up where hard knowledge leaves off. I believe what I believe about the gods and magick based on my  experience. At the same time I cannot prove that in an empirical sort of way.  Belief about things like a 6,000 year old Earth are a different matter.  In that instance, we are dealing with an assertion of scientific fact which is testable and falsifiable.  The evidence against it is overwhelming. In that case, belief in a young Earth becomes delusion.  Belief in areas which do not yet yield themselves to scientific exploration are a different matter. They’re personal and subjective inference drawn from experience.  I see them as approximations of truths which are too large for us to reduce to linear “either/or” binary understandings.  In that light, I can accept that people with radically different beliefs are not necessarily “wrong”. 

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      You would have fit in perfectly in this morning’s conversation, Kenneth. Thank you for sharing your take on this. You’ve articulated a perspective that makes a great deal of sense to me.