O is for… Objectivity and Ontology (Sociology of Religion In Focus)

Note: This post was slightly edited for clarity this afternoon (19th July 2013). I re-read it, and decided a few things needed rephrasing.

Shh – come close, for I am about to share a secret with you… Are you listening? OK. I often pick up a dictionary when PBP-writing day rolls around. (I’m just not that imaginative.) Well, today, when I went over to the area of my bookshelves where the dictionaries are, I found myself holding my sociological dictionary.

You see, I’d just been reading this piece, published yesterday over at The Wild Hunt. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that The Wild Hunt does a good and important job. It takes current affairs and says ‘How does this affect Pagans?’, and that’s an important question, because we don’t want to end up living in a social bubble, ignorant of what goes on around us that could have an effect on our community (to the extent that we are a community).

Looking for evidence of things that we already believe

However. (You knew there was a ‘however’ coming, didn’t you?) Hidden in this article is one more example of something that we all do – something that we see a lot in Pagan circles. It’s called ‘confirmation bias’. (No, that doesn’t start with an O, but bear with me.) Confirmation bias, in my handy sociology dictionary here, is defined as “a tendency to favor information that confirms preconceptions or hypotheses, regardless of whether the information is true”.[1] And it happens a LOT. The specific type of confirmation bias that you can find in many Pagan sources (blogs, news services, etc) is often what’s called a ‘biased search for information’. When we’re doing this, we look for evidence of things that we already believe, and we discount evidence that could disprove our ideas.

woman looking at painting

Objective perspective?
(Photo CC Denis Defreyne)

Confirmation bias is based around two things: your objectivity, and your ontology. (There are the Os!) Objectivity is a controversial thing in sociology, or in any attempt to analyse social trends. Not everyone sees sociology as a hard science – there are those (like me) who think that it is impossible to be completely objective, completely ‘scientific’, about the social world, because we are part of it. Objectivity is a very good thing to aim for, but we are inevitably unable to reach it. And why?

Our unique perspective on the world

Because of our ontology. Essentially, ontology is about the way we see the world – what do we think happens in the world, and how do we think it happens? That’s our unique perspective on the world. In the case of many Pagans, our view of the world will be very different from that of, say, a Christian, or even a (non-Pagan) atheist. Objectivity has to involve being really aware of how you see the world, and keeping your biases in mind. But that’s a hard, hard thing to do. It’s like being a fish in water – we won’t always be aware of the water. As much as we think we can be objective about, say, the Pagan community, we really can’t. Not completely.

fish in water

Can the fish be objective about the water? Does it even *know* it’s in water?
(Photo CC Jelene Morris)

How a biased perspective can affect your view of, say, religious trends…

Which is where we get into a sticky situation with analyses like The Wild Hunt’s, yesterday. They’re looking at a study of types of religious views – whether people are conservative, moderate, progressive, or non-religious. The data is based on America. (It would look quite different in the UK.) This is the original press release – it shows that 28% of Americans are ‘religious conservatives’, 38% are ‘religious moderates’, 19% are ‘religious progressives’, and 15% are ‘non-religious’. The Wild Hunt talks as though the progressive and non-religious categories are all that matter… but look at the chart.

Religious Orientation measurements from the Economic Values Survey 2013

To me, this survey is interesting, but in itself, not objective. A researcher, somewhere out there, decided who fits into a vague category like ‘conservative’ and who qualifies as more ‘progressive’ – they had categories for each group (see p.26 and pp.31-32 of the original report) which included widely accepted signs of ‘conservationism’ or ‘progressiveness’, like taking religious texts literally or not. Another researcher might have chosen different beliefs as ‘signs’ for these things. So, on religion at least, this research has limited usefulness.

But what surveys like this are good at showing is trends. Which is what The Wild Hunt picked up. A rising number of people seem to be progressive in their religious beliefs, and a smaller rising number are non-religious. (And this seems to vary by age and race, incidentally, which is fascinating – see pp.31-33.) Anyone who follows trends in the Christian community will be aware of this growth in progressive religion. Just think about the increasing number of Christians who don’t believe in hell or who support equal marriage. Progressive Christianity is growing, along with progressive Islam, progressive Judaism, and many other non-conservative religious movements.

What’s the place of non-religion in all this? It’s a smaller group, in America, than any of the other three religious ‘categories’. It’s growing, but not at the pace that it is in much of Europe.

But is it good for the Pagans?!?

This survey doesn’t go into much detail about specific religions or spiritual paths. Which makes The Wild Hunt’s assumption – that this news is ‘good for Pagans’ – an interesting one. It’s all about your interpretation.

As I’ve said before (on the podcast, I think), the rise in non-religion is not necessarily a good thing for Paganism. Or, it might be. Secularism is good for all human beings, in my opinion – but it’s not necessary good for specific religions or spiritual paths.

And I have news for people who might think we would fall into the ‘non-religious’ category (I hear UK Pagans saying this all the time). Officially, we don’t. Most of us would probably be classed, for the purposes of this survey, as religious progressives (though the survey methodology might have trouble with us). And while progressive religion/spirituality is on the rise, so is the kind of atheism that some have called ‘militant’. By which I mean, the kind of atheism represented by Richard Dawkins, who has said that we’re all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in (oh really?!) and that religion is a dangerous collective delusion.

The great things about secularism and humanism

Now, don’t misunderstand my concern about that particular side of atheism. In general, I absolutely love secularism and humanism. I would call myself a humanist, were it not for the fact that I’d be deceiving people by using that label.[2] I think society should be entirely secularist, with religion having absolutely no role in government, education, healthcare, or any other public services – and I think this because I’ve studied sociology of religion and I see how positive secularism can be for societies. Among my favourite podcasts are The Pod Delusion and Oh No, Ross and Carrie – especially when they challenge me to think about, and re-think, and re-think again, my beliefs and assumptions. I read humanist books, and I’ve even been to the occasional Skeptics-in-the-Pub meeting. But I’ll never be able to categorise myself as an atheist (nor would I want to), nor even as a skeptic (I believe in and practice magic, for gods’ sake). And yet I believe in inter-faith tolerance, and that we can exist side-by-side with humanists, Christians, Muslims and Pastafarians. I even co-host a podcast with – *gasp* – a Wiccan! ;) I’m a religious progressive, and so – in my entirely biased opinion – are most (if not all) of the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ people out there. Secularism is my ally, but I’m not entirely sure about atheism yet – not while people like Dawkins lead the way. (If people like Chris Stedman were louder voices in the movement, I’d be happier!)

Three points to take away with you

1. This survey shows an interesting change in the character of religion in American society. But the majority of people in America, according to this study, are religious moderates, followed by religious conservatives. Religious progressives and non-religious people are both minorities here. These groups may be growing, but they have plenty of competition.

2. In my opinion, where there is a rise in non-religion and ‘progressive’ religion, that could be good or bad for Paganism. We just can’t tell yet.

3. We only have even a vague chance at objectivity about a social subject if we closely examine our ontology – our view of the world. Let’s be honest about where we’re coming from, folks. For me, that’s about Integrity.

I’m hoping to write ‘sociology of religion in focus’ posts more often. Been wondering if I need a different blog for them, but at the moment I’m not writing about it enough to justify it. Maybe later!

And my apologies for the very long post. To make up for it, here is a picture of a possessed cat.


Demon Cat. All he wants is to plaaaay…

[1] Actually, my sociological dictionary utterly failed me here, and didn’t have a definition of confirmation bias. This definition was taken from the online Princeton sociological dictionary.

[2] I adored this episode of Mr Deity, but it does make its point.