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Intellectualism, Conformity, and Evolution
Article ID: 14434
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Posted: February 13th. 2011
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Last night I sat going over my plan for writing my essay-turned-book on Þórr with my husband, planning in what direction my research and notes are going to go in and pondering, among other things, the enormity of the task. After all, a deity as popular and widely-venerated as Þórr can hardly to be said to be lacking in information regarding not only himself but his cult, related folklore, and impact on society past and present. And naturally, no discussion of Þórr would be complete without discussing the concepts connected to him – innangarð versus útangarð; concepts of the holy and wihaz/sacred; mægen/megin; good and evil, that which is lawful, oaths and their importance not only in Germanic society but Germanic cosmology. Because in the end, what affects the one ultimately affects the whole.
I view work such as that which I am doing regarding Þórr as an offering – not just the finished product but the research as well – the entire process from start to finish is an act of devotion. Today being a Thursday (1/3/11) , as I begin to seriously delve into research and format the future form of my work, I intend to make offering to Þórr to ask him to bless my efforts. After all, as an offering, the last thing I want it to be is anything less than worthy, or half-assed. Just as it is best to not make too many offerings, so it is also best to make the offerings you do make good ones. However, it seems that being half-assed is a norm for some individuals and publications. And this is having a definite impact not only on Heathenry, but also on Paganism in general, and it’s ability to be taken seriously as a family of legitimate religions as opposed to a collection of walking media stereotypes.
The truth is that the market is flooded with a ridiculous number of “101” style books which despite a difference in covers and publishers ultimately contain much of the same information and even some of the same pat soundbites. And while there is a place for 101-style books and they do fulfill a function, you know there’s a problem when that’s what most people seem to keep writing. Would it not be better to focus on more in-depth material and counter the saturation of the market with 101s by bringing in some 202s, or 303s? Part of it simply has to do with the market – there is a ready market for 101s, no matter how many exist on one particular topic, because that is where there is a great deal of demand. However, I would argue that this is symptomatic of a larger problem, namely, people are ascribing to an anti-intellectual bandwagon whether they’re aware of it or not.
In order to best illustrate this point, it is necessary to examine the current state of affairs in our nation’s educational system briefly. In the past couple decades in the United States there has been an increased push by religiously-motivated bodies in this country to severely restrict the teaching of evolution (Kansas) , to actively rewrite history in order to fit in with current political ideology that is in no way reflective of historical political views and has more in common with modern punditry (Texas) , and to “teach tests” as opposed to instruct in a manner conducive to promoting retention. As a result, we have not only seen American students fall behind in math and sciences, but we have students applying to colleges using texting shorthand, students who can name the most recent contestants on reality shows like American Idol but can’t name the first ten Presidents of the United States, and students who think that the Earth is only 6, 000 years old, that dinosaurs are a hoax, and that science is “anti-religion”. On a wider scale, there is the growing acceptance of the idea that people who insist on research and scholarship are “elitist”, and that this “elitism” is somehow contrary to our values as a nation. In other words, conform to the norm, even if that norm is substandard. The problem with conformity, though, is that conformity stunts society. Conformity prevents innovation; it keeps things on a level that prevents improvement. Some of the greatest leaps in history, and most incredible victories and advances, were the result of non-conformity, of people going one step (or ten) beyond, proving that what was previously considered impossible is in fact possible, given that one is willing to put in the effort and hard work to make it a reality. This may be the reason that evolution is seen as such a bugbear by some – evolution is the antithesis of conformity.
In the Pagan and Heathen community you have people entering into both communities who are coming in with these mindsets, and don’t want to take the time necessary to crack out of them. Everyone starts with the 101s, but the idea is to grow past them, not remain on that level. And that takes time – for some folks, depending on background and where they are coming from religiously, it may take longer than others. I have met some Heathens who said it took them close to a decade to truly understand and see things through a Heathen worldview. A decade of careful study, interaction, and not being afraid to ask questions and expand their knowledge base. At its heart, it takes a willingness to evolve. Unfortunately, there seem to be at least two people for every one person who takes the time to truly know their religion who read a couple 101s and decide that that’s it, they’ve done it, they know it all. We’ve all had encounters with them – the “one book wonders” who have read just enough to sound like they know what they’re talking about to people who are less informed or new, and who make anyone else who’s put in time and effort want to take two bricks and smash them on the side of the head. They can recite what amounts to a laundry list of attributes and associations for any given deity but they can’t delve into why those associations exist, what their deeper meaning is, or how it connects to the larger cosmology of whatever religion it is that they profess. This is because most 101s will devote a section to deities, where they list the most common attributes and associations of a deity and then spend two or three paragraphs giving an overview. The idea is that the person reading the book will do their own research and might even bother to check the bibliography to see where they can find other resources. The problem is that people by and large don’t even look at the bibliography anymore – they get to the end of the final chapter/section and then they’re done and move on to the next 101. Or they go on to get a degree from Google University.
My good friend Miles Batty, a Wiccan priest and author as well as lecturer on modern Wicca, wrote an article which appeared on Witchvox in 2008 and which he has recently reposted to his blog, titled “Is Wicca Becoming A Plug-N-Play Religion?” Not only is this a valid question, it’s also an astute observation. Miles points out that in a plug-n-play mindset, not only is the deeper meaning and symbolism ignored, but it’s an offense to the deities as well as to the cultures they came from because it transforms them from beings worthy of respect, awe, and reverence to “employees”, to be clocked in and out as we need them. This plug-n-play mindset breeds anti-intellectualism: after all, doing any sort of deeper study and research would show that not only is plug-n-play a limiting and offensive paradigm, but it requires going beyond 101 levels.
One way in which plug-n-play mentality manifests within Heathenry is the rush for people new to Heathenry to “find their patron deity”. This manifests as the individual assuming that because they saw a raven while out walking on a Wednesday while wearing a blue coat and have an interest in runes, they must be chosen by Óðinn to be his devotee. After all, Óðinn’s colour is blue, ravens are his sacred animal, Wednesday is named for him, and you’ve got his interest because you looked at the runes and thought they were your bag, right? While this seems ludicrous (and rightfully should) , this is the mindset of some people, and this is on the level of some people’s claims. This is also what happens when people don’t move beyond the 101 level and construct their entire religious paradigm around soundbites.
This sort of mindset is also what is allowing certain hucksters and troublemakers to flourish and present themselves as credible sources. Unfortunately, to question anyone perceived as an authority figure, regardless of how incorrect or misinformed they are, is considered “judgmental”, tactless, “negative”, and even rude and so it is discouraged. Again, the issue of conformity raises its’ head, and conformity and anti-intellectualism is where these types of people operate best – in such environments there is likely to be more acceptance because it is based on enforced ignorance. People want to be accepted, it is a psychological fact – we all want to be liked, and we will do whatever is necessary to make sure we are liked. And this is why, for some people, regardless of their true feelings they would rather keep their mouths shut than be the one to speak out. After all, nobody wants to be seen as “negative”. Perhaps it would be to everyone’s benefit for newcomers to Paganism and Heathenry to study the psychology of influence, compliance, and persuasion (an excellent resource on the topic is Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: Science and Practice) . In his discussion of authority symbols and their effects on the human mind, Cialdini makes the following observation:
The appearance of authourity was enough. This tells us something about unthinking reactions to authourity figures…we are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authourity as to the substance. Several of these symbols can reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authourity. Consequently, those compliance professionals who are short on substance employ these symbols extensively. Con artists…drape themselves with the titles, the clothes, and the trappings of authourity…They understand that when they are so adorned their chances for compliance are greatly increased. (Cialdini on Authourity, p. 180-1)
If enough people took the time to study and read this type of material, the troublemakers, con artists, hucksters, and one book wonders would have a harder time getting anywhere. Despite the plethora of websites, books, and articles devoted to avoided problems in communities and spotting troublemakers, and the number of people complaining and hand-wringing regarding what they can do to protect their communities, few people seem willing to want to actually do anything for fear of being seen as “the bad guy”. To take this step requires a desire for intellectualism – a desire to develop the ability to think and reason, and to use it. It requires a desire to not conform. It requires a desire to evolve beyond the 101 level. It requires a paradigm shift on a larger level.
Going back to my Þórr project. I could write something that essentially reiterates what others have already written; I could discuss his basic attributes, his general associations. I could analyze the relevant materials from the Eddas and folklore. I could throw in some information on symbolism and in the end, have a book, which gives you a lot of information on Þórr that results in some handy soundbites. I could tell you that Þórr is the Friend of Man who defends both Midgarð and Ásgarð and leave it there, without discussing what it is that defines either, or how it relates to larger cosmological constructs. Surface stuff. And then I could throw together a nice bibliography and recommended reading list that I know only a few folks will even bother to look at. I could get something like that done and published on Lulu in a matter of a couple months.
Or I could write something that not only examines and discusses all of the above but gives you a deeper understanding of Germanic cosmology, understandings of right/wrong, good/evil, what characterizes the sacred and how health and holiness are connected – all of which connects to Þórr – and gets you to think. Gets you to question not only what you know, but to question what I’ve written, and inspire you to go out and find information that either supports or refutes my conclusions. Maybe even something that angers you in a constructive kind of way, because it gores a sacred cow, and inspires you to go out and draw your own conclusions or defend your position. I think I’d rather write that, even if it takes me a while to do it, because in doing so, I’m challenging you to not conform, to question, to evolve, and to stimulate your intellect.
Óðinn gave us thought for a reason – it’s time to stop wasting the gift.
Batty, Miles. "Is Wicca Becoming A Plug-N-Play Religion?"
Copyright: Copyright Sunna/Jess Blalock 2011.
Location: Charleston, West Virginia
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