Tolerance versus Gullibility: Judging the Validity of Magickal Claims

We all strive to be open-minded about one another’s beliefs and experiences. This is essential to our community, because we have had to keep an open mind about our own beliefs and experiences in order to accept them as valid and real. Much of what we believe and what forms the foundation of our community’s identity are claims of supernatural or psychic experiences that mainstream culture would simply debunk. Our materialist, scientific society has no room for a sixth sense, let alone a seventh or an eighth, and the empirical rule of science leads most materialists to assert that if you can’t touch it, it isn’t there. So many of the perceptions and sensations that form a vital part of our experiences are subtle and numinous in nature. They cannot be proven in a laboratory. Often, it is hard for us to “prove” them even to ourselves. We simply have to accept that we are not crazy, that these impressions are valid, and that the materialist approach to reality somehow fails to account for a large portion of human experience. Yet this creates a certain amount of credulousness within the community. Since we each have had experiences that the rest of the world would reject as lies or delusion, we are much more likely to listen with a sympathetic ear to someone else’s experiences, no matter how strange they may sound. We are painfully aware of how hard to believe many of our own experiences and beliefs are, especially because we have had to struggle to believe them in the face of a culture that tells us these beliefs *must* be the product of a crazed mind. Obviously, we don’t want to disbelieve another’s claims especially because we want to be believed ourselves. But this can lead us into a dangerous habit of accepting everything that is told to us by others without question, and the sad fact of reality is not everyone who makes an extraordinary claim is telling you the truth. There are quite a number of people who lie and make up tales about their beliefs and experiences. They do this as an attention-getting measure, to make themselves feel powerful and important, or to get you to follow them and accept further stories and orders without question. These are the poseurs and cult-daddies of the scene, and they hurt our community not only by preying upon the innocent and vulnerable, but also by giving the outside world a very negative impression of us.

Developing Sound Judgment

So how do we know when our tolerance has crossed into the realm of gullibility? Whenever someone makes a claim to you of a supernatural belief or experience, listen carefully to what they have to say. See if what they say makes sense based on your own experiences. Even magick functions on universal laws, and although we may not understand all of these laws as of yet, they still seem to hold true in most cases. If what this person has to say is radically different from your own experiences and what you’ve learned of the magickal world, that should set off warning bells in your head. You should not discount their claims just yet — it may simply be that your own experiences are limited and this person is discussing a principle that you have not encountered yet. It’s also possible that some of the beliefs and conclusions you’ve drawn from your own experiences are either wholly or partially wrong. We make as a great a mistake assuming that everything we believe is 100% accurate as when we believe that everything other people tell us is 100% accurate. After analysing what the person has to say, analyse the person himself. How does he act? How does he dress? Does he speak like someone who is reasonably intelligent and well-educated? These might sound like judgments based on superficial things, but the fact of the matter is that mentally unbalanced individuals often demonstrate their problems in their mannerisms, diction, and dress. Not everyone who has a nervous tic is insane, just as not everyone who refuses to look you in the eye is lying to you, but these are good cues to keep in mind when trying to judge someone’s credibility. There are quite a lot of people who our mainstream culture would label depressed or bipolar or delusional who have had very legitimate experiences and who have a lot of insightful and worthwhile things to say. However, you must keep in mind that people with chemical imbalances and unstable personalities cannot always determine the line between reality and imagination, and any of their stories should be especially scrutinized for this reason. After analysing the person, analyse the situation in which you are receiving this information. What could the person’s motivation for speaking with you be? What kind of level of trust has been built up between you? Chances are, the voodoo queen of Wheeling would not come right out and say who she is and what kind of army of zombies she commands to every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street. Common sense dictates that she’d have to trust you quite a bit to reveal information as sensitive as that, and if you just met someone at a coffee house who makes similarly wild and powerful claims, chances are, they’re telling you a tall tale. If it’s pretty clear that the person making the claim has something to gain from you be very leery of it. But also keep an open mind on what you consider “gain” to be. Not everyone who’s trying to “sell” you something is out for your money. A lot of people are simply motivated by a need to be believed, or they want to get you on their “side” for some imagined conflict. If you thought you left the petty social politics and cliqueishness behind in high school, you’re in for a surprise, because as far as I’ve noticed, those silly social games keep a lot of people occupied well into their 70s. Sex is another basic motivator, and if you’re a pretty young girl (or even a pretty young boy), really keep your eyes open when people start coming up to you and trying to tell you how the universe works. All too often, they’ll wind up trying to teach you tantric sex magick or something similar — the long and the short of it is they want you in their bed.

Educating Yourself

With all these things to watch out for, how can you ever find a teacher or mentor that you can trust? Well, the best approach is to educate yourself. There are a lot more books out there than used to be the case, and with the Internet, a great deal of material is at your very fingertips. Not everything in a book or on a web page is truthful or accurate — just about everyone is trying to sell you something in this day and age. However, if you approach all information cautiously, analyse it carefully in respect to your own experiences, and try to judge the motivations of the writer, you’ll find a lot to teach yourself. Material that you read in a book or on a webpage is a little safer than having someone come up to you and spout off all their vast occult knowledge. For one thing, you can read at your leisure, and if there are claims or references in the work that set off alarm bells for you, you have the additional luxury of being able to research those claims and see what other authorities have to say about them. Also, although part of a writer’s job is to present a convincing argument so you agree with his points, still read material is not nearly as dynamic nor as potentially overwhelming as spoken conversation delivered by a real pro at the debating game. So when you’re just starting out and you’re not sure what to believe or who to believe it from, read, read read! It will give you a great background for later when you are comfortable enough and self-assured enough to tackle face to face conversations with people who may be trying to take advantage of you. For face to face conversations and study, always try to stick with informal study groups where everyone has an equal say. You’ll find that some persons within the group can be considered authorities on certain topics, but as long as they’re not always trying to dictate what others will accept and believe, then they’re the kinds of authorities that will only help you expand your own knowledge. Steer clear of groups or individuals who are “gathering members for a light and darkness war” or who are engaged in “battles on the astral plane” or other such nonsense. These psychic war dialogues are just a very common and dramatic way to pull people into the group, incite them with a purpose, and let them run around as pawns for one or more cultish-type leaders. Also, if someone comes up to you and claims to have information for you because they’ve known you in a past life, try to make certain that you get impressions that reinforce what this individual is saying. That’s another dialogue that I’ve seen misused in groups in the past, and unfortunately many a poor innocent has had her head screwed on backwards with tall tales of a long ago life in a magickal time that’s nothing more than a tale someone was spinning to gain her affection. So, back to tolerance and gullibility. There is nothing wrong with listening to what people have to say. In fact, I encourage everyone to keep an open mind, because we can never be 100% certain that our own beliefs are entirely accurate or well-founded. Even if a person you talk with has beliefs you utterly disagree with, still you’ve learned something in the very act of ordering your thoughts for conversation and comparing your beliefs against their own. Do not, however, believe everything that is told you. This does not mean that you should go around being paranoid of everyone who comes up to you and wants to chat about spiritual things, but you should let wisdom and common sense be your guides. Always analyse what the person is saying to you, analyse the person himself, and analyse the situation and what may be gained from getting you to believe the story. If any of these things set alarm bells off for you, then take what is said with a grain of salt. Feel free to challenge someone’s beliefs that you disagree with — sometimes there’s nothing better than a heated debate on theology! And if they are unwilling to debate or defend their beliefs to you, or to back up their claims with real incidents or examples, then you can probably spend your time more productively with somebody else.

How Much is Too Much?: Tolerance, Relativism, and the Slippery Slope

The Buddhist ideal is the Middle Path. Although I am not a Buddhist myself, I respect and support this approach to reality. I have found that it can be applied to just about every aspect of our lives. When we exist at extremes, we cause trouble for ourselves. This holds true for attitudes and ideals as well as behaviors. Tolerance is a good example. For the most part, we exist in a society that does not practice tolerance nearly enough. The extreme of intolerance is the rule of the day. People are judged upon superficialities like appearance, hairstyle, and what music they listen to, not to mention skin color, gender, orientation, and beliefs. Many of us, as we come from marginalized minorities, have made a concerted effort to move away from intolerance and instead to accept a person for who and what they are – whatever that may be. This is especially true when it comes to tolerance of religious and spiritual diversity. However, all too frequently, in our quest to embrace tolerance of all ideas, practices, and ways of being, we overcompensate for the oppressive intolerance we face every day. With all the best intentions in the world, we swing wildly over to the other extreme and begin accepting every quirk and behavior no matter how outrageous or illogical it may be. This is seen nowhere more clearly than on the Internet. I have a good friend who runs a rather large Pagan-oriented elist. A wise and learned individual, he holds some very heady ideals. Because his own beliefs are little unusual, and have often been judged harshly by others, he upholds the right of each and every individual on his elist to make any kinds of claims about their spiritual experiences, their abilities with magick, and their relationship with spirits and divinities. No matter how ludicrous these claims may sound, no matter how deluded a person clearly may be, my friend will argue at length against anyone daring to question these beliefs on the basis that neither he nor anyone else can truly get inside that person’s head to see exactly what they see. Given this, he argues, there is no way for anyone to make a case that any belief or claim to an experience is invalid. Anything less than this all-embracing attitude of subjective truth is decried as intolerance masquerading in the guise of common sense, logic or rationality.

Staking Wild Claims

I’m not sure how many people have experienced the amazing variety of spiritual claims that one can encounter within the Internet. For me, it gets a little mind-boggling. I have encountered people who in all seriousness have proclaimed that they can cast a spell to allow themselves actual, physical flight. I have had more people than I care to count assure me that they own a copy of the legendary Necronomicon and that it is, indeed, bound in human skin. And that’s to say nothing of the folks who have told me of summoning demons in the flesh, drinking pints of human blood a week, and being the living incarnations of their deity of the week. I’d love to say that this is a phenomenon produced by the medium of the Internet, given how easy it is to masquerade as somebody else from the other end of a screen. However, in the days before the Internet, I had encountered similar claims. As I was dealing with people one-on-one or through limited written correspondence, the wild boasters seemed farther and fewer between. But the blessing and the curse of the Internet is that it puts us in contact with vast numbers of people. In this case, I think the percentage of wild claimants is a constant, but the sheer numbers of the Internet allow them more clearly to be seen. I will say that the Internet does seem to encourage attitudes of uber-tolerance like those of my friend. In the past, I had no trouble telling someone point-blank I thought they were trying to put one over on me. On far too many elists, when I voice such an opinion now, I’m suddenly attacked from five different directions as being judgmental and simply not understanding someone’s “different” point of view. Somehow the voice of reason gets drowned in a morass of political correctness and a misguided crusade to take freedom of speech to the limits of total intellectual anarchy.

The Trap of Relativism

There is a point where tolerance, practiced at the opposite extreme from intolerance, becomes something known as relativism. In relativism, there are no absolutes. Everything is subjective and relative to the experience and choices of the individual. From a relativist standpoint, I cannot argue that red is red because there is no way for me to adequately prove that my version of red is the same “red” being perceived by someone who may in fact perceive that color as blue. Relativism caters to minority thinking in the extreme, careening perilously close to societal fragmentation and the disintegration of the fundamentals of language and communication. According to relativism, the very fact that someone might have a different experience than me makes it impossible for me to assert any experience as valid and true. And here is the trap of relativism. When definition is based upon subjective opinion, how do we determine what is real and what is not? Concepts like “truth” and “reality” lose all significance, because meaning can and does change from person to person, depending on their point of view.

Relativism and Religious Diversity

Superficially, relativism seems like a good idea, especially where spiritual and religious beliefs are concerned. Acknowledging that experiences are subjective and that each person’s interpretations of reality are relative to those subjective experiences is a basic part of accepting a diversity of religious beliefs. Religious experience is exceptionally subjective. My vision of “god” is not a Muslim’s vision of God, and even within a single sect, each person will have their own unique take on the divinity promulgated by that sect. But relativism, taken to its logical extreme, eventually allows someone to declare that “god” is in fact a dog, and no one can argue this claim. Now, before I proceed any further with this argument, let me clarify my own stance on religion and spirituality. I am what I have often described as a Universalist. I believe that there are as many names for Divinity as there are people to speak those names, and even more still. Further, there are as many paths to Divinity as there are people to walk them, and again, even more still. Our experience of “god” and the universe is ours and ours alone, and it cannot help but be subjective, unique, and intensely personal, spoken in our own soul-language. But isn’t this relativism? And with such a tolerant worldview, how can one discern legitimate beliefs from psychological delusions? To quote my good friend and fellow writer, Jason B. Crutchfield, that’s a slippery slope.

Truth Versus Delusion

In an ideal world, tolerance should not be qualified. In such a perfect and ideal world, the acceptance of every person’s different spiritual beliefs, experiences, and practices should be absolute. But we do not exist in an ideal world, and as too many experiences on the Internet have proven, some people are just lying or are deluded about their spiritual experiences. Most of us who have any experience in these matters have the ability to adequately discern a legitimate claim from a delusion or an outright lie. In most cases I’ve encountered, making this distinction is a no-brainer; we usually know on an intuitive level when someone is speaking from the heart about spiritual matters versus when they are shoveling a load of bull. However, if we uphold tolerance of individual beliefs as an absolute, there is no way we can really call these people out on their erroneous claims. There will always be that relativistic out that says, “Your experiences are not my experiences, so how can you know what’s right or wrong to me?” Usually there’s no need to wrestle with these sticky issues of right and wrong in regards to personal beliefs. However, especially on the Internet, I have seen erroneous claims do a lot of damage. When people use the widespread attitude of relativism to essentially claim that god is a dog, a lot of newcomers who have yet to develop adequate judgment get themselves really confused. In some cases, this just sets them back in their studies for a little while, as they have to backtrack from the misinformation and relearn the basics of things. In other cases, it may shatter a person’s faith in everything once they have accepted an erroneous belief and then learned that it was based upon lies or delusions. In the worst case scenario, people are misled into really dangerous territory, as in the Halle-Bopp Comet group who committed mass suicide to join alien saviors in outer space.

The Slippery Slope

I have been wrestling with these issues for many years now. Despite my efforts, I have yet to come up with any hard and fast rules for rating the validity of someone’s claims about magick or spirituality. Common sense is usually helpful, but within the Pagan and magickal communities, we are almost always dealing with uncommon experiences. I myself hold some beliefs that many would perceive as being “out there”, and from a rational-materialist perspective, anyone who believes in magick is “out there”. The best yardstick I have found is not a rigid one. It takes into account the fact that individuals do have radically different experiences and perspectives, and it further takes into account that my interpretation of reality may not be accurate or complete. Going from there, I usually judge a person’s validity based less upon their actual claims and more upon how that person presents those claims over a period of time. Credible people tend to present themselves rationally and consistently over the long run. They frequently lead up to the really wild claims, often qualifying them and acknowledging that you might not believe and are under no obligation to do so. I am far more inclined to believe the apparently delusional claims of someone who tells me, “This is what I believe,” than even the sober and reasonable claims of someone who says, “This is what you should believe.”

The Middle Path

. The very nature of spiritual experience means that much must be taken on faith. Of course in matters of faith, there is rarely an opportunity to provide cold, hard proof. When I do storm magick to end a dry spell, I have no way of proving that I was directly responsible for the ensuing thunderstorm. I just know on a level that often cannot be expressed in words. For someone coming outside of that sense of gnosis, the choice to believe is ultimately up to them – but at no time should a person feel obligated to believe simply out of a misplaced desire to respect my own beliefs. The extreme side of religious tolerance tells us that we cannot disbelieve in anyone’s experiences. The reality is that we should choose what we believe just as we choose which gods and goddesses to follow, or whether we follow any at all. Tolerating other peoples’ rights to their beliefs does not mean that we cannot make informed decisions regarding the validity of those beliefs. The Middle Path of tolerance is when we respect and encourage diversity but respect our own judgment as well.

Is diversity more than Political Correctitude?

[Ed: This was originally written in a discussion about the vampire
community, but the concepts apply equally well elsewhere]

So, now we’ve seen some examples of “I’m Real, You’re Not” and some
examples of “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” I’ve been thinking about how
to keep this tangle from shattering us the way it does so many
communities, and I came up with three different tools we might be able to
use.

Tolerance – So far, we’ve been pretty good at Tolerance. Tolerance is a
social contract – people come together and say, “Look, I don’t understand
some of you, but I’ll take your word for it that you belong.” It’s an
external framework that we voluntarily plug into in the hope of finding
SOME common ground to build on. Being external, it doesn’t require any
internal cognitive dissonance – Sue can think Ellen isn’t a real vampire,
but just kind of deal with the fact that Ellen thinks she is because
Ellen, like anyone else, probably has some interesting things to say.

Respect – Respect is the most stable and reliable tool for community-
building, but it’s totally different from Tolerance because it’s
completely internal. You respect some people, you don’t respect others.
You can TREAT people you don’t respect as though you respect them, if
you’ve got the personal strength for that sort of thing, but most people
don’t, and write it off as “hypocrisy” because they’ve got so much to
prove that they can’t just let it go. The important thing is that you
can’t just decide to respect someone, any more than you can decide to
love them or hate them, because it’s a feeling. Until someone has
*earned* your respect, you can’t genuinely respect them. Respect is
rare, and rightly so.

So how do you bridge the gap between the inherent tensions of diverse
people practicing Tolerance, and the rarity of Respect?

Courtesy! I know, it seems too simple and old-fashioned to be at all
useful – but it really does have meaning, and could save us as a community
if enough individuals decide to use it. It’s not completely external,
like Tolerance – no matter what community you’re a part of or not, it’s
totally up to you whether to treat your fellows with courtesy. Neither is
it totally internal, like Respect – it’s kind of a programming language
that translates between the machine language of what you really feel and
the outside world with its possibilities for functionality.

A nice perk of Courtesy is that it actually leads to Respect. A lot of
times, Respect is hindered by personal insecurity and lack of information.
But if you get a critical mass of diverse people practicing Courtesy, the
flow of information is unimpeded, and people are more likely to shrug off
the capes & masks and allow as how maybe someone totally different from
them might be for real too.

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