[I know this is a long one, and potentially controversial. Do me a favor, please and read all the way to the end, and pay especial attention to the italicized bits? Thank you!]
Wrong. Just as history deals in facts, so does science. Yes, there’s room for errors (accidental and deliberate) and updated research, but that doesn’t negate the general tendency of both of these fields of study and practice to deal in the most accurate information we have available to us. We’ve gotten good at pointing out where pagans are over-reaching historically through speculation and UPG. We suck at doing so for those speculating beyond what science has demonstrated to be true or impossible. It’s the same error at play: when history or science don’t have a clear answer–or the answer that you want–you don’t get to just make up whatever you want and say that it’s equally real.
Lots of anecdotes do not equal “anecdata”. No matter how much you really, really, really want to believe that you can make streetlights turn off just by walking under them, the evidence we do have is pointing toward it just being an occasionally blinking streetlight and good timing. It’s also confirmation bias in that you’re seeing what you want to see and that affects your “results”. No one has yet created a substantial, well-crafted study that even remotely suggests a person can affect the electrical flow to a light bulb (other than by physically tampering with the wires, unscrewing the bulb or turning off the power.) A group of people walking back and forth under a streetlight does not a solid experiment make.
Yet paganism is full to the brim with people claiming they can do similarly supernatural things. Look at the proliferation of spells that claim to be able to aid in healing, take away curses, or even affect political outcomes. That’s saying that “If I burn this candle or bury this herbal sachet or say these words over here, that thing or person or situation wayyyy over there will be directly affected in the way I want it to.” Sure, your process was more elaborate than just walking in proximity of your target, but you have no more evidence of causation than that other guy. And look at how many pagans claim that a simple spell is every bit as effective as a complicated one. Doesn’t it follow, then, that the simplest spell–walking under the light with the intent of making it blink off–has every bit the chance of working as something more complex?
Why We Treat Science Differently
But that’s getting away from the point. I think we don’t want to be sticklers for science in the same way that we’re sticklers for history because we don’t want our sacred cows slaughtered. Our beliefs can still hold up when we question historical inaccuracies because many modern pagan beliefs are based in history, and better history means better justification for our beliefs because “our ancestors believed it!”
But many of our beliefs are also based in pseudoscience, as well as bad interpretations of good science (like the misapplication of quantum anything to trying to prove magick is objectively real). When we start picking apart the scientific inaccuracies in our paths, it feels threatening and uncomfortable. If you feel a sense of control because you literally believe that a spell you cast will change a situation you’re anxious about, then you don’t want to question the efficacy of that act because you feel you’ve lost control again. If your connection to nature is primarily through thinking the local animals show up in your yard because you have special animal-attracting energy, the fact that they’re more likely just looking for food, shelter, and other normal animal things makes you feel less inherently connected. So instead of focusing on aligning our paths more closely with scientific research as well as historical research, we instead cling tightly to justifications.
The Rewards of Accuracy
I think that pressing for more historical accuracy has made paganism stronger as a whole, both as individuals and as a community. We’ve spent decades working to be taken more seriously as a religious group, sometimes to gain big steps forward like equal recognition for our deceased military pagans, other times to just be able to mention our religion without being laughed at. Those who want to emphasize to non-pagans that our paths have historical precedent and long-time relevance have more resources to do so. There are other benefits: Those who want to emulate the ways of pre-Christian religions have more material to work with. And history offers more depth to explore; your interest in a particular ancient spiritual path can extend out into knowing more about the culture, people and landscape that that path developed in. If you’re creating a new path for the 21st century, you have more inspiration to work with when you see what’s worked for pagan religions in both the distant and recent past.
Science has a lot to offer us as well. As a naturalist pagan–and a pagan naturalist–my path is deepened, and I find greater meaning, the more I learn about and experience the non-human natural world. I don’t need to believe the blacktail deer outside my studio are there because they have some special message for me. It’s enough that I can observe them quietly from the window as they go about their lives, our paths intersecting by proximity. I do not need to drink water from their hoofprints to attempt to gain shapeshifting powers; I can imagine a bit of what it is to be them when I follow their trails through the pines and see the places that are important to them. And that makes me even more invested in protecting their fragile ecosystem; my path urges me to give back to nature.
When pagans step out of the narrow confines of symbolism, and act as though nature is sacred because we know how threatened it is through the science of ecology, not only do we deepen our connections to nature, but we also show the rest of the world that we walk our talk. It’s just one way in which we demonstrate that, as with our historical accuracy, we’re also interested in scientific accuracy, rather than denying or ignoring facts in favor of our own spiritual self-satisfaction. And rather than getting entangled in self-centered interpretations of nature that elevate us as the special beings deserving of nature’s messages, a more scientific approach to paganism humbles us and reminds us that we are just one tiny part of a vast, beautiful, unimaginably complex world full of natural wonders that science can help us better explore and understand.
As always, I’m not saying don’t have beliefs. Beliefs have plenty of good effects, from strengthening social bonds to bringing us comfort when things go haywire to helping us make some subjective sense of the world through storytelling and mythos. UPG can be a really valuable tool in giving us a place to put the things we believe that don’t fit into known historical research, and I think we need to extend it to hold beliefs that go outside known scientific evidence, too. So keep working your spells and your rituals, and keep working with the deities and spirits that you hold dear. If you derive personal meaning by feeling that the crows are nearby because of some spiritually significant reason and it improves your life, don’t let go of that, so long as you also accept that the crows are just crows doing crow things.
But we also need to be able to make use of critical thinking skills and suss out areas where we’re factually wrong, no matter how we may personally feel about the matter. That way, as with history, we’re able to clearly say “This is the portion of my belief system that matches up with known facts, and this part over here is more personal.” We’ve learned to be skeptical of the claims of people who say that historians are wrong and they have the REAL history; we should be able to do the same for those who claim to know better than thousands of scientists.
What I am also asking you to do is really question your beliefs, their foundations, and where they intersect with and diverge from science (and history, while we’re at it.) If you have a belief that runs directly counter to known facts and you feel it has to be every bit as real as science or history, ask yourself why. What would happen if you allowed that belief to be UPG, or personal mythology? What would happen if you let it go entirely? What would you have left, and what value does it have?
I can’t say where this process of questioning will take you, whether you’ll let go of your beliefs, or recategorize their place in your life, or just cling to them more tightly. Every person’s path winds in its own direction. But just as we have questioned our historical inaccuracies and come out the better for it, I think that as individuals and as a community we can benefit from really questioning scientific inaccuracies in the same way. Won’t you join me in this effort?
If you enjoyed this post, please consider picking up a copy of one of my books, which blend a naturalist’s approach to the world with pagan meaning and mythology–Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up is especially relevant!
Thank you. It’s such a healthy practice to question our beliefs although rarely a comfortable one. I appreciate your candor.
Anecdotes and “anecdote.” Great. All well written. I agree with you about how and why science is often misinterpreted and misused. I would add another point, though. Science is complicated, scientific facts can be difficult to wrap your head around. And because scientists work hard to be objective and accurate, it can be difficult to learn about those facts in such a way that they become emotionally appealing or inspiring or personally relevant to a non-scientist. I am moved, for example, by the history of living things going back 3.8 billion years, a long chain that I and every living thing around me is part of. That fact resonates for me in my concerns about death and about the purpose of life. But it took a long time and a lot of reading as a non-scientist before such information took on a spiritual relevance for me.
I think we need to work on sticking to the facts but also on explaining those facts in such a way that they become meaningful and inspiring for the non-scientist. Carl Sagan did that. It takes particular skills and passions—an artistry.
It’s ironic that science emphasizes fact-based knowledge while at the same time a piece of that factual knowledge is that humans are genetically prone to emotions and optimistic illusions. No wonder this is a hard puzzle. I wrote a post about an excellent book on “magical thinking” that was both sympathetic to and critical of our irrational foibles. https://threepointeightbillionyears.com/2016/01/22/magical-thinking-happy-healthy-or-hazardous/
I am perfectly rational, and am guessing Carl Jung and Socrates were too. Neither of these two ruled out irrational experience as also real.
Why should I submit my paganism, or Quakerism -for that matter, to a “rationality” test? Could it be because the author is not yet conversant with the value of what lies beneath? It is about the inner light, my dear young one, and when you see it, you see it.