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Religion and Facts

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October 2007
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Reading an article on Afghanistan in Smithsonian Magazine this morning at the breakfast table, I was struck once more about the differences between Sunni and Shi’a within Islam. My memory may be a bit fuzzy here, but as I recall the basic split between these two sects of Islam was and is based on a difference of opinion about the succession of the Caliphate after Mohammad. Every religion or organization of any kind faces this sort of problem. Especially in the case of religions where the founder is often imbued with special holiness and awe, the matter of succession can be a problem. In druid orders this quandary has only emerged a few times. In the case of the Brotherhood of the Universal Bond, the succession after Robert MacGregor-Reid led to the founding of OBOD by Nuinn. In the case of ADF in the States, Isaac Bonewits stepped down as archdruid and the organization democratically elected a new “president.”

Quite often I attribute religious intolerance and mutual hatred between members of different sects to be caused by an inability to distinguish between metaphorical truths and historical facts. In the case of the Sunni- Shi’a schism many differences of belief have grown up over the centuries in which they took their separate paths. However, it was the factual split over succession that lay at the root of the problem. Of course, that sort of argument is sometimes just a cover for deeper differences of belief within an organization. But, anyway, it interests me.

In the case of druid groups, we have just the germ of this sort of antipathy in the Celtic reconstructionists who insist on the truth of certain facts based upon the testimony of current scholarship. Amateur scholars are not tolerated and people like Iolo Morganwg, Robert Graves, Gerald Gardner, George MacGregor Reid, and Douglas Monroe, who publish things and make pronouncements based on their own creativity but claim to be drawing on historical sources — these fellows are rejectd with sneers of derision as frauds, forgers, and “false druids.”

That sort of attitude has never struck me as either healthy or constructive. It seems to me based on a very narrow understanding of human creativity and indeed a narrow understanding of academic scholarship and the amount of creativity that is involved in any act of interpretation. Facts, contrary to popular belief, never speak for themselves. So, a religion that attempts to construct its faith on facts is, ironically, not basing it on a solid foundation, but on shifting sands. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that scholarly opinion constitutes shiftier sand than religious dogmas. The structure of academia (at least these days) tends to pit each generation against the one before in a sort of Oedipal struggle for the son’s to discredit the interpretations or theories of their fathers. The son metaphorically murders the father in order to possess Sophia, the mother-goddess Wisdom.

That said, I do not recommend that religions ignore historical facts, the accumulated wisdom of generations of scholars, and base their faith on older authorities who had never even heard of modern notions of fact-checking or evaluation of sources. It’s hard to question the motives and intention of the author of a religious text when that author is assumed to be infallible and omniscient.

Fortunately for modern druidry, books are not revered in that way. The old druids were smart fellows to forbid that their teachings be written down. They understood, I suspect, just what happens when a living person’s ideas get written down in a book and distributed by disciples. After a few generations, the author is deified and the words of the book fetishized and then, because words and books are always subject to interpretation, people start fighting and killing each other in defense of their interpretation of the words. If, on the other hand, you do not write your ideas down, you stand a slightly better chance of your followers having to think for themselves. Maybe not, but its a good plan.

It might be, of course, that later generations will simply argue about the oral traditions. We get a lot of that too in witchcraft and even in druidry. A couple of years ago on the OBOD message board we were visited by the author John Hughes who has written a couple of books, one of them on Celtic Sex Magic and another on herbs. Knowing how publishers work, I don’t know if one can strictly blame Mr. Hughes for the emphasis on sex in his books. But what did emerge in forum conversations with him was that he was quite a rambler and full of suggestions that he had secrets nobody else had — especially all those silly English druids. He claimed that his practices and beliefs were passed down to him from his grandfather, which is one of those claims that is all too common among witches and druids. Almost always when such claims are made the grandfather or grandmother in question is dead and cannot corroborate the claim. Also, they never seem to leave any documentary evidence behind them, so there is no way to corroborate the claim that way either. We cannot rationally jump to the conclusion that the claim is false and the person making the claim a fraud, but there is no way to judge either way, except by evaluating the content of whatever “secrets” they are willing to submit to public inspection and criticism.

If everyone who had a legitimate oral tradition in their family would share it with other people honestly without pretense, we might hope to get somewhere in the study of these family traditions. Maybe we will get to that point. Maybe even now there is an academic historian out there who is attempting to interview such people and to compile and evaluate their family traditions.

This is why I feel that druidry, most especially, needs to stick to its position of valuing scholarship alongside individual inspiration and keeping the two things distinct in our minds. We need the objective scholarship of non-druids and non-witches to help us see the facts, so that we too can interpret them better. You can hardly hope to arrive at a true interpretation of history without discovering the facts first. But even after the facts have been brought to light and published, we as a community have a duty to interpret those fats ourselves, examine our own assumptions, examine other people’s assumptions, and consider how our creative efforts relate to the facts and the academic interpretations of them.

The oghams are a classic example of this. In the course of the 20th century, Robert Graves’s book The White Goddess was tremendously influential in bringing to public attention the complex and enigmatic poems of the Welsh and Irish traditions. Moreover, his interpretations of the texts as a poet and amateur Welsh scholar (who didn’t actually read Welsh) influenced several subsequent authors in their interpretations of the oghams. The famous Tree Calendar of Graves was, for many years, accepted as a scholarly interpretation and indeed a fact. The Celts used this lunar calendar of the trees and it was the secret key to the meaning of the oghams. Well, today we know better. It seems likely that Graves’s interpretations will not stand up to scholarly scrutiny. I don’t even think they make a great deal of sense internally. I find The White Goddess to be a very poorly written book full of digressions and contradictions, and things that just don’t make sense to me.

Now, for me, as a literary scholar of sorts, the fact that I disagree with an author’s interpretation of some poetry or other texts is nothing new. It happens all the time. I have an radically different opinion on Keats’ poem “Lamia,” for example, than a dozen other literary scholars who have interpreted it. But who cares? The problem is that with the Welsh materials, so little of the scholarship on the subject is publically known and The White Goddess became a widely reprinted cult classic in the 1960’s when there were lots of readers looking for a Goddess-religion. Having a well-known author on the Greek myths write a book suggesting that there was a religon of the mother-goddess underlying Welsh and Celtic cultures was very exciting and could be used to justify one’s own desires and beliefs.

I’ve seen Carl Jung used in the same way. Although his ideas were rejected by mainstream academic psychologists and the medical profession, for the most part, his books and ideas spread like wildfire in popular New Age culture so that archetypes and synchronicity became household words and references to Dr. Jung were used to justify all sorts of things. But the fact is that just because someone has a doctorate doesn’t make them a perfectly reliable source of ideas, much less a part of mainstream thought. The other side of this slippage between facts and interpretations and theories is the inhernet desire on the part of New Age devotees to reject mainstream thought. The anti-Establishment attitudes of the 1960’s and 1970’s caused many people to believe in writers simply because they were rejected by the mainstream.

Now, I myself am an inveterate Jungian, but I do understand that many of his ideas are not accepted by today’s psychologists. That doesn’t necessarily make the psychologists wrong and it does not necessarily make Jung wrong. They just have different points of view, different lenses through which they are viewing the psyche and the ‘texts’ of client’s dreams and fantasies. Jung straddled several disciplines, offering interpretations of myths legends, and alchemical texts as well as his clients’ dreams. Crossing disciplines in this way will almost guarantee that everyone else in academia will reject your ideas.

One of the fascinating things about Jung is that while he was rejected after a generation within academic psychology (which turned to behaviorism and then cognitive feedback), he was taken in and beloved by at least one generation of English professors. Psychoanalytic criticism is still alive and well, though not as fashionable as it used to be. Archetypal criticism was taken up by others, or rather we might better say that Jung’s archetypal psychology clicked with archetypal criticism of the sort practiced by the likes of the late great Northrup Frye, author of The Great Code and Anatomy of Criticism.

So, we can see that in academic circles, and in medicine or sciences, we move from facts, which are the raw data collected from experiments or observations, or the recorded dreams of clients, or interviews with subjects. We take these facts and interpret them according to certain assumptions and theories. We create systems of interpretation. Then the next generation tears those systems apart, criticizes them and comes up with new ones. Until you get to Deconstructionists who just like to tear apart any system at all to demonstrate that all interpretative systems come apart.

If our druidry (or any other religious system we choose to make meaning out of life) is to carry on and not devolve into schisms and in-fighting, we need to understand the dynamic of interpretation and interpretative systems. We need to understand that practically all religious beliefs and spiritual ideas come from human creativity and imagination. This does not disqualify them or invalidate them. It does not mean we should discard religion entirely as a load of codswollop. Religious experience is part of being human and so needs to be understood and enjoyed, like other parts of humanity. But we must learn that we do not need to kill our neighbors or persecute them for enjoying other kinds of religious experience than we do. The analogy to sexual preferences and kinks should be lost on no one. Indeed, religious preferences and sexual preferences often get a bit muddled and confused with one another.

But now, to more important matters of fact. My daughter is at last awake and I must make her breakfast.

From the Owlery,



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