Belief and Rationality

This website targets a diverse audience, and some of you — even those who study religions — may experience an uneasiness we might articulate as follows: “Isn’t paganism silly?” How could anyone “believe in” this stuff? Isn’t this an “abdication of rationality?” As usual when answering vague questions, the vague answer is “yes and no.”

To get clearer, yes, plenty of modern paganism brings together thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and actions in ways that are both poorly informed and close-minded. It shares this problem with other religious traditions. To a substantial degree, it also shares it with secular rationalist critiques of spirituality. When secular rationalists call paganism “silly,” they are generally relying on rigid and naive preconceptions about psychology and metaphysics. In other words, their preconceptions are totally inadequate to explaining the reality of our everyday world and the psychology of our everyday experience — things as simple as walking the dog or doing your job, never mind spirits. So silliness is a very widespread problem, not least in rationalism.

On the other hand, no, modern paganism doesn’t have to be silly at all. In fact in many cases it is extremely sophisticated. By “sophisticated” I mean that many pagans are well aware of the tension between partial historicity and creative improvisation in their practices, but find meanings in those practices anyway; and they don’t believe the gods they worship “exist” for all people, yet they have relationships with those gods anyway. This is a kind of creative irony, which requires the capacity to hold in balance competing cognitive attitudes. It makes the practitioner take some responsibility for the transcendental framework in which they live, rather than treating that framework as given (e.g. by institutionalized dogmatic interpretations of a scripture). As a reward, it leaves open new horizons of meaningfulness for individual and cooperative exploration.

Anyone interested in following up my airy claims about preconceptual naïveté might like to look at Tim Morton’s Being Ecological (accessible) or John Protevi’s Life War Earth (more challenging).

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