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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.



Jan. 11th, 2009 06:53 am (UTC)
a common philosophical mistake
Bren, it seems to me that you're making one of the more common philosophical mistakes concerning religion in insisting that statements about religious experience have to conform to what amounts to a positivist standard of proof. One of the central claims of religion is that the objects of religious experience are not analyzable in terms of ordinary reason, but rather require a distinctive language that I have elsewhere called apophatic communication -- a language of symbol and reference that is self-canceling in logical terms, because it refers to objects of experience that transcend logic. The priest of the goddess Ungit in C.S. Lewis' novel Till We Have Faces may have put it best:

"I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood."

I also think you're at least sometimes mistaken to see the widespread Pagan unwillingness to feed their experiences into a logical meatgrinder as anti-intellectual; it's not anti-hammer to recognize that not everything is a nail, and that some very valuable things can be damaged by subjecting them to a good thwacking. As Michael Polanyi points out in The Tacit Dimension, we know more than we can say -- and, I might add, we say more than we can usefully analyze by the tools you seem to be applying to the subject.

But I'll stop now before I start quoting Kierkegaard.

-- John Michael Greer