Pragmatism and Outcomes-Oriented Religion

I’ve watched a lot of debates about cosmology and the nature of the Divine Mystery: between religions and within the Pagan umbrella.  It holds its own allure, I suppose, but I have never understood why people become so vehement about their own worldview or so critical of others’.  I have always shrugged off such diversity as part and parcel of the fascinating and imaginative array of humans’ attempts to understand themselves and the universe.

Recently, John Halstead offered an article that implied that worldview is important because it drives actionable outcomes in the world.  (You can find his blog post here: https://godsandradicals.org/2017/10/02/escaping-the-otherworld-the-false-enchantment-of-pagan-escapism/.)  He also implied that many or most of the world’s religious practitioners, both Pagan and not, have worldviews that lead to suboptimal outcomes – a disengagement, a disconnection, a disenchantment in the world.  It’s not an uncommon premise.  In fact, the idea that thought generates action underlies most educational-type social service programs, ranging from educating women about family planning to educating people about why it’s important to recycle and buy solar panels.

The problem is, I don’t think it works that way (and a lot of research indicates it doesn’t, as well).  (But I really appreciate his kick-starting of my thought process!)

It isn’t that women have children because they don’t understand the basics of family planning or value control over their fertility.  It’s mostly that women face barriers, such as a lack of affordable birth control, a lack of other opportunities to build wealth and social standing, or a lack of controlling their fertility (i.e., their husbands control the family’s fertility).  It isn’t that people fail to recycle or use a ton of non-renewable electricity because they don’t know better or are unaware of alternatives.  It has to do with personal motivation, time and resource investment, and broader structural issues such as the city’s solid waste programs and financing for solar.

In the same way, I do not think worldview – any worldview – can be generalized to lead toward or away from re-enchating the world, engaging the world, or connecting to it.  There are people in all traditions and none at all who do this work.  And there are people in all traditions and none at all who do not.  Without strong evidence to the contrary, our privileging of specific worldviews rests on personal bias.  If one is looking to bolster one’s feelings of confidence in one’s own worldview, I suppose that is fine.  But if one is looking for interfaith engagement to actually change the world, it’s a fairly suboptimal place to begin.

people composting in a garden

At an urban farm where I currently intern, there are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, agnostic, and non-religious people working alongside me. Our cosmologies are very different. Our ethics are the same: the earth is sacred and worth humans’ efforts to relate to it and serve it better. Composting is a sacred act, regardless of whether we do it because the earth is god or because the earth belongs to god(s).

Taking a Pragmatic Approach to Religion

How else could we think about religion and its diversity, if we care about forging broad interfaith or inter-Pagan movements to change the world for the better?  I would offer that one way to proceed would be pragmatism, and particularly thinking of religion in an outcomes-oriented way.

Pragmatism evaluates truth (of a belief, worldview, practice) based on its practical application.  Successes mean that truth is present, regardless of whether that truth makes sense for another person.  In this way, pragmatism offers a way forward in directly confronting what we hope religion will DO, and it acknowledges that, as humans are very diverse in their needs, backgrounds, perceptions, understandings, and so on – it is likely that there will be many truths which can even disagree with one another, so long as people find the truth useful for achieving the outcomes that are desired.

 

Outcomes-Orientation

What are those outcomes we desire?  We usually talk about the outcomes of religion, any religion, in very fuzzy and feel-good ways.  We want people to be compassionate, joyful, grateful, and peaceful.  We want them to engage, connect, even “enchant.”  This sounds nice and can be inspiring.  But it’s a bit meaningless when it comes to discernment of a truth for oneself.

What would outcomes-oriented religion look like?  Outcomes have indicators and measurements.  They’re operationalized into something that people can use as a gauge for success.  We’d have to operationalize concepts like “enchantment” – not just defining what we think it means, but how we can tell when it’s achieved or if we’ve moved closer to the goal.  What does enchantment look like?  What actions move us toward enchantment, and which do not?  We have to be especially careful of interior states – how people feel or think – because the only way we can get at this information reliably is to ask.  Our judgments of others’ feelings or thoughts are really our own perceptions, and without asking, we can’t know if we’re projecting our own assumptions onto others.  So the baseline of a pragmatic, outcomes-oriented religion is to set actionable goals with indicators that we’re making progress or that we’ve succeeded.  This is really difficult to do, but I think it’s worthwhile to consider, because it’s directly related to changes we want to see in ourselves and our world.

There are models for this.  Consider the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood.”  There is a whole literature of teachings on how this is unpacked within Buddhist ethics and values, including the kinds of activities that are considered right livelihood and those that aren’t.  You can measure, as an individual practitioner, whether or not you’ve met the goal, and if you haven’t, you can identify steps that would help you progress toward that goal.  Such goals exist firmly entwined with values and ethics, but somewhat independently of worldview and cosmology.  This “wiggle room” (sometimes a lot, sometimes a little) allows individuals to select which practices and beliefs help them most with regard to achieving the goal, and accommodates the varieties of individual religious experience that exist within any tradition.

many varieties of tomatoes

In staying with the farm theme, I give you a quilt of tomatoes. They’re all tomatoes, but they look different and taste different. The diversity is what makes for an interesting, wonderful cuisine. It would be kind of sad, to me, if there were only one or two kinds of tomato.

Inclusive Interfaith Discussion and Work

An outcomes-oriented approach allows us to approach religious diversity with cultural relativism – avoiding judging others by our own standards – and encourages us to be compassionate and supportive of others with whom we disagree.  We can find commonalities in ethics and values, in the goals of what we’d like the world to be, without necessarily having agreement about how to get there.  We have to be careful, in our interactions with others, not to set our expectations (those outcomes) so high that ordinary people – with all their ordinary obligations – are unable to attain them.  It is a more fruitful conversation for changing the world to identify the floor of problematic behavior and set goals a little higher than this (what are often the vows lay people take in religions like Buddhism) than it is to expect everyone to uphold an extremely high standard (what are often the vows that monastics take).  Even within single religious traditions, humans need scaffolding and room for development across their lives, and forgiveness when they are making efforts and fall short of a goal.

Barriers, Limitations, and Engaging in Good Faith

It is also important for generating change inclusively, that when we evaluate others’ religious beliefs and practices, we do not blame their worldview or religion for suboptimal outcomes that may be caused by other factors.  Basically, in our own lives and when evaluating others’ beliefs and practices, we need to look at all the factors that lead to an outcome holistically.  We have to be honest about the limitations of our own knowledge and attempt, in good faith, not to judge others by our own standards or to insert our prejudices, biases, and assumptions into our assessment.  The truth (in a pragmatic sense) is usually rather complex, but it is worthwhile understanding if we really care about outcomes and not agreement.  Barriers and limitations can be addressed and support can be offered, but only if we haven’t alienated people by decrying their most sincerely held beliefs, practices, cultural backgrounds, and identities first. Finally, in inter-Pagan dialogue, we need to recognize that this is interfaith dialogue and apply some of the same ground rules if we want it to be productive.  Paganism is not a religious tradition.  It is many traditions with historical entwinement.  As such, if we approached one another the way that we would approach a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a Taoist, we would likely be closer to productive dialogue that moves from debates about worldview to common action toward meaningful change in the world.

Respect for Diversity and Critical Engagement of the Other

In short, both within religious traditions and between them, if we really want to change the world, we need to start with respect and valuing of diversity – diverse worldviews, callings and sense of purpose, practices, and experiences.  We need to come together around the outcomes that we, as change-makers, wish to see in the world and forge alliances with people whose worldviews and religious practices might differ from ours, but whose vision for the operationalization of positive change is similar.  And this doesn’t mean we can never be critical, but we really need to ask ourselves – very deeply – if criticism of one another is helping advance the outcomes we want.  If we are seeking deeper connection, but our criticism alienates people unlike ourselves, have we found truth (in a pragmatic sense)?  We need to call out bullshit, but prioritization of calling out bullshit should go to what is actively harming people, such as racism, ableism, transphobia, and abuse – all of which have been not-infrequent problems in Pagan communities.  When we are disruptive toward building community – in our tone, our premise, our word choice, our unwillingness to forgive and look at one another anew – we should really ask ourselves (and sit with the question for a while): is this advancing the outcomes that would lead to a better world?  If not, we should consider that our egos or our personal biases are getting in the way of that vision.

plums of many varieties

With skill, hard work, and a bit of good fortune to overcome barriers like pests, we can realize beautiful, bountiful harvest. I think this is true of our spiritual life too, if we take a pragmatic approach and are open to creatively addressing limitations and barriers cross-religiously.

Some Conclusions

To sum up, an outcomes-oriented, pragmatic religious approach:

  • Sets goals with indicators for the results of one’s religious practice. This sets a “reality check” for the practitioner on how their spiritual development is going, regardless of worldview or interior spiritual experience, and encourages taking personal responsibility for the outcomes in our world.
  • Is holistic in looking for ways to advance a better world and forgives others continually, because many factors lead to specific actions. Our best is different at different points in our lives.  Others’ best is often guided by their struggles, which we may not know.  Forgiveness and acting in good faith, repeatedly, is key toward moving us toward a more humane and connected world.
  • Values diversity in calling or sense of purpose, needs, perceptive and cognitive patterns, personalities, and cultural backgrounds. Different people’s minds and bodies work differently, and this is considered a strength, so that we can all contribute what we can toward common outcomes.
  • Bravely calls out evidence of disjointedness between a religious tradition’s values and ethics and its practitioner’s actions, if these are harmful – but carefully assesses such criticism against the outcomes that are being advanced.
  • Recognizes that religious traditions should be judged by their own standards, not one’s own, unless there is demonstrable harm that is clearly linked to the religion’s beliefs and/or practices.
  • Is inclusive in the conversation around meaningful change in the world, and seeks points of agreement and commonality in common outcomes – supporting humans’ freedom and creativity to reach these outcomes and generate meaning in their lives in diverse ways.

About the Author

I'm Kimberly Kirner, a Druid (in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids). My spirituality is focused first on serving the nature spirits of this lovely being we call Earth. I'm a professor of cultural anthropology by profession, specializing in environmental and medical anthropology. I started this blog (and my website) to collect my thoughts and experiences that arise from my spiritual and creative (rather than professional) practice. I wanted a space, a time, to move differently in the world (and with a different group of people): to balance between an analytical approach and an intuitive one. For me, Druidry is about expanding our capacity to connect and communicate with the non-human world, deepening our commitment to justice for all beings, and re-enchanting the world so that we heal the brokenness and discord that exists between humans and our home. In many ways, my Druidic practice is a path toward walking between the worlds - of waking and dreaming, of the world as it is and the world as it could be. It is an attempt to love all beings through service, study, and art. I am not always great at it, but it's the commitment and perseverance that counts.

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