A religion…that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge. – Carl Sagan.
I am a modern Pagan. I live and move and have my being in this world, the world of the 21st century, a world shaped and understood by science. I am not a 1st century Celt and have no desire to be. As I see it, for Paganism to be a vital, dynamic and above all living spirituality today, it must engage with the modern world. We simply know more today about how the universe works than did our ancient ancestors, and this hard-gained knowledge should not be sacrificed on the altar of pre-scientific superstition.
The scientific method is the single best toolkit that humans have invented to understand the physical world. It has revealed wonders: the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe, the formation of stars which then died, scattering their atoms across the cosmos to form planets, life, me and you; the epic story of evolution by Natural Selection, the great branching tree of life that connects every one of us with every one else, with every mammal and reptile, every fish and insect, every tree and amoeba on this “pale blue dot” we call home; these revelations thrill me to the core and make me feel at once inexpressibly small and also cosmically connected to all that is.
But it’s worth remembering that science is a methodology, not an ideology. While logical positivists scoff at the idea of “other ways of knowing”, the truth remains that there are, and we experience them daily. Subjective experience that cannot be scientifically verified still guides many of our daily decisions – what art or music we like, who we love, how we perceive our selves. And this is OK. This lived subjective experience is often all we have to go on.
I’ve seen what happens when science is viewed as dogma: I spent some years in the atheist community, and saw “science” used to mock people of faith all the time, despite the many excellent scientists out there who also hold to a religion. More recently, as a queer person, I’ve seen people arguing with their limited and incorrect understanding of “science” that transgender or non-binary people are not valid, that their gender and therefore their human rights can be ignored because of the chromosomes they happen to be born with. In previous generations, this same bad science was used against gay people, or people from non-white ethnic backgrounds.
This isn’t the fault of science, of course. Science is just a method. This is what’s known as Scientism; a philosophical position that asserts (one interpretation of) science as supreme. This is science as a weapon, a flashlight used to beat people with rather than to illuminate the truth. Science is an excellent tool, but it is one tool. When all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail…
Now, I firmly believe that Pagans should not be in the business of making claims that directly deny scientific fact the way conspiracy theorists might deny evolution, climate change or the efficacy of vaccines. If our beliefs don’t match reality, then it behooves us to adjust our beliefs.
But on the other hand, I don’t feel a need for scientific justification of my Paganism. While it is great to see studies showing the benefits of meditation (Goyal, Singh, Sibinga, et al, 2014) or sound healing (Goldsby et al., 2016), or spending time in nature (Park et al, 2008), do we need those to do these practices? For me, the subjective fact that when I do these things, I feel better than when I don’t do them, is enough of a reason to carry on – and enough of a reason to believe they work.
John Halstead, at Humanistic Paganism, has an excellent post on this topic: Walking Barefoot: What Science is Good For (and What it Isn’t). In it, he writes:
Science (or scientism) becomes a problem when it gets in the way of our human experience of nature…I’m not against scientists studying the effects of human contact with nature–in fact, I think it’s great. But I do have a problem if the worship of science as the only valid form of knowledge leads people to believe in pseudoscience. And I do have a problem if a lack of solid scientific evidence keeps anyone from walking barefoot on grass.
Time and again, I see people within the Pagan community looking to science as a way of justifying core Pagan (spiritual) concepts such as magic or divinity. Often, this science is poorly understood or misinterpreted. The problems with this are twofold as John mentions above:
- People are led to believe in pseudoscience and all sorts of far-fetched claims made to sound “scientific” by (mis-)use of terms like “quantum” or “energy field”.
- People do not examine their unstated societal assumption that science is the only valid way of knowing, approaching, apprehending or experiencing the world. This leaves no room for the mystic, the contemplative, or the simple sitting in awareness of the questions of life.
There is this deep compulsion in our community to “justify” our practices and belief with burgeoning scientific theories. Sometimes, there are REAL connections between the research being done in many scientific fields to the practices and magic we use. The problem arises from authors who do not understand the science trying to manipulate the science to fit their magic…Let’s stop selling the power of magic short. Don’t forget that the why behind our spells is our very own will, belief, and ability to connect with the energies around us.
I’m a bit of an empiricist, so I base my knowledge on experience. I do a thing, see if it works, and if it does then I’ll do it again when I need the same result. I may not understand fully why it works, but I know for all practical purposes that it works. I’m writing this on a computer, to be transmitted on the internet, and I couldn’t begin to explain the mechanics of how this is happening. It just is.
The same is true of my Paganism. I do divination with runes or Ogham, and get a reading that just makes sense and tells me what I need to know. I sit with a tree and feel an awareness. I do a ritual, and sense…something. Why does this work? I don’t know. I have ideas, and I have a tentative model of how it might work, but I can’t explain it in scientific terms. And yet, it works, and it gives my life a richer expression, a deeper meaning.
We absolutely need science. The greatest problem of our age, climate change, can only be solved with rigorous application of the best science we have. But science should not be seen as an ideology, and should not constrain our spiritual practices – for they feed older parts of the brain, those implicational subsystems that know nothing of logic and reason, and sing the songs of myth, symbol and intuition.
ADF Druid Melissa Hill, in a post on Patheos, Dandelion Seeds: On the Fractal Nature of the Earth Mother, writes:
As modern pagans we have the challenge of integrating modern scientific knowledge with ancient wisdom and understanding of the world. Often times I see that people are incredibly polarized between one or the other, insisting that only scientific research can hold the keys to wisdom or that the knowledge of the ages, written down long ago is far more important in understanding.
I think we need both science and religion.
As a modern Pagan, I love and respect science and the scientific method. I use it myself, to apply sceptical enquiry to far-fetched claims and to avoid the quicksand of pseudoscience, lurking out there in the marshes beyond the horizon of the known.
But I am also a Pagan. I speak to the land, sea and sky, and know that they hear me.