Innovation Versus Tradition in Paganism

The mainstream current of modern Paganism has made much of celebrating “Ancient Ways” and “Old Gods”. This creates an inherent tension between old (or putatively old) practices and beliefs and the innovations and achievements of modernity.

Elements of the broad Pagan umbrella range widely across this expanse. At one pole, you have Reconstructionists, for whom ancient ideas and practices are pretty much everything, and those of other paths who choose to continue to believe (despite much scholarship to the contrary) that today’s Paganism derives from an unbroken lineage of tradition stemming from medieval times or earlier.

At the other, there is Atheopaganism, which draws forward some traditional activities, but contextualizes them in new framings of cosmology, holidays and ritual observances, in an explicitly forward-looking orientation to religious creation, values and practice.

We humans like our traditions. We like to remember how our families did things when we were children, and to feel that our ritual activities are rooted in long histories that reach back into our imagined impressions of olden times.

The danger, however, is that we begin to see the way “things have always been done” or as they “were done long ago” as inherently of virtue…as if antiquity itself conducts value, or legitimacy.

This is particularly true of Abrahamic religions, which view their age as credentialing: as conducting of authority. The Old Texts, the Old Words, the Old Practices are viewed as somehow more important than new words, new practices. “Old” is equated with “genuine”.

When you think about it, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Humans are learning beings. Our understanding evolves.

We don’t insist on using vacuum tubes in our computers because that’s the way Marconi did it. We don’t refuse to listen to music that isn’t centuries old, or demand that our doctors perform bloodletting and trepanning, or dress in animal skins and woven grass because that’s the way Dear Old Homo Erectus did it.

We learned. Innovation brought us to new and better ways of doing things, and ideas that better reflected the discernible facts about our world. And that can be true of religious ideas and ritual practices, as well.

Now, I’m a sucker for the idea of Olde Traditions, too. I love the antiquity of the decorated Yule tree, the dance about the Maypole, the quaff of John Barleycorn, the old recipes and songs. When I’m dancing around a fire in the woods, I feel primal, and I love it. It’s one of the things that drew me to Paganism in the first place; that, and a deep connection to the cycles, pleasures and wonders of the living Earth.

But I don’t particularly want to strangle a Year King, nor burn an ox sacrifice, or cling to xenophobic tribal values that promote racism and expectations of conformity, either.

I believe that Paganism, like everything else human, benefits by what we have learned since olden days. We have had the Enlightenment, we have learned reason and developed the scientific method, we have learned tremendous amounts about our Universe and world, we have come to entertain, at least, the principle that humans are equal and beautiful in their diversities of gender, color, preferences and creed.

And this is why I call Atheopaganism a forward-looking religion. Obsessing about the ancient and believing in a supernatural “Otherworld” is in my opinion a lingering remnant of old stuff that we no longer need nor benefit from. As it contributes to superstition and susceptibility to credulity in pseudoscience and fringe belief, it undermines our societies’ and communities’ capacities to deal rationally and effectively with their problems. At worst, it dovetails with conspiracy theories and beliefs which fly in the face of both evidence and reason.

Moreover, it’s unnecessary. We can have the benefits of ritual, of traditions, of meaningful values and community without it. We can be filled with awe and reverence and joy and purpose without it. We can draw forward those traditions which still speak to us without the dross of those which no longer make sense in our modern context. And we can do it all within the framework of tested models of reality provided by science.

Now, do credulous beliefs work for many Pagans at a personal level? Yes, indeed they do. Those folks find deep meaning in their beliefs and practices, and I have no interest in denying them those benefits.

So where’s the harm?

Well, in a broader context, we are seeing our world tilt more and more to belief-in-the-face-of-expertise. To ideology trumping (hah) reason, fact, and knowledge. And credulity such as I describe is a part of that problem. To the degree large numbers of people are believing that the whims and wishes of invisible powers are influencing world events, they are taking their eyes off of the ball of what is actually going on. And that means that when we need all hands on deck to avert some of the worst crises humanity has ever faced, instead we have many who are simply spinning their wheels.

Can you do both? Yes, you can do both: you can believe in all that invisible stuff, and also act in material reality to achieve social and political change. And more power to those who do!

But honestly, I don’t see a lot of people in the Pagan community doing that. Because if you believe your ritual for world peace is actually accomplishing something, you probably won’t also take tangible actions that help to advance that goal.

Moving into the modern is good. It empowers us with tools and knowledge, and focuses us on the real. And while traditions can be charming and heartwarming and edifying and life-enhancing, there is a real baby-and-bathwater problem with overemphasis on the old relative to the current.

Ours is a 21st-century religion built on a foundation of all that has gone before: all the trial and error, all the false starts, all the discoveries, all the effort. What the 18th-20th centuries have to teach us has no less pertinence to us than what Greeks or Romans or Celts or Egyptians thought centuries prior.

We start from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humanity, and build from there. Why should our approach to religion be different than that toward any other human discipline?

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What is There to Live for?

In an atheistic world, many ask: what’s the point? What is the purpose of living if there’s no judgment, no afterlife to be attained, no cosmic plan or purpose?

I can’t tell you what is meaningful in your life. Perhaps it’s your art, or your family: being the best parent (or grandparent, or aunt or uncle) you can be. Perhaps it’s the sacred calling of a career of service to the Earth, or to fellow humans. Perhaps it is simply to enjoy the pleasures of this abundant world.

It could be a lot of things.

I’ve written on a subject related to this previously: we are Atheopagans to live in the fullness of life, and to serve a happier, more sustainable, more just and equitable world.

But beyond that: what is to be striven for?

And despite the prejudices of my culture, the answer to me is not money, not material accumulation—that never-ending pursuit is a dead end to true contentment, beyond what is just needed to live. Chasing the dollar is addiction, not development.

But surely something? Surely we must strive to amass, to develop, to accumulate in some way?

Yes.

There is.

And it’s something you can’t buy, can’t inherit, can’t gain except by living and paying attention and taking regular and both ruthless and compassionate looks at yourself, your world and your life.

It is wisdom.

Wisdom is what helps older people to be less angsty than younger people. It is what enables us to breathe instead of fighting when a fight is pointless. It is what gives us the strength to live through loss, and the perspective to understand that a setback is temporary, and could actually work out well in the long run.

Wisdom is the root of respect by others. It is the means to functioning relationships. It is that which we (hopefully) gain as compensation for the deterioration of our bodies as we age.

And—I say, as a man who once had a profound relationship with a woman considerably older than I—it can’t be rushed. No matter how ahead of things you may think you are, at 25 you only have the perspective of a 25-year-old, and it is not the perspective of a 40-year old. Nothing can make it so but experience.

That said, our contemplative, meditative and ritual practices can give us a huge leg up on the development of wisdom. We can heal our wounds, find perspective on our trials, come to grips with the challenges of being a human in our times, in this world.

If we are paying attention, and willing to confront ourselves and our issues, we grow. We become wise.

It is a great gift, that this comes even as we begin to fail physically. Otherwise, there might not be a lot of point in being an older person, particularly for those of us who have elected not to have children.

Wisdom is that which enables us to live in a manner consistent with contentment and joy. It is that (combined with communication skills) which allows us to live in healthy relationships. It is what we have to reflect on as we become older.

I am only the age I am. I have only had the experiences I have had. But I have worked very hard to wade through damage and suffering to find the nuggets of gold in my life, the hard-won truths. And I no longer ask, “what is the point of it all?”

The point is to become wise, and to interact with others out of that wisdom. To spread love and healthy boundaries and perspective and maybe, just a little, to do as Richard Alpert (“Ram Dass”) once said: to walk one another home.

 

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.