Devotion or “Psychotic Superstition”?
I don’t usually take something written on Facebook and turn it into a blog post but i”m making an exception in this case. Why? Because over and above the individuals involved in this discussion, and the comments made, the attitudes — diametrically opposed as they are—pretty much highlight what I consider to be a major schism in Heathenry. It highlights why it’s such a god damned struggle to build a stable, organic, pious tradition, and why it is so very crucial that we not give up the struggle.
Yesterday I came across an article about ‘atheist pagans,’ and commented on my Facebook about it. Obviously, to anyone who knows my work, I find the very concept an oxymoron: people desperate for community and the benefits of contact with the sacred, without the peskiness of Gods, who are willing to debase the very traditions they’re trying to eke their way into. As with the idea of ‘humanist pagans,’ it’s something I think we need to watch very carefully. I’ve already seen certain patheos authors trying to claim a monist identity as valid polytheism (um, no. it’s a step away from monotheism), and the idea of polytheism as meaning something other than “many Gods.” I’m not sure why, really, there would be such a play for this terminology but it’s something to watch very carefully. We must guard our definitions carefully because, like many minorities, we should know well the dangers of allowing others to define for themselves who and what we are. We know what can happen when our very self-definition is co-opted, watered down, and rendered meaningless. It’s happened before. Such a rhetorical trick is one of the ways early Christians managed to gain the upper hand in Pagan-Christian discourse. It was a brilliant move, and a devastating one. What seems like a simple semantic game really isn’t. Shepherding the meaning of polytheism through these minefields is a matter of carving out space for our traditions, protecting that space, and giving those traditions room to thrive and grow and let me tell you, it is an uphill battle.
So in the course of the conversation, with many people expressing their surprise or disgust at the idea of atheist pagans and what this might be doing to our traditions, I pointed out that what we’re seeing is a failure of our society. I mean, if people are seeking religious communities, and as one woman commented, hiding their atheism to fit in because they want so much to be a part of a community, then what we have is a failure as a society, because in a healthy society there should be many other ways to gain a sense of community outside of religion. One shouldn’t have to fake it, or try to shift the religion into something more suited to atheist or humanist perspectives. So in the course of this, someone named Jeff Atwood, apparently an Uppsala trained academic jumped into the conversation with this gem:
“I can’t disagree with you more, Galina, about this suggestion that “explains” the problem of religion. The lack of a philosophical integrity in psychotic superstition is what usually inspires the fantasies of charismatic movements, both religious and political. These movements are more influential because of the emotional aspect the movement, stimulated by charismatic leaders.
Willful ignorance is not going to build a solid religion but it will feed an emotional illusion. The lack of “tradition” has empowered superstitious religiosity (a lingering aspect of Medieval Christianity) in the common mind to assert itself as a false authority over our heritage.
The mad rush to define an urban “Heathen tradition” today has SOOOOO many problems that I wonder if it’s even possible to save the movement to bring back the Old Way.”
and then later:
“Honestly, I believe this entire argument is a bit idealistically ignorant. During the Viking Age there were people in the community known as “Godless Men” who actually insulted Freya and Óðinn.
Superstitious religiosity is usually VERY theistic. Projecting a will into an identified “entity” (which doesn’t mean it ACTUALLY exists in a real physical sense) is the process of illusion and fantasy.
When heathens stop seeing Old 1eye as an ACTUAL sentient being then they come to the realization that Sensation is NOT an ego, but rather a universal process of a Mind in a physical, sensational vessel. Vili is the Will that puts all the sensations in a relatively orderly Paradigm of subjective reality. Vér acts accordingly. Yes, action speaks louder than words because Holiness (Vér) is action.
Then there is the common holy action within the Word! Feel-Think-Speak…THAT is the trinity of the creative process, just like Buddhist Yamāntaka (Conqueror of Yama/Ymir…Æsir/Asuras, “Jealous Gods” because they have a “golden” possession to horde and compare with OTHER creators’ gold).
Gnostics say that seeking Wisdom was competing with the gods for their gold. Indians say Indra smashes the skulls of men who try to enter the divine world. We have our bridge, the ring of fire, to keep low level spirits from rising too high.
Ancient Atheism is highly misunderstood by today’s willfully ignorant “Atheists”. Willfully ignorant heathens are no better. The real theological masters in Scandinavia left the Christian society, either by sword or simply disappeared. Some remained and buried treasures in the new social wave of Medieval Europe. Snorri was the last major drop of wisdom from that era, thanks to his Foster Father.”
So….leaving aside the absurdity posited above, the atheist notion that the Gods are not actual beings (had i read that more fully, I would have simply deleted the man from my Facebook—someone that degenerate in their thought isn’t worth arguing with—but I focused on his dismissal of devotion as “superstitious religiosity” and later ‘psychotic religiosity” instead and wasted forty minutes). It’s always interesting, if a bit nauseating, to see how hell-bent some people are to re-cast our ancestral traditions as atheist. It’s almost masterful in its reductionism. (Jeff kept poking around to find out where I was educated, hoping, I think, to find that I lacked graduate degrees, but he was sorely disappointed on that score. I guess the NYU and Fordham education has finally paid off. *sarcasm*. Glad I didn’t go to Uppsala if this is the kind of “theologian’ they turn out).
So, because i’m still pretty jet-lagged,I’m just going to copy and paste my initial responses here and y’all can read and judge for yourselves.
“Ah, Jeff, I’m so glad you posted. Often when discussing this issue, it is difficult to give specific, concrete examples of the type of pollution we’re fighting but you’ve been kind enough to provide that in abundance and I thank you.
Firstly, that you disregard piety as “superstitious religiosity” is a problem right there. You talk about heritage and the Old Ways but seem to want them without the Gods. Why Heathenry, Jeff? Why not just become a nice, staunch protestant and join a reconstruction society like the SCA. If it’s reconstruction of some pre-urban, pre-industrial culture you’re seeking, without the pesky nuisance of Gods and obligations, or indoor plumbing, hey, they are doing it better than we are. What exactly is it about our traditions that appeals to someone who considers devotion and piety ‘superstitious religiosity?” Do answer, I’m terribly curious.
Any tradition rooted in anything other than devotion to the Gods is not a tradition that, in my very strong opinion, should be restored. What’s the point? Go join the SCA. Have fun. I would rather deal with a thousand Christians, devoted and committed to their “superstition”, Christians who think nothing of kneeling on cobblestones outside a locked church so they can pray before a specific icon for instance, than the average Heathen. Those of us committed to polytheistic restoration not as a heritage movement, but as a religious tradition have more in common with them, than with people who espouse the ideas you so graciously shared here.
Devotion…what you call “psychotic superstition” …does not lack philosophical integrity. Hell, many of the ancient philosophers were deeply pious (@Edward Butler, I’ll leave you to comment on this if you wish; you’re more qualified than I!). It is the most organically logical of mindsets.
what it comes down to is that those who are rooted in devotion, who are polytheist because of the Gods, not some inane notion of turning back the clock and re-creating pre-urban traditions and calling that faith, are having experiences and sharing an outlook that is diametrically different and in many respects opposed to any that reduces the Gods to abstractions, irritations, and devotion to psychosis and superstition. Attitudes like this are a huge part of the problem we face in this restoration.
You talk about the Old Ways but exactly what old ways do you mean? Were there impious men and women who mocked the Gods amongst the Pre-Christian Heathens? yes, and they were often brought up on charges and punished for it. You write as though impiety were the law of the land when nothing could be further from the truth…unless of course one takes documents written by Christians (you know, the medieval lore we all love so much) as gospel truth. There is plenty of evidence for Heathen piety. It just doesn’t fit with a worldview that would rather deny the importance of the Gods, that would rather turn religion into a masquerade of historical reenactment.
Calling oneself Heathen and eschewing the Gods is no better than that civil rights activist who, while being white, disguised herself as a black woman. She might have the best intentions in the world but the truth of the matter is that there are crucial experiences that she will never have, because she is not part and parcel of the community she’s trying to build. It makes a difference.
You are right in one respect: we should not allow the burden of our devotion to rest on our feelings. I see too many people who disregard the Gods because they don’t *feel* a connection, instead of maintaining proper rituals — you know, that superstitious psychosis you speak so readily of—and doing the work of devotion. We put far too much on our feelings. Instead, we should be using a clinician’s logic to explore and examine our worldview, and how we’ve been taught to approach the sacred, and the pollution that we have imbibed like mother’s milk each step of the way.”
(We went back and forth for quite awhile and Jeff never did tell me what attracted him so to our traditions, and why a historical re-enactment society wouldn’t do just as well. Pity. I’d have liked to hear that answer).
“Heathery and paganism in general have shallow theological cultivation. Magic is not religion, but can be part of a religious practice.
The problem, IMO, is the way “religion” is perceived in today’s mind. It is a personal thing, and tangential to “normal” social life because we have many religions living together.
We have a very unnatural religiosity, being a choice people make rather than simply something you realize you live in, like in a native tribal setting. This unnatural practice of religion is what drives people to appropriate another culture’s practices/ideas/language.
Yet, the use of the word “appropriation” is also contemporarily dependent because appropriation was once called “learning something new”. Imagine I’m a trader in a port, talking to a fellow trader from another land. In a casual conversation we describe our realities to each other. Something sounds interesting and seemingly understood do to correspondent details, and is incorporated into my subjective reality. I go back home and he does too. Somehow, that conversation expanded our minds.
(Galina: the difference is that one of those traders hasn’t devastated and committed genocide on the culture of the other, Jeff).
We bring this “water” back home (see Thiassoi of Theos Hypsistos, with the bearded horseman raising a horn to an eagle in a tree) to bring Life to our “field” of social Reality. Mind is Laguz. A still Mind is a clear mirror of Heaven, but a disturbed mind distorts the picture in the water. In this disturbed picture all sorts of demonic fantasies (phantoms) ignite an existence, like the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. The ignorant BELIEVE the shadows to be real, but they are just projections of darkness as ignorant minds block the light. The shadows are the people themselves, yet they insist the shadows are autonomous entities.
Today’s opinions about appropriation come from a spiritual materialism that derives from the loss of cultural identity from domination from an outside force, instituting the foreign culture by trying to destroy the native one.
The modern mistake is to segregate, isolate and misrepresent traditions because all the focus on DIFFERENCES in order to distinguish one from another. This is an ego trap of illusion, however, fostering the superstitious understanding.”
Now I actually agree with Jeff on magic and religion. They are two very different things, though they can at times intersect. I also think a huge part of the problem our communities face, is the lack of intergenerational transmission of our traditions but there is where our ideas part ways. You see, for Jeff, it seems tradition is a human centric thing, whereas for me (and other polytheists like me), it is a container for Mystery, a container of the sacred, a way in which the Gods are able to engage with Their people relatively safely. Any tradition not centered around acknowledgement of the Gods is simply not one that personally, I think should be restored. After all, we’re not restoring pre-medieval society; we’re restoring a living, breathing religious tradition. If we can’t agree on that from the beginning then maybe we are indeed doomed to failure. I’ll tell you something though, I’d rather we fail than see Heathenry or any other polytheistic tradition restored along the lines Jeff posits above.
Now i’m not posting this to bash Jeff. I”m posting it because everything he said are things that i’ve seen cropping up in the Pagan community and in Heathenry too (different parts at different times). It represents a mindset, a way of looking at the world that not only excludes the Gods but renders devotion to Them as psychosis. Is it any wonder that there is so much antagonism toward devotional work in Heathenry, or actual active belief in the Gods in Paganism? These things aren’t just words.
My response to the above was a bit more concise:
“yes, i actually agree that how we approach religion is NOT organic. that’s exactly part of the problem. we’re very self consciously recreating and restoring but that’s a result of a devastated tradition, of generations of disconnect from our ancestral ways, and of mental oppression. it’s very, very difficult to come back into looking at the world the way our ancestors did. maybe it’s not even possible, but I think we must try. That does not mean throwing devotion and piety out the window. one of the things that christianity actually got very right (at least folk christianity) was the expression of very embodied piety. there is something there, something that I would go so far as to say we have lost. there’s a discomfort with religion amongst many of us….with opening oneself up to the sacred. it’s easier to fight and argue amongst ourselves, or reduce everything to the sum of the human community. I don’t see the solution to dissolve the boundaries between traditions, however. I would rather see the individual traditions growing and strong, and communicating with each other; and yes, I agree with you that we have shallow theological cultivation. It’s an uphill fight. I’ve noticed it in my own writing. When I do write heavy theological pieces, it’s crickets. People do not know how to respond. The level of discourse isn’t there yet and part of that rests on the discomfort with the very idea of the Gods that permeates Heathenry, and part of it rests on the fixation of “the lore”. it’s not just that it’s shallow, but that there is a deep, and deeply ingrained resistance to it becoming anything but; and for that, I have no answer.”
Jeff in his brilliance responded:
“Your desire for “superstitious religiosity” reveals your desire to embrace illusion. You don’t seem to even want to understand the meanings of God names and how they actually represent the only truth that all life is about a mind in a physical body. The stories we tell ourselves and others are all fantasies, with truth somewhere inside. If you choose to praise differences over commonalities then you are cultivating an environment for conflict and domination. This is the thing you complain about as well, so I find you interestingly hypocritical to your own “idealism””
So He wants truth and humanity and seems to consider anything not human to be illusion. I think that’s beyond absurd. I also think it’s a perfect example of modern mental corruption, a distancing of ourselves from any sense of the sacred, and a reduction of the Holy Powers to meaningless concepts and names. He really doesn’t get it…and after a few rounds of insults from Jeff, I deleted him so that those of us who actually venerate the Gods could get on with our work.
THIS is a perfect example of the monotheistic filter at work. It’s a perfect example of what our contemporary culture teaches, what academia reinforces, and how we are all infected with a distrust of devotion. it’s there and it’s exchanges like this that make me see how deeply those anti-piety currents run. Perhaps this exchange with Jeff wasn’t one of my shining moments as a theologian. It is disheartening, however, to find these ideas ever present as we trudge forward in this work.