I have written before about both the power of words and the way their meanings can be distorted through misuse over long periods of time.
“Mythology” is such a word. “Pagan” is another.
These are words which have been twisted by the dominant culture to a point where their popular usage is typically in a negative connotation. For example: calling something a “myth” is almost universally understood to indicate that it is a falsehood rather than the more proper understanding that it represents a greater cultural perception of truth.
There are many words like these and others that seem to be joining their ranks.
One of these unfortunate additions is “Belief”.
The word has taken on a plaintive air, as if to use it, automatically assumes that you know you are alone in your convictions.
“I believe in this company…,” as the stock prices tumble.
“I believe in my client…,” who is under perjury allegations.
“I believe in the gods…,” when you can’t show any hard evidence of their existence.
“Belief” has become a weak word, to be pounced upon and eaten by the unbeliever. A belief is seen as little more than opinion and worth nothing at all if not backed up with “facts” (a word with it’s own set of problems).
A polytheist will have his beliefs called into question by a Christian who will rest her arguments on the “facts” presented in the Bible. That same Christian may have her facts challenged by an Atheist who will assert that the scientific method rules out the possibility of many of the historical events described in the Bible. Meanwhile, the polytheist will rightfully point out to the Atheist, that when properly used, the scientific method keeps an open mind to those things which it hasn’t the ability to measure.
An Atheist may “believe” that the scientific method rules out the existence of things which are untestable, but it does nothing of the sort. The attempt to make it do so is a gross misuse of a perfectly good philosophical principal.
By now you may be wondering what got me to thinking about this poor maligned word?
I’d been knocking around how to approach this topic for a few weeks when Brendan Myers’ guest post appeared over on the Wild Hunt. In his post, Dr. Myers details his thoughts on the growing popularity of “Humanist Paganism” within the greater Pagan community. Unfortunately, at several points in his post, the language Dr. Myers uses to describe the differences between Humanistic Paganism and the more traditional Theistic forms comes across as rather derisive toward the latter.
What’s more, at one point in the article he seems to draw an imaginary line between Humanist and Theistic Pagans with the following description of the Humanist sort:
“…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. Those whom I have met tended to be in their 30′s or older, educated, earning a lower-middle class income …. (As an aside, a lot of them are cosplayers too!) Social, political, and moral causes tended to be more important to them than supernatural ones…,”
“Bloody hell,” I thought, “that’s me right down to the cosplay!” I must admit that, on it’s first reading, the article felt very much like an attack. A certain cognitive dissonance comes into play when I see a laundry list of my own interests paraded out as evidence that another group is better than me because they don’t believe in the gods and I do.
As the proper response to this perceived slight fomented in my head, I became involved in a discussion group among some friends on Facebook discussing the following quote from Sam Harris:
“The belief that certain books were written by God—who, for reasons difficult to fathom, made Shakespeare a far better writer than himself—leaves us powerless to address the most potent force of human conflict—past and present. How is it that the absurdity of this idea does not daily bring us to our knees? It is safe to say that few of us would have thought people could believe such a thing, if they did not actually believe it.”
Now, while I’m obviously not a big fan of the monotheistic varieties of religion which Dr. Harris is attacking here, I tend to believe that old fashioned grasping over land and resources has always represented the most potent force of human conflict. Religious motivations usually provide little more than a convenient excuse for social or political violence that would have happened anyway.
Now, I often enjoy debates on topics of this nature because the participants predictably take positions on either end of the Atheist/Monotheist axis. By presenting a polytheistic perspective I can usually broaden the discussion beyond the tired old “either/or” arguments. Maybe, just maybe someone will hear something new and interesting.
This is assuming, of course, that the other participants actually want to hear something other than their own voices.
On this particular occasion, a couple of the Atheists involved started throwing around their imagined intellectual weight. What started as a respectful debate ended up as an exercise in philosophical asshattery and not-so carefully couched insults. Tempers flared (mine foremost among them) and harsh language was exchanged. I’m not proud of my behavior, but I’ve got a short temper and little tolerance for disrespect.
To be fair, Dr. Myers has since apologized for the unintended perceptions many of his readers were left with due to the indelicate way in which he presented his arguments and I have mended fences with most of those involved in the Facebook fracas.
But still, the underlying reason for the tension is there. I typically get along very well with Atheists, but sometimes, they can be every bit as difficult to talk with as the most hard-core evangelical Christian. I appreciate the dedication to reason, ethics and the provable which form the core of Humanist thought. I just think it is an unnecessarily limited philosophy. Particularly when it so emphatically ignores personal experience.
I sometimes (perhaps unfairly) suspect that the most vehement and insulting Atheists are more upset that they cannot “see the sailboat” than they are any perceived crimes committed in the name of religion.
It gets a bad rap but it’s actually a very strong word.
I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun.
I believe that the universe began with a Big Bang and that life as we know it evolved in fits and starts over billions of years.
I believe in the gods who walk among us, in the spirits of the land and the souls of our ancestors.
These things neither contradict each other nor do they require my belief in order to be true. They do not cease to exist if I choose not to measure them or if I am not wise enough the find the stick I could measure them against. I believe in all these things because I see the evidence for them in my daily life even if others do not. It would be irrational for me to believe otherwise.