We Pagans believe a lot of things.
Oh, I know—"it doesn't matter what you believe, it matters what you do." That statement isn't wrong, and Paganism's emphasis on right action over right belief is a very good thing. But still, we talk about a lot of things many people dismiss. Things like Gods and spirits, casting circles and invoking elements, the Otherworld and the Summerlands, and magic. Especially magic.
How do we know our ideas are right?
Just because our ancient ancestors (maybe) did it this way doesn't mean it's right. Wrong ideas can be passed down as easily as right ones. Just because someone important or really smart says it doesn't mean it's right. Smart people can be wrong, too. Just because it's written in a holy book doesn't mean it's right, as those of us who escaped fundamentalist religions figured out.
Religious and spiritual ideas are notoriously resistant to proof, as our atheist friends like to remind us. But if we wait on absolute proof, we'll end up abandoning beliefs and practices that are meaningful and helpful to us. On the other hand, fundamentalists twist myths into history and deny established science to claim they have proof where no proof exists. We certainly don't want to follow their example.
Fortunately, there is a Pagan framework for discernment. Discernment is the ability to judge well. In a religious or spiritual context, it means a disciplined approach to distinguishing one thing from another, especially distinguishing truth from falsehood.
There are three major elements to Pagan discernment.
Does It Work?
The best way to believe in magic is to start doing magic. Contrary to what some popular fiction tries to tell us, magic doesn't depend on belief. It depends on action. If you do the spell properly, you'll get results. Perhaps the first result is coincidence. Perhaps the second result is random chance. But as the results start to pile up, it gets harder and harder to rationalize them away and it becomes obvious that something is at work, even if we can't be exactly sure what that something is.
It's been said that superstition is a misunderstanding of cause and effect. That's true, but I would argue that excessive skepticism is a misunderstanding of the interconnectedness of life. Outside of controlled laboratory experiments it is extremely difficult to separate correlation from causation. If all you know for sure is that when you charge and burn a particular candle in a particular way you get a particular result, it doesn't really matter whether the cause is the thought behind the charge or the burning of the candle or something unrelated that you don't even realize you're doing. What's important is that it works.
How does magic work? I like to speculate and theorize as much as any engineer who wants to know how everything works, and I have some theories that are in constant revision. But at some point you have to put the scalpel down and enjoy the golden eggs.
And don't forget to feed the goose.
If it works it's true.
Does It Conform with Known Facts?
The realm of the unknown gives us great leeway to interpret experiences in the ways we think best. But it does not give us freedom to believe things that are demonstrably false. Facts are objective and verifiable. They do not depend on your opinion, or on the opinion of others. Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." Facts don't disappear because you deny or contradict them—ignore them at your peril.
It's easy to point fingers at Christian fundamentalists who claim the Earth is only 6,000 years old and who deny the reality of evolution. It's just as bad when Pagans claim to be part of a lineage of witches or Goddess worshippers dating back to antiquity. Seriously, folks. Perhaps this was understandable in the 1980s. It's not any more.
Perhaps the worst are those who claim quantum physics "proves" the reality of the soul or the afterlife or anything else. I know just enough about quantum physics to know that anyone who doesn't have a PhD in the subject doesn't understand it (and I'm not sure about a lot of them). Bad science makes bad religion.
Historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and other social scientists have produced a ton of good scholarship on the beliefs and practices of our Pagan ancestors, on the evolution of humanity, and on many other areas of interest to Pagans and other magical folks. Much of it is accessible to ordinary people—unlike quantum physics, advanced degrees aren't required to understand it. Read it, learn it, and make sure what you think is true really is true. If our beliefs do not conform to known facts we are being dishonest with ourselves and with others.
Does It Make Your Life Better?
One of the primary purposes of religion and spirituality is to help us deal with the Big Questions of Life. Where do we come from? Why are we here? How should we live? What happens when we die? The world's many different religions offer many different answers. If any of them are objectively true we can't tell, despite the claims of some to exclusive possession of Truth.
What we can tell is whether or not a particular belief is helpful. Does it make your life better? Does it provide meaning?
If a belief in an afterlife make you less fearful about facing your own death and the death of loved ones, that's a good thing. If it makes you fearful that you'll end up in torment for all eternity, or if it causes you to ignore this life while spending all your time thinking about an afterlife that may never come, that's a bad thing.
Or perhaps a belief in reincarnation allows you to accept your inevitable death with serenity and grace. That's a good thing. Such a belief can also motivate us to care for the Earth and to build a better world here and now, knowing that we'll be back some day and we want things to be better next time. On the other hand, if a belief in reincarnation removes the urgency to live fully in this one life, or worse, if it causes us to refuse to help others because we think "their suffering is their karma," then that's a very bad thing.
There are no certain answers to the Big Questions of Life. We can never know if our beliefs are right. But we can know if they help us to live better lives here and now.
What's Not Part of Pagan Discernment
A belief is true if it works, if it conforms to known facts, and if it's helpful. But some factors have no bearing on truth even though we might wish they did.
Whether something is easy, simple, or black and white is irrelevant. We are the descendants of early humans and pre-human species who learned to quickly discern, "Can I eat this animal or will this animal eat me?" If you see movement in the bushes, you don't have long to figure it out before either you're violently removed from the gene pool or you slowly starve to death. We have an evolutionary urge to make everything black or white.
But some things aren't black or white. Some things are complicated—perhaps so complicated we can't understand them. We do ourselves no favors when we oversimplify complex issues and situations.
Whether something conforms to your ethics is irrelevant. We all have an innate desire for justice—we want to see evildoers punished. But there is little evidence that the Threefold Law and "karma" work in the way many Pagans claim. If we want justice, we will have to work to build a fair and just society, and not count on the Universe to dispense justice in the way we wish it did.
So, How Do We Know?
We are wise to focus our attention on our actions rather than on our beliefs. But our actions generate experiences, and in our attempt to interpret and understand our experiences we form beliefs. Our experiences may be so strong or so frequent we are certain our beliefs about them must be right, but if we are honest with ourselves, we can never be completely sure they are right.
But we can ask ourselves if our beliefs work, if they conform to known facts, and if they help us lead better lives. If we can answer yes to these three questions, we can be confident that they are as right as they can be.