Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Humanism and History: for Brendan Myers

Brendan Myers' recent post on Pagan humanism has inspired a lot of discussion, much of it heated.  I found it more useful than did many of the eternally most offended.  Overall, he provided a reasonably accurate portrait of a school of thought prominent in modern Paganism and Earth  Spirituality. Many people come to Paganism through a love for mythology rather than a desire to cast spells; many more come because they enjoy Pagan gatherings. Myers provided a decent summary of their beliefs and (despite his protestations) established himself as a spokesperson for this burgeoning movement. That being said, I did note a few points worthy of further examination.

Dr. Myers claims that humanist Pagans are "a kind of pagan that perhaps has not been seen since classical Greece and Rome." I might point instead to the European Renaissance. As long-forgotten Greek and Roman texts became more widely available many artists began creating new images of the old gods. Poets retold their legends and updated them for a contemporary audiences.  (For an early version of our festival scene, what about Sir Francis Dashwood's "Hell-Fire Club" and the libertine revels at his Temple of Venus).  And what about Ossian (James Macpherson) or, centuries earlier, Snorri Sturluson, who rewrote ancient legends to educate their people and to serve their own political purposes?
From what I have seen so far, Humanist Pagans tend to be uninterested in ritual, or energy work, or developing psychic powers. Some still practice magic (you don’t have to be religious to do that), but will approach the matter with a critical, scientific eye. And speaking of science, they tend to be interested in astronomy, quantum theory, evolutionary biology, and the like, and will take inspiration from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and from Bill Nye right alongside Starhawk or Crowley.
First, I note that one need not be a Pagan, a New Ager, a theist, or a follower of any sort of "woo" to practice energy work.  Even under Communist rule doctors and scholars have continued to study Qi, while Ayurvedic practitioners and Yogis work approach prana like technicians rather than acolytes.  And I'd also comment that Crowley's motto for the Equinox was "the Method of Science, the Aim of Religion." Uncle Al, like his contemporaries the Spiritualists, was passionately interested in finding the method behind the magic and in performing falsifiable, verifiable and repeatable magical acts.
Remember, the Acropolis of Athens, Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Pyramids of Egypt, were built by Pagans. Complex astronomical instruments like the Antikythera Mechanism, and the Nebra Sky Disk, were made by Pagans. Our Pagan intellectual heritage includes poets and scientists and literary intellectuals of every kind, especially including those who wrote some of the most important and influential books in all of Western history. Homer, Hesiod, Pythagoras, Plato, and Cicero, just to name a few, all lived in pagan societies. Some of the greatest political and military leaders of all time, such as Alexander the Great, Pericles of Athens, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome, were all pagans, or else living in a pagan society. And speaking of Pagan societies: some of today’s highest social and political values, like democracy, secular republican government, freedom of speech, and trial by jury, were invented by pagans. Even the Olympic Games were invented by pagans. Yet that fact is almost always ignored when people study the origins of western civilization. In the face of anti-pagan prejudices, it might be better to point to accomplishments like these, than to something mostly amorphous like “freedom”.
I was unaware of any campaign to deny that the Olympics had their roots in pre-Christian Greece. Neither was I aware that anyone had claimed Stonehenge, the Acropolis, the Pyramids of Giza or the other marvels Myers mentions were produced by Christians, or that Caesar, Hannibal etc. were really Christian.  While a few loud loons claim American government was founded on Biblical principles, just about everybody else recognizes the enormous debt we owe to Greece and Rome.  However, I would also point out that none of the luminaries Myers names were atheists or "humanists." Humanism has its roots in the Renaissance and Enlightenment: identifying pre-Christian philosophers as humanists is anachronistic and confusing.

In his contempt for spiritual "woo," Myers goes much further than the people he claims as role models. He takes as a given that everything in the universe is amenable to rational explanation and if we can't understand something it's only because we don't have enough data.  He assumes that the human capacity for reason and observation is such that we can explain all events using our brain power and the  tools we can create thereby.  He asserts that the old tales of spirits and ghosts and gods are just pretty stories and useful metaphors (which is admittedly kinder than thinking they are signs of mental illness). All these ideas are quite in keeping with Enlightenment-era philosophy: in most of the pre-Christian world they would have been seen as hubris, blasphemy or, at best, nonsense.