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"Who wants to risk being regarded as a psychically obtuse,
astrally insensitive, magickally backward Witch?"

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Confessions of a Broom-Closet Skeptic
by Tess Avelland

(This article was originally published in 1994 in Out of the Broom Closet magazine. It was later published on the Cornwall Cottage website, now defunct, where the article was attributed to "Arriande," a name Tess has sometimes used online. If you find it floating around on the web unattributed, kindly point the folks our way so the author can be properly acknowledged.)

 
One of the things that attracted me to Neo-Paganism inititally was my impression that even though the religion was mystical and beautiful and emotionally satisfying, I was not required to shut down my reasoning capabilities in order to accept it. However, sometimes I feel as though that's exactly what I'm being asked to do.

I wonder if I am alone in seeing the irony, even the hypocrisy, of our situation: we Pagans tend to regard ourselves as enlightened, well-read, and intellectually gifted -- yet many of us also accept the objective factual existence of an entire host of nebulous or even scientifically dubious phenomena such as magick, astrology, channeling, divination, astral travel, et cetera.

Is a belief in the occult/new-age pseudosciences a part of being Pagan? And if the answer is Yes, what should I be calling myself? I am a Pagan, and I don't believe in them. I don't necessarily disbelieve in them either, mind you. I leave the possibility open, as I try to do with most ideas. It's just that I think of them more as optional peripheral interests than as primary characteristics of Neo-Paganism and Nature Spirituality. What I consider essential to Paganism are the Goddesses and Gods, the tolerant and gentle code of ethics, the ritual celebrations of Nature and the turning of the seasons -- the religion, in other words.

However, it has consistently been my experience that because I am a Pagan, I am expected by other Pagans to be an absolutely unquestioning believer in (and practitioner of) the esoteric arts. Whenever I have dared to express a respectful, open-minded, healthy intellectual skepticism towards the subject, or even just admitted my lack of a consuming interest in it, the general reaction to me has been a combination of mingled confusion, suspicion, derision and even anger.

Let me emphasize that it's not really a belief in these things which I find objectionable. After all, belief (in anything) is a subjective and personal phenomenon -- and therefore something I can respect as long as it is acknowledged as belief.

I really do understand the potential subjective validity of various metaphysicial practices. If a Witch performs a spell for self-confidence and breezes through a difficult presentation at work the next day, why then more power to her! Like any thinking person of the late twentieth century, I acknowledge the efficacy of suggestion, auto-hypnosis, and visualization, the psychological power of prayer, the influence of the mind on the body, and so forth.

What upsets me, instead, is the way Pagans talk about the esoteric arts (and their own dazzling proficiency in them, of course) as if the whole subject were unquestionably established AS FACT, describing the "evidence" with the most ridiculous air of studied and elaborate casualness -- never pausing for conjecture, or wonder, or even an acknowledgment of the absolutely staggering implications of their claims.

The general attitude isn't just "We believe in these phenomena;" it is actually "These phenomena are real." At a gathering once, I overheard a woman say smugly, "My ex-husband hasn't made a single harrassing phone call to my house since I put that binding spell on him!" Her audience seemed to regard her mere testimony as proof of the existence of a cause-and-effect relationship between those two events, thereby illustrating what I can only call a characteristically Pagan lack of intellectual vigor.

"I know these phenomena are real, because I have experienced them to be real!" some of you might be insisting. But keep in mind that even if every spell, every horoscope, every Tarot layout you've ever cast has "worked," or has been "accurate," that's still not necessarily indicative of anything. It is personal anecdotal evidence -- which of course is extremely persuasive to the person experiencing it -- but it is NOT proof and should not be regarded as such. It's high time we brought hard science into the picture, instead of proceeding from these vague imaginative assumptions. Until these phenomena can be either proven or disproven, I'd like to see a little more appreciation for all possibilities and potential explanations.

We must remember that not everything that is possible is also true. I consider myself someone who is open to all kinds of ideas, many of which would no doubt be considered "bizarre" by most people; and certainly I've had my share of extraordinary experiences. But being open to the extraordinary is not a problem. Wallowing in it, on the other hand, is.

I've noticed that Pagans have a tendency to gravitate towards extraordinary explanations before the rational ones have been ruled out or even considered. Say, for example, that the stairs creak on a stormy night. Naturally, a REAL Witch/Occultist/Psychic/Magician knows that the eerie noise wasn't just the wind, or the house settling, or any of a hundred other commonplace things -- so a circle is cast, and a melodramatic and self-important "banishing" of the "negative energy" (or even "negative entities") commences.

Personally, I find this kind of shadowy, superstitious (yes, I said superstitious, and how long has it been since you've heard any Pagan use that word?), hyperimaginative and even paranoid view of reality quite distasteful. As another example, it irritates me when people holding an outdoor ritual do something to "purify" the ritual area, or "cleanse" it of any "negative energy" (whatever "negative energy" is). Since when does our beautiful Planet need a bunch of wand-waving humans to "purify" Her? I thought She was infinitely sacred to begin with. On the other hand, if the ritual participants are just creating sacred space or purifying themselves, fine; but then why don't they word it that way?

It troubles me that among Pagans, of all people, there isn't more of a sense of humility before the great unfathomable Universe and our place in it. I'm amazed that anyone can be so arrogant as to boast a detailed personal familiarity with the vast tapestry of Time and Space, down to the last stitch and snag and knot -- and then assume not only the ability but also the permission to tamper at will with the patterns.

If the new age/occult-influenced ideas about the nature of reality are accurate, then why don't the people who dabble around with this world of powerful invisible forces show more evidence of their weighty responsibility? I'm afraid "Harm None" has become a bit too much of an easy-to-parrot platitude, a white-light sound bite, for my critical tastes.

Take weatherworking magick, for example. First of all, I hope the weatherworkers take into consideration such minor details as making sure the storms they're deflecting don't cause damage to someone else's area. What could possibly be the justification for that? "Those Presbyterians in the next valley don't know magick, so too bad for them?"

Why not just deal with the weather as it comes, for that matter? Why not just take shelter in a basement? Whatever happened to that wise Pagan maxim of adapting our human lives to Nature, instead of trying to force Nature to adapt to us and our presence on the Earth? Besides, I'm curious to know the criteria upon which Weatherworking Priestess X and Coven Y base the decision to appoint themselves guardians of the atmosphere's activities for Geographical Area Z. How any Pagan can presume to know better than Nature Herself what the weather should be doing is truly beyond me.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if all the bizarre things I see being swallowed wholesale are just a manifestation of the Emperor's-New-Clothes syndrome. "Didn't you see that blue astral fire shoot from my staff during the release of power?" "What did your Spirit Guide look like?" Well, of course most Pagans, especially novices, are going to go along with their peers in situations like that! Who wants to admit not experiencing much of anything? Who wants to risk being regarded as, of all things, a psychically obtuse, astrally insensitive, magickally backward Witch?

I would also argue that many of the people who engage in the "I'm-so-mysterious-and-powerful" sort of bragging are examples of the following unfortunate (and unfortunately prevalent) phenomenon: people who are attracted to "the magickal community" because of low self-esteem and unsatisfying "mundane" lives, and thus have a tendency to create fantasy lives in which they imagine themselves to be what they aren't in reality -- powerful, intriguing, wise, respected, and possessed of the wherewithal to improve their situations.

How wonderfully safe these people must feel in "Pagan space," where magick is (conveniently) regarded as an elusive art unmeasurable by science; where the metaphorical surfaces of a great many subjects are rarely ruffled by even the faintest breath of cold logic or skepticism; where people claim to be open to all possibilities but mostly neglect the rational ones; and where it's bad manners to challenge the veracity of even the most fantastic claimant.

This is not a healthy situation for us. Personally, I resent being associated with the flakier types of Pagans, not only because I have almost nothing in common with them, but also because their behaviors and beliefs have the power to undermine my hard-won credibility as an intelligent, sober and sensible Pagan woman. Surely I am not the only Pagan who prefers science over science fiction, and fact over fantasy. I encourage other broom-closet skeptics to come forth and be heard; we might just be what the religion needs most.

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The author presented workshops on skepticism at Pagan Spirit Gathering 1995
and at Fly-By-Night Bookstore in Columbus, Ohio in April 1998.

She has designated herself "Nth Degree High Priestess of the Skeptickal [sic] Tradition."

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"Are those magickal powers -- or is that glitter?!"
(from The Gospel According to Matthew Avelland)

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