Column: The Washington Times’ Ignorant Editorial

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 6, 2011 — 51 Comments

Yesterday conservative Washington DC-based newspaper The Washington Times published an editorial mocking and criticizing the Air Force Academy for erecting an outdoor worship area to benefit Pagan cadets. I normally don’t pay much attention or respond to Pagan-bashing editorials, but in this case the anti-Pagan sentiment came hand-in-hand with a complete lack of fact-checking and bald-faced ignorance concerning modern Paganism, our history, and the American promise of equal treatment for all faiths. I’m going to skip over the name-calling (“space cadets”) and get right to what this anonymously-penned screed gets wrong.

“…the stone circle is designed for the benefit of a handful of those claiming to be Wiccans or Druids. […] All of the actual Wiccans and Druids died out hundreds of years ago. The religions of the barbaric tribes of Europe faded away as the Roman conquest brought civilization to the region. Teachings once handed down by oral tradition were entirely forgotten over time.”

I’ve linked these two statements together because they speak to the same problem, that modern Pagans of various stripes aren’t “real” because we can’t prove an ancient and direct lineage to polytheists from the pre-Christian era. First, in matters of law it doesn’t matter how ancient the providence, the Church of All Worlds (CAW) formed in 1961 has the same legal rights as the traditionalist Witches who claim an ancient pedigree, and both of those groups have the same rights as any Christian organization. Further, the editorial mangles ancient history, and seems completely ignorant about the importance of folklore, classical philosophy, and grimoires in keeping “pagan” ideas alive after Christianity became the dominant faith in Europe. In any case, whatever stance any of us take on history, and how ancient or modern various modern Pagan faiths are, it has little bearing on how relevant or deserving they are of equal treatment and protection under the law.

“Around the 1950s, fringe leftists enamored by the concept of worshipping the Earth adopted the ancient labels and pretended to follow the old ways. They just left out the inconvenient bits, like human sacrifice.”

First, I think Gerald Gardner and several other occultists of his era would be very, very surprised to hear that. Gardner, by many accounts from contemporaries, was a Tory, and the romantic preservation and investigation of England’s folklore very much a respectable (small-c) conservative pastime. The overt mixture of leftist politics and folklore didn’t happen until the late 1950s and early 1960s when figures like Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd came to the fore. Indeed, some have written about the tensions between figures like Gardner and Robert Cochrane over political and social ideas. Wicca was not a “leftist” initiative, though you could make the argument that it was indeed “fringe” in its early days. As for the fraternal Druid societies that eventually helped inspire modern Pagan Druid groups, or various Germanic Pagan revivals, “fringe leftists” is hardly the term I would use.

As for “human sacrifice,” it really depends on which groups you are talking about, and from which era. Many “pagan” cultures eliminated such practices long before Christianity came along, and those who didn’t often treated the practice the way some modern cultures approach capital punishment. Even if some of us are reconstructing or re-imagining religions based on faiths that practiced human sacrifice, we aren’t historical reenactors.

“While there may be religious and cultural elements that we wish to bring forward into our modern lives, we are not an historical re-enactment group. We are generally law-abiding modern people and enjoy things like indoor plumbing, central heating, modern medicine, and eyeglasses. What we want to do is bring forward those things that are of value and work with what is relevant for the time in which we live.”

If you really want to talk about “human sacrifice” it certainly wouldn’t stop with the dominance of Christianity. There’s a bloody and long history of ritualized and blessed slaughter in the Christian era, and to pretend otherwise smacks of revisionism.

Running out of bad things he (she? they?) can say about modern Paganism, they quickly turn to environmentalism, portraying it as a stalking horse for Paganism.

“Such [environmental] questions can only be raised in a politically correct military that may actually contain more Earth worshippers than imagined. Though cloaked in scientific terms, the tenets of global warming are essentially pagan. This belief system, which cannot be questioned, holds that material sacrifice – turn down your thermostat and trade in your light bulbs – will result in a change in the weather. It is the modern equivalent of a rain dance. These neo-Pagan worshippers now have a federally supplied space they can call their own in the hills of Colorado Springs, Colo.”

Some scholars claim that “nature religion” is the future of religion on this planet, and they may be right, but caring about the planet isn’t the same thing as invoking pre-Christian deities. Is the Washington Times honestly against using materials that might have less impact on our environment? Really? Is designing a “greener” bullet somehow taking us on a road to moral ruin? Here’s hoping nobody at the Washington Times is recycling, I would hate to imperil their immortal souls.

Anti-Pagan editorials are a dime-a-dozen. They aren’t hard to find and the people who write them are generally easy to ignore as fringe haters so concerned about their own ideas of what’s correct that nobody would enter “heaven”. However, as we see more and more ideologues start to assert that non-Christian faiths aren’t deserving of equal treatment or protection under the United States constitution, we run the risk losing ground if we don’t take the time to debunk them and engage with the wider world on why our faiths are just as deserving as any dominant monotheism.

Jason Pitzl-Waters