Still a lot going on, and still have a lot of things I’d like to write about, but not enough time today…so, instead, this. But, first a little bit of background on the first part of my title above.
I had never heard anything like the phrase “the horns of a dilemma” before I was in Oxford, sometime during the latter two trimesters I was there in the early part of 1997. One of the most interesting people I met there was a slightly-older-than-myself British fellow who had formerly been in the seminary, but was a theology student, who I had met in the Storytelling Society. One night, we were hanging out, and he took me back to his college, Pembroke College (which was the one and only time I was in the place, though I had to pass it every day on my way to my own college from home) and told me a bit about some rather tragic events that took place there over the years and how some of them left the place haunted (including the place where his own quarters were). We also went to the MCR (middle common room), an area that only graduate students and others have access to, and he showed me, amongst other things, this huge set of what I thought must have been water buffalo horns with a large inscription on them. I said “What is this?” and he said “It’s the ‘philosopher’s dilemma,’” and I said “Oh,” and didn’t really know what that meant, but was somewhat afraid to ask…Not long after that, I heard people using the phrase “the horns of a dilemma” relatively regularly, and thought, “Ah, yes, that thing Ben showed me that time.” Very metaphorical…
Well, I find myself–and, I have to admit, I’m very far from being a philosopher (a theologian, certainly, but not a philosopher…and there is a very big difference!)–on the horns of my own dilemma concerning the work of a certain modern pagan philosopher. I read Brendan Meyers’ guest post on The Wild Hunt today, and found myself both confused and offended…not because any of it was difficult-to-understand, but because what he appeared to be saying was offensive to anyone who is intellectual, or who has ever contributed anything to society, technology, or the greater course of history, and who is also an actual polytheist who acknowledges the existence of deities and worships them.
For example, this phrase:
Call it a case of observer bias on my part, but Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices, and they really don’t care about the “woo” anymore.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pretty fuckin’ intellectual in my practices, I know where they come from and why I do them, what the cultural context of some of their original expressions are, why they appeal to me now, and I have no difficulty distinguishing between why I do them, what history actually can tell us about them (or their absence), and a variety of other things which would make them intellectually “viable”…and, the “woo” is not gone from them either, and is just as important as it ever was. (In fact, I’d suggest that if having connections with actual divine beings is interpreted as “woo,” then there’s very little point to doing anything like this unless the “woo” is there…yes, there are dark nights and such, but that’s a kind of “woo” in itself…!)
He goes further later:
For those who struggle with anti-pagan prejudices and stereotypes, Humanist Paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just. Remember, the Acropolis of Athens, Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Pyramids of Egypt, were built by Pagans. Complex astronomical instruments like the Antikythera Mechanism, and the Nebra Sky Disk, were made by Pagans. Our Pagan intellectual heritage includes poets and scientists and literary intellectuals of every kind, especially including those who wrote some of the most important and influential books in all of Western history. Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Plato, and Cicero, just to name a few, all lived in pagan societies. Some of the greatest political and military leaders of all time, such as Alexander the Great, Pericles of Athens, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome, were all pagans, or else living in a pagan society. And speaking of Pagan societies: some of today’s highest social and political values, like democracy, secular republican government, freedom of speech, and trial by jury, were invented by pagans. Even the Olympic Games were invented by pagans. Yet that fact is almost always ignored when people study the origins of western civilization. In the face of anti-pagan prejudices, it might be better to point to accomplishments like these, than to something mostly amorphous like “freedom”.
As Dver pointed out in the comments on that post, all of these accomplishments by pagans he lists were by pagans who were polytheists and had experiences that conveyed to them that the gods exist, which is pretty damn “woo-ey,” I think…!?!
There’s nothing wrong with humanistic paganism, but humanist pagans do not have the monopoly on intellect, on critical thinking, or on being fans of science and nature in addition to other things. (I’ve talked about Neil DeGrasse Tyson here before; but I am not certain that Meyers realizes that Bill Nye the Science Guy is just as much a comedian as a scientist, if not more so on some occasions…but, being from the Seattle area, I know that more than most people might, since I was a longtime fan of Almost Live and knew him just as much as Speed-Walker as “the Science Guy.”) It’s perfectly possible to be a polytheist, to think that the gods are real and to treat them as such (even if one acknowledges that our experiences of the gods come through the medium of our minds and senses–which is not to say that they’re therefore “all in our heads”!), and to have experiences that are “woo-ey” while still being someone who looks at the physical processes of the universe as explained by science and has wonder and awe for them as equally as one has a solid intellectual understanding of them.
Why doesn’t he seem to get this, or that the way he’s phrased his arguments seems to indicate that he’s suggesting non-humanistic pagans aren’t intellectual, etc.?
He replies in the comments thus:
But if I may say so, I think you are reading a bit too much into the article. It’s a piece about some of the merits of humanist paganism; it says precisely nothing, one way or another, about other kinds of paganism.
I’m not the kind of writer who covers his words in a mountain of caveats and disclaimers, in order to avoid causing unintended offense, or accidentally making someone feel “invalidated”. I don’t like doing it; it always feels to me like a distraction. I’d rather get straight to the job of saying what I have to say.
With that in mind, perhaps you will find the piece easier to understand?
He follows this up with:
I do not claim that theistic or polytheistic pagans cannot be intellectual. No such statement appears in my text, and if others think it is “implied” there, then they are committing a logical fallacy. Remember, the statement “X has properties A,B, and C” does not mean the same thing as the statement “not-X lacks properties A,B, and C.”
The general idea is that humanist paganism is an “emerging option” for pagans who want to be more intellectual about their own paths.
Thus there is no “distinction between intellectual and the Pagan community” intended in my text. That statement attributes to me a false dichotomy.
But, personally, I’m not very satisfied with this refutation by (so it is implied) logical argumentation. Oftentimes, the pointing out of specific logical fallacies is an internet argumentation tactic that is used to sidestep an issue–if someone who is, let’s say, a trained lawyer but who has never read a particular medieval mythological text, and thus is completely unprepared to be able to discuss said text in a critical and contextual manner makes some statement, and I reply by saying, “Well, you’re a trained lawyer, not a mythological scholar, so your thoughts on this matter are incomplete and not as informed, and thus not as relevant, as they might be otherwise,” a common way for said lawyer to sidestep the issue of his unpreparedness for meaningful engagement in the conversation would be to say “Well, you’re making the logical fallacy of the ad hominem attack–that has to do with me, not with my argument, and thus you’re incorrect and illogical.” No matter how post-modern people want to be, there are just some matters that depend upon knowing and having experience in a specialized area of knowledge, and if someone doesn’t have that, then they’re not as prepared to enter into a useful argument about something; it doesn’t mean that they can’t have a useful discussion about a particular issue they’re not trained in, but that lack of knowledge often does prevent an informed engagement.
Too often, I think Brendan leans on his philosophical credentials a bit too heavily when he makes his statements, but doesn’t actually bother to put in the work in the relevant other areas of knowledge–he did this with “druidism” in an entire book, and he did it with various areas of history (in which he was simply incorrect) in his book on virtue ethics, and he has done it in various places with Irish mythology more times than I can personally count.
So, I don’t know…what do you think? Am I being too harsh with Dr. Meyers, or did he really miss the boat on this? Does his saying that Homer, Cicero, and Pythagoras “lived in pagan societies” and then the sentence following it on Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar being pagan or “lived in pagan societies” sort of suggest that the writers in the first sentence weren’t really pagan, while only some of the military leaders in the second may not have been?
Personally, I think it does…but, I’m no philosopher, so what do I know about what Brendan Meyers writes? ;)