Monday, May 12, 2014

Science and Asatru

One of the benefits of Asatru is that it manages, for the most part, to escape the "science vs. religion" debate that so often dogs some Christian, Muslim, and Hindu denominations (as well as others, to a lesser extent).

The essential cause of that friction is that these literalist (often called "fundamentalist") interpretations of religious texts and ideologies are directly contradicted by contemporary science. Creationism (which is just as prevalent - perhaps even moreso - in Islam than it is in Christianity) is flatly contradicted by modern biology, geology, physics, astronomy, etc. Hindu fundamentalists get references to historical eating of beef in ancient times banned, despite archaeological and textual evidence to support it. Indian anti-superstition advocates are assassinated by Hindu fanatics who fear that their precious gurus and swamis who claim superpowers, or pseudosciences such as astrology, will be undermined.

Asatru has its own mythology, and its own creation stories. There are historical accounts of social mores and religious customs. But somehow this doesn't lead to clashes between Asatru and the scientific, historical, or other establishments. Why is that?

Frankly, Asatru is more about presenting a framework for human interaction than making claims about supernatural influence over the world.

Yes, it is entirely true that there are sacrifices to the Gods at specific intervals, but nobody really thinks that the crops won't ripen if the last sheaf of wheat isn't left for Sleipnir. There are folks who practice galdr (rune-magic) and seidr (another kind of magic often erroneously associated with shamanism), but within Asatru such practitioners are in a distinct minority. So specific failures of the magical arts are seen as limited to the practitioner in question, rather than being something that undermines the entire basis of the religion.

On the other hand, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism all make specific claims about history and science which, if disproved, definitively undermine the messages of their respective religions. No original sin in Eden that needs to be atoned for, or resurrection on the cross that does the atoning? Christianity loses a lot of its argument-through-guilt. No Moses and forty years in the desert before the Israelites reach Sinai? Judaism loses a lot of its historical authority.

It should be noted, of course, that there are plenty of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus who are perfectly comfortable with science because they do not require a literal interpretation of their holy books in order to see wisdom in their moral teachings. I don't have to agree with those teachings in order to see that "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a moral precept that can be applied independent of a miraculous creation and resurrection.

Asatru has no "central miracle" (or miracles) that provides the foundation for its authority. And thus, there is no central miracle that can be disproved by science or history to undermine its moral code. Christians who need a Creation in Eden to justify all the other things that Christianity brings are right to be terrified of the overwhelming scientific evidence of evolution; they're still idiots, but one can understand the source of their anxiety. The central core of Asatru doesn't disappear just because astronomy teaches us that there are more than Nine Worlds.

The heart of Asatru is the interaction between individuals. Rituals such as blot and sumbel are as much social occasions that bring the Folk together as they are metaphysical attempts to communicate with the gods and land-wights. The point is that the people who only believe the former don't undermine those who believe the latter as well. It's more about the concepts of honor, and shame, and kinship, and so forth.

You're much more likely to find two Asatruar, who agree on almost nothing else, agreeing that "one should live an honorable life" or "family is the most important thing." That's the heart of the faith, regardless of how it's interpreted and spun out. Those are sentiments that science or history will never undermine. Perhaps therein lies Stephen J. Gould's non-overlapping magisteria. Our religion doesn't claim to be predictive in the scientific sense. It's prescriptive in the moral sense, and doesn't rely on anything other than centuries of tradition to establish its authority.

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