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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Facing Forward: Atheopaganism and Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is a concern of people who are (or have historically been) oppressed. It is the use of symbols, religious rites and/or cultural practices by members of the oppressing culture for their own gain or edification, without permission, invitation, or inclusion of those of the culture whose symbols or practices are being used.

This is a hot topic right now, and one of particular concern to Pagans who draw on different cultures for their symbologies and rituals. We’ve discussed the subject a lot on the Atheopaganism Facebook group, and I thought I’d write about it here so there was a more permanent capture of thinking about cultural appropriation as it relates to Atheopaganism.

As I’ve written before, Atheopaganism is a forward-looking religious path. We do not claim to be derived from an ancient culture or long-standing lineage; rather, we are developing our own path and culture through usage of ritual technologies which have been used by people all over the world since long before the dawn of history.

And there is where we must make a distinction. Here’s an example:

I use masks in rituals pretty frequently. I have posted, in fact, about making a ritual mask as a useful ritual tool.

I’m also a collector of African and Oceanic art. I have a bunch of amazing masks from various cultures in these regions. And I would never, ever consider using any of them in ritual. They belong to the people who created them, not to me, and I don’t have the knowledge, invitation or standing to use them.

See the difference? The technology is using a mask. Appropriation would be using those masks.

I take cultural appropriation seriously. Yes, human culture is syncretic: we steal stuff from those we encounter, and make it our own. But in the context of millennia of imperial oppression of indigenous cultures, I cannot in good conscience add to the list of all that has been taken or destroyed from indigenous people the very religious symbols and practices that define these people to themselves.

It is wrong for the Chinese to crank out “Navajo” rugs and “Puebloan” pots. It is wrong for self-appointed white “shamans” to charge money for conducting sweat lodge ceremonies invoking the cultures and symbologies of people they have never trained with, and who have never given them the permission or right to conduct these ceremonies.

Now, there are some in indigenous cultures who are (rightfully) angry, and as a result go overboard with claims of cultural appropriation: claiming, for example, that no one but indigenous people may use feathers in their rituals for example, or drums. This is an overreach: people all over the world have been using pretty objects from Nature and drumming since prehistory. Such practices belong to all of us.

But that raver woman rocking out in a Plains Indian feathered eagle bonnet?

That ain’t cool. At all.

Speaking as a very white guy, I acknowledge that my forebears and their cultures have done what they could to slaughter, crush, and forcibly assimilate indigenous people all over the world. I believe that the very least we can do is to respect the sacred symbols and rites of these peoples, and leave them be unless invited to use them.

In Atheopaganism, we are creating new culture: defining our own symbols, using ancient technologies in new ways to alter our consciousnesses and render our rituals powerful and transformative. We don’t claim to be recreating something from another era or geographical area: we are creating the Pagan spirituality of here, as defined by each of us, with some core principles and shared resources to help us along the way.

So let’s just be considerate out there. I choose to err on the side of caution, not using any indigenous symbologies in my rituals at all. It just feels cleaner that way.

I know there are many opinions on this topic, and the discussion can get heated. Please be considerate and kind in the comments thread–thanks.


 

Shown: Diné (Navajo) Ganado red blanket

Toward Atheopagan Mysteries

Sacred Mysteries were initiatory rituals or ritual cycles in the ancient world which revealed secret wisdom to participants. Some examples include the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece and the Mysteries of Dionysos in Rome, and the initiatory mystery religion of Mithraism, also from the Roman period. These rituals and ritual cycles were characterized by solemn oaths of silence, so many of the secrets revealed in them are now lost, or can only be pieced together through comments made by initiates who later converted to Christianity and rejected their prior pagan experiences.

Modern Pagan practitioners have resurrected some of these Mystery initiation traditions by creating new rituals that draw on the symbology and what is known about the meanings of the ancient ones. I am an initiate (a Mystai) in a modern recreation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and participated as a cast member in two more Eleusinian ritual cycles in subsequent years. We had the advantage of being able to use as a site a complex of caves in a national park, so when it came time to “descend into the Underworld”, that involved a pitch-black staircase of nearly 100 steps.

This was all nearly 20 years ago, mind you. But being involved in these resurrected traditions got me interested in the idea of Mysteries: what they’re for, why they were important in ages now gone. And it showed me that rituals that “reveal” or highlight meaningful “secrets” to initiates can be deeply moving and impactful.

So that got me to wondering: If I were going to create “Atheopagan Mysteries”, what would they be intended to reveal? Typically, there are a small number of meaningful concepts revealed in a mystery ritual—say, four or five; what would they be?

Perhaps the Four Pillars of Atheopaganism? Or a selection of the Atheopagan Principles? An all-night ritual in which initiates are introduced through symbolic, metaphorical ritual activities to the emotional heart of the practice, what makes it meaningful and true?

Time the final revelation for sunrise, and that could be really powerful.

Definitely something to ponder.

Worth fleshing out, for certain. I have a lot more ideas but don’t want to telegraph them here, so someday I can put the event on and the contents will still be a surprise…

I will put more thought into it.

Perhaps, if you like, you can develop your own.