Veiled Issues – Does Materialism Threaten Paganism?
Before I begin my critique of Mr. Tyson’s essay concerning the threat posed by atheism, which appeared in last season’s issue of Rending the Veil, I should like to convey I have nothing but the utmost respect and gratitude for Mr. Tyson’s contributions to the occult community. The author’s Portable Magic has been an especial mainstay throughout my work with elemental evocations over the past year. Moreover, I do not intend for my essay to be an outright refutation of Tyson’s position, though I do call for greater clarity upon certain points which Tyson makes; I humbly suggest the modification of others. And I thank Mr. Tyson for initiating what I hope might prove a most fruitful discussion here on Rending the Veil and throughout the occult community.
With all this said, we should first make one key distinction of terminology which is crucial to understanding my position: What Mr. Tyson calls “atheism” throughout his essay, I term “scientific materialism” throughout mine. Narrowly defined, atheism denotes merely a disbelief in any deity or deities, whereas Mr. Tyson broadens the term to include a denial of the existence of “angels [and] devils, [and all] paranormal abilities.” I agree with Mr. Tyson there is an intellectual current which denies all these things, yet I believe this broad denial of what cannot be seen, felt, and measured more properly falls under the broader umbrella of scientific materialism, which says all things are material, and that which is incorporeal is essentially unreal. The most extreme variations of this position rather absurdly suggest since our conscious experience is essentially subjective in nature, then consciousness itself must be unreal. This sort of radical skepticism I will term scientific materialism throughout this essay.
Additionally, there exists a not inconsequential subset of occult practitioners who would probably self-identify as atheists. LaVeyan Satanists and related schools of thought spring to mind here, although I should think many schools of magical thought could jettison, more or less comfortably, the belief in deities without thereby losing the belief in magic. Such atheism neither questions nor condemns the efficacy of magic, though its magical paradigms circumvent the very gods which theological Paganism would doubtless incorporate. Regarding the existence — if not the nature — of magic, we Pagans have little quarrel with our atheist sisters and brothers across the occult community.
With our terms thus more narrowly defined, we must consider the ways by which one intellectual current can threaten another, and herein we discover a second distinction necessary for the discussion at hand. First, one current can threaten another by the sword or by the purse, cutting off or burying the physical means by which we express or communicate some especial belief. In its least subtle guise, this sort of intolerance tears down the temples of the rival belief, and puts anyone espousing the old beliefs to torture, and often to the gallows. Witness the vicious fanaticism of the Christian Inquisition of yesteryear, or today the repressive regime once (and still) imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The more subtle approach pours money into political advertisements and lobbying, attempting to bury the opposing viewpoint through public opinion, which in democracy often translates into legal proscriptions. (Prop Eight, I’m looking at you!) Adopting for one moment the information paradigm championed by Patrick Dunn, one might say the belief which threatens does so by flooding the channel of the opposing belief with the noise of fear and distractions. If you can make the rival paradigm physically, legally, and financially difficult enough to follow, reasons this line of attack, you can choke another belief to death.
Now the good news: Across the contemporary Western world, this strategy usually fails, sometimes backfires, and every now and again backfires spectacularly. Genuine democracy contains within itself a belief in the free marketplace of ideas. Given enough time and reflection, people will come to embrace “good” ideas and reject “bad” ones. Critically, we might observe there is disagreement even upon the heading of what constitutes good and bad; here I can only reply that I am an optimist about human nature, and deep down I believe there is something life-affirming in all beings. Now I would rather be an optimist and right than a pessimist and wrong, and yet whether I am right or wrong, there remains the widespread belief in the free marketplace of ideas, recognized in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and elsewhere. This principle protects beliefs, even and especially crazy beliefs, from the sword. Given enough time and good will, life-affirming ideas can overcome the purse.
Barring some unforeseen and catastrophic political revolution, scientific materialism cannot wield the sword. There are no lions awaiting the Christians, and no burning pyres for we who call ourselves Pagan. The very modern developments which enabled the rise of materialism depend upon the free marketplace of ideas, and materialism knows this. More cynically, scientific materialism might simply find the purse more efficacious (or at least less messy) than the sword, since the sword tends to generate martyrs and saints among those who resist. Saturate the airwaves, and one can convince many — though crucially not all — to regard the Witch and the Magician with derision. Pour enough money and technology into the pipeline, and one can theoretically drown out the voices of theism and magic. (Funny aside: I was reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods when Mr. Tyson’s essay came out; I would highly recommend Mr. Gaiman’s novel for those interested in the clash between Paganism and materialism!) Fortunately for the occultist, contemporary technology as likely as not enables the spread of magical beliefs; the very presence of Mr. Tyson’s essay and my own upon this website is itself evidence for this!
Mr. Tyson’s argument falls squarely against the militant variety of scientific materialism, something which doubtless exists throughout the intellectual world, yet here I would argue the real quarrel is with militancy itself, and not with scientific materialism. Militancy is the cancer which threatens with the sword and suffocates with the purse, whether that militancy embraces Christian fundamentalism, Islamist extremism, or even radical materialism. The existential danger to Pagan belief comes not from the content of an intolerant belief system, which can take many forms, but rather from the intolerance of the world view itself, which really comes in only two forms, the sword and the purse.
There are actually two means by which scientific materialism might threaten the existence of occult thought generally and Paganism specifically; the second occurs within the hearts and minds of individual occultists. Superficially, this line of attack can resemble the coercive approach of the sword or the persuasive tactics of the purse, yet the difference here is plain: Whereas the sword and the purse threaten existentially and from without, the explanation — the essential option — proposed by scientific materialism threatens essentially and from within. Nevertheless, there is little new found within this line of attack, though perhaps the argument has gained a certain coherence across the contemporary period. The choice remains the same: To believe or to disbelieve. Doubt is no option here, though doubt exercises profound influence over how we choose and apply one explanation over another. Every moment in time, we stand at the crossroads anew, confronted with sensory data which we can neither confirm nor explain with absolute certainty. There arises the choice: How will we explain our world upon this especial moment? We can choose to explain our world as one capable of magic, or as one completely devoid of paranormal influence. We can choose to believe, or to disbelieve. One choice may be more consistent with the law of parsimony — that is, require less leaps of logic — yet the inescapable choice remains. Always and across every moment — and regardless of our external circumstances — we must choose how we will explain the world which we observe.
Mr. Tyson frames the choice of belief as one between Magic and the Void, and I agree with Mr. Tyson’s contention that Paganism and Christianity share certain broad theological propositions, points of common agreement which make these two schools of thought natural allies against an outright disbelief in things which defy scientific measurement. Still, to regard all scientific materialism, much less all atheism, as the enemy of the Old Ways does a grave disservice to both sides. The Void of which Mr. Tyson speaks is something terrible — this much is true — yet this Void contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, since nihilism offers no essential hope which could sustain those who would believe in disbelief. One might counter that to know the Truth is balm enough, yet the Void is no more (upper case) Truth than any other explanation. The nature of our existence confounds every attempt at certain explanation, including the nihilistic narrative proposed by the scientific materialist. Ever the choice remains.
There exist variations of scientific materialism which reject militancy, schools of secular thought which seek to heal and even to elevate humanity, only without reference to Deities. Do I disagree with their theological starting point? Of course I do, yet as an advocate of religious freedom I acknowledge a common philosophical cause which can serve as the basis for meaningful dialogue. If the Pagan, the Christian, and the secular humanist can all agree upon the need for compassionate and courageous action, then this common ground can defy the divisive and destructive power of militancy. Ultimately, neither the militant materialist nor the benign humanist can remove the essential choices we constantly make, the eternal Crossroads guarded by Hecate: Do we believe?
May the Goddess of Crossroads smile upon you. Blessed Be!
©2009 by Grey Glamer
Edited by Sheta Kaey