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Suspension of Belief

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I was swept away by the healing ritual, chanting with a hundred others as we worked with the energy of Isis. My friend from the other side of Paganism, however, was aghast. 


“You invoke the gods and then do nothing for them. You’re not even properly grateful.” For her the gods existed externally and needed to be honoured and thanked, not used as props in a psychodrama. I just knew that the ritual had worked. I felt alive and uplifted.


As I fumbled to explain, she asked in exasperation, “I mean, what exactly do you believe?”


Well, I don’t. Believe that is. 


With a smile I remembered an earlier, playful ritual with children present. A mother had cast the circle with glitter “fairy dust.” Her young daughter burst out, “But it’s not real!” 


The mother’s reply? “It’s as real as you need it to be.” And I might add, real in precisely the way you need it to be—metaphorically or literally. For myself (and many other Pagans), our religion is more about experience than belief. It might even be that suspension of belief is our witchy superpower.


So often belief is the problem, leading to dogmatism and division. Belief in the hereafter, in a better world awaiting, can prevent us from meeting the present with wisdom. It can keep us at odds with life, in a state of dissatisfaction that does little to address the suffering and blinds us to the beauty. Belief in an omnipotent God can be reassuring but also terrifying. It can inspire selfless acts or be twisted into murderous hatred. At the very least it’s a double-edged sword.


In contrast, suspension of belief keeps us in the here and now, in our bodies, contacting reality through direct experience. It keeps us grounded, reassured by the solidity of our experience, and the discovery of our own capacity for resilience, inspiration and connection. If pagans like me have faith, it is faith in the community that supports us and faith in the practices that strengthen us, whether or meditation, spellwork or prayer. A suspension of disbelief—an “acting as if” attitude— works well to raise beneficial energy, without the need of full credence, which in so many senses, just gets in the way.


Here my Paganism intersects with my Buddhism. Buddha famously compared questions about “ultimate” reality to fussing over who made the arrow that had struck you, when the real issue is how to safely remove it. (1) Such speculation was irrelevant to the central importance of relieving suffering. The Buddhist version of spellwork, “well-wishing,” is similarly unconcerned with whys and wherefores. In this practice, the meditative repetition of phrases like “May all beings be happy” invites a desired result without specifying how it will be achieved. The practitioner opens herself to the flow of compassion and the possibility of blessing— and finds herself (and her view of the world) changed as a result. 


This deliberate “not believing” can be a bit of a high wire act—as we contemplate possibilities or interpret our experiences we have to be careful to withhold final judgment. Even those who have direct experience with the unseen have to remember that what is true for them may not be true for others. Does this mean we are trapped in our own personal experience? Not necessarily. If we are willing to remain in suspension, we can learn to view the universe through a variety of lenses, giving us the flexibility to work easily with others without insisting on one truth alone.


There’s no doubt that maintaining uncertainty about the gods or what happens after death can be uncomfortable. But in reality there is no certainty, no way out of mystery. Rather, “The magic is to discover the way in.” (2) The way in to loving the world, ourselves, and others as they are, while sensing that there is always more than meets the eye. 


At it’s heart, Paganism is not a belief but a choice, the choice to regard the world as sacred, worthy of attention, and rich in meaning. As the circle of our knowledge grows, so does the circumference edging the unknown. We will always be surrounded by mystery, bounded by the boundless. Indeed mystery—from the wonders of the universe to the depths of the soul— should be a source of awe and inspiration in itself.


As Pagan “unbelievers” we live not in an alienating universe but in relationship to all that is: “We are all connected: To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” (3) The universe is endlessly unfolding, endlessly intriguing. If we feel small in the face of this, that is no bad thing. If we feel privileged to be witnesses to it, that is no small thing. 


May we come to the place of humility, where the mystery is enough. May we acknowledge that it’s not so much that the divine is real, but that the real is divine—full of hidden power, drama and wisdom, worthy of our respect and love.




  1. Buddha, Cūḷamālukya Sutta
  2. Chogyam Trungpa, cited in Alistair Appleton, “The Magic of No Escape,”
  3. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, quoted in Symphony of Science, “We Are All Connected,”
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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


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