Saturday, October 4, 2008

What is my religion?

My recent posts on the elements of religion and not taking religion too literally lay the groundwork for the more difficult question of what is my religion. I'll frame this discussion using the elements identified in my earlier post.

Culture: I live in a Christian culture. Although my Christian culture views pagans as evil and has spent centuries trying to eradicate paganism, elements of paganism are actually still entrenched in my culture. We see them in Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and May Day traditions, and in the names of our months and days of the week. We also see paganism in our culture's fantasy novels. As someone who reads fantasy novels, I am accustomed to finding paganism in most of the fiction I read.

I grew up Quaker, not all my life, but from mid-childhood through college. There's also a less obvious, but more powerful way that Quakerism influenced me. My values were influenced by how my mother raised me. My mother's values were influenced by the way her mother raised her. My mother's mother was brought up in a Quaker family. Even though my mother was not raised Quaker, she was raised with Quaker values, because she was raised with her mother's values, and she passed those values on to me. Transmission of values through my family is what made me feel instinctively that certain things are right or wrong. The education provided by Quakerism is what gave me a conceptual framework to understand the meaning of these values.

Theology: I am a universalist. I believe that there is some indescribable something that is too abstract for us to understand directly. Religions are different ways humans have of making something concrete which helps us glimpse that which is abstract. Religions are human constructions and susceptible to corruption. As I've written in two recent posts, the way they often go wrong is that people believe the religion is the end itself, and they become devoted to the religion rather than using the religion as a telescope to see what is beyond. To me, this is idolatry.

Some people would call me a nontheistic. I don't believe in the reality of an anthropomorphized God or gods. I do believe that these anthropomorphized gods can be a part of what I described as "making something concrete which helps us glimpse that which is abstract." But the idea that there really are actually beings who control what happens, appear to us in visions, or send us signs, is just not true in my belief system.

However, I don't think of myself as a nontheistic. Talk of God makes sense to me, it's just that my conception of God is different. What I believe in is a sort of magic (but not really magic) sense of connection between everything. It makes sense to me when Christians say, "God is love." What I believe in is described in Joe Crookston's "Sylvan Song." Here is just a part of the lyrics:

It's in the blooming of an orchid
It's in a baby when she smiles
It's in the sugar of a maple
And in the silence of a hawk
It's in your mother and your father

It's also expressed in the concept of "ambient magic" in Tamora Pierce's Circle books. In these books, magic can be found in everyday objects and chores, and can be accessed through meditation, as well as through connecting with other people.

I don't literally believe in magic, any more than I literally believe in a God who talks to people and controls things. When people say, "It was God's will," or "Leave it in God's hands," it makes sense to me because I understand it metaphorically rather than literally. I don't think there is an actual dude doing things. What it means is that there are times when we have to accept that there are forces at work in the universe beyond our control. These forces are not gods deciding how things out to be. These forces are things like the free will of a billion individuals, and the laws of physics.

The sense of magic, or sense of connectedness, is a state of mind, it's something that exists in our neurons. We evolved to have a sense of spirituality because having it helps us work cooperatively with our fellow humans and helps us use the earth in a sustainable way. Because we evolved to have a sense of spirituality, we feel healthier and make better choices when we nurture that sense of spirituality. However, there is diversity among humans. If someone does not have a sense of spirituality, then there may be no benefit for that person to be religious.

There are people who see everything in black and white and who think everything must be logical and rational. To these people, religion does not make sense. These people would say that I am a fuzzy thinker because I say I believe in a magical spirit pervading the world, yet I also say it's all just an illusion in our neurons. Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice was an important work because it made the case that those viewed as fuzzy thinkers by dichotomous thinkers are not necessarily less intelligent. In my opinion, reality is complex and no one can fully understand it, but those who come closest are those whose brains are big enough to hold ideas which seem inconsistent with each other. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn says that scientists work assuming that a certain model is true. A scientific revolution occurs when a better model is found. The fact that these models keep changing shows that our current understanding may not be a perfect representation of reality. However, Kuhn has found that research done under one model results in findings that are still useful under a new model. Moreover, science is able to make more progress working under a model than working without a model, even if the model is eventually proven to be flawed. I think that's why seemingly contradictory ideas can both be valuable. The two ideas come from two different models. Neither model is a perfect representation of all of reality, but both models are useful in helping us get closer to understanding reality.

What religion am I? I've found three religions that have some commonality with my theology and culture: Quakerism, Unitarian Universalism, and neo-paganism. All of them fit my culture in some way, but let's take a closer look at the extent to which each fits my theology, values, and rituals.


The fundamental belief in Quakerism is that there is that of God in everyone. That fits with my theology. However, Quakerism overall tends to be more Christian-oriented than I am. There are Quaker universalists and Quaker pagans, so perhaps I'd find my niche with them.

Quakerism is the strongest fit with me for values. Sometimes with Unitarian Universalism and neo-paganism, I note that some value that I hold strongly is absent. People in these traditions may agree that it's a good value to have, but they just don't hold it strongly as a core of their religion the way the Quakers do.

Quakers fail to inspire me when it comes to rituals.

Unitarian Universalism

My theology is consistent with the UU seven principles and six sources. However, I feel they don't represent my values as strongly as Quakerism does. I think they do better with rituals than Quakers, but there is still something lacking when it comes to rituals.


I have firsthand experience with Quakers and UUs, but I mostly know about paganism only through reading. Whether dealing with Christians or pagans, I want a religious community that doesn't take things too literally. Some pagans believe in weird stuff, just like some Christians believe that we got into this mess because a talking snake convinced a woman to eat an apple. But there is room in paganism for many different beliefs, and some beliefs are more consistent with mine. My concept of God as being a spirit of magic and connectedness seems to fit with paganism. I like the way pagans are close to nature. I like that their holidays are based in the passing of the seasons. Their rituals do appeal to me in a way that Quaker and UU rituals don't. I like their values, but still feel that Quakers are the strongest match for my values. I think I need to get some more experience with pagans to find out how compatible they are with me in terms of theology, values, and rituals.


I need to get more experience with paganism before I can really come to a conclusion. I currently think that many things about paganism will fit me, but Quakerism seems to be the strongest fit for my values. There is such a thing as Quaker pagans, so maybe the answer to the question "what is my religion?" is Quaker pagan.

Perhaps many people find it hard to find a religion that matches them in theology, culture, values, and ritual. I get the impression that many people attend church to get the ritual, but don't agree with the theology of the church offering the ritual. It seems that our mainstream religions haven't kept pace with science. According to Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, it's time for a new reformation.

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