Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) and Group Confirmed Spiritual Gnosis (GCSG). The terms either raise your hackles, make you smile, or leave you with a vague, “What did he just say?” look on your face. Personally, I’m middle of the road on these things, and I’ll explain why after we examine what they are, and how they influence people.
When an individual expresses an unsupported or unverifiable belief about something in a Pagan faith, it’s sometimes referred to as “UPG”, because that person believes it, but there’s no way to confirm or deny what they’re claiming. This is very common in many Pagan circles, and can have profound influence on new members or members without a depth of knowledge. This happens because people are impressionable, and the more often you hear things, and especially if they come from a source viewed as being an authority, the more likely you are to start thinking and believing the same things.
The situation above of can lead to the next stage, “GCSG”, or Corroborated Personal Gnosis (CPG). I prefer the former term, as its more accurate for what happens. After UPG floats around for long enough, people start to talk about it as though it were their own experience as well, and it moves from being a personal to a group belief, confirmed by weight of numbers. This is when it can effect real influence on a faith, since its able to claim legitimacy based on the number of people believing in it.
Normally, this isn’t a major issue, and only contributes to the natural dynamic nature of Pagan beliefs and practices. However, when the original creator of the idea has unacknowledged biases or influences, it can cause problems. This latter scenario crops up, in my observation, more often in the reconstructionist side of the Pagan house, where UPG and GCSG run headlong into historical and archaeological materials, scholarship, and interpretations. In this latter case, the result can be a mild shift or positive dynamic change. However, it can also be the catalyst for serious conflict and division, especially if there is a clear influence from another Pagan faith.
Where UPG and GCSG can do the most damage though is in places where there is little or no information or existing knowledge base. Under these circumstances, an event called “Read Back” occurs. Read back is an anthropological event, where a people separated from their heritage take any material related to their culture and treat it as literal truth. This phenomena occurs within Pagan circles with alarming frequency in my observations, especially in smaller offshoots of larger Pagan communities. It’s important to point out here that this doesn’t make the people who are doing the read back stupid or easily lead. Far from it. However, given the relative lack of time people have today, its hard to do the research and critical thinking needed to evaluate all the information being presented. I know I’ve made an ass of myself on more than one occasion in the past from doing just this.
So, what does it all come out to? Well, as I said, I’m middle of the road on the subject. I think that UPG and GCSG have a place in modern Paganism, after all, these are dynamic faiths we practice. That said, I also think a lot of it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Like any other piece of information you get presented, even if it already agrees with something you think, it needs to be examined. Where did it come from? What possible influences are there on it or the person telling it you? Does it fit in organically with what’s already present, or does it represent an unprecedented departure from the norm? If you’re still not sure, bounce the idea off some people from outside the conversation and get their take on it. I think you get the idea now.
Unfortunately, we live in a modern world where critical thinking is at a premium; not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of time, and the ever present distractions of living in the information age. However, Pagans were at the forefront of critical thinking and philosophy in the past, and it’s up to us to carry on their legacy as best we can. When confronted by UPG and GCSG, use your head, and make sure that your respective faith grows in a healthy and sustainable way.