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Practice begets belief: An interview with Rev. Michael J Dangler, Druid

January 22, 2012
Rev. Michael J Dangler

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Contemporary Paganism is quietly hiding a revolutionary feature: it emphasizes practice over belief.  In other words, shared participation in ritual activity is considered more important than shared doctrine.  The term for this is orthopraxy, as opposed to orthodoxy, and it’s what allows a polytheist, a pantheist, and an atheist to come together around the same altar without a fistfight.

To learn more about this peculiarity, I interview Reverend Michael J Dangler, ordained priest of the Neopagan Druid organization Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF).

“What is the relationship between practice and belief?” I ask.

“Practice begets belief,” he answers.

This is a radical statement.  Most of us are accustomed to thinking that belief ought to beget practice: Why do ritual if you don’t believe in it?

What this standard view misses is the power of outward human activity to mold and transform the self.  Our beliefs are based on our experiences, and only through experience – through doing – do beliefs emerge.  Thus, Michael says (to paraphrase):

“It almost always feels like going through the motions at first, but the more you do it, the more the practice comes to reflect the beliefs that emerge.”

What’s key here is that the beliefs that emerge are not predetermined, and are always open to revision.  ADF enshrines non-dogma as a core value, and beliefs are entirely up to the individual.  How you interpret your experience is your business.

While the majority in ADF are probably polytheists, there is variety.  I’ve even heard a former Archdruid joke, “I’m a Monday-Wednesday theist, and a Tuesday-Thursday atheist.”

This is a radically different approach to spirituality than the traditional dogma of Abrahamic religions.  It may be more consistent with democracy, insofar as what matters first and foremost is that you vote, not who you vote for.  It may also be more consistent with science, insofar as what matters most is that you employ good scientific method, not that you start with a particular theory.

In view of these considerations, I believe orthopraxy may have powerful implications for the Western religious landscape.

Find out what Rev. Michael J Dangler has to say about it in this audio interview.

Here’s what’s in store:

  1. We introduce our paths.
  2. We share stories of experiences illustrating the relationship of practice and belief.
  3. We speculate on what the modern Pagan emphasis on practice over belief may contribute to the religious landscape

The author

Rev. Michael J Dangler

Rev. Michael J Dangler has been an  Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) member for over 10 years. He is currently an ADF Senior Priest and a Grove Priest of Three Cranes Grove, ADF, in Columbus, OH. He currently serves as the ADF Clergy Council Preceptor, overseeing all formal clergy and initiate study within ADF. His academic background is in history and religious studies, and he has written several books on Druidry for ADF. His personal webpage is at http://www.chronarchy.com/

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31 Comments
  1. January 22, 2012 7:52 am

    Thank you, B. T. Newberg: the interview experience was a lot of fun, and I feel very privileged to have met you (after knowing you online for what, 5 years?) :)

    I think that it’s important that we recognize that the practices that we have, regardless of our beliefs, can (as you rightly point out) prevent fistfights at the altar. Often, it is our common practice, not our common beliefs, that give us our greatest identity.

    • January 22, 2012 8:51 am

      The pleasure was all mine. Thanks again for agreeing to this interview!

  2. January 22, 2012 10:22 am

    Sounds promising! Is there anyway I can download this audio?

  3. Trent Fowler permalink
    January 22, 2012 10:55 am

    I like that I’m always getting a vocabulary lesson here. Today I gained a new word, “Orthopraxy”, to describe a situation in which shared ritual takes precedent over shared belief. Good stuff.

    “It may also be more consistent with science, insofar as what matters most is that you employ good scientific method, not that you start with a particular theory.”

    This passage was interesting, as I hadn’t thought of ritual as being something like an experiment before. But I guess it kind of is. Buddha encouraged anyone who was interested to try meditative techniques and verify that they produced the results he said they did. Maybe this could be broadened to include all ritual as a replicable series of activities which reliably produce the ability to produce and navigate conscious states.

    • January 22, 2012 4:48 pm

      >Maybe this could be broadened to include all ritual as a replicable series of activities which reliably produce the ability to produce and navigate conscious states.

      It really could. What hinders common rituals from being good science is not something inherent in the activity, but vague intentions and vague ideas of what qualify as positive results, IMO. Often the intention of a ritual is just to “honor” the beings or season mentioned in it, and “results” can be anything from interesting coincidences that happen, like candles blowing out at certain times, to vague feelings of positive emotion. This is certainly fine for most occasions. But if a person wants to actually find something out about how the mind or the universe works through ritual, refining ideas about intentions and results could be the way to do it.

      >Buddha encouraged anyone who was interested to try meditative techniques and verify that they produced the results he said they did.

      Yep. Buddha could’ve been a scientist. :-) One caveat would be that we must beware of priming ourselves to see what we expect to see (self-fulfiling prophecy). Often meditative traditions give beginners extensive instruction on what they can expect to happen in meditation, then say “but don’t trust me, go see for yourself.” Then you meditate till you get the desired result, which may very well happen mainly because you were told to expect it, thus your imagination produces it. Actually, I think there’s a whole lot in meditative traditions that are not just self-fulfilling prophecy, but I’m just saying we have to watch out for this and take it into account.

      • January 23, 2012 5:04 am

        One of the magical systems that seems most like science to me is chaos magic, a results-based sort of magical theory, which really is about learning how to leverage the practices and assumptions of various religions and spiritual systems to see how well they work in a repeatable, somewhat cold fashion. Heck, there are chaotes who have come up with mathematical equations that govern magic. Chaotes entirely ignore non-results-based ritual (so, rituals done with no point other than to honor the deities) in most cases. Their view on the place of belief is that you should be willing and able to switch beliefs as needed in order to run the experiment you wish to run.

        For more information on chaos magic, the best online resource is the Chaos Matrix, if you find yourself interested.

        • January 23, 2012 9:56 am

          Interesting. How does it work considering that emotional involvement seems to be important to many successful paranormal or magical effects? (at least according to the limited reading I’ve done on it). I would expect switching between belief systems in this way would make it difficult to feel emotionally involved in any of them.

          What kind of magical effects do chaos magicians investigate? Are they talking about psychological things like creating an emotional bond with a certain sigil or divine image, or are they talking about things like changing the weather or finding another person’s lost item?

      • January 31, 2012 9:08 pm

        On the meditation example for self-fulfilling prophecy, I feel that the same goes for my experience in sweatlodges and the four day fasts (I was helper in the case of fasts). People always went into it expecting something specific and a fair number of people told me that they were disappointed in that they didn’t experience those expected things and those that did say that they experienced them only on the last day (where your body has been so deprived of water and nutrients that hallucinations/visions are likely).

  4. January 22, 2012 11:08 am

    Awesome interview! “The belief you seek will appear when you do the practice.” This is a very good statement — if I substitute ‘belief’ with ‘connection’ (which might be splitting hairs, for many those two concepts are likely one in the same) that statement speaks very true for me.

    • January 22, 2012 11:20 am

      I don’t think that’s a split hair: I think that “connection” works just as well in this context as “belief” does. I might also suggest the terms “fullness” or “experience” in place of belief, sometimes, too.

      “Belief” is a good way to describe what is going on in religious terms to religious people, I tend to think, but it certainly doesn’t preclude the use of other words in its place!

  5. Jonathan Blake permalink
    January 22, 2012 2:18 pm

    About halfway through, and need to attend to other things for a while, but I want to comment about practice begetting belief. This is a powerful magic that I associate with the dark arts: useful but dangerous and easily abused. I probably make this association because of my personal history with religious fundamentalism.

    I forget the psychological jargon (can anyone help me here?), but human beings like stories that explain things. This includes making stories about our own actions. We look back over our actions and weave them into stories. We fabricate narratives to explain things from within our preexisting frameworks.

    For example, the religion of my birth encouraged us through peer pressure to make confessions of faith that all boil down to “I know that our religion is the one true faith”. In fact, one Sunday each month was devoted to a meeting where congregants can stand up in front of everyone and made statements like these.

    Sometimes, if a person doesn’t really believe, they are encouraged to “exercise faith” and “bear testimony” anyway. What kind of story does such a person tell themselves afterward?

    “I just told everyone that I know our religion is true. Why did I do that? I’m not really sure about what I said, but I’m not stupid. I don’t follow the crowd. It must be because I really do believe what I said. I can’t see any other reason why I would have done that.”

    I’ve heard this called “fake it til you make it”, act as though you believe, and eventually the belief will follow. And it works. It worked on me, and I’m not stupid and don’t follow the crowd. ;)

    So when I hear “practice begets belief”, the alarm bells go off. “Why did I just pray to Isis? It must be because Isis exists.” That’s not a rational inference, but that’s how our minds work in order to make sense of the world and to preserve a favorable self-image. Again, I think this can be used for good ends, but extreme caution is warranted.

    • January 22, 2012 3:30 pm

      Practice can be used to solidify belief for control, but typically this is only done by religions who want to create a certain, specific belief. At one point in the interview (perhaps not to the place that you are yet), we discuss the fact that we (in ADF & modern Paganism in general) don’t have an interest in what eventual belief forms, just the practices that are done.

      The “fake it till you make it” approach is pretty common in chaos magic circles (a few years ago, I was pretty heavily into that scene), and you’re right: it does work, and it’ll work for most everyone. I think that the thing to look for, though, is what the aim of that belief-building is: if we suggest practices because they work as practices, that is one thing; if we suggest practices because those practices will turn off our logical, thinking, rational minds, that is a whole other thing.

      So, I’d say that it’s all about not aiming for a goal, but to let the belief (or, as another poster mentioned above, the “connection,” “experience,” or “fullness”) develop on its own, with no dogma above you to tell you what you should experience, or even how to interpret it. Rather than articulating what beliefs we should have, I find that my role as an ADF Priest is really about helping people express the beliefs, experience, and fullness that they have developed on their own.

    • January 22, 2012 5:06 pm

      I was taken aback at first by this comment, but I think you’re right to point out the danger. This has to be done in the right context. Otherwise you may end up with the cognitive dissonance you describe, and may convince yourself that you believe something based on your actions.

      I wonder if the context of creed-based religions is different from that of Paganism, where there is no need to believe and no real reward for believing or not. Thus, there is much less impetus to convince yourself that you do believe something based on your actions. Still, there may be some cognitive dissonance, as I described in my part of the interview, where I wondered to myself “This polytheism is working for me, but why??”

      I wouldn’t doubt that some Pagans do convince themselves that deities exist in a literalistic fashion, simply because they do ritual and feel something.

      That is one reason why I think it is very important to be clear with yourself about your metaphysical assumptions, i.e. whether you start from naturalism, literalism, etc. These assumptions can always be revised, but they will be your compass along the journey, so you at least can orient yourself and not get lost in this maze of cognitive dissonance.

      I’m probably in the minority of Pagans on that last point. For the most part, Pagans enjoy what Tanya Lurhmann calls “ambiguity”, where they hold a loose agnosticism on what’s really going on in ritual. Then, over time, they experience what she calls “interpretive drift” – i.e. as they accumulate positive experiences, even if those are just positive emotional reactions to ritual, they gradually “drift” toward the beliefs of the group (most often literal polytheism). I may be butchering her argument, but I think that’s the gist.

      The way to avoid naively falling into this “interpretive drift” is to be clear with oneself about one’s starting hypotheses, one’s intentions in ritual, and what qualifies as “successful” results in ritual (see my earlier comment). That way, positive emotional responses won’t get confused as evidence of success in a ritual intended to invoke literal divine intervention in the world, whereas it may rightly be considered evidence of success for a ritual intended to alter consciousness to positive emotional state.

      Long story short, Jonathan is right: can be used for good or bad, so be conscious about what you’re doing!

      • Jonathan Blake permalink
        January 22, 2012 7:00 pm

        Interpretive drift is an interesting term. Even if we try to create groups that eschew dogmatism, there is an unconscious human desire to become like the others in the group. It happens in marriages too, or at least it has in mine. I’ve made adjustments, my wife has made adjustments, and we find ourselves on a middle ground that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves independently except that we want to be together. So interpretive drift can be part of the price of being part of the group.

        I just read an interesting article that talks in part about why group brainstorming sessions don’t work well.

        “People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this ‘the pain of independence.’ ”

        So even if there is no explicitly stated reward in believing like everyone else, just avoiding the pain of independence (wonderful phrase) is enough to cause interpretive drift (another wonderful phrase).

        I’m suspicious of experiments that can support a wide variety of beliefs, like we’re suggesting ritual does, especially in a social context where we tend to be our least rational. I value believing the truth highly, so I want experiments to winnow the wheat from the chaff. To avoid ambiguous ritual experiments, I need to act consciously, as you say, staying aware of how acting out rituals with certain ritual assumptions will affect my beliefs non-rationally.

    • February 1, 2012 6:14 pm

      I thought I was the only one to think this, and I agree with your assessment. This ‘fake it til you make it’ works especially well when you are peer pressured or even with an accepting group but are in isolation and all believing differently than you.

      • Jonathan Blake permalink
        February 1, 2012 6:52 pm

        It could be used for good. For example, if you know rationally that you should feel concerned for the environment, but it just doesn’t move you, one of the best things you could do is to find a group of people who are concerned and who do things based on their concern and then pitch in. Becoming part of a group and doing what they do can begin to create feelings that you didn’t have before.

        So yeah, it’s useful but I stand by my assessment that it’s a dark art.

  6. January 22, 2012 2:53 pm

    I haven’t listened to the interview yet, but a response to the “practice begets belief”. Yes! I have always understood ritual/ceremonial practice as a place for the growing of belief – for strengthening the deep truths. The Zen roshi who supervised my doctoral work on seasonal ritual used to say: “We play like we know it, so that we may come to know it.” We practice speaking a new language, playing it out. And the Jesuit priest who first taught me “liturgy” (as they call it) – used to say that it both “expressed faith and drew it forth”, which I went on to interpret in my own way as: ritual practice being both an expression of perceived relationship to self Earth and Cosmos, as well as being a mode of teaching and drawing forth deeper participation.

    • January 22, 2012 3:35 pm

      Indeed, the roshi has, in many ways, hit it on the head. My own experience has led me to know how to do things other than ritual through practice: I learned to fence by teaching my body the movement of parry and attack until my body knew what to do, and I learned American Sign Language by engaging in the motions until my body learned to respond. So, it is not just ritual that lends itself to this, though the kinetic knowledge of muscle memory is markedly different than the gnostic knowledge of ritual.

      If you have not already, you might find the work of Ronald Grimes to be useful to you, particularly his books on rites of passage and ritual studies. Ritual studies is really about “learning through doing,” and there is a good deal of joy in doing simple ritual actions to see what they bring out in the person.

  7. January 24, 2012 8:41 am

    I had a similar reaction as Jonathon Blake to the concept “practice begets belief.” There is something very relativistic in the way Rev. Michael Dangler discusses belief. He says, “Practice can get you through rough times. If you are having trouble finding that belief, if you are not sure anyone is out there listening, the best thing to do is continue what you are doing because the belief that you seek will appear as you do the practice.” We create our beliefs through the practices we choose, and those practices lead to experiences which confirm the truth of our own beliefs. Truth becomes individualistic and relativistic. There is no attempt to ground belief outside of our own individualistic perspective.

    Rev. Dangler goes on to say near the end of the interview, “It doesn’t matter what a person believes, what kind of gods they believe in. It doesn’t matter if they believe in any. What matters to pagans ancient and modern is that you do the work, that you walk your walk.” Do beliefs really not matter? Of course if someone never acts on their beliefs, then their beliefs don’t matter. But, what about the beliefs that inspire action? What about when belief turns dark? History is full of examples of sincere religious belief leading to harm and not just among Christians. Impiety and atheism were crimes in ancient Athens that were punished by banishment or death. Human sacrifice did occur in ancient polytheism. If one has a relativistic view of belief, of truth, on what grounds can beliefs, our own and others, be questioned and rejected as false.

    • Jonathan Blake permalink
      January 24, 2012 12:27 pm

      Well said.

      While pondering the suggestion of Chaos Magick, I realized that I sympathize with their empirical, results-oriented ethos. On the other hand, one of the results that I desire is that my beliefs align with the truth as closely as possible, so using my beliefs as a tool runs counter to my values. I suspect that this really comes down to a clash of values.

      • January 24, 2012 2:41 pm

        I wonder if “beliefs” isn’t the best word in the context of this Chaos Magic stuff. Considering how difficult it is to truly change an ingrained belief, I would have a hard time imagining switching freely between them. Rather, I’m picturing something more like rules of the game, similar to how you can “believe” aces are high in one game of cards, then “believe” they are low in another, while your more deeply-held beliefs about the world remain constant (and consistently faithful to “truth” as one sees it).

  8. M. Jay permalink
    January 28, 2012 11:42 am

    I thought Rev. Dangler’s ritual to Ushas, the Vedic goddess of dawn, was really beautiful, but his understanding of this ritual illustrates the divide between naturalistic paganism and modern polytheism. He talks about how through his practice of a short daily devotion to Ushas, he developed a connection, a relationship, an understanding of the Goddess Ushas, and this appears to have been his intention and goal for the ritual. It is Ushas not the dawn that he wishes to understand and connect with, and this to me is the primary difference between modern polytheism and naturalistic paganism (at least as I conceive of it). In naturalistic paganism the focus would be on the dawn itself, on connecting with its innate numinosity, its innate sacredness, which is conveyed through the language and stories of the Goddess. This is a subtle but very profound difference.

  9. January 31, 2012 7:48 pm

    Been meaning to get around to listening to this. I’m more involved in the other side of Isaac Bonewits’s sphere of influence – The Reformed Druids of North America. So it was great to hear from the ADF side. Thank you Rev. Michael J. Dangler for taking the time to share your experiences with us. I can relate to your story Brandon on ritual and experience and walking away and feeling that it wasn’t real afterwards. Even so, I have learned a great deal on what different actions and activities do to our emotions and psyche. So I keep going to and experiencing these different activities to learn what these different activities do. Rituals have been done a certain way for some reason and I like to learn first hand why. Most of what I am learning is through the Anishinabek (Ojibwe) teachings, as it is difficult to get to any nearby druid groups. Not to mention that the only way to learn most native customs and rituals is to attend, because very little has ever been written. But I’ve found that much still overlaps through reading druidic practices and doing what can be learned from reading. And often enough overlaps most other paths as well. One thing I recently learned is the methods of grief healing. Talking circles, the use of music providing a base sound where people are comfortable being vocal in their grief, and the use of objects in symbolism to aid in letting go. You yourself Brandon have mentioned this a couple of times at least – using an object symbolically to let go or similar purpose. These sorts of things can be of great use to anybody, and that is part of the personal research I am doing – finding universal practices that help us connect. Glad to hear that the ADF has a bit of a similar approach. Which reminds me that I should get to reading more of that booklet you sent me – family life gets distracting :(

    Looking forward to reading more!

Trackbacks

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