Recently I have been thinking, and conversing, a lot about belief. I have been asking around in various online places how people handled points of belief in their practice. There were some very engaging conversations, but for the most part, it turned out that most people didn’t understand what I was talking about. To the majority, or so it appears, their belief seemed to be their religion, or at least, a central part of it.
It isn’t conductive to a discussion when you’re not on the same page. That’s not news. But what I found when I tried talking about belief, was that I wasn’t only “not on the same page”. I was in a wholly different book.
Belief and Certainty
See, here is the thing. What most of us think in, are the basic domains of Certainty vs. Belief. Episteme vs. Doxa. We know this stuff, because this is how we are brought up. We learn to make certain throughout our whole scholar education. Science is concerned with creating certainties. And it works thusly:
Form a hypothesis. From a set of previously established certainties, select the subset relevant to the subject of your hypothesis. On this subset, apply valid methods of inference. The result is an increase certainty. It may also be absolute certainty of the negation of your hypothesis.
This method requires understanding the various concepts about which we try to infer. It therefore requires demarcation, definition, delineation. In episteme, there is no room for ambiguity. We need to be certain what we’re talking about, before we can learn anything about that thing. We need to be able to describe a thing, and when we’ve done that, we stick a shorthand for this description to this thing, also known as labelling it. A label is a shorthand for meaning. It’s a word with a certain unambiguous semantics.
Other words, we think of things in terms of the labels we stick on them. This is not only true for elements of certainty. It’s especially true for beliefs: because in order to move any element from belief to certainty, it must be described to fit the domain of certainty first. We think in these terms. We think in terms of a thing being “this and not that”, even things that we only ever believe.
And this, I think, is one of the reasons why everywhere I asked the question, “How do you handle points of belief in your practice”, the discussion degenerated into a discussion of labels. Some of it was my fault for not having thought this through properly before asking, otherwise I could have countered that degeneration from the start.
But at the time, I was just taken aback by how few people were able to address the question even after I clarified it.
It was in fact a theological error to ever link the sphere of religion to the sphere of belief by ascribing the term “God” (singular but that’s neither here nor there) to “everything that science has not found”. To put it in slightly polemic terms borrowed from Harald Lesch, this leaves us with a tiny, tiny version of God (smaller than 10^-35) that could only ever be even so much as recognised by particle physicists.
Putting aside that the words are meant to provoke, I think they point in the right direction where the problem is. Opposing the world of religion and that of scientific certainty is creating a false dichotomy. Science will yield true results and insights. But in fact because science is sound, it can never yield ALL that is true. This is hard logical, even mathematical fact, not just something I say because I’m religious.
I would like you to forget — for the moment — this construct of categories. Certainty, Belief. I invite you to close that book for a while (it’s not going anywhere), and take a look at things from where I’m standing.
Belief and Experience
To me, belief is peripheral. Yes, belief is a part of my religious life, it’s part of my practice. It is not at the core of my religion, however. My religious life got jumpstarted by experience.
“Yes, but you have to believe the Gods exist, right? That’s a belief, isn’t it?”
This is a tough one, but perhaps it will illustrate why I think how I think. To me, the assertion that the Gods exist is not a belief.
“But you cannot be seriously claiming you know that They exist?!? C’mon, you’re a scientist for fuck’s sake!”
No, I cannot claim that, and in fact I am not. The dichotomy of belief and certainty is in that other book that I asked you to close. So please, would you do that? For me?
To me, the assertion that the Gods exist, is an assumption. I am not required to make this assumption, but I have consciously decided to make it. A working hypothesis. Not a non-thing such as a “belief as opposed to certainty”. I treat the assertion that the Gods exist as a working hypothesis for a reason that I will explain in a moment.
When it comes to my religious practice, I have a multilevel system in place that I have been using, and belief is but one of those levels. (Of course, I didn’t sit down at my desk and planned a system of religious practice for myself. That would be ridiculous, right? I mean who does that? Imagine jotting down the design goals for such a thing…)
Belief, for me, is the first level after mere information. Information is anything that I read or hear of, no matter where. In the context of religion, this comprises the mythology, the wider “lore”, the scholarship, the discussions I have had with friends and other people, even accounts of other people’s personal gnosis. Anything I become aware of, no matter if I agree or disagree, has the status of Information for me. There is no qualifier attached to a piece of information. Its only qualifier is that I am aware of it. Again, information can be anything from an Eddic poem, over a scholarly essay, to someone’s UPG that they shared with me in some capacity.
I start with awareness. I don’t start with a constructed set of certainties and define my religious life as lying outside of that sphere. I start with awareness of mere information, and I move on to belief (or disbelief) from there. Belief, then, is not an end in itself, and in fact it would nullify my whole practice if I stopped at belief. Belief, to me, is something that I am aware of and that I personally hold to be true although I have not experienced it.
To go from Information status up to Belief, the information has to match up with some pre-established “stuff”. Specifically, this “stuff” contains everything that I already either believe or have experienced. The information, in other words, must be in accordance with the contents of the higher levels, with those higher levels being Belief, and higher up still, Experience. If the information doesn’t pass muster, it remains Information. This leaves us with a bootstrapping problem, of course… but that’s a mental exercise rather than a practically relevant problem.
As a matter of fact, there are a number of markers that can push something up into Belief status, or down into Information.
Positive markers are, for instance, matches found higher up the scale. Positive markers can also be academic in nature. For example, if something just “makes a lot of sense intellectually” and I find it convincing, it might become Belief. A positive marker can also consist of trusted individuals believing something. However, I advise against using this too often, because trust can be misplaced, for one, and for another, you do not know how others filter information and whether their system and yours are even compatible.
On the other hand, negative markers also exist. The information could be directly in conflict with my established beliefs or my experiences; or the source of the information may not check out, or the quality of information might be compromised by outside influence (Christian, political, racialist, etcetera), OR the information is highly controversial among scholars, and so on. It is a long, long list of negative markers that I have never put into writing in its entirety. Basically, a negative marker is anything that makes me doubt the information.
To name a couple of examples, let’s look at some information commonly held to be true.
“Sigyn as child bride” for me has Information status. I don’t believe it because it seems unfounded, it doesn’t match up with my own experiences with Her, and outside a certain circle it is mostly unheard of. (Fun exercise: checking so-called peer-corroborated personal gnosis across language barriers. You’d be surprised how little of that matches up).
Another thing that has close to Information status in my book are certain aspects of the lore that are clearly influenced by Christianity. The list, if I were to make one, would be long and complicated; I advise you to read scholarship, and if that is not an option, read essays by people who have. To name an example that is not likely to cause much controversy: the separation of the elves into “dark elves” and “light elves”, for example, is something that came about under Christian influence. There are other parts of the lore, specifically even some concerning Loki and His families, that I do not personally believe, i.e., that have Information status for much the same reason.
After information, there’s what I call Belief; I believe certain things that are in the lore, in scholarship, or even UPG, but without having actual experience of them. Things I believe are a pretty large and widely consistent set. It’s consistent because of the precondition for entering, and it’s large because there is a high, HIGH entry threshold between Belief and the levels above Belief. Nothing goes beyond Belief without first passing Experience.
There’s no specifically set procedure to experience things, but the boundary between belief and experience is nevertheless porous. Experience is what “just happens”. Experience can be different things. For example, being awe-struck by physical reality of a sacred place is an experience. And here’s where the working hypothesis comes into the equation.
Experience is a neither-here-nor-there. It needs interpretation, and the interpretation depends on the underlying assumption, that is, the working hypothesis. So if I assume that the Gods exist, then I may interpret my experience as Them being present in the sacred space. It’s an interpretation based on a hypothesis.
No more, no less.
Experience, Discernment and Quasi-Knowledge
My experience is real, I can measure it using neuroscience. When I experience, I stop believing, because the experience itself is beyond doubt. The Experience state is between Belief and Knowledge, really. And there is Discerned Experience between Experience and Knowledge.
I hope that I can make this quick, but I’m afraid it’s not to be. I’m sorry for being such a wordy practicioner.
Once a belief enters the sphere of experience, it is dragged onto the metaphorical dissecting table. This is important. I don’t stop at experience, either. Experience is the primary building block of my religious practice, with belief forming a preliminary bullshit filter of sorts. But even once I’ve experienced a thing, it doesn’t remain fixed, and here’s why: interpretation errors exist. Frankly, I could, at this point, be wrong about something. Not the experience per se, that is real. But about my interpretation of it.
You see, interpretation may be as simple as the example of interpreting certain emotional and physical sensations as the presence of a God. But for the most part, it isn’t. This is where your devotional relationship comes into the equation, and that is a whole different can of worms.
I am not of the conviction that whenever you have a question, the answer is “Get Divination” (from me, in return for payment). In fact, for the most part, I would advise against divination.
“But why? People always tell me to do divination…?”
Because there is a high probability that divination, at this point, cannot give you what you’re looking for. Most likely, you are by now asking yourself questions like “Is this thing what that experience of mine is?”; “I dreamed this and that, what does it mean?”; “When my computer crashed peculiarly today, was Loki behind it?”; and so on.
What you’re trying to do is to assign a truth value (true, false) to an interpretation of an event. You’re trying to delineate — to create a this-and-not-that kind of label. And this, frankly, is not what divination is for. Basically, you’re trying to compensate for lack of experience.
“But I had an experience, that’s why I’m here in the first place!”
Yes. I know. But you’re trying to skip the next ten steps.
And those are: testing your interpretations for consistency with ALL of your experiences. Past ones, and equally importantly, future ones. I can only advise you to do this very thoroughly, and very carefully. Use a journal to note down your experiences. You’ll need those notes at a later point.
I cannot stress this enough: you are going to need time. You’re going to need time, and you’re going to have to work on establishing, maintaining, and developing your devotional practice. Give the Gods something to work with. You need familiarity with Their modes of communication, in order to do this work. You need to practice perceiving Them.
Discernment is not a question of hearing whether that voice in your head came from outside or from inside, or from the left vs the right side. Fun fact: some people hear the Gods as internal voices. So, just… don’t fall into the trap of wanting a simple answer and an algorithm to discern whether the voice you think you just heard proposed marriage or if it was your own wishful thinking. Self-monitoring is useful, don’t get me wrong. You can actually learn what makes you tick, which in turn is useful to distinguish between you and not-you.
But this distinction, at some point in a mystic relationship, becomes complicated. Not — absolutely not — in the sense that you will somehow become the Deity, but in the sense that the Deity will begin to be present in your life, every single day. They will be a huge influence on your own energy. They will begin to permeate you. And this is why just “listening for the direction that thought came from” is not useful on the long run.
This thing, whatever else this is, is a very long run.
At some point, the validation status of your experience gets reinforced so much that you might begin calling it knowledge. I usually avoid this, but this is because my intellectual definition of knowledge is very strict, and it belongs in that other book that we closed half an hour ago.
In my experience, others are less strict in this regard, which is okay and it’s their right to be as strict or lenient as they are comfortable with. I will say that it has led to a lot of agonising on my part in the past, but most of that is connected to me looking for answers in the wrong book.
If one’s goal is a more practical definition of knowledge, then I would indeed say that a set of experiences, if they are consistent and if they repeat — note I’m not saying they must be repeatable — then they will be incorporated into one’s life to such a degree that they have very real, palpable consequences in your life. For all practical intents an purposes, these are experiences that have almost knowledge status. They have the same practical consequences as they’d have if they actually were knowledge.
On the real-ness of the Gods: you may have noticed that I never even went there. Why? Because if you base your religious practice on experience and use discernment, the question is moot. You cannot even end up in a place where They’re not real; everything you do with Them is founded in your experience and that is real.
On the what-ness of the Gods: you may also have noticed that I never went there, either. Why not? Because it becomes IRRELEVANT if your starting point is what you experience instead of what you know. I care fuck-all if people see the Gods as less separate than I do, or less personal. If your experience implies that the Gods are more glued together into a huge Divinity thing *waves hands*, then that’s none of my freaking business. It has no bearing on my practice, because what others experience is not what I experience. By trying to look at Them from an elevated, bird-eye perspective, by trying to define Them, we’re just complicating things unnecessarily. That’s not how They work. Please, let’s let Them work.