There is no ‘Believe’

As much as I value druidry for its emphasis on praxis not doxology, the theologian in me still wants to talk about belief. Or rather, lack of belief.

T. Thorn Coyle posted this rather good article over at HuffPo called ‘Why I am not a believer’. Thorn writes:

When I say I am not a believer, it doesn’t mean I believe nothing. It is that belief is not central to my religious and spiritual life. As a matter of fact, belief holds little importance to me at all. Belief doesn’t structure my experience; my experience structures what few beliefs I might have.

Lots of pagans would say that they don’t need to ‘believe’ in their gods because they experience them. Well, I have not had such experience, and my understanding of psychology would not dispose me to interpret such experiences as proof of a deity. But I appreciate the emphasis on experience. There’s an empiricism and clarity to it which I like. Do a practice, get a result, repeat and if you get the same result, try to figure out what’s going on.

However, this does not have to have anything to do with faith, or belief. Ian Corrigan writes:

Opinions about religion and politics often get elevated to the confused term “Beliefs”, and folks are extra-sensitive about their beliefs.

It is worth remembering that beliefs are just opinions. I’ve watched (but tried not to get involved in) the recent flare-up of the pagan/polytheist/atheist debate where different ‘beliefs’ have been labelled variously as ‘reductionist poison’, ‘fundamentalism’ and not ‘real’ paganism. Then there’s the constant bickering between Christians and atheists, not to mention the infighting in both those communities as well.

Plenty of heated argument and personal hatred could be avoided by seeing religious beliefs as just another theological or philosophical opinion rather than as some sort of inviolable Sacred Truth. It’s also worth noting that we are not our beliefs, and a strongly-worded criticism of beliefs as ideas should not devolve into, or be seen as, an attack on a person’s character and identity.

I try not to have beliefs. There are facts about the world which are true whether you believe them or not. Gravity makes things fall, evolution happens, water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, the earth goes around the sun. That sort of thing. We don’t need to ‘believe’ these things, because we know them to be true. The way we know them is through science.

Science is the best method humans have created to understand what things exist and how they work. In cases where I, as a layman, don’t understand the science, I will try to research it as much as I can and then defer to the scientists. This isn’t because of ‘belief’ in science as holy writ, or some sort of dogmatic ideology,  but simply because scientists are the experts in their fields who have worked for decades studying the natural world.

When we go beyond the horizon of the known, then the only honest response is ‘I don’t know’. Simply making things up to fill the gaps in our knowledge is a cop-out. When those gaps are automatically filled with God(s) then we have the problem of god-of-the-gaps, which is intellectualy lazy.

While I’m thinking about belief, I want to clarify that atheism does not mean ‘belief that there are no gods’, it means ‘lack of belief that there are gods’. The difference is subtle but important. Atheism is precisely ‘unbelief’ rather than another, opposed belief.

Of course I have opinions, ideas, models of reality that I investigate and dissect and play around with, but I try to hold them lightly and not elevate any to the status of belief. My practice does not depend on belief. You don’t need to ‘believe’ anything to meditate, spend time in nature or celebrate being alive. The subjective effects these practices have on well-being and happiness is evidence for their efficacy. As for ethics, there is a long tradition of secular moral thinking based on reason and empathy. Our moral sense is an evolved trait due to our being social primates (as Frans de Waal explores in The Bonobo and the Atheist).

So while I may practice something that looks a bit like druidry (in the right light, if you squint a bit), I do not hold any specifically pagan ‘beliefs’ and I’m not sure why I would want to.

To paraphrase that great Jedi Master, Yoda:

Know or know not. There is no believe.

How does belief figure into your life? As always, I love a response so leave a comment!

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7 responses to “There is no ‘Believe’

  1. I absolutely agree. And I will also say that while belief is perhaps unhelpful in terms of divinity and the so-called “supernatural”, I think it can actually be unhelpful when it comes to untested beliefs we have about everyday reality. Like you, I don’t have religious beliefs as such, but I also try not to have rigid beliefs about, say, consciousness or how the world around me works. There is a certain amount that I can know through reading science, but I think a lot of people these days make assumptions that certain things work in what they consider to be mundane ways – and some of these things are not even understood by scientists.

    Sorry, I’m very tired this morning, so I’m not exactly eloquent! I’ll probably write a post on the above garbled thoughts at some point though.

    • I completely agree, and your comment is very clear and eloquent!

      We can learn about the world through science, but then when we get to an area we don’t know (or that science hasn’t worked out yet) we should have the humility to say ‘I don’t know’ instead of making assumptions.

  2. This is a great post! I used to spend a lot of time thinking about belief, and worrying about what I believed and whether or not my beliefs made me a “proper” Pagan or Druid. Over the years, though, belief has become less important to me, as I’ve realized that what other people believe doesn’t need to have anything to do with what I believe (or vice versa). I focus more now on knowing through experience, rather than simply believing. My experiences in turn shape my beliefs. Rather than clinging to a set of static beliefs, I allow my beliefs to change as I discover more through my experiences in life.

    • Why thank you! I like your attitude of just getting on with it and experiencing things rather than worrying about beliefs. I’m not quite there yet, but I hope to be!

      I like your blog, by the way. Are you by any chance the same Heather who ran a blog called ‘Say the Trees Have Ears’ a while back?

      • Yep, that’s me! I started a new blog to reflect my changing focus and so I could have more options for expanding (I plan to move to my own domain and one day I hope to run online courses through my site).

      • Hi! I used to read your old blog pretty regularly, I really liked your approach to druidry, paganism, science and nature. I’m afraid I have some catching up to do with your new one, though! Your plans for domains and courses sound great, I hope that all goes well for you!

  3. Pingback: The need for reason | Endless Erring

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