Empirical Religion

Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathenry, Heathen basics, Heathen worldview, Reconstruction

Heathenry is, at its heart, an empirical religion.1

I can hear some of you saying, “That’s a pretty bold claim for a religion that believes in gods, giants, elves, and dwarves. How are you going to back that up?”

Let’s begin by defining the word empirical. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “originating in or based on observation or experience”2. Many people use this word to be synonymous with the word “scientific” or “materialist”, but this is a rather recent understanding of this word. Its etymology shows its connection with experience and experiment3. The first usage of the word in English was in 1576, with the meaning quoted from Merriam-Webster above2. So, empirical religion is experience-based religion.

Like any reconstructed religion, Fyrnsidu is based upon the experiences of its predecessors. We begin by learning as much as possible about the religion of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. This will, of course, leave lots of gaps, so we fill in those gaps from a variety of sources, whether it be the ancient Norse, Greeks, Romans, or the experiences of contemporary pagans. Then, we put it into practice.

Our experiences will inform the future development of our praxis. Some of the practices will work for its practitioner, others will not. (How the practitioner defines what works can and will vary from practitioner to practitioner, but nothing in the the definition of empirical from above requires objectivity.) The practitioner will keep what works, will modify what doesn’t. This process never ends, as long as the practitioner follows an experience based religion, because it is a process that is very experience based.

I have written before about unverified personal gnosis (UPG). UPG is any knowledge that one has gained through experience which can’t be verified by the historical record or established lore. An example might be of someone finding out that Eostre loves chocolate. How might they have found this out? The simplest way is by offering Eostre chocolate and observing what happens. Many practitioners get a specific feeling when a deity accepts their offering. Others do one form or another of divination asking if the deity accepted their offering. Others just watch for signs from that deity following an offering. The point is, they try something and then observe what happens. This is the definition of empirical.

If more than one person has the same UPG, it’s called shared personal gnosis (SPG). An example might be if several people have offered chocolate to Eostre with good results. Knowledge that is obtained through personal experience which is verified by historical sources or established lore is known as verified personal gnosis (VPG). An example might be if I found out from personal experience that Thor loves mead. This is well backed up in Norse sources. Some people also include as VPG that which has come to be accepted by a majority of those who worship a certain deity.

Beliefs that can’t be verified by historical sources or the established lore that isn’t based upon one’s own personal experiences is not considered UPG. Its sometimes referred to as doxa, but it’s probably more accurate to simply call it a personal belief. An example would be if I decided to adopt someone else’s UPG. I didn’t personally experience it, so for me it’s not personal gnosis.

As an alternative to the vocabulary of UPG/VPG/SPG, some pagans prefer the terminology of epiphany and theophany. As I only have a very basic understanding of these terms, I’ll refer those who wish to dig deeper into this terminology to this video by Hellenist YouTuber Aliakai.

There are, of course, other aspects of religion that one can get from personal experience other than what a deity likes as an offering. Cosmology, ritual methodology, mythology, ethics, what a deity expects from their worshippers, are all examples of the things that can be discerned through our personal experiences with the gods and other divine beings. And there’s a variety of types of experiences from which practitioners can learn these things from. Besides what’s already been mentioned, there’s also visions, dreams, divination, signs from the gods, and many more ways to experience the gods.

Heathenry is not, of course, the only religion that has this experience-based spirituality. It’s in all religions to some degree. Christianity has its Pentecostal and charismatic movements, for example. But for newer religions that don’t have an established central authority (like most forms of paganism), experience is the life blood of its spirituality. Without experience, there is no metric by which to discern truth by.

And this is why Heathenry is an empirical religion, a religion that is based upon observation and experience.

  1. This is actually true of many religions, but it’s especially true for reconstructed religions. This will be discussed more a little bit later. 

  2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empirical  2

  3. “From Old French empirique, from Latin empiricus, from Ancient Greek ἐμπειρικός (empeirikós, “experienced”), from ἐμπειρία (empeiría, “experience, mere experience or practice without knowledge, especially in medicine, empiricism”), from ἔμπειρος (émpeiros, “experienced or practised in”), from ἐν (en, “in”) + πεῖρα (peîra, “a trial, experiment, attempt”).” From https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/empiric#English