Some have argued that any form of theism is incompatible with science. Which is odd when so many scientists are theistic in some form or other.
Many secularists have argued that no public expressions of religion should be allowed – no hijabs, no cross pendants, no Easter processions, presumably no Pagan Pride Day, no street preaching (can’t say I would miss that one), no nothing.
No religious expression in public?
I have come across atheists arguing that the hijab, and the wearing of religious jewellery, should be banned. Given that many people wear religious symbols like the cross without any idea of their meaning, I think that such a ban would be way over the top. A friend overheard a conversation in a jewellery shop between two women contemplating the purchase of a cross pendant: “Do you want the plain one, or the one with the little man on it?” Clearly they had no idea at all what the difference between a cross and a crucifix is, or even what it signifies.
Since a person wearing a hijab headscarf, or a cross or a crucifix, or a Pagan pendant such as a mjollnir, valknut, pentagram, and so on, is not actually doing you any harm, why should you care what they choose to wear? I personally dislike the niqab and the burqa, but forbidding Muslim women to wear such garments is not the way forward. Let them choose what they want to wear, and if they want to wear something that offends your secular or feminist sensibilities, that is their choice. Plenty of Muslim feminists wear hijab. As long as it is not forced on them, and as long as they don’t try to impose their dress code on me, then let them get on with it. I also support those Muslim women who campaign against being forced to wear hijab, of course. I also happen to dislike large life-size (death-size?) crucifixes outside churches, but they are on private property, so again, they have a right to put them there. The point is, it should be a free choice.
As long as no-0ne is being harmed by the expression of religion (and the preaching of extreme racism and anti-LGBT bigotry does constitute harm), then public expression of religion is part of free speech and should be permitted.
If a Muslim or a Jew wants to eat halal or kosher meat (I am not convinced by arguments that halal and kosher methods of slaughter are any less humane than any other kind), and does not want to eat pork or drink alcohol, that is their prerogative. Just as it is the prerogative of a vegetarian to avoid meat altogether, or a vegan to avoid meat and dairy products altogether.
Some Pagan women choose to wear veils and headscarves to honour particular goddesses (such as Hera or Hestia). Again, you may not like it, but it is their choice.
If the local Muslim community wants to build a mosque, or the Hindu community wants to build a mandir, or the Sikh community wants to build a gurdwara, or the Buddhists want to build a temple, that’s great. It makes it all the easier to imagine that one day, we can have Pagan temples in every town.
I would personally prefer it if loud proselytising and evangelism in the street didn’t exist, but the cost of freedom of speech is that people are allowed to say stuff that others don’t agree with (as long as it isn’t hate speech and incitement to violence). As atheists are very fond of pointing out, “there is no right to not be offended“. Though there is a right to defend oneself against slander, libel, and hate speech.
Baroness Onora O’Neill, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, argued that it was possible to legislate against certain speech-acts, but that any ‘right not to be offended’ would be unworkable.
‘There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended.
‘Any supposed right not to be offended would founder on the fact that offensiveness is subjective, and would put others’ freedom of expression wholly at the mercy of the sensibilities of possible audiences, including audiences who may include some who are hypersensitive, paranoid or self-serving—or worse’.
Religious beliefs in the workplace
I have had discussions with atheists and secularists where they have said that people should not bring their religious beliefs to work. I must say that in many ways, I agree, where those beliefs are based in bigotry and prevent someone from doing their job properly (such as registrars who don’t want to marry same-sex couples, for example). However, my religious beliefs include a desire to care for the environment, and a desire to see everyone treated fairly: not because the gods command it, but because it is a natural human impulse. My religious beliefs include the desire for social and environmental justice for all beings on this planet, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, colour, and species.
When I was a trade union activist, there were eight people on the committee: two atheists, a Greek Orthodox Christian, a Catholic, an Anglican, a Baptist, a Druid, and me (a polytheist Wiccan). Considering that this was in a university, where the proportion of atheists is higher than in the general population, I found it significant that it was mostly people of religion who stepped up to volunteer for the trade union. The reason we ended up having that particular conversation was that the atheist guy jokingly said, when the Druid joined, “We seem to have a disproportionate number of Pagans on the committee” so I pointed out how many of the committee were Christians. We were acting on our religious conviction that everyone should be treated fairly. (Please note that I am not saying that it was because we believed that God or the gods command it, though I didn’t ask the Christians what the source of their belief in social justice was, but it was certainly a deep-seated impulse of conscience.)
So I think my conclusion here is that if your religious beliefs prevent you from doing your job properly, get a different job. I wouldn’t work for a company that manufactured weapons of war, because it would go against my conscience, and nor would I work for a company that was responsible for widespread environmental destruction, such as fracking, strip-mining, or cutting down large swathes of forest. So if you are a Christian who disagrees with same-sex marriage, don’t be a registrar of marriages in a country that permits same-sex marriage. Simple.
However, religious beliefs and ethics are not some optional bolt-on extra that can be detached and put away – they are a core part of people’s identity – whether that is a liberal religious identity or a conservative one. That does not mean that we cannot seek to challenge people who justify their homophobia by claiming that the Bible supports their bigotry (it doesn’t). We can and should seek to persuade them of the error of their views – but the corollary of this is, that they get to argue back. That is how free speech works. (I should add that this does not contradict the “no platform” argument, which is that if you host bigoted views in your premises or on your website, you are, in a sense, endorsing those views. Freedom of speech means that they can still get their own building or website where they can express those views.)
Separation of church and state
I agree with the separation of church and state in the United States, and wish that we didn’t have bishops in the House of Lords in the UK, and that the monarch was not head of the Church of England. I do not think it is appropriate for government to be so entwined with religion. I do find it interesting that it is acceptable (even required) for US politicians to state their faith in God, whereas if a UK politician states his or her belief in God, there is a general expression of distaste. Especially if that politician thinks that their illegal wars are justified by their religious faith (I’m looking at you, Tony Blair).
I object to universities having graduation ceremonies in Christian religious buildings, or with Christian prayers, unless other religions are also invited to take part, and that should include Paganism – but of course it usually doesn’t. Either every religion should be included, or no religion should be included.
If local councils and state legislatures have opening prayers and dedications, these should either be offered by all the different faiths, including humanist dedications and Pagan prayers, or not at all. The same goes for public statuary and sculpture, and public religious buildings: either all faiths should be included, or none at all.
I disagree with the requirement in UK schools that assemblies should be broadly Christian in character (except in schools where the majority of the students are of another faith), and so does the School Governors’ Association.
Freedom of expression
I completely agree with the National Secular Society (UK) that freedom of expression for everyone (the religious and non-religious alike) is the way forward, and applaud their efforts to get ‘blasphemy’ removed from the list of crimes in the UK, which it now has been. But freedom of expression for everyone means that there is freedom of expression for atheists and freedom of expression for people of religion.
Some years ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend the closing ceremony of a Buddhist sand mandala at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath. Some Tibetan monks had come and made the sand mandala over several days. It was very beautiful. At the end of this process, as an expression of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, they swept it up and carried it down to the River Avon and offered it to the waters. They placed the multicoloured sand in a special vessel, and carried it under a beautiful silk parasol. The procession, led by the Buddhist monks, and with the rest of us following behind, made its way through the streets of Bath, down to the river. There, another monk blew into a very long trumpet to herald the beginning of the offering to the waters, and they emptied the vessel of sand into the river, and said a prayer (in Tibetan, I assume). It was very beautiful.
Last Easter, as I was leaving my house, I saw the local Christians processing with a donkey and a large and ornate cross, and some priests in all their finery. Very picturesque. And when I was in Italy in 2004, the local church had a big Easter procession. And in Greece, Easter is celebrated with great exuberance. Why ever not, as long as they don’t object to other religions publicly celebrating our festivals, or LGBT Pride parades, or Pagan Pride, or whatever.
Many traditional folk festivals are celebrated all over Europe, which have pagan origins or pagan themes. There is the wonderful revival of the celebration of Beltane on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. There are many folk festivals in Eastern Europe, especially in Bulgaria which has retained much of its pagan folklore and traditions.
Yes, it is annoying when someone tries to convert you to their religion. I really wish they wouldn’t. And sometimes they take it so far that it does become harassment. But that does not mean that all religious expression (even religious expression which does not seek to convert others) should be banned.
If all public religious expression was banned, we would lose many rich and interesting customs and practices, and colourful and exuberant processions. And that would be a sad loss.
The reason that laws banning things exist is because the prohibited things cause actual harm. Dangerous driving, murder, guns, hate speech, and so on, are all illegal or restricted in most countries because they are harmful. Most religious expression does not harm anyone, and so it should not be banned.
Over recent years, there have been a number of controversies among Pagans which probably left a lot of newcomers to Paganism a bit baffled, especially when the terminology got a bit arcane. Sometimes different commentators on the issue also seemed to misunderstand and talk past each other on occasion.
I think these controversies are interesting and illuminating because they illustrate our concerns as a community, or as a network of communities, or a network of networks, or a patchwork of groups, or whatever metaphor you prefer to describe the contemporary Pagan movement.
So, in a spirit of inquiry and openness, not in a spirit of washing our dirty linen in public, and certainly not wanting to reignite these controversies, here is a summary of some of the most recent ones.
These controversies and discussions raise important questions of who we are, how we relate to each other as a community and individually, what we hold sacred, and how we relate to deities and the world around us.
The A to Z of Pagan controversies
I was not sure what order to present these in, as I think that ranking them by relative importance would be invidious, so I decided to list them in alphabetical order.
Yes, there are Pagans who identify as atheists, and/or atheists who identify as Pagans. Humanistic Paganism is a large and growing community. Yet some people argue that the worship of deities is a key aspect of Paganism, and that therefore atheist Paganism is a contradiction in terms. However, there have been people who see deities as metaphors or archetypes for decades, and they have been welcome in Pagan rituals, especially in traditions that focus on practice rather than on belief.
The debate over whether Pagans can be atheists is important because it calls into question whether beliefs, practices, or values are at the core of religion, and which of them are more important for Pagans. It also relates to the idea that there are four centres of Paganism (Nature, Deities, the Self, and Community), and that different people and traditions will focus more on some than others. If you are not a deity-focused Pagan, then being an atheist and a Pagan works just fine.
Pagans who also embrace Christianity in some form are pretty controversial because of Christianity’s historical persecution of Pagans, the claim of many Christian traditions to be the “one true way”, and their claim that its mythology is the only valid mythology. Several Pagan commentators have said that it is not possible to be a Christian and a Pagan, because of the exclusivist stance of Christianity and the extraordinary claims made about Jesus. However, there are so many variations within Christian belief about the nature and person of Jesus, that I can see how it is possible to be both Christian and Pagan in a variety of interesting ways. It would not be the path that I would choose to walk, but if people want to do it, then I wish them well (and I think it is rather exclusivist to claim that they can’t be Pagans).
Recently there have been several high-profile cases of Pagans abusing children, and incidents of sexual harassment at Pagan events. Many Pagans would like to think that such issues would not arise within Paganism, because we are so open about sex and sexuality. However, sex-positivity does not always equate with an acceptance that not everyone wants to have sex. There were many calls for Pagan events to have a safeguarding policy and a harassment policy. The issue also caused considerable self-examination by the Pagan community on what we should be doing about rape culture in our own communities and in wider society.
Pagans are very accepting of sex and nudity, but this enthusiasm is a problem when sex-positivity tips over into attitudes like ‘you’re a prude if you don’t want to have sex with me’. We need to have an ethical sex-positive culture.
Christine Hoff Kraemer and I are editing a collection of essays on Pagan consent culture, which we hope will become a valuable resource for people seeking to firmly establish consent culture in Pagan communities.
Apart from the very important issue of making Pagan communities and spaces safe for everyone, this issue has implications for how we view ourselves as a group, how we relate to each other individually and collectively, and how we cope with the fact of human fallibility.
Z Budapest also caused controversy when she posted a comment that stated that she wanted to blow up Pantheacon because she saw a lot of kinky people walking around. Several people, myself included, found this remark to be deeply intolerant. I wrote a piece on why I believe that anti-kink attitudes have no place in Paganism.
There is a conversation to be had about the presentation of kink in a public space. Not everyone is comfortable with people wearing a collar and leash in a public space, for example (and that includes many kinksters who are uncomfortable with it). But the outright dismissal of the kink lifestyle is just plain ignorant.
This issue is important because, if Paganism is a sex-positive and tolerant community, we need to be tolerant of other people’s sexual preferences, provided that they are done by consenting adults. As the kinkster motto has it: “Your kink is not my kink, but that’s OK”.
Thinking of leaving Paganism? Please close the door quietly on your way out. Lots of people have a crisis of faith, and leave Paganism either temporarily or permanently. However, there are good ways to do this, and bad ways to do it. A number of prominent Pagan bloggers have left Paganism, mostly to rejoin Christianity. Doubtless many of the things they were having issues with are real issues for the Pagan community to consider; some of the other things seem to be just a difference of perspective. Carl McColman is an example of someone who left Paganism gracefully, converted to Catholicism, but now works to build dialogue between Christians and Pagans, and promote mystical Christianity to other Christians.
It also behooves the Pagan community to react with grace and understanding to those leaving the Pagan community, and wish them well on their new path. Even if they are being a bit of a schmuck about it.
Some people reacted to these prominent changes of faith tradition with the notion that such people were never proper Pagans in the first place, and started to point the finger at other people who do not dismiss Christianity outright, or who embrace theological concepts that look superficially similar to Christianity. If anyone ever comes up with a definition of what a “proper” Pagan is, let me know – but so many hours have been spent on internet forums debating what Pagan actually means, that I very much doubt such a definition will ever be arrived at.
Paganism is not generally homophobic, but it can be heterocentric (centred almost exclusively on heterosexual symbolism). Many Pagans, especially some Wiccans, focus their devotion on a God and a Goddess, and often view them as a heterosexual couple, and insist on heterocentric interpretations of magical concepts like polarity and fertility. This can feel very excluding for LGBT people. Calls for a more inclusive version of Wicca, mine included, have caused considerable controversy in some quarters. I have explored the development of views of gender and sexuality in Paganism (part 1 and part 2) and so has Christine Hoff Kraemer. I also produced a video on gender and sexuality in Wicca, seeking to expand and deepen our understanding of the concepts of polarity and fertility, what tradition is and how it works, what we bring into circle and what we leave outside, and how to make Wicca more LGBTQI-inclusive, with examples from rituals and from history. I further developed these ideas in my book, All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca.
Monism versus polytheism
Monism is the view that there is a single underlying energy in the universe. Polytheism is the view that there are many deities. Quite often, monists want to claim that the single underlying energy gave rise to the individual deities, or that it encompasses them, or that they are merely facets of it. This feels wrong to a lot of polytheists who feel that the deities are distinct beings, and that monism reduces unique experiences to a generic viewpoint. It is possible to reconcile the two viewpoints and have polytheistic monism (or monistic polytheism). There have been quite a number of blogposts from both a monistic perspective and a polytheist perspective. This matters because it is about how we relate to other Pagans with a different theological perspective, how we relate to Hinduism (which includes both monists and polytheists – if it can even be categorised using Western labels), and how we relate to our deities. Or perhaps monism and polytheism are just a matter of temperament?
The Pagan umbrella / big tent
Many people use the word Paganism, or the phrase ‘the Pagan movement’, as an umbrella term for all the various traditions that exist (Druidry, Feri, Heathenry, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc etc), but the Pagan umbrella is leaking, and some people are standing at the edge getting rained on.
People sometimes say that we are all taking different paths up the same mountain – but your mountain may not be the same as my mountain. One person’s Pagan path may be so different that they are not climbing a mountain at all – but their path is still recognisably Pagan. A lush and varied Pagan landscape seems like a better metaphor than a single mountain.
Still others say that an umbrella is too small, and what we really need is a Big Tent.
Jason Pitzl-Waters writes:
All of the recent debate over community, terminology, and theology, is, I think, a sign of our collective success. When our religions were under constant threat, when we truly feared jail, or worse, because of our beliefs, we huddled together for safety and solidarity. We created advocacy groups to speak for us, and empowered authors and activists to be our public face(s).
The more closely we try to define or describe Paganism, the easier it is to find someone who feels excluded by that definition or description, and ceases to identify as a Pagan. That is why models like the four centres of Paganism are really useful, because they give a conceptual framework for diversity of Pagan belief and practice. Many people feel that celebrating the diversity in the Pagan movement is important, and that we need to have a unified Pagan voice in order to communicate and negotiate with governments, other religions, and other world-views. I don’t think that unity and diversity are incompatible – but sometimes we need to emphasise our unity, and sometimes we need to emphasise our diversity.
Some Pagan women have experienced a call from their deities to cover their heads. As head-coverings for women are often associated with misogynistic attitudes and attempts to control women’s sexuality, the fact that some Pagan women chose to cover their heads was very controversial. Pagan women who chose to do this gave various reasons for doing so – because a deity had asked them to, because covering their head makes them feel protected, empowered, and blessed, as an outward sign that they are a priestess, as a sign of maturity, to increase confidence, and because it makes them feel sexy.
This issue is important and interesting for all sorts of reasons. Do you do something you might not feel like doing because a deity requests it of you? If you do something that means something very different in another culture, are you endorsing what it means in that other culture? Should we revive every practice that existed in the ancient pagan world? What is the meaning of covering your head?
Racism in the Pagan movement
To my mind, one of the most important issues in recent years has been the inclusion of people of colour in the Pagan movement, and how we relate to other indigenous religions.
Shortly after the protests in Ferguson over the killing of Mike Brown last year, Crystal Blanton asked for expressions of solidarity from Pagan individuals and organisations, which resulted in an outpouring of support. I feel that she should not have had to ask, but it was great that the support was forthcoming. One of the responses, from Covenant of the Goddess, was a bit vague and hand-wavy, and was strongly criticised by several bloggers. They have since revised their statement. Many of the writers on the Patheos Pagan channel responded to the call, and some were already writing about the topic. I collected together some of the responses from the Patheos Pagan channel on my own Black Lives Matter post.
Controversy erupted at Pantheacon 2015 when a satirical newsletter (PantyCon) appeared, sending up the tendency of white Pagans to fail to take notice of the experience of Pagans of colour, and specifically the original vague and woolly statement by Covenant of the Goddess. Several white Pagans thought that the workshop advertised in the satirical piece was a real workshop, and actually showed up for it. The satire was rather too close to the bone, and – together with several racist comments made by both attendees and presenters – made many Pagans of colour feel unsafe and unwelcome at Pantheacon. Jonathan Korman called publicly for an apology from the authors of the newsletter, and they did apologise. The founder, organiser, and sponsor of Pantheacon also issued a statement.
One of the positive outcomes of these events was a workshop called “Creating Brave Spaces for People of Color” which sought to begin a process of truth and reconciliation.
An excellent resource for understanding issues of racism and Paganism is the book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Taylor Ellwood, Brandy Williams, and Crystal Blanton. It has essays by a number of prominent Pagans, Black and white, and reflects on racism, the rise of the New Right, cultural appropriation, and related issues. I recommend it very highly.
Crystal Blanton is currently producing a great series of posts, the 30-day Real Black History Challenge, which is another great resource for understanding the reality of systemic racism, and how to start rooting it out.
The anti-transgender rhetoric emanating from certain Goddess-oriented traditions has caused considerable controversy. When CAYA coven organised a women’s ritual at Pantheacon 2011, where trans women were turned away at the door, Z Budapest defended this in very excluding and inflammatory language. Traditions which take an essentialist approach to gender tend to have difficulty coping with transgender people. There is an excellent post from 2011 by Star Foster explaining the issue. The British transgender activist, Roz Kaveney, even weighed in on the issue – and note that she appears to be under the impression that all Pagans are transphobic, which is not the case, but shows how damaging these kind of incidents can be. It is a shame that she did not do a bit more research, as a Google search on the subject will reveal dozens of blogposts protesting about the incident, and some defending it too. Neil Gaiman wrote about these issues in 1993 in a graphic novel, A Game of You, and the issues it raises are explored and explained by Lady Geek Girl. 
There was a discussion on Wiccanate privilege at Pantheacon 2014, but the debate had started in the Pagan blogosphere some time before that. John Halstead neatly summarises what “Wiccanate” means:
“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.
The Wiccanate privilege controversy was a debate on how public and eclectic Pagan ritual is structured, how Paganism is represented to newcomers and outsiders, and how we define or describe Paganism. It was argued that, because most of the books and websites are about Wicca, and many public Pagan rituals are based on a vaguely Wiccan style of ritual, many outsiders and newcomers to Paganism think that Wicca is the only form of Paganism. Furthermore, the widespread assumption that everyone celebrates the eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year, or that everyone is a duotheist, or that everyone creates sacred space in a vaguely Wiccan manner (i.e. Wiccanate), means that other Pagan and polytheist traditions and ideas are marginalised within the Pagan community. I also feel that the widespread notion that Wicca is exclusively duotheist is harmful to Wiccans who embrace other theological viewpoints such as polytheism.
Where do these controversies start?
I am rather worried that this post makes it look as if nearly all Pagan controversies happen at Pantheacon. This is not actually the case, but because Pantheacon is a huge annual gathering, many controversies do get aired there. Controversies start in face to face interactions, get aired and discussed on the internet, and chewed over at conferences and pub moots and gatherings.
If you feel that I have missed out any controversies, or missed out any good links to articles on the ones described above, let me know in the comments. Links to good overview/introductory articles are especially welcome. I have mainly tried to focus on ones that might be especially baffling to newcomers and outsiders, and ones that have something to say about how we interact as a community, or as a linked group of communities.
This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’ link at the foot of the blogpost.
 Thanks to P Sufenas Virius Lupus for pointing out that A Game of You was written way before the transphobia controversy, and hence does not directly address it, though it is relevant.
Recently, Stephen Fry was asked how he would respond if he met God. His response was entirely understandable within the context of Christian theology. If there is an all-powerful supernatural creator god, why does he/she/it allow hideous suffering like parasitic insects burrowing into the eyes of children? As Fry so aptly pointed out, who would worship such a god?
But what he has done is take Christian theology and turned it on its head, as so many atheists do. There is more to life than Christian theology. There is no supernatural creator god (as atheists have very ably demonstrated). That does not mean that the concepts of deity and deities are completely redundant, as a supernatural creator deity is only one possible mythological or theological construct.
Indeed, Fry went on to say that if he turned up at the gates of the afterlife and it turned out to be run by the Greek gods, he would have more respect for them, because they do not claim to be anything other than human in their appetites and capricious in their ways. I think even this is still too close to the idea of a creator (or creators), because the Greeks did not actually believe that the universe was created – and most ancient pagan creation myths actually acknowledged the existence of death and conflict as the very basis of the creative act (the killing of the giant Ymir in Norse myth in order to create the world, or the slaying of the dragon Tiamat by Marduk to make the earth, for example). But he is going along the right lines towards understanding the pagan worldview (both ancient and modern).
Yes, insects that burrow into children’s eyes are horrible, but they are neither evil nor good, they just are. They have their own agenda, like all other beings, and that agenda – finding something soft and squishy to lay their eggs in – happens to be massively in conflict with our agenda.
Right-wing Christians assume that humans are the pinnacle of “creation” and that the world exists for our benefit. Atheists often turn this on its head and claim that the universe is hostile, but fail to notice that we are just one species among other species. The universe is neither 100% hostile, nor is it 100% benign. There is food that we can eat, and oxygen to breathe, and most of the time, the temperature is about right (until we screw it up by causing unprecedented climate change). But the fact that we exist at all, as oxygen-breathing animals, is at the expense of the organisms that existed on Earth before the atmosphere had oxygen in it – and there was a mass extinction of those non-oxygen-breathing organisms when oxygen entered the atmosphere. One animal’s beneficial environmental feature is another animal’s deeply hostile environmental feature.
The world was not created for our benefit – indeed, it was not created. The sooner humans realise this and stop behaving as if we own it, the better. There are other sentient beings who deserve our consideration – elephants, dolphins, whales – all intelligent and sensitive. And the other (supposedly lesser) animals also deserve our consideration. That doesn’t mean that I would not kill the insect that was trying to lay eggs in a human eye – but I recognise that the insect is not evil, it is just doing what comes naturally to it.
Neither atheists nor Christians seem to consider that we could only have evolved in the environment we are in (and that the the same applies to nasty insects). The environment in which we live is generally quite hospitable, but it also happens to be hospitable to some things that we consider unpleasant. Monty Python nailed it with their wonderful send-up of All Things Bright and Beautiful, aptly entitled All Things Dull and Ugly. (Listen to it on YouTube here.)
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings.
All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.
Yep, the universe contains both “all things bright and beautiful”, and “all things sick and cancerous”. This means that any theology worth its salt must deal with this fact somehow. (To be fair to Christian theology, it kind of gets around this by explaining that the Devil put the nasty stuff there, because he’s spiteful – but obviously there is still a flaw because in order for this to happen, the Devil must be just as powerful as God, and then you get Manichaean dualism, which is not allowed in mainstream Christian theology.)
The universe just is, as it is. Not created, not hostile, not especially benevolent, but many diverse beings and species, each with their own imperative to survive and thrive, and some of those in harmony with our imperative to survive and thrive, some of them in conflict. We have to learn how to manage those conflicts, not blame them on an all-powerful supernatural creator (or creators). As Terry Pratchett wrote, “There’s no justice. There’s just us”, implying that we have to create our own justice.
Pagan theology deals with the fact of death and predators and icky parasites by taking the view that there are many beings (including deities and nature spirits), all with their own agendas, their own imperatives for survival, some of which may be in conflict with ours. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and sharks, and horrible insects, all have to eat, but we would rather they did not eat us. So, for the most part, we stay out of their way. Hurricanes emerge from the weather system and wreak havoc in their path, but this is an unfortunate fact of existence. Nature spirits also have their own agenda, and sometimes that aligns with ours, and sometimes it does not. That is why Icelanders take care not to demolish the dwellings of the huldu-folk (elves and trolls), and why British folklore advises against cutting down hawthorn trees, because the Fair Folk live there.
Pagan deities are not seen as all-powerful, but beings on their own journey, who may sometimes walk with us and help us. They are not there for our benefit, and we are not here for their benefit. Just as you make friends and forge alliances with other humans for companionship, or to further some collective goal like campaigning for social justice, the same applies to deities – we make alliances to further a common cause, or we make friends with them.
The universe contains both great beauty and great brutality (as Stephen Fry also acknowledged). You can’t ignore one and focus entirely on the other; they are both part of a complex picture. I recommend anyone who thinks that Nature is all fluffy bunnies and cuddly animals to spend a few hours on the Wikpedia category on parasitic insects. But for anyone who thinks that Nature is entirely hostile, go outside and bask in some warm sunshine, look at some nice trees recycling our exhaled carbon dioxide, and browse the list of edible foods that you can gather in the wild. And gaze up at the stars to be reminded of just how big the Universe is, and be thankful that you can behold such beauty, and reflect that you yourself are formed of atoms forged in the heart of a star.
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
- Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1981 (reissued 2008)
- Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind – George Lakoff, 1991
- The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor As Myth and As Religion, Joseph Campbell, 1986 (reissued 2002)
Further reading on sexuality and gender
Atheist critiques of religion are mostly valid, insofar as they are true. I think the atheist critique does religions a great service – it’s like having an independent auditor to look at your work and check for shoddy bits. So how does Paganism measure up to the atheist yardstick?
Critique 1: “It’s all irrational”
Yes, of course it is. The emotions, spiritual experience, love, awe, wonder – these are not cognitive responses to the world, so are by definition not rational.
However, my religion has to be compatible with reason and experience. When it goes beyond the empirical evidence, those bits are marked “working hypothesis” and “conjecture”.
There are degrees of irrationality; not all “woo” is equally irrational. Just because I posit the possibility of earth energies as a working hypothesis to explain certain experiences that I have had, does not mean that I also believe in ley lines, homoeopathy, or other forms of “woo”. I’d quite like to believe in homoeopathy, but having examined the evidence against it, can only conclude that it doesn’t work.
Critique 2: “The moderates give shelter to the extremists”
That is not even true. The moderates do not “give shelter” to the extremists. The moderates get out there and protest against the extremists (e.g. Standing on the side of love; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice). And get killed for it (e.g. James Reeb, and Tennessee Valley UU church).
The moderates and liberals try to present a more loving, inclusive, and reasonable faith, but most of the time it doesn’t even get noticed by the media. How can this be “providing shelter” to the fundamentalist nutters, when we call them out on their bullshit ALL THE TIME but are drowned out by their strident bigotry?
Critique 3: “Religions persecute non-believers”
The Roman Empire persecuted the early Christians; however, this was in the name of the state religion of emperor worship (because Christians wouldn’t make offerings to the genius of the emperor), rather than in the name of paganism as such.
Modern Pagans do not persecute anyone, and religion in general has made great strides in interfaith dialogue. However, there are still too many fundamentalists, and we need to guard against any fundamentalist tendencies emerging in Paganism.
This is a valid critique of religions. There has been far too much persecution over the centuries.
Critique 4: “The universe doesn’t look as if it was created by a deity”
Agree strongly. Deities (if they exist) are an emergent property of the universe, not the other way around.
Other liberal religions (such as the UUs) have redefined their view of the Divine to mean the ground of all being. Apophatic theology (such as that put forward by the Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena in the 9th century, who pointed out that God doesn’t exist) has long stated that the Divine cannot be described by any physical terminology.
Critique 5: “Dogma and doctrine get in the way of experiencing the world directly and are in conflict with reason and empirical evidence”
Agree strongly. Pagan religions are non-dogmatic; it’s up to individuals to decide what they believe, based on experience and reason. I have occasionally heard people say, “We do it this way because of tradition”. That is completely bonkers when the tradition is only 50 years old. No-one should do anything just because it’s traditional; there should always be a valid reason behind it, like “because it works”, “because it makes me feel good”. (Always subject to the proviso that it harms no-one else, of course.)
Critique 6: Religions indoctrinate people
Fundamentalist religions indoctrinate people; liberal religions don’t. In a survey carried out by Covenant of the Goddess (an American Pagan organisation) in 2005, 49% of respondents indicated having no children, and of the remaining 51%, only 27% (i.e. approximately 13% of the total sample) said that they were bringing their children up as Pagans. 52% of those with children said they were bringing them up in a multi-faith environment; 9% said ‘another faith’; and 12% said ‘none’. Even those brought up as Pagans might not choose to practise a Pagan tradition as adults – I have met many children of Pagan parents who did not go on to be Pagan themselves, though many of them seemed to have absorbed Pagan values (of the sort mentioned above) from their upbringing.
Pagans are free to make up our own minds about how the world works. There are atheist Pagans, naturalist Pagans, humanist Pagans, pantheist Pagans, polytheist Pagans, duotheist Pagans, henotheist Pagans, animist Pagans… and unclassifiable / “it’s complicated”.
Critique 7: “Liberal religion is just moving the goalposts”
One aspect of the atheist critique of religion that has me completely baffled is the objection to classifying the obviously mythical aspects of religion as a metaphor. The philosophers of ancient Greece knew that the stories of the gods of Olympus were metaphors. The Eastern Orthodox Church was saying in the 4th century CE that the Garden of Eden story was a metaphor. It’s not dishonest to say that the obviously metaphorical bits of mythology are not literally true. I have always said that Pagan mythology is metaphorical, and so do most Pagans – indeed, I dare say the most devout hard polytheist would say that the stories of the gods are not literally true.
The tendency to insist on everything in the Bible being literally true is something that only became really popular in the late nineteenth century (according to Karen Armstrong, anyway, who admittedly sometimes looks at religion through rose-tinted spectacles). So the idea of seeing the stories of religion as allegorical is older than the idea of taking them literally. It’s not a new thing invented specially as a defence against atheist critiques. Indeed, the rise of atheism (which wants to take the stories literally in order to debunk them) seems to go hand-in-hand with the rise of fundamentalism (which wants to take the stories literally and believe them).
Many atheists seem to assume that in order to do religion properly, you have to take every last jot and tittle of its creed as part of a monolithic system, and if even one crack is introduced, then the whole edifice will come crashing down. But why shouldn’t people of religion also use scientific method, deductive reasoning, and so on in order to think about things? And if science successfully disproves a religious claim, then surely the honest thing to do is to admit that the claim is false? The Dalai Lama was once asked what he would do if science proved that reincarnation didn’t exist. He answered that he would advise Buddhists not to believe in it any more.
If you have any other critiques to offer, or questions, please post them in the comments.