Sunday, 12 February 2012

Druidic Naturalism - a final review and critique

Is a naturalistic spirituality possible? Yes, I think it is. However is it possible to be a strong atheist and skeptic of the supernatural and still be fully part of the pagan-druidic community? I think now that is only possible if the naturalist/atheist/skeptic is willing to accommodate fully, and open mindedly, the beliefs/ways of other pagans and largely ride on is coat tails. I don't think that naturalists can create an 'alternative druidry' that can viably replace 'pagan theistic/animistic druidry' let alone create the basis for a real 'Order', Grove etc. My evidence for this assertion is based on my experience of the many discussions and interactions through the Caer Abred group/forum a.k.a the Druidic Order of Naturalists. We have found that atheists/sceptics have generally not supported the development of 'naturalistic ritual'. Most do not see it has a role in their spirituality.  Even where some enthusiasm has been forthcoming initially, the attempts to reformulate pagan druidic forms to remove the theistic and supernatural have appeared 'clunky' at best, a parody at worst. Indeed the dependance upon comic effect and simple criticism without suggesting constructive alternatives, has led some observers (pagan and atheist) into  doubting the seriousness of the whole Druidic Naturalism 'project'. 

Naturalism is an option for pagan druids but unless such a view is lightly held, atheism is a stance that relegates that naturalist to the fringes of the pagan community, rather as being a 'Christian' druid does (or being an Christian Atheist or Pagan in Christendom for that matter). As with 'Christian' druidry, for many pagans the juxtaposition of apparently antithetical religious and philosophical views, forces the druid naturalist always on the defensive, and explaining continually why their self definition is not simply an oxymoron. Other pagans will certainly have huge difficulty in 'getting it' and see in the naturalistic assertion an implied at least rejection of their beliefs. And of course if atheism/ naturalism is pursued evangelistically (in the manner and tone, say, of Richard Dawkins) one will quickly alienate other pagans.

My association with naturalism has shown me that  my religious devotion is based on 'faith' rather than reason, faith born out of  not adherence to a creed or revelation, but intuitive experiences, and yes, the 'aesthetic' response which druidic naturalism asserts is really the be all and end of naturalistic druidry. My druidry is a 'private truth', though a truth shared with others. Naturalism remains for me the preferred way of establishing public truth - the societal consensus about reality - and protecting the mind from nonsense and any attempts by others to foster cult-like behaviour by taking too much on trust. This is a healthy form of scepticism, where naturalism is a 'tool' for living, a key to solid knowledge but not the last word. Epistemological naturalism makes sense but metaphysical naturalism is claiming too much, even by naturalistic standards!.

Yet I would never enter my private truths, arrived at from intuition alone as evidence in any debate about public policy or argue for my private truths against the scientific consensus. In naturalistic terms they are speculative hypotheses at best. Naturalism has taught me the potential for self delusion and the fact that most so called 'paranormal' evidences fall far short of the standards of evidence required by science. Also my sojourn with naturalism has collapsed the 'supernatural' options for me, focusing me on physical nature (as the starting point both for my spirituality as well as the basic scientific datum) rather than abstract notions of many supernatural realms and levels of reality. In practice naturalism has led me away from theologising and creating intellectual 'castles in the air' toward the most basic form of mysticism - the numinous experience of the forces and ways of nature.

My debates with naturalism have rid  me of much of my earlier 'neo-platonism' except that I remain philosophically inclined to belief in a transcendent absolute 'source' of all things, that I may also refer to obliquely as the Infinite. Speculatively such a reality must be forever nameless and without concrete conceptualisation including any personification, but of course  I am thinking still in terms of the high mysticism of the Platonic 'One', the Brahman, the Eternal Tao etc. You see I could never fully embrace atheism, and have settled for an open minded agnosticism about the existence of a transcendent (beyond space and time) supreme being. My philosophical inclination to belief in such a reality or ground of reality  (an inclination that does not warrant the certainty implied by saying it is a belief) is supported in my mind by the logical need for a 'necessary being' and 'first cause', and again certain emotional and intuitive experiences. The theology I am inclined toward then is still very much conceived in terms of a practical pagan deism ( a deity that does not intervene in nature from outside disrupting normal processes) and process philosophy ( physical nature is itself the manifestation of  the creative power/being of the transcendent absolute in eternal procession). This theology also asserts that the divine is both 'One' and 'Many'.

As I said these 'mere' inclinations are not my 'beliefs'. From the point of naturalistic epistemology, they are unproven and uncalled for conceptions. However that I have these inclinations mean there remains a very large 'wedge' in the 'door' of my mind, leaving it very open to more traditional theistic belief. Being a dogmatic stance by definition, atheism insists any moves toward theism is still chasing delusion. I don't accept that atheistic view, at least I don't accept it can be held with anything like dogmatism. While I always doubt, and question, even my doubt, as well as my belief, must be held 'lightly'. Surely anything else is hubris, of which the gods are not particularly fond I hear...

 I have discovered that only a very strong open minded sympathy for animistic, and theistic beliefs is necessary to be part of the pagan community - a community that fortunately is immensely tolerant, and undogmatic, as long as the favour is returned. Returning to my initial comments, it is this open mindedness based on not just an emotional  and aesthetic sympathy but also a genuine philosophical inclination, a willingness to believe as it were, that continues to bind me personally to pagan/ druidry. If we close the philosophic door by insisting on a strict naturalism, then I think we also practically speaking close the door on being part of that tradition of native (but ever evolving) spirituality that is druidry.

A concluding triad...

Those who accept they don't know may learn, but those who insist they know already, will not learn. Those without a willingness to learn, how are they so sure they know?


Recently I have found myself reading a lot about the history and archaeology of South Wales, particularly my own area 'Gwent' formerly known as Monmouthshire.  As usual my interest has been drawn to accounts of the ancient and early medieval history,  particularly accounts of the ancient Silurian 'Tribe' of South Wales. Our knowledge of these people is sketchy, though they are mentioned by a number of Roman writers. What we can be certain of is that though most of southern and eastern Britain sucumbed to conquest quickly in the the First Century,  as soon as the Romans entered South Wales they encountered many years of fierce resistance from a Celtic people who lived between the rivers Twyi and Wye, in South Wales. The Romans called these people the 'Silures'. Eventually in a policy of pacification the Silures were offered their own Roman Town/Market place, called Venta Silurium, and the ruins of this Roman City are still there in modern Caerwent.  Interestingly the Latin name 'Venta' lived on in the name of the Early Medieval Welsh Kingdom of Gwent. At Venta Silurium tribal elders were probably given some form of semi-autonomy over local affairs, but always under the watchful gaze of the Romans, who stationed an entire Legion - at least 5,000 men at arms, not far away at Isca (modern Caerleon). Prior to this forced or voluntary urbanisation (one suspects the former) the Silures created many hill forts in the last few centuries B.C. Prior to the Roman invasion, the Silures were unlikely to have had any kind of central political authority, but probably existed as a loose confederation of clans and kindred based around small agricultural and pastoral units, using the forts for temporary defence or perhaps cultural purposes. They almost certainly shared a common language, culture and religion
What was their religion? We can only guess it had much in common with that of other Brythonic peoples prior to the coming of Christianity. Their 'pagan' religion would have included the usual intellectual/priest caste of druids, seers and bards, and would undoubtedly have been polytheistic/animistic.
 The archaeological evidence at Caerwent includes a shrine to Mars Lenus Ocelus. It was the custom of the Romans to engage in religious syncreticism, associating members of their pantheon with local deities. Mars was of course the Roman war God, Lenus was a Gaullish deity, and Ocelus...well the guess is, this was a Silurian deity. With little other evidence available, the fact the Romans associated Ocelus with Mar indicates that he has attributes similar to that deity in the Religio Roman, but we don't know what 'aspect' of that deity.  Other intriguing archaeological evidence has suggested that the local inhabitants venerated a cat god or perhaps cats generally. Finally at the Roman Temple Complex at Lydney on Seven, one of the dedications is to Nodens, a well known Celtic God, associated  in inscriptions at Lydney with the Roman God Mars again and also Mercury, but the archaeology suggests his devotees perceived him as associated with sea faring and also with healing