If I were to say I believe in the Goddess, I wouldn’t mean the same thing that I once meant when I said I believed in God. I believe in the ideals and powers that the Goddess represents. I am also strongly drawn to a female idea of divinity. Maybe that is a side-effect of being raised female in a culture where the masculine is consistently valued over the feminine.
But I’m hesitant to say I believe in the Goddess because I know people will assume my words will mean what the dominant religion — Protestant Christianity — says they mean, and that can only cause confusion. As a Christian my views of divinity were very literal, and anyone who suggested otherwise — that God might be a metaphor or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead literally in-the-flesh — were heretics and not real Christians (and probably leading their followers to hell). I grew up thinking that science would prove and bolster my religious beliefs. (Which is why I was shocked and angered when I learned I’d been mislead about evolution and it’s supporting evidence.) I was essentially a Fundamentalist even though my family denied that label.
I’ve seen the standard Christian-influenced language affect the atheist community as well. In this enlightened scientific age it’s really easy to smirk at people who talk about the whims of anthropomorphic gods control the weather, or that fairies live in gardens, or any of the other quaint beliefs from times past. A good bit of my discomfort with coming out as pagan has been about not wanting to be given ‘that look’ by atheist friends who might assume that I believe in things like that when I come out as a pagan.
My other area of concern is that I have in the past unconsciously lumped in paganism with ‘New Age’ and pseudoscientific quackery. I’ve seen some overlap in instances where an author would claim scientific backing for their ideas and then cite Uri Geller (who was thoroughly exposed as a charlatan by The Amazing James Randi). A few days ago I was reading a book on paganism and witchcraft. As evidence of scientific evidence of the power of words, the author cited a study that “proved” that saying nice words to water changed its crystalline structure when frozen. I did a search of the study and the author Masaru Emoto and from what information I could find. From everything that I understand of the structure of water and how atoms and chemistry work, this study and it’s finding is nothing but crass pseudoscience. And at this point I put the book down and question all pagan ideas and desire to follow this form of religion and hear that voice in my head saying “Am I being a fool?”
I’m not the only pagan who is concerned about pseudoscience being mixed in with paganism.
John Becket write about the dangers of pseudoscience in his blog post on the Under the Ancient Oak Blog: Bad Science Makes Bad Religion.
Claiming scientific backing or proof for spiritual ideas where none exists isn’t just bad science, it’s also bad religion.
Unfortunately the link to Lupa’s post is broken in John Becket’s post, but they have more to say on the subject at the following links.
When pagans step out of the narrow confines of symbolism, and act as though nature is sacred because we know how threatened it is through the science of ecology, not only do we deepen our connections to nature, but we also show the rest of the world that we walk our talk. It’s just one way in which we demonstrate that, as with our historical accuracy, we’re also interested in scientific accuracy, rather than denying or ignoring facts in favor of our own spiritual self-satisfaction. And rather than getting entangled in self-centered interpretations of nature that elevate us as the special beings deserving of nature’s messages, a more scientific approach to paganism humbles us and reminds us that we are just one tiny part of a vast, beautiful, unimaginably complex world full of natural wonders that science can help us better explore and understand.
Science isn’t perfect, and I’ll be the first to state that. After all, it’s run by humans, who are full of mistakes and biases and sleep deprivation. But if there are mistakes that deviate from the scientific process of inquiry, the answer is not to even more deliberately deviate from it with wishful thinking and “this just feels right”. Pharmaceutical companies missing an important side effect of a medication and having to take it off the market does not mean that it is somehow okay to start ingesting essential oils to medicate yourself instead just because you think essential oils are “natural and good”. Two wrongs do not make a scientific breakthrough.
I was pleased when listing to the 3 Pagans and a Cat podcast about herbalism the same warnings I’ve heard over and over on skeptic podcasts: That just because something is natural or comes from plants doesn’t mean it is safe or healthy or won’t kill you!
I’ve long known that scientific skepticism is very important, ever since I picked up a book by Carl Sagan in my 20’s. What I had not realized before is how important it is in paganism to avoid the landmines placed sometimes on purpose by opportunistic charlatans who want to sell you something and at other times by innocent people who just haven’t yet learned to distinguish a reasonable study from a crappy one.
So it’s one thing to have a belief, and another thing to claim to be able to prove it empirically though science. I am reaching beyond my comfort zone in considering some ideas that are not scientific in that they cannot be tested scientifically much less proven — and making peace with the very real possibility that they may not mean a thing outside of my own skin (I was going to say skull, but I think the rest of my body counts in this too.)
So I’ve made a commitment to keep a close idea on what is ‘spiritual’ and what is ‘scientific’ and be careful to distinguish at all times which is which.