Thus far in the Pagan blogs I’ve written a lot about practice without sharing very much philosophy or theology, not because I’m not doing any philosophy, but for a variety of other reasons. First among these is the fact that certain attitudes and types of practices, not philosophical positions, generally unite Pagan communities. Pagans approach their practices with an assortment of theologies, and it seems that respectful, productive discussions of the differences among them are hard to come by.
Also, I’m a female, middle-class person who, together with a husband I’d like to keep, is raising school-aged children, and who maintains a paying job, in addition to a bunch of other obligations. My time and energy are continuously over-committed, and if I only have time for one out of thinking and writing about Paganism or doing Paganism, I’ll choose doing every time.
Be that as it may, I acknowledge that thought and practice are inextricably intertwined, informing each other by turns. So now I’m starting a series of posts called Pagan Philosophy Nuggets (PPN), in which I briefly discuss a philosophical topic as it applies to Paganism. My intention is to learn, record my progress in this area, and share it without taking it too seriously.
This is a citizen philosophy project. My formal academic training is in linguistics and nursing, not philosophy or theology, and as mentioned I don’t have a lot of time for writing at this stage of life. As such, PPN posts will necessarily be brief, incomplete explorations of important philosophical concepts. Undefined terms and inconsistencies will almost certainly creep in. I expect to be dissatisfied with most of my own answers to the questions I’ll raise. Read at your own risk, and choose compassion when you make constructive comments.
The first PPN topic is the purpose of religious practice. Human understanding of the how the universe works has advanced tremendously, since natural scientists separated their work from the presuppositions of religion. So why subscribe to anything other than materialism? Why engage with Paganism, or any other form of religion for that matter?
One compelling answer is that religion helps us make meaning out of our experiences and helps us make the decisions that lead to lives worth living, something that science, although powerful, doesn’t do. For evaluating testable claims and learning about causal relationships, science is the best tool we’ve got, but it doesn’t make meaning; it can’t make ethical or aesthetic choices for us.
A related answer that I find compelling is outlined by philosopher Scott Samuelson (2018) in his book Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering. Human life is centered around a paradox, he notes: “the paradox of having simultaneously to accept and reject suffering” (p. 7). Living the paradox involves finding a balance between fixing and facing suffering, according to Samuelson. Science and technology are methods for discovering fixes, while art and religion are methods for facing suffering.
Religious approaches, then, including Pagan ones, may be just as valid and helpful as scientific approaches, for understanding our experience of the world. Religion is a way of making sense of the life we’re living in the world as it is, in which we must make worthy choices and face the suffering and loss that occur for no reasons we can find.
Samuelson, S. (2018). Seven ways of looking at pointless suffering: What philosophy can tell us about the hardest mystery of all. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.