Why I don’t believe in them
Carolyn, Sept 2004
When I was first introduced to neopaganism years ago, it seemed to open many doors to me: the reality of polytheism, the possibility of magic, and perhaps most of all, the power and wisdom inherent within myself. Each one of these was a radical departure from conventional modern assumptions: of course the ancients were just primitives with unsophisticated theological ideas, magic is deception and illusion, and power and wisdom are best gained through much time, experience and learning from others. Neopaganism challenges the status quo, and offers a radical new approach to religion, and also how knowledge can be gotten.
And today, I only accept one of these things, that being the reality of polytheism. It’s the only one of these that has been proven true to me through research, careful consideration, time and experience. The ancients were responsible for theology far more sophisticated than Victorian historians gave them credit for. But I’m not here to defend polytheism now – rather to explain why these other things fell into discredit with me.
In my own experience using and learning about magic (having been a practicing Wiccan for about 10 years in the past), it is conveniently subjective. What Apollonius said of it in the 1st Cent. C.E. is still true today:
“For athletes resort to this art, just as do all who have to undergo a contest in their eagerness to win; and although it contributes nothing to their success, nevertheless these unfortunate people, after winning by mere chance as they generally do, rob themselves of the credit and attribute it to this art of wizardry. Nor does any amount of failure in their enterprises shake their faith in it, they merely say such things as this: “If I had only offered this sacrifice or that, if I had only burnt that perfume in place of another, I should not have failed to win.”
I myself have done ‘spells’ and ‘raised power’ for various things in my past. Of course one is always taught that magic works in the most natural way possible, so if you are performing a spell, be sure to also work for your goal in ‘mundane’ ways too. Apply for that job, and then work your spell. When the job is yours, do you have magic to thank or your other efforts? And if the spell only provided confidence, that does not support the reality of magic.
My former coven used to brag that they had never raised energy for something that did not come true. That’s a pretty big statement. But the things they asked for were things like: “May John’s operation go safely,” “May Elsie get that job she is interviewing for,” or “May Joe’s parents come to accept him more.” Any of these things could happen naturally, in the course of time, and through the efforts of doctors, Elsie’s interview, or the compassion of Joe’s family. Reducing any ‘success’ in these matters to a matter of a properly conducted spell is actually quite insulting to the real efforts of the other people involved. As Apollonius said, an athlete that wins a game has won because of either chance or because they have trained well and are skilled at their sport. To reduce their victory to a successful spell insults all the hours they spent in practice, building muscle, learning strategy and bravely facing their opponent.
The same is doubly true in the case of medicine! To presume that five minutes of feel-good ‘spellwork’ is more responsible for success than 8 years of medical school is just ludicrous. In all the magic I’ve seen and participated in, I can think of no example that defies this explanation, that the perceived ‘success’ could easily have happened through other means.
But people still believe that it works – and also tend to believe that their ‘success’ is inherent proof. I chalk that up to the placebo effect, until proven otherwise. Wishful thinking is a powerful thing.
In my introduction to the religion of Wicca, I was taught that deep inside myself, I have all the answers. I contain the Truth within me, as does everyone. And what’s more: I can attain this wisdom easily, just by trusting my instincts. This is a central tenet of mysticism: that the human being is divine in itself, that Truth and divinity are both attainable through the right methods. This is a very self-gratifying way of thinking, obviously. To accept that each one of us actually knows everything (on some level) and has direct access to divinity seems like a classic, even if erroneous, wish-fulfilment fantasy. And it also means that time does not have to be wasted listening to the challenging and different ideas of other people – one can simply sit in contemplation and find the Truth within.
The kind of thinking this theory provokes is that of – at once – listening very hard for the Truth inside, letting go of self-doubt, and applying doubt to any outside source (especially those that are not self-proclaimed mystics). If I were a blunt person, I might say it’s a case of checking your brain at the door. This way of thinking rejects logic and rationality in favour of spontaneous impulses and intuition. In fact, it argues that any intuitive thought is actually occurring for a higher purpose, hence the greater trust in it. The logical [sic] conclusion to this reasoning is that intuition comes either directly from the Gods, or from a ‘higher self’ which is directly connected to all-wise divinity. Hence, those who take a mystical approach tend to find a divine reason for every spiritual insight or experience, and also find within it a personal and direct connection with the divine.
This is the approach of many of those who take on ‘patron deities’. If I had a dream about a God, there could be a whole variety of reasons for it. Perhaps in my dream this God is really a symbol in my mind – say, Aphrodite may appear to represent love or irresistible attraction. Or perhaps it has a religious meaning – I may actually be, in the back of my mind, contemplating the divinity of Aphrodite. Maybe on some level, I have only just been able to really ‘get’ Her, in an artistic sense – a realization that comes in a flash or a dream. But a mystic would interpret such a dream as a direct personal link to Aphrodite – a calling from Her to them. For the mystic, the Gods literally recruit people to worship Them, by reaching into their minds, appearing directly before them, and even sending messages and instructions. With such an apparently close connection, a person feels not only that this deity must be their personal ‘patron’, but also that they really don’t have a choice in the matter – because it was the divine that contacted them, to begin with. And who are they to question the will of the Gods?
But I think the average person would naturally have a bit of doubt upon having such an experience. ‘Did that really happen? Am I crazy?’ In fact, most people would probably not see their experience in such mystical terms to begin with, realizing it was just their own perception they’ve experienced. But certain people have these sudden insights or dreams and automatically interpret them in this gnostic, mystical fashion – as a direct communication with the divine. These people must have already been exposed to the mystic way of thinking, and taught to use it. This is most likely to happen these days among neopagans (the majority are mystics), but can also happen in other ecstatic or mystical religions, including some forms of Christianity.
The wish-fulfillment of this is pretty obvious: to be singled out by a God, hand-picked as it were, certainly gets rid of any doubt one might have about being right or wrong. Suddenly a person is absolved of any doubt about whether they are right in their choices, a good person, or pleasing in their actions to the Gods. And being able to say, “I was told x by a God” means never having to show your sources – if people believe you. And beyond these more obvious motives, when people collectively decide that this is the right approach to religion, they reinforce each other. One person can share these self-gratifying experiences with another, and receive validation for it, if that other person is just as needy to have their ‘mystical experience’ validated. As a social construct, mysticism supports itself in this way, and also recruits. Newcomers to a religion with a mystical contingent are immediately told how to develop this close, personal relationship with God(s), and how to put their faith in personal intuitions, and interpret even the most mundane events as possible communications from Gods – intended specifically for them.
Without validation from others that their perceptions of a direct, divine communication is real, a person may more easily question this reality. But amongst other mystics, this questioning is viewed as questioning the reality of the Gods themselves – in other words, heresy or impiety. To a mystic, this gnostic/mystic way of interpreting religion is the only language they have to understand it. It is their religion. To them, true religion is about creating this close, personal relationship with God(s).
But I contend that this is not the aim of traditional Greek religion. Aeschylus says “For Zeus’ desire is hard to trace: it shines everywhere, even in gloom, together with fortune obscure to mortal men.” We do not have the wisdom or understanding of Zeus. The Delphic Maxims say “Know yourself” – know that you are not a God yourself, but a mortal with imperfect perceptions and abilities. The Gods have Their own place in the universe, and we are alotted ours. To rebel against this cosmic order is to defy the Fates, which we are incapable of doing.
In Homer (and in the Homeric Hymns), men do not know when they are being affected by Gods, even when the Gods are indeed directly in front of them. Only ‘divine Odysseus’ (as he is called by Homer) has knowledge of Athena’s aid, a testament to his true heroic nature. But not all men are heroes – that is what sets the hero apart is his greatness compared to most men.
In the myth of the birth of Dionysos, when Semele tricks Zeus into showing His true nature to her, she is consumed in flames and dies. That is because we mortals can not comprehend the true nature of the Gods, nor could we withstand any direct encounter with one. Whenever the Gods directly intervene in a mortal’s life in Greek myth, that mortal’s life is strewn into chaos – because the Gods are not like us, and we mortals are already fated to suffer and die. Our fate is known to the Gods, but not the other way around.
We can not see with Their eyes, or know with Their wisdom. The only chance of that is perhaps after death, which I say because what comes after death is uncertain to us while we live. What is certain to us is that the Gods have given us arete, virtue, to strive for. We can have faith in the Gods, but we can never claim to truly know Them. Such a claim is hubristic, and speaks only of a tragic desire to be more than mortal.