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Pagans and the Pitfalls of Belief

Pagans and the Pitfalls of Belief


When I was a child, I often browsed through a book my parents owned, given to them by my aunt; a Mormon who lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. The book was entitled: 'The Truth Shall Make You Free'. Although the subject matter is now largely forgotten, the title has remained engraved on my memory. I suspect the reason for that is because the title contained two words that tend to resonate deeply within the human psyche: 'Truth' and 'Free'. I doubt very much that the book came anywhere close to expounding the truth; after all, it promoted a religious ideology. Sceptics insist that no religion or faith system can lay claim to the truth because religious ideologies lack evidence. Consequently, they tend to be based on false premises, which means that the conclusions they draw are most certain to be false.

Sceptics also point out that owing to the foibles of the human mind, probably as a consequence of genetically inherited survival instincts from our distant and tribal ancestors, we are not given to critical thinking. We tend to seek confirmation of our beliefs and are too eager to dismiss or reject evidence that conflicts with them, and often also attack those who offer an alternative view. We are not the rational creatures we think we are. Consequently, psychologists and logicians describe a number of fallacies that humans frequently fall victim to, such as Cognitive Dissonance, the Halo Effect, the Barnum Effect, the Ad Hominem Fallacy, Confirmation Bias, the Ad Populum Fallacy, and many more besides.

It is because of the ease by which the mind can be fooled that science insists on stringent procedures when seeking to establish the truth or otherwise of any given proposition. Science can, of course, be wrong but because it focuses on a continual reviewing of data, it means that when fresh evidence is presented that conclusively refutes the old data, then that which is obsolete is rapidly dispensed with. That is how we make progress. Religious ideology does not conform to such a requirement. Its beliefs are usually set in concrete and if and when a religion does modify or change its stance, it is always because the progress of science has made it untenable for it to remain otherwise.

An example would be the biblical reference to the 'four corners of the earth'. Because the phrase appears in allegedly divinely inspired holy writ, this was proof to the Christian Church for centuries that the earth was flat, a belief that would undoubtedly still be subscribed to and taught by adherents today if science had not provided evidence to the contrary. Rationalists call this dependence on the testimony of scripture the Appeal to Authority Fallacy. But it is an error in thinking not confined to religious writings. Those we consider experts in any particular field or whom we might otherwise hold in high regard - even self-styled gurus or teachers whose ideas may impress us - can lead us into the Appeal to Authority Fallacy.

Some years ago, I engaged in correspondence with the leader of a well-known magical group who, as a result of my disagreeing with a certain point of the tradition's doctrine, accused me of questioning the 'great and the good'. I was clearly guilty of breaking a dogma-based taboo in having done so. I responded by quoting Oscar Wilde: 'Truth in matters of religion is only the opinion that has survived'. There may be many explanations as to why an opinion continues to survive, none of which necessarily might have good reasons for embracing it. At the end of the day, an opinion is merely an opinion and should never be elevated to such a lofty position where it cannot legitimately be challenged. Occult theories therefore, along with religious beliefs, are not evidence-based. But the nature of occultism, however, does generate a degree of mystique because it claims its 'truths' are hidden (or occulted) from the uninitiated or profane.

When one enters any particular group and is exposed to its teachings, then one is usually eager to embrace its ideas and secrets without giving too much thought as to whether they are valid or not. The Halo Effect, along with Confirmation Bias, and perhaps a few other fallacies often come into play and by the time the novice or neophyte has progressed through the various degrees he or she is thoroughly entrenched in the belief system and will defend it at all costs. The same uncritical response applies to belief in deities, which most traditional pagan cultures assumed had factual existence. Nowadays more sophisticated pagans tend to perceive deities as either archetypal or metaphorical in nature or reject them altogether, again because our knowledge and understanding of the world and the universe is far greater than that of our distant ancestors.

Another example where great care should be taken is blindly subscribing to foundation myths. Many foundation myths, for example, were created and generated during the 1970s by feminists, such as the idea that in ancient times peace-loving, matriarchal cultures ruled the roost but were eventually overthrown by aggressive and war-like patriarchal systems, and as a consequence it was all downhill from then on for humanity. It would be true to say that most, if not all, established religions gained their momentum as a result of particular beliefs said to be factual and historical, which most likely are nothing of the kind.  Foundation myths, therefore, serve a specific purpose by providing a movement with a degree of 'credibility' that would be lacking without such myths. If we desire to be honest, however, we would be justified in saying that a foundation myth is simply a euphemism for an untruth.

Whether we believe in a female rather than a male deity, or even no deities at all, we should at least give some thought as to why we subscribe to our views. Christianity, for example, traditionally takes the high moral and theological ground by insisting that it recognises and worships the 'One True God' whereas pagan gods are believed simply to be nothing more than idols. It is true that many ancient pagan cultures created images of their deities, and many modern pagans still do, but when we consider the issue more deeply, we realise that there is no real difference between a metal image and a mental image. One is an object and the other is simply an idea. Investing such an idea with anthropomorphic attributes and claiming it communicates its demands to us seems little more than an expression of spiritual narcissism. We could say, then, that any concept of a god, whether the deity is perceived to be male, female, hermaphrodite, transcendent or immanent, is nothing more than a creation of the human mind.

Having wrestled over the nature of belief and studied its pitfalls for many years does not mean that my own beliefs are necessarily true. All it means is that I do not feel precious about belief systems. The earth might be sacred, but beliefs are not. It is therefore wiser to regard truth as a quest rather than a destination. Many individuals, on the other hand, need intellectual and emotional security and certainty; they would rather embrace the comfort of falsehood than the possible discomfort of truth. You pay your money and take your choice. I do not therefore ask that you share my views - or would I want you to without good reasons for doing so. Only you can decide what to believe, provided such beliefs are based on sound judgement and a respect for critical thinking. In that way, the truth shall make you free.


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