In early December, after juggling 9 classes and a daily blog all semester, I got sick. Eric Steinhart, a previous guest contributor on the blog, stepped in and has been the primary blogger on the site for one month now. He has discussed possible connections between atheists and Wiccans. Thursday was my first day where I haven’t had to grade students since the semester ended, so I was ready tonight to retake the blog and was planning to offer my thoughts on Eric’s experiment while I’ve been gone. Now I see that PZ is disgusted by Eric’s recent series on Wicca here at Camels With Hammers and so I will frame my post as a reply to his serious concerns.
Daniel, having read a few of Eric’s contributions, I am disgusted. Prolix bafflegab, confusion, thinly veiled attempts to rationalize pagan mysticism, and just general longwinded bullshit. Why have you invited him here? He’s awful.
His strongest charge against Eric is the following:
Let’s put this in purely pragmatic terms. We brought you into FtB because we like what YOU write. If Eric had a blog of his own that was full of that same longwinded, tedious nonsense that now fills the bulk of your page, we would not have been at all interested in inviting him here. It’s your choice, but what I see is a once interesting blog that has been filled up with dreary sawdust by a really boring guest blogger. No one is going to kick you out for the experiment, but you face an even worse fate: people will stop reading you.And in terms of content, no, I don’t quite swallow your excuses. the guy is throwing out this massive wall of contradictory incoherence…you can pick and choose and find bits where he’s advocating rationality, and then you can find piles of words where he’s defending Wicca. It’s like “spirituality”: building a new academic definition that doesn’t conform to the way people actually use the words is NOT helpful. It provides scholarly cover for frauds and ignorance.
Eric is a close friend and mentor to me. He is one of my favorite people. And under his direct influence I abandoned a great many irrationalistic tendencies and became persuaded of important metaphysical ideas that made it possible for me to be a rationalist after years as an atheistic irrationalist. He has a long peer review publishing record, he has published several books with academic presses, and most, if not all, of his metaphysical arguments on this blog have been syntheses of positions advocated by leading metaphysicians. Given the way American book stores are laid out, many readers might hear “leading metaphysicians” and think Deepak Chopra and crystals and other New Age bullshit. And given Eric’s choice of advocating metaphysics by mingling it liberally with posts affirming a pagan religion which is highly associated with those sorts of woo, I am afraid he may have accidentally only further cemented the association between metaphysics and superstitious fraudulence in many atheists’ minds. This would be most unfortunate.
The metaphysics Eric has been spelling out not only has a rich and deeply technical and philosophically powerful history but is supported by mainstream philosophers who write and publish at the most elite (and even the most normal) universities in the English speaking world. It’s not nonsense. It is technical and much of it may be counter-intuitive to a downright off-putting extent to lay readers. But it is developed with a lot of logical and analytical conceptual rigor and ultimately it does have relevance to vital philosophical issues which we should all be able to recognize as important. And that’s why I brought Eric onto the blog—because I wanted him to illuminate metaphysical problems in ways I can’t. I don’t like to write publicly that much outside my specialty. I’m an ethics guy and a Nietzsche guy. I’m not an expert in metaphysics. Eric is. And he wrote an astoundingly good explanation of the problem of why there is something rather than nothing that led to more such posts illuminating metaphysics and showing its value to atheists.
But, since he brought up some very counter-intuitive ideas about metaphysics at the same time that he was giving an alternatingly neutral, sympathetic, and critical account of a (frankly) bullshit belief system (from a literal point of view), I think he pushed some readers (PZ most notably) farther away from metaphysics rather than closer to it. The series’ best audience is probably either those who are already metaphysically versed and who would take an interest in how certain metaphysics are showing up in a new religion, or those Wiccans who want to purge their religion of its frauds and pseudoscience. While I share Eric’s hope that atheists will develop community, rituals, meditation, traditions for transmitting values, holidays, etc. so that those atheists and those who are currently theists who crave and benefit from that stuff do not need to sell their souls to the authoritarian, irrationalist god of Abraham, he probably bit off too much by advocating for such things by pairing them with a literally bullshit religion and a prima facie bullshit metaphysics. His metaphysics is not bullshit. But asking a group of predominantly nominalist atheists to accept certain religious forms as positive, alien metaphysics as sensible, and a woo-riddled religion as affirmable was probably asking for too much all at once.
I think there is a serious place for philosophy of religion of precisely the kind Eric has been doing. One can exposit a false religion and understand how even though it is literally false it can have conceptual structures that work effectively enough for people that they don’t get themselves killed on account of it, but rather actually cut up the world in usefully symbolic ways and provide surprisingly effective practices for various constructive real world purposes. It is really valuable to ask how systematically believing certain kinds of falsehood can have enough practical value to be so widespread and intransigent in humanity. It is really valuable to pry open practices which are wrapped up in false interpretations by those who engage in them and figure out the real psychological mechanisms that make them work. If we can figure out how to get the good mechanisms that religions either exploit or engineer entirely, and how to dull or obliterate the bad mechanisms religions also exploit or engineer but to our horror, then humanity can get the best outcomes going forward.
Now, in academic journals, work describing the conceptual structures and the positive psychological mechanisms of a false religion is hardly likely to confuse readers into false, literal beliefs. And when the smarter practitioners of a false religion read sophisticated accounts of their religions they do often trade-in the lay believers’ falsest interpretation for something more rational (even if still layered with myth).
I’m an academic. I studied at a Catholic graduate school where I knew devout Catholics who love the Flying Spaghetti Monster and find evangelical fundamentalist Christians to be utterly bizarre. And even mainstream Christianity has been drastically moderated over the course of hundreds of years by non-literal and progressive theologies. We do not live in a theocracy (yet). And a large part of why that is is people who were at least nominally Christian who found ways to convince their fellow believers to stop drowning people over disputes about how old people should be when they’re supposed to be baptized.
So political and theological reformers from within faiths do make a dent. Today’s average Christian says a lot of watered down gooey stuff that drives fundamentalists up trees. There is an effective role that reinterpreting religious categories in philosophically more justifiable ways can play in the great tug of war between rationalism and irrationalism. Some people are too psychologically bound in their religious beliefs for infuriatingly powerful cognitive reasons to abandon the symbols or language of their religious traditions. Those people sometimes do moderate and change their beliefs in ways that let them keep the language and traditions they are irrationally attached to. Sometimes such people even make it all the way out of the traps of faith and authoritarianism through such baby steps.
So Eric’s express, oft-repeated goal has been to show Wiccans how they can have what they at least claim to want—a naturalistic, experimental, non-authoritarian religion—in ways that are genuinely rational and stripped of the woo which Eric calls a “sickness”. Eric wants to appeal to actual Wiccans. He does not want to alienate them by using derogatory terms because he is explicitly trying to explain to them how they could still be Wiccan and yet embrace their reason more appropriately.
But does this give cover to frauds—even accidentally—as PZ charges? Do the moderates mix just enough truth in with the falsehoods to be an even more enticing lie that prevents people from escaping to the truth, and increases the total numbers in the pews so that the fundamentalists are not isolated and alone? Do the moderates prolong the process of ending the hegemony of authoritarian faith over the majority of people’s minds?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. I think the people PZ rightly has a problem with (and I do too) are those who want to pay no attention to the consequences of literalists’ falsehoods and consider them beneath refutation. They are happy to equivocate and mean one thing when they speak and let the lay people mean another thing when they use those very same words and to never correct the lay people. They are happy to defend the lay people’s confusions on grounds that such people can do no better intellectually or gain practical benefits such that the falsehoods are no big deal. And worst of all they denounce all of us who popularize to the lay person that they can be critical thinkers too by calling us mean-spirited elitists. They treat us like bullies picking on the dumb kids when we are precisely those who are telling those “dumb” kids that they can think for themselves and that they don’t have to remain ignorant and mentally under subjection to frauds.
So, yeah, when academics patronize the people in the pews and then have the gall to call us atheists elitists, my blood boils. And when they want to brush the problem of fundamentalism under the rug as though it were not serious because they refuse to stare the reality of sheer irrationalism and (in some cases) brutality in the eye and acknowledge its existence for fear of being “judgmental”—then, well, fuck that shit. Fundamentalism is real and false and dangerous. And it is giving cover to frauds to not acknowledge that and not to fight it full force.
Part of fighting it full force means not hiding comfortably in an ivory tower while charlatans are the go-to people for ethics and metaphysics for ordinary people. That means scientists of all kinds and philosophers—since ethics and metaphysics falls under our purview—to come into the public square and give people a proper education to correct for the lies being spread on Sunday mornings.
I have seen Eric as writing in that vein because he has consistently been explicit that literal falsehood is literal falsehood and the literal falsehoods cannot be simply forgiven because there are also conceptual truths they metaphorically express. He has repeatedly called for Wicca to purge its irrationalism. I leave it to you readers to judge if he made those appeals unequivocally enough that any Wiccan would know precisely where he stood on that issue.
Yes, he has also advocated atheists adopting practices and terms developed by Wicca. I do think atheists should develop alternative communities to theistic ones and I don’t mind if they take on “religious” character as long as they scrupulously avoid authoritarianism, faith-based believing, superstition, misogyny, homophobia, patriarchy, cultishness, irrationalism, out-group hatreds, exclusivity, sectarianism, blind traditionalism, and related vices. Should they borrow from pagans? Some already do as Eric has shown and various of our readers have attested. I know many atheists who have taken readily to talking about the solstice around the major North American holiday season. Eric has chronicled many other adaptations of existing traditions atheists have tried. I’d rather we did things from scratch. But I don’t see the problem with taking existing celebratory rituals and holidays which harm no one but which emphasize things of genuine, rationally defensible value and adopting them as constructive practices that families and communities can enjoy rationally. It’s probably way too far to try to suggest atheists should do this as an explicitly “Atheistic Wicca” but I have found it interesting to see Eric speculate about the possibilities, such as they are.
I hope the series has not given cover to frauds but that it has helped atheists to think through some metaphysics, to think about how they can build traditions which can attract people away from Abrahamic monotheism and meet the psycho-social needs of atheists who miss what religions uniquely provide, and to understand what we are dealing with with this growing Wicca religion in America.
If any one has slipped further into error by accident through this experiment then I apologize and only hope that enough more people have come to greater clarity about the truth to compensate.