To Believe or Not to Believe: That Is Not the Question


Arts & Culture

Photo by Dialog Center Images via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Many years ago at a dinner party, I met a couple who had brought along their two-year-old son. The mother was Jewish, and the father was a practicing Buddhist from Tibet. Making small talk in the kitchen, the mother began to tell me about how she had been unable to get pregnant, so her husband had gone to their lama to ask him to bless them with a child. Some months later the couple successfully conceived, but before they broke the news to friends and family, they received a call from the lama, who told them that their unborn son was a bodhisattva—a being who has achieved enlightenment but chooses to reincarnate for the good of the world. As she told me this story, I felt dizzy and entranced. All I could see was her suddenly illuminated face; all I could hear was her voice.

Now, I am not a Buddhist, but I experienced what she said about her child as true. He was beautiful and played quietly on the floor at our feet. For me, this was an encounter with the numinous, a realization of holiness and magic that didn’t require what religious people call faith. Moreover, when my trance broke and the other voices and sounds of the party returned to my awareness, I didn’t immediately begin to rationalize what I had been told or how I had felt about it. That spirits of the dead might move through the heavenly spheres and reemerge in new earthly forms seemed as real to me as the food that was being prepared for us. The language the family used to convey the story stirred all our imaginations.

As a writer whose chosen subject is religion and, more recently, magic and its supernatural cousins, I admit that I am more disposed to exploring, and perhaps even experiencing, these kinds of altered states, but I am not more susceptible to believe in them. Not only because I am often critically challenged by readers and friends but because I am interested in what it means to hold to the irrational with a rational embrace, using skepticism as a compass to travel the map of the weird. One consequence of this, however, is finding myself without a home. Of those who encounter me—either in person or in what I write—the faithful don’t trust my intentions, and the skeptics think I am being too lenient. And so it was with no small bit of delight that I read the novelist Philip Pullman’s reflection on the recent exhibit “Spellbound” at the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, in the Guardian. The exhibit provides a material history of the occult and magic, including such relics as a charmed ring, a ritual sword, scrying mirrors, and seeing stones.

Pullman lends a sympathetic eye to what he describes as the “illuminating things” on display. He admits his rational skepticism is on guard, but explains that when engaging with occult beliefs, “reason is the wrong tool.” He holds up imagination as the territory where reason can be put aside; his own avowed atheism must be set aside to explore the hold that supernatural ideas have had on human cultures throughout history. “Imagination is one of our highest faculties,” he writes, and likens it to William Blake’s notion of a “twofold vision,” penetrating beyond the material into an intuitive meaning that reason might otherwise resist. I’ve taken years to understand and cultivate this “twofold vision” as both a critical approach to my subjects and for my own engagement with occult ideas. Concerned with esoteric concepts, I’ve felt the burden to either define them as provable or debunk them as false, but I have come to recognize that there is another set of values, a less dichotomous ways to find meaning.

Our Western tendency to define reality narrowly is seen most in the realms of science and religion. The scholar Karen Armstrong has written extensively about the ways in which people have tried to uphold religious beliefs with scientific methods. This need to quantify even spiritual matters extends to our willingness to accept “alternative facts” when it comes to politics. This desire for clarity is born of our collective discomfort with ambiguity. This is what makes conspiracy theories viral in their ability to spread and take hold: we would rather believe something absurd than accept a certain level of chaos.

It’s also what often makes the new tenor of atheist discourse harsh and unyielding. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher answers a question with his standard snarky fare: “I do admit there are things in the universe I don’t understand, but my response to that is not to make up silly stories or to believe intellectually embarrassing myths from the Bronze Age, but you believe whatever you want to.” Learning to sit inside ambiguity is more challenging than simply believing or disbelieving. My own instinct when writing about spiritual and occult ideas is neither to defend those who believe these ideas nor to emphasize what rationally makes them false. What I have opted for instead is a direct engagement that allows for a mental double vision, or twofold vision, where the “truth” is not as important as the way in which these ideas can alter our own perception.

To describe how magic and the occult function in culture, art, and music, a system of belief/disbelief is the least important tool of inquiry; true/false dichotomies can get in the way of an earnest availability to the ideas or images at play. The preeminent scholar on Gnostic texts, Elaine Pagels, explains in her memoir Why Religion? that she is perpetually asked what she personally believes. This question is usually framed in terms of whether or not she is herself religious. Her answer, she writes, is grounded in a complex distinction: “What matters to me more than whether we participate in institutions or leave them is how we engage in the imagination … What fascinates me most are experiences that shape, shatter, and transform those who initiate or engage them—experiences that precipitate us into new relationships with ourselves and with others.” In this way, we move away from dogmatic prescriptions as literal translations, toward experiences. The suspension of disbelief that a cracker melting on the tongue is a stand-in for the real flesh of Christ provides Christians with the experience of being part of a larger, unseen universal intention.

After reading Pullman’s review of the Ashmolean exhibit, I thought I might find the same embrace of the irrational in his new collection of articles and lectures, Daemon Voices. His “The Origin of the Universe” chapter is a discussion of how metaphor functions in myth and creation stories. He calls for a “mental double vision” when, for example, reading Milton’s Paradise Lost: “I know it isn’t literally true, and yet I can enjoy it to the full.” Pullman argues that this ability to inhabit a liminal state of mind, to stand still at the threshold, is something we are all capable of.

A problem unfolds when we apply this to religion. Mental double vision can’t contend with the forces of fundamentalism on either side. One of the notable qualities of contemporary atheism is its focus on both the behavior of the believers and the unsoundness of the metaphysics that underly their faith. Both things are worthy of critique, but they belong to a very specific set of engagements with the human experience, such as the ways in which communities of any sort can foster violent and extreme behavior. The question “What do you believe?” reveals that the interrogator might already be predisposed to an answer in binary true/false. This partly has to do with the nature of the terms we use. The mercurial realm of magic and the occult, like religion writ large, is not a monolithic set of beliefs but a spectrum of ideas, symbols, rituals mythopoetic renderings, texts, and traditions both old and new. The question of belief doesn’t address how these systems work on individuals, communities, culture, or the artful expressions they inspire.

Daemon Voices did not provide quite the embrace of ambiguity I was searching for. The book brims with anti-religious sentiment as well as constant reminders that Pullman does not believe in God. Once no doubt can be left in the reader that Pullman finds belief in God to be absurd if not dangerous, Pullman feels he can safely engage deeply with religious texts and the arts which faith has made possible.

In the essay “I Must Create a System,” Pullman makes an important distinction between the system underlying certain works of art and literature and the ultimate expression that rises from that system. As an example, he notes the almost inscrutable cosmological system underlying the poetry of William Butler Yeats, whose dedication to the occult involved transcribing the mediumistic writings from his wife Georgie Hyde Lees while she was in trance states, and who was a devoted member in the magical order known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Pullman lauds the poetry Yeats wrote during this fertile period but decries what he calls the “absolute bunkum” of the underlying occult mythology. If I understand what Pullman means by “a mental double vision,” why, then, this persistent throwing of mud? Shouldn’t the double vision allow for the liminal he believes is the primary state of the reader?

In a Paris Review Daily essay from October 2018, detailing the Guggenheim’s recent presentation of the paintings of Hilma af Klint (still on view), Nana Asfour notes that the artist’s preoccupation with occultism and theosophy was not just an effort to follow the spiritual trends of the time—it offered her a system of thought that made her paintings possible: “Whatever the spirits said, af Klint did.” I don’t wonder, reading this, whether Asfour believes, but it’s essential to know that af Klimt did. Her paintings are written in the language of the ineffable, an encounter with the numinous.

Back at the dinner party, I watched the young bodhisattva play with toy animals. He was a typical child to be sure, one who played, fussed over food, reached out to a parent when shy, but there were forces at work now in my own imagination, altered by his birth story, significant in ways to which I I gave myself over. His mother later told me they were asked whether their son could be “taken back” to Tibet and raised in a temple dedicated to his original name generations before. They ultimately declined, but I could see the rapt wonder in her eyes as she shared their story, and the historical and esoteric beliefs that contributed to it. Why unravel that charm, the same perceptional shift that has made thousands of year of Buddhist art and culture possible? Instead of feeling the burden to believe or disbelieve, I simply let the enchantment hold.


Peter Bebergal is the author of several books, including most recently Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural. His work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement,, Slate, The Believer, and the LA Review of Books.