Authority in Religious Traditions

There are different kinds of power, as famously identified by Starhawk (and probably others before her): power-over, power-from-within, and power-with-others. Authority comes in at least two flavours: being an authority on a topic (that’s why writers of books are called authors) and having authority over others. All of these are conferred by others to a greater or lesser extent (even power-from-within occurs when the pressure from inside is greater than or equal to the pressure from outside).

John Beckett writes that some people have a problem with authority. This is true, but sometimes it’s for very good reasons. We all mistake authority-on-a-topic for authority-over-others. Many bloggers have the experience of getting the comment “You can’t tell me what to do” when the authorial tone of their post was intended to be authority-on-a-topic and not telling others what to do. This is frustrating (but sometimes people get the authorial tone of their posts wrong, including me). But there are those who quite blatantly want to have power and authority over others, and use their powers of manipulation and persuasion and their apparent deep knowledge of a topic to gain power over others. They use the confusion over what is legitimate power and authority to create a mini-kingdom for themselves. These are the people and power-structures we should be resisting.

As Rhyd Wildermuth writes in a recent post, Gods & Authority:

Enclosure can happen for meaning, too.  In fact, that’s always been the trick of Authority; convince people they have no other access to meaning except through their prescribed doctrines, just as Capital convinces us we have no access to exchange except through property and the market or the State convinces us we’ll die without it.

This is a situation that we want to avoid at all costs in the Pagan, polytheist, Heathen, Druid, and Wiccan communities. As soon as one person or group claims sole access to meaning, then they have enclosed meaning, and are in pursuit of power and authority over others.

The Buddha made a very sensible disclaimer about his teachings – that if they make sense to you, follow them, and if they don’t make sense to you, don’t follow them. Maybe we should all add that as a disclaimer at the end of our posts.

If someone says a thing that makes sense to you, then you would be well-advised to follow it. If it  doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it – but do think about why it doesn’t make sense to you. Is it because you have an issue that is  getting in the way, or is it because you have genuine solid objections to it?

Power and authority in groups

I have observed a number of different religious groups with different ways of dealing with power.

The Quakers make their structure as flat as possible, with elders and various committees. Sometimes the elders have too much power, but this is presumably balanced by the committees, and by the strong Quaker discernment processes. They also strongly recommend that people attend their classes on being a Quaker – so presumably those would also teach you about how to complain if somebody “forcefully eldered” you. I think we can learn a lot from how the Quakers do things. They also have regional Yearly Meetings in which all the Quaker meetings come together to discuss things, again using Quaker process. The disadvantage of this system is that the power is not out in the open where people can see it.

In Wicca, there is no formal power structure beyond the immediate coven. Covens have autonomy, and this is an important principle to most Wiccans. (Some groups have high priestesses who are referred to as Lord and Lady – but this is a North American innovation and is not done in Wicca in Britain, where we have quite enough aristocracy already, thank you. As far as I can tell, in most groups it is an honorary title only.) The system of coven autonomy has its pros and cons – it means that there can be very dodgy behaviour in a coven, and they can get away with it – but it does prevent hierarchy forming above and beyond that.

OBOD Druid groves generally have leaders, but different people are encouraged to lead rituals. They also have sub-groups for the different grades (bard, ovate, druid) and these could develop some odd power dynamics, but I haven’t observed any groups beyond the bardic grade, so I couldn’t say for sure. There is also the rather odd idea of the chosen chief of the order (who chose him? I didn’t vote for him…) but this seems largely ceremonial, as far as I can tell. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)

In Unitarianism, they have ministers and committees. In fact they have a lot of committees for such a small group. They also have an annual General Assembly (similar to the Quaker Yearly Meetings). The power of the minister and the committee generally balance each other. (Sometimes one has too much power, sometimes the other.) Congregations have autonomy, and there are also the important principles of the freedom of the pulpit (the freedom to state your truth in the pulpit) and the freedom of the pew (the freedom to believe your truth and disagree with what is said from the pulpit).

Authority (use of power legitimated by the structure) in the Quakers, Unitarians, and OBOD is fairly well-distributed in a system of checks and balances between the national body and the local regions and congregations. Wicca doesn’t have a national body, but we do get together to  discuss things and we have a shared body of practices, as well as freedom to be creative. None of these systems are perfect, but they’re pretty good. There’s always someone with a big ego trying to gain power, but most of the time they are balanced by the structures that exist to regulate power and authority.

Freedom of belief, freedom of conscience

All of the above groups have freedom of belief: you can be an atheist, a pantheist, a duotheist, a monotheist, a polytheist, and so on. In practice there are not that many polytheists in the Unitarians and Quakers in Britain, but there are some, and both groups include atheists. What is important in all these groups is your values, including a willingness to play nicely with others. They do share a worldview, an ethos. As Caelesti writes in this excellent blogpost, Belief vs. Worldview:

Lived Values Follow Worldview – hopefully after developing a worldview, or during the process of developing one, values and ethics come to be a lived part of one’s life. This has been primarily what I have been focusing on this past year with my Self-Care Virtues project – the virtues are based on Celtic and Norse polytheistic worldviews, and there are also influences from my UU values.

It is also worth noting that these groups are mostly stable. Of course there are arguments about what  it means to be a Unitarian or a Quaker or a Wiccan (and probably a Druid too, but I don’t know) but as every group has a variety of different preferences within it, I expect these arguments will never be definitely settled by a schism. Instead, there are affinity groups of Unitarian Pagans, Unitarian Christians, Quaker Pagans, Christian Quakers, and so on and so forth. And in terms of values, these groups generally have more agreement with each other than disagreement.

The Triumph of Civilisation by Jacques Réattau. [CC BY SA 3.0]

The Triumph of Civilisation by Jacques Réattau. Photo by Grizzli, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The emergent polytheist movement

I am largely observing the emergent polytheist movement from the outside and over the internet, so what follows is a somewhat partial perspective – but I have observed (and others have too) that there are some rather disturbing tendencies developing, which could in a couple of generations adversely affect the setup of polytheist communities.

Personally, I feel excluded by the polytheist movement. I have had too many polytheists tell me that I can’t be a proper polytheist because I’m a Wiccan (and it seems Jason Mankey has had the same experience). I feel excluded by all the people saying that there is only one way to be a proper polytheist, and that is to be a devotional polytheist. I feel excluded by the editorial policy of, which is that they choose who they want on the site, and do not accept applications from prospective bloggers (contrast this with Gods & Radicals, whose editorial policy is basically “send in an article”, or Patheos Pagan, whose policy is also that people can apply to join, though that probably needs to be formally stated somewhere). I feel excluded by the increasingly narrow definition of what a polytheist is. Polytheism means ‘many gods’. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you also believe that they are emanations of the divine source, or the underlying energy or whatever. That’s still polytheism.

This one of several reasons why I wrote my post on relational polytheism – the idea that we are in relationship with the gods, that we are co-creators with them of unfolding reality. It is possible to be a polytheist and a Wiccan – because I am one, and so are many others. My polytheism is different to Jason’s – but that is just fine.

If membership of polytheist groups and communities becomes based on a test of belief, then there will be persecutions of “bad polytheists” a few generations down the line. What matters is your values. Do you treat others with respect for their autonomy and freedom? Are you inclusive and welcoming of people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people, and people of colour? Do you care about the environment? Are you prepared to play nicely with other people who believe differently than you? Then you’re in my community. If not, take a hike.

As Rhyd Wildermuth says, how we world the gods says much more about us than it does about them. If we are authoritarian, the way we world the gods is as authoritarian figures. If we are egalitarian and peace-loving, we world them as egalitarian and peace-loving. He writes:

The gods exist as independent beings from us regardless of our belief in them. But it’s we who actually world them into the earth, and how we world them is dependent upon what we do, who we are, and the sort of world we create around us.

This is what’s going on with Heathens and Gaelic Reconstructionists who insist there must be a racial component to worship of gods. They are the sorts of people who believe in race, and therefore world their gods into the earth racially. The same can be said of people in those same traditions who insist there is no racial component; they don’t believe in race, and therefore don’t world the racism into the gods.

The true offering we give to the gods, which is precisely the same offering we give to any other living being, is this act of worlding. When I make offerings to Arianrhod, she’s not drinking that mead. Instead, by offering her mead or flowers, I am worlding her into the earth through the act of offering those things, but this is only a personal act.

So if someone claims that you don’t choose a god, a god chooses you, and that once the god has chosen you, you must do their bidding – then they are probably an authoritarian trying to world the gods as authoritarian. If they claim to be the chosen mouthpiece of the god, and try to tell you that they know better than you do who your personal deity is (or deities are), then they are trying to gain power over you. If someone claims that they are practising the One True Way for everyone, and you’re Doing It Wrong, then they are trying to gain power over you. The fact that there are many deities and many religious and spiritual paths suggests that there is no One True Way, in any case. If they tell you not to talk to certain people or types of people, that’s a power-grab. I wrote some warning signs of unethical groups for the Gardnerian Wicca website that are probably applicable more generally.

It is perhaps inevitable that some people will seek power and control. That means we have to create the structures, the checks and balances, that will prevent them from gaining too much power. As Syren Nagakyrie writes in this excellent post, A Conversation on Power and Authority in Polytheism:

At the top, that power turns it’s gaze to control. To determining religious experience, to deciding canon, and who is worthy of their religion and who is not. Again, look at the world religions. Look at the history. This is not conjecture or conspiracy. This what we see happen again and again and again.

We have an opportunity to do differently, to try. Yes it means hard conversations. It means it will take time. But if this is not the work, then what is? If this is not an act of devotion, of dedication, then what is? I am led to believe that this is why some particular powerful deities, and the Dead, are making Themselves so known right now.

Draw the circle wide

As Caelesti pointed out in her post, people’s beliefs shift and change over time. We live in a culture and a time where it’s hard to be a polytheist. Some days people are atheists with polytheist leanings, some days they are full-blown polytheists, some days they are agnostic. It’s okay to have doubts; they are a healthy part of spirituality and religion. If you didn’t have doubts, how would you test ideas to see if they really came from the gods, or were just the product of your ego? If you exclude everyone who is a bit agnostic, and don’t allow them room to practice, then you might be missing out on good people, and you won’t be giving them an opportunity to experience the presence of the gods (and how they interpret that experience should be up to them). As Elizabeth I said, “I would not make windows into men’s souls”.

Belief and faith originally meant trust, not assent to a creedal proposition – and I really hope that they will come to mean that again.  I hope that polytheist communities will not have a creedal test of membership, but develop a common set of practices and values that will attract people who want to live those values and practice those values and world the gods in a way that will make the world a better place for everyone, not just a privileged few.

Agreeing To Disagree

Different colours, by Gari

Different colours, by Gari [Pixabay] CC0 Public Domain

Arguments make some people uncomfortable. It is true that conflict can be divisive, but it can also be healthy, because it can help to clarify aims, goals, beliefs, and values. Trying to sweep conflict and arguments under the carpet and pretend they are not happening is counter-productive and just creates more conflict in the end.

I have been saying for a while that we are not all climbing the same mountain. As John Beckett points out, a fish is not just a fish: it might be a halibut or a hake, a a pike or a perch.

The Pagan umbrella (or big tent) is only a problematic concept if we try to define it too narrowly. The Hindus have many different sects, philosophies, and belief systems as part of the Hindu dharma. As a similarly pluralist religious movement, we should be able to do the  same.

In a previous post on the varieties of religious experience, I outlined Arne Naess’s model for different groups to collaborate on a shared project without compromising their core philosophies and values. Naess’s model shows how it is possible to agree on common goals for a particular project without necessarily agreeing entirely on goals for non-shared projects, or theology, or even the underlying reasons why you are pursuing the goals in the shared project.

If our focus on our particular values or beliefs gets in the way of the shared goals of the project, then our allies have a right to complain.

For example, many Pagans and polytheists agree that the environment and climate change are major priorities for humanity and for us. But – due to our different political and theological analyses – we might disagree on how best to tackle the problem, or what the underlying causes are. Many of us think that it is capitalism, or perhaps it goes deeper than that and is caused by the kyriarchy; others are unsure of the cause and just want to fix the problem. But rather than trying to align our philosophical perspectives completely, we can agree on shared goals without compromising our values and beliefs – but this requires being clear about what those values and beliefs are, how they inform our analysis of the issue, and what we believe the means to achieving our aims should be. So when it comes to actually working together to fix the problem, we don’t have to set our differences aside to achieve the desired outcome, but we do need to agree to differ, and allocate tasks and resources based on the interests and concerns of the members of the group.

Let’s look at Naess’s model again, and how it applies to wanting to save biodiversity without overly compromising our values.

Level 1, irreducible diversity, the base of the scheme, consists of the many different religious and philosophical traditions in the space labelled “Pagan movement”. They may overlap, but they are not reducible to each other. 

Level 2, common platforms, where groups can form alliances. These can only be formed on the basis of what the irreducibly diverse groups have in common, but without sweeping differences under the carpet.

Level 3, planning, where the groups actually agree to act. Group A, informed by its commitment to anti-capitalism, believes that the destruction of habitat is caused by capitalism. Group B, informed by its intersectional feminist approach, believes that the kyriarchy is the cause. Group A decides that it should start by formulating alternative economic models to capitalism. Group B decides that it needs to work on dismantling kyriarchal structures and creating alternative social models. The two groups notice that despite their different philosophical approach, the alternative social models and the alternative economic models have some similar features and would work well together, so they pool their resources and ideas to see what the differences and similarities are.

Level 4, action, where the groups actually carry out their plans. In this example, because the alternative social models and the alternative economic models actually complement each other, a better outcome is achieved, because the two different philosophical approaches were allowed to inform each other and complement each other, but not merged into a single unified philosophy.

Where are we at?

At the moment, the Pagan / polytheist blogosphere is at multiple levels – some people are trying to plan; others are trying to identify the irreducible diversity; others are trying to identify common platforms; and there has even been some action (in the form of A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment and A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer). However, we need all of these activities – and it is great that they are happening.

Disagreement, discussion, and even argument are good – as long as they are civil and civilised – by which I mean that we don’t attack each other for thinking a certain way. I am not tone policing here – it is fine and perfectly understandable for people to get angry, but let’s get angry with ideas, not attack the people with the ideas (in other words, by all means say “that idea won’t work because x, y, z counter-arguments” but don’t say “you are stupid because you think that”).

What is the foundation of Pagan ethics?

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

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

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

My comment on this was,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Values, beliefs, practices

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

Some other religions

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

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

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

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

Pagan traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENZ umbrella testing - photo by Eelke Dekker

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

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

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