Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The girl who kicked the hornets nest (again), part 2

Yesterday, I posted part one of a small series concerning John Halstead's fantastic post over at The Allergic Pagan, and will write part three tomorrow. I wrote about John's post and my reply to him yesterday, and will now move on to one of the replies that caught my attention, written by Humanistic Paganism's writer, B. T. Newberg, another Pagan whose work I follow. While our paths differ to the extreme, Mr. Newberg is a wonderfully skilled writer, and what he says makes a lot of sense, even if it's not applicable to my religious view of the world. I'm going to go ahead and copy his words into this message, but if you have not read the original post, it would be wise to do that before delving into this one.

"I have nothing against Elani Temperance – she seems like a nice person and all from all that I’ve read from her – but yes, her style of Paganism is 100% antithetical to anything I could possibly endorse with a clear conscience. Avoiding the kind of faith she describes here was the number one reason I was attracted to Paganism in the first place. Alas, the trend is in the direction she describes (even if she is an extreme example at present).

It seems to me there are two major things that determine whether a religious traditions proliferates or dies out in a culture. On the one hand, it must appeal to people on an individual level. On the other hand, at the group level, it must be an evolutionarily fit competitor in the cultural environment. Alternative movements do well at the individual level, appealing to those alienating from the current dominant religious paradigms. However, for an alternative movement to grow and spread, it must eventually acquire the traits that make it a fit to compete with the dominant paradigms on a larger scale. I am beginning to fear that faith, specifically Elani’s style of faith, may be one of those traits.

There are three reasons for this. First, the cognitive dissonance produced by believing something is true, that you know deep down cannot possibly be true, generates a fantastic amount of creative energy. As believers struggle to justify their beliefs to themselves, they become ever more active in justifying it to others, speaking out with great zeal, and thus spreading the beliefs further. This causes the movement to grow. This effect was first discovered in the 50′s studying how cults whose doomsday predictions failed actually *grew* due to the increased zeal afforded by the cognitive dissonance. So, the more radically unjustifiable a faith belief is, the more creative energy it generates. Elani’s style of faith is quite radical, and you can see a correspondingly prolific output from her in posts at Pagan Square.

The second reason is that this same zeal and conviction is fantastically persuasive. People rarely decide who to trust based on rational reasons. More often than not, they go for gut reasons, and one of those reasons is the sense that someone in your in-group really, truly believe what they are saying. By repressing their doubts as fully as possible, people with Elani’s style of faith become powerfully persuasive. And the more they demonstrate their sincerity and conviction, through speaking and especially through costly displays such as time, effort, and money spent on devotions that could have no motive in the absence of true belief, the more persuasive they become. Thus, this style of belief tends to spread through the population.

The third reason is the necessity of a group having an efficient way to bond themselves together and encourage cooperative effort. The idea of a supernormal being watching over everyone and rewarding prosocial virtues, a being that really is real in the most literal sense, is fantastically efficient at doing this. Particular faith beliefs, i.e. belief in Thor rather than Allah, is too arbitrary to convince outgroups, so it makes an effective boundary marker between ingroup and outgroup, and thus bonds the ingroup together. Meanwhile, cooperativeness within the ingroup is encouraged by rewards for prosocial behavior doled out by the supernormal being, who sees *even your thoughts* (this discourages deceptive behavior).

I am starting to suspect that these may be the most important “active ingredients” in large-scale religions, i.e. the essential elements that make it competitive at the group level. Almost all world religions have more nuanced and reasonable versions, even naturalistic ones, but the crucial observation here is that these versions are always proportionately small, and never exist in the absence of a much larger population of more radical “true” believers. Theravada Buddhist monks could not exist without the much larger population of lay Buddhists who take it on faith that the good karma generated by supporting monks will allow them to become monks themselves in the next life. Philosophical Daoists are similarly dwarfed by the much larger community of superstitious and magical Daoists, and philosophical Jnana-yoga Hindus are eclipsed the more numerous devotional Bakhti-yoga Hindus. If this pattern holds true, less faith-based versions of Paganism, including naturalistic versions, might only survive by attaching themselves to a growing movement of faith-based, more devotional Pagans. Perhaps the only alternative may be to start over again with a different new alternative movement, which will in turn become more faith-based as it grows over time, necessitating yet another alternative movement, and so on through the ages."

Mr. Newberg then went on to offer an amendment to his reply:

"Ugh. I was rushed in the last comment, and upon re-reading, I see it’s not only riddled with grammatical errors but also some statements that are just plain wrong. Apologies. Let me be the first to critique myself.

>Almost all world religions have more nuanced and reasonable versions [than faith-based]

That’s plain wrong. Many faith-based folk hold beliefs that are nuanced and reasonable (in the sense of being internally consistent), and Elani’s work in particular is both. What I should have said is less faith-based. Nuance and reasonability shouldn’t even be part of the conversation.

>the cognitive dissonance produced by believing something is true, that you know deep down cannot possibly be true

That’s also an untenable statement. No one can know what another person “knows deep down.” Rather, cognitive dissonance is between two internalized beliefs that are in conflict. The conflict is uncomfortable, producing an urge to resolve the discomfort by finding a way to disarm the contradiction. It may show up when concrete evidence contradicts a prior held belief, such as when the world does not in fact end on the prophesied day, and such prophets typically find some error to explain why their previous prediction was false but their *new* prediction is assuredly true. To the extent that those who hold radical faith-based beliefs encounter evidence that makes it difficult to maintain that belief, cognitive dissonance generates creative energy toward justifying the belief and explaining away evidence to the contrary. One example might be Elani’s anecdote about leaving home without an umbrella after making offerings to Zeus the Thunderer, asking that it not rain. Whether it rains or not, an explanation is ready at hand: either Zeus prevented the rain, or she deserved to get rained on. The underlying belief that Zeus controls the rain is neatly insulated from contradiction by the resulting evidence (raining or not), forestalling an uncomfortable confrontation between two conflicting beliefs.

I also want to reiterate that I don’t mean to disparage Elani as a person. I’ve read a lot of her work, and she is thorough, intelligent, sincere, and knows her stuff. My comments are about the style of faith she adopts."

I think Mr. Newberg makes a few very valid comments upon my religious choices. While I doubt that a more structured religious movement within Paganism will be the end of Paganism, I also think that the Traditions based upon religious commonalities will outlast the ones without them, simply because there is some 'glue' missing. This is not to say that religion is be be-all and end-all of Paganism!

I think I view the label of 'Paganism' in a less... homogeneous way than Mr. Newberg views it. To me, all the different paths are only linked in name, not practice. What happens in one, will have little to no baring on all the others. If a single Tradition becomes too big or starts stretching the label too badly, that movement will start declaring itself independent from it, leaving the base of Paganism intact. You already see this happening in the Asatru and druid communities, as well as Mr. Newberg's own humanistic movement. The label starts to hold a movement back, so the group leaves.

I get the feeling Mr. Newberg feels threatened by the religious nature of my Tradition. In the part that is about me as a person and writer, he seems to force a type of subconscious evangelizing upon my person and writing. As I wrote yesterday, this is not my intent, and I always try to make that clear when I offer my opinion on this blog. As a side note, it seems Mr. Newberg has read only my PaganSquare blogs and thus assumed that is all I write. For those unaware, what I post at PaganSquare is only about a third of all blog posts I write; two or three a week, out of the seven. If he found the amount of posts on PaganSquare prolific, I shudder to think what he will think of this.

Moving away from me, and back to large-scale religions, Mr. Newberg makes a few very good points about the formation of a community, although I feel he would ascribe the term 'cult' to it. I also get the feeling he sees all these results of religion as negatives, where I view them as positives. A solid community, shared gnosis, etc. are all things I long for in my life, and which I would be very happy to help found. In this way, Mr. Newberg is absolutely right in recognizing my 'radicality'.

I must make a note of the very Abrahamic idea of a supernormal being watching over everyone and rewarding prosocial virtues; the Theoi (besides, arguably, Hēlios and Apollon), are not all-seeing. The whole reason of taking proper, ritualistic, steps, is to ensure you have attracted the notice of the Theoi before you sacrifice and pray to Them. Within Hellenismos there is--or should not be--fear of the Theoi watching your every move; not even the ancient Hellenes believed that. Free will and a clear mind are highly important within Hellenismos. The conscious choice to live ethically is as much a form of dedication as it is a way to bind the community.

I love Mr. Newberg's thoughts on the cognitive dissonance theory in relation to faith. In a way, he is absolutely right, especially in his amended version of it. That's the crux of faith; I say Zeus controls the weather, and no matter what, I will find a divine sign in the situation that follows. I call this a good thing, Mr. Newberg does not. My whole world is colored by the 'divine brush'; when it gets light out, I see the fair Eos riding out of the sky gates, in front of Apollon and Helios. I see things that happen unexpectedly as divine signs, and when the universe seems to conspire against something happening, I'm going to assume my misfortune was either cause by a breach of kharis, or because something simply was not meant to happen for me; divine guidance to where I was supposed to be. Usually, when some event eventually does happen, it enriches my life in a way that it would otherwise not have.

An example: an acquaintance of my girlfriend is a masseuse. My girlfriend wanted to gift me with a massage, so she tried to set up an appointment with the woman, which somehow fell apart. Lack of time, too busy, minor reasons that all added up to a postponed meeting on the Winter Solstice, the day Little Witch magazine came out. Because of the Solstice, we were both more attuned to our Traditions--Hellenismos for me, shamanism for her--although we did not know the other was some form of Pagan when we met. Within seconds of meeting each other, we were discussing religion and life, and we provided each other with answers to questions we had been looking for a long time. We became instant friends, and will be meeting again soon to talk more.

What happened with my friend could just have likely happened on the day we were supposed to meet, but I hadn't finished Little Witch yet, then, and that was the entry point of our deep conversation. It was also a special day because of the solstice, so were were more ready to accept the wondrous. These synchronicities are everywhere in my life, and so much more so since I took up practicing Hellenismos. To me, this is a blessing. To Mr. Newberg... I am not sure, but I doubt he would feel as inspired by these events as I always am. To me, that seems a shame, but I can see Mr. Newberg is very happy in his Tradition, so who am I to wish anything different for him?

I have no problem at all with organized religion, and it may very well be that--even within my religious field--I am radical. I don't like the term, as it's been mutilated by the fear of terrorism, but at its base, it applies. For now, anyway. If Mr. Newberg's assessments are right, faith-based practice may soon overshadow non-faith-based practice within Paganism. As I have explained, I doubt this is going to happen, but he is right in saying there is a certain trend towards it from a hand full of vocal Pagans, myself included, although I would never assume the whole of Paganism should adopt religion. What's the point in that? I also don't feel Paganism should unite into a single Tradition in order to claim our space within the spiritual and religious landscapes. As the differences between Mr. Newberg's vision and mine illustrate perfectly, trying to form a single Tradition out of the beauty of different paths seems folly and impossible. Thankfully.

B. T. Newberg and I view the world decidedly differently, and I am very happy about that. It works for us, we are happy with what we do and how we do it. In psychological terms, the pay-off is worth the effort and that is why we do what we do, in the way that we do it. That's why a living creature does anything. So once more, I must thank the wonderful Mr. Newberg for his reply, and the thoughts it has provoked.


humanisticpaganism.com said...

Wow, Elani, one thing I have to say - you take criticism well. I admire that, and hope I can do the same.

>I get the feeling Mr. Newberg feels threatened by the religious nature of my Tradition.

Yes, I admit to feeling threatened, not by the religious nature of the Tradition but specifically by the style of faith you described as yours: "When the gods say jump, I say how high." The implication there that is scary to me is it seems to suggest that since the gods are wiser than you, their requests ought to take priority over your personal moral judgment (let me know if I've got that wrong). I think it is natural to feel a certain fear when someone says they are placing something you personally does not believe exists ahead of their own best judgment. So, yes, I admit to feeling threatened by that.

>he seems to force a type of subconscious evangelizing upon my person and writing

I admit that too.

>I must make a note of the very Abrahamic idea of a supernormal being watching over everyone and rewarding prosocial virtues; the Theoi (besides, arguably, Hēlios and Apollo), are not all-seeing.

The theoi are not technically omniscient in the Classic monotheist sense, yes, but doesn't much of ancient Greek literature suggest an attitude that they are always at least potentially watching over any given action of yours? I mean, the epics and tragedies were filled with cases where acts of hubris big and small were observed and punished. And the plays of Euripides in particular are shot through with people exclaiming
"the gods exist!" whenever someone gets their just desserts, and the opposite when they don't, suggesting that human moral behavior is always potentially being monitored and liable to reward/punishment. That would be enough to elicit the effect I described, encouraging prosocial values and discouraging deception, even if the theoi are not technically omniscient in the full sense.

So, anyway, thank you for this opportunity to disagree so... pleasantly. I apologize for insensitivity in some of my words.

Elani Temperance said...

Thank you for your comment. I value your opinion, and relish any chance to dig deeper into my own believes and views on Paganism. As for criticism; your views on my practice are more a reflection on you than on my practice, so how could I possibly take offense? You have been eloquent and civil throughout your replies, and I appreciate that very much.

I certainly understand that you would worry about anyone who places authority in the hands of something you do not feel exists. That way, it might seem that moral and ethical choices can be passed off to a third party who could also 'take the blame'. The Christian Devil comes to mind.

I think part of our contradictory views come from our morals. Yours clearly differ from mine. While serving the Theoi is one of my major ethical baselines, yours might be your individuality. Because of this, our views do not align, and will most likely never align.

So, in a way, you are right; because the Gods are wiser than I am (or, better, have insight into the world I do not have), their requests take priority. Yet, because my personal moral judgement is to go with the will of the Gods, there is no discrepancy between the two.

Of course, I also have my own morals, many of which are in line with the morals of the ancient Hellens. I know you don't know me, but I'm a good, intelligent, and balanced person, and I'm not about to start a holy war or commit murder. At all.

Classical literature suggests that the Theoi judge those They have Their eyes on, mostly those who are descendent from the Theoi themselves. Once the eye of the Gods is upon you, and They offer Their aid on a specific quest or project, there is a chance They check in on your on occassion--and there are those, especial Goddesses like Nemesis--who will not let you out of their sights once Their eyes are upon you, but all in all, the Theoi have better things to do than keep an eye on loads of individuals.

I'm not sure if, for you, this would still trigger the reward/punishment system, but there it is.

Thank you for your thoughts and words. No apologies needed; I have enjoyed this discussion very much.

Ali said...

I only just got home from traveling for the winter holidays visiting family, and so I was only just now able to catch up on John's post and all of these various replies. I wanted to say thanks for continuing the conversation. I wasn't familiar with your writing and John's brief quote was the first I'd heard of it -- I mention that, because I have some questions that I'd love to hear your thoughts on and, if you've already addressed them elsewhere in your prolific blog, even just a list of links of your past writing on the subject would be awesome. :)

Firstly, I was really struck by how you consistently equated a very specific kind of asymmetrical faith-based approach to religion with religion and/or organized tradition in general. B.T. touched on this already when he pointed out that it wasn't the religiousness of your approach that was threatening to him, but the more specific *kind* of faith you described. I was wondering if you could elaborate on why you don't think that other approaches (which may or may not include the kind of asymmetrical faith you have) are "religious" or "organized." You seem to suggest that traditions without asymmetrical relationship lack structure, cohesion, "solid community, shared gnosis, etc." For instance, right after quoting B.T.'s comment, you say:

"While I doubt that a more structured religious movement within Paganism will be the end of Paganism, I also think that the Traditions based upon religious commonalities will outlast the ones without them, simply because there is some 'glue' missing."

Because you seem to be equating "religion" with *your* particular approach to faith, it sounds a lot like you're saying that the only way to have an organized religious tradition is to place an asymmetrical relationship with the gods, in which the gods hold the power and authority, at the center of one's religious life. But it seems to me that we have many, many examples of long-lasting religious traditions that do not at all include your view of faith as inherently or necessarily asymmetrical. Is that what you meant to say, or have I misunderstood your point here?

Ali said...

Another point that intrigues me, that you didn't really get into in this post but that I'd love to hear more about, is the exact nature of how you listen to your gods. That is, how this asymmetrical relationship with them actually manifests for you. Your example of the synchronicity of the conversation with the masseuse is interesting, but it doesn't sound like anything different from the experiences someone might have if they had a more equal relationship with their god(s), or even someone who didn't believe in or have a relationship with any god(s) at all.

I left this comment on John's original post, and I'll reshare it here because I think it has some bearing:

"Maybe I'm just not special enough to be on any god’s mailing list — but I’m rarely on the receiving end of so obvious or direct a message from the gods that it includes how high I need to jump or which bridge I should be jumping from. My spiritual life is much more an on-going process of deep listening to a complex web of urges, attractions, distractions and repulsions, the various sources of which are just as often in the natural world around me or in my own psyche as in some externalized god-form. I might sometimes talk about my relationship with my gods in terms of “messages” or guidance or inspiration, but it’s almost always metaphorical, not literal.

It seems like for Elani, and others, it's hubris to question the instructions of the gods. For me, it seems deeply arrogant to be too eager to attribute our various impulses to some external deity, to clothe our instincts or intuitions in the finery of divine inspiration as a way of elevating or ennobling them. It seems hubris to act on our assumptions that we are receiving and hearing such messages correctly, without first turning a very careful and critical eye on all of the ways our own desires, assumptions and projections might be biasing us.

Which is not to say that I don’t believe there is some transcendent divine reality that transcends not only our individual selves, but also our human and more-than-human/natural communities as well. But determining what influence that transcendent divinity has on our lives has, for me, always been an exercise in retrospective contemplation, where the patterns of coincidence and chance resolve into a coherent and beautiful melody even when, at the time, I was only ever bumbling along doing my best to tease out the signal from the noise."

I guess my question for you is, how does an asymmetrical relationship with the gods help you to "tease out the signal from the noise"? If you believe that your deities really are real, external beings separate from yourself, then how do you guard against attributing your own desires and biases to them? In other words, how do you avoid making your gods "in your own image"? What process of discernment do you use to distinguish authentic communications from your deities from your own projections or sentimental imaginings? And what are those authentic communications actually like?

Sorry to bombard you with so many questions. I find this conversation really intriguing, and I hope you'll have a chance to explore some of these issues. Thanks for being willing to share and open yourself up to criticism.

Elani Temperance said...

Ali, thank you for your questions. I'm going to try to answer them as logically as I can, but a large part of my practice is not based on logic. Faith, on principle, lacks a certain logic, but that has never held me back from having it. As such, this reply might fall short of the mark when it comes to clarification. English is not my first language, so please do not hesitate to ask further questions if anything is unclear.

It is true that religion in general, to me, always has a foundation in one or more asymmetrical relationships. Although the level of asymmetricallity varies within Traditions, and even more so within individual practitioners, the very nature of the Gods (as non-human, and often more powerful) disallows symmetricallity. A case could be made for a (more) symmetrical practice when the Gods are seen in a dualistic or soft-polytheistic light, but as that practice is so far removed from mine, I am hardly qualified to argue it. I may be overlooking Traditions, though, or we might view certain Traditions (or words) differently. If so, I would ask for some examples of symmetrical religious Traditions.

Note, by the way, that I'm not talking about spiritual practice/pantheism/etc. when arguing this point. As for 'why I don't think that other approaches [than mine] are 'religious' or 'organized''; this is untrue. My statement was made in reply to B.T.'s disposition on whether a religious tradition proliferates or dies out in a culture. I agreed with him in saying that the Traditions based upon religious commonalities will outlast the ones without them because of their ability to compete with the dominant paradigms within the religious landscape. This has nothing to do with non-religious Traditions in Paganism, and my statement had no value judgment attached to it at all.

I know many witches, shamanists, and druids, who not only are not religious but for whom the Gods play no part in their practice at all. While their personal practice is structured, and their covens and groves are very well organized, their Tradition extends only so far as the people they come in contact with. For example; the witch-friends I have are from the same Tradition, and thus think roughly the same about the nature of magick and the ethical guidelines upon which the use of it is built. Looking around on-line, I see many witches who--in theory--would fit in with their Tradition but whose views upon magick and magickal ethics differs so much, it is hard to make general statements about 'witches'. My point was that, while witchcraft will undoubtedly survive, the entire movement is liable to change so much over time, the entire movement may become unrecognizable from the current practice. Within religious Traditions, you have the 'bonus' of shared mythology and a few pillars. While the movement is liable to change, certain basics will always remain to tie practitioners together. As such, surviving intact as a Tradition is easier through the years.

Elani Temperance said...

I understand your viewpoint on my perceived arrogance in attributing signs to Deity that They might not have send at all. Like John answered, this seems to come down to a difference of perspective. For me, misinterpreting the will of the Gods is usually followed by--what I perceive as--bad omens. After appeasement, these signs go away. For me, this means Divine intervention in my life. For those who do not believe, this is me placating my psyche with rituals. Perspective, I guess.

As for listening to my Gods; I have written before on this blog (see link 1 below), that I do not hear the voices of the Gods. I never have. From that post:

"I have come to rely on a certain gut feeling that is impossible to describe. It feels a little like someone puts a hand on your neck and lower back at the same time and pinches. I spoke about the feeling in my post about synchronicity, and those times, I definitely feel that presence. Due to that feeling, I also know exactly which of my divinations and meditations are Divinely inspired."

I sound pretty certain about this, don't I? Well, usually I am, but there are times when I have doubts and ask/wait for more signs. And yes, there are times when I worry I'm just listening to the inner sock puppets. The longer I practice, the less I doubt, though. For me, that's a good sign, for others--perhaps--a bad sign.

I think, for me, teasing out the Divine from the sock puppets is largely dependent on the type of message received. If I actively search for signs, I'm very skeptical. If I do receive a sign, I rarely just take it on faith unless I know there is historical precedence (dogs barking for Hekate, for example), and even then, I need to be very sure of my feelings and the signs before I accept them as Divine, not because I doubt the Gods, but I doubt my own interpretation of their signs. The classics are full of Divine signs and people who knew how to read them; being able to do so was considered Divine gift in and of itself. That having been said, signs that come upon me unbidden, I accept more readily. I wasn't (consciously) looking out for those, so it's easier.

I don't think my highly asymmetrical practice 'adds' any more clarity to my communication with the Theoi. It's a personal choice, not mandatory for Hellenismos, but which makes me feel like I am doing the most for Them. It doesn't make me special, more privileged, or in any way more 'valuable' for the Them. In fact, I agree with you when you say that ' it doesn't sound like anything different from the experiences someone might have if they had a more equal relationship with their god(s), or even someone who didn't believe in or have a relationship with any god(s) at all.' It just works for me. As such, I won't be offering 'readings' of the will of the Gods for anyone in the (near) future. For myself, I feel I have a grip on the signs I get, but I would never presume that extended to others as well.

I hope I have answered all of your questions, and that it makes sense. If not, or if I missed some questions, do not hesitate to comment again. I'll get to them ASAP.

1. http://baringtheaegis.blogspot.nl/2012/10/hearing-voices-of-gods.html

helmsinepu said...

Excellent. I linked to several of your posts on this chain, as well as John Halstead's on kemetic recon. I hope it prompts some discussions in that bunch as well.


Elani Temperance said...

Thank you, Helmsinepu. I am aware my replies were very Hellenismos-centered; as it was my post John referenced, it was only logical for me to do so. I'm glad to see you have offered your perspective. John means very well, and this discussion has been enlightening. I hope it continues to be so.

Ali said...

I know it's been a little while since you responded to my questions, Elani (holiday stuff and travel kept me from responding until now!), but I just wanted to stop by and say thanks for your responses. You've given me a great deal to think about, and while I think that we still disagree about some basic things, I really appreciate you helping me get some more insight into your beliefs and practices.