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Better than Belief

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

In our culture belief is the sine qua non of religion. We talk of ‘beliefs’, and ‘believers’, and ‘other beliefs’, as synonyms for religious doctrines, adherents and other religions. The problem with this is that only one religion on the planet actually cares about what you believe: Christianity. Most other religions relate to their doctrines or practices in very different and sometimes contradictory ways, such as having several unresolved and conflicting opinions in one person. For them, this is not a problem, but for Christianity it is. The history of Christianity is mostly about disagreements in doctrine and who had to flee, hide, fight, be killed, or submit to whom, about it. It is true that across human history religion has been an excuse for war or plunder, but that was usually about resources or dominance and not about technical points of theology. Christianity is different.

Paul of Tarsis centered Christianity on belief as a way of working around circumcision, part of an effort to appeal to Roman men. The Reformed community in the 1500s also adopted the idea of salvation through belief to contrast with Catholic sacramentalism or salvation through worshipful actions. While this is all fine for Christians, does it make sense for anyone else?

First, let’s look over the other two Abrahamic religions. Islam, meaning ‘submission’ does not so much care if you believe when you say the Shahada (There is no God but Allah, etc.), but once said if you deny it, you are an apostate and subject to execution. What matters here is submission. Your inner reality is your own problem.

The Jews have a long history of discussion on the meaning of their religion and agreement is not a requirement, practice is. For example the Talmud lists the discussion and disagreements of the Rabbis and scholars, including minority opinions. At table a family will discuss the Tanak (The Hebrew Bible), and again agreement is not at issue. What is, is the assiduous practice of the form of Judaism the person has adopted. This makes them a practicing Jew, no amount of mere belief replaces the required actions.

Outside of the Abrahamic tradition, the centrality of belief falls of precipitously. For example, while there are many schools of thought in the Hindu collection of religions, there is no central or standard orthodoxy. Since the Hindu community is an actively ritualizing one, Hindu worship is highly developed and is the primary organizing principal. The Buddha Himself taught his followers not to believe him but do that practices and they will know for themselves.

I bring the subject up because belief has become a common term to distinguish amongst Pagans and I’m not so sure we want to be using this mode of thought. As Robert Anton Wilson put it, “who controls your metaphors, controls your mind.” Belief here becomes a controlling metaphor. I expect a lot of push-back on this. Folks get very attached to their beliefs, and that’s where the problem is. Once we hold to an idea as a belief, we can’t let it go without giving up a piece of our identity. When anyone criticizes our beliefs they are attacking us personally. We can’t compromise or negotiate around our beliefs. If we do, by the logic of belief, we are compromising our religion, and if our salvation is dependent on our belief, any yielding would lead to our exclusion from Heaven. Are you beginning to see the problem here? Some have suggested this is the current issue with our government: the Congress cannot function because the parties can’t compromise. They believe their positions and therefore any compromise is capitulation. The current debate on reproductive rights is a painful example of this problem. Do we want to be in this position? There is no need to be.

‘Belief’ is used in several ways today. It can designate adherence to a religion or its doctrines (e.g., I am a believing Christian), or to non-religious positions (I believe in evolution), or an assertion of values (I believe in human rights). Yet only in the case of religion is the word belief being used precisely. Belief is inappropriate to have for a scientific theory. What is really meant, in our example, is “in my opinion the Theory of Evolution best matches the facts ascertained by scientific methodology.” Being long-winded, we shorthand the matter into a ‘belief’ statement. Nor does it apply to value statements literally. What is meant is that we uphold, assert, or defend the value in question. This is because belief is really an epistemological term. It has to do with the truth-value of a proposition and the evidence supporting it.

In general, we know about things either because of experiencing them with our senses, or through reasoning or by the report of other people and their sensory experience or reasoning. We don’t say we believe in the sun, we can just look up and see it (unless you live in Seattle). We can figure out how many are left in the box if we know how many were put in it and how many came out. We also trust some people to report accurately their findings. This is where another use of ‘belief’ happens, when we are uncertain. When we hold that a thing is true to the best of our knowledge but with a recognition that we may be wrong due to false report of our senses, or of other persons, or there is a potential failure of fact or reason, we say that we ‘believe’ the proposition to be correct.

A belief statement is not, therefore, about certainty. Belief is an appropriate term to use when we don’t know for sure about a thing. It is this use that finds a home in Christian religion. Paul is a perfect example for this. According to the New Testament story, Paul never met Jesus but ended up formulating much of what becomes Christianity. (Cor 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;) Without direct knowledge (he had a vision), Paul nonetheless “believed on Christ Jesus” (Rom 1:16, Gal 2:16), and for this was saved and from this was given his ministry, or so he believed.

Likewise when we look at the Christian Creed(s) (, they assert a list of propositions for which there is no actual evidence but are the doctrines decided by the religious thought and (sometimes bloody) politics of their day.

What we can see from this is that a belief is the assertion of a proposition without fact or, like Creationism, in the face of contradictory facts. Belief is an altogether deficient mode of knowing. But it has certain advantages. At first, by 'believing on Christ', you were ‘circumcised of heart’ (Deut. 30:6, Rom 2:25-29), and therefore did not need your foreskin cut off to be a Christian, a big selling point among the Gentile men. Circumcision being a settled issue today, especially since the Reformation, the question mostly focuses on salvation through belief or works. Belief guarantees admission to Heaven: salvation.

So what has this to do with Pagans? I assert: nothing. Firstly, in my spirituality, why would I bet my soul on something so thin as a belief? That’s what we are doing in the spiritual life, we are placing a ‘bet’ represented by our actions upon whatever is our equivalent to salvation. Whether enlightenment, reincarnation, the Summer Lands, or oblivion, or whatever, since we all die and that we suppose that our actions may have something to do with our ultimate disposal, is it really worthwhile to simply take someone’s word for it about what to do? And once we’ve formulated an idea as to what we think we are up to, should we take on some such doctrine as an unquestionable, unassailable ‘belief’ or should we simply adopt the idea as a working theory until such time as we understand better, at which point we discard the former understanding for the latter?

My second point is the stronger but deserves more space on its own: experience. So for now I will simply say that we have an astonishing array of techniques for generating spiritual experience. Why believe when you can have experiences that show you? And when you have such experiences, why would you let someone else interpret your experiences for you? As mentioned above, the Buddha taught his followers not to believe him but to practice, see the result, and know. We’ll come back to practice in future posts.

My third point is that beliefs do nothing for you. In Christianity the Creed is a list of assertions to be adopted, checked off as it were, and you are done. The problem is that such a belief-set is the spiritual equivalent of a recipe. Reading out the list of ingredients and the procedure for assembling them is not the same thing as eating a tasty meal. Beliefs have no effect or we would see mountains move (Matt 17:20), and we don’t. Knowing a thing is not the same as doing, and when that knowledge is deficient, as is belief, then we can expect even less of it. Practices even without belief, have profound impact, as any one who has been on a Vipassana retreat can attest. Here in the West, most folks have no ‘belief’ in Buddhism, but when they go and sit, they come to understand the nature of their own mind better. The results of practice are real.

Given all this, do we really want to be using this kind of Belief-language?

It’s the Christian mode for thinking about religion. (We’ll talk more about them in a future post.) Do we want to model our religious thought on theirs? I don’t. I think it poisons our view of Paganism if we uncritically adopt the belief-oriented Christian view of religiosity and supports their distorted understanding of the rest of us.

It is a deficient mode of knowing. Belief replaces complexity and the anxiety of ambiguity with the comfort of false certainty (“I just have to believe hard enough.” <gack!>) I grew up after the scientific revolution. I find hypothesis and experiment and working theories to be a far more effective way of leaning and knowing. There is no need for belief.

And I want to eat the meal, not read a description. Belief short-circuits the process of learning and skips right to the end product. It gains nothing from the journey but a few postcards of events we did not attend.

What I suggest is an exercise in self-conscious language. Try not using the word ‘belief’ when discussing your religion. For example one can say not “I believe in Thor” but rather “I worship Thor”. Not “I believe in reincarnation” but “reincarnation makes sense.”

Also: examine your beliefs and eliminate them. Try to remove from your thinking all notions that are based on the simple acceptance of something you were told. It is not easy, possibly impossible, but watch how the process opens up your mind to new possibilities and frees up energy previously devoted to defending those beliefs.

And so here is the critical thing: Beliefs have to be defended. Knowledge does not. When I say, “I worship X”, that challenges no one. When I say, “I believe” that immediately puts us into conflict with my interlocutor, implying “do you or don’t you believe?”

Belief divides. Actions join us. Together we can go to the altar and make our offerings, but we don’t need to agree on what we think we are doing. That is left to our own conscience, learning, and stage of development. But we can worship together. If I demand to know what is in your mind and only tolerate you if you agree with me, any hope of community is lost.

If we truly honor our diversity we quickly discover we don’t all agree. Focusing on our ‘beliefs’ will only accentuate our differences. But, if we abandon belief-talk and take a stance like most traditional religions world-over and focus on our practices and our worship, we rapidly discover that we have so much in common that solidarity in our diversity naturally arises. Then, I can come to the altar of your Gods and, even though I know Them not at all, I can worship Them with you and begin to experience what you already have in your heart.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Peregrin
    Peregrin Thursday, 06 September 2012

    Hi Sam - great post. Thank you. :D

    This is something that a few of us have been hammering at for years, as I am sure you have. I see a couple of things that may need exploring.

    The religion = belief concept has so infected our Paganism that, for example, upon setting up the Australian Pagan Alliance back in the early 90's the first thing that was formulated was a set of Pagan "principles and beliefs" for membership. We managed to reduce these to three, but the concept is still there and I think will raise its head as soon as any Pagan organistation for networking, training or sharing is formed.

    So as we develop and grow our Paganisms, we will encounter this tendency and need to find ways around it. Great to have someone in the community such as yourself so clear on this :) - thanks.

    Finally, as you may know there are more orthopraxic forms of Christianity, a few, within the broader Orthodox traditions, where belief is secondary to practice. Or belief is developed and used as a practice. I have done this myself in the past with the Nicene Creed... not simply affirming it, but using it as a framework for inner work.


  • Deborah Frankel
    Deborah Frankel Friday, 07 September 2012

    My religious beliefs change from year to year depending on experience, acquired knowledge, and my emotional needs; the practices I find useful are more stable although they, too, change over time. Orthopraxy is a foundation for orthognosis; orthodoxy is a foundation for endless fighting about stuff we cannot know for sure, like when the human soul (if it exists) enters a human embryo or fetus. The rabbis, unlike the Doctors of the Church, had the good sense not to make a firm ruling on that question.

    However, good group ritual requires some basis in belief, in my opinion. The belief could be "The ancestors want us to do this (apparently dumb thing), so we do it." No common understanding required here except a belief that the ancestors interact with the living and have wishes. Not to be confused with the seemingly similar "Doing this brings good luck." Nothing behind that belief except confirmation bias; it's mere superstition, and that's the point of Shirley Jackson's short story/play, "The Lottery".

    Or the ritual may express or have embedded in it statements about the entities being interacted with and their relationship with the human participants.That is, the ritual symbolizes or acts out implicit or explicit religious doctrine. In my experience (in progressive Judaism and several varieties of Wicca), both handed-down and freshly created group rituals need to based on _some_ ideas or beliefs about the gods or other entities being addressed, or the ritual will be incoherent and ineffective by any measure. Ritual created by committee or by a single person who has not thought through what she wants the ritual to express can suffer from muddy beliefs; no two of us believe exactly the same things.

    Interestingly enough, it isn't necessary that the ritual participants or even the ritual leaders _agree_ with the ideas or beliefs that the ritual expresses, only that the ritual expresses some beliefs, that the ritual does not contradict itself, and that the behavior of the participants during the ritual doesn't contradict the ideas it expresses. E.g., don't butter up an entity and then treat it with disrespect; if you go to enormous trouble to cast a strong, tight circle, don't walk blithely across the boundary five minutes later. There are some atheist rabbis and High Priestesses who are pretty good ritual leaders, IMHO.

  • ericjdev
    ericjdev Friday, 07 September 2012

    My experience with Goddess is entirely faith based and I place no value in the experiential. Furthermore, I could care less if how I approach my faith resembles Christianity or not, if I adjust how I do things based on that I'm letting Christianity influence my beliefs. There seems to be a growing train of thought in Paganism that those of us that aren't atheists or humanists need to be culturally cleansed or saved. I will never abandon my beliefs and I am horrified that anyone would suggest that it somehow benefits the community if I abandon my faith. My experience with Brighid was a Paul on the road to Damascus moment and while I understand not all Pagans get to where they are through that kind of experience neither do I think it makes my path of lesser value. I believe and anyone who would want to take that away from me is no brother or sister of mine.

  • Apuleius Platonicus
    Apuleius Platonicus Saturday, 08 September 2012

    First of all, the problem with Christians isn't that they tend to disagree with one another. The problem is that they have a tendency to kill those they disagree with, whether they be fellow Christians, Pagans, Jews, etc.

    Second of all, ancient Pagans certainly did have beliefs and these beliefs were central to their entire world-view, and, in particular, these beliefs were very important to their religious practices. To think otherwise is to supposed that ancient Pagans were "just going through the motions" when they engaged in religious practice, without any conceptual framework of the relationship between the Gods and humans informing and inspiring that practice.

    Let me give a concrete example. The philosopher Epictetus appealed to the commonly held belief that humans are, in a manner of speaking, "the children of the Gods". Starting from that shared common belief, Epictetus then proceeded to argue that no Imperial honor was greater than the honor of being a child of the Gods, which all of are already. He further argued that no other affiliation that we might have is more important than this common kinship of all humankind as children of the Gods. (See Epictetus' Discourses, Book One, especially Discourse number 3.)

    Another example is that of Socrates when he was on trial for his life. A central part of Socrates' defense, as recorded in Plato's "Apology", was that Socrates had conducted his philosophical inquiries as a direct result of an oracle given by the priestesses of Apollo at Delphi. This oracular pronouncement had been given to Socrates' close friend Charephon, who had asked the Oracle whether or not Socrates was the wisest of men, to which the Oracle responded, "Yes". Socrates, at his trial, explained that while he did not understand what this meant, he felt it was his duty to discover its meaning. It was for this reason that Socrates closely questioned those who were reputed to the wise, the Sophists, to discover what, if anything, he (Socrates) knew that they they did not know. Another close friend of Socrates, Xenophon, recorded that Socrates frequently encouraged his friends and students to consult oracles, and then they would discuss toegether what the oracles meant, and how one should act accordingly.

  • T. Thorn Coyle
    T. Thorn Coyle Sunday, 09 September 2012

    this was nicely written. Thank you.

    There are two quotes that I return to again and again on this matter: Joseph Campbell's: “I don't have to have faith, I have experience.”
    and Victor Anderson's: "Perceive first. Believe later."

    I deal with this topic often in my interfaith justice work. When they start saying "people of faith" I need to remind them that some of us are *not* people of faith. Or when they use the word believers, I do the same. In doing so, much of what we put out now is shifting language toward "religious leaders" or "spiritual people" which works much better for me. The word "interfaith" however, we are stuck with, I think. At least for a very long time.

    My spiritual and religious life is heavy on praxis, within a framework of theory. That works for me because it requires less of a need for mental gymnastics. My students hear from me: "I will never ask you to believe anything." And I won't, for many of the reasons you state, but mostly because all I have to offer them are practices that have proven to be helpful for our own development and connection to the cosmos. Belief is simply not required.

    - Thorn

  • Peggy Andreas
    Peggy Andreas Monday, 10 September 2012

    That was a very interesting read, thanks. My own take on this is something I've understood since reading Starhawk's "Spiral Dance," where she states:

    "People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply "Do you believe in rocks?" It is extremely difficult for most Westerners to grasp the concept of a manifest deity. The phrase "believe in" itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that She is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks we may see them, touch them, dig them out of our gardens, or stop small children from throwing them at each other. We know them; we connect with them. In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess we connect with Her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all. She is the full circle: earth, air, fire, water, and essence body, mind, spirit, emotions, change."

    I've also done "Belief Work" with Jane Roberts' Seth teachings....learning to be flexible with Beliefs in shaping my own reality.

    Lately, I've been working with the concepts in Caroline Casey's School of the Compassionate Trickster, and, as she says, "Believe nothing. Entertain possibilities."

    I've been thinking about the word "Belief." It seems to be related to "Be Live." When we "believe" in something, we put our own energy into it and bring it to life! In essence, we create something and it reflects our own energy back to us. How much better to drop the act and step into the moment, engaging with Life and Spirit as best we can, in partnership with All-That-Is!

  • Henry Buchy
    Henry Buchy Thursday, 13 September 2012

    heh, the old 'faith vs works' debate...

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