Monday, June 23, 2008

enormous pile of books

These are just some of the books I have referenced for my dissertation:

There is now another pile of books the same size next door to this one!

the original stroppy rabbit

A painting seen in a shop window in York:

(if it's not the actual picture after which I named this blog, then it's by the same artist)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Pagan response to Dawkins, part 2

Dawkins' view of religion really is rather odd. He appears to think that because people believe in stuff, they have a separate compartment in their minds that is set aside for religion, where reason and empiricism are not allowed to penetrate.

He also tends to regard religious ideas as contagious memes, rather as if they had an objective existence like a computer virus. Of course, the meme is a useful metaphor, but it's not objectively real (much like deities).

Pagans tend to take the view that they had an experience, and it might have been a hallucination, or it might have been a projection, or it might have been a manifestation, but much of the time to realise that it's not what the experience actually was, but how it was experienced that is important, and what its effects were. We did a ritual - do we now feel better as result? Good, then it worked. Those of us with a more empirical cast of mind might spend time tinkering with it to make it work better; and those of us with a reasoning-about-things cast of mind might spend time wondering how it worked; but most people are just happy that it worked. That's not to say that we should not be on our guard against doctrinal no-go areas creeping in (because they are in some traditions, especially "hard" polytheism) but for the most part Paganism is gloriously doctrine-free (except for the doctrine that we don't have doctrines).

Anyway, on to the specifics.

On pp 125-126, Dawkins says "Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious". This is a twisted view of what mysticism and mystery is. For one thing, mystics have historically been persecuted by the Christian Church because their connection with the Divine bypasses official channels; for another thing, the mystics are generally much more loving and humane than the Church, because mystics identify with the whole of existence, whereas the Church wants to bring everything under their dominion. And mysticism, for the most part, is like the "Eisteinian religion" that Dawkins praises in chapter one. The Mysteries are something that can only be experienced and not described. The ancient Greeks had two words describing the Mysteries: aporrheton (that which may not be spoken, the lesser secrets) and arrheton (that which is inexpressible, the greater mysteries). The reason that mysteries are revealed in sequence is because the mind is unprepared for the greater mysteries and can only approach them via the lesser ones. Unfortunately the Christian Church suppressed all the Pagan initiatory mystery traditions as competing paradigms. Had they taken the advice of Symmachus (as New Atheists could also benefit by doing), things might have been better:
We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.
Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402)
Dawkins goes on to say that "one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied by not understanding". This is definitely not true of the majority of religions. It is certainly true of a large swathe of Christianity, but not of Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism, Unitarianism, Judaism, Sufism, etc.

On page 163 he describes natural selection as if it were a force with agency; I know it's a metaphor but he'll just give the creationists a loophole by talking like that; he should be more careful.

Chapter 4 should be entitled "Why there almost certainly is no Creator" (rather than "Why there almost certainly is no God") because he is only talking about the concept of the Creator, and not other concepts of the Divine.

On page 166, in listing characteristics of religion, he only lists the negative behaviours associated with (fundamentalist) religion. Later, he (quite correctly) goes on to say that our capacity for morality is nothing to do with religion and transcends it; I would say this was also true of our capacity for immorality.

On page 168 he quotes a comedienne as saying "religion is basically guilt with different holidays". Very funny, but this is not true of the joyful and life-affirming traditions which do not dwell on guilt, such as Unitarianism and Paganism.

On page 174, he sets out to show how religion is a by-product of other propensities of the human mind. A very interesting idea, as religion (like language) must have evolved from other cognitive functions. However, he maintains that religion is a harmful by-product of these other functions. The example he gives is that it's good to believe what your parents tell you, because they have lots of information about which plants are good to eat and which are poisonous; but the downside is that you will also believe all the weird stuff they tell you (i.e. religion). There are two things wrong with this argument: firstly, not all religion is about obedience and gullibility; and secondly, there are lots of positive aspects to religion which must be beneficial by-products of other cognitive functions. Dawkins' working definition of religion is far too simplistic.

Why can't religion (in the sense of connection with the world around you) be seen as a positive emergent complexity arising from smaller components? Surely the mystics' capacity to love their fellow beings (an extension of genetic kinship) is a positive by-product? Or the heretic's quest for truth and following their own conscience?

On page 177, Dawkins cites JG Frazer's evolutionary theory of folklore and mythology, which is largely discredited (NB this is not the same as Darwinian evolution). Humanity has not proceeded in an orderly fashion from animism to polytheism to monotheism to atheism; beliefs do not evolve by natural selection. Dawkins also uses the analogy of language evolving from a single source (sometimes called Proto-World) and diverging; however this theory is largely discredited among linguists. If he's going to stray into other academic disciplines, he should at least check the current state of research in those disciplines. Nevertheless, language is quite a useful analogy for religion; but Deleuze and Guattari's rhizomatic model of the spread of ideas is much more helpful than the evolutionary model.

On page 180, he suggests that the cognitive predisposition to dualism gives rise to religious thinking. I agree that there is a cognitive predisposition to dualism (anthropological and psychological research has shown that this is the case, for example the work of Emma Cohen), but I disagree that it gives rise to religious thinking; rather, it gives rise to supernatural thinking (but then Dawkins assumes that all religion believes in the supernatural). But what about all the monistic religions like pantheism, most of Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Unitarianism?

On page 188, he cites JG Frazer's Golden Bough as evidence of the diversity of human irrational beliefs. This is rather a circular argument, because that is precisely the use to which Frazer intended his work to be put (he would have been shocked and dismayed at all the Pagans who mine it for rituals). Also Frazer's comparative method has long been discredited in anthropology as too selective (he developed a theory and then went around looking for examples to back it up, which is precisely the opposite of the scientific method, as Dawkins should know).

On page 189, Dawkins says that languages evolves. As already stated, evolution is not a helpful metaphor for language (or religion) though another biological model, the growth of rhizomes, is a useful analogy.

On page 190, he says that reason is the enemy of Christianity. Very true; however I seem to recall that Pope John Paul II declared a truce in his encyclical about reason and faith. Reason is not regarded as the enemy in Paganism or Unitarianism or Judaism, however; indeed in the case of Unitarianism it's one of their three key concepts (reason, freedom and tolerance).

On page 191, he describes the theory of memes, which is interesting but by no means accepted by all theorists of culture. As stated above, I find the rhizomatic model more persuasive.

On page 199, he defines faith as "belief without evidence". That is how I always used to define it, until I came across this marvellous quote from Alan Watts:
"Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be."
On page 203, he describes the development of cargo cults, and wonders if they are a good model for the evolution of religion. Well, at least cargo cults are logical and based on empirical observation, at least the way Dawkins describes them!

On page 212, he quotes the various obnoxious fundamentalists who have written to him to tell him he'll burn in hell etc as typical examples of religious adherents. I don't think these obnoxious bastards are typical of religion in general at all. Besides, I've come across some pretty obnoxious atheists (e.g. on a discussion board, there was one who wanted to ban all talk of religion; the other more sensible ones asked how the ban would be enforced) but I don't thereby assume that all atheists are like that.

On page 220, he compares the naturalist model of altruism as having some evolutionary advantage with the authoritarian idea that people are moral because God is watching and he'll get you if you misbehave. I completely agree with the quote from Einstein on page 226, that "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." The idea that altruism has evolved is reassuring, because it means it's innate and internal rather than cultural and external; but where is the element of choice if everything is genetically determined? I find something heroic in the idea of doing the right thing just because it is the right thing to do, and not because someone (God) or something (genes) is making you do it. Our genes presumably predispose us to be bad as well as good, so we still have a choice, surely? Consciousness is an emergent property of life, not pre-determined.

If altruism as a by-product of some other cognitive function is benign, why not some aspects of religion, such as feelings of being connected to other people (human, animal and plant)?

On page 227, he quotes the horrible views of Ivan Karamazov. I hope, though I have no evidence, that Dostoevsky was setting up Karamazov as a straw man to highlight the horribleness of his ideas.

On page 232, he mentions absolutist morality. Not all religious adherents are absolutists in matters of morality (think of the famous quote from Jesus about the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law); Dawkins doesn't appear to be saying that they are, but some readers might infer that view.

On page 237, he acknowledges the worthwhileness of liberal Christians like John Shelby Spong and Richard Holloway. If he can appreciate them, why doesn't he realise that lots of religious adherents are like them, and more of them every day?

On page 245, he talks about the autocratic behaviour of Yahweh in insisting that the Ba'al-worshippers among the Israelites be killed. Yes, the Bronze Age priests of Yahweh were a thoroughly unpleasant bunch of murderers - but he doesn't stop to ask why the worship of Ba'al was so persistently attractive. Could it be because Ba'al is an immanent nature deity, associated with trees?

On page 251-252, he discusses the thoroughly unpleasant doctrine of substitution or atonement; however this disgusting and pernicious doctrine is only found in Western Christianity, and not in Eastern Orthodoxy.

On page 254, he starts quoting more frothing mad fundamentalists as typical of religion. This is simply not the case.

On page 257, he talks about the intolerance of the Abrahamic religions towards other faiths. This is certainly true of large swathes of Christianity, but not all of it. For example, St Francis preached against the crusades, and many Christians (such as John Shelby Spong) are coming to appreciate the wisdom of other faiths. Islam became intolerant as a result of the crusades. Judaism has only become intolerant again recently, due to specific historical circumstances. Such intolerance is not usually found among polytheistic or pantheistic religions, because they have a theology that can cope with other views of the Divine.

On page 259, he admits that internecine struggle is often caused by factors other than religion, but that religion is often used as a label for the perpetuation of conflict. True, but if religion didn't exist, some other identity marker would be used instead, like language, skin colour, territory, etc. (all of which have been used as excuses for the perpetuation of conflict).

Is it inevitable that conflict will arise as a result of different religious views? Maybe, but I suggest that it is often a convenient excuse for a desire to label an out-group, and if there wasn't another religious group to pick on, another label would be used instead (like colour, sexuality...).

On page 261, he discusses the indoctrination of children. The vast majority of Pagans are opposed to the indoctrination of children and against the establishment of Pagan schools; and even those who are bringing their children up as Pagans are not inculcating them with a dislike of other faiths, or of atheism.

In a 2005 survey by Covenant of the Goddess (an American Pagan organisation), 49% of respondents indicated having no children, and of the remaining 51%, only 27% (i.e. approximately 13% of the total sample) said that they were bringing their children up as Pagans. 52% of those with children said they were bringing them up in a multi-faith environment; 9% said 'another faith'; and 12% said 'none'.

[Part 1 of A Pagan response to Dawkins]

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Campfire or umbrella?

Many people have referred to Paganism as an umbrella term encompassing the various Pagan traditions. Recently, however, there has been quite a lot of jostling for centre position under the umbrella, with various groups feeling as though they have metaphorical rain running down the backs of their necks. It could even be said that some groups were trying to run away with the umbrella, claiming they invented it and everyone else is just touting shoddy imported versions.

Maybe it's time we stopped thinking of Paganism as an umbrella, and started thinking of it as a campfire. That way, we are all standing round the centre (whatever that is - perhaps the deities, or Nature) and warming our hands, but anyone who gets too close will get singed. Also, the warmth of the campfire radiates out much further than the shelter of an umbrella, and has fuzzy boundaries (unlike an umbrella, which has a defined edge); and the light from the campfire can be seen from the nearby campfires (which are friendly religions with a similar ethos, like Unitarians and UUs, Quakers, Taoists, liberal Hindus, traditional indigenous religions, etc). And those who like to visit the other campfires and swap stories (like me and Cat and Peter) can be within the ambit of both campfires.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Stop calling us NeoPagans

I am dismayed by the re-emergence of the term "NeoPagan". It is being used by Christians to refer to Pagans, and also by polytheists and reconstructionists to refer to other Pagans.

Stop it. Just stop it. Here's why:
  • Ancient "pagans" didn't refer to themselves as pagans; the term was invented as a supposedly pejorative one by the early Christians to refer to "those hicks from the sticks" who weren't hip to the new religion. Ancient "pagans" were following a particular tradition, such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, Pythagoreanism, Platonism, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Mithraism, or their local ethnic religion. If we have to refer to them as pagans, we should use lower-case p to indicate that they didn't identify as such.
  • Modern Pagans are Pagans because we identify as Pagans and have adopted the name for ourselves.
  • It makes no sense for polytheists and reconstructionists (who have only been around for the last decade or so) to refer to Wicca (which has been around for 50 years) and Druidry (which has been around for 200 years) as NeoPagans. Like it or not, we've been around longer than you. If anybody is "neo" it's the reconstructionists. Nor can reconstructionists claim to be 100% accurate in their reconstruction of ancient pagan traditions.
  • It makes no sense for Christians to refer to NeoPagans either. People don't refer to Protestant Christians as Neo-Christians; so please don't refer to us as NeoPagans. And use the capital letter please, it's rude to use the lower-case p unless you're referring to ancient pagans.
  • I'm not a character from The Matrix.
Here's some suggestions for terms to use instead:
  • If you are trying to distinguish between ancient pagans and contemporary Pagans, just use the terms "contemporary Pagans" and "ancient pagans". (Don't use "modern" because we're now living in the postmodern era, so modern is now retro.) It's not hard. There may be a case for Isaac Bonewits' coinages MesoPagan and CryptoPagan, however (but then no-one uses those terms pejoratively).
  • If you want to distinguish between reconstructionists, polytheists and other types of Pagan, just use the term "eclectic Pagan" to refer to people who don't belong to any specific tradition, and refer to Wiccans and Druids as such.
Of course if anyone wants to self-identify as a NeoPagan, I don't have a problem with that, I'm just fed up with the snide use of it by others.

Friday, June 06, 2008

New Facebook group

We're Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past.

Without archaeology, people would still think ancient peoples were fur-clad smelly cannibals and that ancient paganism involved practising human sacrifice.

In addition, we are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone.

Of course we want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people.

We also believe that the excavation of Seahenge was a good thing, contributing hugely to our knowledge of Bronze Age religious practices.

Not on Facebook? Express your support in the comments, or join the Yahoo group.

Update: I have now created a blog, Pagans for Archaeology, to accompany the groups.

Here we go again

The exhibition of Lindow Man at the Manchester Museum has prompted an article in British Archaeology's Spoilheap column complaining about the way the exhibition was planned, and how it has ended up with hardly any educational content about Iron Age people, or interpretation around the different theories of how and why Lindow Man died; instead the exhibition focuses on the reburial controversy.

The article complains that 12 Pagans were involved in the discussions around the exhibition, because it says Pagans are only a small group. On the other hand, several archaeologists and museum curators were involved, and the article claims that they represent everybody. I'm not sure that they do "represent everybody", as not everyone subscribes to the Enlightenment discourse that they represent. My main complaint is this, however: why weren't Pagans who DON'T want remains reburied consulted? Manchester Museum is aware that we exist (I hope I left them in no doubt about that when I attended the Respect conference there) so why weren't we included?

When I wrote to British Archaeology about this issue in 2004, my letter was edited so that it was not apparent that I am a Wiccan. Thus somewhat negating the point I was trying to make, that not all Pagans agree with Emma Restall-Orr et al, and many, if not most, completely support archaeological and historical understanding and investigation of the past.

Why is my position, which is that of a reasonable Pagan, being ignored by British Archaeology? Is it because representing Pagans as irrational sells more magazines?

I completely disagree with reburying remains, and want them to be available for archaeologists to study, so that the ancestors of all of us can be remembered and memorialised by recovering their stories, to the benefit of everyone who wants their identity rooted in the past.

Besides, surely Pagans have got better things to worry about, like the destruction of wildlife habitats, war, death, famine, environmental degradation, etc?