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. http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/the-philosophers-dilemma-or-someones-wrong-on-the-internet/
* 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).