‘Fact’ is a word that gets bandied about without much attention to its meaning. A fact, is something that we can all agree is true. The earth is round, and goes around the sun. The Battle of Hastings happened in 1066. Things that do not require much in the way of interpretation, and which therefore it’s hard to be subjective about.
Then we have theories – ideas which can be substantiated with evidence, but are not wholly certain. Most of science is theory, and every so often something comes along to change how we perceive, and the theories grow. Politics, economics, law – these things all depend on theories too. Anything about trying to organise the future is theoretical. Any belief position can never hope to be more than theory. We might point at supporting evidence. We might be personally convinced, but there’s plenty of room for others to disagree, and for us to be proved wrong.
Beyond that, is the wonderful realm of fiction, where imagination is king and anything is possible. Speaking as someone who spends much of their life making things up for a living, I know that fiction is often at its best when you lace a few facts in. Draw on some real stuff, some theories, and you ground the imaginative bits and make them seem more plausible. I’m working on a steampunk novel at the moment. My knowledge of period clothing, advertising and thinking allows me to wrap some more believable things around some crazy ideas, and by association, the crazy stuff is that bit easier to swallow. Authors have been doing this ever since there were authors.
Now, when it comes to fiction, the blending of fact, theory and wild imagination is fine. But what about other aspects of human endeavour? We don’t like it much when we catch politicians trying to get crazy things passed us, wrapped up in camouflage sanity. We tend to hate it when journalism weaves mad interpretations in amongst the accurate details. There is an argument that says all religion is applying imagination to the observable facts.
There’s nothing wrong with speculation, even when we’re having serious conversations about the nature of reality or the lessons of history. Speculation leads to theories, and theories lead to a search for evidence, and evidence, sometimes, leads to facts. Not always, but there’s always that possibility. What happens though, when we blend speculation seamlessly with fact? When we don’t bother to mention which bits we have evidence for, and which bits are guesses, or inventions?
It’s so very easy, once opinion is on the table, to have that opinion coloured by assumption and prejudice. If I ‘know’ that all people on benefits are there only because they are too lazy to seek work, then I’m hardly going to approach someone from that background with an open mind. If I ‘know’ that the Bible is literal truth and that pagans are all worshipping Satan, then I am never going to be able to hear otherwise, and no matter what evidence I get, I will filter it through my beliefs and hand it on as Fact. Where this really becomes a problem is if ‘facts’ that are really just ‘professional opinions’ or ingrained prejudice, are allowed to wander out into the world unchallenged, because the next person who runs into them may have no way of knowing what they’re seeing, and may believe it to be true.
There are a lot of people out there who have no understanding that their ‘facts’ are nothing more than a bundle of opinions and prejudices. I entirely defend any person’s right to their opinion, but not their right to believe that it should be unassailable. We should not demand the right to believe that our fiction is true. Very little in this world is actually verifiably, reliably true. Almost everything involving people depends on subjective interpretation and therefore is open to different interpretations. It’s better to assume that you have theories and ideas, not truths.
I could get into an epic rant here about some aspects of what claims to be paganism. I know some of what gets written is the regurgitation of innocently encountered mistakes. I know some of what we do is reaction against the ways in which the mainstream denigrates our ideas. And that, is bloody frustrating, but digging in won’t solve the problem. Paganism does not gift us with a great many facts. We are blessed with all kinds of theories, some of them pretty solid looking, and with a great deal of embarrassing rubbish. The internet is full of it. People claiming authority from ancient whatevers, people banging on about all manner of wild and wonderful things as though they were a literal, unassailable truth, whilst ridiculing the literal Bible brigade. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t change what the majority do, but we can tighten up on our own writing and thinking. We can challenge each other when we make too big claims for ourselves and our history. We can dare to say ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’ rather than ‘it is clearly true that we all came from Atlantis and I am the direct descendent of a dolphin priestess who was taught by aliens.’ (I made that up) As it stands, paganism is no sillier than the vast majority of human endeavour, but we really could improve on that.