Pagans, Science, and the World
The rise of Western modernity was slow, sometimes hesitant, and I think a very good story. The equality between people it has generated created unparalleled prosperity and scientific knowledge for humanity as a whole. But it rests on a pre-modern foundation that not everyone has outgrown.
Many people benefiting from modernity's strengths still possess religious and cultural values rooted in this pre-modern world. These Fundamentalists and similar groups reflect our culture's inheritance from its past. They benefit from what they could never accomplish if society reflected their values more completely. Happily, most Westerners are no longer a part of those groups. Unhappily, many are still influenced by habits of mind they have to some degree outgrown.
For historical reasons, to an unusual degree secular and liberal Jews have freed themselves from these pre-modern attitudes more than most. And so they have developed habits of mind, of inquiry and confidence in their own capacities, that enable them to do exceptionally well in science.
In this very important respect, I think Paganism is almost uniquely situated to speak to modern sensibilities. This grows from two characteristics that are almost universal among us.
First, we have grown out of modern culture, and so have internalized many of its values. Diversity of points of view and the unavoidability of making choices of great importance while recognizing that others can make different choices, come naturally to most of us. We do not think that because someone made different choices that they therefore made inferior ones. Other religions can come to this conclusion as well of course, and practitioners of many, including many Christians, have done so. But for those whose past is in the pre-modern hierarchical world, this process is often a profound challenge that prompts considerable rethinking of assumptions long taken for granted.
Second, our spiritual practice sees and honors the sacred in this world, and not as some external force from on high. Science is how we study one dimension of the sacred. This view alone does not encourage science. Science is a mostly modern phenomenon. But when this view is added to a modern sensibility and within a modern society, the value and legitimacy of science emerges quite naturally.
The scientific atheist will ask us, "But don't you believe in Gods and Goddesses?" I am one who would answer a firm "Yes." And the atheist will then shake his or her head in disapproval. Doesn't that put us in the same bind as Christians who accepted science when it confirmed scripture and rejected it when it did not?
No, it does not.
First, a great many Pagans do not believe in such beings, whatever they may be, as being literally true. Significantly, they have little if any difficulty working with those of us who do, or we with them. Matters of theology do not, and so far as I can tell have never been fundamental issues within Pagan cultures. Understandings can vary and change without affecting the ways in which we gather together to honor contexts greater than we. NeoPaganism is a realm of extraordinary spiritual freedom and creativity.
Second, in my case and the cases of others I know who do take the Gods as real, our beliefs are based on direct experience, not an act of faith or commitment. We have personally encountered them. Consequently to call our views as "faith based" is to use a slippery term. Our position is quite different from the faith that is an act of commitment to a text. For example, in my view until someone has had such an experience, there is no very powerful reason to believe the Gods are real. I would never even imagine telling such a person "You need to have faith!"
Gus diZerega is a Gardnerian Elder with over 25 years practice, including six years close study with a Brazilian shaman. He has been active in interfaith work off and on for most of those 25 years as well. He has conducted workshops and given presentations on healing, shamanism, ecology and politics at Pagan gatherings in the United States and Canada. Follow Gus on Facebook.
Gus blogs at Pointedly Pagan.