Atheism, Religion, Spotlight

Why Did You Give Up the Soul?

One July afternoon I stopped believing in the soul.

Why? That’s a question I’ve been dodging.

But not anymore. State of Formation, a project of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, just published my first guest essay, Giving Up the Soul. If it goes well, I may become one of their contributing scholars.

Why did I wait so long to explain myself? I wanted to do it right. This is a big change in my beliefs, and I wanted to make sure I could explain it. I feel that this essay, at that website, is the right place.

So what made up my mind? Find out for yourself and share your thoughts.

(Hint: it was not my grandmother’s death—that came four days later)

I’d like your ideas. Is my reasoning solid? Am I overlooking something? And what does religion-without-souls look like? Please leave a comment—preferably at State of Formation, if you want to make me look good to my new editor—and tell me what you think.


36 thoughts on “Why Did You Give Up the Soul?

  1. Drew, I am not convinced, and it’s not because I am a true believer. I was once a true believer, and I gave up the soul, but I gave it up because of how it was used over me and to manipulate me as a child growing up, that its existence was presumed like my right arm was, and that those who spoke of it seemed to know my own soul better than I. That was the tipping point for me. So, I gave it up along with many other things.

    Over the years, I have allowed for the reality of what I call soul again. More on that, later, maybe.

    Here’s why I am not convinced by your very good essay. Three things are obstacles for me to be convinced.

    First, you conclude that atoms have no consciousness. How do you know?

    Second: you use the scientific theoretical postulation that the aggregate of unconscious atoms creates consciousness. How? That’s a leap without any attempt an an explanation. Perhaps human consciousness is a product of leaving on a planet filled with trees and proximity to trees increases consciousness (and hence, our modern world with fewer and fewer trees results in less human consciousness). If I were to propose this, you would, I think, demand some evidence for how the aggregation of trees on the planet produces human consciousness. If you are going to argue that unconscious atoms do the same, shouldn’t there be at least some attempt at explaining how that happens? Otherwise, it could be any aggregate of anything, couldn’t it?

    Third: you seem to equate soul with consciousness, and so if you can show what causes consciousness, then you have explained away an immaterial soul. It seems to me that you are dangerously close to arguing against something by a near equivalency of it–sort of like defining a word with the word itself, only in reverse.

    In short version, here is what draws me back to “soul” as an appropriate term to use about my self and your self. As I grow and live, I continue to have experiences of self that constantly connect me to a larger sense of meaning. This experience is non-linear. It frequently cannot be explained by the sum of my parts. I have experiences that leave me wondering, long after having given up on such things, about possibly having existed before this life time, about possibly living beyond this life time. I have absolutely no idea if that is ultimately true. “Soul” allows me a way of talking about my self that experiences transcendence, connection, communion, wonder, poetry, art, meaning, significance, and these experiences suggest to me that there is some enduring aspect to me that my body, brain, emotions and human relations are all currently a part of. I have no proof. I am not sure that I need any. “Soul” allows me a way of talking and thinking about this. Will the “soul” that I am endure after my human life ends? I have no idea. I think it could. I think it could not, but that questions does not stop me from finding it a useful way of making sense of my life now.

    Thanks for raising this really, to me, important question.

    • These are fair objections Bob and I’m happy to respond to them. I appreciate the candid and thoughtful way you’ve presented them, and I’ll try to return the same.

      First, you conclude that atoms have no consciousness. How do you know?

      I haven’t concluded that. I used the phrase “lots of tiny unconscious parts” in describing the scientific theory of emergentism, which does generally present matter as not-inherently-conscious. On the other hand, if we assumed that atoms are conscious, would that give us back the soul?

      Not at all.

      The idea you’re implying here is known as panpsychism, the concept that consciousness is a basic attribute of matter and so all particles have a sort of proto-consciousness which adds up to consciousness in complex arrangements. I actually like panpsychism, especially since it allows for the possibility of a passive consciousness in non-neuronal complex systems like, for example, weather patterns. That feels good to me with my history of animism. However, there are some important things to understand about panpsychism.

      First, there is absolutely no evidence that particles are conscious. That isn’t a black mark against the idea — after all, how would we even test for such consciousness? — but we can’t treat it as a strong theory or, really, much of a theory at all. Panpsychism is really just a cool idea (“Hey, what if atoms are conscious?”) lacking any supporting evidence.

      Second, panpsychism is compatible with emergentism and incompatible with the soul. If panpsychism were true — if atoms are conscious in some way — then it just fleshes out our picture of how minds emerge from complex arrangements of matter. It doesn’t suggest in any way that a particular mind, personality, or memory set — such as yours or mine — could survive the destruction of its system (i.e. our brains).

      So I would suggest that whether atoms are conscious has little bearing on the topic.

      Second: you use the scientific theoretical postulation that the aggregate of unconscious atoms creates consciousness. How? That’s a leap without any attempt an an explanation.

      No, it’s a logical step with some pretty good reasoning. Although you’re absolutely right that I didn’t go into it in detail, partly because I’m a non-scientist presenting an essay to a lay audience. And for that exact reason, as I attempt to give more detail here, I ask that you bear with any lack of clarity in my own words and — please — read some of the academic literature on the idea rather than judging its merits on how well I can explain it.

      But here goes.

      There are two things at stake here: is consciousness material? And if so, how do we explain it?

      Before we even get into emergentism (the second question) it’s important to understand that the answer to the first question is yes. It remains yes regardless of how strong or weak our ability to explain the “how.”

      On what evidence? The evidence is, first, that every single thing that exhibits consciousness either has or is a brain; second, that aspects of inner conscious experience can be objectively ascertained simply by observing the brain’s activity; and third, that aspects of consciousness can be altered or even destroyed by damage to (parts of) the brain. This last point is particularly important, because it gets around the objection of animism (“mountains could be conscious and we’d never know it”). We can see consciousness modulate and disappear due to brain damage.

      Our certainty that consciousness arises from the brain is, I would say, high.

      So given that we live in a world where consciousness is neuronal, emergentism is simply an attempt to explain how it works.

      So how does it work? Like an abstraction. Look at a comic strip in a printed newspaper. Look at up close. It’s composed of clusters of tiny color dots. None of these dots contain the story, none of them tell us anything, none of them make us laugh. Looking at the page from 18 inches away, however, you see your favorite characters (or least favorite, if it’s Family Circus) and you receive complex information including artwork and a story.

      That is the best way I’ve seen the “how” of emergentism explained. Our consciousness is an experience that happens at a certain level of abstraction from information.

      Is it proven? No. But there is a 100% correlation between neuronal activity and consciousness. So how does consciousness connect to neuronal activity? The same way that viewing Rogue Priest connects to a million tiny switches in a circuit board. It isn’t a miracle, it’s an aggregate.

      Third: you seem to equate soul with consciousness, and so if you can show what causes consciousness, then you have explained away an immaterial soul.

      In religion the soul is seen as the seat of consciousness and the essence of a person which can survive death. Equating the soul with consciousness is very fair and accurate.

      The word “soul” is also used metaphorically, as is “spirit.” I’ll continue to use phrases like, “the human spirit” or “this music has soul.” We all know what that means and I’m not arguing against that at all.

      But it’s undeniable that most people use “soul” to mean the real them, the spirit inside of their meat body, the thing that will go to heaven or reincarnate or live on in some sense after they are gone. And since consciousness comes from the brain, then “soul” in that sense is impossible. The mind, the person, the subjective experience dies with the body.

      Redefining “soul” can’t change that.

  2. Most of the pre-mystery european worldviews did not have a concept of the soul that would be familiar to how we discuss the soul these days. The Finno-ugric/uralic traditions did have one, and this seems to be the one that influenced the germanics. Greece/Rome did not have one until the 300 BCs, and even then it was not a widespread belief.

    • It varies, but I agree.

      The Greek view of the afterlife seemed to originate with the idea that it was a state of semi-conscious or unconsciousness similar to sleep. The continental Celts supposedly had a doctrine of personal reincarnation and, likewise, there is a word for reincarnation in Old Irish.

      To the extent that any pre-Christian worldview believed a person could continue on after their corporeal death, however, all of these worldviews still (sadly) conflict with what we’re learning about consciousness.

  3. Dave says:

    Can our mental contents be understood apart from their constituent biological processes? Is subjective experience a thing-unto-itself or a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts? The scientific data we have has so far implied that it is neither. Awareness is not really a unified whole but the interactions of mental processes that are indeed reducible to biological substrates.

    Philosophical conjecture regarding the reality of qualia is just that, conjecture. A lot of the controversy surrounding the so called “hard problem” of consciousness hinges upon imagining that because our mental contents seem to constitute a “whole” that that must be the reality of the situation but this is what we call the introspection illusion.

    To understand a scientific theory of human consciousness we need to understand that human consciousness is not “one single thing” but an interactive process. While an apparent whole may seem to emerge from that interaction there is no unified thing unto itself that comes into being as a reality greater than the sum of those processes anymore than there is pixie dust in our veins carrying oxygen to our brains. There is blood, not magic. There are neural correlates to mental processes, there is no qualia.

    Emergentism is no more a scientific concept than intelligent design and like intelligent design it lacks explanatory power. It assumes the existence of a thing unto itself when no such thing can be demonstrated to exist. It then proceeds to attempt to explain other things based on a an indemonstrable starting point. That is NOT science. That is superstition. Qualia, the idea that subjective awareness constitutes a thing unto itself, is a modern conception of the soul for contemporary philosophy of mind.

    Remember my friend, science does not require emotional satisfaction. Science requires treating all data impartially and arriving at the truth as best we can understand it, no matter what that truth my be. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that because subjective experience appears to be a “whole” and because it appears to “emerge” from its constituent process that it is a thing unto itself. Do not abandon reason for madness.

    • Dave, I have mixed feelings toward your response. I’ll try to explain.

      In the beginning of your reply you make the points that just because consciousness corresponds to brain processes does not mean it is without value or meaning (if I am understanding you correctly). You seem to be saying that consciousness is experiential and can’t be appreciated simply by discussing the mechanism behind it. If that is the case I fully agree with you.

      And so do most neuroscientists.

      But it’s important to remember that this experiential, dynamic, amazing process vanishes irreversibly when the brain behind it is destroyed. That is not “superstition,” it is the best educated statement we can make about whether consciousness is material or immaterial. It is, on the weight of all the evidence, material.

      Emergentism is an imperfect attempt to explain the “how” of that educated guess. If you find flaws with emergentism, you’re not alone. But neither do have even the slightest case against the likely fact it tries to explain.

      • Oh, I think you’ve brushed up against something very important.
        “But it’s important to remember that this experiential, dynamic, amazing process vanishes irreversibly when the brain behind it is destroyed. That is not “superstition,” it is the best educated statement we can make about whether consciousness is material or immaterial. It is, on the weight of all the evidence, material.”

        What you are claiming, about the material aspect of consciousness, is a hypothesis–at best–as are all scientific conclusions. There’s nothing wrong with that, any scientific conclusion based on however many objectively done, double blind studies result in hypotheses based on the identified studies. They do not, nor can they, be a final conclusion about anything. At best they say: under these circumstances, we can conclude XYZ.

        You have said that if you destroy the brain, consciousness is gone. That’s a conclusion limited to our current ability to test it. It is not a final conclusion about consciousness itself.

        • Consciousness arises from the brain, and I will be treating that as fact from now on.

          If you feel it’s mistaken, feel free to introduce evidence for the idea of a soul, or point out errors in my own reasoning. But let’s not go down the road where we refuse to accept the obvious, most strongly evidenced explanation.

          • Drew, I have not suggested not accepting the obvious in the situations where it is obvious. This discussion however, is beginning to feel like the stalemate that I find occurring when the scientific process is accepted as trumping all kinds of human knowing. I value science and all that it demonstrates for us, and I understand that it has its limits. We often speak of it as its conclusions are final. I was simply saying that we must remember that it is not capable of those kinds of conclusions. Just yesterday, I heard an old recording of Ghandi where he speaks of “that indefinable mystery that is in all things . . . I can feel it . . .” That’s not science. That’s the human mystic. Mysticism doesn’t explain everything either, but I’m not ready to toss it out the window. I can hold what I learn from science, what I know through mystical experience and what I know from practical, every day activities (good teachers operate this way every day). There is an open-endedness to knowing that I think simply required.

            • Proper science never claims the final answer; it is a continual process of testing, questioning, searching, and testing again.

              Let’s not mistake that openness for evidence that a given theory is wrong. The reason that we need to be open minded is that new evidence could be discovered that challenges established ideas.

              And there is no new evidence for the soul.

      • Dave says:

        “If that is the case I fully agree with you.”

        We are in agreement.

        “It is on the weight of all evidence, material.”

        I completely agree. When you said “emergentism” I thought you meant the philosophical belief that consciousness must be, at least to some degree, immaterial.

        I wasn’t arguing against the scientific theory that consciousness emerges from biological processes. I was trying to argue for it and against the superstition that there must be some element of consciousness which is immaterial. My confusion came from misunderstanding your use of the term “emergentism”, which I have only ever heard used in reference to the belief in immaterial consciousness. While I suppose it is technically possible science has found no evidence for it. Futher, by any scientific definition of consciousness, it is a phenomenon that irreversibly ceases to exist after death, period.

        I think what we have here is a good old fashioned misunderstanding.

        • Yep. Thanks for explaining, Dave. I agree with you 100%.

          I will have to look into the history of the term “emergence” more. In the context of neuroscience I have only seen it applied to a material theory of consciousness, stating that consciousness emerges from complex systems of non-conscious individual parts.

          • Dave says:

            Actually, that’s broadly true of neuroscience in my experience. Indeed, the term “emergence” is used uncontroversially within a wide range of scientific disciplines. I make a strong distinction between “emergence” and “emergentism” however, as I’ve only seen them used incompatibly – though upon reviewing some literature that might not be entirely true, thanks for that insight!

            It is within the philosophy of mind that I have seen “emergentism” (with the -ism on the end) used to denote the belief in, at least an aspect of, consciousness being immaterial in nature. It strikes me as being kind of a greedy holism rooted in an argument from complexity, when you get right down to it. I lean more towards reductionism though.

            But then I’m a scientist and not a philosopher. Speaking of which, I often take it for granted that people know what I’m talking about when I use certain terminology. Fish not seeing the water it swims in and all that. If you’d like me to explain anything else that seems unclear, feel free to ask.

  4. Very good arguments above. I’m going to make some from a different angle, knowing you’re a practicing priest and magician.

    FYI, I happen to be convinced of reincarnation and occasionally entertain the notion that the world is more or less an MMO our “higher selves” are addicted to. As above, so below, right? ;) Patterns repeat.

    Anyway… as I understand it, you believe in the spirits, gods, and ancestors, at least in terms of being a functioning magician. The magician aspect of this is why I’m replying here instead of on the article page, since that page seems to be a more religious sort of place. How can you spirit-journey without a soul? What’s the bloody point of offering to ancestors if they’re just rotting brain matter? What’s a spirit? What’s a god? How do they exist (either independently, or as a repeating meme in human consciousness – and frankly they seem pretty independent to me) if there’s nothing beyond the electrons in your brain bumping uglies? What’s the carrier frequency for magic if not something closely related to having and being part of spirit?

    Also, it seems to me like to fully throw out the idea of being a spirit with an existence beyond the physical – of having a soul – you’d also have to toss out most of what make both spirituality and magic work. And sure, you could still say aspects work – the parts for altering consciousness – but please explain more dramatically physical things like weather working then. Because I’ve seen some pretty damn impressive work on that front more than once, and I think you have too. If you’re going out to dance with the soul of the world, i.e., be a magician, how can you take part if you don’t have the ticket in?

    Looking forward to your response.

    • Kira, imagine I was an astrologer in the 17th century, and I decided that Galileo is correct about the sun, not the earth, being the center of our system. I looked at his observational data and his math and thought long and hard and I realized: he’s right.

      If that were the case, you might well be asking me, “Well how do you still believe in astrology then? You just decided all of your astrology books are wrong!”

      Fast forward 400 years. We still have astrologers. They correctly believe that the sun is in the middle of our system. They have made adjustments.

      My beliefs require adjustment.

      I once conceived of the gods as intelligences dwelling in the forces of nature. But right now our best theory is that consciousness arises from neuronal activity and is lost forever without its neurons. So the intelligences I just depicted are, to say the least, unlikely.

      That doesn’t mean I have to give up worship of the gods. Talking to them is beneficial to me. And it doesn’t mean I have to stop my practice of ritual magic, which seems to get results.

      But, as I’ve been saying for two years now, ritual magic may be purely psychological and divine experiences may be purely subjective. And, most importantly, that’s okay. It doesn’t devalue them.

      My openness on this point has given me, I think, a flexibility to explore new ideas and consider new information, even when other people in my religion find that information upsetting. I don’t view it as “rotting brain matter.” I view it as the most amazing discovery in centuries, one that actually makes our world even more magical and spectacular.

      The truth is that I’m still discovering the many ways in which my new position — my understanding that there is unlikely to be a soul — affects my other long-held beliefs. I am reimagining explanations for the gods I’ve talked to and the spells I’ve cast. I think you have an imagination too. What else might spirit travel be, if it’s not literally ejecting from your body? And if you believe you’ve moved clouds with your mind, does that belief really demand that the clouds were conscious of it?

      Pagans and polytheists need to consider, in a serious and non-dismissive way, the possibility that our new discoveries in neuroscience are correct and meaningful. This may mean giving up cherished beliefs, but we’ve spent the last century heckling (certain) Christians for refusing to accept evolution. Are we going to fail just as hard just because there are voices in stars?

      • This reply is probably going to be a bit sharp, and I want you to know it’s directed purely at these ideas, not at *you*.

        It’s my experience that magicians who start believing magic may all be in their heads end up with horrible cases of self-absorption. Even if it’s true, it makes obnoxious people. Be wary of hubris – you’re getting very certain about some very uncertain things in this argument.

        What I get from your argument is that this new belief has left you with no solid feel for gods, spirits, ancestors, or any working model of how your magic works. In my opinion, that makes it intriguing to explore intellectually but useless and probably rude to actually practice.

        I’m a hard polytheist. I believe in the separate (though connected) and literal existence of gods and spirits, and subscribe to a neo-Platonic/ Hermetic view of how the world works and things come from unbeing into being. Why? Mostly very bad, very painful experiences. Things I’m not going to discount because of a nice modern “theory”. Going out and working with the Otherworld and her inhabitants means you don’t stay at the top of the food chain, and you aren’t invulnerable. I’m not sure you’ve ever been that open to it; so likely you will write that off however keeps you comfortable, and I will continue to be basically polite towards the spirit world, and maintain light wardings wherever I sleep. By the same token, I delight in the presence of the gods and the fae, and I do think it’s extremely rude to dismiss them the way you are doing. I don’t go to them because they’re “useful” – I go because I am a very small part of the universe, and in love with mystery, and something whole and good comes of connecting with them.

        Ok. The neo-Platonic theory of the emergence of reality posits four basic states, which I’m going to liken to solid, liquid, gas, and conceptual states of water. The concept, or spirit, level, basically covers the initial impulse or idea of a thing – the basic need and shape it will take on other levels (and this is where the soul would be home); in this case, I would include everything from the atomic structure of a water molecule to the sort of poetic meanings of water. It percolates into the astral level, which is much like swirling water vapor; patterns form here, thoughts, dreams, and most worked magic, which grows first here and then into the more physical levels of reality. On the etheric, or water-like, layer you have the energy bodies of living things, such as Kirlian photography can detect, as well as (I think) a great plethora of beings native to that state of being. Finally you have our “ice”, physical reality, which tends to be solid and long lasting… except when it fades in and out of the etheric, or the etheric fades in and out of it, accounting for most cryptozoology and “monsters”, not to mention the house fae hiding anything they think is funny until you ransom it back.

        I think, personal theory, that when that happens it’s closely tied to electrons and electricity, and could account for why ghostly apparitions are often accompanied by cold spots (cold is the removal of energy) and the draining of batteries. And so on – a forum reply is far to short a place to go into this.

        Anyway, this model has been used by working magicians since Alexandria was the esoteric center of the Roman Empire, and I’m not going to toss away a working model for something with no working model whatsoever but just a gloss of being stylishly modern. Or whatever. I admire your dedication, Drew, but you always have to believe you KNOW the right way, whether it’s finding yourself a guru, being the guru, or fleeing from the rigidity of the box you’d trapped yourself in so far you need to bike to Brazil.

        Don’t box in the world. Don’t tell it what it has to be. That way doesn’t end well.

        On an unrelated note, you’d probably enjoy Fritjof Capra’s “The Web of Life” a great deal; it talks about systems theory and emergence, and while completely scientific I found it very thought-provoking as a magician.

        • Kira, your reply doesn’t sound sharp. It sounds familiar. I’ve made the same arguments against material consciousness myself, many times, because I really, really wanted to believe in spirits.

          You wrote:

          …magicians who start believing magic may all be in their heads end up with horrible cases of self-absorption. Even if it’s true, it makes obnoxious people… that makes it intriguing to explore intellectually but useless and probably rude to actually practice.

          I read this as: it’s okay to ignore new information if we find it annoying.

          I do not believe that’s okay.

          I won’t even try to explain what I find wrong with that idea. Instead I’ll address your premise: you say naturalist magicians are self-absorbed and obnoxious.

          Why? What makes you think that?

          Is this meant to be compelling — should I believe that a majority of naturalist magicians have social and mental health issues, and that if we interviewed thousands of them that would prove true?

          Or is it just possible that you, Kira Hagen, are annoyed by the ones you’ve met because you dislike their beliefs?

          “I’m a hard polytheist.”

          Which is cool — if you remember that polytheism itself has no doctrinal endorsement of this.

          Polytheism leaves faith up to personal choice. It includes hard polytheists, monists, archetypalists (I think I coined a word there), and agnostics. And these people can come together in joint celebration regardless of having different private beliefs about the gods.

          This is true from ancient Vedic thought to modern Hinduism, from early Greek philosophy to 21st century Kemeticism. There are very, very few things that are common to all polytheist traditions, but the total absence of an enforced doctrine of faith is one of them.

          Because it’s the part that makes it beautiful.

          Be a hard polytheist. Love the gods! If our travels cross, let us make offerings together. Let us revere the gods at their statues, shrines, and magic outdoor places. I will sing to Apollo with tears in my eyes,

          And as I do, I’ll have different thoughts in my head than you do. Why should those thoughts offend you?

          Don’t box in the world. Don’t tell it what it has to be. That way doesn’t end well.

          Exactly. Don’t box in the world by assuming there must be a soul, by assuming your experiences must be accurate. Be open to change, to new information, to being wrong once in a while.

          It’s scary, but it’s hella exciting.

          • When I read what seem to be two opposing positions and an see the truth in both, I am clear that something larger is at work which neither seems able to see. Wow, that makes it sound like I am superior to both, doesn’t it? Not at all. I am not. But, I do witness the truth in both Kira’s and Drew’s positions. I walk these days with Manannan, and he connects things that seem unable to be connected. The currents of the ocean of existence are like that.

            Manannan asks: what truth is your opponent speaking that you don’t want to face? Answer that, and the opposition will appear differently–likely as a wave rolling ashore.

        • Arden says:

          I have a certain respect for your stance, but I do want to point out that believing “it’s all in your head” does not necessarily equate to a purely utilitarian view of spirits/gods/etc. The Jungian model, while flawed and out of date, is the model that gave the non-literal interpretation of spiritual events a solid sort of usable footing, and it INSISTS against this sort of approach (that would be overly “egocentric”). As Lon Duquette said (and has been repeated ad nauseum…) “it’s all in your head, you just don’t know how big your head is.”

          As far as trends in the occult community go, I do understand what you mean. I think you are describing a particular failing of the chaotes here and it’s a legitimate gripe. But the community is moving beyond the chaos paradigm in significant ways imho.

          (I am, for the record, quite agnostic on this issue – I’m not completely sold on the idea that the soul has always meant immateriality full stop, for one thing, and I’ve also heard plenty of good arguments, without the soul at stake, that complicate Drew’s evidence considerably. A few outright argue against the materialist paradigm. But I also see no reason to dismiss the evidence presented here out of hand based on the concerns you mentioned.)

          • Arden says:

            Also, to rant a bit: I wish we’d leave off the notion that one theory or another is the one with the ~real~ mystery and wonder. I seem to hear this all the time in these sort of debates and I don’t feel it gets us anywhere. It’s uncharitable to assume your experience of the world is more profound than anyone else’s. This isn’t aimed at Kira or Drew or anyone in particular, but I see hints of it in these arguments and I think we need to do away with it.

            I feel like either your life is full of mystery and wonder or it isn’t. It’s an experiential thing. There’s a lot to suggest our intellectual beliefs and day-to-day experience don’t necessarily synchronize very well– and on a personal level, for whatever an anecdote is worth, the people with the deepest & most thoughtful engagements with the world can harbor any number of intellectual beliefs on how the world works. Which isn’t to say that discussion of how the world works isn’t vitally important on some level, but I feel like, if you’re prone to finding mystery and wonder, you’re just going to find it somehow, no matter what the state of the universe happens to be.

            • Yes, you’re right. Profundity and enchantment are personal issues and can change day to day anyway. Drew tries on beliefs like some people try on clothes, and I know that. He knows I can be a total bitchy crank, which came out the other night when I was stuck home sick while everyone else was out drinking and setting off fireworks till 6 a.m. He knows that. We know each other face to face and have done a couple circles together. Both of us know the other is open minded and apt to go after experimental things; we just look at these issues from pretty different perspectives.

              Right now I’m kicking myself for giving in to boredom and replying to this thread at all, anyway.

              • Arden says:

                Oh, I didn’t mean to be presumptuous about any judgments you were making about each other. It’s good to have argument sparring partners who understand your bitchy crank moments (or who know you’re just a total contrarian sometimes, in my case). :)

                I just find the tendency to ad hominize an opinion or theory frustrating, and in this debate and others like it that’s an especially pervasive tactic.

              • If you ever wrote a cartoon about us, Kira, I believe I would love watching it.

                I still think a fictionalized version of the Experimental Magic group would make a great video game.

            • Arden, thank you for great points. I absolutely agree that a material theory of mind does not make spirituality purely utilitarian. It is much more than just “useful” or “beneficial” (even though I shorthanded it that way) — it is profound. There is a glimmer of the Infinite in us, and to contemplate it is our heritage.

              I also agree that neither way has a monopoly on wonder. Faith and animism absolutely deliver wonder; they were my source of it for much of my life. I feel it’s important to point out that a materialist view also offers wonder, since people often deny it.

              A more important point, though, might be that wonder isn’t the standard of what to believe. I’d rather believe things likely to be true, and seek my wonder in them as best I can.

              • Arden says:

                “to contemplate it is our heritage” — well put.

                “I’d rather believe things likely to be true, and seek my wonder in them as best I can.”

                And this is of course very respectable, as is your willingness to put your relationship with (for instance) Lugh at stake to a degree.

                But honestly, the important part for me is the experience, not the theory. It may be optimistic but: I don’t believe my relationship with the gods will change in the slightest if I believe them to be literally real or “in my own head” (which wouldn’t even cover it, really? since they’re intersubjective beings, not just subjective ones). Perhaps I’m missing something vital, or only speaking for myself, but.

                • That’s a fair approach.


                  I don’t believe my relationship with the gods will change in the slightest if I believe them to be literally real or “in my own head”

                  I think this is the most important thing for people of both stripes to remember. It doesn’t change or weaken religion either way.

      • I realized I got caught up in my reply and missed a couple points I wanted to make, and moreover, didn’t respond directly to most of your points. (Also I’m home sick and thinking about this too much.)

        First point, that modern science is very good at describing the physical level of reality, in fact excels at it, but personal experience has left me deeply convinced that there is more out there that what materialist science can easily measure or do controlled experiments on, and hence, is willing to acknowledge. It’s the idea that “man is the measure of all things” – well, duh, because he’s the one measuring. (Woman is meanwhile making sure Shit Gets Done.) But he can only measure what he has clear senses to perceive and is able to pin down. What about the quiet things, the sneaky things, the subtle and not easily caught? Well, those become “just superstition”. And because yes, the human mind does shape reality a lot – but not completely – most of those things vanish beyond the borders.

        Anyway, what I’m taking from your responses here, condensed, loosely, is that you see your new belief as more scientific and enlightened than all the ignorant peasants around you who still think the sun revolves around the earth. Only measurable things are real. You deal with gods and spirits because the are “useful” and might be part of your own mind anyway, but have no answer at all about the ancestors. I really don’t see how this attitude can NOT devalue them – it takes them from beings of mystery and wonder to shadows of the psyche.

        I’m not very impressed with most people’s psyches.

        >>>My openness on this point has given me, I think, a flexibility to explore new ideas and consider new information, even when other people in my religion find that information upsetting.<<>>I view it as the most amazing discovery in centuries, one that actually makes our world even more magical and spectacular.<<>>I think you have an imagination too. What else might spirit travel be, if it’s not literally ejecting from your body? And if you believe you’ve moved clouds with your mind, does that belief really demand that the clouds were conscious of it?<<>>>Pagans and polytheists need to consider, in a serious and non-dismissive way….<<<<

        You gave up on paganism. Why are you still trying to tell pagans what to believe?

        So anyway. This has been a fine internet argument but we're probably never going to agree.

        • Kira, you are trying to frame me as looking down on people who believe in the soul. You also mis-represent the claims and goals of science. I’m not going to respond to points like that.

          I’m sorry if I didn’t give you a direct answer about the ancestors. I thought I was clear when I stated that my beliefs are in flux. Certainly, many people love and revere their ancestors without believing in an afterlife. Honoring my ancestors with ritual, words and — most importantly — in my actions remains extremely important to me.

          Pagans are free to believe what they want. Some Pagans agree there is no soul; the flexibility of Paganism to include multiple points of view is one of its great strengths.

          But we’re not really talking about Paganism, we’re talking on a personal level. For you, your subjective experiences are sufficient reason to believe something is objectively real. I no longer share that standard.

          And you’re reacting as if I’m a threat to your beliefs.

          • Can you look in the source code of my comment above and see if the lost text is still there? accounts only let the page owner do this. I was thinking of email quotation conventions, not web, and the brackets may have made my responses invisible – 2/3rds of that post is gone. I’m not dismissing your new beliefs for the reasons you think and I laid them out my reasons at some length, which I really don’t want to type out again as I’m sick of this argument.

            And, threat to my beliefs? No, not particularly. But to many things I hold dear? Yes. For reasons personal, having to do with loved ones not, or no longer, physically incarnate, which I’m not going into as they are only my business; and ones which are practical, even coldly political. Because the things people believe possible, especially perhaps magicians, can make it so – once it exists in the astral levels, it becomes a lot more possible that will trickle down into etheric and physical reality. How many things made up for early Star Trek do we use daily now, that people used to think impossible?

            There’s another side to the issue, and if you’ve read “Against the Galileans” by Julian the Apostate you’ll understand it. The particular dangerous belief hidden in insistence that only brains create consciousness is one Christianity and materialism already embrace, that of a de-souled world, which leaves deserts and polluted wastelands in its wake. People who believe in ensouled nature usually take better care of the environment, because they believe in sustainability and regeneration, not exploitation. Truth? At this point, I think environmental degradation is an issue so desperate I don’t even care if it’s provably true or not, I want people to embrace any belief necessary to save our collective life support systems, because they are so horribly damaged and fragile. So yes, I actually do believe in nature spirits and reincarnation, but I want other people to believe in them too because I don’t see much else that will get people off their butts to protect the wilds which give our planet its lungs and recycling capabilities. As far as I’m concerned, modern paganism has issues, but there’s a seed of caring for nature, because of the gods and spirits who live in stone and wood and hill, which gives it a pass for a lot of nonsense in my book. The implications of your writing here is that you want pagans to abandon that basic saving grace as “outmoded”, and yes, that pisses me off.

            I *don’t* see this as the intellectual exercise you do. It isn’t a game. It’s the issue our ancestors were slaughtered for over a thousand years of Conversion. It’s an issue that touches on the livability of our world and the survivability of the world we give our children. So, sure, I’m over-reacting. But beyond being interesting, beliefs have consequences. I hope you’re thinking about those too.

            • Kira, at your request I did check the source of that comment on my dashboard and, unfortunately, there is no hidden text. My apologies – the WordPress system must have scrapped it as junk code.

              For the record, this is not an intellectual exercise to me, nor did I come to this belief easily.

              I want every person to be free to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. I treat spirituality as a tool for that. But not all religions share that. Some people dedicate huge parts of their lives to rules or practices only on the hope of the afterlife.

              If that reward is impossible – if all they get are the few decades they spent repressing themselves – that’s tragic to the point of horror.

              And it affects people I love. My sister is on year 4 of seven years of privation in a monastery. She’s doing this to build next-life karma (for herself and others). She has given up the violin, her art, her friends and her family to help people reincarnate better.

              I’m not at a point where I’m willing to crusade for this, but I’m willing to ask these questions, and point out this evidence, in the hope that religious people of all stripes will take it seriously and consider the ramifications.

              If the science becomes clearer, in the future I would also consider doing interfaith work to reach out to pastors and clergy who are open to this question.

              It’s something I care very much about.

  5. Oh my. I really am rolling on the floor, laughing my ass off. I’ve pondered your response to me all day, and finally decided to respond back. But, I’ll be damned if I can do any better that Kira. So, what she said! Love it. Bob

  6. Pingback: You Don’t Have to be a Pagan to be an Environmental Steward « Flood

  7. Pingback: You don’t have to be a pagan to be an environmental steward – Bad Vegetarian Eats Corned Beef

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