The more pagan blogs I read, the more I realize there are a lot of different opinions out there about what it means to be pagan, who is ‘right’, who is ‘wrong’, where we are going as a community, where we should be going, where we shouldn’t be going, and so on and so forth.
I read all of these opinions, and all I see is human nature taking its course. Perhaps it is because I have done too much source work and am looking at it from a macro instead of microcosm, but inevitably all of this comes down to the nature of human beings to discuss, theorize and to disagree. Every spiritual movement has to go through this and every spiritual movement is going to be strengthened or weakened because of it.
The argument du jour that I seem to be getting a lot of posts is whether or not pagans/heathens must also be theists. Instead of theorizing on which way is right here (many people have already given their opinions already, mine is mine and it is acceptable to me). I want to discuss reasons why we have so many opinions. I think if we start really discussing why the ‘shields come up’ when we hear something that is different to what we believe, then perhaps we will start recognizing what really happens to us subconsciously when we hear something that doesn’t feel right or goes against our belief system.
Differences in opinion take us out of our comfort zone
I work for a medical device manufacturer. In my day to day job I work with engineers that need to propose changes to a device to make it work better. Every once in a while an engineer will propose a new way to test something, or a new tweak to a device that will allow our customers to use it better. After I start working with that engineer on how to verify the change will work, I inevitably get some sort of push back from the quality team on the proposal. 90% of the time, the rationale for the push back is something along the lines of “we have never done that before so we can’t change it.”
Because the change is unprecedented, I think it could sometimes look as the proposal is just downright not possible. In fact, some might think it is downright scary. How will we validate it? What will our customers think? Can we even do it and still stay within the guidelines and regulations for medical devices? Inevitably, the engineer and I investigate further, and most of the time find a reason why it does work and implement the modification.
The same type of scenario happens in religion. Only in religion and belief, the stakes are way higher. Our beliefs are our comfort zone; they are just as close to our hearts as our morals, and sometimes even more so. So when someone comes in and even makes a statement that contradicts what you hold most dear, it is uncomfortable. Here is this precious thing that you have held onto; this lifejacket that has gotten you through trials and problems, and now someone is saying it might not be right? That is scary. That is dangerous. That challenge is enough to start a war.
Acceptance of a different idea than what you believe is hard. Seriously HARD. But to accept something doesn’t mean that you agree with the point. All acceptance says is that you respect the difference of opinion. For me, when I cannot fathom accepting something, I use the term “agree to disagree.” At least with that term I am saying that the person has the right to think differently, even though I cannot understand why they have that belief in the first place.
Differences in opinion mean we aren’t as inclusive as we want to be, or mean that we shouldn’t be
It is human nature to want to be included. It is so ingrained in our psyche that some people prey on this need in attempts to get us to do certain things, act a certain way and believe how they do. We fear being left behind if we start to have a feeling about how something else might work better. I say from experience (and I am certain others believe the same as I do) when I say that it is very hard to strike out on your own, and choose a belief that is different from families, friends and even from your coworkers.
On the other side of the coin, being pushed out of your group is also hard. Yet in world history, it happened often, and it is some of the reasons why have the diversity we see today in our systems of belief. Diversity is not a bad thing; but it feels like it should be if the belief system that someone holds so dear – their system that keeps them inclusive with others in their group or community – is challenged. It’s scary if for some reason you feel like you are not included anymore.
Many pagan organizations exist that have a specific theology. And then a split happens, and another organization is formed due to that split. I’ve seen this happen countless times. Now I’m not saying that splits are not necessary for other reasons, but we have to be willing to look within ourselves and find the true answer to why the split happened in the first place. Does it need to happen for the good of the organization, or is it something that might challenge our exclusivity? If you don’t follow me, here is an analogy that might help – Are we “picking up toys” because we are mad, or are we truly going to create a different type of sandbox that our toys might be better utilized for?
Differences in opinion activate our defense mechanisms
There is a big use of the acronym “UPG” when discussing another’s belief system. UPG stands for Unverified Personal Gnosis. It basically means that someone’s personal insights about religion are not verified by someone else, nor documented in historical documentation about that particular religion or God/Goddess. It seems to me it is not just thrown around as a label for a hypothesis that someone has, but also as a shield against trying to learn something new. It’s like some people feel that if something is UPG, it is therefore something they don’t have to think or feel about. I’ve seen people do that with other words too; words like “stupid”, “wrong” and “ridiculous”.
Whether or not the belief comes from lore or not isn’t the point. The point is that it is human nature to classify something in order to move it out of the reality that it may indeed challenge us. To some, if something is “UPG” it is therefore not acceptable to them to even consider. UPG is equal to “wrong”, “outside of something I have to think about”, or for some people, equal to the word “stupid”.
I’m not saying that any of the things that I have talked about here are the right way, nor am I saying they are the wrong way. What I want to get across is that there are psychological reasons to why we act as we do when we hear something that doesn’t fit our belief system. We as a community need to recognize that. We as a community also need to work to be more understanding of different viewpoints. And at the very least, we need to learn to respectfully agree to disagree. Because in the end we all go on our own personal spiritual way, and that is all that truly matters.