The Gospel of Tolerance vs. the Spirit of Inquiry

Yesterday, Star Foster held a “Live Pagan Hangout” on the topic of “active tolerance” (a term which implies more than just “tolerating” someone) with Teo Bishop, Crystal Blanton, David Dashifen Kees, and Davd Salisbury.  Although not mentioned, the event was in response to M.J. Lee’s post on Humanistic Paganism, “Why Do People Want Supernatural Gods?”.  M.J., for her part, has tried to explain that she was responding to an earlier discussion in the comments section of another post on H.P. and her post was taken out of that context.

“Would that Pandora had never opened the heavenly cover of that jar–she the sweet bane of mankind!”

— Nonnus, Dionysiaca

Whatever M.J.’s intent, her post drew the wrath of several polytheists.  What I find interesting about their responses is that the most irate of the polytheists (Star among them) seem to suggest that no one has the right to question their beliefs.  For someone who does not need/want supernatural deities, the question why someone else would want them seems to me like the most natural of questions.  It is the kind of question that naturalistic and humanistic Pagans ask of each other all the time.  But Star and others seem to suggest that the question is not permissible in the Pagan community.

My question is this: When did the First Commandment of Paganism become: Thou shalt not doubt another’s experience? (or their interpretation of their experience?)

This is not an idle question.  The issue came up at Steven Posch’s workshop at PSG 2011.  His co-presenter (I’m sorry I cannot recall his name at this moment) was advocating a constructive form of ritual critique so that we can make our rituals better.  However, he observed that this runs against the grain of Pagan culture, where the one rule everyone implicitly agrees on is that we cannot question or criticize another’s practice.  The result, he suggested, is mediocrity in our rituals.  I suggest the same is true in our theology.

Many polytheists have responded to M.J. (either on H.P. or on other forums) that their definition of deity is ambiguous.  I admit mine is too.  And I think a certain amount of ambiguity tolerance is a sign of maturity — especially in matters of deity.  But, ambiguity tolerance can also be a cover for lack of intellectual rigor.  (I know sometimes has been in my case at least.)  Some polytheists have responded by suggesting that intellectual inquiry and religion are non-overlapping “magisteria” (to use Steven Gould’s term) or domains.  I would respond that such a schizophrenic division of one’s self is contrary to the theme of non-dualism that runs through so much of Paganism.

For those who respond that their beliefs are amenable to rational discussion, then I say, “Great! Let’s talk!”  A few of the less ambiguous polytheists, for example, have explained that they believe that the gods are evolved human beings.  I don’t see how that claim is any different than claiming to be visited by aliens.  And I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense.  Both claims may be true or false.  Both are probably ultimately unresolvable right now.  But both are still subject to rational inquiry.  Both claims raise important questions.  And while we may not be able to answer either question definitively, the process of asking the question and trying to answer it is valuable and productive in itself.  In short, it is worthy of discussion.  And the same is true of any other explanation for deities — mine included.

Perhaps what “cheesed” Star’s “grits” was not that M.J. asked the question, but that she offered a tentative answer, one naturally framed from her own perspective.  If I ask a question about your beliefs and then propose an answer, you may not like the proposed answer.  You may offer another answer.  But to charge me with evangelical atheism or trying to impose an atheist orthodoxy is inaccurate, unfair, and inflammatory.  Proposing an answer is called theorizing.  It is a far cry from imposing an orthodoxy.  In fact, the spirit of free inquiry which drives this process of questioning and proposing tentative answers is the only remedy for orthodoxy.

If you want to avoid orthodoxy, then we need to have more discussion, not less.  And some of that discussion needs to be (constructively) critical.  Or else we become vulnerable groupthink.  Sometimes it is only the best of our friends that force us to ask the hardest of questions about ourselves.  Why are some Pagans so sensitive that they cannot “tolerate” a little critical questioning of their beliefs?  I am beginning to wonder now if, in some cases, the objection that Pagans have to proselytizing arises out of an unconscious fear that, if we put ourselves out there, someone will ask hard questions about our beliefs.  I wonder if the lack of developed theology in Paganism is, not the result of a commitment to praxis, but a fear of criticism.  And I wonder if the “tolerance” being advocated is not, in some cases, an excuse for insularism.

Star would seize the moral high ground with the word “tolerance”.  But ironically she tries to use the word to silence an entire segment of the Pagan community.  (I find it interesting that Star continues to keep the comments section of her blog disabled.)  Tolerance is not the antithesis of free inquiry.  They are two mutually interdependent steps in the same process.

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  • thalassa

    I will say that while I disagreed with M. J. Lee’s essay in parts, I quite liked it. I was surprised that it received such ire…but I occupy a certain ambiguous middle ground when it comes to deity. Hard polytheists tend not to consider me a polytheist and a naturalist would never consider me one of them either, but I can freely identify with the spirit of both perspectives. I’ve said this before in your comments, lol…but for me, its a matter of pragmatism. I don’t think it matters if gods are literally real or subconscious projections of anthropomorphic symbols (of a greater Divine, according to my pantheist half). What matters (this is what I meant by “what works” in my prior comment on your last post), in my opinion, is our actual experience with the them. Some people never experience god, some people experience god incredibly realistic ways….I fall somewhere in the middle, and I fully acknowledge that it might just be a figment of my incredibly fertile imagination.

    The only part that I really disagreed with was the idea of “needing” gods (supernatural or not). I don’t *need* god. The closest comparison I can think of is that I love my husband. I cherish the time we have together and I am hella grateful that I met him and that he enriches my life. But I don’t *need* my husband. I could survive without him. If I had never met him, I wouldn’t be less of a person. My experience of the past several years would be different, but I would still be me. My experience of god enriches my life and offers a different way of experiencing the world around me. It allows for some insights into myself and my environment that a strictly rational understanding of the world does not (conversely, a rational understanding offers a perspective and experience offers something that a spiritual one does not)…which is why I am willing to suspend non-belief, even if I might be wrong.

    I also have to say, super-kudos for the inclusion of my favorite author and scientist and all-around intellectual hero. My willingness to separate the two realms of thinking *might* be a result of my education and indoctrination–My first undegrad adviser (who taught the required methodology classes) was actually a student of his, way back in the day. I like the idea of non-overlapping magesteria, but I don’t think it truly works like that. My prof used to have a hand-drawn poster on his wall of a graph like this ( ) that I think describes the reality of it, but I think our experience of it is more like the flip side of a coin. To have a whole coin, you need both sides of the coin…but when you only see one side, you still know that you are looking at a coin.

    I’m not entirely sure that this all makes sense. It makes sense in my head, but I also have small children that are in the midst of dumping out all of their toys as I am frantically typing before we need to get out of the house so we aren’t late!

    • thalassa:

      “The only part that I really disagreed with was the idea of “needing” gods (supernatural or not)”

      I feel the same way. I was more than a little surprised to read that Star Foster took exception to MJ’s use of the word “want”. I guess you can’t please everyone.

      “My prof used to have a hand-drawn poster on his wall of a graph like this”

      I couldn’t see the image. Can you send it another way. I’d love to see it.

      • thalassa

        let me see if I can make this work…

        If it doesn’t show up, I’ll just post it on my blog in a minute or two (although, I might just post it there anyhow…it is one of my favorite ways to illustrate the idea)

      • thalassa

        well shucks, that didn’t work either!

        I guess I’ll just be blogging it tonite!

      • thalassa

        Okay, I ended up blogging about it (and the convo in general).

        …it gave me an excuse to have The Hubby put the kids in bed tonight, so thanks!

  • thalassa

    Also! A long while back, in response to some drama going down, I got the idea to create some “interfaith etiquette” guidelines. If we are actually going to try to embrace plurality for real in the greater community of Contemporary Paganism (whatever that might be and whomever might want to be included), then perhaps #s 4-11 might be worth looking at ( ). 1-3 really don’t apply too much here, and are more meant for things like waiting in line at a grocery store or hanging out in the office.

    My favorite is #9 “Disagreement is not an automatic insult or attack. Try to refrain from taking offense to comments that may be well-intended, but poorly phrased.”

    • Thanks! I’m going to reblog those here:

      4.) Don’t act like your truth is everyone’s truth–it isn’t, because if it were, there wouldn’t be a conversation on the matter. When expressing your beliefs, use I-statements to express your personal beliefs.

      5.) Refrain from using absolute or exclusive language, but don’t assume that absolute or exclusive statements are made with negative intent.

      6.) If you are in a mutual discussion of beliefs, don’t use your theological opinion as a tool for condemnation or insult.

      7.) Realize that the people who vocally use their beliefs about religion as an excuse to be a jerk are louder than those that don’t, if you want to be a good ambassador for your faith, act your ideals, and even share them, but don’t preach them.

      8.) Language is imprecise–different religious and denominations have differing terminology; understand the limits of your religious literacy and ask for clarification if you are unsure of one’s meaning.

      9.) Disagreement is not an automatic insult or attack. Try to refrain from taking offense to comments that may be well-intended, but poorly phrased.

      10.) Courteously and constructively correct misinformation. Do not get drawn into an argument (as opposed to a debate). Be polite, even when the other person is not.

      11.) If things start going badly, be the adult and back off. When this happens, don’t wait for the other person – do it first. If you are a person that has to have the last word, remember that walking away with dignity while the other person brays like an ass is its own last word.

  • >I am beginning to wonder now if, in some cases, the objection that Pagans have to proselytizing arises out of an unconscious fear that, if we put ourselves out there, someone will ask hard questions about our beliefs.

    I definitely disagree with that part. Isn’t the abhorrence of proselytization more due to the memory of how terribly badly that went (and often continues to go) in the history of Christianity and other religions?

    • I think we have two different things in mind by the word “proselytizing”. I don’t mean forced conversion, or knocking on stranger’s doors, or even trying to talk to the person in the grocery store line with you. It just seems that the no-proselytizing idea is used as an excuse to not share our religion with our friends and family even when the opportunity presents itself. The fact that some Christians throughout history have behaved badly seems like a poor excuse to not share our religion.

  • >Star would seize the moral high ground with the word “tolerance”. But ironically she tries to use the word to silence an entire segment of the Pagan community.

    It may not have been your intent, but this kinda makes it sound like you think Star is politicking, taking advantage of the situation to advance some agenda. I don’t think that’s the case.

    After listening to the live hangout on tolerance, I think the intentions were genuine and a lot of really good stuff was said. I found myself taking notes for how I can do better at tolerance as well.

    • I think a less “political” move would have been to invite a naturalistic pagan, like MJ or yourself, into the discussion. I applaud the effort though. It’s just a little hard not to be cynical given the tone of her first and second posts in response.

      • Maybe. But to be fair none of us have done anything like that either yet. And also, even though the timing of the live hangout seems to strongly suggest reference to the HP post controversy, what was actually referenced in the hangout was Pantheacon, which suggests the Z Budapest controversy. So, I’m just saying we may be making too many assumptions.

        • Fair enough. It’s always good to see cooler heads prevail in these matters.