23.439281 degrees – that’s the reason for the season. Or rather, it is because of it that we started to promote symbolic and ultimately religious meaning to the path of the sun across the sky. It is an astronomical event co-opted by just about every religion that emerged north of the 23rd parallel, if not worldwide.
The returning of the sun was marked in Rome as Sol Invictus with the co-occurring festivals of Brumalia and Saturnalia. The Christians would later fold those holidays together to mark the Nativity as the birth of light in the world. Even Hanukkah, a decidedly more recent Jewish holiday entered as the 25th of Kislev likely because of the popularity of the winter solstice festivals among Hellenized Jews.
While Islam overlooks the solstice because of its use of a lunar calendar; Yalda night is still marked by Persians with feasting, gatherings, and poetry readings. The solstice is celebrated as the Dōngzhì festival (冬至) in China, as the Korochun among Slavic peoples, and Sanghamitta Day in Theravada Buddhism. The Kagura dance in Shinto revives Amaterasu, the sun goddess at this time of year. And, the longest night and returning sun was and is marked by the first nations and native peoples of North America.
I think there is a twofold objective behind these memes, and both are important. The first is a desire for truth and the second is a desire for legitimacy. They fold together at Yule, when we collectively attempt to proclaim a status as a minority faith, reminding everyone of the interconnected nature of all faiths and calling out historical revisionism to favor one religious perspective over another.
But the returning sun also informs the world that we have turned an astronomical corner, and the growing swell of darkness will now begin receding. It legitimates through a solar display that we live on a planet with a natural world offering continuing revelation around us. It also legitimates the (apparently) uniquely human capacity to understand and predict our world through science and the search for truth, while informing the spirit that the balance between forces is renewed and reasserted.
This year, the conjoining of spirit and reason exposes an imbalance. This season is particularly poignant because we now live in the aftermath where reason failed. Some writers are calling it “post-truth:” a reality where, both in politics as well as social discourse, belief is more important than facts. Moreso, that regardless of our level of expertise on a matter, we can call into question not only the veracity of any evidence but also the reality of whether the evidence exists.
This idea promotes belief not as a frame for reality, but as reality; where belief is not a spiritual understanding of the immanent world around us, but rather that the immanent world is subordinate to our belief. We justify that subordination in a variety of troubling ways including responding to questions of science and the presentation of evidence with logical fallacies about respecting opinions. Frankly, I think, this is a Pagan issue and a serious call to arms: we have real skin in the game.
At best, this thinking is medieval, not the best of times in our Pagan past.
The world of evidence is the immanent world of nature. Confounding opinion and evidence echo the “horse’s teeth” parable (often attributed to Francis Bacon and itself somewhat of a scientific urban legend). In the story, young Christian monks argue for days over the number of teeth in a horse’s mouth by referencing “evidence” from Aristotle and trying to derive the number from scripture or the works of other “virtuous pagans.”
One sensible monk, however, suggests they look inside the mouth of an actual horse and count the number of teeth. He is attacked and expelled from his order because he accepted Satan’s temptation to learn from the world around him. He disgraced himself by learning from the natural world and looking to it for knowledge.
This particular Yule season, for me, is raising the question of balance between belief and reason. There is no dearth of stuff we cling to based on stories and belief. For example, there’s no such thing as a sugar rush. There is hyperglycemia (excessive sugar in the blood) and hypoglycemia (extremely low blood sugar), but no sugar rush: it’s a placebo effect. There is no evidence that excessive sugar leads to hyperactivity and, yes, there is plenty of science, such as double-blind trials to back up that statement. Here you go.
Regardless, it should be fairly clear it doesn’t exist by eating a candy bar at work and still not wanting to work. But if you caution someone — especially children — about getting a sugar rush before eating cookie, then they’ll get a “sugar rush.” It just won’t be related to the sugar.
While we’re at it, there is no evidence of a causal relationship between MSG (monosodium glutamate) and headaches. Despite decades of anecdotal claims along with histrionic gyrations and even interpretative dances about the effects of that deadly substance, there is little actual evidence as accumulated from controlled studies to reveal a causative effect. Here’s coverage: Thing 1 and Thing 2.
There’s other stuff that probably does not exist as well. At the top of that list is the non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The scientific team that suggested that this problem is real, now says it isn’t. Here’s the story; here’s the science. That doesn’t mean one can’t have a gluten-free diet, but it does likely mean is that such diets are a matter of choice, perhaps even with a little marketing to help that choice along.
I could go on.
There is a seemingly endless flood of things we have chosen to believe, and belief is what it is. We’re even disposed to keep believing in these things, and often we find the correcting of our beliefs irritating. But, when accumulated evidence is to the contrary, we have a responsibility to embrace it, as unpleasant as it may be to accept.
I think we can lead the way on doing just that, and I think that the Pagan community has a special role to play especially now as reason fails. We do not inherit a tradition of contemptus mundi, or asceticism or detachment. We do not have a singular focus on a mystical otherworld for which we must prepare, and one that may even be more important than this one. Our peace and tranquility are as much attached to the present condition as they are to a numinous, transcendent space. We are concerned with the state of our natural world, as well as the quality of our society. We are concerned about justice in all forms for all inhabitants of our planet whether now or in the future, human or otherwise.
Furthermore, we collectively embrace the lucidity of science in a manner very different to many other people of faith. Just as those memes from earlier suggest, we value independent thought, and we have been the targets of violence for it. But most importantly, our relationship with nature is vastly different and continues to inform us. We are good with an immanent world and immanent gods.
Nature softly speaks to us through spirit and through science, and I think the question has now become: How comfortable are we to trust those whispers? The returning light of the solstice may have spiritual insights for us, but it is also deeply rooted in the moment and in immanence. The rise in the denial of evidence is now pandemic, even to the point that justifying ignorance is socially acceptable.
The solstice exposes opinion and fact, just as it exposes spirit and science. We can debate what the solstice means, but we cannot rationally debate that it is happening.
This particular Yule is a little different. The returning sun is cutting through the darkness of ignorance and fear. It is uttering a special call in defense of the planet, and in defense of reason. Because this time, there are new monsters; and they are giving trophies for being stupid.
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