In previous articles, I have described the contribution of Germanic Heathen tradition to modern ideas of individual rights, reasonableness, and even evidence-based knowledge that really gave us the tools with which we can discover and describe the physical world.
One of the most ancient surviving Heathen institutions is the English Common Law, which provided a fair and reasonable approach to determining truth. The lawyer Sir Francis Bacon thought about applying the idea of cross examination to nature, and delineated the basic process of scientific investigation. Combining Bacon’s method with another English principle, Occam’s razor, the Royal Society tightened the standards of evidence and proof, resulting in British Empiricism which gave us the strict processes that enable us to conduct modern science.
Thus, as I have explained elsewhere, the modern world owes much to the survival of some ancient Heathen principles, and can be seen as a natural evolution of Heathen culture.
From this perspective, I have to look back to other aspects of our culture and ask once again, how do we reconcile the spiritual aspects of our heritage with the intellectual and material culture we have today? To answer this, it helps to first look at where other popular religions have gone wrong, and why they have been rapidly losing credibility.
The Church had put humans at the centre of the Universe, both figuratively and literally. When Copernicus discovered that the Earth was merely one of many planets orbiting the Sun, he was denounced as a heretic, and his book banned. When Galileo confirmed the discovery, he was placed under house arrest, and threatened with torture. Over the next century, the facts had been so well verified by astronomers, that the position of the Church had become laughable. In trying to maintain its authority over something completely outside of its expertise, it had made itself an anachronism and lost credibility among many educated people.
Likewise, when Darwin discovered and described the evidence for evolution, and put forward his famous tree of life, religious groups reacted with outrage. Like Copernicus, Darwin had removed humans from the centre of life, and shown them to be one of many branches on a tree in which all creatures had common ancestors. Although the Catholic Church has recently accepted Darwin, learning from their mistake with Copernicus, many other religious groups are still unable to come to terms with it.
Perhaps the most obviously ridiculous religious position, short of the Flat-Earth Society, is Young Earth Creationism, which proposes that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.
What we see here is a repeating pattern of religion attempting to simply decree the facts about the physical world, in order to make them fit their mythology in a literal way. However, the physical world does not bend to the decrees of Popes or Gurus. Any religion making such claims will lose out to science, and damage its own credibility. Claims about the physical world that contradict, or are unsupported by, the observable facts are rightly called “superstition”.
The faith-based religions maintain their ability to prevent their followers from discovering the truth by early indoctrination, social penalties for those who question, and a regime of fear-inducing tales of supernatural punishments for those with insufficient faith (blind belief) in their dogmas.
The only way to avoid entangling religion and tradition with superstition, is to keep a clear demarcation, and avoid confusing the spiritual and physical worlds.
Unfortunately, humans are rather prone to superstitious thinking. We have a natural inclination to see patterns. If condition ‘A’ is often followed by condition ‘B’, we tend to assume a causal connection. Nine times out of ten, we will be correct, even if our explanation of the link is wrong. This has survival value, as it allows us to make predictions. The problem is that for common conditions, A will often be followed by B purely by chance. This becomes anecdotal evidence, which is then confirmed and perhaps given a fallacious but plausible explanation by a perceived authority (a priest or village witchdoctor). Even when the link has been shown to be bogus, the superstition can persist among otherwise educated people for a considerable period.
A good example of this is the recent anti-vaccination campaign. A large number of children are vaccinated, a large number also become autistic. Anecdotal evidence provided an abundance of examples of vaccinated children becoming autistic. Authority was provided by a researcher who prematurely published a paper on a possible link. People were rightly concerned, and stopped vaccinating. This gave the existing small anti-vaccination movement an enormous boost. In the meanwhile, it was obviously a priority for researchers around the World to test for the existence of the causal link. Many studies were done, and failed to find any evidence that vaccinated children were more likely to become autistic than the unvaccinated ones. Neither was any plausible explanation found for the claimed link. The original research paper has since been thoroughly exposed as flawed, manipulated, and agenda ridden. Yet the myth continues as hearsay or superstition, and is manipulated and politicised by interest groups.
This kind of causation fallacy is not obvious to the general public, but can be illustrated by an example: The anecdotal evidence is that most adults drive cars, most adults eventually have to go to the dentist. I could observe that every adult I know who has needed dental work, has first been a driver. All I need now is an authority figure to publish that vibrations from the wheel, up the arms, and into the jaw, will cause drivers to have dental problems. In the time it takes for reputable researchers to debunk the myth, there will already be a significant number of believers. The superstition is likely to persist for some time as it is spread by word of mouth, aided by the fact that everyone can think of examples that seem to confirm it.
Of course, it is not only fringe interest groups that manipulate and politicise information, or misinformation. Governments, churches, and corporations are notorious for covering up real indications of adverse effects, the tobacco industry being the most infamous. However, the good thing about science is that nothing is settled until many independent groups have tested the claims in question. The truth will always come out in the end, and bogus claims, or cover-ups, will eventually be exposed. Unfortunately, good science takes time, and many people are impatient and will just go with the popular trends, or the urban myths.
If we are to build a sustainable and credible tradition-based culture, we must become more science literate, not less. We must resist the temptation to take the easy way out, and mire ourselves in convenient falsehoods. Mythology provides a powerful symbolic resource for self knowledge and empowerment, not a means of escape from the real world.
Different Heathen groups have dealt with the problem of reality in various ways. The weakest and least credible approach has involved a kind of denial of reality. Aspects of the now discredited philosophy of post-modernism have been used to virtually dismiss reality from the equation by a kind of cop-out, claiming that reality is a social construction. Being able to sidestep the inconvenience of reality, these groups are then free to create their own. For xenophobes, it also justifies a reluctance to understand other cultures, as they can be dismissed as living in different “realities”.
Other groups have recognised the credibility and persuasive power of science, and resolved to invent their own pseudo-science. They put together scientific-sounding justifications for their positions, borrowing from the credibility of science, without the inconvenience of any actual research or evidence. McNallen’s racist “Metagenetics” is one that comes to mind, although New-Ageism abounds with other examples of pseudo-scientific fraud and charlatanry.
Neither do we need to deny the mystery and esoteric side of our traditions. We have perfectly good words to describe this side, Wyrd for one. We do not need to explain it away with peudo-science as Metagenetics tries to do, nor justify our Heathenness with voodoo linguistics and quasi-racist psychology as post-modernists like Thorsson are doing.
It is frankly embarrassing that some may associate Heathenism with these sorts of intellectual laziness and deception. If we are to avoid being duped by the snake-oil peddlers, or worse joining them, we must make the small effort necessary to attain a basic level of scientific literacy. At the very least, we need to avoid the anti-science agendas common in the New-Age movement. We also need to understand were these anti-science attitudes came from.
The first wave of anti-science was instigated by the churches during the 1600s & 1700s as they felt their authority over truth being challenged. Some religious groups still carry on this fight. The second wave was a romantic upsurge during the 1800s as a reaction to the perceived loss of mystery involved in discovering the real universe. The third wave is the reaction to the corporate greed and environmental damage that really started to become widely talked about in the late 1960s.
One of the major causes of the last reaction was the blatant hijacking of the notion of “progress” by unscrupulous developers. “Progress” had previously been the term used to describe a continual acquisition of knowledge and technical capabilities that are put to use for the benefit of humanity. Having too often been used by corporations and governments to justify large environmentally and socially destructive projects, by the mid 1970s, the word could not be pronounced without a note of cynicism. Different groups dealt with “progress” in various ways.
Again, post-modernists have the weakest and somewhat defeatist argument, that there is no such thing as progress. Things just change and go around in cycles. By any number of measures, this is demonstrably false. Even during the so-called Dark Ages, our ancestors were continually finding ways to improve their lives. It is human nature to accumulate knowledge and improvements in the way we do things. It is simply obtuse to deny the fact that over time, civilisation advances in numerous ways.
New-Agers and traditionalists, on the other hand, do recognise that progress happens, but many see progress itself as the problem. They would prefer to stop the clock, or wind it back. They long for a romantic vision of a simpler age. Many can not see a way to reconcile their dream with the advancing technology around them. They equate technological progress with the environmental destruction, and social disconnection that are real problems in the World.
As I have argued previously, science and knowledge are powerful but neutral, with the potential to harm or help. Blaming them for our problems is not helpful, or even rational. More than ever, we need them to help solve our problems. Sustainable energy and food production, and solving other of the World’s most pressing problems, will be impossible without highly technical research and solutions.
The answer is to recognise the different functions of the physical and spiritual realms. Just as religion can not inform us about the physical world, technology can not make us happier or more fulfilled in our lives. However, science does not make us less happy either. That is our own personal challenge.
For those of us interested in our cultural heritage, and keeping traditions alive, we must make our application of those traditions relevant and useful. If we withdraw into pseudo-science or superstition, we will fail to create a sustainable legacy. If parts of the tradition are shown to be at odds with reality, the whole tradition loses credibility. Like all superstitions, it will eventually die out, but in the meanwhile, false information leads to bad decisions. Superstition is disempowering, while tradition is a source of strength.