Column: Empirical Meets Spiritual: the Intersection of Science and Paganism

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In April, scientists and supporters in cities across the United States marched in a unified protest. “In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery,” states the March for Science website, “can we afford not to speak out in its defense?” Pagans across the country joined scientists, whether in spirit or in the flesh, and supported the march.

[Wikimedia Commons].

This demonstrates a general support for scientific work in the Pagan community, yet that support can take different forms depending on one’s particular spiritual practice. The Pagan umbrella is large, and the practices that claim space beneath it are diverse; each practitioner has a different relationship with the scientific community. This can vary based on your beliefs, your professional life, and your understanding of scientific inquiry.

Airmid Plantwalker, a Temple of Witchcraft high priestess from Texas, worked as a research nurse for almost 40 years. “I was taught to question everything,” says Plantwalker, “and apply the scientific method to problem-solving.” For her, “science and magick are often the same thing.” She explains that “we were given a sense of wonder and curiosity by our creator in order to investigate and answer the questions of the world around  us.”

Author Devin Hunter sees his relationship similarly. “One of the core tenets in my practice is a belief that the literal universe (space, time, matter, energy, etc.) is a being known as the Star Goddess,” he explains. “My religious practices are all about trying to understand my place within this being as well as my relationship to this being as possible.” Hunter goes on to say, “Science is a major part of how I am able to do this and I think of it as concomitant to spirituality. I look to science for inspiration. . . . When I look at the data coming back from Kepler, I see God in the numbers and in those photos. When science confirmed global warming it let me know as a spiritual person that I needed to step up my game and take action.”  

Other Pagans have a very different take on the place science fits into their practice. Lupa,  a naturalist Pagan from Oregon, holds no supernatural beliefs. “My path,” she explains, “is shaped by science and direct observation,” and “sacred acts include those that are in service to the planet and all its beings.” For her, science and spirituality are “inextricably entwined.” Her path is one of “direct contact with the natural world, without filters or anthropocentric biases,” because for her, “it wasn’t until I discarded all the tools and trappings” of magickal practice “and finally immersed myself in the soil and the ferns and the winds that I realized, ‘Ahhh. There it is.’”

Blogger John Halstead practices an archetypal form of Paganism based largely on the work of Carl Jung and David Abram. Halstead explains, “I feel a profound and abiding sense of wonder and reverence when I contemplate the evolution of the universe and of biological life described by science.” For him, the “Great Story” of the evolution of the universe “functions…like religious myth, but one that happens to be literally true,” making it “a narrative that orders my world, helps me understand my place in it, shows me how to live a meaningful life, and enables me to come to terms with my own mortality.”

While it is common for Pagans to have a deep respect for scientific inquiry, that relationship is not without tension. Pagans engage often engage in practices such as magick, reiki, homeopathic remedies, and herbal medicine, which are not supported by the scientific community. Halstead is particularly concerned by this, stating that he is “suspicious of pseudoscience, the misuse of scientific method to justify belief in non-scientific phenomena.” He believes that this kind of scientific misuse is common in the Pagan world. He and Lupa agree, for example, that it is a misuse of science to “invoke quantum physics or chaos theory to justify a belief in practical magic.”

[Wikimedia Commons].

At the same time, Halsted is also “suspicious of ‘scientism,’” which he describes as “when people overestimate the explanatory power of science. An example of this, according to Halstead, “is the mistaken belief that everything which is real is understood by science, and that if it is not understood by science, it must not be real.” In a similar vein, Lupa describes herself as an “I don’t care-ist,” saying that “I am not particularly invested in trying to prove to others that the spirits I work with in rituals are anything more than archetypal beings within my own consciousness.”

“Believe what you want,” says Lupa, “but don’t abuse science in your attempts to legitimize your beliefs. If you want to believe that carrying around a quartz crystal in your pocket will make you healthier, be my guest,” she continues, “just don’t try to say that piezoelectricity is the force that makes the crystal ‘magical.’” That, she explains, “displays a fundamental ignorance.”

For Hunter, when his science and spirituality do not match, he “look[s] at it as another mystery.” He uses the term “preternatural” to describe his experiences as a witch, medium, and occultist. “Unlike supernatural,” he says, this means that, “even though we may not have the ability to understand it scientifically at the moment, we one day will.” When he practices reiki with clients, for example, Hunter says that “I explain it from a folk perspective,” and makes no medical or scientific claims.

Plantwalker, a nurse, worked for an institution which conducted empirical research on practices such as reiki, but she shows caution with these types of research.  “After all,” says Plantwalker, “how does one measure pain? It’s subjective by nature.”

“The occult is for people who like a good existential mystery,” says Hunter.

In the current political climate here in the United States, scientists need allies. Many feel under attack, and many Pagans have stepped forward to become a part of their cause. “The scientific community needs all of the support they can muster right now,” says Plantwalker. “Research has historically been heavily funded by government agencies, and without that support we stand to lose substantial ground in the areas of medical, environmental, and other pressing issues that will negatively affect everyone in the U.S.A.”


There does need to be caution in that support, however. Lupa states that the community needs “to make science a central part of our understanding of our world and our path,” which should start with, “more emphasis on the actual physical beings and phenomena in nature that are behind its symbols and archetypes.” She advises Pagans who support science to watch documentaries, get into the dirt and understand plant life and gardening, and to “get to know your bio-region in detail.”

In the same vein, Halstead cautions that “the first thing we need to do is to start distinguishing legitimate science from pseudoscience” and “stop taking Paganism as a license to believe whatever we want.”

Hunter, however, notes that the Pagan and scientific communities “have a lot of common ground right now.” He also cautions against utilizing pseudoscience, stating that, “this dilutes the potency of scientific findings and really isn’t a far cry from building an ark in Kentucky,” yet he advises to stand with science “out of common concern,” for “if science is not allowed to be science then we are doomed as a species.”

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.