Does Truth Matter?

Eppur si muove.
—Galileo Galilei

 

Recently. a friend posted to the Atheopaganism Facebook group, describing a conversation she was having elsewhere in which accusations of “classism” and “colonialism” were being leveled at those who express what is almost certainly the truth: that gods and magic do not exist, except as ideas.

And you know? That accusation may have a point…if that message is directed at indigenous practitioners of native spiritualities. For those people, cultural preservation is important—and threatened—no matter how out of step with objective reality their beliefs might be. They have reasons to steward and preserve their cultures which have nothing to do with how factually accurate their cosmologies and mythologies may be. And except for the most conservative, many indigenous people are happy to incorporate new knowledge, to integrate their traditions with modernity.

But for Pagans? Overwhelmingly white, middle class PAGANS? No, sorry, expressing the truth that, based on the available evidence, gods and magic do not appear to be real to today’s Neo-Pagans is not “colonialism”. Those folks aren’t preserving a tenuous and endangered cultural tradition of centuries; they’re in the process of inventing their own paths, individually. That means that they have the ability to embrace the truth if they want to. If they choose not to, that choice is fair game for challenge.

As for “classism”, let’s be clear: yes, education and scientific literacy are rarer among the poor and downtrodden. But the solution to that is not to celebrate ignorance as a “valid perspective”. It is to provide the means to be less ignorant to those who are, and particularly to fight for opportunities in STEM education and employment for the poor, women and people of color. It is a scandal and a shame that scientific literacy is an indicator of privilege in our society; the proper response is to fight for opportunities for those who are scientifically illiterate to become scientifically literate, not simply to rubber-stamp ignorance as “okay”.

It is not appropriate to shame those who are less educated, particularly if they are open to learning. THAT is classist. But doubling down on beliefs rooted in lack of education out of a sense of identity does not make their lack of education a virtue. And it certainly does not make advocacy for critical thinking a vice.

The alternative to these approaches is for spiritual beliefs to become the magical get-out-of-scrutiny-free card*. Say a person believes that you must sacrifice dachshunds to a magical pink puppy that confers wishes and glitter? Oh, no, we can’t ask any tough questions about that: it’s spiritual!

Now, I generally no longer engage in the your-gods-aren’t-real conversation out of etiquette. It’s rude to tell people that such dearly held beliefs don’t stand up to critical inquiry (even though it’s true). So unless someone tells me that something is true “because god/dess X told me so”, or that some unethical behavior is “a god’s will”, I avoid asking the hard questions that so offend the credulous, not because it is somehow “immoral” to ask them, but simply out of politeness.

There are those who go so far as to claim that science and critical analysis themselves are inherently colonialist, racist, sexist, name-your-ist. They point to times when racist, sexist and culturally chauvinistic “science” has been used to justify appalling actions by colonialist and patriarchal powers. And they argue that the very spirit of critical inquiry itself is a violation of “other ways of knowing”.

First of all, let’s be clear: the egregious scientific rationalizations of oppressive and colonizing behavior happened a long time ago. 50+ years, at least, and for the worst offenses you have to go back to the 19th century.

Today’s scientific consensus does not support racist theory. Nor sexist gender bias. Nor heteronormativity. And although those problems still exist within the scientific community, the process itself has weeded it out from what science tells us today, which is that we are all of equal potential and value. The solution to bad science is more and better science, not abandonment of reason for whatever we might make up.

As it just so happens, the Culture of Oppression—the Euro-derived Western patriarchy—codified the best way we have of determining what is factually true: the scientific method. But the one is not the other. And conflating the two is a rhetorical tactic, not an analysis. Indigenous cultures and non-Western cultures have been using experimentation and evidence to determine factual truth for practical uses for millennia; arguing that it is only “Western colonization” that has done so is simply erroneous and defamatory.

As for science as an inherently colonizing force, that only works as a theory if you equally value “knowledge” that is invented and knowledge that is factually true. And while I can respect the value of culture, I do not extend that respect so far as to think it should trump reality.

I think it matters what the nature of the Universe is. And in order to understand that, we have to differentiate between that and what the Universe is not. In order to treat a headache, you need to understand that trepanning to let out evil spirits is not the right way to do it.

The dismissal of science as an “oppressor” and a “colonialist” is in my opinion a rhetorical dodge, designed to put advocates of critical inquiry on the defensive and to divert the conversation from the fundamental question of truth and falsehood. The use of the very term “colonization” in this context is in itself unreasonable, conflating as it does literal slavery and genocide with criticism of a given culture’s ideas. Those things are not the same, to even the slightest extent.

Science is a gift to humanity. It is penicillin, and electric light, and world travel, and telecommunications. And the revelation of so many wonders.

Are there downsides to all of those things? Certainly. Science is also nuclear weapons.

But there are far greater downsides to ignorance (and let’s face it–people have been using whatever technical advances they made to devise weaponry since LONG before the advent of the scientific method). When we do have knowledge, it makes absolutely no sense to defend erroneous understanding as somehow valid, unless there are other considerations (such as cultural preservation).

Consider the alternatives to challenging cultural norms based in fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Cosmos: human sacrifice to bring the Sun up? Murder of albinos for “witch powder”? Slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses for erectile dysfunction “medicine”? Each of these practices is based in beliefs which are “true” for a culturally specific value of “true”.

Shall we celebrate climate change denial and flat-Earthism as valid and legitimate because the less educated are more likely to embrace them? The suggestion is ridiculous and dangerous. So why shall we not critique the even bigger lie of the credulous, the God Lie, which leads so many to disdain our planet in the hope of an imaginary afterlife?

I say the truth matters, and lack of education is a problem to be addressed, not a condition to be defended or celebrated. The Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. Evolution is real. Anthropogenic climate change is real. Humans first evolved in Africa, and migrated elsewhere. The germ theory of infectious diseases is true.

And there isn’t any phenomenon in the Universe that is best explained by the existence of gods.

These things are true for every human, whether they know or believe them or not.

And that matters. It is no moral crime to dare to say it.

Not in Galileo’s time, and not in ours.

 

 


*Not coincidentally, I believe: I think that putting spiritual beliefs off-limits to critical analysis is exactly the goal of those who throw epithets like “classism” and “colonialism” at those who dare to ask the questions that make them uncomfortable.

 

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13 thoughts on “Does Truth Matter?

  1. If you have cut through any bs here, it is the bs of a straw man or a misrepresented position. You assert that certain kinds of practitioners of magic, defined by race and class (white, middle class), choose not to embrace the truth and to “rubber stamp ignorance.” I am white and a member of the shrinking middle class. I am a pantheist/animist who practices a kind of magic. I also wholeheartedly embrace knowledge acquired via the scientific method, and I celebrate education. I know many others who fall into the same set of categories. What do you make of that? What was your intention for posting this piece?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think my intention was clear: that hiding behind rhetorical accusations of classism and colonialism in order not to have to confront fundamental questions of fact is not a valid critical approach for those in the Pagan community who do so.

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    • Let’s be clear: such accusations have become a mainstay of the debate over theism in Paganism. Choosing to level what are at root ad hominem smears rather than to actually defend your position is not a valid standpoint.

      An individual with free choice in how they craft their spiritual path cannot, by definition, be “colonized”. Only a coherent culture such as those of indigenous people, with centuries of accumulated history and tradition, can be colonized.

      As for classism, the argument speaks for itself. Whether or not lower classes are less scientifically literate does not make being scientifically illiterate more valid, nor more of a positive.

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  2. As for your personal situation, well, if the shoe does not fit, don’t wear it. It certainly does for many, particularly those who expound at length that it is “colonialist” and “classist” to dare to suggest that there are factual realities in the Universe, and that gods and (real, physically effective at a distance) magic do not, according to the evidence, appear to be among them.

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  3. The critique is not about the validity of science or the importance of seeking truth, so setting it up that way is a straw man fallacy. The problem is that atheopagan discourse devalues sources of knowledge other than science, such as ethical and aesthetic knowledge. You ask in this post whether truth matters, but by that you mean only empirically derived truth. What about art? Is a painting true? Is knowledge derived from one’s personal experience of ritual and other forms of art valid? Science is the best way we have of evaluating factual claims; on that point I like to think there’s widespread agreement. But the scientific method is not the only way to seek understanding of the world.

    Furthermore you present your worldview as the One True Way. Those who disagree must either be “indigenous” or ignorant fools. This is condescending and paternalistic. Your romanticization of “natives” trying to nobly preserve their cultures doesn’t reflect the reality or diversity of their situations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’re reading a lot into this piece that isn’t there.

      For one thing, this article is talking about factual truth. Art is not “true”–it just IS. It exists. People derive meaning from it (or don’t). Is knowledge derived from such an experience valid? Well, MAYBE. It is if it’s not trying to make claims about the factual nature of the Universe. If it IS trying to make such claims, then no, it’s not valid.

      This article is very specifically about people who try to change the subject from whether or not their gods are real by throwing accusations at those asking them uncomfortable questions. I have established quite thoroughly, I think, the invalidity of this rhetorical tactic.

      “Other ways of knowing the Universe” don’t deliver facts. They may deliver opinions, impressions, intuitions, even wisdom. But they don’t tell us anything about the **factual nature of the Universe**. They do not tell us whether or not gods are real, even if they give the impression that they are. Subjective experience is not data.

      My way is just my way, not a “One True Way”, and I suspect that your reactivity to such a suggestion is what drives your protest here. But the Universe objectively exists outside of ourselves. It doesn’t matter what our opinions are about it or our impressions of it: it remains as it is. Those who choose not to use critical thinking and scientific analysis in determining their worldviews are free to do so, but you are correct: I do not respect that position. Call that “condescending” if you like, but it is certainly not “paternalistic”.

      Since when is sticking up for the truth the bad-guy position? I really think you need to re-think this.

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      • You say your way is just your way, but many of your writing seem to show a pretty wide streak of fundamentalism. It does not seem to be enough for you to criticize those who reject the scientific method altogether (I have yet to meet such a person even among the most devout theistic Pagans). Rather, it seems that anyone who strays so much as a nanometer outside of the orthodoxy of pure materialism is, in your estimation, completely irrational and needs to be reminded of the error of their ways at any opportunity. That is far and away the most unattractive aspect of the atheist movement in the country and the only real source of stress in what is otherwise a good alliance on issues of church/state separation.

        It is also the reason I increasingly struggle to grasp the “atheopagan” identity. Your only link to Paganism seems to be a desire to pour scorn on the beliefs and practices of the vast majority of modern Pagans and indeed most of those who have ever walked the Earth. You seem to make a grudging allowance for the supernatural beliefs of people whose traditions are of some arbitrarily sufficient age to qualify as “real” culture.

        You seem to regard most of modern Paganism as a steaming pile of irrationality and delusion and an unforgivable one because apparently nothing created by white middle class Americans can ever constitute “real” or authentic culture. Whatever rituals you have seem to be appropriated from a culture you don’t consider authentic and sterilized of all of its original meaning.

        At the risk of sounding uncharitable, what in any of this warrants the use of the pagan label in the atheopagan descriptor? While repeatedly reminding us of your derision for our beliefs and practices, you also insist that we should accept and embrace your system as part of our movement lest we be considered “intolerant.” How is this any different from an atheist ex-Muslim holding a cocktail party at the end of Ramadan, calling it Eid and then stating that he is just as Muslim as anyone else and that his is the only form of Islam worthy of respect?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Paganism is characterized by what we do, not what we believe. Yes, I observe a lot of irrationality and dysfunction in the Pagan community–it’s there, whether or not you see it. And yet we Atheopagans are Pagans. You can keep questioning that, and yet it will remain a fact. We are in this community and practicing rituals and observances that are recognizably Pagan. We fit as much as many other paths do.

        You have touched on this “I don’t get it” theme before. Perhaps you could just leave it there: you don’t get it. So why are you here?

        If you’re down on Pagans who have standards for what they find worthy of respect, why don’t you go harass some Reconstructionists for awhile? This appears to be an axe you have to grind against Atheopaganism and me personally, and frankly, I don’t have time for such nonsense in my life.

        Your final paragraph is quite illuminating, because it suggests that you believe that in order to be a “true follower” of a religion, you must be a theist. That’s true of Islam, but it is NOT true of Paganism. Paganism has had non-theists participating since at least the 1960s. Revisit Drawing Down the Moon and you will find a very wide range of opinions about the reality and nature of gods.

        We’re here. We’re Atheopagans. We have opinions, just as everyone else does, and we’re entitled to them. We certainly aren’t alone in calling for Pagans to get their shit together, to be more responsible, more rational, and root out rape culture. If you disagree, feel free to start a free WordPress blog about that.

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      • BTW: I don’t “remind people of the error of their ways” unless they communicate with ME to “inform me” of MINE first. I don’t play the your-gods-aren’t-real game in the Pagan blogosphere except to the degree that smears (such as accusations of classism and colonialism) are leveled at Pagans like me. The overwhelming majority of the material at this site is about rituals and observances: about DOING Atheopaganism rather than arguing with others who, as you say, don’t get it.

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  4. As for “romanticization of ‘natives’ trying to nobly preserve their cultures”, you are really barking up the wrong tree. I have worked with indigenous tribes, and that is exactly what they are trying to do. It’s not romanticized in the least.

    But yes: people who choose to ignore science to believe baseless subjective nonsense are fools. I will say it. I will say it about Trump voters and flat-Earthers and climate change deniers and literal-god-believers. They are fools because they have been fooled, either by themselves or by others.

    You don’t have to agree, but I think the evidence is pretty convincing.

    Like

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