Monday, January 12, 2009

The Path(s) to God(s)

In my last post, I distinguished (albeit somewhat arbitrarily) between spirituality and religion. The difference, as I set it down, lies in the fact that religion has a constellation of rituals, practices, and images, which spirituality does not have. (To be only slightly more precise, spirituality can have these, but they're not the focus, and they're less insisted upon.) Collectively, I call this constellation the tradition of the religion, and it is this tradition which defines it as a religion.

For instance, Christianity has the Bible as its primary texts, is organized into churches which (usually) meet on Sundays, and something akin to the Nicene Creed is accepted by most. Wicca has as its primary images the God and the Goddess, is organized into covens, and requires the casting of circles, but has no creed or primary texts.

It is through tradition that the moral aspects of religion may find expression. While the presence of the numinous may involve a sense of encountering a morally pure being, or of being purified, or of being exhorted to moral excellence, this is usually (but not always) going to be undirected without tradition. That is not to say that tradition necessarily dictates moral injunctions, but that it provides a structure by which ethics can be related to the numinous.

This is particularly effective, as advocates for the 365-day bible and other daily Scriptural devotions know, when the tradition involves doing something every day. If this is not only possible to do within the tradition, but essential to it--as for Muslims, the daily prayers, and as for many reconstructions, the daily rituals for the ancestors and the gods--then the way it can shape the contours of daily life, and the experience of living in the presence of numinous beings, cannot be overstated.

Every living tradition has something it is like to be involved in it--something that its practitioners might perceive as its "essence." This is not to say that all members of the tradition will agree on what it is, but to say that, for a Christian, being Christian is a certain way of being, and for a Buddhist, being Buddhist is a certain way of being. Tradition is shaped in part by people's shifting experience of what it is like to be part of it.

Traditions can involve doctrines or dogmas. To the extent that these are clearly logically articulable, they are subject to the relevant kinds of analysis; certain empirical claims--for instance, that crystals can help cure cancer, or that a particular holy book relates an accurate history--can be investigated scientifically. Logical contradictions or serious implausibilities can vitiate an entire tradition, if found in essential doctrines.

Tradition allows for the formation of a religious community, though a religious community may not always be necessary for the founding of a tradition.

One of the things which tends to distinguish religious traditions from other kinds of traditions is the explicit or implicit way in which it upholds, supports, and/or exhorts a vision of life. When the tradition is cut off from that life, it loses much of its purpose. Moreover, the vision of life espoused or expounded by a tradition is a means by which it may be critiqued. A vision of life that is unworkable or inauthentic should not be followed.

For instance, one could criticize the pseudo-religious New Age authors for inadequately dealing with human suffering, or for irresponsibly drawing attention away from real problems like sustainability and social justice.

The vision of life--or kinds of visions, at least--underpinning pagan religions tends to involve a life lived in the sense of the immanent divine. The numinous is not simply transcendent or to be found only by looking within, but can be experienced through or as within things external, but intimately to hand, such as rivers, mountains, trees, images of gods (vulgarly called "idols" by Christians), etc. The embodied nature of human life is generally embraced, and ethics is to be seen as the embodied, social behavior it is, directed more by concerns about virtue and living the good life than by commandments absolutely enjoining particular behaviors. In essence, a more authentic embracing of human experience, even in its diversity, is sought.

How one "chooses" or "comes to" or "creates" a tradition requires a post of its own.

To sum up: Religion, as I see it, essentially involves two aspects: experience of the numinous, and the constellation of practices, beliefs, and images that I call tradition. The experience of the numinous provides the impetus, the essential core that gives the religion significance and inspires reflection and meditation. The tradition allows the religion to coalesce as a religion, and take a form more tangible than an amorphous spirituality.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beyond Belief

I'd like to lay out two theoretical areas--though often intermixed in practice--that define pagan religion as I practice it and intend to develop it further.

First, there is what might be called the "spiritual" level. I am sometimes confronted the numinous. In part, this is a sense of a presence, a personality or at least experiencer, within something not normally considered a person--a stream, a tree, a mountain, a bay. Such is the intuition underlying animism. But there is more than that to the numinous. It is the sensation that one is in the presence of the immanent divine. Each experience differs, so it is hard to pinpoint what differentiates the numinous from the merely present. The sense can be of something masculine, or feminine, beneficent or uncaring, self-harmonious and tranquil or tempestuous and raging. But there is something else I cannot quite describe which gives it an immensity of presence to the mind. (Though a little effort can sometimes quash the sense altogether.)

If you haven't experienced something of this sort, you may not have any idea what I'm talking about.

When I say that no particular proposition need be adopted about these beings, I merely express the understanding that the experience of them--the sense of them as being, as having presence--does not entail any particular placement of them in a broader metaphysics. The personal ontology of experience differs from the propositional ontology of metaphysics.

Similarly, acceptance and experience of the presence of a close friend or a family member does not entail any particular metaphysical position. A reductive physicalist might accept that, ultimately, the sense of their presence just is physical interactions in his own brain, as resulting from light waves reflecting from the molecules which make up his friend. A radical solipsist would believe that, ultimately, the presence of his friend was the result of persistent, ineradicable self-delusion. In both cases, however, the personal ontology of experience remains the same. It is impossible for either one to accept the non-existence of the experience of the presence. Only the articulation in terms of a metaphysics differs.

Thus, the articulation of a polytheism in terms of acceding to a sense of presence of this kind is compatible with almost any metaphysics. The existence of gods, as usually conceived as independently existing immaterial beings of power and beneficence, is as compatible with this experience simpliciter as their non-existence is.

Thus far, the understanding of the numinous I have explained is not entirely sufficient for polytheism. While my experience seems to be of multiple presences, others have similar experiences in terms of a single presence whom they call God. While I believe that polytheism is a more natural sense--one that emerges more or less naturally when contradictory ideological commitments are not present--I cannot ignore the fact that in these inchoate, pre-propositional experiences, many people seem to have monotheistic experiences.

Both history of religion and comparative religion seem to agree that religious experiences differ across cultures and through time. Ideas about those experiences shape them as they are experienced, similarly to the way one's experience of a spoon is shaped by the concept of the spoon, and regular use of spoons. (Anyone who has learned to use a new utensil in this way is probably familiar with the change in how the thing is experienced when one learns what it is for, and then when it has been used.) Likewise, the meaning of great cultural texts, such as the King James Bible or Dante's Divine Comedy are experienced differently in different times.

When faced with inchoate, pre-propositional numinous experience, we must answer the question of what to do with this experience. Some simply take the experience as just a nice experience, and leave it at that. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, I think that the history of humanity shows that, in these experiences lies the potential for personal and social change, if interpreted and applied properly.

Thus, we are faced with a dual task. On the one hand, we must remain true to the experience if our interpretations are to be seen as relevant. On the other hand, we must recognize that the task of interpretation is at least in part constructive. It is possible to set out criteria by which the constructive aspect can proceed. This dual task I refer to as constructive exploration--exploration in that it attempts to remain true to the experience, and constructive in that, as the exploration proceeds, the thing that is explored is also constructed.

Constructive exploration of the numinous experience tends to proceed, in my experience, along two lines: the spiritual and the religious. The spiritual approach attempts to articulate the experience mostly in terms of experience, and in terms of practice mainly generally. In contrast, the religious approach--usually seen as involving creedal codification, though this is not essential, and I think is probably detrimental--involves specifics of behavior much more explicitly, either in terms of ethical injunctions, or ritual, or both. The religious approach also tends toward adoption or construction of more or less clearly conceived religious images seen as significant, if not central. (The image of Christ crucified, for instance, whether portrayed in sculpture or in the prose of the Gospels, is central to Christianity.) These images, as objects of meditation, become objects of experience and means of attaining more subtly refined numinous experience.

So much for the aspect of religion related to the numinous. Of the images and practices I will have more to say in my next post.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why Paganism? or: Why Not Atheism? Pt. 2

Reading back over that last post, I see that I failed to make a distinction I should have.

Atheism in most forms arises out of epistemological commitments. Generally speaking, atheists suppose a sort of scientific empiricism to be the way things go. We are justified in thinking something exists because we experience it, or because we can infer it inductively from experience--preferably with the aid of scientific experimentation and mathematical or statistical analysis--and we can communicate and agree about its existence.

This kind of reasoning is very good at establishing the kind of thing that can be described in terms of defined causal relationships with other things. What the atheist means to say is that there is no reasonable way to infer the existence of things causally related to the world in the way gods are supposed to be, from the existence of the things discovered by empirical reasoning, in the way that empirical reasoning progresses.

When the atheist says "gods do not exist," this is what he means. And frankly, I'm not interested in arguing with him. I'll cede the point, and go on with polytheism anyway.

Why? The religious experience, the sense that there are gods, the sense of the presence of gods, is not the kind of thing that is amenable to empirical observation. The closest thing to it that the scientist can observe is the brain of the person having the experience. There is no testable hypothesis.

It may well be the case that we cannot reasonably posit the existence of gods as the sort of thing that is related in a particular causal way with other things. And that's fine. But if I were to say that I feel the presence of Neptune or Jupiter (the gods, not the planets, obviously), would I really be saying that Neptune or Jupiter is in a particular causal relationship with me about which we can have empirical observation.

Thus, I can completely agree with what the atheist means when he says "gods do not exist," and still be a polytheist. Gods do exist--just not in the way he means.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Why Paganism? or: Why Not Atheism?

I really didn't mean for this post to take so long. Being the sort of person I am, I don't feel like I can start on a project like a blog without setting down, in the first place, what it is that I'm trying to do. My goals may change, but the initial direction needs to be put in place.

The question "What is paganism" is too big for me to really summarize in a single post. I have a hard time summarizing in one post just what my paganism is. Instead, I thought I'd propose my general attitude toward religion in general in terms of the biggest intellectual challenge to any Western religious person: atheism.

This is not some purely intellectual problem only of interest to academics. There are atheists in the world. They are not just a bunch of disillusioned ex-Christians who, bitter about the failure of their own religion, dismiss all religions. Nor are atheists just scientists who misapply their method in an irrational attempt to impose control and order on the world. Atheism is frequently the result of thoughtful, intellectually curious religious people trying to figure out their religion--and finding no reason to believe in it.

This is not just something Christians and Muslims grapple with. Just recently, Deo of the popular pagan podcast Deo's Shadow announced that he was ending his podcast not only because of increasing demands on his time, but because he has come to atheism:
Making deòs Shadow was usually a joy, and as the show grew more popular, we had many opportunities for new experiences which helped us to grow as people. One of the interesting side-effects of such growth is that one can end up growing out of that which induces the growth. We’ve moved on from Paganism and are now practicing atheists. (link)
So why atheism? He explains himself:

Having subsequently dropped Paganism, the question would seem to be: why not replace it with another spiritual perspective? I submit that this is the wrong question. The question ought to be: What accounts for anyone ever taking up another belief system having dropped a previous one? I think there are probably two good reasons for holding a belief. The first is evidence. The second is training. When it comes to religious belief, we lack the first independently of the interpretations furnished by the second. “Training” could mean simply being raised in a particular religious culture. Or it could mean being brainwashed by a cult… or, less ominously, being immersed in a religious culture that eventually becomes second-nature.(link)

So why adopt paganism as a belief system? It's not as if we were brought up to believe it. And it's not as if paganism has intrinsically more evidence than any other religion. (And all religions, one might point out, do make claims that contradict others. Polytheism is directly contradictory to monotheism; there cannot be many gods if there is only one God.)

Such is Deo's reasoning. Educated in philosophy as he is, he could probably go much further and expound argument upon argument, precisely elucidating every point, demonstrating his reasoning quasi-mathematically in terms of the predicate calculus. And he would probably be right. His arguments would probably work, and would probably stand up to logical criticism reasonably well--by my lights, at least.

So what exactly am I saying? It probably sounds as if I'm affirming the truth of atheism. That I'm saying it's unreasonable to believe in gods, that there is no strong evidential or a priori reason to affirm the proposition that gods exist.

That's exactly what I'm saying. But I call myself a polytheist anyway. Here's why.

I can affirm that the atheist position is correct. I can examine their arguments and agree with them. But in addition to this, I would also like to say that atheism misses the point.

Atheism analyzes religion as if it's a collection of logical propositions to assent to. A set of claims that one either believes, or does not believe. But is this really what religion is? Is this what religion is supposed to be? A Christian will say that, even if there's more to it, religion requires at least that. I disagree.

I have said that I am a polytheist. On the surface, this does seem to imply that my religion requires assent to at one proposition, belief in at least one claim: gods exist.

But what does this mean? It is consistent with Epicureanism and Neoplatonism, Stoicism and Academic skepticism, just to name a few examples from ancient Greek philosophy. It is consistent, as well, with the claim that the gods are Jungian archetypes. It is consistent with the claim that gods are anthropomorphizations of natural physical or elements. There is, essentially, no particular metaphysical or existential proposition that can be derived from the statement "gods exist," and the statement does not depend on the truth of any metaphysical or existential proposition.

When I say "gods exist," I am affirming the value of a number of kinds of practices, like sacrifice and prayer. I am saying that there are divine mysteries to be experienced but never told, tales of gods to be told which can be interpreted in many useful, pleasing, or even life-changing ways.

Where does the requirement to assent to a proposition come in? Atheism, on my view, misses the point.