The Trouble With (Pagan) Humanism

Recently I’d been reading the Humanist Pagan blog and some of the interviews therein, including with Brendan Myers. There is much I can admire in their perspectives, even as a mystic. Then came the blog post by Dr. Myers at the Wild Hunt, which generated a lot of responses. I wondered what is left when you remove the sacred and ritual, but I was particularly troubled by this statement:  “Humanist paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain (sic), and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just.” I read this as referring to the present, and of course its suggestion that reconstructionist or Wiccan circles lack in the above traits is patently absurd. It has led me to think more carefully about the concept of humanist paganism, and unpacking some of its problematic assumptions (Note: this is based on Dr. Myers’ formulations; I realize there are other viewpoints among HPs).

While humanism actually was a Renaissance phenomenon and was centered on a revival of interest in the literary and philosophical works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and was a powerful counter against the long centuries of dominance of Church scholasticism and denigrations of the natural world, the current humanists are not really using it that way. It also needs to be said that humanism caries a freight of anthropocentricity, that is the concept that the human is at the center of the world, and is what is centrally important. From an ecological viewpoint this is the resource-based view of nature—what’s in it for ‘us’, us being modern industrial Homo sapiens. For those of us influenced by deep ecology, this attitude is part of the problem; nature and all of the creatures we share the planet with have intrinsic value. The human centered view which historically brought various benefits (such as challenging the traditional Christian stranglehold on European thought), has also contributed to the mess we are now in.

Humanist Pagans seem to usually be asking ‘what’s in it for me’, that approach of individualism that Gus Dizerega has called a pathology of modernity. They also use reason in a highly restrictive usage, basically, the results of scientific method.  One of the great draws way back for me of Paganism, was that resonance of working with the magical, the ‘irrational’ forces, as well as the deep satisfaction that many of us feel from rituals and customs that don’t have a rational basis (in the restricted sense of that word). The humanist viewpoint uncritically accepts the modernist viewpoint that only the empirical, only the scientific are valid ways of knowing; everything else is relegated to entertainment at best. The mysterious, the invisible, the immeasurable are rejected.

But let’s consider it from scientific language: it is as if only the affairs of the neo-cortex are valuable, the deep underpinnings of the unconscious are relegated to ‘woo’. It’s not like these are either/or propositions; my work involves drawing upon both, the intuitive and the analytical; it’s often a dance back and forth. This is where I find it revealing that humanists say they don’t do ritual, or maybe just go along with it if they go to  a festival, perhaps because as play acting it is fun to cry, “hail Thor”. Yet whatever one’s theological bent, ritual is something that is part of human culture all over the planet (and perhaps intrinsic to being human), and could be seen as giving our complete mind (and body) a chance for involvement with something greater than our egos.

This brings me to the arts. As a poet, I am aware that this current ‘humanist’ line goes with a devaluation of aesthetic knowledge, again of other important ways of experiencing and knowing the world. The encounter with the Imaginal, with the imagination’s opening onto Mystery is left by the wayside. And so it is a very old story indeed—the moving away from the valuing of myth that can be seen as far back in the West as Plato. It’s noteworthy that Brendan Myers states that he is a type of pagan that hasn’t been seen since the latter days of the classical era of antiquity. This makes me wonder just what he is referring to. Even the rationalist philosophers of Greece  mostly wanted to encourage piety, of which ritual was a central component. Even in the late pagan days of Rome, it would have been unusual to ignore the rites.


Postmodern philosophers have called this type of thought logocentrism. It’s a mentality laden with colonialism, and also takes part in the condescending attitude (and actions) toward beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples*. So an important question here is just what kind of human are these humanists talking about? It would seem only their own kind. Human is a word with a peculiar pedigree. Its history was one of being applied only to a portion of Homo sapiens. There were the rational civilized men of the West—the ‘people with reason’ (for example, in the Law of the Indies enforced in colonial Latin America)— and there was the savage rest of the planet.

Also recommended: my friend Lupus’ post on Myers’ essay.

* The many cases of indigenous peoples fighting to keep or regain sacred land is not something reducible to resource claims (though, those are important too).


14 thoughts on “The Trouble With (Pagan) Humanism

  1. Very much agreed…not surprisingly!

    My Jesuit university identified as “Catholic, Jesuit, and Humanist,” and I think they did so in the older sense you’re referring to above. I think certain aspects of that older humanism, and also the emphasis that many problems are the result of human influence and therefore must be resolved by humans, is a good philosophy to have in certain circumstances: we can’t just “leave to the gods” things that would actively involve the repair (insofar as that is possible on large or small scales now) of the environment and of civilizations that our ancestors have damaged through colonialism, etc.

    But, if “humanist” is a “nicer” phrase for atheism, then I’m not for it at all.

    1. Having that humanist label beside the Catholic and Jesuit would be a big relief to me. Signaling probably safe to enter. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without the original humanism. And it sure had a nice impact on art: all those full-fleshed nudes after centuries of heavily robed wisps!

      I’m fine with a-theism, but when it comes down to scientific materialism and nothing else, it gets really tiring. But the sneering at polytheists and so on just helps to make great divides that really aren’t helpful at all.

  2. Carnivalia

    I very much like what I’ve written here. Also, I think the very term ‘humanism’ is problematic and I’m glad you pointed that out here as well. Blessings.

  3. Very well said. It’s increasingly distressing to me that there are so many people who identify as “pagans” who want to create increasingly fine divisions of types of pagan, as though to identify with one category of thing precludes identifying with all other categories of things.

    1. I have to agree wholeheartedly. Our culture is so obsessed with nomenclature… It seems like people won’t accept you if you can’t state exactly what genus and species of pagan you are.

  4. When I initially read the article you refer to I did not feel any deep pangs of gratitude that the humanists were finally here to save us all from our lack of sophistication and intelligence. What I did feel was an anxiety that people who are being described as or desribe themselves as Pagan are following a path that is antithetical to everything my Paganism means to me. The value of the word has been almost completely destroyed in my mind.

    1. ‘Pagan’ still holds a deep emotional resonance for me, but I can see we’re at a point where it’s probably necessary to use in conjunction with other words if we are able to communicate much. Terms are being used in so many different, contradictory ways by different sets of people.
      Thanks for commenting.

  5. Thanks for writing this. I think these are problematic issues and you’ve addressed them very eloquently. Why does everyone seem to think we have to choose between the empirical and the experiential?

    Also, thanks for pointing out (if I’m reading you correctly) that this is at least partly a product of Platonism.

    1. You’re welcome (and reading correctly ;-)). . I find it especially surprising when I say I value the experiential and some immediately think this means rejecting the empirical. So many people see everything in term of dichotomies.
      Thanks for commenting here.

  6. Pingback: Saepe sub nomine pacis bellum latet « The House of Vines

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s