What makes you a priest/ess?

Michael asked, Am I a real priest?

Short answer, if you feel a calling to be one, then you probably are one, even if you’re on the beginner slopes.

My working definition of a priest or priestess is a person who can facilitate contact between the other-than-human and the human, and/or who can create meaning, community, and a sense of connectedness for others. Note that this definition includes atheists and animists.

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Review of “Traditional Wicca: A Seeker’s Guide”

If you are looking for a clear explanation of lineaged, initiatory witchcraft, this is it. If you are looking for a coven, thinking of joining a coven, or merely curious, I would recommend reading this book. Even if you are an experienced Wiccan initiate, you could benefit from the perspectives offered in this book.

If your coven is open to seekers, this book should go straight to the top of your recommended reading list, for seekers, new initiates, and even old hands. It’s clearly written, engaging, well-structured, and scholarly.

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Spiritual nourishment

Spiritual and religious experiences can vary, as William James described more than a century ago. He described how different types of people get spiritual nourishment from different styles of religious practice, and in the process probably contributed to an increase in tolerance of religious diversity.

When examining our own spiritual experiences, or seeking out spiritual experiences, I find it helpful to identify experiences that are nourishing in the long-term, rather than just providing a temporary high.

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Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.


Are Polytheists an Endangered Species?

Some people have suggested that polytheism is endangered by archetypalist, non-theist, monist, and/or non-theist world views (especially those who would claim that somehow it’s all the same really, or that they are actually polytheists). The word polytheist means believing in many gods. If you want to add any more definition to it, I think you need a qualifying adjective.

This is an endangered species. Photo by J Patrick Fischer, CC-BY-SA 3.0

This is an endangered species. Photo by J Patrick Fischer, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Monotheism and Pantheism

I stopped being a monotheist in 1985, when I was 17. The reason for this was that I couldn’t see how an all powerful God could allow suffering and horror on the scale of the Holocaust and other horrors. I reasoned that if God was all-powerful, then “he” would prevent such horrors (free will notwithstanding) and therefore there must be many deities, none of whom were all-powerful.

Later, I discovered pantheism and monism, the idea of an all-pervading immanent deity. For me, this doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it.

An excellent novel by Rebecca Goldstein, 36 arguments for the existence of God, disproves every single one of them except Spinoza’s view that the universe itself is God, which is completely different to the conventional monotheist view. Nothing is said about the existence of many gods, however, and in my view, the idea of many gods is in a completely different category to the idea of a single all-powerful deity.

Personal Deities

Interestingly, some Christians I’ve talked to seemed to assume that I’m a pantheist, as they seemed to assume that the advantage of Christianity was having a personal relationship with Jesus. But I don’t actually like Jesus (and don’t believe the gospel accounts are reliable). So for me, the advantage of polytheism is that you can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. I think this is why the Catholics found they needed to have the idea of patron saints – but I find most saints pretty uninspiring and insipid. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller. To paraphrase some famous French bloke: if the gods didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them.

What is a deity?

There are many different types of deity: personifications of natural phenomena (winds, storms, trees and rocks and water), deified humans, patrons of arts and crafts, city goddesses, river goddesses. In my opinion, they are immanent in, or emergent from, the physical universe, in the same way that human consciousness emerges from the complexity of the human brain. Why shouldn’t other complex systems give rise to consciousness?

There is currently some discussion about what “real” means when we are talking about deities. No one has offered a definition of “real” in this context (or if they have, I missed it). My definition of a deity is a being with consciousness. A deity’s body (if they have one) is the natural phenomenon from which they emerged, if that’s how they came into existence. Or if they are a deified human, then their body is the etheric body (or whatever is divine in us that survives death). It’s also worth pointing out that love is real even though it doesn’t have either a body or consciousness – but that’s why a discussion of what “real” means is a distraction when it comes to deities: because being “real” applies to a lot of other things that aren’t deities. So it doesn’t matter so much what people think deities are, as that they think you can interact with them – that’s the point of relating to them and/or being devoted to them.

Honest doubt

There also has to be room for honest doubt – we do live in a culture where most people deny the existence of multiple deities, so if someone has a wobble or a dry season where they have difficulty relating to deities, or if they have a different view of what deities are, then that is a natural fluctuation in belief that is difficult to avoid. Even when I had doubts that deities were conscious beings, the “many” part was never in doubt. And if you try to restrict access to polytheist ritual on the grounds of belief, then you will never give anyone the opportunity to encounter deities – though of course you might want to develop some sort of initiatory pathways to assist people to develop deeper relationships with deities. Or perhaps there might be open access rituals for everyone, and other rituals specifically for devotees.

Why duotheism is not polytheism

Some Pagans are duotheists (the idea of one Goddess and one God who may or may not be emanations from a single source). I have difficulty with this idea because I don’t see the universe in binary terms, but rather as a multiplicity. The major attraction of polytheism for a genderqueer and/or LGBTQ person is that there are multiple expressions of gender and sexuality among deities. And the idea of duotheism has the same problem for me that monotheism does: how can there be anything that big that perceives existence on the same scale we do?

As to the idea that all deities are emanations from an underlying substrate of energy or consciousness, I can’t see why this is a problem for polytheism as long as the deities are viewed as distinct beings, and humans are also viewed as emanations from that substrate. I can see it could be a problem if the emphasis was more on the divine source than the individual deity – because then we’re back to monism again.

Polytheism is the “default setting”

Interestingly, if you look at Hinduism, you can find monism, polymorphism (the idea that deities are forms of the ultimate divine), and polytheism all co-existing within the Hindu dharma. And if Buddhism is included as part of the same dharma (some Hindus view itthat way), then non-theism also exists alongside these other beliefs. Henotheism (devotion to one deity, acknowledgment that others exist) is also found within Hinduism.

I think it is worth clarifying terminology and describing clearly what we are doing, mostly in order to make the path easier for others to find. But I don’t feel that polytheism is endangered. I think it is pretty much the “default setting”, to which all religion will gravitate in the end. Christianity tried monotheism, but it gradually introduced saints and a goddess (the Virgin Mary is a goddess in all but name). Buddhism moved the focus of religion away from gods towards personal enlightenment, and ended up introducing Bodhisattvas. Even Islam has 99 names of God, and Sufis and Shi’ites have saints. In Judaism, God has aspects (especially in Kabbalah). So even in monotheist and non-theist religions, the multiplicity keeps re-asserting itself. You can’t keep a good deity down.

Even if the archetypalists succeed in convincing everyone that gods are only archetypes, people will still have real experiences of the gods.

It’s not so much that polytheism is under siege from monism or non-theism or monotheism – on the contrary: they are constantly on guard against the emergence of polytheism and animism. Everyone knows there’s a spirit that lives in the photocopier which must be propitiated. That’s why atheists are constantly on guard against “woo”. Everyone needs a personal deity to relate to, which is less than the Great All. If they happen to be a monotheist, they invent a smaller god of their own devising, whether that is saints, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a more manageable version of Yahweh. It’s a very rare person who feels they can relate to a completely impersonal deity.

And the final reason that I don’t think polytheism is under siege is the deities themselves. They survived for centuries with hardly any worshippers, and that didn’t finish them off: so a few people claiming they are just archetypes is pretty small beer. They have the power to communicate with humans and they do use it. I think we and they will be just fine.

Should Public Expressions of Religion Be Allowed?

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.

By Saturnian - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26838120

Sânzienele at Cricău Festival, Romania, 2013.
By SaturnianOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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.