News and Notes – Pagan Theology and Scholarship

Cherry Hill Seminary sponsored a well-received conference this month at the University of South Carolina. Entitled “Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes,” the conference featured historian Ronald Hutton as a keynote speaker and a range of papers on topics such as pilgrimage, the lesbian land movement, witchcraft in urban landscapes, ecotheology, and more. Our own blogger at A Sense of Place, Elinor Predota, presented a paper entitled “Into the Sacred Woods: The Inner and Outer Value of a Pagan Sense of Place” that focused on boys’ experiences in forests.

CHS Executive Director Holli Emore has a nice writeup of the event here, and Patheos Pagan writer John Beckett also attended the conference and has posted his own reflections here and here.

The conference is a great step forward for Cherry Hill Seminary and for Pagan theologians. The American Academy of Religion has been a welcoming home for a religious studies-based approach to Pagan studies, but it does not yet have much of a place for Pagan theology, in other words, scholarship written from a practitioner standpoint for other practitioners. Theology is an academic discipline of its own and is most at home in the culture of a seminary. I hope there will be more conferences from CHS with contributions from both religious studies scholars and theologians in the future.

Today, Teo Bishop posted a call to “crowdsource Pagan theology.” After providing a list of relevant theological “-isms” (polytheism, monism, pantheism, etc.), he writes:

I’m musing on these statements of “truth” on the eve of Beltane, and will continue to do so as I prepare for my joint-presentation on Pagan theology at the annual Beltania Festival in Florence, Colorado.  […]

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that it isn’t enough to tell people, “These are the categories of belief. Here’s how it looks on paper.” You have to provide them examples. They need context in order for these -isms to be relevant.

That’s where you come in.

I would like to turn the Wild Hunt’s readership into a lecture-hall of teachers, each of you explaining to the average Pagan noobie what Pagan theology is.

More specifically, what your Pagan theology is.

We’re going to crowdsource theology. That way, when I join William at Beltania I will not just come with my perspective, but I will bring all of yours, as well.

Teo is inviting readers to leave comments on the post at The Wild Hunt explaining Pagan theology in general and one’s personal theology in particular, as well as to tweet theological statements with the hashtag #mypagantheology. It’s a creative use of new internet technologies, and I’ll be interested to see the results and the resulting presentation.

This summer, I’ll be co-teaching a Master’s class on Contemporary Global Paganisms with Sarah Whedon, Chair of the Theology and Religious History Department at Cherry Hill Seminary. We cover contemporary Pagan traditions around the world (using a strict definition of self-identified “Pagan” — cousin earth-based or polytheistic faiths are not included) — yet you may be surprised to find Pagan communities as widely spread as South Africa, Lithuania, and Brazil.

Those new to Paganism may instead be interested in the 4-week Paganism 101, a class that originally developed out of a final student project for Contemporary Global Paganisms. Instructor Selina Rifkin also provides an overview of global Pagan traditions, but at an accessible, community education level (with far fewer heavily-footnoted academic articles ;> ).

The varieties of religious experience

Rainbow At Maraetai Beach New Zealand, by Haley Sulcer

Rainbow At Maraetai Beach New Zealand, by Haley Sulcer (Wikipedia)

There has been much talk (in the Pagan blogosphere, and on forums and mailing lists) about the problem of an overall Pagan identity erasing and subsuming particular traditions within it, which have their own distinct identities, mythologies, values, and theologies.There is a way in which these groups can come together without those distinct identities being erased, however. If you look at campaigning coalitions (such as the American Civil Liberties Union in the USA, the Accord Coalition in the UK, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and so on), they have coalesced to campaign on a specific issue on which they all agree, and set aside their differences only for the purposes of the campaign.

Andrew J Brown explores four different levels of organisation at his blog, Caute, using a model formulated by Arne Naess, one of the proponents of deep ecology.

Level 1, the base of the scheme, consists of the many different religious and philosophical traditions available in the world. They may overlap, but they are not reducible to each other. We could call this level “irreducible diversity” (I like to give different aspects of a model names, because numbers don’t mean much to me). In the space we label “Paganism”, irreducible diversity consists of the different traditions, such as Druidry, eclectics, Feri, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Reclaiming, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc.

At level 2, these groups can form alliances, or common platforms. These can be for a specific campaign purpose, or for forming a bigger grouping for the purposes of interfaith dialogue. These alliances can only be formed on the basis of what the irreducibly diverse groups have in common. The member groups set aside the differences temporarily in order to work together, but they do not sweep the differences under the carpet, attempt to form a synthesis, or otherwise erase the differences.

Problems occur when a level 1 group (such as Wicca) is mistaken for a level 2 group, or when the distinctive identity of a level 1 group is misapplied to another group in the level 2 alliance or common platform. Paganism is a common platform; it is not a level 1 group.

At level 3 of the model, the groups which have formed an alliance have to actually agree to act. We could call this level “planning”. At this point, plans are informed by the beliefs, values, and mythology of each group. Let’s say for example that a group of polytheists and a group of pantheists decide to do a ritual together, perhaps to strengthen the local Pagan community. The polytheists will want to emphasise the distinct identity of any deities that are mentioned. The pantheists will probably be less interested in distinct deities, and more interested in emphasising the immanence of the Divine. At this level, there is lots of disagreement on how to proceed.

At level 4, the action is carried out (so we could call this level “work” or “action”). In our example, a ritual is performed. It very probably won’t be entirely satisfying for either the polytheists or the pantheists, but whatever the purpose of the ritual was, it should be judged by whether that purpose was achieved (in this case, was understanding increased between the two groups?). Afterwards the two groups can return happily to their own style of ritual. They will also evaluate the action in terms of their own values, beliefs, mythology and tradition – to ascertain whether it was helpful, and whether they want to co-operate with the other group on some other project.

The point of this model, as Andrew Brown makes clear, is that

when this process is working at its best it does not result in the reduction of one set of fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs to another. Rather, firstly, it helps those different groups better to work together at the level of common platforms. Secondly, this better, practical working relationship … has the beneficial side-effect of helping these very different groups sit better with their basic differences and disagreements

It also means that diversity can be maintained, which is important because different groups provide different forms of nourishment to their members, and we don’t all want to be munged together into some sort of eclectic soup; and it means we can respect each other’s differences while working together on any aims we have in common (such as, perhaps, respect for the environment).

I posted a link to my previous blogpost “The Pagan umbrella is leaking” on Facebook, and someone commented ‘Why does it matter what you are called, as long as you are a good person?’

It matters because a group name expresses a distinctive identity, philosophy, tradition, set of values, mythology, and community identity. These traditions are ways of being in the world. They are collective projects which explore the question of “How shall we live a good life?” (and what do we mean by ‘a good life’) in very different ways. They each have their own rich collection of source texts and rituals which try to answer that basic question, along with many of the other great existential questions, such as “Why are we here?”

Given the endless variety of religious experience, and the multifarious ways that humans like to connect with the numinous, we simply cannot splurge all the distinct traditions together into an eclectic mix, because that necessary diversity would be lost.

When I was a little kid, I once mixed a lot of different colours of Plasticine (similar to Play-Doh) together. At first, they made a pleasing rainbow of colour – but the more they were mixed together, the more they merged into a rather disappointing olive-brown colour, until eventually there were no distinct colours, only the drab uniform olive-brown.

People often think that if you mix religious traditions together, you will get the pure white light of the original ur-religion (if that ever existed). But quite often, you get brown putty instead. Of course, if you carefully mix two colours, you might get a lovely new colour. But the more colours you mix, the more likely you are to get drab olive-brown…

The Pagan umbrella is leaking

In two posts back in January, Jason at Raise the Horns discussed the pros and cons of the word Pagan being used to include polytheist reconstructionist traditions, Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, Humanist and Naturalist Pagans. The first post had 198 comments; the second had 62 comments. This is clearly a hot topic.

In a previous post, I answered “five questions about Paganism“, despite my discomfort with talking about Paganism as a single tradition (I usually refer to ‘Pagan traditions’ in my posts, to try to emphasise their diversity and distinctness), and someone understandably complained that, as a polytheist, she didn’t identify with what I had characterised as Pagan ideas. In that particular instance, I knew that lots of people were responding to the survey, so the resulting picture would be suitably nuanced and multi-faceted, so I was not too worried if I only presented my own perspective. I am not trying to present my perspective as authoritative, despite the fact that I sometimes come across as “laying down the law” in what I write; I am just presenting my perspective, and people can take it or leave it. If it works for you, great; if not, post comments with constructive criticism of what I have said so that I can hone my ideas.

In another post, Values, beliefs, practices, I explored some of the common features that might be used to describe (but not define) traditions as Pagan. There were some useful suggestions in the comments – Katy Jennison suggested using fuzzy boundaries and identifying a list of features common to most Pagan traditions, so that the more of these features a tradition has, the more Pagan it is. John Beckett suggested having a core and a periphery, and talking about ‘the Pagan movement’ being headed in a general direction.

Many of the people who don’t want to identify as Pagan complain about the dominance of watered-down Wicca style rituals and ideas. They also assume that the simplistic version of Wicca presented by many 101 books is what initiated Wiccans practice. This situation is often exacerbated by Wiccans who try to speak for other traditions that get included in the Pagan umbrella, and getting it wrong. Just like, if a Heathen went to an interfaith gathering and started trying to describe Wicca, he or she would probably describe it as duotheist, and would thereby be getting it wrong.

The solution to this is for polytheists, Heathens etc to get involved in interfaith dialogue. And we should all try to learn more about each others’ traditions, so that we are not misrepresenting each other when we try to describe what we have in common.

As a polytheist, initiated, Gardnerian Wiccan, I would really like it if eclectic Paganism was not “watered-down Wicca”. Create your own rituals; don’t bastardize ours. And please don’t assume that I am a duotheist, or a “soft” polytheist. I once spent some months on a polytheist mailing list, and was amazed by the hostility to Wicca. Just because some Wiccans have misrepresented your tradition, don’t assume that we’re all going to do so.

I would really like it if “hard” polytheists didn’t automatically assume that all “soft” polytheists are really monotheists in disguise. (I think that deities are distinct but not discrete, and emerge from the substrate of energy in the universe; but that substrate doesn’t have a personality. That probably makes me a squidgy polytheist.)

I am a devotee of a selection of different deities from different pantheons, because they have called to me over the years.

I don’t base my rituals on a duotheistic paradigm.

I have had trouble with identifying as a Pagan because of some of the sheer rubbish talked by some Pagans. However, most people assume that I am a Pagan, and in the sense of what I originally meant by the term when I identified as such, I am one. In the sense that some people are using it these days, I am probably not one.

I don’t want watered-down Wicca to be the dominant paradigm in the “Pagan umbrella”, because watered-down Wicca is usually a misrepresentation of real Wicca, and is usually duotheist. I also want the voices of polytheists, Heathens, occultists, etc to be included in the conversation, whatever name we give to that conversation.

I think we are probably stuck with the label, but I respect the right of Heathens, polytheists, etc to not use the label to identify themselves, and can understand why they feel that way. Just as I would not include Hinduism or indigenous American religions under the Pagan umbrella, because they disavow that label, and because colonialists tried to label them as “pagan” in a pejorative way; so if polytheists and Heathens don’t want the label “Pagan” then I respect that.

It is also almost impossible to identify any one feature that all of us agree on. Reverence for Nature? Nope, you can find some people who are not into that.  Belief in the immanence of the divine / deities? Nope, because of humanist and naturalist Pagans; and also I once came across a Heathen who believed that deities were transcendent. We all honour the same deities? Nope, because different people honour different pantheons.

About the only thing that can be said is that it’s not against our religions to take part in each others’ rituals.

So yes, the “Pagan umbrella” is leaking, but I think we need to look at ways to ensure that we don’t misrepresent each other’s traditions, and that we don’t assume that everyone else shares our values and perspectives. And maybe we need to change the metaphor from an umbrella to a big tent, or a party, or a movement, or perhaps a (slightly dysfunctional) family, or something. And if someone could come up with a name that wasn’t applied to us from outside, maybe that would help too.

However, if you look at Hinduism, which is not really a single religion, but a collection of traditions devoted to different deities, pantheons, gurus, and practices, and includes monotheists, monists, polytheists, and pantheists, but still manages to cohere as a body for the purposes of interaction with the outside world, I think it is quite a helpful model.


Metaphors can kill

In a ground-breaking book called Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson pointed out the underlying metaphors used in many figures of speech. For example, the underlying metaphor “Argument is War” has us talking about winning an argument, wiping the floor with our opponents, and so on. Imagine how different arguments might be if the underlying metaphor was “Argument is Dance”. Another example they give is “A Relationship is a Ship”, where we talk about marriages foundering, being on the rocks, and breaking up.

Similarly, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Myth as Metaphor and as Religion, Joseph Campbell explored some of the bodily metaphors underlying religious symbolism and mythology.

Metaphors are a very powerful thing. They can dictate how we we see the world, and therefore how we behave. They can constrain our expectations of what will happen, and how it will happen. The metaphorical connotations of an idea shape and limit what can be said about it.

In a comment on an earlier post, C Brachyrhynchos wrote:

Many of those metaphors involve a fair bit of projection of human cultural ideas onto things that are distinctly non-human and incomprehensible, or even human diversity. Take for example the idea of masculine and feminine as broadly applicable metaphors. That metaphor breaks as applied to many human beings who don’t experience gender that way, much less fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species.

And that’s not even touching the equally complex realms of the non-biological, formal, or philosophical. To say that being is Being is one thing. To say that it’s *a person* with likes and dislikes, prophetic speech, children (mortal or immortal), and a relationship is another thing altogether.

None of this is beyond the pale for religion. If it’s reasonable to consider deus a metaphor then it’s reasonable to doubt (which is the essence of atheism, not denial) the relationship between signifier and signified in that metaphor. Negative theology, the stripping away of those metaphors until you’re left with questions and uncertainty is an ancient practice.

I have written before (and so has Christine) about the limitations and negative effects of the gender binary in much of Pagan mythology. I have also argued for a more nuanced view of gender. I see that in my previous attempts to write about this, I didn’t actually move that far from the binary model, but I think I have moved further away from it now.

I also agree that the practice of stripping away metaphors until you are left with questions and uncertainty is ancient, and is a very good thing. It is known as apophatic theology or the via negativa, and it is a very important part of my spirituality. I think we need more apophatic theology in Paganism. However, according to Matthew Fox, there are four ways to engage with spirituality, of which the via negativa is only one. The others are via positiva, via creativa and via transformativa.

However, saying something is “only a metaphor” is a bit disingenuous, because we live by metaphors and they shape our thoughts.

There is hope, though, because the power of metaphors is such that if you create a new metaphor to live by, you can create a new reality. For instance, many Pagans have adopted the eightfold wheel of the year (eight seasonal festivals), and this metaphor, which expresses sacred time, has shaped our relationship with the cosmos and with Nature. So if we want to change the binary model of gender, we could create a more powerful metaphor to replace the gender binary. We can use the examples of “fungi that have five different sexes, androgynous algae, self-propagating plants, or, weirder still, organisms whose gender involves mutualistic relationships involving multiple other species” as a metaphor for the diversity we wish to celebrate in human sexuality.

Stories are very powerful. Many years ago, I saw a made-for-TV film which had the resounding slogan “Folklore can kill” (which inspired the title of this post). In the film, weird things start happening to a folklorist who is investigating urban legends – the legends are happening right in front of him, but he is in denial, insisting that folklore can’t come true… but it does.

If you attend a Pagan camp, or a UU or Unitarian church service, there will very likely be stories. What will be the bit you remember? The talks and workshops you attended, the sermon you heard, or the stories? I can guarantee that the thing you will remember will be the stories. Stories speak directly to both hemispheres of the brain,  and that’s probably why they are remembered. Jack Cohen has suggested that Homo sapiens should be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape. People like stories.

So if you take all the metaphors away, then you’ll have to take away all the stories. That doesn’t just mean an absence of fairy tales and folk tales and mythology; it also means an absence of inspiring stories about science, or stories from history or literature. And even in this story-free vacuum, people would instinctively create more stories.

So, given that you can’t have a metaphor-free vacuum; and given that stories and metaphors are so powerful that they can actually kill (and make no mistake, the gender binary claims a victim every time a transgender person is murdered or commits suicide) — given this, we had better make sure to choose liberating and inclusive metaphors to express our religion. And if a metaphor (such as the gender binary) is broken, then we need to fix it.

Further reading on metaphor

Further reading on sexuality and gender


Tradition is something that grows and evolves. It is not set in stone, but is more like a discourse; if you start with a particular set of premises, ideas and values, you will get further ideas and practices that are consistent with the initial set of ideas. Religious traditions evolve according to social, cultural, and political circumstances. For example, a Catholic community in India had the tradition of having a procession in honour of the Virgin Mary. It was a particular honour to carry a special flag in the procession, and to raise and lower the flag on the special flagpole. This meant that more people wanted to have the honour than could be accommodated by a single flag and a single raising of the flag. So more flags were added to the procession, and more occasions of raising and lowering the flag were added, till over the years, the original custom was elaborated by considerable additional flags and flag-raising. There’s an example of a tradition evolving.

In a comment on a previous post, Erin wrote:

‘Tradition’ is the accumulation of what others in the past have experimented with to create what will feel like a meaningful experience, whether it is designed to ‘work,’ ‘feel good,’ create connections, or speak through specific symbolic language and action to the powers of choice. ‘Tradition’ does not even necessarily mean set in stone, as personal experiences allow one to gather information which might lead to tinkering and tweaking of said traditions in order to evolve them. Following tradition means attempting to understand how it was created and why, to discern what is language is, and learn how to speak it, to see for oneself if the results are as they are claimed to be. When experiences fall short, the knowledge gained can be added to the accumulated mix that has created tradition thus far, adding a new dimension to it. It is meant to be a living thing preserved by a people which speaks a uniquely meaningful language to them, carried with thanks to those who came before who contributed what they did, and carried carefully to those who will come after, as an important legacy of what has been known and created up to that point.

This is an excellent summary of the organic and evolving nature of tradition.

Some people think that tradition is rigid and unchanging (or that it ought to be so), but this is not the case. Some people also think that saying “because it’s traditional” is sufficient reason for doing a thing. But because tradition evolves in response to circumstances, and because customs can sometimes be harmful, saying “because we’ve always done it that way” is not a sufficient reason for doing something. First we need to consider why it was done that way in the first place. If the reason for doing it that way is still valid, then that’s not a problem. But if there is a new group of people to be taken into consideration (who weren’t considered when the custom was first devised), then we may need to adapt or drop the custom in order to accommodate them.

Folklorists pay attention to the transmission and context of a tradition, as well as to its content. The means of transmission is also important in Pagan traditions. In Wicca, the validity of an initiation is important (it has to be done by someone who is already initiated, and it must be done according to certain criteria). In reconstructionist and polytheist traditions, some people think it is important to have a cultural or ethnic connection to the religion being reconstructed; others derive the legitimacy of their practice from ancient texts about their religion, mythology and deities. Before a new insight (an Unverified Personal Gnosis) can be more widely adopted by practitioners, it needs to be compared to textual evidence, and/or substantiated by comparison with insights from other contemporary practitioners. It then becomes a substantiated personal gnosis.

In Native American religion, the transmission and context of tradition is incredibly important. They would argue that you cannot take their traditions out of the context of people, language, and land where they arose. It is certainly true that when these traditions are taken out of their context and borrowed indiscriminately, with little understanding of what they mean, it is usually cultural appropriation, which erases the identity of the keepers of the original tradition, and can be actively harmful.

That is not to say that you can never adopt a tradition that does not relate to your ethnic background; it does mean that in order to be respectful towards that tradition, you need to study it in depth and respect its original sources and context. If it is possible to receive transmission of that tradition from one of its keepers, then so much the better.

However, if an aspect of the tradition that you have received is actively harmful, then it is legitimate to change it, in my view. An obvious example is the tradition of marriage. In the past, the definition of marriage included polygamy. Some people regarded this as injurious to the individuality of the additional wives, and so polygamy became widely frowned-upon. It also included a woman being required to marry a man who raped her; this was obviously harmful, so the practice has been discontinued in most cultures. Until the early 20th century, it was extremely difficult to obtain a divorce, which meant that many people were trapped within failed marriages; again, this was regarded as harmful, so marriage was redefined as something that could be terminated. Currently, many same-sex couples are harmed by their exclusion from the possibility of being married, so they want the law changed so they can get married. Some have argued that this is a redefinition of marriage; maybe it is, but marriage has been redefined many times before, and it’s still popular. The story of the evolution of marriage shows that it is possible to modify a custom to include more people, or to reduce the harm that it may cause, without changing the basic features of the tradition.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

Today in Boston

I’d intended to write more about academic (specifically Pagan studies) publishing today, but since I, like everyone else in Boston, am wholly distracted by the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect going on in my city, continuing with business as usual seems entirely inappropriate.

Image by the Boston University School of TheologyMy prayers have been with those who were killed or seriously wounded in the bombing. Traumatic events like these can change the lives of individuals and their families forever, and I can only hope that for most, this tragedy will motivate acts of peace and justice. I was touched to see the Boston University School of Theology (BU being my alma mater) asking people to join them in wearing running shoes this week as a symbol of commitment to peace and reconciliation. I’ve heard a number of similar statements around the city declaring that acts of violence and mayhem will not make us afraid. Boston is, after all, a city that has historically valued independence and freedom over a restricted safety–and I do think that there is a necessary tradeoff.

My prayers are also with the innocent bystanders who were made front-page news as potential suspects based on their perceived nationality or the color of their skin. Some of those profiled were runners participating in the marathon to raise money for charity. Listening to the xenophobic overtones of the news coverage today was disturbing: the desperate attempts to paint the bombers as “other,” despite the fact that the younger, at least, came to this country as a child well over a decade ago and seemed to his schoolmates to be a normal American student–an athlete and scholarship winner with friends and a social life. We’d like to think that people wouldn’t hurt their own–their own families, communities, or cities–but statistically, one’s own home, family, or school is where most acts of violence are committed. We are the ones who are a danger to ourselves; no supposedly foreign influence, no suspicious other, is necessary.

My prayers are with the bombers’ family as well. I can only imagine the horror and grief that they must be experiencing, as the interviews I heard this morning suggested that they had no reason to believe their loved ones were capable of such violence.

As saddened as I am by the events of this week, though, they have not changed my perception of the world around me. The world is a dangerous place where people die every day: from car accidents, from starvation, from wars, from diseases. Some of these traumatic events generally only happen far away from me, but the possibility of sudden death is nevertheless real. In just my immediate social network, for example, I know two different people with a young spouse or lover who died suddenly and inexplicably in his sleep. The potential for devastating loss, for the total and unwilling transformation of one’s life, is ever-present.

To me, one of the functions of religion is to help us deal with the difficult realities of the human condition. My practice puts me in touch with the living, sensuous world; even as I write this, I can feel the life-beat of the land and all the creatures that live on and in it, including the noisy humans honking their horns outside my window. I am a part of and connected to something much greater than myself, and I do not believe that death will remove me completely from that web.

My friends, I hope you will be safe today, but more than that, I hope you will remain open and connected to those around you, that you will be motivated by love rather than fear. May justice be done, and afterward, may our grieving knit together the frayed threads of our society and bring us peace.


What is fundamentalism? Is it all bad? Can the term ‘fundamentalist’ be applied to Pagans?

What is fundamentalism?

The term fundamentalism originated in Christianity, when a series of books called The fundamentals was published, outlining five beliefs that the author considered it essential for Christians to hold.   In that context, the term originally meant someone who adhered to these five beliefs. The movement was created in response to liberal theology and higher criticism; so in that sense it is essentially conservative.

Since then, the term has been applied to other religions (notably Islam), where it is characterised by a tendency towards literal belief  in a particular interpretation of the scriptures or tenets of that religion.

There have been movements to take scriptures literally in the past, though whether we can back-project the term “fundamentalist” onto them is open to debate.

A commenter on this blog has argued that fundamentalists are not all bad, but are passionate in their beliefs. I am not sure that this is true — I think that fundamentalism is characterised by fear and insecurity.

Mystical and experiential religion is characterised by direct experience of the Divine or deities. The mystic recognises mystics from other traditions, and assumes that they have a similar experience with a different mythology (or with a different being or beings). Someone who experiences their religion in their heart usually has no need for rigid dogma and doctrine (unless the need to conform to a doctrine is imposed on them from outside).

Conversely, a person who does not have an inner experience of the Divine or deities may resort to fundamentalism to give them a structure or a sense of certainty. (I am not saying this is always the case, just that it is a frequent occurrence.)

Is fundamentalism all bad?

Well, not all fundamentalists are necessarily bad people, but if we define fundamentalism as a fearful response to critical engagement with doctrine and dogma, then the fundamentalist tendency can’t really be seen as a good thing.

If your faith is strong enough (because it’s rooted in an inner experience of your deities or deity), it ought to be able to withstand criticism, either from atheists, or from other traditions. It is possible to be a passionate adherent of your tradition, and still open to other views and to criticism.

Can Pagans be characterised as fundamentalist?

Where there is a tendency to be rigid and dogmatic about tradition or belief (e.g. “we’ve always done it this way, so it’s correct, even if it hurts you”, or “we believe this, so we act in a certain way, even if the belief is contrary to evidence and the action hurts people”), then yes, it is possible to be a Pagan fundamentalist.

Recently, Pagan Studies academic Sabina Magliocco wrote a guest post at The Wild Hunt, in which she discussed fundamentalist tendencies in Pagan traditions.

She defines fundamentalism as:

a form of ideology, religious or secular, characterized by a black-and-white, either-or, us-vs.-them morality that precludes questioning.  It generally involves insistence on belief in the literal truth of some canon, as well as a concern with identity politics and boundary-setting.  Fundamentalisms are inflexible and have difficulty adapting; they have a strong need for certainty and a clear sense of belonging, and anyone who disagrees is labeled an enemy or heretic.

She goes on to discuss whether this is applicable to contemporary Pagans, and finds that a certain rigidity has emerged around two particular topics: the historicity of Wiccan foundational narratives; and the reality of deities. She cautions against defining our community belonging by belief, because belief is provisional and changing. I recommend reading the whole article, and the paper when it becomes available.

I have also noticed a tendency towards rigidity when discussing gender roles in ritual. When I have questioned why a thing is done a particular way, and suggested changing it, people have responded with “but that’s the tradition”. Well, traditions evolve and change in an organic way; they are not fixed. They change in response to circumstance, and people’s needs.

A further indication of fundamentalist tendencies is the way in which some people have spread rumours about academics studying Pagan traditions that they are out to discredit Paganism and undermine it. This seems to me to be a fearful and insecure response, which is a characteristic of fundamentalism. In fact, as Sabina Magliocco points out, many Pagan academics have risked opprobrium from other academics by even writing about Pagan traditions and taking them seriously. They are also bound by a code of ethics; and in most cases, the academics who study Pagan traditions are also practitioners (either of a Pagan tradition, or of another tradition).

Whether or not we apply the label “fundamentalism” to these tendencies towards rigidity and dogma, we do need to guard against developing an us-versus-them mentality, and labelling people who disagree with us as enemies. We need to be flexible, open-minded, and inclusive.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

Interview with Christine Hoff Kraemer on Albion Calling

I was honored this week by an interview with Ethan Doyle White for his blog, Albion Calling. The article is part of a series of interviews with scholars of Pagan studies and esotericism; previous interviewees include Dave Evans, Chas Clifton, Caroline Tully, and Nevill Drury. (I am in excellent company!)

Here’s the link: An Interview with Dr. Christine Hoff Kraemer

EDW is an up-and-coming scholar himself, and I’m champing at the bit to read his recent article in The Pomegranate, Robert Cochrane and the Gardnerian Craft: Feuds, Secrets and Mysteries in Contemporary British Witchcraft.”

I also just turned in my final draft of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake to Routledge; it should be out in early 2014. During the publication process, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the future of academic publishing and Pagan studies publishing in particular, but I’ll save them for my next post!

What is the foundation of Pagan ethics?

Pagans don’t have a holy book with commandments from a deity. We tend to derive our ethics from reasoning about the world around us. We cultivate virtues rather than following commandments.

But we also have a specifically and recognisably Pagan response to the world.

Teo Bishop writes, “I have always believed that the stories you tell about the gods you worship need to be relevant in the world you live in. They must be more than just stories. They must have application.” He goes on to say that “the intersection of the myth and the meaning is where morality is born”.

My comment on this was,

I think the foundation of Pagan ethics is the idea that everything is sacred, because the Divine is / deities are immanent in everything.

The stories and mythologies that we share illustrate the idea of deities and spirits being involved in the world, and of people taking care of each other and of animals and plants. These are the illustrations of that basic insight.

If you believe that the physical universe is an embodiment of the Divine, and life is something to be celebrated, then your mythology, and your ethics, will flow from that.

Each Pagan story, myth, and legend will reinforce the view that everything is sacred, but the stories are not necessarily the source of that insight. Rather the insight rests in our emotional response to the world around us, a sense of being in right relationship with it when we treat it as a Thou and not an It.

Ethics versus morality
I have always felt that ethics are a bottom-up approach to behaviour, where your ethical choices spring from your ethos, whereas morality was a top-down approach, where morals were arbitrarily imposed from above by a deity. (The dictionary definition of morals and ethics does not bear out this distinction, but I still find it useful.)

Some traditions may derive their ethics from the traditional body of lore of a particular culture. This wisdom from the past, embedded as it was in experience and an ethic of responsibility towards other beings, is an excellent source of ethical guidance. Have a look at these Irish triads and Scottish proverbs, which are full of wisdom.

My criterion for deciding whether anything is right or not is, “does it harm anyone?” Of course it is impossible to completely avoid harm, but we can and should reduce the harm caused by our actions. I also draw on the Eight Wiccan Virtues as a guide to how to act.


If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

Values, beliefs, practices

What makes you a Pagan? Is it what you believe, what you do, or something else?

Some other religions

Because Christianity is strongly creedal (uniting around a set of beliefs), people tend to assume that all other religions must also unite around beliefs.

However, in Hinduism (a religion which has many similarities to Paganism), there are many different beliefs, ranging from monotheism to monism to polytheism. Rather than uniting around a specific belief, groups of Hindus unite around devotion to a specific deity, guru, or practice.

Unitarian Universalists unite around values, not beliefs. They affirm that a free and responsible search for meaning is up to the individual, and they do not have a creed. That doesn’t mean you can just believe what you like; it means that you have a responsibility to discover your perspective on truth.

Jews don’t ask what you believe; they ask if you’re observant – do you observe the mitzvot (commandments)? The degree to which the commandments are carried out, and how they are interpreted, depends on whether the person is an Orthodox Jew, Reform Jew, or Liberal Jew. But being a religious Jew (as opposed to a cultural or ethnic one) implies some level of observance.

Pagan traditions

It has often been said that Wicca is an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy. In other words, most Wiccan rituals include standard practices such as sweeping, casting a circle, consecrating water and salt, calling the quarters, raising power, cakes and wine, and closing the quarters and the circle. However, the beliefs of individual Wiccans can and do include animism, polytheism, atheism, duotheism, polymorphism, and pantheism.

Beliefs also vary within Druidry, so I would argue that what makes you a Druid is performing Druid rituals.

Reconstructionists tend to place greater emphasis on having polytheistic beliefs, but even within that, there is some variation; and the key feature of belonging to a Reconstructionist path is that you work within the mythology of that tradition.

So it appears that what makes you a Pagan is that you identify as Pagan. It could be argued that participating in a Pagan tradition, and being recognised by other members of it as a Pagan, is what makes you a capital-P Pagan rather than a small-p pagan, but that distinction gets a bit blurry when you start talking about solitary practitioners, and people who identify as Pagan among Unitarians in the UK (where there are no CUUPs chapters). Personally, I want to include these two categories as Pagan.

It is possible to identify a few beliefs that most Pagans share, but they are not defining characteristics of Paganism, partly because members of other religions also have these beliefs, and partly because not all Pagans have them. Most Pagans believe in reincarnation; most believe that the Divine and/or deities is/are immanent in the world; most believe that the Divine and/or deities include(s) both male and female. Many Pagans embrace an ethic of environmental sustainability. That’s about it for common beliefs though, so it’s almost impossible to use belief as a yardstick of who is or isn’t Pagan.

Pagans often have a lot of values in common, such as feminism, personal autonomy, making up your own mind about ethics, environmentalism, and so on, but these are not required features of being a Pagan.

Many people have tried to define Paganism as a specific set of beliefs, but you can always find someone who says “I don’t believe that” and yet is still a Pagan. So defining membership of Paganism in general, or any particular Pagan tradition, by beliefs is bound to fail.

Defining Paganism by its values might work better, but it would take a long time to figure out which Pagan values are core values, and which are not. The excellent Pagan Values blogging project, started by Pax, at least describes some Pagan values, but I think it’s fair to say that there is not really a consensus as to what values are specifically Pagan. It’s great that a conversation about Pagan values is happening in the public sphere, though.

You might define Paganism as being about old mythologies, but then what about people who work with newly discovered pantheons? I think being interested in gods and goddesses is a good description of most Pagans – but it depends if you want to include pantheists (who might not be interested in specific deities) under the Pagan umbrella, or not.

Even the proposal to define Pagan traditions as orthopractic is a bit problematic. If someone decides not to cast a circle for their ritual, does that suddenly make them not Wiccan? Not in my book – they probably had a valid reason for choosing not to. I think a shared set of practices is a better basis for describing a religion than either beliefs or values, though.

SENZ umbrella testing - photo by Eelke Dekker

Will the “Pagan umbrella” survive a storm?
(photo by Eelke Dekker – Wikipedia)

It’s unlikely that anyone will ever come up with a really watertight definition of Paganism that satisfies everyone. I think you can define individual traditions a bit more easily, because they tend to have internal rules about who counts as a member. The problem with the Pagan umbrella is that if you pull it down on one side to give shelter to one group, you end up letting the rain in on another group that is excluded by your new definition.

You can describe Paganism as generally including a particular set of values, beliefs, and practices – but it’s very hard to extract a definition from that description.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.