I’m agnostic, yet I do Pagan and Catholic things. Here’s why.
Surely no-one needs to give up their spiritual practice – whether it be Pagan, Christian or any other kind – if they have more questions than answers regarding higher powers?
I want to let you in on a little secret of mine:
I’m pretty sure it’s okay to be agnostic and spiritual.
There’s a growing trend in America where people define themselves as spiritual rather than religious. For many, this is a bit of an oxymoron. How can you practice a faith when you don’t know if you believe in a higher power?
Agnosticism – or being uncommitted to believing in the existence or nonexistence of Gods or God—is portrayed in many major religions as being a fault or something to overcome. There are over 48 verses between the Bible and the New Testament focusing on doubt alone, and the theme of faith vs doubt is not limited to Christian faiths.
Just because you have doubt or don’t believe in absolutes, it doesn’t mean you have to give up your spiritual practices.
I’m a graduate student. Every year I learn more about how my culture, upraising, and genetics influence my thoughts and opinions of the world. Every year I learn to ask questions, and every year one question gets pushed to the forefront: Do I believe in gods?
I don’t know.
I do know this: when I was nine years old, I had a pet hamster and I loved him dearly.
Blizzard was an albino dwarf hamster gifted to me during a snowstorm. He perched in my shirt pocket while I practised my vocabulary words. I constructed obstacle courses made of cardboard tubes for him and took great delight watching him attempt to solve (or eat) the mazes. He loved sunflower seeds and running on his wheel.
Then a lump appeared on Blizzard’s stomach.
If you’ve never seen a small rodent with cancer before, it’s terrifying. It’s more terrifying when you’re nine years old and helpless to stop it.
The tumor grew rapidly, and to an enormous size.
Blizzard could barely run on his wheel or move without difficulty. Our vet didn’t see hamsters, and Blizzard was already almost two – a ripe old age for a dwarf hamster. There was nothing anyone could do.
He was going to die. It was inevitable.
My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all practised an unnamed tradition that is a wonderful blend of Paganism and Catholicism, accompanied by a hefty dosage of New Age spirituality. I wanted to do something to help my beloved hamster, so my mother gave me a special glass bowl filled with sand, a white candle, and some seashells.
I put the bowl on top of the cage and arranged the shells in a big spiral.
My mother was proud of me. I remember her saying this: “you didn’t even know this, but spirals are to bring in energy. You’re doing a good job.”
I lit my candle, I prayed very hard, and somewhere through the work, I realized I wasn’t crying anymore.
I was still sad.
Blizzard was still going to die.
Lighting a candle and saying some prayers didn’t make a difference, but it gave me something to do. I wasn’t helpless in my grief anymore.
He died a few days later, and we buried him in the backyard while snow flurries fell over us. With wishful, childlike thinking, I remember believing he did seem to be better those last few days, more peaceful. He ate sunflower seeds and slept next to his wheel.
Let’s fast forward over a decade.
I’m sitting in a nursing home in the middle of the night. My grandmother’s body lies next to me.
Some people aren’t close to their grandparents, but I was close to mine. Having my grandmother die left my mother and I feeling uprooted. A fixture of our life had gone somewhere we couldn’t follow.
When the coroner picked up her body and we left the nursing home, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to fall asleep, even though it was well past midnight.
I did know I was going to crack a window in the house and put black curtains over the mirrors. I did know I was going to light some rosemary, some sage, and a special spell candle gifted to me by a friend.
I did know the prayers I’d been taught. I whispered them all, even as I cried.
At her funeral, I was barefoot holding an abalone shell while a man in regalia wafted her with burning herbs and offered tobacco to the gods. I said the Hail Mary’s and stumbled over the German words to the Lord’s Prayer.
I don’t know if leaving her a tobacco pouch and slipping quarters and a dragon sculpture into her coffin really made things easier for her. I don’t know if the gods are real or if they heard my prayers.
I do know it felt wonderful not to feel helpless.
Feeling like I had some control, had some say in a situation where nothing can be said, was wonderfully empowering whether I was nine years old or twenty one.
My spiritual traditions brought me that comfort. Whether or not I believed in the gods didn’t matter.
I don’t know if I believe in gods, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up my family traditions or the practices that bring me comfort. I still practise the rituals I’ve learned, the prayers I was taught as a child, and I still do the guided meditations and the spiritual journeys.
There are some in the Pagan community who might say this makes me a less effective tarot card reader, a weaker witch, a weaker pagan, because I don’t have absolute faith in the gods.
I am not following these traditions for other people.
I’m not trying to become a “more powerful” Pagan. I don’t even know if I would call myself Pagan.
I follow the traditions because they bring me comfort. I learn about folklore and am mindful of the roots of my everyday practice because this knowledge is important to me.
If you’re uncertain if you believe in a higher power, don’t feel like you have to give up your spiritual practices. That being said—don’t feel like you’re forced to stay or continue practicing your faith, either. It’s okay to leave an environment that’s bad for you mentally or physically. In matters of faith, it’s important to be your own guide.
If prayer, meditation, or going to a place of worship each week is part of your mental hygiene, don’t feel that you’re obligated to stop. Several studies have found that, while the impact of religion and spirituality on overall health is mixed depending on a variety of circumstances, its influence is largely beneficial.
Questions you can ask yourself
If you’re feeling uncertain about your beliefs and practices, here are some journal prompts to help you:
- What is it about my spiritual tradition/religion/belief/faith that brings me comfort?
- What makes me feel uncertain or brings me doubt about my spiritual tradition/religion/belief/faith?
- If I gave up my spiritual tradition/religion/belief/faith that brings me comfort today, what would I miss the most?
- What would I miss the least?
- Who introduced me to my spiritual tradition/religion/belief/faith?
- How might my thoughts/beliefs be influenced by my relationship with this person?
- Can I think of five things that I believe or do that are probably incorrect, but I do them anyway? (Superstitions, say, or habits that grew out of childhood beliefs – like sleeping on a certain side of the bed because it was closer to the nightlight, for example.) Why do I believe I still do these things?
- What sort of person do I want to be in five years? Does my spiritual tradition/religion/belief/faith help or hinder my goals? Why might this be?
- In difficult situations, what do I find the most comforting? What do I find the least comforting?
In a few years, maybe I will feel like I can give a different answer to the question of belief. Even if the answer is no, I doubt that will change the comfort I feel whenever I catch a whiff of the warm, spicy scent of incense.