All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.
For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
The Occult, Science, and NeoPaganism
As NeoPaganism has grown and flourished, the paths taken to get here have multiplied from those taken by a relatively few serious spiritual explorers initially engaged in occult studies to include people attracted by dissatisfaction with monotheism, a feeling of finally finding a spiritual home, our music and culture, curiosity about the off-beat or forbidden, and increasingly, their family’s beliefs. This is not a bad thing. It is in fact a good thing. But it is a complex good thing.
In Pagan societies most people were not involved in a major way with magick or practices like drawing down the moon. While most people probably knew of and employed charms, amulets, and small spells, and had favorite deities or spirits to whom they made offerings and could call upon, such things were not central to their daily lives. Fields needed to be tilled, animals fed, food cooked, children tended and friends visited. Life is a full-time project, and we all must choose what parts of it to emphasize. The equivalent of modernity’s occultists specialized in practices, such as dowsing, healing, astrology or facilitating others’ more intimate relations with deities and spirits. Most people did other things. This is why as we grow in numbers NeoPaganism’s occult dimension will tend to take a back seat.
But in evaluating occultism’s diminishing role in modern NeoPaganism, we must consider a very different context. What we call the “occult” did not challenge the dominant worldviews of Pagan societies. It fit comfortably within them. It does challenge that of modern America. Science is the modern world’s most impressive way of making sense of things, and science arose on a deliberate effort to insulate it from religious matters, with which the occult has a complex and deeply intertwined relation.
Some Pagans whose paths to our traditions did not involve occultism are arguing our practice is entirely compatible with modern science. For example, at Pantheacon, and interfaith events such as the Parliament of World Religions I encountered NeoPagans who deny the gods or other realities not recognized by modern science “really exist.” That is how I understand them, anyway.
This came as a surprise to me because I became a Wiccan due to an encounter with the Wiccan Goddess, up close and personal. For a while I thought every Wiccan had such encounters. In time I learned while some had, others had different reasons for honoring the Gods and the Wheel of the Year.
Later, as I studied classical Pagan thought, I learned this diversity of experience was not unusual even then. In every Pagan society there was a wide range of spiritual experience among people, from the most transformative encounters to encountering nothing much at all except perhaps the Presence of the land or sea or sky. In the Phaedrus Socrates entered trance and a Nymph spoke through him. In the dialogue, no one seemed surprised at an event that today would be regarded as impossible in our larger society. On the other hand the Epicureans treated the Gods as if they were entirely unconcerned with human activities. The world was matter and there was no divine intervention in it. Their teachings focused instead on personal transformation rather than establishing relations with the more-than-human.
To my mind the nature of a person’s spiritual encounters is rarely a good measure of how “Pagan” they are. Pagan ethics generally focus on restoring or maintaining harmonious relationships, not getting the beliefs right or choosing the right deity. That someone has not had a personal encounter with a deity says nothing about their qualities as a good person or ability to enrich a Pagan society. I believe this has always been the case.
I think today’s Pagan ‘skeptics’ have had no serious encounter with the occult dimension of our world. Therefore their standard for reliable knowledge is often science. However, when a Pagan argues scientific knowledge is the only source of universally valid knowledge, I get uncomfortable
Consider what was in most respects an excellent presentation at Pantheacon last month. The presenter discussed the often sloppy appropriation of science by some Pagans to defend their religion. To my mind most of the points made were quite valid.
However, in making this case, the presenter emphasized the basic distinction between inner subjective and outer objective reality. This speaker explained religions, including our own, existed in the realm of the subjective, whereas science focused on the world of the objective, the world we all share together. I can believe I am communicating with a tree, or it with me, and because my experience is subjective, it has no connection with the tree’s objective reality. Religious experience is entirely personal. By contrast, that the tree is a walnut and grows in Taos is an objective claim testable by any of us. It may or may not be true.
At this point I raised an objection. I argued the subjective/objective dichotomy presented here ignored collective experiences of what would be labeled “subjective phenomena.”
Reasonably enough, I was asked to provide an example.
A strange night in Berkeley
I chose one which I thought most clearly illustrated the reality of this third realm and the failure of the traditional subjective/objective dichotomy to handle it. It was not an encounter with a deity, but rather with a spirit visible to the eye but by accepted scientific criteria, having no physical body. The event was neither subjective nor objective, or alternatively, it was both.
I had just completed my Ph.D. at Berkeley and was anticipating a normal university career ahead of me. I had financed my writing primarily as an artist, and had gotten to slightly know a customer who had once claimed to practice magic. I had thought that claim malarkey, but let it slide so as not to risk antagonizing a repeat customer. Now I thought I’d soon be an academic, and so challenged him to show me “some real magick.”
To my surprise he accepted, and one night, after 10, the two of us went up onto the UC Berkeley campus. He carried a tall staff.
After some amazing (for me) experiences we finally went to an outdoor circular plaza elevated a floor above the ground. It was surrounded by buildings on all sides with only two obscure points of access. It was so hidden from passers-by that while it was in the middle of the campus, even after 10 years there I had not known it existed. My guide said we might see an angry spirit trapped on the gravel surrounding the plaza because whoever had conjured it up had never released it.
I was up for that. Fascinating as the night had been, I had not seen a spirit nor, for that matter, had I seen him do anything magickal himself.
I decided to answer with minimal information.
“Is it between those two bushes?”
“Is it about three feet tall?”
“Is it white?”
“Yes, but I can hardly see it.”
“Let me see what I can do about that.” He walked to the plaza’s center where he placed his staff on the ground and leaned against it.
It glowed much more brightly.
He walked back and asked me whether I saw it any more easily now.
I croaked out a stunned "Yes." My view of reality was crumbling around me. He was for real. And so was it, whatever it was.
Since it made no effort to come to us and I was certainly not going to go to it, in time we decided to leave. He walked again to the center of the circle, leaned against his staff, and soon it faded away entirely
We walked by where it had been as we departed. I stopped, got down on my hands and knees, and looked carefully to see any sign of trickery. I saw two juniper trunks, gravel, and a brick wall. As we took some stairs down to the ground level I asked my companion, “Do you ever teach this stuff?”
“Will you teach me?”
Thus I began study in occult matters that about six months later led to an invitation to a Mid-Summer Sabbat in Berkeley, encountering the Goddess, and all that has happened since.
What does science say?
In terms of science this example met several criteria those arguing for the subjective/objective dichotomy need to think about.
1. It did not at all fit the prior description I had received as to what might happen. It was unexpected.
2. To use a popular academic term, it was “intersubjectively verifiable.” This simply means more than one person experienced it.
3. Our descriptions were identical.
4. On two occasions my guide apparently demonstrated action at a distance, first in somehow getting it to glow more brightly, and second, in dismissing it.
Had the experience been of something objective, like a deer unexpectedly appearing at the plaza’s edge, the fourth would be dismissed as a coincidence, and none of the other points would be considered unusual. But phenomena such as this apparition were neither objective nor subjective in the way most people define these terms.
From within a traditional scientific framework one could come up with several possible explanations. First, I am lying. I’m not, of course. I have deliberately told this story on numerous occasions the better to keep it fresh in my mind and not let the passage of time reshape it.
Perhaps then, it was “confirmation bias.” But what did it confirm? I admit I hoped to see something. But the actual event was unexpected and did not resemble what I had been told I might see. In fact, other than the fact that it happened, the experience was kinda boring. I can easily imagine more exciting encounters.
Perhaps my guide hypnotized me. But again, what I saw was unexpected, he gave no hints about what I would see and in fact he thought I might see something quite different. Then he then described seeing the same thing I saw. Further, I have encountered such beings elsewhere.
Perhaps we had a collective hallucination. But what can cause a collective hallucination? Some in the audience where I gave my example suggested psychedelics. But we would have known if we were using psychedelics, and we were not. Nor does the suggestion we might have had simultaneous flashbacks make sense, especially when I at least have never had them. And flashbacks do not explain why we apparently saw the same thing. We can understand why we might collectively hallucinate water in a desert. The mechanisms are well known. But in this case there is no equivalent mechanism.
Or possibly what we call spirits are real and at least sometimes people can communicate with them.
Spirit encounters have been a common occurrence in NeoPagan rituals for as long as we have records of such rituals taking place. They are also frequently reported human experiences as long as human experiences have been reported. Here is a class of phenomena that are not objective in the current sense of the word, and are inter-subjectively verifiable.
The Christian basis for the subjective/objective dichotomy
Modern science is unequalled as a means of eliminating mistaken views. It does not so much discover truth as narrow the field of possibilities as to what might be true by weeding out errors. Most of what we call scientific method constitute ways by which a proposition can be tested to see if it fails and can be discarded, or pass and so gain in credibility. The core question about a scientific proposition is: can it be rebutted? The best theories make hitherto unexpected claims, and then pass tests designed to evaluate them. Even the most prestigious theories, such as Newtonian mechanics, are abandoned if there are tests they fail that a competitor passes.
So far so good.
But in its origins science also incorporated ideological assumptions based on transcendental monotheism. Most have been abandoned over the years as they failed tests and so were refuted. However one key assumption lingers on: that a radical distinction exists between consciousness and matter. Originally this assumption was incorporated to help scientists argue they were in no way threatened religion because they focused only on the material world. What they did was in harmony with the radical distinction between God and souls, and the material fallen world. Today science has proven it can threaten Christianity just fine even with this assumption, which has itself become an article of faith for most, and so considered immune to challenge.
Daniel Dennett is a scientist for whom I have great respect. He recently argued consciousness is an illusion produced by neurons. Neurons are physical and so subject to scientific investigation. Not being so subject, consciousness does not exist because what is material does not exist.
I am not sure what it even means to say consciousness is an illusion since consciousness is necessary for the idea of an illusion to even exist, let alone the illusion itself. But that is apparently his argument.
Another fall back by scientists is to claim consciousness and matter are two different things. Consciousness is “the ghost in the machine.” How can the immaterial move the material or the material influence the immaterial? The objective/subjective dichotomy seems to me a version of this ghost-in-the-machine approach. Subjectivity is the ghost and objectivity is the machine.
Whether consciousness is an illusion or a ghost, the claim is challenged by the example I have given above. I it seems to me the only possible rebuttal is that I am lying. If I was only reporting my own experience I might just be nuts. But I am claiming two of us had essentially the same experience. However, a great many people have claimed to have had similar experiences challenging the objective/subjective dichotomy. Some have paid with their lives for such claims. Were all of us lying?
Further claiming consciousness is an illusion or a ghost insulates it from the methods of testing which have made scientific knowledge so enormously successful in other realms. At most we find physical correlations, but no way to connect them. This important distinction is rooted in transcendental monotheism, not science itself.
Science has demonstrated there is no other reason to believe in transcendental monotheism, and so it is time to chuck this article of faith, and subject it to the same vulnerability of testing that other claims about the world are subject to. My experience that night in Berkeley, and those of many of my readers, indicate it fails to account for the data.
Why this is important?
I go on at length here because I am worried that as Pagan practice grows its roots in a primordial experience of mutual relationship with other energies and intelligences beyond the human will get lost if it is understood in ways supporting the current modern world view, rooted as it is in transcendental monotheism. Paganism will then at best become a kind of healing psychological theater, like people who claim shamanic healing uses smoke and mirrors to trigger the placebo effect. Because I think there is partial truth to this description, in the context of this society I fear it can push out the rest of what Paganism is.
Modern NeoPaganism is not the same as the shamanistic practices of many tribal peoples, nor the relations with the earth and other Gods and energies as practiced by many agricultural peoples, not the over-arching municipal deities of Greece and Rome. However, it is in harmony with the same general world view. Its ethics are not the ethics of divine command nor of individual self-interest, but of seeking to obtain and maintain harmonious relationships. But for that to make sense, relationship must be possible. There must be that with which we can mutually relate. And for Pagans generally, this includes the more than human world and the more than what is called the material world. Occultism is a foundational element in a Pagan world view.
I am NOT saying that one cannot be a Pagan and not have had such experiences. Our speaker had a deep personal love for and veneration of the earth, but interpreted the foundations for this veneration as entirely subjective. Another I know with similar views has written some of the most beautiful Pagan poetry I have ever read. For them, religion and science involve two fundamentally different orders of experience.
It is this view I am questioning. I am saying it is disturbing for some calling themselves Pagans to say such experiences are in principle impossible. Without intending it, they give life to an assumption whose monotheistic roots have led even eminent scientists into absurd conclusions. I am criticizing the arguments alone, which is why I am not using names.
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