Unverified Personal Gnosis: A Response & A Challenge

On Wednesday, Sam Webster posted an article to WitchesAndPagans.com's Arkadian Anvil titled UPG: and ugly, misguided notion that got a good deal of traction around pagan social media. Obviously, this wouldn't be showing up on the Riot if I were going to agree with the article. So, I'm here to do a few things:

  1. Correct the incomplete definition of Unverified/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis that seems to be the basis for Webster's article.
  2. Challenge the writer, and those offended by the notion of UPG as a method of labeling. 
Let's get started, shall we?
The author of the article in question seems to take great issue with Unverified/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis as it is defined by Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia is known by all to be the paragon of journalistic integrity, I decided to read said article for myself. There's a funny thing that happens when you look up the UPG page. This appears at the very top:

Right away, I can tell you the article is more than likely incorrect, as it is sourced from only one place. Scrolling to the bottom, we find out, lo and behold, that the entire article was sourced from Kaatryn MacMorgan, 2003. Wicca 333: Advanced Topics in Wiccan Belief. (ISBN 0-595-27170-7). A quick search on Google and Amazon told me that this book is not only out of print by 10 years, but published back in 2003 from some publisher titled iUniverse, Inc. And...what, exactly is iUniverse? Well, it's a self-publishing website, of course!

Dear, dear Mr. Webster. You used Wikipedia as your source, and you didn't even source the article's one and only citation? Tut tut, says the academic community.
It should be noted, this entire process took me 3 minutes, and I paused in the middle to get a glass of water.

So, let's start from where we really are: Kaatryn MacMorgan's personal definition for Unverified Personal Gnosis, which was neither proofread, nor edited, nor run by any sort of authority...

Which...is exactly what Unverified/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis actually is! Doing a bit of poking around in my old college religious textbooks - imagine that, starting your research from a book, which seems to be rather contrarian to Webster's argument that we should privilege experience over recorded research. I found that personal gnosis is not a new term, but I could not find either Unverified or Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis as a term. When I went to research it, the only thing I could find - both on Google Scholar and Google itself were articles written from a pagan perspective.

So, I am going to point to About.com's article on the subject, as it was written by an actual college professor who actually teaches religion...actually. Hello Catherine Beyer!

Beyer defines UPG as
Unverifiable personal gnosis, or UPG, concerns knowledge that holds importance to an individual, usually in a spiritual or metaphysical sense, even if no objective, corroborating evidence can be produced to support it. 
This is the definition I am more familiar with, and that which is more correct to what the terms actually break down to mean. Webster spends a good deal of time 'breaking down' UPG into its component parts, and then arguing, incorrectly, that unverified and unsubstantiated means it has to be written down by some ancient culture or large group of people. He spends no time at all discussing whether Substantiated might be referring to its root word that also means 'given substance'. In other words, evidence, my friends.

Substantiated means, at least according to the dictionary, which...I know...I know...is also a book of written down information, so it must be evil, means
substantiate |səbˈstanCHēˌāt| verb [ with obj. ] provide evidence to support or prove the truth of: they had found nothing to substantiate the allegations.
Substantiate does not mean "What it usually refers to is that the data provided by the vision can be found in a known source, usually a book, possibly a myth, especially one treated as scripture. When that doesn’t happen we get told, “We can’t find your insight in a (our) book, therefore it is unsubstantiated.”"

Liturgy is not fact. This is a truth we have been trying to tell the more radical portions of various religions, and what many cite as a boon to Paganism. We have no Book. Capital B.

So, folks, Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis literally means 'a knowledge of the mystical, important and kept by you alone, that is neither corroborated, nor, possibly, supported, by facts or evidence.' When looked at correctly, the conclusions Webster reaches are both incorrect and far-flung. Webster seems to believe that UPG as a label is a way for folks in a religious organization or umbrella to bully others who go off track. It's a way of saying "Aphrodite cannot be a blue-skinned faery woman, because our book says she's a drag queen". But, that's not wholly correct.

Unverified/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis is a truth about the divine, usually coming from personal experience, where you feel something is true. True. For. You. I saw a pretty sweet quote floating around Facebook yesterday.
“You’re allowed to believe in a god. You’re allowed to believe unicorns live in your shoes for all I care. But the day you start telling me how to wear my shoes so I don’t upset the unicorns, I have a problem with you. The day you start involving the unicorns in making decisions for this country, I have a big problem with you.” -Matthew Shultz
This is an example of UPG, as it is the personal experience of one person that unicorns live in your shoes. If I look in your shoes, I will not see unicorns. UPG is a common term among pagans, but Beyer has it correct that it applies to other religions. UPG is not a label meaning that your brand of crazy must match my already established brand of crazy, as much as Webster's article and ostensibly MacMorgan's book make it out to be.

The lesson here is that if a group of folks is trying to tell you that you couldn't have had X experience, because the rest of the group has only experienced Y, then both parties need to realize this is a learning opportunity. The fact that we all believe in invisible friends is an act of UPG in the first place. That we say 'I heard the Goddess' voice' or 'I saw faeries in the woods' or 'my Book of Shadows was humming with energy' are all examples of Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis.

But...there is already a word out there that means something very close, if not identical, to UPG.

Truthiness was a term coined and made famous in 2005 by Stephen Colbert. It means truth is something you feel to be true, and not necessarily something proven by research. What, folks, is the difference between UPG and Truthiness?

Here is my challenge: Why is UPG an offensive label? It should be taken as a challenge! A challenge to learn more about your experience! A challenge to those of us experiencing these experiences! How did this experience occur? What images did you see? How did you feel? Research those images! Search those feelings! Dive deep into the mysteries of self and learn more about YOUR relationship with the Divine.

It is supposed to be yours, right?

Then why are you offended if someone labels your tale of wonder and magic a UPG? They're saying there's no evidence to support it. They're saying it's truthiness. And....folks...that's because it is. But calling a spade a spade, an experience an experience, is no more derisive than saying that one thing is a spoon and one thing is a fork. It is calling it for what it is. It's putting the metaphysical ball back in your court. 

It's saying, "That's an article based on only one source. Could you provide a few more to help substantiate your claims?" If we took up this challenge, imagine how rich and deep your relationships with deity could go.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte


  1. Very nice. I agree. Rather than seeing it as a term to shut us down it is a recognition of a lack of verification and there ARE people recognizing UPG as a starting point to either be verified or disproven.

    In the past I setup a Personal Gnosis Verification Tool on my blog http://powerbeforewisdom.com . I took it down recently due to an update and a complete lack of use. Now that people are having this conversation I may set it back up. ;-)

    The processed started with post a UPG. If other members had a supporting experience they could vote it up. If they had a disputing experience they could vote it down, and if they had no experience on the topic they were asked to please NOT vote. There was a place to link to sources or examples which supported or disputed the UPG. At a certain number of up votes the UPG would become recognized as an SPG (shared personal gnosis) and at a much higher number of votes it would transition into a VPG (Verified Personal Gnosis).

  2. If memory serves, the concept of UPG dates back decades to some early essays/articles in Green Egg. It's been a core concept for Pagans for a very long time, a way to say that we can respect other people's spiritual experiences and honor their "reality" for the person who experienced them, even if those experiences are really different from ours. Lemme dig thru my old stacks and I'll see what I can scan up for you. Btw MacMorgan's book is really interesting--I wouldn't denigrate it just for being a decade old and from a small publisher.

    1. To clarify, the comments regarding MacMorgan's book were:

      1) It was the sole source for the Wikipedia article.

      2) It was not from a 'small publisher'. It was self-published, and, therefore, without any editorial oversight.

      3) Concluding, those items from her book were her findings and opinions alone.

      However interesting or deeply thought out her book may be, it does not make it the sole source for understanding, codifying, or defining UPG. And, as was shown, is actually touting an incorrect idea, should the items from the article truly be paraphrases or quotations from her book, as was cited.

      Just as with the issue of UPG, more than a single source is needed for an article to be given any kind of credibility or clout.


    2. Ok, you caught a mistake, I said "small" when I meant "self." But "editorial oversight" doesn't really mean anything here. It's not the same thing as peer review. I'm sure we can agree that there are a plethora of crappy books on Paganism (and everything else...) out there that have been nicely vetted by editors/publishers.

    3. Nicole - Going back to the point of...

      I don't care how well-written, well-researched, or potentially perfectly executed the book was; it should never be the sole source for a supposed academic article.

      And, yes, you're totally right. Tons of shitty pagan books out there that just quote each other's bologna without digging any deeper.

      Which, to beat the dead horse, is why we don't use just one book to define an idea or source an article.


    4. Ah, but see, that wasn't what you wrote--you very clearly stated at some length that the problem was TWOfold: 1) just one source, and 2) an outdated, inaccurate, not-properly-vetted source. I have no problem with your first point at all, but the second is problematic, especially when you aren't familiar with the book itself (which I am assuming is the case since you did the 3-min-google for more info).

    5. Nope. Not what I said.

      I said it was a self-published book from 10 years ago. I said it had no editorial oversight. I said that this means her opinions were hers, and that this wiki article was based on one person's opinion.

      When did I say inaccurate? That would be a faulty judgment since I haven't read the book.

      You're reading a bit much into what I've said. This book must mean quite a bit to you. Not trying to slander the author, but I'm also saying one person's book shouldn't be defining a term on Wikipedia.

  3. Augh, I could read your writing all day. Your combination of wit and humor with academic style makes me a happy camper. :)

  4. The thing that really bugs me about people who attack UPG is that they always seem to come from a "our religion is static, it must be researched and proved by scholarly sources, and it can never, ever be something it wasn't back in ye olde dayes!!!!"

    Research is great, I love it, I do as much of it as I can. I love sources, I love reading things that were written as historically accurately as possible (things written during the time period in question, by people who were a part of the group in question are awesome....assuming I can actually read the text).

    BUT, I absolutely do NOT see my faith as something that was created back in some distant past (when exactly is always a point of contention as well...). My faith is not something that has been captured in amber or preserved in some kind of stasis bubble. I live in a modern world, and I approach my faith as a modern person. I adapt to my circumstances.

    Of course there is no historically accurate source for which deity to use when working with computers. I personally find it a bit odd that any deity that I would work with would be unaware of modern technology. Anything that wasn't around centuries ago pretty much by definition falls into the UPG category...and since I have no plans on returning to an ancient way of life, I tend to embrace UPG.

    1. Thus my article.

      Also, who is doing all this attacking of UPG? Up until this guy's article, I hadn't ever heard it used as a pejorative.


    2. LOL - then you haven't been around certain FB groups (Lucky you!)

      I have heard it as a pejorative before. However, your definition is a very nice neutral, logical explaination of it and its place in Pagan thought. I think it's one I'll be using from now on. Nicely reasoned!

    3. Most Heathen and Asatru groups use UPG as an attack. If you claim to have an actually experience with Odin/Thor/Freyja/ etc. then you are clearly off your rocker and should be dismissed instantly as psychotic.

      Research is fantastic, it gives us a cultural understanding of where the Deities come from and how our ancestors interacted with them. I read and dissect everything I can get my grubby little paws on, but, at the end of the day some of what I encounter can't be explained (a preferred color or stone or flower offering that I divined through pendulum dowsing) in the context of what I have read. That is just for me and no one else.

  5. What I don't understand is why people who have had UPGs seem to ignore the P. Personal! I'm all for research, I tend to research things just because I have nothing better to do. But if it is personally spiritually significant to an individual,then why this need for outside validation? Why do we feel the need to make others believe in our experience, often while trying to .shoot down someone else's.

  6. I think it depends on the UPG. I had one a while back that had me thinking that maybe the hiean era royalty were not scrawny twigs with women who were so malnourished they could not have monthly messes. It was a theory out of the blue then that maybe a group of reenacters I knew had it wrong.

    It needed some form of verification to be taken as anything more than a theory. Looking back, sure, a god could have had something to do with it, or not. I can't prove that part.

    So I found verification in diet and art that I was not out of my mind. The court ladies get painted with three chins and may have eaten more nutritious food than most modern people today. I also documented the sumo tradition to before that era. Now I wasn't crazy, I had followed a hunch to facts that gave me a more accurate account of history. It's no longer a UPG.

    That said, there are some things I have experiences that I suspect will always be UPG's because there really is no way for me to document it as fact. Sure, for me they feel like solid fact, but I lived them. Not everyone draws that line.

  7. Hi Fire Lyte,

    Quick note: "calling a spade a spade" has a connotation of racist slur I'm thinking you didn't intend.

    I know Sam, and he is quite well read and educated. Wikipedia is far from his only source of information. Many people use Wikipedia as their starting reference to understand something, so it's a good starting point to discuss the subject. I'm glad you analyze the Wikipedia sources, wish more people did.

    UPG is used to dismiss people's shared insights. It solidifies the divide between external and internal, "spiritual" and "real" that haunts contemporary Paganism/esotericism. There are many useful points to be made about the utility of the term, but insisting that it is not derogatory is not one of them. It makes light of the lived experience of people harmed by the term. Hopefully that is not what you meant either.

    Your criticisms here miss the mark. I invite you into respectful dialogue. Sam made interesting points. Can you argue the opposite case? Can you make a case for why responding "UPG!" to someone's experience shuts the conversation down? That's a handy way to walk in someone else's shoes for a mile or two. :-)

    1. Wow! Reading this article from three years ago really takes me back.

      Feel free to search the site for the numerous other articles and podcast episodes I've done in the last three years regarding UPG.


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