A few weeks ago, I was driving to rehearsal and watching the sun set, and I had a thought. It was a small thought that needed a lot of fleshing out. Here is what I wrote down in my little book of thoughts: “changing roles of religion. Explain the world-given to science. Community building/cohesion—lost. Devotion to deities-check. Religion as artistic expression?”
By all that, I mean that I was thinking about the roles religion plays and has historically played in people’s lives. And that all of that is shifting monumentally these days.
When we’re children and we learn about polytheism in schools, they teach us the myths from the standpoint that the ancients needed the myths to explain the world around them. Like the Greeks needed Arachne to know why there are spiders and Zeus to know why there are thunderbolts. Fast forward a few thousand years, and we have the Jews and the Christians who do this in a different way. Religion becomes historical fact, which is in turn used to explain the world.
Fast forward a few thousand years again, and we have the scientific revolution. We look to reason as the source of truth. We find out about the Big Bang and that we revolve around the sun. We find out about evolution and that lightening is really caused by electric charges. We no longer need religion and myth to explain the world around us, and we have the rise of atheism—those people who see reason as the ultimate source of truth. And many religious groups feel severely threatened by this.
Those groups, most notably in American the fundamentalist Biblical literalists, see religion as science. The two seem to serve the same purpose in many ways. Rather than looking to science textbooks for facts about the universe, they look to the Bible. And that, my friends, is why we have intense, public arguments about whether we should teach evolution or creation in our science classes. Each group holds The Truth that should be science because science is, almost by definition, The Truth (even when scientists recognize that it’s only the truth according to currently known facts). The scientists want religion to remain religion, the biblical literalists want religion to be science, and so they say that science is just a new religion.
And so we heathens creating and reviving a religion for the modern world should think about this. Our religion is not science. We should not fall into this trap. The younger generation looking for a spiritual life, on the whole, looks to science for The Truth about the world and the universe. And if we fall into this and start saying that it is literally true that the world revolves around a giant tree, we will lose everyone. On the other hand, I admit fully here that I haven’t seen that happening. What I have seen happening is people taking the Eddas and Sagas to be the Truth about our gods and what we should believe, but that’s probably better saved for a separate post.
The second major purpose of religion has long been community building. The heathens used to have giant community feasts on the holidays. Christians have Church. We heathens don’t have so much of that in the real world today. Along with the rise of individualism comes the fall of true religious community. And by true, I mean fleshy. The heathen community these days is online. True, there are moots and kindred and meetups. True, we’ll drive pretty far to meet a like-minded heathen or pagan. But our like-minded heathens are few and far between. And that is because in today’s world, religion is becoming increasingly personal. It’s about you and the gods. That’s why there are so many pagans who choose to be solitary even when there’s a coven who is mostly the same not very far away. We don’t want to make compromises in our faith, even if it means flesh-and-blood community. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. No one should have to compromise their beliefs in order to fit in if we’re to have an individualist world. We find community in other places. I find it in the dance world, and with my online heathen and pagan friends. We don’t have ritual together, but we do have intellectual conversations, which are essential. I have flesh-and-blood rituals at dance rehearsals with people who agree with me that reason is not the ultimate arbiter of knowledge. And so community building is largely lost as a purpose of our religion. Where it exists, it is a happy by-product, not a purpose.
The primary purpose of heathenry, then, is left to the mystical. We are heathens because of our devotion. Not just to the gods. Also to our ancestors and our heritage and the beautiful pre-industrialized past where our ancestors lived and died and starved. To the earth who is screaming for our attention. To the land-wights we have forgotten, who are angry with us, and who appreciate it when we treat them kindly. But also to the gods. To their passion and their beauty and their fearsomeness. To their pleasant longevity. To the way that the world goes around and the warmth of the sunlight and the sweat pouring down our backs as we dance. To the feeling of intoxication and the fear of being lost on a cold, snowy winter night. To the terrifying sound of a loud clap of thunder. To our emotions, to love and hate and joy. To all the manifold ways of gathering information and knowledge that are not reason—emotion, personal experience, bodily information, gut feelings.
And because of that, we should look to religion more as art than as science if we want to survive in the increasingly scientific world we live in. Because with art, everything is true. Everything that is possible to be believed, that is impossible to believe can all be true simultaneously. Because with art, truth is not relegated only to The Truth that is rational or written down centuries and centuries ago. The Truth in art is what makes us feel, what makes us think, what makes us act. It is what makes us see a painting and question the way that we live our lives. It is what makes people listen to music and cry. It is how we express our love for the gods and the way that they make us feel and live. But it is also the gods. When our religion is art and the gods are our truth, we are free to believe that the world revolves around a tree instead of the sun without being unreasonable, but while being simultaneously as unreasonable as they come. Because why try to apply reason to religion? To quote Nietzsche, “there is always some madness in love, but there is always some reason in madness.” We love the gods and the land not because it is reasonable, but because they call us with their immense power. That it is reasonable to respect Mother Earth is a side point, the hidden reason in our madness. But the madness of our love is that we respect Her solely because we feel She is worthy of respect.
A few days after my sunset-watching drive to rehearsal, I was reading Joseph Campbell. I alternately find him insufferably irritating and find things in what he write that inspire me to think deeply about what he’s saying. I will close with a brief example of how he makes me think.
There were many Japanese members of the congress, not a few of them Shinto priests, and on the occasion of the lawn party in the precincts of a glorious Japanese garden, our friend approached one of these. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I’ve been now to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a number of shrines, but I don’t get the ideology; I don’t get your theology.’
“The Japanese (you may know) do not like to disappoint visitors, and this gentleman, polite, apparently respecting the foreign scholar’s profound question, paused as though in deep thought, and then, biting his lips, slowly shook his head. ‘I think we don’t have ideology,’ he said, ‘We don’t have theology. We dance.’
Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell