Pagans, Science, and the World
The atheist's reply then might be "Well then, isn't your religion incoherent?"
Again there different responses we can make that I think eliminate the objection.
First, when the world itself is honored we can agree that life is a blessing, and that therefore the basic processes of life are also good. From that comes our Wheel of the Year, our emphasis on the feminine as well as the masculine, and on the goodness of material things. There is no clash here between a sensibility that experiences life as inspirited and one that does not, no more than between one that finds deserts beautiful and one that finds them desolate. In all these groups people can easily accept science as a means for learning about the world.
After listening to a prominent evolutionary scientist describe the beauty and wonder of the world, and his commitment to its flourishing, as well as describing his atheism, I asked him whether he might regard himself as a "nontheistic pantheist." He hesitated a moment to make sense of my unfamiliar terminology, and said, "Yes."
What distinguished him from me was a matter of personal inner experience. We agreed on virtually everything of importance in terms of how we viewed science and the knowledge it provided. We likely disagreed as to the extent in which consciousness exists within the material world and the nature of its relationship with matter. But those issues do not limit scientific inquiry or even discourage it.
Writing as a Wiccan, I think there is another dimension that ends the "war" between science and religion for Pagans. What unites us are not authoritative dogmas or even a weaker agreement as to what is real. What unites us is comfort in practicing together ways through which we honor what we each regard as a greater context of value and beauty. It is this greater context that gives our own lives a deeper and more embedded meaning. As we practice together our personal experiences fulfill us in this way, and the community of practice is a part of what makes this so. It is no big deal whether we understand this in the same way.
Science by its very nature does not access this realm of meaning. Inner significance can not be found in a measurement, prediction, or explanation of phenomena that make use only of mathematics, logic, and physical facts. Those are exterior to meaning, which refers to their inner significance, either for themselves or within a larger context.
A final objection might then be, "Haven't you simply reduced religion to subjectivity?" Again, I answer, "No." Subjectivity as we normally think of it is purely personal. I like chocolate ice cream more than I like strawberry, and you have the opposite preferences. That's subjectivity. It refers only to my personal preferences and dislikes.
When we honor the world there is a subjective element to be sure. But we make an additional claim: We are honoring a context bigger than we are, a context that is real.
Let me give another example of what I am trying to get at. Imagine a person beloved to you going missing. A policed description is provided so people can hopefully report having seen them. There is a photo and a description of their physical characteristics. Perhaps even DNA data is provided. When you see the description you realize it could not be done better, and yet what is most fundamental about that person is not there.
What is not there is not simply your subjective sense. First, their friends and loved ones would likely all agree here. There is "intersubjective verifiability" to use the technical term. There is something outside our minds that our minds share in perceiving but that can only be described experientially, not impersonally. The person's intrinsic value as a being is a part of that realm of experience. A person blind to a person's inner self, and the value of that self, is called a sociopath, and is considered not simply having different subjective preferences, but rather as deeply flawed as a human being.
The same is true for our world. The failure to see its intrinsic value is more akin to the sociopath's inability to see value in others than it is to my preference for chocolate over strawberry ice cream. Seeing that value, we celebrate and honor it.
We have a lot to learn about the phenomena we lump together as "subjective" but hopefully this example indicates that this last criticism does not have anything like the force those making it might think. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts we Pagans can help our society to learn is to give up its "worldpathic" attitude towards our home and realize that attitude is as flawed and as mistaken as a sociopath's failure to appreciate humanness.
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.