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.