Monday, July 12, 2004

Bad Reseach, Mythical History Hurts Wicca and Paganism

Yesterday I wrote about some assertions that were made to me about the behavior and history of the Celts which I felt to be either gross generalizations or simple lies and I think I was able to supply some of the evidence to suggest why I felt this was the case. I did want to note that the man who told me those things may not have lied to me, he may simply have been parroting bad information.

Sadly, when it comes to Wicca, Paganism and the New Age movement in general, the historical and theological scholarship has sucked. Not merely sucked, but really sucked. Some of it has been breathtakingly awful.

It actually has gotten to a point where I cringe to read any “history” in a pagan oriented book.

I think a lot of what is out there is not self serving lies but wishful thinking. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man talks about this with regard to eighteenth century research that ‘proved’ the interior of the skulls of white men had more room than the interior of the skulls of black men—the intent of the researcher being to show that whites had larger brains and were therefore more intelligent. Gould related the story of one researcher who counted the grains of rice it took to fill the skulls of a white man and a black man. Where I would have thought this to be intentional scholarly fraud, Gould sees wishful thinking. He envisioned the researcher not trying to pack the rice into the black man’s skull with quite the vigor he had for the white man’s skull. He pictured the man pushing the rice into the white skull with a lot of effort, shaking the skull to settle it more, all of this unconsciously done to achieve the result he wanted to see.

The net result? White skulls must have more interior space for larger brains because white skulls held a few hundred more grains of rice. If I recall correctly, Gould was able to use the same skulls this guy did an d got the opposite result.

Just as Stephen Jay Gould does not believe that his predecessor set out to defraud the academic world, I don’t believe that most of the bad research I see in Wicca/Pagan/New Age books is the result of a conscious desire to commit fraud. Rather, I suspect that some authors, with the best intentions, interpreted data in the best possible light to support their cause, ignored data that seemed to contradict what they hoped for and drew up final conclusions that could not be substantiated on the evidence at hand.

Merlin Stone who sparked a revolution in Goddess research with her book When God Was A Woman seems to me to be guilty of this. I love the book, I love the debate it sparked and the reexamination of old data that it provoked. The book gave me a new perspective on history and theology and challenged me to think. But ultimately the data on which the book relied did not prove that there was a single matriarchical Goddess centered religion that thrived until hostile Aryan tribes invaded.

It is my belief that one of the things that fostered this type of wishful thinking with regard to history was a general feeling in the Goddess based faiths that there had to be historic roots for what they were doing and saying. Because Wicca had no history to speak of, and there was zero information in the current culture to encourage an interpretation of God being female a tremendous desire existed for some historical justification for our shared faith. Since nature abhors a vacuum, that vacuum of data was quickly filled. The problem is that most of what it was filled with is garbage.

Inaccurate research and wishful data interpretation have greatly harmed the standing of new Pagans and Wiccans in the theological community and in the scientific community at large. A backlash against Goddess oriented research exists. So, rather than creating an atmosphere friendly to Goddess and Pagan research, it has fostered an actual hostility and skepticism to this new theology and that is a damn shame because while some of it is bad, a great deal of the research and the ideas that sparked it are really excellent and deserve consideration.