Dear Pagans: Can We Be As Picky About Science As We Are About History?

[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!]

Celtic Wicca. Samhain, the God of the Dead. Witches’ covens that extend back in an unbroken line thousands of years. These are just a few examples of the really bad history that’s been passed around the pagan community, and which has rightfully been skewered by those who have done better research. I came to paganism in the mid-1990s when Wicca was all the rage, and everything was plastered with Celtic knotwork. The Craft, Charmed and other media helped bolster support for aesthetic paganism that was more about looks than substance. A glut of books hit the market, many of which were full of historical inaccuracies from the mildly off to the blatantly awful.

Pagans with a decent background in history began to tear apart the inaccurate material, some of which had been floating around for decades (I’m looking at you, Margaret Murray!) We encouraged each other to go beyond strictly pagan books and explore historical texts, both those written for laypeople and more academic texts. We cited our sources more. And so now, twenty years later, while paganism still has its share of bad history, we have a lot more accurate information to apply to our paths, whether we’re hardcore reconstructionists or not. And we have space for things that aren’t necessarily historically accurate, but which we find personally relevant, like Unverified Personal Gnosis, or UPG (which you can read more about here.)

All this came out of a lot of discussions, along with debates and arguments. Post bad history in a busy pagan listserve circa 2000, and you were bound to get dozens of responses correcting you and offering good research material. And today wrong historical information is still swiftly corrected. What boggles my mind is that a lot of the same people who will throw down over historical inaccuracies won’t bat an eye when someone horribly misuses science. Woe be unto anyone who tries to say that Artemis and Freya are just different faces of the same Great Goddess, but sure, we can say that quantum entanglement proves magick is real without a doubt. Whatevs, it’s your belief, right?

In Defense of Facts

Ah, Gérôme’s “Truth Coming Out of Her Well”. How appropriate for this section.

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

Plus we pagan bibliophiles have more excuses to spend time with beautiful old books!

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.

Conclusion

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.

Examining your beliefs in fine detail doesn’t even require a microscope!

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!

23 Comments.
  1. Noinden

    I feel that this “issue with science” is something that goes beyond the pagan sphere. Most of the public are poorly equipped to tell science from pseudoscience. This is how anti-vaxers, homeopathy, the Paleo diet and similar snake oil manages to be great business.

    As a scientist, and a reconstructionist pagan, I find this painful, but sadly (?) inevitable.

    • Oh, no disagreement here. Scientific illiteracy is one of those things that I try to counter as best as I can. I figure since I have a small amount of influence in the pagan sphere it’s one area where I can help. Though I’m also working on my Master Naturalist certification so I can also start volunteer work as a nature interpreter to help from a different angle.

      And I have to admit that I still have to work on my critical thinking skills sometimes, particularly with regards to environmentalism and other politics. Sometimes it’s all too easy to get caught up in hype, especially when it plays on emotions. It’s a good illustration and reminder to me to be vigilant.

      • Noinden

        Given what I do for a job (hiont I work in the Pharma industry folks) I don’t get caught up in the hype. I do get caught up in the feces throwing however. Because you know I am a shill or something 😉

        That last sentence was placed there to illustrate how the public tends to perceive science. When the people in white lab coats disagree with you, and your pet pseudoscience, they are plants to hide the truth.

        So Pagans? Yeah we do need to work on critical thinking. All of us. Especially any of us who get incensed at larger religious movements on a regular basis 🙂

        • Conspiracy theories are one of the things that make me break out in hives, TBH. They mask the actual problems, and make things even more ridiculously complicated than they actually are. Taking a step back? Usually a good tactic.

  2. Michael Ramsey

    This is just what I’ve been looking for to put into words what I believe. Magic(k) is VERY real, however, performance of an elaborate ritual or muttering some words don’t “get it done”. It merely puts the intention out there for the universe. The universe is then ready to respond to your ACTIONS regarding this intention. Example: you perform a spell to get a job. That just sets the framework. The job isn’t going to land in your lap. You still have to put in the applications. Everyone should read “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. This explains how magic works without ever mentioning magic.

    • Except saying “the universe is ready to respond” anthropomorphizes the universe, and again makes things all about us humans. Doing a job spell and then putting in resumes and the like has nothing to do with the universe as a whole, and everything to do with a series of causes and effects that range from where you went to school/got trained to what kind of a mood the person reading your resume is in that day. There are no studies demonstrating that doing a job spell does anything beyond psyching you up to get more resumes sent out, more jobs applied to, and to feel more confident on the chance an employer calls for an interview.

      Honestly, I put Hill’s book and its ilk in the same boat as The Secret–a bunch of New Age victim-blaming crap that ignores the very real obstacles that people can’t just “think” themselves past. Saying that poverty, disability, systemic oppression, severely unequal wealth distribution, and other complex issues that keep people from getting rich can just be defeated through thinking differently is like thinking we can defeat an evil empire in the space of a two hour movie. I mean, let’s face it–if intention was all you needed to get the universe to respond in your direction, there’d be a lot less genocide. Unless you’re saying a genocide victim’s intention to live when death is staring them in the face is less powerful than a soldier’s intention to follow orders.

      • Michael Ramsey

        Dear, you have missed the entire point. Saying the universe responds is no more anthropomorphism than saying a guitar string responds when you pluck it is anthropomorphism. It’s resonance and vibration. As for your reference to Hills work, you obviously didn’t read it or you read it with an attitude of discredit from the onset because, once again, you have missed the point all together. To imply that the book says you can think yourself rich also implies that you based your opinion on the title alone. The rest of your comment is nothing but a string of the same misunderstanding. My point is that I agree 100% with the original post. And for to try to tear into my comment with no understanding is no different than what most of the mainstream religions do that lead to hate and violence and that sadly puts you on the same level as the oppressors. Please think and ask questions for understanding before lashing out. Peace upon you.

        • Okay. First of all, please don’t call me “dear”. It comes across as patronizing, whether that was your intent or not.

          Regarding resonances and vibrations, if you’re talking about anything outside of things like sound waves and piezoelectricity, you’re getting into plain old cause and effect.

          It’s been a while since I read Think and Grow Rich, but my argument still stands: it doesn’t take into account real obstacles concerning social injustice that prevent people from succeeding even if they take the advice of the contributors to the text. No amount of advice will help if you’re unable to get the funds to make something happen, or if you’re in too poor health to run a business.

          As for oppressors? Last I checked my oppressors were pretty anti-science, ignoring research that supports climate change as a reality, or saying that queer people can be turned straight through therapy or torture, or that as a woman I am supposed to be ornamental and only function within the home. Science, properly wielded, is a tool for clearing out ignorance like sexism, homophobia, and environmental degradation. That’s why I’m arguing for it.

  3. Michael Ramsey

    For some strange reason, I am beginning to feel like this conversation is only different by content from a conversation with a self righteous holy roller who believes that they are right because it is god’s will. Their point of view is the ONLY right point of view and they refuse to even listen to something that may contradict what they vehemently hold onto, though ironically that is exactly what you preached against in the original post (again, that I agreed with 100%)That said, I see no point in continuing to try to have a conversation. I truly have better things to do than argue with a lamp post. And as far as my use of the term “dear”, it is totally your choice in how you react to it, just as it’s my choice to find your attitude in these comments as totally abrasive, somewhat hostile and condescending. That said, when you stop that, then I will stop the use of the term “dear”, dear.

    • So because I strongly disagree with your points and refuse to acquiesce to something I don’t agree with, I am somehow on the same level as a fundamentalist? Your claim in your first comment is that “Magic(k) is VERY real”, and you used a classist text as a supporting piece of evidence. I told you I disagreed with your assertion and I explained why. And then instead of actually addressing the problem of classism in the idea that “you have to just put your intent out there and then act behind it”, you accuse me of “lashing out” because I am still strongly disagreeing with you. IMO, “lashing out” would be, oh, I don’t know, resorting to ad hominem attacks like calling you a self righteous holy roller or a lamp post.

      Moreover your passive-aggressive refusal to honor a simple request, to not call me a term that I feel is patronizing, and to do so on purpose, is more lashing out than anything I’ve done. It’s especially notable that you are a man referring to a woman as “dear” in a discussion where you do that in place of actually addressing the point I’ve made. If you’re going to bring up oppressors, look in the mirror. Oh, and read this succinct article on why men referring to women as things like “dear”, “sweetheart” and the like (unless they’re someone that you have an existing intimate relationship) isn’t okay.

      In short: you don’t like that I’m disagreeing with you, and instead of dealing with it as an equal person, you’re resorting to some really ineffective tactics.

      • Michael Ramsey

        Whatever makes you feel strong and powerful dear. I refer to men as dear, honey and sugar as well. I’m gay and will use whatever terminology I choose. Your continued attacks of telling g me I’m wrong rather than even choosing g to ask WHY I feel that way, shows nothing but your one-sided believe system that can allow no difference of opinion. And all that does is make want to use other terms that I only reserve for a select few. My email is apparently attached to each and every one of my comments. Should you choose to ever pull your head out of your backside and have a rational conversation, then please feel free to contact me. Beyond that, I am done. And if you need to feel that this means you won the argument (of which you were the only opponent as I started out agreeing with you) to feed your giant ego, that is completely fine with me. I’m secure enough in my beliefs that nothing you can say or do will affect me. And while I’m one of the most open-minded people you could ever meet, I will always shut down and walk away when being slapped around and having things shoved down my throat. That said, I choose to disengage from this lack of civilized conversation and will not participate any further. Good luck in your fundamentalist campaign of beliefs (or lack thereof). I bid you adieu, dear.

        • …aaaand again with the dodging of my points.

          • Michael Ramsey

            Look, swamp-cunt, you’ve made NO points but to shout in my face about how I am wrong and you are right. Fuck off until you learn to have a real conversation.

          • I haven’t shouted. I have made statements explaining “Here is what I disagree with and why”.

  4. Somebody clearly has a triggering problem. Shining a light on treasured beliefs can do that…but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

  5. Loona Wynd

    Lupa,

    You have given me things to think about. I am one who has used poor pseudoscience in discussions about magic and spiritual work before. I always tried to back my argument with sources from both sides, but it’s still pseudoscience.

    This just means I have to study and examine the scientific principles I claim to work with in more detail as well as the magical theory and practice.

    Thank you for causing me to examine my beliefs .

  6. Cissa

    Oh wow. Let’s just leave Michael’s thread here as “Exhibit A.” I’m guessing he was expecting a response along the lines of “Yeah! Right! You understand me! You get it! We’re better than those other pagans!” and got suuuuper defensive when it didn’t go that way because he totally missed the point.

  7. Lupa was shouting? I didn’t hear any shouting. Or read any shouting. Oh, and who has the problem with a “real conversation.” Hmm. Anyway, totally agree with your post, Lupa. Thank you. Explains a lot to me, who as an Eclectic pagan I hold certain beliefs, but somehow spellwork just seemed to go against what I understand about how things work. (Yeah, science!)

  8. I completely disagree with this post. I am someone who has made the Hermetic Principles central to my spiritual practice and have been utterly fascinated by how quantum physics lines up with the Hermetic Principles. Now I’m not a scientist so I don’t ever claim my understanding of science is perfect, but I do unapologetically provide science as proof that magick can exist. I’m not doing this to hold onto my beliefs. I didn’t learn about quantum physics until 15 years after I started practicing witchcraft. Therefore I don’t need science to tell me magick works. I don’t need science to verify what I know for myself.

    Not to mention tying science to spirituality is nothing new. The Tao of Physics was first published in 1975. The most ironic thing is that recent quantum physics teaches that there is no objective reality therefore your argument that you can’t use science to objectively prove magick is real is shot to hell before you’ve even began.

    • I suppose technically that means my argument that I can use science magick is real is shot to hell too. lol None of us can objectively prove anything.

      Ultimately my point is this. I find it strange for any pagan to tell someone what is pseudoscience and what is real science. I can’t fathom how someone can say oh yeah spells are real but homeopathy is complete bullcrap. Secondly, I can’t believe any pagan would have the gall to tell another pagan their understanding of magick is completely wrong. It’s magick. Does it really matter if we use ancient traditions or modern quantum physics to explain it? In the end it’s still the Mystery, right?

      • Where did I ever say spells are real? I pointed out the fallacy of trying to say that a more elaborate spell is more effective than walking under a streetlight not to say that spells are objectively effective, but to say that no matter how elaborate your spell, it’s going to be equally ineffective in making that street light turn off. There’s no science behind it, and the street light went off because you happened to do your spell, whatever it was, right at the time the electrical current blinked off due to bad wiring.

        And again, you’re completely missing the point of the post. I am saying to not misuse science in your attempts to try to prove magick is objectively real. Please re-read the Conclusion section of this post.

        “It’s magick. Does it really matter if we use ancient traditions or modern quantum physics to explain it?”

        It does, yes, because quantum physics has not said anything like “If you burn this candle then you will make money come to you”. Quantum physics has only gone so far, and if we try to push our speculations further than that border, we are engaging in a misapplication of science. If science says A=B, and your ancient tradition says B=C, that does NOT mean A=C. But that’s exactly what you’re trying to claim when you try to misuse quantum physics.

        Moreover, ancient traditions are not necessarily true because they’re ancient. The idea that cis women are unclean or impure when we menstruate is an ancient tradition in several cultures, but it has led to a great deal of discrimination against women. And there’s no evidence showing that we’re any less “clean” or “pure” during menstruation than any time else, other than having to clean up a couple of ounces of shed uterine lining. We don’t kill crops, we don’t taint water sources, etc.

        Anyway, I don’t really go in for Mystery. I prefer Wonder and Awe at the natural world. It’s pretty damned amazing as it is without having to build up its reputation with mysteries.

    • Congratulations, you have completely missed the point of this post.

      “quantum physics lines up with the Hermetic Principles”

      Just because some things in quantum physics resemble some things in Hermeticism does not mean that quantum physics proves that Hermeticism equals science. The Hermetic Principles in and of themselves are pretty vague and open to interpretation. I mean, you can take “everything moves” and apply it to pretty much everything. There’s nothing revolutionary in that. Moreover, the whole “everything has a duality” thing is unsupported by a number of sciences, from biology (which also disproves the male/female gender dichotomy) to physics (light, sounds, etc. are on spectrums, not dualities).

      “I didn’t learn about quantum physics until 15 years after I started practicing witchcraft. Therefore I don’t need science to tell me magick works. I don’t need science to verify what I know for myself.”

      Please review the concepts of confirmation bias and confounds, as well as this previous post by me about research methodology and magic. Also, anecdotes do not equal scientific data, other than in carefully crafted qualitative studies. I spent the better part of twenty years practicing magic and trying to convince myself that what I was doing was having an effect anywhere other than in my own head, and when I took a step back and really examined it, I realized that there was no way to reliably measure change or to show that it was anything other than years of confirmation bias. The changes I did bring about were internal, and very powerful, but I have no evidence that anything I did actually had an effect on the outside world through any means other than my physical actions following the spell/ritual.

      “recent quantum physics teaches that there is no objective reality”

      What quantum physics is sussing out versus what’s practical may be two completely different things. I’m still going by the objective reality that if I trip on a rock and fall on my face, there will be injuries that are easily observed by anyone whether they’re me or not. If I sit and meditate on how there’s no pain, great, that might help alleviate my experience of the symptoms, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have scrapes and bruises that will take days or weeks to heal.

      Moreover, quantum physics is working on an incredibly tiny scale. Trying to say that it proves there’s no objective reality on our scale of being is like saying the double slit experiment proves we can change ourselves into light waves and pass through solid glass windows.

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