Michael York’s opus on Pagan ethics

Terence P Ward —  September 23, 2015 — 11 Comments

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pagan ethics coverLONDON, ENGLAND — After ten years of work, scholar Michael York has released his book Pagan Ethics, the second of three books in the series Paganism as a World Religion. The volume was preceded by Pagan Theology and will be followed by Pagan Mysticism. York’s work seeks to distill from Pagan religions those common elements that tie these disparate faiths together.

The Bath Spa University professor, sociologist, and Cherry Hill Seminary instructor told The Wild Hunt that this new book discusses what he feels are these common elements and then ties the principles into a variety of hot-button topics as illustrations. It’s a book about Pagan ethics, but with it York would like to “engage in an ethical conversation with everyone,” because he feels that “Paganism has a huge role to play” in that ongoing dialog.

“Paganism ranks like Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism,” York said. “[They all have] a broad religious perspective. What would be the ethical context that goes along with that? Is ethics even integral to any spirituality? Ethics impacts our relationship with the gods. This is trying to look at what a Pagan perspective would be on ethical positions.”

York argues that, in order to find those common ethical elements, one almost has to “strip away the spiritual aspect” of Pagan religions, including the rituals, specific deities and practices unique to those traditions, and regard them from the perspective of a Humanist or Atheist perspective.

“I think Paganism encompasses that position,” he said, noting that a number of his fellow scholars would likely consider themselves Atheist, or at least secular Pantheist. He said, “If you can approach it on that basis, then one’s spirituality follows, rather than precedes” one’s ethics.

What the book presents is a Pagan ethical framework divided into seven of what York calls “virtue-values.” Very much in the spirit of Western philosophy, these virtue-values “interchange, overlap, and are fluid, but all can be reduced to them.” The first of these if freedom, specifically “freedom from coercion and to do what one wants.” The second, comfort, which York understands to be controversial. However that doesn’t make it any less important to recognize. “Human beings desire comfort,” he said. “We have to take that on board when negotiating relations with others,” including people, non-human beings, non-corporeal beings, and the world itself.

Then, he describes health broadly as the virtue-value of completeness, or the idea of being complete. Next is worship — although York says “honor” could also fit. He defines this as the “formal pursuit of beauty and ritual/art.” The reason for blending the two, he said, is that ritual and art can be seen as cognates. “Putting something together properly and completely makes them more than a mere sum of their parts,” he explained. “A painting is not just canvas and paint; it goes beyond the physical components. It’s the same with a ritual: if it actually functions, it achieves a wider end” than simply performing each of the steps in succession.

The fifth, sixth, and seventh ethical principles, namely pleasure, productivity, and generosity, have enough interplay that York found it easier to explain each of them in relation to the others. As with comfort, he said “It’s important to recognize that pleasure is important and not be ashamed of that. It can be accepted as part of the gift of life, and we honor godhead by accepting the gifts of life.” Pleasure for its own sake is lacking, however, which is why he went on to say, “It’s not enough in itself. We have to somehow contribute; we have to produce something even if it’s only a tomato plant. Our contributions to the world are not all going to be Homer and Shakespeare as long as it’s something.” He also noted, “Many of us produce only our children,” which in his estimation fits the bill. Generosity proceeds from productivity as productivity might been seen as proceeding from pleasure and is the recognition that sharing what we create with others increases its value to ourselves and the world.

Michael York

Michael York [Courtesy Photo]

Other issues that York explores in the context of these virtue-values including a most-wanted list of flame-war causes such as same-sex marriage, intoxicants, birth control, and the environment. The book seeks to answer the question: “How would a Pagan in pursuit of these virtue-values address these issues? He said, “Freedom always comes in there.” However the others are also evident. “Is it a healthy pursuit? Does it complete the person? Is it out of sync with the natural flow? Is it honoring or respecting other people? What one does is ask, ‘who am I hurting or reducing in the process? Can we pursue this without being detrimental to someone else?'”

A succinct way of answering these questions, he suggested, is by understanding the golden rule – a version of which he says exists in all religions. “It was derived from Christianity, but they inherited it from Greco-Roman society. I look at ancient classical schools” to understand the roots of the concept, with a preference for his favorites, including Plato. Building upon those philosophical roots, York said he also counts Spinoza and Nietzsche among his influences. “Neither are Pagan,” he acknowledged, but “they contribute to a Pagan perspective, as well as the overall ethical conversation.”

York said that it took a lot of time to trace that world conversation and to understand the Pagan contribution and position within it.  He added that it was more of a challenge to get this second book published than one might expect. New York University Press, the publisher of Pagan Theology, felt that the second volume was less about religion than it was about philosophy, and so declined to pick it up. Pagan Ethics is published by Springer, which has brought its own challenges. The book is hefty at 400 pages, but its price tag — $249.00 hardcover, $189.00 for the ebook — is heftier still. York said that he was surprised by that number. “I found out what they were charging when it came out,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

York remains hopeful that the paperback will be more affordable. For those interested, individuals chapters are available for sale for a lower price. However, York is also encouraging people to ask their local libraries to stock the book. “The more they ask; the more they will consider it,” he said. In this way, a reader can enjoy the completeness of the book within the comfort of home, deriving pleasure not only because the book is more than the sum of its chapters, but also because the finished product was shared generously through the use of a library card.

Terence P Ward


Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Deborah Bender

    Typo in the final paragraph: “paperwork” when “paperback” is intended.

  • Hmm. My own ethics would incline me not to pay such a shocking and absurd amount for any book. That $249 would buy a lot of food for homeless charities or a million other things many non-profits need.

    • Folcwald

      This is typical academic book pricing, The idea is that these types of books have a small likely circulation, so in order to cover the cost of publishing them (which, for a properly edited, reviewed, etc book can be high) they need to get a fair amount of money on each copy sold. Books like this are intended for academic libraries, so that a single copy at that ridiculous price will be shared by numerous people over time. It is not necessarily fair or right, but that is how it is.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        It’s a typical price-point decision. If cutting your price in half doesn’t double your unit sales, you lose money. If doubling your price does worse than cutting your unit sales in half, you lose money. You are, alas, right where you need to be. (Note there is no consideration of profit here. Some products are inherently unprofitable — indeed, many worthwhile things.)

  • This seems, sadly, like the perfect illustration of something that has been a pet peeve of mine for some time: Paganism, unlike most modern religions, has no system to subsidize publishing works of major importance that are not of wide interest outside of our own religious movement.

    I think about how there are many small presses in the Quaker world that see to it that key works never go out of print, and that the works of influential Quaker voices, whether long or short, are made available and affordable for years and years, not relegated to backlists and university libraries alone.

    I want this for us. Even more than seminaries, I think we need in-house publishing…

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Encourage seminaries to establish Communications departments to make Pagan leaders resources for Pagan publishing.Start where the people are at. Saul Alinsky

      • From your lips to the seminaries’ ears, Baruch! (Are you listening, Holli Emore?)

        In all seriousness, I have been talking about this since I was part of Cherry Hill Seminary. Sadly, in spite of realizing that Paganism is run by a do-ocracy, I haven’t yet found the time or developed the skillset.

        More reasons to retire early, maybe…

    • Deborah Bender

      The time might be ripe.

      Perhaps we are in an era of building multi-denominational Pagan institutions. Not only seminaries, but libraries, grant-funding foundations, service organizations, professional associations and this blog. Some of these attempts have have attracted donors and communities of users and might outlive their founders. These efforts are beginning to have synergistic effects, as successful institutions test organizational structures, exchange resources and support one another’s fundraising.

      It is interesting to me that the Pagan movement seems to operate by emergent order. Cult formation prevailed in the 50s, 60s and 70s, popularization in the 80s and 90s, and creation of institutions in the new century. Each stage building on what came before.

      We do need to make hay while the sun shines.

      • I really hope you are right. Every time I order a keynote speech or a new book on Quaker process, I think about how much further along our cultural development would be if we had a non-profit publishing arm.

    • Deborah Bender

      Here’s another side of it that occurred to me this afternoon. Without having read Sam’s book, I can’t be sure this would apply to it, but there are plenty of serious scholarly books upon specialized topics in all the fields of the humanities which are written for educated readers, published by small to medium sized publishers, distributed through ordinary channels and priced for ordinary people, say $15-$40 for the trade paperback and a bit more for the hardcover edition. Karen Armstrong’s books on the theology and politics of the Abrahamic religions make the NY Times bestseller lists. Anyone who has visited the booksellers’ room at an annual conference of the AAR will find dozens of religion publishing houses whose lists could accommodate a serious work on Pagan ethics and whose books sell for normal prices.

      Some topics are either so narrow or require so much previous education to make sense of them that only fellow scholars would be interested or be able to make heads or tails of one’s work. However, a general examination of the underlying bases of Pagan ethics doesn’t strike me as one of them. If one is a good clear writer and does not require the imprimatur of an academic press for career advancement, it seems to me that a book like this need not be dumbed down to find other publishers and have a wide potential audience, including non-pagans who have an interest in ethics.

      If Sam doesn’t want to write that book, someone else can write it, get it published, and make a little money.

  • dantes

    The review is interesting, but I wanted to know in which sense the author researched ancient Pagan sources and if he included them in his work at all. I feel like this book is more a description of the contemporary, US-centered Contemporary Pagan scene rather than a discussion of the evolution of Pagan thought as such. Am i right?