Paganism and Psuedoscholarship
Posted on October 24, 2013
A part of Sacral Education
For a while, in the back of my head there has been a series of blog posts that I have wanted to write. Unfortunately, given that I am swinging between being overwhelmed for school and my senseless employment, as well as being excessively depressed in my home life, I haven’t had much of a chance to post an update lately. The entire gist of the blog run would focus on education, learning, and knowledge gathering as sacral pursuits, since it is one of the largest, most fundamental cornerstones of my personal experience in this world.
Warning: This post is kind of ranty. It is going to be featured first because this was the most recent incident that I have experienced. In reality, this probably falls more on the secular side than the religious side, but it ties in with what happened.
As a background, I deal with a variety of Pagan and Pagan-themed Facebook groups and pages as a viewer. This came up on one of them. The page in question is dedicated to writers, authors, and other creative minds of the Pagan spectrum. The mods of this community often highlight product materials at the author’s individual requests.
- Disclaimer the First: I am writing this as opinion, as I see it, and not as some kind of vast truth. This is not an official work (lack of citations).
- Disclaimer the Second: This is not directed against “armchair historians”, and please do not believe that it is. Many such people, without degrees, pursue very important studies on their own time, based on their own interest and inclinations. I am of a mind that the certification doesn’t make a historian, historians are made by applying historic methodology and historiographic precedent, and contributing first and foremost to a critical understanding of scholarship. I have a lot of respect for the people who take the time and effort into the workmanship of a monograph or publication, even as a pastime. I also do not believe that the “historian” label gets conferred only with a PhD.
- Disclaimer the Third: Consider my use of Wikipedia ironic, please.
- Disclaimer the Fourth: And finally, please do not think I am speaking ill of anyone’s personal gnosis. That’s an entirely different morass of information that this paper does not seek to address. I’m speaking of actual academic-like work here.
Pseudoscholarship in Paganism
I think there are, among others, two views to Paganism. Two “kinds” as it were. The Philosophical/Historical and the Pseudohistorical. Historical Paganism in this sense does not necessarily restrict itself to reconstructionist Paganisms, but instead to approaches in Pagan works that utilize the appropriate methodology (Historic, Anthropological, Sociological, etc.), empiric evidence, and reasonable (read: not sloppy) scholarship. I understand that not everyone is cut out for academic workmanship, and I do not expect this to really resonate well with many people.
But some of us are interested in it. And some of us actively hold degrees (read: certification from accredited universities) that would classify us as qualified persons in this regard.
It seems like academic pursuits and research methodology have a rocky past within the (re)emergence of Contemporary Paganism. I blame the 1970s-1980s, in all honesty. It doesn’t seem like there was a period within our collective published history that provides a greater dearth of factual veracity in regards to the publications hit the popular scene as this time frame. It seems like it was a time when any person could throw together inane theories, fabrications with the barest strands of reasoning and logic and pump out a book.
And then that book, that viewpoint and scholarship, somehow got accepted into a canon of understanding. Whether it was because they were first on the scene, or because people simply didn’t care, some of these works have withstood years of critiques and criticisms and are still held as valid – even though they are debunked with better scholarship.
The popular attachment to some of these books makes it excessively difficult for us (read: trained scholars) to put out corrected views.
A few weeks back I found my way to the Livius.Org page about Ancient History and Psuedoscholarship which really covers a lot of my issues with generalist historic pursuits and pseudoscholarship. I recommend anyone interested to read it.
The Internet has created a monster in regards to scholarship. In either the secular or religious sphere, it seems that anyone can write whatever opinion piece they want and publish it for widespread consumption. Or, like the above article says, revive previously dormant theories. These verge from misinformation, which should be able to be corrected easily, to insane theories. My favorite example was a website I saw years ago, which claimed that the authors have irrefutable proof that aliens built the pyramids of Egypt because they used maths.
It is unfortunate that these kind of crack-brained theories are all too common in our Pagan world, too. I recently saw one of these theories, published through the Facebook group I mentioned above. That was the impetus for this writing.
This theory asserted with supposedly irrefutable proof that Hebrew, a Semitic language, was derived from runic Futhark script, which is an Indo-European language. Not only does it exist in an entirely different language family, but Futhark itself is a descendant quite clearly from an earlier proto-Norse language. The author seemingly attempts to ascribe Germanic principles with Hebrew history, utilizing it as a way to approach “God” – being a monotheistic entity – by conflating the Futhark and Hebrew script onto a calendar, or some such. I say “seemingly” because it is erratic information and is all over the place. The website is, truly, abominable.
It honestly looks like someone is trying to combine Germanic romanticism with Qabbalistic esoteric theory.
Other theories that this author had run the gamut from absurd (Odin was a monotheistic god that the tribe of Esau worshiped) to the downright dangerous (“Psychology; Psychological fact, that which is hidden will present itself in various forms of PTSD till the truth is revealed.”).
And yes, you read that right. That last quote comes directly from this author’s website, that PTSD is not a debilitating mental condition, but is a gateway for revealing “physiological fact”, and that this hidden knowledge will manifest as PTSD until the truth is supposedly revealed.
So. This individual is thus an armchair historian (Ancient Near Eastern/Biblical/Pre-Iron Age European), as well as an armchair Psychologist. There is no academic certification provided on his website. There is no curriculum vitae which highlights his background, his accomplishments, or where he received certification. We have no way to establish his credentials.
I don’t think I need go through all the ways that this, and this viewpoint, is factually wrong.
This book will be published, whether it gets published by a printing house or by a print-on-demand publisher. While I do not know that this book will hit the shelves of Barnes & Nobel any time soon, this book will be purchased. And, perhaps more importantly, this book will be believed by some. Not a lot, I hope, but some.
Think of the larger theories of Paganism or New Age movements. Some of these have been debunked. Others haven’t. The ones that come to my mind, easily:
- Wicca is an ancient religion and has persisted since before the days of Christianity, hidden under the surface. (Though she didn’t coin this idea, Margaret Murray was a big proponent of this witch-cult theory, and propagated it anthropologically speaking. The continuation of this theory is one example of psuedoscholarship being used, even though her scholarship at the time was not “psuedoscholarship”.)
- Goddess-worship is the original religion of humanity, and has been usurped by the patriarchal, patrilocal God-figure.
- Anything to do with UFOs. Ever.
These and more continue to float around, given the open-ended nature of the Internet and the ease that we have modern ideas spread across the globe. It is a dangerous pitfall. I will show you how, in one interpretation, below. There are many others.
How it Affects Pagans
Pseudoscholars of this stripe do only one thing: They invalidate the workmanship, the efforts, and the veracity of actual scholars. Not only that, they can lay the foundation of beliefs that range from simply incorrect and absurd to downright inappropriate or dangerous. In some cases it can take years, if not decades, to rework misinformation and correct viewpoints that have been twisted by the scholarship. Am I complaining that it means my work is harder to do? Maybe a little, I will be honest.
In the case I’ve mentioned above, with the Germanic/Qabbalah thing, it really reads to be as a little bit Godwin’s law-y to me: “German protoculture is master race and begat Hebrew lettering”. Does anyone else feel that is dangerous? I certainly do.
In the case of sloppy scholarship that doesn’t seem like it is wrong on the surface, let’s take a fabricated story of Jimmy. The name is Conor’s fault: If there is a Jimmy reading this, this isn’t directed to you. Any other likeness is similarly coincidental.
Jimmy has come to Paganism for whatever reason. He has experimented with Wicca and has found it not to his liking. Jimmy likes the idea of the reconstructionist Paganisms, but none of the focused cultures seem to resonate to him. Then, suddenly, he realized that the pull he’s always felt for a specific region of the world has developed into a deeper spiritual calling! Excited, Jimmy goes to search for any information about the pagan culture that has been suppressed for centuries by those dastardly monotheists.
There isn’t any.
But, Jimmy stumbles upon an idea. A wonderful idea. He will investigate and reinvigorate and reconstruct the ancient cults of the region. So, he goes through his studies, the development of he denotes ritual processes he’s worked on, interpretations of materials, and the like. Over the course of the work he’s done, he’s gathered a small following of people who are similarly interested in his endeavors, and they form a community. Jimmy ends up collecting his works, publishing books, and is held up by the Pagan community as as an innovator and reconstructionist. His work becomes canon.
Except Jimmy doesn’t read the original language. He doesn’t even read later languages that the historic scholarship has been written in. He has not been trained in proper methodology – he doesn’t even have an interest in the proper process of historic and anthropological study. He relies on interpretations of other scholars, taking them for their face value, and inserting bias into what he’s developed.
He has interpreted ancient rituals wrong and has, actually, perpetuated a cultus whose rituals are actively offensive to the deities from a traditionalist point of view. The deific understanding he has utilized for his entire reconstructionism is incorrect, with misleading information. Inappropriate rites are ascribed to the wrong deities, offerings are incorrect, things that would – in the ancient culture – be blasphemous. A new interested party, Timmy, shows up on the scene and argues through his knowledge and showing through logical reasoning, Jimmy’s information is wrong. Possibly dangerous.
But, Jimmy’s made a name for himself. His work has been established as canonical for the particular culture. So when Timmy shows up, with more appropriate methodology (possibly with an accredited degree, or simply an armchair interest), he reacts poorly. Driven by ego, he perpetuates the misinformation that he’s created. He continues the cycle of feeding the wrong information into the Pagan sphere, and there is now two dissenting camps of information. And the work that Jimmy does – more correctly informed work – is flamed and trolled across the Internet.
That’s how sloppy scholarship can affect us. And it is only one of the ways that do it.
I’m going to end this here, because I’m pushing five pages in my word processor and I don’t want to have to make a rant a two-part post.
I have nothing against doing something for the Gods you love. I have nothing against being wrong, at all. We’re all wrong, and I have made my share of incorrect assumptions. But my mistakes are learned from, for the most part. But there are ways to be a scholar without using or resorting to pseudoscholarship.
Sloppy scholarship is dangerous in both the secular and religious fields. But in the secular field, all it amounts to is misinformation. As much as I personally lament it: Good history books are hard to come by. Proper scholarship is hidden behind a near-inaccessible academic veil. It’s also a lot drier than books written for a specifically popular market.
To Pagans, pseudoscholarship can lead to poor information and the creation of – historically speaking – mockery traditions. It can perpetuate wrong information that wracks up a ton of negativity from the tradition that they’re mimicking. In some cases, it amounts to appropriationism that verges on bastardization.
There is always going to be a bit of a struggle between popular knowledge and historic validity. But we, as educated members of our community, can take care to prevent our work from transitioning into psuedoscholarship. By becoming familiar with methodology, we can by and large avoid many of the pitfalls of the Internet Age. But it is up to ourselves to take pains to prevent this from happening.
Our words and actions can resonate in this community, and can affect more people than we intend. And, unlike school, we rarely have someone to mark up what we’re writing and help us correct information that might be wrong.
I make it a goal to be on the lookout for psuedoscholarship, especially in my religious writings. Because I can’t look myself in the mirror knowing that I’ve willingly perpetuated misinformation.
Thanks for reading.