Monday, September 21, 2009

It's a Streetlight

Something happened the other night that brought to mind a topic I've been wanting to blog about for quite some time now.

Saturday night, while the Trophy Wife was out celebrating Mabon with her friends (we've a mixed marriage, you see; she's Pagan, and I'm Heathen), most of them happened to see a very peculiar light display in the sky. I didn't see it, having been inside cooking way too much chicken cacciatore and generally getting things set up for the feast to follow their ritual. But I was told about the event and my first instinct was to turn to Google to see if anyone else had seen it, and if so, was there any mundane explanation.

Turns out that the same thing was seen up and down the East Coast, and was caused by a NASA experiment involving clouds in the upper atmosphere. I have no doubt that it was an impressive sight, though, and especially coming after a ritual experience I can see how one could ascribe to it more significance than it might otherwise warrant. The tinfoil-hat brigade are out in force, with claims of NASA cover-ups and sinister alien visitations. However, as it turns out, "it's a streetlight."

It does, however, bring up a point about the role of skepticism in heathenry (and paganism, for that matter) in general, and in those magical practices associated with it. It's easy to say that our sacrifices bring the spring rains, or that our good fortune comes from a healthy relationship with the local land-wights. Even when it comes to the very existence of the Gods and other wights, we who live in the twenty-first century, full of miracles of technology and science, must balance faith against credulity.

Is every crow that croaks from right to left as we leave the house betokening a good outcome of our journey? Are there really Gods out there in some other world called Asgard? Do disembodied spirits really dwell in stones and rivers, and can they somehow influence our lives in ways both subtle and gross? Does the fehu rune somehow function as a key to prosperity and change? Just how literal, and how symbolic, should we take our lore and our beliefs and practices?

Naturally, this is not a question limited to Paganism. Christianity has been struggling with such things for centuries, as have just about every religion out there (the FSM being a notable exception). However, being a Heathen myself, and one possessed of what I like to think is an analytical mind, I find myself thinking about such things.

What are we doing with our rituals? Are we really making offerings to unseen entities in order to garner their favor, or are we performing actions to reinforce our group-psychological and social ties to others who do the same? Is magic really able to influence probability to make a desired outcome more likely, or is that just a psychological effect of clearly stating an intend and following it through?

More to the point; does it make any difference one way or the other?

Is religion... any religion... about connecting with a Divine force, or is it about connecting with our fellow believers? The ancient Romans and Greeks thought that orthopraxy (correct practices) was much more important than orthodoxy (correct dogma). We have a multitude of examples from history and literature of people who were perfectly comfortable mixing Heathenry and Christianity, or Heathenry and no literal belief at all. It seems to be a common thread among the Indo-European folk that the social aspects of shared belief are more important than any individual's particular faith in the literal existence of Gods and spirits.

Partake in this thought-experiment with me.

Assume the Gods and spirits do exist. If we act as if they do exist, we gain their favor. If we act as if they do not, we lose nothing. Remember, most Pagan and Heathen religions don't reserve punishment in the afterlife for lack of belief, but rather for bad behavior; murder, oath-breaking, etc. So in this conception, Pascal's Wager has a bit of a side-bet.

Assume the Gods and spirits do not exist. If we act as if they do exist, we behave in a pretty socially acceptable manner. We don't murder, we don't break our promises. We may... may... gain a slight psychological benefit. We lose a few minutes a week, but we forge social bonds with that same time. I'd call that loosing nothing, at worst. If we act as if they do not exist, we lose nothing. And for Heathens and Pagans, there's no eternal brimstone for choosing wrong. You just led a good life by acting as if they do exist. Pascal's Wager really works out well for us.

So... what's to lose by acting as if they do exist? That's the chips we set down when taking Pascal's Wager. A few minutes a day, on average, spent in ritual. Over the course of a human lifetime, that time might well have been spent in other pursuits. But there are benefits as well; we get social bonding, good behavior, and no damnation if we're wrong!

So I say be skeptical. If there is proof against a thing, discard it. But if faith provides some benefit, even intangible, embrace it. You've got nothing to lose by doing so, and you might even gain something. Don't murder anyone, and don't break your sworn word. I think that's two commandments just about everybody can agree with.

5 comments:

  1. I am wildly skeptical about everything. Most people are surprised to hear that, knowing I'm a Pagan.

    While I love the thought of Nessie and Big Foot and cannot believe that we are alone in the entire universe, if you tell me that you saw a Yeti or a UFO, I'm absolutely going to think you are a nut.

    Until someone brings forward a carcass, it just isn't real.

    Great picture of a streetlight, though, lol.

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  2. Good post, as usual.

    I definitely believe in the literal existence of the Gods and the wights (I do not believe in Yeti, UFOs, etc), but I am also my own biggest critic and skeptic, and run my own "wyrd experiences" through multiple layers of reality checks. I often wonder if indeed I am crazy, but then crazy people never question their sanity. So...

    I think even if there proves to be Nothing (and I'm open to the possibility of that, even as a believer), the benefits of right relationships to the Gods, wights, and ancestors, and one another, living honorably and well, is good enough. One of the nice things about Heathenry is Woden continually quests after wisdom, and certainly won't fault us or smite us (lol) for seeking after it ourselves. Moreover, you are your deeds, not your beliefs. So even if a person is a full skeptic or has occasional moments of skepticism, it is about the benefits of Heathenry (or other Paganism) as a lifeway.

    -Siggy

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  3. Interesting and very honest posting! I would add another possibility, that the gods may not exist "out there" but that they may exist "in here" (tapping my head) as something like Jungian archetypes. If there is something like Jung's "collective unconscious," then ritual and belief may be ways of getting in touch with our own deeper selves, possibly reaching levels of shared psychic reality. Hmm, I think I am ready to read Jung again!

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  4. Great picture of a streetlight, though, lol.

    It comes from the Fark.com thread. Read the whole thing if you want a real laugh. It's one of the classics.

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  5. But you can live your life as though no gods exist and still be a decent person who does decent things, who enters into the social contract with other human beings, doesn't harm them, doesn't even desire to harm them... being without belief in gods doesn't mean you murder or break promises. And having belief in them sure as hell doesn't mean that the followers are making the world a better place. We've had ample evidence of that.

    Acting as though they exist is not faith. Perhaps it is participating in rituals you believe hold absolutely no benefit other than the company of other human beings for a few hours every now and then. Or perhaps it grows into hypocrisy.

    You can't force yourself to believe, plain and simple. Longing to believe does not equal belief.

    I only find any place for myself in what Maelstrom has said, and as a non-theist who is nonetheless drawn to Asatru, I have been reading his thoughts, as I have yours and other Heathen and pagan bloggers. I can see the gods as something else and live that way, and happily participate in rituals and the like, but as supernatural beings, I don't believe it and can't force myself to. No matter how much I'd like to belong.

    Yet, I am still a fairly good person...

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