Both individual Pagans, and Pagan traditions, have unexamined baggage from their childhood. Individual Pagans have intellectual and emotional baggage from the tradition they grew up in (even if that tradition was atheism). Pagan traditions have baggage from the era in which they emerged.Continue reading
One of the highlights of my week is the Folklore Thursday hashtag on Twitter. I’ve not had time to look at it for a few weeks though, so it seems I missed the occasion when some völkisch fascists tried to hijack it, much to the horror of the regular participants.
One of them accordingly started a second hashtag, Folklore Against Fascism, and several participants tweeted about their opposition to fascism and commitment to inclusive folklore.
My first guest column at The Wild Hunt.
I have been anxious for months, years even. I have watched with growing horror the rise of right-wing populism, the melting of the icecaps, the burning of Australia, the beginnings of wars over water and resources, the seemingly inexorable destruction wrought by climate change. The protests of Fridays for Future and Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion gave me some cause for optimism, but it is also obvious that governments have not been doing enough to turn the economy around to stop the production of carbon emissions. So when everyone suddenly swung into action to deal with the coronavirus crisis, it gave me some hope that perhaps now the needful actions to deal with climate change (many of which, it turns out, are quite similar to the actions needed to flatten the curve of coronavirus transmission) would seem doable. It also feels like now everyone else is as anxious as me.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my new book, Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft.
This week I have been mostly reading The Guardian with great sadness over the horrific murder of 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, and growing incredulity at the self-inflicted wound of Brexit. So I have not been keeping up with what’s going on in the blogosphere.
However, I just spotted this excellent post about queer magic by Julian Vayne.
Gods and Politics, Warp and Weft
The question of which comes first, gods or politics, is for me rather like the question of the chicken and the egg. The one exists in the context of the other, and they are inextricable. The deities we choose to worship (and even the deities who choose us to work with them) are influenced by our politics, because why would they choose to have a relationship with a human whose values and goals differed from theirs, and why would we choose to have a relationship with a deity whose values and goals differ from ours?
Let’s take a step back and talk about definitions.
What is a deity? A deity is a powerful entity or identity who has emerged from the complexity of the universe, and is shaped by social interactions (with humans, animals, their environment, other deities, and other spirit entities) just as humans are. Deities have agency, or at least they seem to. Often that agency involves influencing people to do their work for them. That’s what I believe anyway; you may have a different idea. It’s worth thinking, too, about what kind of person a deity might be. If they are advanced beings of great virtue, then one would expect that they have ethical values that are similar to the highest values we can imagine (unless they possess information about how the universe works that is simply unavailable to our finite perceptions, in which case they might have a different concept of what is ethical). But nevertheless any ideas they come up with have to work on the physical plane and be comprehensible to our finite perspective.
What is politics? Politics is any situation where a conflict of interest or a difference of power is resolved by negotiation (which could be a large-scale vote or a small-scale consensus process) instead of war. It has even been said that war is a continuation of politics by other means (which is true, as when negotiation breaks down, either the status quo or an outbreak of physical violence will follow).
Conflicts of values
If you believe that the gods come before politics (by which I mean the way humans negotiate living in community), what would you do if a deity commanded you to do something that was against your ethics? I imagine that, at the very least, you would do some practice of discernment (such as divination) to check that you had heard their message correctly and were not just deluding yourself. You might even refuse outright to do the task they have requested. In that case, you have (rightly in my view) put politics before gods.
If you are a person with a marginalised identity who wants to honour Pagan deities in community with others, and something about the way Pagan rituals are constructed excludes you from those rituals, then there is a conflict of interest (the existing members want to keep doing their rituals a certain way, but you want to join the group, which requires change). There is also a power differential, in that the existing members of the group hold the power to change their rituals or practices to be more inclusive (or not). So that’s politics, right there, as Ginger Drekisdottir pointed out.
So, if a disabled person, person of colour, or LGBT person is structurally excluded from your rituals but they were chosen by a deity you honour – your political decision to exclude them dishonours that deity – and you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods. Especially if your rituals are the only ones in town.
If your chosen deities command hospitality towards the stranger, but your politics and values demand that you turn refugees and migrants and the disabled and LGBT and PoC away… then you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods.
Many Pagan deities command hospitality, honour, and the exchange of gifts (reciprocity).
The politics of the gods
I think the deities are part of Pagan society, not separate from it, and therefore even the way we negotiate our relationships with deities is political. They may want one thing, we may want something else (a conflict of interest). They may have a different perspective; they also have greater – possibly infinite – power in a particular sphere of influence. They are part of a complex web of relationships which involves differences of power, conflicts of interest, and negotiations about how to resolve those conflicts. So your relationship with a deity is political, just as the personal and the interpersonal are political.
And rather than politics being a sphere that is separate from deities, it is the complex web of relationships between human and human, human and other-than-human, humans and deities, spirits and deities, spirits and spirits, deities and deities. So you can’t put one before the other – politics is the very stuff of our relationships with gods, the context in which those relationships happen.
I became a Pagan and a polytheist because I believe that all life is interconnected, interwoven, interpermeable. My values informed my choice of religion and theology, and my values are political because they are about how I relate to other beings. It is impossible to consider the gods (or any other entities) outside of that context of interrelationship – and therefore, politics.
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.
Pagan theology is non-dogmatic, experiential, and descriptive. Usually people have an experience or perform a ritual, and then develop a theory to explain the experience. Quite often, Pagans will deny that this is theology – but to my mind, theology is any theory to explain the relationship of humans with the numinous.The term theology was coined by the pagan philosopher Cicero in 49 CE, in his work of pagan apologetics, De Natura Deorum (‘On the Nature of the Gods’).
You are ‘doing theology’ whenever you explain how magic works, describe what you think a deity is, talk about the soul, or what happens after death. You are ‘doing theology’ when you wonder why bad things happen to good people.
Theology – and Pagan conversation in general – tends to confuse a lot of people because it involves specialised terminology. Here are some of the most common terms used in Pagan theology, with a short explanation. You can find out more information on all these terms by looking them up on Wikipedia.
- Animism – the idea that everything (trees, rocks, animals, etc) has a spirit or a soul
- Apologetics – the process of explaining your religion to other people (not apologising for its existence!)
- Dogma – theology codified as a compulsory set of beliefs, such as a creed
- Duotheism – the idea that there are two deities, a god and a goddess (sometimes expressed as “all the gods are one God, and all the goddesses are one Goddess”)
- Henotheism – the view that there may be many deities, but the henotheist worships only one of them
- Immanent – intertwined with or present in matter. Pagan deities, spirits of place, genii loci, land wights, etc are usually regarded as immanent
- Land wights (Landvættir) – a term used by Heathens to describe the powers and spirits of the land, who may protect whole countries, or smaller regions.
- Monism – the idea that there is a single underlying unity of everything – spirit and matter
- Monotheism – the idea that there is only one deity, who is often, but not always, seen as transcendent.
- Naturalism – the idea that there is nothing beyond Nature, and usually, no spirit(s) within Nature either.
- Numinous – the power or presence or realisation of divinity; the experience of the supernatural or the preternatural
- Orthodoxy – a religion that emphasises that all its practitioners should believe the same set of ideas is orthodox
- Orthopraxy – a religion that emphasises that all its practitioners perform the same or similar rituals is orthopractic
- Pantheism – the idea that deity (usually a single deity) is present in Nature, or in the universe.
- Pantheon – a group of deities worshipped by a specific culture (e.g. the Greek pantheon, the Roman pantheon, the Norse pantheon, the Hindu pantheon)
- Polytheism – the idea that there are many deities
- Prayer – having a conversation with, or communing wordlessly with, a deity or spirit
- Preternatural – a term suggested by Michael York to describe the experience of immanent spirits and deities
- Spirits of place – spirits of trees, rocks, and specific places, often guardians or protectors of the place (Latin: genii loci)
- Supernatural – the idea that spirits and deities are transcendent and exist outside of nature
- Theology – a set of theories about the gods and our relationship with them (not necessarily dogmatic, as many different theologies can co-exist peacefully in non-dogmatic religions)
- Transcendent – existing above or beyond something
- Epistemologically transcendent – the experience of something beyond the ego, such as the sense of being swept away in a crowd.
- Ontologically transcendent – existing beyond matter (usually referred to simply as ‘transcendent’)
- Worship – A ritualized expression of respect and honour – offered to anything or anyone that you respect and honour.
- Pagan Theology: Recommended Resources, by Christine Hoff Kraemer
- Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies, by Christine Hoff Kraemer
- Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron, or Must Pagans Be Polytheists? by Christine Hoff Kraemer
- What is theology? by Yvonne Aburrow
- The Three (or more?) “Centers” of Paganism, by John Halstead
- The Four Centers of Paganism, by John Beckett
- To Worship the Gods, by Ian Corrigan
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.
I am Pagan. I am a part of the whole of Nature. The Rocks, the Animals, the Plants, the Elements, and Stars are my relatives. Other humans are my sisters and brothers, whatever their races, colors, genders, sexual orientations, ages, nationalities, religions, lifestyles. Planet Earth is my home. I am a part of this large family of Nature, not the master of it. I have my own special part to play and I seek to discover and play that part to the best of my ability. I seek to live in harmony with others in the family of Nature, treating others with respect. – Selena Fox
So, you have realised that you are a Pagan. You feel connected to Nature, or you read a book, or went to a Pagan festival, or went to a pub moot, and now you want to explore further. But where to start? Which are the best books, websites, organisations? How to find a reliable source of information?
I have realised that, despite all the many wonderful articles out there about Paganism, many of them assume a basic level of knowledge about Paganism, and if you don’t have that basic knowledge, it can be very difficult to know where to find it. What is self-initiation and why are so many people dismissive about it? What do Pagans believe? What is orthopraxy?
Add to that the fact that there are so many people on the internet who are willing to dismiss your hard-won insights, peddle pseudo-history, and claim that theirs is the One True Way, and it becomes very hard to sift reality from fantasy and find some people you might actually want to celebrate with. Plus the fact that we all spout jargon – though this is inevitable when we have a different way of looking at the world, and need the vocabulary to describe it.
So, this series will aim to provide a basic introduction to the Pagan movement and the various traditions within it, with links to resources, organisations, books, blogs, and websites. I will also provide a glossary of terms.
What is Paganism?
Many people have tried and failed to come up with a comprehensive definition of Paganism that includes everyone who identifies as Pagan – so the simplest explanation is ‘you are a Pagan if you think you are one’.
However, that is not very helpful if you are trying to work out whether you are one or not. You might be a Pagan if you agree with one or more of the following statements:
- the nature of deity is unknowable
- there are many gods
- there’s a divine feminine and a divine masculine
- there’s one god or goddess with many aspects
- deity or deities is/are immanent in the world
- there are many beings and spirits/wights
- deities are archetypes (yes, it is possible to be an atheist and a Pagan);
- The world
- the physical world (this life) is just as good (or better than) the other planes of existence
- the physical world is the the only plane of existence so let’s celebrate it;
- The body
- pleasure (sex/food/being alive/general pleasure) is good or sacred or life-enhancing;
- the body is sacred;
- same-sex relationships are just as valid as opposite-sex ones;
- Nature / the Earth / the land is sacred;
- life is less enjoyable if you don’t get a regular experience of nature in some form
- darkness and death are not seen as negative, but part of the natural cycle
- positive attitude to magic & ritual & arcane knowledge
- The soul
- reincarnation exists;
- original sin (or similar concepts) does not exist.
Not all Pagans will agree on all of the above; that does not make them any less Pagan. Paganism is more of an attitude of mind than a fixed creed. It is always tempting to ask, “what do Pagans believe?” but a better question is “what do Pagans do?” That’s not to say we don’t need theology – of course we need theory to explain and underpin what we do – but we definitely don’t need dogma.
Paganism is an umbrella term for several different traditions, some of whose members identify as Pagan, and some of whom identify solely as a member of that tradition. It is also possible to be a Pagan without belonging to any particular tradition. However, most people find they want to meet other Pagans to bounce ideas off, and to celebrate the seasonal festivals with.
In future posts, I will look at the different Pagan traditions, Pagan values, and Pagan concepts. I will also do requests, so if you have a question or an idea for a topic, please leave a comment.
- I am Pagan, by Selena Fox – a beautiful piece of writing exploring the Pagan world-view, which I have always found to be very poetic and evocative.
- Nature as Teacher, by Selena Fox – another great piece of writing about Pagan values that we can learn from Nature.
- Advice to a new Pagan, by John Beckett – some great advice on where to start
- An Introduction to Paganism, by John Macintyre
- Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies, by Christine Hoff-Kraemer – an invaluable resource for all Pagans, not just beginners – available from the Patheos shop
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.
As Pagans, what do we hope to build?
Much of the current dialogue in the Pagan blogosphere is about carving out ways to explain and justify our personal experiences and beliefs in relation to other traditions, but without a clear vision of the place our own traditions and experiences might have in an ideal world. Will the Pagan movement become one tradition-heavy set of religions with several “fringes”? Will it split apart into competing factions? Or will we find a way to unite using some shared cultural language? What institutions will we build, or will we build institutions at all? What rights or recognition will we have in the larger society?
What does your Paganism look like in 50 years?
~ Christine Hoff Kraemer
I have entitled this post “If you build it, they will come” because the kind of people who will join the Pagan movement of the future will be determined by the kinds of structures and traditions that we build now. If we build traditions and institutions that empower and enable people to develop and grow, then we will attract people who want that; if we build inclusive traditions where diversity is welcome, we will attract a wide range of people.
Unity and diversity
I have written about the issue of unity and diversity before (in The Pagan umbrella is leaking and The varieties of religious experience) and so has Christine (in Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron, or Must Pagans Be Polytheists?)
There are some key themes that unite Pagans and polytheists of various flavours, but we don’t have to agree on absolutely everything – where would be the need for different traditions if we agreed on everything? Not all Pagans agree that the environment is of paramount importance – but many do; those of us who do can work together on that issue. Other issues on which many Pagans agree (but not all) would be LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and freedom of religion. We might come together to work on projects around these issues, or we might participate in secular projects to further these aims; however, I do think it is worth bringing Pagan perspectives to the table on these issues, as we often have a different perspective that might be helpful.
In the future, I think that each of the current traditions might be strong and numerous enough to stand alone and only work with other Pagans and polytheists on selected projects. I don’t think that time has arrived yet. I think we still need “big tent Paganism”. Those who don’t feel that we need it are of course entitled to their views, and to start building strong independent organisations for their particular path. There is room for more than one approach.
I would like to see visible Pagan temples and sanctuaries (we currently have only one in the UK – I know there are several in the USA). I don’t want to see building committees running these (because committees are the fastest way to kill spirituality), but I hope that they could be administered fairly and for all Pagans to use. I would also hope that all Pagans would use them responsibly. Many people say they don’t need a temple for their spiritual practices; however, practicising ritual as a group requires ritual space, and the weather is not going to be getting any better over the next few decades.
It would be difficult and expensive to get a permanent Pagan temple, and it would be difficult to know where the first one should be situated. So I had an idea: the Pop-up Pagan Temple. It could be a yurt that is available for hire to Pagan groups around the country or region, to put up in parks (having agreed this with the local council). Clearly it would need security to protect it, but it would not be up for more than a week in any one place, so the cost of that would not be prohibitive.
I am ambivalent about the notion of professional Pagan ministry. I think that a more educated community is a very good thing, and I very much applaud what Cherry Hill Seminary are doing. I am not sure that I want to see a clergy and congregation model developing. We need to think very hard about the dependencies created by the congregational model, and what gets projected onto ministers and leaders. However, many Pagan leaders put in a lot of unpaid hard work, and it would be good to see that acknowledged and fairly recompensed. It is a tricky issue, and one that the Pagan community needs to start discussing.
One very important institution is the Pagan Newswire Collective, a group of people dedicated to improving news coverage of Pagan issues and events. The Wild Hunt blog is also a very important resource.
Another vital organisation is Cherry Hill Seminary, which educates Pagan clergy in ritual, theology, practice, and ministry. We need a similar project in the UK.
The Centre for Pagan Studies in the UK is doing a great job at getting public recognition for Paganism. They have put up a blue plaque for Doreen Valiente (the first blue plaque to a Pagan, and the first on a council-owned residential building); and they will be putting up a blue plaque for Gerald Gardner on 13 June 2014.
Pagan organisations are also important (and too numerous to mention them all by name). I would like to see more co-operation and dialogue between different Pagan organisations. The main one in the UK is the Pagan Federation. Pagan Federation International is also doing sterling work to help fledgling Pagan movements in other countries.
Rights and recognition
I would like to see Pagan weddings become legally recognised in England and Wales. I would like to be able to practice Pagan rituals in public without fear of harassment. I would like to see public bodies acknowledging Pagan holidays in listings of holidays both secular and religious. (In the UK, many employers send round lists of holidays from various faiths, but Pagan holidays are often not listed.) I would like to see a Pagan student society in every UK university, and a Pagan temple accessible to every Pagan who wants it. I would like to see Pagan traditions covered in education about religion (not indoctrinating children into it, just teaching them the facts about it). I would like Pagan traditions to be full participants in interfaith councils and bodies.
Paganism in 50 years’ time
I want to see a diverse, vibrant, and non-dogmatic group of polytheistic, pantheistic, and animist religions, firmly grounded and confident in our theology and practice, all having equal space in the ‘big tent’, and even more inclusive of gender and sexual diversity than they are now; a world where Pagan contributions to public debates are valued and respected; a world where it is safe for all Pagans to be open about being a Pagan.
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.
- January 8, 2013 Running From the Word Pagan
- January 11, 2013 Big Tent Syndrome (Or Running To the Word Pagan)
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.