Knowledge, Understanding, and Anti-Colonialism

I am an anti-colonialist and anti-racist. This is a life commitment I have made and, though like all people raised in a culture steeped in white supremacy and racism it is hard work to try to get beyond them, it is joyful work, even when it is hard.

If you view the world through an Atheopagan lens, it becomes pretty evident that colonialism, capitalism and their resultant white supremacy and genocidal engagements with other cultures have been disasters for both the Earth and for its so-successful species, humanity, and have created tremendous suffering for those colonial empire has not valued.

As such, I take listening to marginalized voices very seriously, which has led me on a growth journey that I value deeply. And that’s what I want to talk about here.

I recently attended a fantastic workshop at The Gathering Paths conference in San Jose, California, about de-colonizing Pagan traditions of the European diaspora (in other words, Euro-Paganism, which is what most members of the Pagan communities of the US and Europe practice). The workshop was led by Kanyon CoyoteWoman Sayers-Roods and Liam Harwyn.

A guidance sheet developed by the presenters that captures the content of the workshop was distributed, and I will reproduce it here, and then discuss the two places where I diverge from what it recommends.

Here are images of the sheet (I don’t have a scanner, sorry–open images in new tabs for larger type):

This is a terrific set of guidelines and I am truly grateful to Kanyon and Liam for their labor in creating them. They give me much to think about and work to assimilate.

There are, however, a couple of places where I think they are incomplete in their thinking.

The first is around industrialization (in Pt. 3). While industrial capitalism is unquestionably the factor in creating the ecological disasters we are currently struggling to reverse, as someone who relies on medications which can only be created through industrial processes, I think it is short-sighted and ableist to simply dismiss industrialization entirely. Disabled and unwell people throughout the world rely on medications, equipment and procedures which can only arise through industrial processes, and I think this needs to be recognized and considered. The enemy isn’t industry; it is the failure of capitalism to either acknowledge value in anything other than money or to embrace a reciprocal relationship with the Earth such that industry does not do harm.

The second quibble I have with the guidance relates to Pt. 5: “We respect and embrace uncolonial ways of knowing. Ways of thinking, beliefs and practices that are not approved by ‘western science’ are numerous, diverse and valid and may include concepts that directly challenge ‘western’ assumptions and beliefs.”

As a naturalist Pagan, I feel this fails to recognize that there is an objective Universe which exists whether or not we have opinions or beliefs about it. The Earth does go about the Sun, and not vice-versa; nor is the Sun a flaming chariot, nor were mountains thrown up by gods or riven by their smiting power.

The philosophical movement postmodernism, which has deeply informed much anti-colonial theory, tends to go overboard with the idea that there can be no certainty: that “all beliefs” or “all knowledge” are valid. But just as white supremacy is not valid, so the idea that there are no facts or that it is impossible to know them is a fallacious suggestion which is demonstrably untrue.

I think that drawing a distinction between knowing and understanding would be helpful here. Knowing relates to facts, and the scientific method of experimentation and trial and error–which has been used by indigenous people all over the world for hundreds of thousands of years, not just by western colonial powers–has proved to be the best way we have found for learning facts about our world and Universe.

What is known is not the same as what is believed, however fervently. Just as when theists say they “know” that their gods are real, what they are really saying is that they want and believe them to be real very strongly.

Knowing requires more: it requires evidence.

But understanding is about meaning and wisdom, not facts: it IS, in fact, about belief. From the standpoint of understanding, we can learn volumes about how to relate to the Sacred and to those physical phenomena of the Universe from indigenous and non-colonial perspectives. Science does nothing to assess or address meaning, nor values or wisdom–which is why it has been possible for biased and poorly-methoded science sometimes to be used to harm marginalized people.

The perspectives of the marginalized have much to teach us, and we must listen.

For an excellent exploration of integrating indigenous and scientific perspectives, I recommend the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass.

Anti-racism and anti-colonialism are lifelong journeys. We learn, we try, we make mistakes, we acknowledge them, apologize and learn some more, and we carry on. These are complex and chewy questions and we must grapple with them. I am deeply grateful to Liam and Kanyon for their work, for the workshop and for the opportunity to learn from them.

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