Belief

It’s a common statement that ADF is all about orthopraxy, not orthodoxy:

Druidic ritual doesn’t follow a set of beliefs: we are not an orthodox (right belief) religion, but a religion that values orthopraxy (right practice). 

We care less about what you believe than about how you demonstrate it. Do you celebrate the High Days? Do you try to honor the ancient customs? Do you honor the Kindreds in ways appropriate to Them?

The trouble—at least for me—is that the preeminence of orthopraxy over orthodoxy without further explanation or exploration can stray dangerously far into Reconstructionism without any kind of theology to back it up. I am part of a religion because I believe, not because I want to dress up in white robes, dance around a fire, and pretend that I believe.

This is my long-promised essay about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The book is arguably a sort of pagan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the journey of Shadow-Baldur as he learns to believe in the gods around him and his own godhead, and eventually becomes worthy of self-sacrifice… and it is, for those who want to see it, an examination of belief and religion.

The following passage really stuck out for me (HERE BE SPOILERS):

     “So I’m dead,” said Shadow. He was getting used to the idea. “Or I’m going to be dead.”
     “We are on our way to the Hall of the Dead. I requested I be the one to come for you.”
     “Why?”
     “You were a hard worker. Why not?”
     “Because…” Shadow marshaled his thoughts. “Because I never believed in you. Because I don’t know much about Egyptian mythology. Because I didn’t expect this. What happened to Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates?”
     The long-beaked white head shook from side to side, gravely. “It doesn’t matter that you didn’t believe in us,” said Mr. Ibis. “We believed in you.”

Shadow says he never believed in the gods… And yet, and yet. He did their bidding. He worked hard for them. He never actively did not believe in them. We’re coming back to that ever-shifting line between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. If we do as if we believe, is that the same as believing? Does it make the gods believe in us until we can have faith in them—and in ourselves?

I’ve always made laughing comments about the fairies, especially to Altus. If he lost his keys, I would tell him the fairies hid them. “But I don’t believe in the fairies,” he would say. I would respond, without really considering what I meant, “Maybe they don’t believe in you, and that’s a far worse thing.” He would argue that if he didn’t believe in them, it didn’t matter if they believed in him, and we’d continue the playful argument until we couldn’t add another layer of disbelief. (“If they don’t believe in you, they don’t believe that you don’t believe that they don’t believe because you don’t believe, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe.” “…what?”)

Gaiman argues that many of the gods exist in America because of our belief. Our ancestors carried the gods with them to American in their belief, and that’s the only reason they exist here. We can also create gods by the act of worship, hence Media and Television, and the fat kid, Internet. Odin needs sacrifice to stay alive. Forgotten gods die.

But is this true? Are we humans so powerful that our belief can create divinity? I’m not sure.

I want to remain in the camp of believers-over-doers, but I honestly don’t know which comes first. I had done little work with Athena, but yesterday, She gave reached out to me. She believed in me, and now I have accepted her gifts, made sacrifice specifically to her, welcomed her into my life, and made her a permanent part of my home. But you could also say that because I already believed in Her, I recognized the gift for what it was, giving Her agency, and I have now made sacrifice to Her, adding to her power. My belief gave Her presence.

The argument could go on and on, round and round. Is there an answer? What do you believe?

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5 thoughts on “Belief

  1. I think that what we believe informs and supports what we do, but that without right action it doesn’t matter what we believe. One thing I like about ADF’s focus on orthopraxy is that we don’t descend into an endless debate about right beliefs as a requirement for membership. It’s a refreshing change from the schismatic Protestant churches who sometimes divide memberships due to interpretation and belief in a single Bible verse.

    So I guess I’m firmly on the side of orthopraxy, at least as a standard of community cohesiveness. I believe that doing things together and doing them in a similar way builds community and relationships.

    • I do see where orthopraxy is a strength, and I appreciate the rights and the strength it gives the individual within the community.

      But sometimes it seems that endless debate IS a requirement for membership… And by that I mean the debate itself, not the subject of the debate. We’re so questioning that sometimes it seems that–outside of the ritual–the questions are the only things that unite us. But as I said to Sanil in the comment below, it seems possible that the questions could divide us, too. Even though we’ve agreed to disagree, the disagreement may weaken our group belief, our “magickal” power of belief, for lack of a better succinct term.

      On the other hand, I agree with you that orthopraxy seems the best way to unite us as a group. There’s constant debate about the umbrella term “Pagan” — we all believe differently, so why are we all called Pagans? So it is nice to have a firm, uniting tie among ADF members.

  2. I always thought the orthopraxy over orthodoxy statement was less about saying belief doesn’t matter or isn’t necessary and more about saying that there aren’t set doctrines about how we have to believe. I think that most of us are here because of some belief in the gods (whatever that may mean to an individual) or at least a belief that acting like they believe is somehow worthwhile, but we probably don’t all have the same ideas about the gods…even if we happen to worship the same ones.

    In terms of whether or not we create gods, I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that it’s entirely based on us, or else the gods probably wouldn’t be very helpful to us, since they would be much less powerful and just a piece of ourselves. However, I think ADF’s liturgy only makes sense if we assume that our belief and worship has some effect on the gods and can lead to new ones being created or changed. The focus on various IE religions and the similarities between them (including similarities between the gods themselves) seems to me to say that they were at one time one religion. But ADF also states that most see the gods as completely separate entities, so while a Norse and Greek god might have a common proto-IE origin, all three are now separate. I see that as people interacting with the gods in a very powerful way that occasionally is enough to split aspects of a god into a new one entirely or even sometimes create new ones where there were none before. It may be that the gods sometimes wish to be “split” this way and influence people to make it work.

    How does that happen and which came first? I have no idea. But for the gods to even bother with us, I tend to think that just as we have something to gain from them in their realm, they have something to gain from us in ours. We’re powerful to them, and it is possible we have some creative (and destructive) power in their world.

    • I guess I didn’t make it too clear that I do get why the orthopraxy versus orthodoxy position exists, and I think it’s a great thing. And I love the ability to argue for my beliefs without being told that I’m flat out wrong.

      But at the same time, I worry that there’s not enough emphasis on the power of belief. I hadn’t thought about your point that the similarities between IE god suggest they all sprang at some point from the same religion. But if belief is so powerful that it can create gods, doesn’t it deserve more careful attention? It seems we tread so delicately around it and work so hard to avoid telling people how to believe, that we often neglect its importance in our religious structure.

      I worry the arguments caused by our plurality of beliefs divide us rather than unite us, and could do the same for the very powers we argue about. Does having so many different beliefs about a given entity weaken its power? Instead of strengthening our existing gods with our belief, are we dividing them by arguing over their aspects?

      I’m not sure. These are all opinions still in development for me, and I do love the chance to politely argue about them (oh, the irony). Thanks for your thoughtful response — you’ve definitely given me more to think about.

      • Those are also very good points…Hmm. I’ve only seen the beliefs divide people in more dogmatic traditions, but I’m sure it’s possible to happen to us as well if we aren’t careful about it. Even if it doesn’t cause any actual schism, it might wind up meaning that we’re a bunch of individuals who use the same name but don’t have real community, which may also be problematic. And the effect that might have on the gods is something else I hadn’t really considered…definitely makes me want to think a little more carefully about what I do and believe!

        Also, I somehow forgot this in my first comment, but I love that book and the way you used it in this post.

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