On Religion and Choice

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Gent said in his comment on my last post. He asked whether I think people choose their religions or if religions choose people, and then mused a bit about “true” beliefs–those things which lie under all of the religious trappings that morph throughout our lifetimes.

And to specifically answer his question: I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. I don’t think religions choose people or people choose religions, but rather something more like a person’s experiences as a whole interact with that person and their beliefs to try to find cohesion.

Take, for example, Gent. I happen to know that he was raised by a Christian mother and a father interested in various Eastern spiritual systems. Without going into too much detail about him, he “inherited” a respect for God from his mother and a respect for nature and a certain open-mindedness from his father. When he and I started dating, I was still a Christian, though a questioning and somewhat heretical one. And once he got past all the trappings about my paganism, we found that our “true beliefs” are really quite clearly in line with one another, even though he is a Christian and I am a pagan.

I suppose I can further dilute that: these “true beliefs” he’s discussing transcend religious boundaries. And I’m not saying this in the way a lot of people say things in this category. I am not saying that all religions are ultimately the same. I am not saying that the true beliefs are necessarily even similar from one religion to another. What I am saying is that these true beliefs are not necessarily tied to one religion or another.

For an example: there is a place for mysticism in every religion, and if, at your core, your true beliefs lead you to mysticism, there is a place for that no matter what religious trappings you overlay on them. If you tend toward fundamentalism or booky learning, there is a place for that in every religion as well. If, like Gent and I, you are a nature lover with a strong aesthetic sense and receive great joy from physicality, there is a place for that in whatever religion you choose. In some religions, these sorts of factions are easier or harder to find. I left Christianity largely because its trappings made my search for aesthetics, my love of the body, and my passion for nature feel incorrect given my tendency toward mysticism, given that Christian mysticism tends toward seeking a transcendence from the body rather than a radical alignment with the body. However, Davin tends more toward the airy intellectualisms, thinking more in abstracts than in concrete examples, and so he is able to justify his belief in Jesus and alignment with Christianity with his own “true beliefs.”

In my last post I was sharing the way that my “true beliefs” carried over from my Christian days to my pagan days. And there are more than my aesthetic sense featuring nature. I’m sure I’ve even shared some other ones here before–that I used to believe that going to heaven had more to do with gratitude and finding ways to be happy than with avoiding sin, that I used to hide in a cupboard and believe I would come out transformed like a butterfly, that I have always known I have psychic tendencies. Things like that. The outer trappings of my faith has remained the same, but the sum total of my experiences has found cohesion with this pseudo-eclectic worship of Freyja, Holda, Sif, the vast beauty of the cosmos, the woman praying in the Eagle Nebula, the unfolding rolling of time into newness. Gent found cohesion with his Christianity that believes that God doesn’t actually want every human ever to be his follower.

In some senses, this is a strangely modern question. Of course this question can only be asked in a society predicated on individualism wherein religious conversions are common enough. In most places and times on earth, your religion chooses you because it is a fact of your birth. I spent years trying to reconcile Christianity with my true beliefs because I was born to Christian parents. Davin is able to be open-minded about largely because his father wasn’t a Christian. But it is only in the modern day, when information is ripe for the picking and children are taught to be themselves that a culture of converts is even possible. The last time most people’s families converted was when Christianity or Islam came rushing into their territory, demanding that people convert or die. These days those lines are so much more fluid, and we have religious freedom to believe what we want.

And so in a sense, the fact that conversion are even possible is one of this society’s most deeply held “true beliefs.” Underneath all of the conversation about who is what religion and why and for how long is an assumption that religious freedom gives us an individual choice, usually with the implication that there is some wrong or right choice. Whether that implication comes about because people believe they have the only true way, as is common among the Religions of the Book, or because people believe they have their true way and so should everyone else, as is common among pagans.

Pagans love to talk about how there can’t really be a definition of us because they are all either too vague or too specific. And yes, that’s true. Any attempt to define paganism will probably leave out or offend someone. But I am going to offer mine: Modern pagans are people who believe most fervently in an individual’s religious freedoms. Modern pagans believe that the choice to follow your own heart’s or mind’s or soul’s connections with the greater spiritual words is best made while listening inward and doing what feels or seems right.

Let me share some examples and counter-examples. The easiest one would be the eclectics among us, who choose deities and myths and concepts and techniques that work for them, regardless (or regarding and nevertheless finding cohesion) of where and when these ideas come from. Eclectics choose their religious trappings the most casually of any group. I do not mean casually as careless, mind you. It is simply much easier to change your mind about interacting with the deities and spirits ad concepts of a particular culture if you already have ties to others. And they choose these trappings because their true beliefs are that religion is about individuality, about listening to the self and finding inner truth.

It’s a bit harder to say that other groups, like reconstructionists, can be defined by their core belief that religion is a personal choice. Reconstructionists talk a lot about following tradition and ancestors and what’s correct and what’s incorrect. But even so, they have chosen to look past at least a thousand years of ancestry and choose that specific ancestry. They have overlooked their Christian ancestors and their Christian ancestors’ traditions in favor of one much further back because those traditions ring more truly to them. Instead of choosing specifics from here and there, they take on an entire package that seems truer to them, that encompasses ideals they wish society had, and ultimately, that choice is their own.

Modern pagans hearken back with their modern beliefs about individuality and choose religious trappings from bygone eras in which religion was much less about choice and more about familial and spatial bonds. But we do it because we are looking for the deeper truths of our inner natures.

Many pagans, like me, feel that they “came home” when they found paganism, or say that they didn’t convert. But this is something Christians also say. That coming home feeling is not because paganism is necessarily inherently more natural (though I do believe that polytheism is more like the actual human psyche), but because it is the place where a specific person finds the place where their entire life experiences, and their selves find cohesion.

And so, no, I do not think we choose our religions or that our religions choose us. Our journeys into our selves and into the distant past are journeys in search of wholeness, a place where the outer trappings of our religion are just the right size for us to nestle our true beliefs into.

2 thoughts on “On Religion and Choice

  1. Great post…and so very thought provoking…but I think your final paragraph sums it all up quite nicely. It is the journey…the path…that is important…however we may or may not choose to define it or ourselves. All the rest is simply the varied tools/trappings which we use to communicate (what we’ve learned or are struggling to learn) to ourselves, others and the universe.

  2. There is a higher way and it is not about punishment and damnation. I feel in religion people set up these alarms, but they are all only about security and power. The higher way transcends these tensions, anxieties and conflicts and flows into acceptance and love for all.

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