Tyson Chase, who blogged as Salt City Pagan on the Patheos Agora blog, made a farewell post last week. Unlike some who’ve left Patheos Pagan in an uproar, this was a polite and personal farewell that focused much of its attention on giving thanks. In particular, Tyson expressed gratitude for the Pagan way of seeing the world that helped him extract himself from “the framework provided by the Catholic Church.”
As someone who worked for many years to extract myself from Protestant fundamentalism (or more precisely, to extract Protestant fundamentalism from me), I am thrilled that our movement was able to help Tyson find his way out of a religious environment that didn’t work for him, even if he didn’t stick around.
Paganism isn’t for everyone. Even though there are many different polytheist, duotheist, pantheist, and non-theist versions, our Big Tent isn’t right for everyone. Some people need the familiarity of the religion of their childhood, whatever it may be. Some need the infrastructure the “Big Five” religions can provide that we can’t. And some people sincerely believe the doctrines of various religions, or of no religion.
Tyson Chase found his home as an Agnostic-Atheist. So be it. My Paganism is as much of an orientation as it is a conscious choice. If I have a Pagan orientation, it stands to reason that some people have an atheist orientation. If this is where Tyson belongs, I’m genuinely happy for him, and I respect his decision even though I’m always sad when someone leaves the Pagan community.
After his expressions of gratitude – which are absolutely genuine – Tyson elaborates on “The Choice To Leave.” His reasons are valid. He examined the evidence and came to the conclusion that agnostic-atheism was the right path, at least for him.
I also have a strong respect for science, and I do my best to live my life in a reasonable manner. But my experiences and my interpretations of those experiences have led me to very different conclusions.
If Tyson’s post was on the Patheos Nonreligious channel, I might read it and let it go. But it’s on the Pagan channel, and so I feel the need to offer a different perspective.
Deities: not in the gaps but bigger than materialism
Tyson finds the evidence for the existence of the Gods to be insufficient. That’s fine. We all have to examine the evidence we have and evaluate it as best we can – and we don’t all come to the same conclusions. And to be fair, his identity as an Agnostic-Atheist affirms the reality that ultimately, we can’t prove or disprove the existence of the Gods.
But then he says “to argue that science cannot definitively disprove deities is creating a faith in the God(s) of the gap.” Now, the idea that the Gods are in the gaps of our scientific knowledge is a logical fallacy, a fallacy that is made clear every time science discovers new knowledge and fills a gap previously occupied by a deity (who is usually assumed to be the Christian God, but that’s not important here).
The problem here is materialism – the assumption that if something exists, science can observe and measure it. And also, if science can’t observe and measure it, then it can’t exist. But there is another possibility: that there are things – or persons – who are beyond the capacity of science to observe and measure. Not Gods of gaps, but Gods who are bigger than the bounds of materialism.
We set our own standards of evidence
Tyson says “no God claim has met its burden of proof.” Implicit in that statement is the assumption that there is an objective standard for such proof, or at least that all reasonable people have a similar standard. Neither is true.
I believe in the Gods because I have experienced the Gods for myself. Now, you can argue that my experiences were simply disruptions in brain chemistry caused by something completely ordinary and within the bounds of materialism. I freely admit you might be right.
But I don’t call myself an Agnostic-Pagan – I call myself a Pagan and a polytheist. I take what I think is most likely true and I order my life as though it is absolutely true. My life has been objectively better since I started on this path – why would I do otherwise?
Different people have different standards of proof. The existence of the Gods matters a lot more to some people than to others. I can’t say for certain that I’m right and Tyson is wrong.
I can say for certain that the preponderance of evidence convinces me that the Gods are real, and I’m happy with that conclusion.
Divination: fraud and incompetence vs. skill and ethics
Tyson describes some unfortunate experiences with some unethical readers. I wish he was describing a rare occurrence, but he’s not. A few psychics and readers are fakes who defraud their clients. Many more are simply incompetent.
It took me years to get to the point where I could read Tarot with any degree of accuracy. Even now, if you ask me for precise details I’m probably not going to be able to answer. I can’t see specifics in the cards and I’m not going to pretend I can.
But I can get general impressions. I can paint a picture – for myself or for a client – of what things will be like if you continue on a certain path. Then you can decide if you want to continue on that path, or if you want to make a change. I can’t make a major life decision for you – and I wouldn’t if I could.
To be clear: I’m not blaming the victim here. I’m warning those who want to be public readers to make sure you’re ready before you start charging money. Being ready means proving your accuracy and your helpfulness to yourself and your non-paying friends. It also means committing to ethics in divination.
Because if you don’t, you might be part of the reason someone leaves Paganism for atheism.
The open-label placebo effect
We all know about the placebo effect. The open-label placebo effect takes it a step farther. That’s when you fake something, and you know you’re faking it, but you get some benefit from it anyway.
Except, what if you’re not really faking it?
Tyson said “for some time, this approach to magick sustained my practice.” But also “I feel better connected to a situation when I am not utilizing the placebo effect.”
I understand the need to focus on what you think is real, even if what you pretend is pleasant and helpful. But here’s the thing: if you do the ritual and you get the results, how do you know the results come from the placebo effect?
How do you know the ritual didn’t work just like it’s supposed to work?
The only completely honest answer is that you don’t know. Materialism says there’s no way it can work. But what if there’s something to psychic energy manipulation (“energy” being a problematic word in this context, but most of us know what we mean)? What if the Gods we prayed to assisted us just enough to make a difference?
And what’s behind the placebo effect anyway? It shouldn’t work – but it does. Instead of dismissing it, what if we learned how to manipulate it?
I’m convinced that magic does work. Sometimes by the manipulation of what we call psychic energy, sometimes by the intercession of Gods and spirits, and sometimes by psychological programming. I don’t know where the placebo effect fits into that model, or if it’s evidence of a fourth type of magic.
But if it works, it’s real.
Tyson is disappointed in the response of some Pagans to the Covid pandemic. So am I. But as a whole, we’re taking this a lot more seriously than the conservative religions. I wish we were 100% vaccinated (excepting those who cannot be vaccinated) and were 100% responsible in public gatherings, but we’re doing about as well as anyone. This is not an issue specific to Pagans.
He’s also disappointed in Pagans who practice cultural appropriation, and calls out white people who wear Native American headdresses as an example. I share his disappointment, and I’m committed to building a Paganism where we do better. As with the Covid response, this is not a problem unique to Pagans.
But it can be the last straw for someone who was already on their way out.
Your life, your religion, your choice
I’m writing this to the community at large, not to Tyson Chase. He’s made his decision and I have no need to try to convince him to change it. Paganism isn’t for everyone, and if people examine the evidence and come to the conclusion that there are no Gods, so be it. As the quote often attributed to Marcus Aurelius says:
Live a good life. If there are Gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are Gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no Gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
But some of us have examined the evidence and have concluded that the Gods are very real, and so we worship and work with Them. We’ve concluded that magic is real, so we study and practice and experiment and try to be the most effective magicians we can be. And we’ve concluded that divination is real, so we do our best to relay the messages we’ve been given as honestly and accurately as we can.
You must weigh the evidence and choose for yourself.
I wish Tyson Chase nothing but the best, and I will continue to work with him where our this-world interests align – and they do on many issues.
But when it comes to Paganism, I’ve examined the evidence and I’ve come to a very different conclusion.