Friday, January 3, 2014

Pagan Blog Project: A is for Academic Approach

To begin, let's see how the word is defined in general:

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, academic means:
  1. relating to education and scholarship.
  2. not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest.
As an academic myself, I half-agree with the first and almost entirely disagree with the second. In my opinion, this is a bright example why even dictionaries need to be taken with a grain of salt. Someone recently told me "dictionaries reflect word usage - not the opposite". In other words, we don't use a word a certain way because the dictionary tells us so; rather, the dictionary includes a definition because that's how people use the word.

"Academic" can refer to the level of higher education: books written for professors and/or university students are academic books, for example. It can also refer to scholarly knowledge, research and informational approach. An academic study of religion - what interests us in this case - is the properly organised, properly sourced study that reflects the research methodology most oft-employed in higher education. Using the word as a noun we can refer to someone who's a member of an educational institution (like a college or university professor) or field (usually researchers in any field).

My disagreement with the second definition of "academic" - and the main focus of this post - is that it's reflective of the misconceptions of the general public (and, thus, a great portion of the wider Pagan community/ies): that the academic approach is useless.

It really isn't. An academic approach (in our case, to religion) can enrich us with much knowledge and help us separate the wheat from the chaff. In other words, it does wonders to disillusion us, to dispel half-truths and superficial nonsense as well as sharpen our minds and critical thinking skills. Our practices become better and more well-informed, our knowledge broadens and we become more thorough and focused in our pursuits. By utilising the tools of the academic approach, we can refine our own religious study and make it much more efficacious.
Although the academic approach is, indeed, theoretical, it doesn't mean it has no practical use or relevance. I doubt anyone would say that the theses and papers on medicine, electronic engineering or environmental sciences are not practically relevant or useful. The academic approach informs the practical - you rarely have advanced practice or complex practical application of any concept without academic study preceding it.

What does this have to do with Paganism specifically though?

The various Pagan religions have a host of issues that can be addressed and dealt with the academic approach. From faulty history to a lack of theology and from confusing ethics to half-baked philosophy (not to mention things like plagiarism, bad writing etc), there are countless problems that could be mitigated, if not outright solved, if more people were aware of and used the academic approach, at least to an extent.

There's another important reason as well. Most of the various Pagan religions are, to a certain degree, reconstructionist or revivalist systems. They depend on the past and the ancient religions, one way or the other, to shape their present. It is nigh impossible to study the ancient religions non-academically. This is a necessary sacrifice that we must make, at least in our generation, so those that come after us can find a more complete system. Of course, any active religion that lives, grows and evolves, will never really stop requiring further study and analysis, so the need for the academic approach will never truly die out. However, it will be much less needed in the future if we do the work today.

The Hellenic religion, for instance, does not have reputable non-academic sources a prospective follower can study in order to learn the religion. All of us are forced, in varying degrees, to study academic sources and attain a scholarly level of involvement with the religion. Failure to do so usually results in faulty understanding of the lore, misrepresentation of the deities and spirits, mistaken (and even offensive) practices and a system that can considerably deviate from a Hellenic character.

In any case, there's no need to get overly academic in our religions (unless we want to, of course!). However, it is imperative that we become more organised and well-informed. Pagan religions are still very new and if they're left to get (or remain, as the case might be) flooded with the mud of misinformation and nonsense, they will never have a proper position amongst world religions nor provide a fullfilling and valid experience to their followers.

My friend, Sarduríur, has an excellent guide for those unversed in the academic method; it can be found here.

My advice is: ask questions, maintain a critical POV (instead of simply an open mind), cross-reference and study. No one's perfect and no one knows everything but proper study can give you a pretty good idea of what and how much you (do and don't) know.

Next week, we'll discuss some specific uses of the academic approach in relation to some of the problems of Paganism we already mentioned.


  1. I think you touched upon a key note here - critical thinking! Very nice post =)

  2. Indeed! Critical thinking is an amazing tool and one often lacking in spirituality of many different kinds. Too often people defer to their emotional desire to see aspects of our traditions their own way without any substantial evidence or research behind their claims or any fundamental understanding of what might have made things a particular way in a particular tradition or practice.

  3. This pretty much nails why I study a lot... thanks for sharing!