Retraction and What Pagans Want to Know

This week on This American Life, one of my favorite NPR podcasts (go subscribe now), their entire hour-long episode is titled Retraction. Here's the description of the episode from their website:

We've discovered that one of our most popular episodes contained numerous fabrications. This week, we detail the errors in Mike Daisey's story about visiting Foxconn, which makes iPads and other products for Apple in China. Marketplace's China correspondent Rob Schmitz discovered the fabrications.
Ira also talks with Mike Daisey about why he misled This American Life during the fact-checking process. And we end the show separating fact from fiction, when it comes to Apple's manufacturing practices in China.

As with many things, I immediately began to think about this kind of retraction on a bigger scale. And then, of course, on a smaller, pagan-flavored scale.

This is not the first retraction of its kind, nor will it be the last. Fact-checkers miss things all the time. The HBO film Game Change spends time talking about how fact checkers missed a host of rather important information regarding the vetting of Sarah Palin. Oprah Winfrey and her eponymous book club went through nearly an identical controversy to the one currently being experienced by Ira Glass and This American Life when she promoted the book A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. The book turned out to be mostly fiction yet was sold as fact.

There's a problem when we sell fiction as fact. Part of it is the feeling of the buyer of the information feeling duped, and another part is the person doing the selling is made out to look like a total fraud, a charlatan. If there were ever any fact or lesson to be learned from their book or movie or art installation or whatever, it's utterly drowned by their lie. Frey's A Million Little Pieces might still have worked as a harrowing look at addiction, and it still might have made Oprah's Book Club, and it still might have helped millions of people, but now it's tainted. And all the people that felt helped or bettered by having read his book feel stupid for believing this man.

I recently saw the movie Super Size Me. I know. I'm behind. Mea Culpa and all that. There's a point in the film where Subway's spokesman Jared was talking to a bunch of people about how he got really skinny because he ate a bunch of Subway sandwiches back in the 90's. Then, flash to a scene with an overweight mother/daughter duo, and the daughter is saying she'd love to lose weight but she doesn't have the money to eat Subway every single day. This girl was sold a lie. It's great that Jared ate some Subway sandwiches and went on to exercise and eat right and become a millionaire for telling his story over the past couple of decades, but his story is not typical and it's not what any dietician would tell you is a good way to be healthy.

The term 'truthiness' was first coined by Stephen Colbert on his show The Colbert Report in 2005, though it has appeared in similar forms in the past. The word means "a quality characterizing a "truth" that a person claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts."

As a pagan, I feel doubly duped when it comes to truthiness, alleged facts passed off as unquestioned truth because they strike the right emotional cords. However, I find that inside our community not everyone is upset about Truthiness. Some of my biggest, most controversial topics - both on the blog and on the podcast - regard the idea of truthiness, and I've gotten a wide range of responses from our community.

Most recently, my article A Pagan Excuse for an Article was lauded as wonderful, needed, and a fantastic reminder that we need better research in our community. It was in regards to an article on Witch Vox that was purported to be a factual history of Easter, yet contained nearly no facts at all. It was full of truthiness. Things that sounded like they should be true, because they sound like some of the other truthy facts permeating our community. Things like the "Law" of Attraction, which I took on in my article Where's MY Money Tree?. That article was met with mixed to negative reactions. I got people telling me that I was an utter moron to ever doubt this 'Law', despite every bit of evidence pointing to it being mostly bunk. I've taken on Margaret Murray and her recount of what is known as The Burning Times in my article The Burning of Margaret Murray. I was derided at the time for daring to present numbers and non-pagan scholarship. How dare I take this away from our community? How dare I try and pin down a number or take away the factual historical ancient witch cults - that for some reason nearly replicate modern Wicca - or poke any holes at all in any of these theories? How dare I?

And this is where I find my spot on the wall and begin beating my head against it until the confusion is replaced by blinding pain. Few other communities in the world actively choose truthiness. Yet, in 2012, our community is still embracing a set of information that sounds as though our "ancestors" were involved in a Saturday afternoon witchy spin-off of Xena. Real witches that were hiding their real witchy practice that is exactly like modern Wicca in plain sight so that they could avoid the public burnings of hundreds of thousands of their sister witches. We like to believe that various sites around the world were, indeed, for our ancient witchy ancestors, despite many of them probably not being so. I've heard podcasters in our community say, "I don't care what any historian says, because when I was there I just knew it was an ancient site for witches/pagans/Goddess worshippers/etc."

Believe me, I am the biggest science fiction, comics nerd on the planet. If there is someone on television or in a movie doing magic or using their mutant powers, I'm probably not only watching it, but I probably have all the seasons on DVD or Blu-Ray, and I've memorized them word for word. (Partner will attest to the veracity of these claims.) If anyone out there wishes that we hailed from ancient super people on the isle of Atlantis, it's me. If anyone out there wishes we all came from an ancient lineage of witches that have practices going directly back to neolithic times, it's me. If there's anyone that wants the Great Pagan Story to be real, it's me. But it's not. And, I have to accept that.

Moving from there, however, there's a greater issue of clarity that needs to be addressed when it comes to truthiness in religion. There are a few different kinds of truthiness, and they should be noted:

  • Mythology - The truthy accounts of how the world came into being and why things are the way they are. Why do rivers move the way they do? There's a myth for that. Why do we die? There's a myth for that. Mythology, in large part, is accepted as allegory. They are stories that explain the natural world, and they came about in a time that we needed them. We didn't understand that the sun doesn't actually rise, but that the earth revolves around the sun and in doing so it appears that the sun rises. Allegory makes the act of believing exciting, but it doesn't supersede the facts of the matter. One can both believe in science, in the big bang and evolution and gravity and such, and still tell the myths of the great ice licking cow in Norse mythology that helped to create the world. Mythology makes us human, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. Why do the seasons change? There's a myth for that, but there's also a science for that, and they can work hand in hand.
  • History - Fuzzy accounts of what happened, where it happened, why it happened, when it happened, how it happened, and who it happened to. This is one of the types of truthiness that I spoke about above - at length - and the kind that grinds my gears more than any other. The shades of pagan that we like to paint on top of historical events or individuals that nobody else can see but us. This extends to any time a fact is colored and skewed and changed into a truthy pagan 'fact'. 
  • Magic/Faeries/Gods/etc. - Does magic exist? Do the fae exist? Do the gods exist? This is where we can make our leaps of faith, like any other religion. Like any other group of worshippers on the planet, we, too, get to make leaps of faith. Does it matter if no fact can prove whether you have a relationship with a divine being called Zeus or Fox or the Morrigan or Kali? As long as you're not hurting anyone, including yourself, no. It doesn't. Now, if your god-in-a-box tells you to burn things or kill someone or pluck out your eyes in the middle of your church service, then you might need help. Otherwise... This is part of being human that is awesome. We get to see beyond the veil. This is part of being pagan that is even more awesome. We get to dance with faeries. We get to sing songs while Apollo plays lyre and Pele dances the hula. 
Out of all the times when fact and fiction meet, the only time I have a problem with it is when fiction is said to be fact. Because, being lied to isn't fun. Because, if I have a teacher who is telling me all the secrets of magic and of the universe and of our pagan history, and then I open a history book and find out some of what I was told is a total fabrication.... I distrust that teacher, and then I wonder what else was a total fabrication. 

When we sell fiction as fact, we discredit ourselves. When I say that I saw terrible things happen at an Apple factory, just like in the This American Life retraction, and I never saw those things, the story loses all value. Any positive effect that story might have had - bettering working conditions, increasing wages, etc. - is gone, because of my lie. 

If I say that I worked my butt off filling out applications and going on interviews in addition to doing a job spell, and then I got a job, it leaves a little magic in our lives. It's beneficial. It's powerful, and it can be good for our psyche. If I pray to the divine to help me with a problem, it can be cathartic. Studies show that prayer and meditation is very good, psychologically speaking. Whether there's someone on the other end of the line doesn't matter factually, because there is a good there. 

However, what happens to all that good when it's mixed in with truthiness? When we claim facts that are actually fiction? When we teach the next generation something that we refuse to acknowledge science, history, and modern findings have shown to be untrue? 

Does Paganism get a retraction? 

Because, a lot of us left our former religions to come to this path because we felt lied to. Because much of what was being taught wasn't actually true. Because historians cannot corroborate the events in the Bible, that was beaten into our brains as undisputed factual truth with all this truthy "science" to back it up. Yet, we find the same thing here. 

Beliefs are fine. They're good. They're needed, and they're part of the joy of life. I don't care what science says about whether there is a god. I don't need a textbook telling me about the afterlife. But, I believe that we can be believers and knowers. We can know a thing to be true or untrue and accept that. Knowing the Law of Attraction isn't a law and is mostly crap doesn't mean the Goddess is any less real. 

So, when someone like me calls for more facts for more science for more history for more psychology in our Pagan community, know that it doesn't mean we want magic to disappear or for the gods to go into hiding. It means that we want a fully aware community. A community that accepts things as they are and can still see the magic. A community without retractions. 

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte


  1. You make great points here. I wish the entire pagan community would read this and 'get' it.

  2. Thank you. As a Pagan archaeologist I really get peeved when others just "know" the facts about how a certain artifact was used "magically" and all I can say is"it was found in a layer associated with that time frame, but cannot be accuraly dated so it really is not able to be known". I wish pagans would look at what they believe to be eir history and let what we actually know about our pasts slap them in the face. I guess we can't all believe the Earth's 10000 yrs old.

  3. Every time I read a comment or a blog post about paganism in general, and witchcraft specifically, many of these same thoughts meander through my brain. To try to assert on a blog, or on Facebook, or in a conversation or chat that these "truths" are not "truths" only leaves me frustrated. It is akin to urban legends, and I have resigned myself to this. Snopes and Museum of Hoaxes are two fantastic websites for at large fact-checking. Too bad there is not a similar database for religions. I do not want to dispel or belittle anyone's beliefs. But honesty within a religious context is important. As you have stated, there is nothing wrong with faith. The problem lies in using misinformation and poor scholarship to build up, or tear down a belief. The ones that irk me the most are the ones that use cultural appropriation to justify bigotry and elitism yet they still cry the loudest when they are subjected to the eagle eye of verification. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and a lot of false knowledge can be fatal. Strong reliable scholarship exists, why is it not utilized?

  4. You, keep talking. I am currently leading two witches through a year and a day of learning and reading and responding to this (to me, and I hope to you) will be included in the homework of the History section upcoming.
    Cozy (friend of Rommey)

  5. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!! This has been my problem with being pagan
    Don't get me wrong; I love this path more than anything. I feel I was called to it, and I consider it home. And yes, I am a science major as well. (marine biology/ minor Ichthyology) But why do we have to disregard science and truth and a little logic? From my experience, some of the truest things are the most magickal. I've been tinkering with Buddhism as of late and am really impressed with their communities willingness to look at the truth and work WITH can talk about evolution, the big bang, molecular biology AND spirits and Goddesses with that group and they don't even bat an eye- they just give you really great conversatation. I wish we could have that same honest fluidity in our community. It's ok to not have a definitive past or history. It's ok to not have all of the answers. Clinging to dishonest history is what gives a lot of religions a bad name- lets not make the same mistake.

  6. AMEN BROTHA MAN!!! Trying to hold on to the sanity in this religion is getting increasingly difficult because of truthiness. I love the word but have an almost uncontrollable urge to slap people who equate it with actual truth. Hugs to you and have a FABULOUS OSTARA!!

  7. Amazing article. One of your best!

    I agree wholeheartedly—although I am learning that its also important not to go too far the other direction. I too, was totally devastated upon entering this community when I discovered—almost simultaneously—the proposed "super secret world of ancient witchcraft hidden in plain sight amidst all the burning corpses of women because we were so persecuted" and the myth-busting historical accounts that render the aforementioned mythos moot. I felt so betrayed to have been lied to by sources that I trusted (and I was someone who was really, really careful with my sources), that I stopped reading pagan studies entirely for awhile. I also automatically rejected any mention of the Burning Times or its ilk for years afterward, to the point where I practically denied the existence of such events entirely. It took awhile for the pendulum to swing back to a balanced point, and I now think differently about these issues.

    History is not static. Wait for it. History is constantly being re-examined, re-investigated, re-interpreted, and re-told to a new generation. If you look over the historical "coverage" regarding the burning times (lowercase b and t), you will find some incredibly confusing accounts, some of which are mutually exclusive. Depending on the region, the time, the context of the event (and the bias or perspective of the historical investigator), the attitudes and conclusion can range as far wide as "OMG conspiracy theory galore!" to "Ho-hum, so a few people got killed...relatively speaking, it was no big thang."

    History, like everything, is the result of (varying) interpretations of the available facts. I now wonder if it's important NOT to discredit what many of us in this community now consider to be a conspiracy theory known as the burning times. I find that I'm just as skeptical now of the current nonchalant attitude regarding these facts, as I used to be of the outrage over the false "9 million." No genocide should be ever considered matter how small the group. I also caution our support in this "meh" attitude just because the event was formerly wrought with misinformation from our side.

    I try to temper my skepticism with curiosity when it comes to this particular issue now, as I think many are so afraid to be associated with the Murrayites that they automatically turn 180 degrees the other direction. As with anything, you should investigate the historical facts for yourself and make up your own mind. People who believe whatever they're told by the current historical/cultural perspective are just as ignorant as those who believed the former historical/cultural perspective.

  8. For some reason, all this talk of truthiness reminds of the famous Discordian koan. As quoted in the Principia Discordia:

    Greater Poop: Is Eris true?
    Malaclypse the Younger: Everything is true.
    GP: Even false things?
    M2: Even false things are true.
    GP: How can that be?
    M2: I don't know man, I didn't do it.

    You ever want a cure for "excessive truthiness with intent convince"? Read the Principia Discordia. ^_^

    PS: Have you ever considered doing a show/segment on the un-religions and their deities? Maybe interviewing Discordians, Pastafarians, or members of the Church of the Subgenius? Not only would is provide an interesting counterpoint in your exploration of religions, it has delightfully snarky possibilities.

    1. *it provide. Ugh, I'm pre-caffeinated. Please pretend I have grammar skills...


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