Critical Reading and Pagan Books

[author’s note: I wrote this essay in 2001, very early on in my serious exploration in the Pagan community. Since then, I’ve had far more group work, finished a Master’s in Library and Information Science, and have had a lot of thoughts about how I might edit and expand the information in this essay. I haven’t done so yet, but want current readers to know that while I still agree with what’s in here, it’s not what and how I’d write the essay today.

If you like this article, you’ll probably like a lot on my Seeking site, especially some of the essays on the Learning More page about research and evaluation of information.]

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How do I know what to believe?
Critical thinking and Pagan books

I’d like to talk about how to critically evaluate the books that you read, and why it is important to do this.

This is particularly complicated when we talk about Pagan books, because many people who write Pagan books and materials are writing about things they’ve experienced, and about a religion or practice in which there are traditionally accepted concepts and a strong oral tradition. Many authors don’t reference where they learned their ideas – or in many cases, they learned it from a teacher, who learned it from another teacher, who learned it from someone else.

That doesn’t mean that this kind of learning (or their experiences) are any less true or valid (or that it’s any less powerful when used in ritual) – but it does make it very difficult to determine what to question or where to find more information. As well, there are times when accuracy of information can be very important, such as in toxic effects of herbs, or other possible dangers.

Why do we want to evaluate the books? Isn’t it enough to just read them?

There are two main reasons: First we’re talking about religion or magickal practice, and both of those deserve a thoughtful reading. Religion, because how we relate to Deities is important – as is being respectful. For magic, this is important because there can be concerns or issues if some things are done improperly (or even, in the case of things like herbal use, possible health problems)

Second, it’s a matter of common sense. There are some good books out there. There are some lousy books. The good books have some not-so-great parts, and the lousy books can have some interesting things to say. Without critical reading, it’s hard to tell which is which. Being an informed and critical reader will help you make connections, question information, and generally think about what you read and how to apply it more deeply.

All right, so we need to think about what we read. What sorts of things should we think about?
The main things you should consider are: Who the author is, where they got their information, how accurate their information is, what their purpose in writing is, and what their tone tells you about how they feel.

Who is the author?

Here, we want to look at the author’s background. Unknown authors can turn out great books (an example might be Jennifer Hunter’s 21st Century Wicca, which is a great introduction to modern Wicca practice in a general sense). Well known authors can write lots of books on vastly different subjects – which can indicate that they may not know some of their topics as well as others. Regardless, knowing about an author’s background and training and experience can help you put their writing in perspective.

If someone is writing about a tradition, is it a tradition they have significant training or experience in? If they are writing a general work, do they have the experience to do so? If they write about leading a coven, have they done that? Not having these experiences isn’t necessarily a problem, but if they don’t have the experience themselves, they should be referring to people who do.

Why do we want to know where they got the information?

First, knowing where they learned the information can help you fit it into a broader context, and compare it to other things you know. Second, it can help you determine whether that information works well for you – if you know they are basing information on a tradition you don’t find as helpful for you or one in which only some parts are helpful to you, or which makes assumptions that don’t work for you, you can make the appropriate changes.

Some examples might be a tradition which focuses on the Goddess more than the balance of God and Goddess, or one which focuses on the heterosexual aspects of the interaction of God and Goddess in ritual – the Great Rite in its various forms. Knowing where the information is coming from can also be particularly important when talking about correspondences and other magickal practices which can vary (sometimes significantly) depending on the source. Mixing these practices is often not advised without caution and careful research and consideration.

Finally, it can help you determine whether or not something fits in with your preferences or moral code. If a book focuses on the heterosexual activity between the God and the Goddess and tells you that homosexual people are missing something, and you’re gay or lesbian (or some other sexual orientation than heterosexual), you may feel more support and inclusion for your choices from a book that talks about multiple ways to relate sexuality and religious practice. While reading things which challenge your beliefs can often be a good thing to do, that doesn’t mean that it always an appropriate time to do so.

How do we know how accurate information is?

One of the easiest things to do is to take a look at whatever book you’re reading, and see what the copyright date is. This information can almost always be found on the back side of the title page except in some older books.

This will give you an idea of when the book was written and published. If the book is more than a year or two old, then there’s a fairly good chance some of the resources and groups listed in it may be defunct or at a different address. If it’s more than five or ten years old, there have most likely been some significant changes in practice and culture. And if a book is over about 20 years old, there’s an excellent chance that a number of social attitudes or approaches to history have changed, and that you should take these into account when reading.

Older books have a lot of value, and may contain valuable information that doesn’t change significantly over time. However, you should check anything relating to current groups, acceptable practices, or anything that changes over time.

In particular, you should double check anything you inhale, drink or apply to your skin in a more up-to-date source first, as medical knowledge can change or there may be specific concerns which apply to you which aren’t mentioned in a general source. (For example, ragweed and chamomile are very similar, and some people who are allergic to ragweed or have allergy induced asthma may react badly to chamomile as well. That’s a good thing to know before you plant or drink it, and is something that’s noted in a number of mainstream medical resources)

You should also check out any factual material (history, specifics of traditions outside the author’s immediate experience). Trusting your instincts can be useful (if you have any strong background in history at all, or even if you don’t.) If something sounds unlikely, check it out in other sources as well, or with people you know who know more about the issue or time period.

At the very least, never take one book as your sole source of information on a subject, and never take two books, one of which is based on the other, as your only sources. Read widely over time, so that you get the best perspective on the available information and evaluation of material.

What they actually say in the book.

What’s the purpose of the book? Is it a general introduction to Witchcraft (as a magickal practice, not a religion?) Is it a general introduction to Neo-Pagan religions? To Wicca? Is it focused on a specific aspect or practice (Tarot, herbs, candles, meditation?) Is it about a specific tradition, someone’s personal practice? Is it aimed at the absolute novice, or at someone who knows the basics? Is it a book of spells and rituals, or is there substantial discussion in there as well?

What is their purpose? Are they presenting purely personal experiences (“Here’s what worked for me.”) or are they providing a general overview? Do they have some agenda (making a particular path more prominent or accessible, aiming at a specific group of readers?) Sometimes authors have a visible bias. Sometimes they have biases which are not so visible. If an author is trying to present a relatively unbiased opinion, you should see an appropriate tone (see the next section) and give references or other people’s statements.

How can authors reference information?

The most complete way to give information about sources is in footnotes or end notes. (Footnotes are at the bottom of the page, end notes are at the end of each chapter or sometimes at the end of the book.) Sometimes, sources are given more casually, with a parenthetical reference to a well known work or one previously referenced more fully. These give more specific information on where you can go to read more on where that information came from. This is the method that is used in any academic book or article.

Some authors give a suggested reading list at the end of the chapter or the end of the book. These aren’t nearly as useful for further research because they don’t let you go directly to the source of a quote or piece of information that’s of immediate interest to you. They’re still better than nothing, but you should be cautious of trusting unreferenced material, particularly in a historical text, without checking out other sources.

In general, I am more tolerant of a lack of footnotes or references in books which talk about someone’s personal experiences, practice, or those which rely on a previously oral tradition. (Although I still like to know where they got information and what they recommend for further reading.) I am far less tolerant of books with few references which talk about history, religious theory, general practices, or multiple traditions. I personally get suspicious when an author talks about a wide range of subjects (multiple traditions, a broad period of history) without giving further resources and references.

Why is it important to cite information from other sources?

One of the dangers of not citing information is that personal experience and personal opinions can appear as fact. Likewise, no one person is ever going to have the same depth of knowledge about a wide range of traditions. They may know two or even three well, but there’s no way that one person can experience high level training and practice in many traditions in any one lifetime.

Because of this, it’s a good idea to be suspicious of the accuracy of information if there are no sources cited and if the author is talking about material from several different traditions or cultures. They might well have done their homework- but researching it further in books by people specializing in each of those cultures will get you more depth and greater assurance of accurate information.

If they’ve done their own research, it’s a relatively simple matter to give you what sources they used. Think about it this way: do you want to automatically trust the information of someone who can’t bother to tell you where their information came from? What does that say about their work ethic and ability to research? What does it say about their accuracy in other areas? (A good example of decent citation is Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon)

What sort of questions can be asked about factual information?

If other people were consulted, who was consulted, and when? Are there sources from within those traditions which are given? Do you recognize any of the names of people who were consulted? Are they respected names, or have you heard things that concern you about them from other sources?

If historical material (names and dates) are mentioned, do they seem to be right to you? Are there major errors? Are hotly debated subjects (whether Wicca itself existed before the 20th Century) mentioned as having alternate opinions or are those differences of opinion ignored? If the author gives an overview, is it really an overview, or just a ‘the bits I like best’ version of history? Do they talk about controversies and low points as well as the high points? If they talk about herbs, do they talk about toxic ones? Do they specifically avoid toxic herbs? (Two herbs that I usually look for to see how these issues are addressed are belladonna/deadly nightshade and rue.) Do they talk about needing particular care if you are pregnant or might be pregnant? In general, do you see safety precautions you have seen elsewhere? Do they recognize the issues of different sexual orientation, various ways of relating to deities (Deity as an archetype or Deity as an individual?), or other issues (working with teens, dealing with mainstream society, etc) as appropriate?

What sort of tone do they use?

While it’s all very well to speak from personal experience, a responsible and experienced author should realize that there are a lot of differences in Craft and Pagan practice and experience. Because of this, I tend to be very suspicious (and I suggest that the critical reader should be as well) of any author who uses words like “All Witches” or “No Pagan” or “This is the one way that things are done”.

As I’m sure readers of this article are aware, there are a wide range of practices, sexualities, rituals, and coven practices. While it’s fine to talk about specifics when talking about a limited set of circumstances (“In X tradition, we practice skyclad and do the following ritual at the Full Moon… In our tradition, the balance between male and female energies is important, and we honor both the God and Goddess equally”) a responsible author shouldn’t generalize that to all practice. (“All Pagans practice skyclad, are heterosexual, and must be willing to participate in the True Great Rite”)

Most of the time, the generalizations are a bit more subtle than that – which is why books deserve close reading. Some areas where people can generalize include pantheon (particularly gender issues relating to deity), sexuality, the practice of sexual magic (including the Great Rite), the desired membership of covens or size of covens. Again, it’s perfectly all right to insist on specifics in a given tradition. What’s not all right is generalizing to all Wiccans, all Witches, or all Pagans, except in some very few and very general ways (for example, the fact that modern Wiccans do not practice animal or human sacrifice.)

Conclusion:

I hope that this article has given you an outline of things to think about. Again, I’m going to list the basics so that you can reference them quickly.

1) Who is the author? What is his or her background?
2) Where did the author get information?
3) How accurate is that information?
4) What is the purpose of the book?
5) What does their tone indicate?
6) Are there warning signs for further caution: an older book dealing with herbs or other medical issues; regular use of absolute words (all, no, none) rather than recognizing that there are differences of opinion in the Neo-Pagan community; lack of references regarding historical information, or that outside the author’s direct experience and training?

If you have any questions about this, or would like to discuss something with me further (this is by necessity simplified in some areas), I’d be glad to do so. You can leave a comment on any entry (including this one) or email jenett at this domain.