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The passing of Deo's Shadow

Some of you may have noted that Deo's Shadow Podcast, once the most popular pagan podcast on the entire internet, has been discontinued by its hosts. Deo presents his reasons here.

I read his farewell letter, and also his follow-up note, entitled "Why Athiesm?", which he wrote in response to a reader query. I've also read many of the comments on the Wild Hunt Blog, here, and the comments to the same blog post which were put on the Wild Hunt's LJ feed, here. I felt a little disappointed by some of the comments made: it appeared that only a few people really understood what Deo was trying to say. It was not that he had "lost" his path, and it was not that he "hadn't found his answers". He said, simply and clearly, that he had discovered he had no strong valid reasons for adopting his pagan beliefs in the first place. The rational response to such a discovery is to reject those beliefs. End of story.

I have to admit this affected me greatly, and not just because I was a guest on the show four times. Deo is a friend and a fellow philosopher. Before I moved to Hamilton, I was living only 20 kilometers away from him. He is also a remarkably generous, friendly, fun and kind person. I was dearly glad of someone in the community who has the same background and knowledge in philosophy as I do, with whom I can talk about such things. His departure from the community, therefore, hit me hard. His reasons for leaving it were sound and rational. It made me wonder if I have given much of my adult life to a community that doesn't care about philosophers, and if I, too, have become merely a spokesperson for a tradition that is ultimately a dead end.

I can hear some objections already. Many pagans believe that the pagan movement is full of deeply intellectual people, who have made a serious study of their traditions. A survey produced by a professor of sociology at Carleton discovered that 40% of Canadian pagans are university or college educated - which is 10% higher than the national average.

Many pagans are highly knowledgeable about history, archaeology, language, folklore, and the sciences. This I think is undeniable, and indeed praiseworthy. But most of this knowledge is factual knowledge, not philosophical knowledge.

Factual knowledge is welcomed and encouraged in pagan society: indeed people can obtain some prestige in pagan society by being well informed on obscure yet interesting topics. Factual knowledge, however, is not by itself enough to make the pagan community flourish. Factual knowledge of the social order in Iron-age Scotland, for instance, simply does not logically imply knowledge of how we today ought to live. To claim otherwise, as in the argument "The ancient Scots (or whatever culture) did ritual / family life / trade / etc in this way, therefore we should do so too" (or some variation thereof, perhaps with disclaimers and caveats to accomodate the realities of 21st century life) -- is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

Philosophical knowledge is the knowledge of how to separate the real from the unreal, the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the beautiful from the trite. This kind of knowledge is philosophical when it is a product of sustained systematic reason. This kind of knowledge, however, is often specifically rejected by pagans. This happens when, for instance, pagans claim that reliable knowledge can be obtained primarily (or only) through non-rational means such as magical sight, through "gut intuition", etc. This also happens when someone says that "head knowledge" or "book knowledge" is worthless, and that intellectual reasoning about our problems is "too hard", "too scary", or "missing the point", or even "an obstacle to true spiritual experience".

All of those comments were expressed to me, by pagans, and in the last six months alone, by people to whom I described my livelihood. It's beginning to wear me down.

I suspect that it was wearing Deo and Mandy down as well. For instance, his discussion of the logical contradictions and fallacies in the practice of spellcraft, was a work of top notch philosophical rigor - and it was almost universally ignored. No one wants to hear that one of their cherished beliefs is actually a senseless sham. He also generated controversy when he brought a social worker on his show as a guest, and they discussed how small children attending pagan gatherings can be harmed by the sight of their parents performing sexually provocative acts with near-strangers, at the fire pit at night. The anger that this show generated, despite that it was well reasoned, led me to believe that if he didn't leave the community, he might be driven from it.

There are a lot of things about the pagan community that annoy me too, as a philosopher. In my judgement, "gut instinct" and "intuition" and "it feels right" are simply not good enough reasons to adopt a belief. Yet these are some of the most common reasons offered for why people in the movement believe some of the things they believe. But really, the only acceptable reason for believing something is that the belief is true. This requires an exercise of rational intellectual inquiry: it demands material evidence and strong logical argument. There is as much courage and risk and creativity and (dare I say it) art, in that kind of enquiry. Intellectual enquiry requires courage and honesty, and cannot be constrained by unexamined presuppositions or social pressures. If my enquiries carry me to athiesm, then, like Deo, that is what I will have to do.

Around four years ago I was on the verge of leaving the pagan community myself as well. I was growing increasingly unsatisfied with the way slogans from pop culture substituted for wisdom, and how almost all questions of a philosophical nature were dismissed by an appeal to relativism, or something unexplained like "the mystery". I was also regularly asked to put my professional stamp of approval on the most banal of ideas, or the most idiotic of lifestyle choices. When I said things that I took to be important and helpful for people's lives, like "The practice of magic is not what matters" I was accused of being insufficiently spiritual. I got tired of it.

I had to go deep within my mind to discover what I really did believe, and what things were truly worthy of belief. I had to find again the reasons why I, too, entered the pagan movement, and the reasons why, if at all, I remain a part of it. The end result of that enquiry was "The Call of the Immensity", published as chapter 5 of my third book. I had to suffer to write that book. And the book I'm writing at the moment is also emerging from some profoundly troubling thoughts of a similar nature.

Someone might object by saying that in their circles or their own lives, they welcome and encourage philosophical knowledge. Perhaps that is the case for you. But I'm drawing attention here to the consequences for the movement as a whole of alienating or losing people like Deo. We had in our midst a fine young man with state-of-the-art philosophical knowledge who felt compelled to leave the community precisely because, in part, of its anti-intellectual disposition. Pagans need to take proper account of the implications of that event - and if we cannot do so, we will consign ourselves to ignorance.



( 78 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 6th, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC)
Very thought-provoking indeed. Thank you, Brendan.

('Insufficiently spiritual'? I'm speechless.)
Jan. 7th, 2009 06:11 am (UTC)
I'm glad you found this note thought provoking.

I was speechless too! The remark came in an email conversation back in September. A reader of OSV asked me why I had very little to say in that book about magic, and nothing at all to say about worshipping the gods. I answered that the worship of the gods, and the practice of ceremonial magic, is not what matters. A worthwhile and meaningful life is what matters. I also noted that in my own life, I do no ritual anymore, except for the "peaceful abiding" meditation described in my second book. I guess that person couldn't imagine life without ritual!

(no subject) - owldaughter - Jan. 7th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 6th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC)
While the foundations of any religious belief may be irrational and unreal, the fruits are very real and tangible. While that social worker might have been miffed at the sexual nature of the interactions, I bet that they were pleased to see a group a people interacting around a camp fire instead of at home individually in front of their televisions.

Though there may not be a black robed death figure with a scythe, we still have to deal with the incomprehensible death of a loved one. Even in our enlightened world, myths and stories have a role to play.
Jan. 6th, 2009 07:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Ritual
"Even in our enlightened world, myths and stories have a role to play."

Yes, but shouldn't we be the creators and tellers of those stories, rather than ignorant victims of them?
Re: Ritual - northwestpass - Jan. 7th, 2009 05:01 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 6th, 2009 06:59 pm (UTC)
People keep jumping into this conversation and saying increasingly interesting things, so that the blog post I started writing several days ago on it might never be finished! :-p All in all, though, I definitely agree with you (especially your point about factual versus philosophical knowledge and how one is valued more than the other--this might have something to do with why I've "gone solitary" over the past year and will probably remain so for a while yet).

I hope I speak for more than a few people out here when I say I'm very glad you decided to remain in the Pagan community, such as it is, and that your chapter on Immensity was both insightful and moving. I could relate to its struggle very closely, and I am sure that it will inspire others to take philosophical inquiry into their spiritual life more seriously.

Anyway, modern (neo-)Paganism is still so very young and new. Christianity had its early stages of anti-intellectualism and astounding lack of philosophy, too (and those threads persist today, rearing their ugly heads when threatened, to mix metaphors). But eventually some great philosophers came out of that religious tradition, and came afterwards in opposition. Good brains will out, I guess. I doubt we can blame Pagans or Paganism itself for the relativist, anti-intellectual streak that seems to be running through much of modern culture these days. (I'll let you know when I've discovered who we can blame. ;)
Jan. 7th, 2009 06:04 am (UTC)
Thank you for your good comments about my book here, Ali. I've had remarkably few comments about OSV so far, compared to the number of comments I've got about my other books. So I am sometimes at a loss to know how the book is being received.
(no subject) - skiegazer - Jan. 7th, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ninthraven - Jan. 7th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thegreencall - Jan. 8th, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - uncledark - Jan. 14th, 2009 06:17 am (UTC) - Expand
OSV - darach - Apr. 24th, 2009 04:57 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 6th, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)
"It's beginning to wear me down."

I can't even begin to tell you.
Jan. 6th, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
I identify as Pagan but not with the "Pagan community," and I thought your post on Deo's Shadow brought up some long-overdue discussion points, Jason. "My religion shouldn't require me to endorse dipshittery" is about as profound as I get these days, but it's true. I didn't check my scientific knowledge at the door, for one, and I refuse to start now just to be perceived as sufficiently spiritual-- for one thing, that'd cost me a livelihood in visual effects, and I like my gig. I know at least two other folks who still identify as agnostic, despite working relationships with deities everyone else would term "pagan," simply because they can't put up with the "anything goes as long as you really believe it" attitudes expressed by a large number of members of the "Pagan community."

Also, man, am I sick of the "atheists can't have profound personal and group experiences because they've Lost Spirituality" argument, and the "if you didn't find intellectual rigor in Paganism it really means you were a Bad Convert and should feel bad about your failings" and so on, ad nauseam.

I'm firmly in love with the Reasonable Person Principle as a guide to my actions-- "Would a reasonable person do this?" By those lights, Deo's rejection of Pagan belief is a pretty damn reasonable action, and not one of a Bad Convert who's forever rendered incapable of deeply profound experience.
Jan. 7th, 2009 12:26 am (UTC)
Correcting your citation of me -- 40% of pagans have completed bachelor level degrees at a university. NOT 'have some university or college level education.'
Jan. 7th, 2009 05:01 am (UTC)

I stand corrected. Thanks. :-)
Jan. 7th, 2009 12:31 am (UTC)
There are a great many of us out here, Pagans who do identify with the community, who are doing our best. Buying books (including yours), trying to understand those "gut insincts" on a philosophical level. On many levels really. Studying the linguistic, archeological, historical, philosophical, and spiritual, aspects of our religious lives. We are not academically trained of course... again, we are doing the best we can, but we have a real desire to understand those "gut instincts" that brought us to Paganism in deeper more resonate ways.

I also have to wonder, for every Pagan who has told you that you are insufficiently spiritual how many, like myself, have thanked you for bringing (at least the beginnings of) philosophical understandings to our lives?
Jan. 7th, 2009 05:12 am (UTC)
"There are a great many of us out here, Pagans who do identify with the community, who are doing our best"

Yes, I know; and these are the people I normally seek out as friends. They are also, thankfully, the sort of people who regularly read my LJ. I don't wish to appear as if I'm dumping on all pagans everywhere, and I apologise to you all if I give that impression.

"I also have to wonder, for every Pagan who has told you that you are insufficiently spiritual how many, like myself, have thanked you for bringing (at least the beginnings of) philosophical understandings to our lives?"

The answer is: more negative than positive. If I had to estimate, I'd guess that, negative to positive, the ratio is about 3:2.

Negative remarks tend to appear in my private email. Some were comments so scathingly negative that they were quite upsetting - it was in a short email conversation that the remark about me being "insufficiently spiritual" came in.

All of the positive and congratulatory messages I have received so far have been posed in public forums such as this LJ, or my Facebook page, or from people attending a book promo event. There are also four reviews of OSV on the Amazon page right now (including one from you -- thank you!)
(no subject) - owldaughter - Jan. 7th, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - northwestpass - Jan. 8th, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
there should also be a distinction between following a spirituality and the *study* of that spirituality. different set of tools, i should think.
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:36 am (UTC)
At heart, I'm in basic agreement with you.

I think there are many things at play with all of this--Chas Clifton's brief discussion of the differences between paganism being a "community" or a "tribe" was quite apt, and the fact that many people feel somehow offended that this isn't proving to be the case in this particular situation rather reinforces that notion. (The same is true of the so-called "queer community," and the use of the term "tribe" or even "family" in relation to all of that...I truly worry about the families of people concerned if they use that as an analogous term to what goes on in the "queer community"!)

However, I don't think that philosophy is the only answer or antidote to this situation. I'd suggest two things in particular:

1) You use the word "belief" quite a bit in your entry here; and it seems that "belief" is the fundamental issue in the Deo's Shadow situation. Since when has "belief" ever been a problem for paganism? Paganism--ancient and modern--as well as most polytheist or animist systems of spirituality are not based on creedal belief, they're based on experience and on practice, engagement and conduct. If more people were to actually take this on board, and run the axis of identity for their religious affiliation through practice and experience rather than belief, situations like this would not happen as often, because "lack of belief" in a particular proposition would no longer be a problem. (And this is where Jason's comments on The Wild Hunt come in--that ancient paganism used to embrace a much wider field of positions on various issues, from skepticism and even atheism through to hard polytheism and animism, and yet be able to encompass them all, because those are all matters of belief, and not as relevant to the everyday practice and experience of these religions as many mostly monotheist constructions of religion would have one, well, "believe.")

2) I don't think it is a matter of "either/or" as far as philosophy and what you've (rather derisively) called "factual knowledge" is concerned. I don't think it's even a "both/and" where these are concerned. I think it must necessarily be a "both/and/and (and...)," which is to say, a multivalent approach offers the greatest advantage. Whatever your philosophical training has afforded you of the benefits of logical argumentation and discernment and of the practicalities of the good life, some of your written work does ignore the factuality and integrity of some of the topics you have chosen to address. As a recon and an academic Celticist, I know how impractical and often irrational a great deal of argumentation is in both recon religions and in academic discourse on matters of interpretation of what are (ostensibly) factual matters; so a more philosophically-aware approach in these disciplines would be of great benefit. But what both of those approaches are also missing is the necessity of a mystical core to the entire edifice, that is far beyond the rather vapid and airy-fairy notions of "gut instinct" and "I like this because it feels good"; in other words, an actual and demonstrable connection to mystery, The Immensity (a very good definition on your part!), divinity, or what have you. Without that, the formalism of the factual knowledge can become stultifying and irrelevant; and the insistent logic of the philosophical approach can become redundant and circular and--again--less relevant. To add to what I think erynn999 said about what Celtic Recon should be: not only "aislinge and archaeology," but also "argumentation" (i.e. the philosophical approach you advocate). Yet again, a triad seems to work a bit better than a dyad!

To be continued...
Jan. 7th, 2009 05:41 am (UTC)
Hi Alfrecht,
I appreciate the time and thought that went into this reply. Thank you.

In response to your suggestions:

1) If I am not mistaken, Deo is studying a branch of philosophy known as analytic epistemology. If so, then it is unsurprising that the concept of 'belief' should figure into his reasoning so prominently. 'Belief', to an analytic epistemologist, means any idea, custom, committment, claim, or even "practice, engagement, engagement, and conduct", as you say, which can be expressed in the form of a categorical proposition. Thus, for example, the statement "The bus station in Hamilton is on Hunter street" is a belief. As you can see, isn't really the same use of the word as one finds in religious studies.

Aside from that minor difference in the use of terminology in different academic disciplines: well, point taken.

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Thank you ... - ancestral-celt.blogspot.com - Jan. 9th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:37 am (UTC)
As for myself, I've been close to leaving paganism on a number of occasions--and not because I "lost faith" or had difficulties with belief not being satisfying or not matching practice, but instead due to the nonsense that often happened in the so-called "pagan community" (again, getting back to Clifton's point), and the vast gap between what was purported to be fact (by people like John Matthews, and others) but was really just the "feel good" simplicities and fallacies and applications of irrelevant interpretive schemata that were substituted for real research. I've endured the schism of a group I helped to co-found because one of the co-founders decided that he wanted to emphasize orthodoxy and (self-defined) institutional authority as the core of the religion, rather than practice or experience. And while the group that I then formulated does thrive, the activity level is rather low, because this "do-it-yourself," "build-it-as-you-fly-it" methodology is very intimidating to people who are used to thinking of every religion as something complete and finished that can be handed to one in a tidy and easy-to-use package. In many respects, I hope that the forms of paganism with which I'm involved never get to the level where they can be transmitted that easily, but with time and a few generations, I think there will either be greater accessibility to a lively and vibrant yet not completely or overly defined tradition (as Shinto has been for at least 1500 years), or else the sanitized, smoothed-over and simplified version will become more and more prevalent. Of course, my preference would be for the former, but I won't really have a say in the matter...
Jan. 7th, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this
I started writing a comment and it was turning into an epic (bardic job hazard, y'know). I've saved the original text and I'll make a proper posting of it later.

But I wanted to thank you for writing about this in the first place. It's put a voice, so-to-speak, to a morass of conflicting emotions and musings that have been stewing since I read Deo's announcement.

And I feel your pain about the negative comments and frustrating attitudes that you've had to endure. Unfortunately, it's part and parcel of interacting with the larger pagan community. Stepping up makes you an easier target.

However, the good news is that if the price for meeting quality folks like yourself, Deo, and others means I have to hear some negative or ridiculous spoutings from a boatload of nincompoops, it's always worth what I paid.

I appreciate you and the work you've done and I know I'm not alone. It's an odd thing to say now, but have faith! *grin*
Jan. 7th, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks for posting this
BTW, the criticism I get from Pagans about my bardic craft is that I don't tell enough "pagan" stories. *rolling eyes*
Re: Thanks for posting this - alvita_felis - Jan. 8th, 2009 10:35 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Thanks for posting this - jdhobbes - Jan. 8th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Thanks for posting this - alvita_felis - Jan. 9th, 2009 12:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ancestral-celt.blogspot.com - Jan. 9th, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 7th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC)
What an excellent and insightful post!

I'm hurrying to now buy OSV. I had moved it back on my to-buy list because I am anti-hero (whoa, that makes me sound like Satan) because I have chosen the common man over the hero and I lump 'virtue' with 'piety' in the 'unpleasant mouth-feel' group.

But a book about Right Action? I'm all for it!

I too have a problem with my local community. Partly because they resist reading and discussing the hrd buks with the big wurds but more because of the logical inconsistency and superficiality of their beliefs. My ideas about what's wrong with the greater community and how it could be addressed have always been a little inchoate and unable to be advanced; I'm stimulated by your post and hopefully book.
Jan. 7th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC)
I'm of two minds on the subject
On the one hand, I admire Deo's bravery in investigating and exploring various paths, and being wise enough to choose what is right for him and what isn't. That couldn't have been easy, considering the success of his show. On the other hand, I wish he hadn't embraced paganism for what he calls 'the wrong reasons'. Both Deo & paganism's current state are responsible for his leaving paganism behind in favour of atheism. I feel very protective of the pagan community at this time, and the mama bear in me wants to stick up for it.

I think paganism is experiencing some serious growing pains. The pagan community is very new, and there are a lot of people who jumped into it as an alternative to Christianity. I see people copy/pasting concepts directly out of their old faith into the new one all the time, and I don't think this works in creating a viable spiritual path. That paganism helped Deo heal from his guilt around leaving Christianity says a *lot* about paganism, however, and I think that is being overlooked in this discussion.

I also think that those of us who aren't as shallow as bathwater have an obligation to be patient with this growing community. It's extremely important that those who do have meaty spiritual and philosophical books and discussions to offer (as opposed to lickety split pagan in an instant books and talks) remain in the community, fighting the good fight. There are those of us out there who WANT this, badly, and it would be a travesty if those who can offer it drop out because they become disenchanted with the majority.

In every spiritual path there are those who really work and seek and deeply crave understanding, and those who just want to put on the title and go about their merry way. The latter will always be in the majority and the former, in the minority. I'm staying in it for the minority. I wish Deo and Mandy had done the same, because being pagan and being an atheist or an agnostic is possible (I am such a pagan) and we don't have enough of those kinds of pagans out there! The loss is sad, and a little disheartening, but I'm seeing I a lot of discussion happening among pagans about the loss and that is really exciting to me. We're talking about it, thinking about, and ultimately, that is never a bad thing.

Deo and Mandy inspired me to start a show of my own, and for that I will always be in their debt. I adore them, and I wish them all the best. I hope to see more secular pagans come out in the years to come, and I hope we grow out of the shallow as bathwater phase we seem to be in and head for deeper waters.
Jan. 7th, 2009 11:02 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this. On Dutch messages boards I have often been chastised for being critical and inquisitive, even on my very own forum. The 'agree-to-disagree argument and the familiar 'as longs as it feels right' [zolang het goed voelt] are thrown in to avoid any discussion. Many pagans want to be confirmed in their beliefs and choices ... not become questioned. Dear Brendan, I've just read your book The Other side of Virtue and is a real comfort to know that like-minded people do exist I have found only one within the Netherlands.
Jan. 8th, 2009 10:30 am (UTC)
Agree to disagree, love and peace, just don´t make me think?
I´m afraid I´ve heard this very argument repeatedly from the leadership of the mentioned international Pagan organization which I bet you are familiar with there in Netherlands :)
Jan. 8th, 2009 10:28 am (UTC)
The New Age milieu, to which Neopagan movement owes its demography to a large extent, is rather anti-scientific (or pseudoscientific?) and anti-intellectual. The core issue is direct spiritual experience and emotion. I can´t possibly see how this could change, perhaps only partially along with institutionalization which requires some sort of clergy training, religious education etc.

I sympathize with you, Brendan, in what you experience about the predominant sentiments in our community (or is it one). I became a "participant observer" with my religious studies endeavours, slowly shifting more to the "observer" than "participant" end. While I didn´t want to admit it at first, I now found it probable that I may shift from Neopaganism completely. If you think western Neopagan communities are lacking in maturity, take a look on the post-communist ones (if you can possibly imagine). Where I live you hardly ever meet a Pagan in his 30´s or elder. I have tried to found a Pagan group for several years now, with no success. I did some interfaith work which showed me just how fundamentalist local Pagan scene is. I wrote complaints to international Pagan organizations´ headquarters. I think I´m slowly approaching the end of the road.

And at this end, I found a satisfactory solution to my dilemmas. Screw educational, missionary and activist work. I´m opening a business with a friend. A successful esoteric centre is our goal. I think not having any emotional, religious or intellectual strings of expectations attached to the community is what you desperately need when running a business like this, and I feel quite at peace with my "Pagan religion" right now. Come what may. I don´t want to end up as a stupid fundamentalist myself, desperately trying to find a solid ground in the swamp of local Paganism.
Jan. 8th, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
It really depends on which part of Eastern Europe you are talking about. In the Baltic States there is a stronger development of the groups, and the members tend to vary in age from late teens to their 60s.
(no subject) - alvita_felis - Jan. 9th, 2009 12:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 8th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
"He said, simply and clearly, that he had discovered he had no strong valid reasons for adopting his pagan beliefs in the first place. The rational response to such a discovery is to reject those beliefs. End of story."

Feh. This smells more of the reck of sour grapes. The insinuation that the last years of his work was what - a lark? This is not a pitch-to-win ballgame. He proported having beliefs and was a community leader. Now to say oops "my bad" does not cover it. If his faith does not now meet his needs, I say more power to him and good luck. But if the years were a mistake, then he is a fool and has been fooling a number of listeners for a long time.

Such level of responsablity and ethics should be independant of the faith that he proports to no longer have.

I am glad for this conversation because clearly some people need to challenge their beliefs and figure out what is important to them.
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