The internet has had a democratising effect on how we exchange information. Anyone can write a blog post and claim to know what they’re talking about. Everyone can express their opinion by sharing unverified information via memes. Maybe rumour is no more rife than it ever was but it’s probably more public due to the rise of social media. At the same time, there’s a breakdown of education and objective journalism.
The recent US elections focused everyone on the problem of fake news. The rise in fake news anxiety has resulted in one group going to the extreme of only accepting that which can be ‘proven scientifically’, while another chunk have gone to the other extreme of ‘there are no facts, so everything is equally true’. Who or what should we believe – or believe in?
Enter “science”. Not any particular science, in this case. Not molecular biology, specifically, or an applied science like civil engineering – just Science. We even have a new piece of sarcasm: ‘Because science’. If science is on your side, there is no way that you are wrong. At least until a new discovery comes along, because even science has to revise its cherished truths, sometimes.
Before this turns into a political rant, let’s bring it home to what I usually write about. Polytheism is an approach to religion, or maybe spirituality. Trying to reduce religion/spirituality to a science is always going to be problematic. Of course there’s the reconstructive approach, which is popular in Celtic Paganism. Certainly, the science of archaeology can offer some facts about what altars looked liked, which regions favour inscriptions to certain deities, and so on. But even archaeology, one of the most interpretation-based of all the sciences, can only offer guesses at how people perceived deities, or what they believed.
That’s where history and myth can help us a little – or even a lot. Of course, it’s less factual. Historians have their agendas, or they just get things wrong. Myths were written down after Christianity had become the dominant religious and cultural force in Britain and Ireland. Therefore, it isn’t pristine pre-Christian material at all. These things require interpretation and uncertainty. Interpretation isn’t a science, and no amount of academic research is going to make it so. A good grounding in philosophy, critical thinking, and literary criticism is helpful up to a point – and no more.
Like many Celtic Pagans, I value the work of academics. They are responsible for making myths and history accessible to us through editions and translations. They also help us understand the linguistic history of texts and offer us a variety of possible interpretations of them. People with years of academic training in history or Celtic Studies are more qualified to do at least some of this work that you or I. However, we still have to accept much of that work as interpretive. If you hold up a theory about The Mabinogi or The Book of Invasions and say, “This person has a PhD, I got it from them, so it is correct,” you will soon find that other people with PhDs have other viewpoints. Academia can’t tell you the “correct” interpretation of myth or distant history – it can only present theories and try to defend them. Those theories are subject to fashion, as well as to improving scholarship. Don't expect scholars to hand you "scientifically proven" answers about myth, or even history, in most cases.
Going to the extreme of believing everything isn’t smart, but people living in a world filled with fake news anxiety are more likely to want the opposite: a system in which all gnosis can either be verified or must be rejected. I can’t help but wonder whether some people are attracted to Celtic paths that lack a surviving mythology, like Gaulish or early Brythonic, because they hope to base their practice only on archaeological ‘facts’, and not have to bother with those ponderous and suspicious myths. Of course, they usually find themselves reaching for interpretation pretty quickly, even if it's only interpretatio romana.
It doesn’t make sense to try to reduce religion or spirituality to a science. Because it’s religion and spirituality. You will ultimately have to trust your own judgement. If you think you hear the voice of a deity, you will have to decide whether you really did, or even whether it’s fine to just assume that you did. If a myth or a piece of archaeological evidence speaks to your soul, you will have to decide whether to follow that feeling or shrug it off. Not every truth is determined by proof.
A collection of essays on reading mythology for deep meaning.
8.5" x 5.5"