The need for reason

Caroline, over at Maple Tree Druidry, posted an excellent article calling out the anti-intellectualism sometimes seen in pagan circles: Pagans are just as bad as we think Palin is. Go read it!

Uncritical acceptance of revisionist history, pseudoscience and general nonsense is rife within the pagansphere. To be sure, most druids and pagans I have ever encountered are highly intelligent and thoughtful people, but the minority of anti-intellectuals who take pride in their ignorance are vocal, and often get the attention of the media. These are the people who uncritically accept as fact claims that have been debunked by historians and archaeologists. Claims like these:

-5000 years ago, humans existed in a peaceful, Goddess worshipping, matriarchal prehistory

-The ancient Celts worshiped a triple Goddess in the form of Maiden, Mother, Crone

-The Celts were a peaceful people who spent their days skipping barefoot through the woods picking Mistletoe

-3 million women were burned alive during the “burning times”. NEVER AGAIN!

The problem with the above is not only that they are false, and believing falsehood leads to real harm (as I will discuss in a moment) but that it makes pagans look silly. The media already likes to stereotype pagans as fringe nutters so why give them more reason to? It’s stuff like this that stops pagans from being taken seriously in our ongoing global cultural conversation.

Sometimes, anti-intellectualism can become a badge of honour, and false claims defended with overblown levels of anger and rudeness, as Caroline points out:

But then there was this woman, T, who became very rude and mean towards me, personally attacking the fact that I chose to get a post secondary education.  She has done this before, essentially saying that “book smarts” are inferior to “street smarts” and therefore I am stupid.  This sounds like a whole lot of sour grapes to me.  She berated me publicly, then unfriended me in a fit of rage.  Basically, the stuff she had learned at festivals, and read on the internet, trumped any sort of academic research that anyone had ever done.

I have experienced such attitudes myself when trying to explain why, for instance, evolution is true or how quantum theory does not mean we can all create our own reality, no matter what Deepak Chopra says. I have written before that people need to stop seeing criticism of beliefs as personal insult. Credulity and arrogance are a powerful and dangerous mix.

Far from simply looking foolish, anti-intellectualism can lead to real harm. People die and let their children die because they trust in faith healing charlatans or think that vaccines cause autism, instead of going to a trained medical doctor. Anti-intellectuals in power in the US and UK deny the findings of climate scientists and use their denial to justify destroying and polluting the planet. To be opposed to science, reason and critical thinking is to ally yourself with creationists, Holocaust deniers, climate ‘sceptics’ and any passing cult leader or guru who comes along.

Academic and intellectual thought may seem dry and cold, but it is not the enemy. Rather, it is a toolkit that gives our beliefs a much-needed reality check. It is how we know what is true and what is not. I work in education myself, so seeing anti-intellectual bias distort people’s minds saddens me. As Caroline says:

What I have learned in academia does not make me a better person.  It does not make me smarter, or superior.  I learned basic critical thinking skills.  I don’t believe everything that I read at face value.  I examine it against what information we have, and how that information was obtained.  I learned how to research, how to question and how to remain impartial when the facts I think I know are proved wrong.  Higher education did not tell me what to think, it showed me how.

5 responses to “The need for reason

  1. Many Pagans i know refuse to get vaccinated because it “isn’t natural” or refuse to take medication for the same reason. However, consider this: our very own brains make chemicals! Sometimes these chemicals need a boost, a reduction, or modiied in some other way. Chemicals arent against nature.


    • Grr…naturalistic fallacy. Always gets me annoyed, that one. Especially when people who write on computers, wear clothes and spectacles, fly on holiday, drive cars and eat out-of-season imported fruit decide to lecture me on what’s ‘natural’ or not. Of course, as you say, our whole body is chemicals. Even water (H2O) is a chemical. Some people like to latch on to hip buzz-words about ‘all natural’ or ‘chemical free’ or ‘GM food’ and don’t have a real understanding of the basic concepts at all. It just makes us all look bad!

  2. I can personally never understand the idea that academia is always dry and boring, because academic and semi-academic is usually the writing that excites me most, especially in terms of my spirituality. I’ve luckily not come up against too many anti-intellectual Pagans like this in my interactions, but this is mostly because I give them a wide berth in the community. Well said!

    • Oh, it’s an idea that has been floating around in paganism since the first Romantic revivalists of the 18th century. Just look at Keats’ ‘do not all charms fly/at the mere touch of cold philosophy’ nonsense. I think that truth is important and that the more we know about the world, the more wonderful it is.

      • Hmm, true. I guess I can see where the idea is coming from, but I agree – knowledge is wonderful and powerful, and makes the world more interesting rather than less!

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