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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
be doing is truly beyond me.
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
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.
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.
. . . . . . . . .
. . . .