Modern Paganism’s Role in Interfaith

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 24, 2012 — 58 Comments

While the concept of interfaith, constructive interaction between representatives of different religions, is truly ancient, its modern conception was largely birthed by the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions (re-dubbed the Parliament of the World’s Religions in more recent times) where representatives of “Eastern” religions (Hinduism, Taoism, Jainism, Buddhism) created lasting contacts with representatives from the “Western” traditions of Christianity and Judaism. The star of that parliament was Swami Vivekananda, credited by many for bringing Yoga to America, who spoke to a rapturous audience of over 7000 about the end of religious fanaticism and intolerance.

Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 Parliament

Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 Parliament

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”

Today, the modern interfaith movement continues its work to end religious persecutions, whether by sword or by pen, and modern Pagans have played integral roles in its shaping. Pagans currently serve on the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, play important roles within the United Religions Initiative (URI), and participate in several smaller regional interfaith councils. In some cases, Pagans can engage in kinds of interfaith dialog that more mainstream faiths can’t, as illustrated by Don Frew from Covenant of the Goddess.

Don Frew at the Parliament of the World's Religions

“Being a non-Abrahamic practitioner in dialogue with conservatives, Christians and others, has been helpful not only in talking to “exclusivists” but to non-exclusivist conservatives. Non-exclusivist Muslims and Jews who interpret their traditions and associated rules very strictly can feel excluded by what happens sometimes in interfaith settings. Because my own tradition has so often been excluded, they confide in me.”

That said, the interfaith movement has faced entrenched skepticism from some corners, including from many modern Pagans, who echo the question asked by Chas Clifton: “what do Pagans get from interfaith activities?”

“Were it not for the American constitutional tradition of religious freedom (and similar traditions in some other Western nations), I do not think that the Pagans would get a seat at the interfaith luncheon table.”

That skepticism is only enhanced when we see Catholics use interfaith as a way to criticize their guests, or when presidential contenders like Rick Santorum (who also happens to be Catholic) claim that the concept of equality comes only from his God, and is not found in other religions.

“I get a kick out of folks who call for equality now, the people on the left, ‘Well, equality, we want equality.’ Where do you think this concept of equality comes from?” Santorum asked the enthusiastic crowd packed into a restaurant here. “It doesn’t come from Islam. It doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions, where does it come from? It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that’s where it comes from.”

American Muslim and Hindu groups were appropriately offended, and it caused many religious minorities to reiterate the question, do we get anything from trying to sit at the same table with faiths who seem to continually slander us? Rachael Watcher, a National Interfaith Representative with Covenant of the Goddess, says yes.

“A more pertinent question is “What DO Pagans get from Interfaith Activities?” (emphasis mine) The very most succinct answer that I can offer is legitimacy, respect, a place at the table. […] If you think that this does not make a difference consider a comment from one United Church of Christ minister when told that individuals from a local Interfaith organization in Las Vegas had threatened to leave if Witches (In this case a full professor at ULV) were allowed to join. He wrote to the organization and then followed up with a call that boiled down to: “if they want to quit let them. You will loose nothing and gain a group of sincere people who are always the first to arrive (to be available for set up), the last to leave (to assure that everything is clean). They are not interested in trying to convince you of how important they are. They are simply involved to serve and share.

When Lady Liberty League and others were fighting for the right of Pagan Vets to have the pentacle on their grave stones, we were shoulder to shoulder with Ministers, Priests, and other Professional clergy who wrote letters and in some cases occupied the offices of the of the Veteran’s Administration. These religious leaders know who we are and respect us because of our long tradition of service. When Pagans are faced with violations of our civil rights, we are now supported, often by very well known and prestigious religious leaders. It pays to have friends.”

To emphasize their belief in, and commitment to, interfaith, Covenant of the Goddess is once again offering a scholarship contest for one young Wiccan/Witch to attend the upcoming 2014 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Belgium.

“The Covenant would like to see Wiccan youth involved in these historic occasions and has committed itself to providing the necessary financial support to be able to do so. We are beginning this call for applications early in order that young people can start the process of planning and becoming active in local organizations which in turn will help them with the experience that they will need to apply and participate in this call.”

As for my own opinion, I think Pagan involvement in interfaith, so long as we understand both the strengths and limitations of this movement, is a desirable and healthy thing. If the modern Pagan movement wants to have a voice as religious demographics shift and change, then we need to continually establish ourselves here and now. We need to make sure the thoughts, beliefs, and desires of our communities, and those of our allies, are not silenced by non-participation or the petty bigotries of  ideologues like Santorum. Interfaith can not only humanize us to the ignorant, but also create powerful bonds with those we can learn much from. In addition, I believe that those of us who are engaging in interfaith need to take those skills and bring them back to practice them within our own movement, to bring better communication between faiths and traditions that have, at times, chaffed under the crowded “Pagan” umbrella.

What we “get” from interfaith is a chance to change the very fabric of mainstream religion through dialog instead of violence. It drops a pebble in the waters of faith, and ripples forward through time. Just as 1893 saw Hindu and Buddhist voices establish themselves in the consciousness of America, so too does Pagan participation in modern parliaments, and similar gatherings, establish our thoughts and values to those who would find our ways alien and even dangerous. There is no instant radical change in interfaith, but the ripples are already starting to be felt, and it would be folly to draw back just as we are starting to emerge as a worldwide religious movement.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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