..Or “How to not be an asshole about your beliefs”. (Also, 4/20 haha!) This will be a long blog. I won’t lie. It’s a bit of a rant and applies to a plethora of religious groups. I am more concentrated on the pagan community, so I will be using applicable terms to this. However, if you’re not a pagan, this blog is still useful in understanding people and beliefs.
Just to ease into the process, I will include some common terms in pagan circles. They’re not very popular outside of it. (If you already know the terms, feel free to skip this part! Scroll on to the next part.) That way even a normal reader can gauge my thoughts on this.
UPG [Unverified Personal Gnosis] – This is your subjective spiritual experiences, including information the spirits related to you. It isn’t a “fact”, as we can measure by science. It is an experience that cannot be proved objectively. Say you hear the voice of God telling you to do something. This is not objective reality for people, however. Thus, it is “UPG”.
There is also SPG or ‘shared personal gnosis’ that multiple people, maybe semi-unconnected, have an experience. Likewise, CPG or ‘confirmed personal gnosis’ where you heard a god tell you something that was confirmed in a text you read later from a dead culture. For this blog purpose, we are only using “UPG” and not these other types.
Reconstructionism (Shortened to “recon”) – Various religious groups who try to reconstruct a religion from a dead culture. There are for example, Greek reconstructionists, Canaanite recons, etc. One of the more popular types is “Asatru”, the ones who try to reconstruct the ancient Nordic religion.
The term “UPG” originated from these groups of people to differentiate between historical texts and spiritual experiences.
Eclecticism (Eclectics) – Most common form of paganism today (Neopaganism) where elements from several cultures are combined. Wicca is a good example of this, but eclectic pagans who do not subscribe to any one religion in their practice also exist.
“My belief represents a fact/reality!”
It doesn’t seem to matter what niche group, in paganism, that this attitude comes from, many people love to act completely condescending to people whose beliefs are different. This isn’t exclusive to pagans, Christians with the idea of “one true way” and atheists who believe only science is the answer are guilty of such attitudes, as an example. No group of humans are exempt from this attitude. We love to be right, after all.
However, concerning spirituality, or anything subjective, (Even if you don’t believe in the “supernatural”, this is still relevant.) this attitude is self-defeating and can at times, be harmful. It’s not a good thing to have. It’s dishonest and not respectful of others.
Yes, objective facts can still exist. I could say, you did totally bawl at grandma’s funeral, but I cannot give an accurate telling, in a subjective sense, of what you were feeling like you could. I could write about you “Yes, they were really upset and crying!” but if you wrote honestly about it yourself, your view could be something more of the lines of “They were crocodile tears. I never cared about grandma, anyway.” or maybe “I was saddened, and deeply depressed before she died. But after, I sunk into a deep depression that I hid from my family.”
Do you see how these two subjective experiences were vastly different? But what if you lied about your experiences to others? How do we verify you really felt that way? How do we verify it at all? It therefore, is not honest to claim your beliefs/feelings as facts or objective reality that is applicable to all people.
This is exactly how UPG and beliefs/opinions are. Especially, if you consider gods “feelings”. Hell, that goes for anything under the category of “supernatural”.
We can offer explanations for why people would feel that way…. But again, people lie. Everyone lies. You learn this when you’re an adult. Healthy skepticism is needed when people who claim the world is one way according to a religion or philosophy or life. (etc) In fact, beware of anyone who claims, matter of factly, that this view is the only way and bashes other views.
Peoples’ beliefs/experiences/opinions are ultimately subjective. There is ways to measure claims to see if they happened, there is no way to support the conclusions of others. Say, I got into a car accident and I came out unscathed. But I claimed “angels saved me because I saw them”, this is a conclusion from my mind. Not an objective fact. The only objective fact here was that I was in an accident and I survived. My subjective experience/feeling was that angels helped me live. (Note: This incident never happened, it’s merely an example.)
It is all from the mind!
This brings me to my other point about religious and spiritual beliefs. Gods, spirits, and so forth are “ideas”. The only thing we can prove is that they are ideas and that’s how they exist, both philosophically and scientifically. We cannot prove they literally exist as I do as I am typing this blog up. In fact the existence of such, is the same as proving Spider-Man exists as a literal entity, based on fictional media of him. If anything, there is more evidence to disprove gods, spirits, and the like, then there is to prove them. (Before you get mad, I am an agnostic theist!)
The only “facts” about peoples’ beliefs are what they believe. I.e. Christians believe in Christ. Saying “Christ exists! Everyone needs to be saved by him![objectively]” is an entirely different attitude/statement. One is a statement of belief of what that is an opinion of others without insulting people, the opposite is an attitude that leads to fundamentalism when people start to believe that everyone should also believe in Christ. (Yay, the beginnings of religious violence!)
All the beliefs come from the mind. (Some would say errors of the brain?) Many are based on ideas. (Including political beliefs.) Science is concerned with what can be objectively true and tested. While the “placebo effect”, or when peoples’ beliefs effect their reality, it is still labeled “placebo” for a reason. We either cannot test those beliefs as true or they are not true and work for the people who believe in them. This is how powerful the human mind is. Beliefs can literally effect someone on a negative or positive level. It’s why it’s a good idea to watch out for harmful beliefs people can have and to maintain skepticism.
Why it matters
This is mostly towards the pagan community. But many recons and eclectics I’ve seen do still make the error of making it as if their UPG is fact. Except they don’t state that. Instead they get as fundamentalist as some Abrahamics about it. Especially, if they are questioned on it. (I got the most backlash from those in supposed “religious/divine authority” in recon circles. This gives them, the almost dangerous idea, that they are allowed to rule/control people. ) No one is obligated to believe any claim anyone makes. No matter what circle or community they’re in.
Most Neopagans that make UPG claims, I’ve found, just feel like it’s a personal attack if you don’t believe it or debunk it. I’ve seen many people feel personally attacked because others use science/logic or just straight up find it hard to believe. The more the believer attacks people for their unbelief, the less those people are convinced. I’ve been attacked online for citing that historical records that actually debunk someone’s UPG, while maintaining a completely neutral attitude.
Questioning belief and the source of belief is extremely important and valuable. Concerning the pagan community, most started questioning their beliefs, before finding paganism. I actively encourage criticism this way. (No one is required to agree or believe me, either!) It’s also extremely intellectually dishonest not to state when something is your UPG. Why do you believe it? Where does this belief come from? Those are too imperative questions in life. (Even for self-reflection.) That’s why the scientific method is so useful, science is true even if you do not believe in it!
If you feel a little disheartened by this blog, don’t be. I think UPG is a fantastic, positive thing. For one thing, it promotes diversity. Let’s face it, no one is always going to have the same beliefs or experiences even in the same religion! You can worship the same god and still disagree. But also it helps us learn when we communicate with others, sharing UPG can be a great experience!
I don’t want everyone to think like me, anyway. The world would be boring, that way. Why would you want everyone to believe the same way? Even scientists argue inane details of experiments and have differing conclusions. Sometimes, things are not set in stone. Sometimes, they are.
If it helps, I will leave you with a quote about psychics and spirits vs science. This is more of a philosophical sector of reality, testing, and validity. [Someone came up with this on paganspace, just to add some more food for thought.]
“Precisely, which means it is not an ability that they have.
It’s a sensitivity, or ability to be communicated with by spirits, and it only “works” when spirits decide to tell them something. Thus, they cannot reproduce results at will, as it is not them doing it.
So technically speaking, they are frauds as they do not have the ability to “see”, but are shown what spirits see. At the most gracious, it’s false advertising (though I suspect most really do think it’s their ability). Scientifically, the psychic “sight” does not exist unless it can be reproduced under the same, controlled, conditions time and again.
If we accept that these people are just one-way “walkie talkies” for spirits (as opposed to the shaman, volva, or other evoker of spirits, where the communication is really two-way), then the results can be verified (unless the spirit lies to you). However, it still cannot be scientifically proven, since the conditions for the communication are largely set by the “other side” which cannot be observed, recorded, known or repeated by the scientist, and thus cannot have a scientific proof (or disproof).”
Another thing I will be putting up is a link here to why separating UPG and academics is necessary and why reconstructionism is important. Even if you’re not a recon, you should adapt these strategies when dealing with the pagan community at large. It helps creating a more honest, healthy, and educated environment for us.