Archives For Neopaganism

[Nicole Youngman is a sociologist at Loyola University in New Orleans. She’s been Pagan over 20 years and is active in a grove of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. She also does volunteer work with the Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans.]

Listening to fundamentalists talk about the looming threats of “witchcraft” and “paganism” can be a decidedly surreal experience. They use the terms in a variety of ways: sometimes they’re talking about actual Witches and Pagans, sometimes they mean anything that doesn’t meet their definition of “Christian,” and sometimes they mix it all up willy-nilly and throw in a few Harry Potter references for good measure. Despite our best efforts to explain who we are and what we do (and don’t do!), they never seem to get their facts straight—or they get things halfway correct in all kinds of weird ways—and they still can’t manage to pronounce “Samhain” correctly. How are we supposed to make sense of all this? I think the core difficulty we’re facing is that it is simply not possible to educate some of these people about our beliefs and practices in any meaningful way, because their underlying belief system renders them incapable of accurately processing and absorbing the information we’re trying to get across. There is no way to convince them that we’re not really a threat, because they perceive the fact that we even exist as deeply threatening.

Fundamentalist Christianity is at its core a deeply dualistic worldview: there is God and there is Satan, there is heaven and there is the world, there is righteousness and there is sin, there are Christians and there are those who follow Satan. From this perspective, we mere mortals are constantly forced to choose sides: we’re either for God or against Him. With no middle ground and no shades of gray, the battle between the people of God and the people of Satan is an ongoing zero-sum game in which one side must ultimately destroy the other and rule the cosmos. One of fundamentalists’ central beliefs is that everyone in the world must be converted to Christianity—not the wishy-washy “lukewarm” variety, mind you, but the good God-fearing “Bible-believing” version. In this worldview, Christians’ primary job is to fight Satan’s influence by following what they call the Great Commission: using the authority given to them by Jesus to convert all the nations of the world to their belief system.

Pagan belief systems are, of course, entirely outside of this framework, but trying to get that point across to fundamentalist friends, family members, or co-workers—most of whom have been immersed in this worldview their entire lives—is invariably frustrating as, well, hell. We don’t even believe in Satan, we keep trying to explain; how could we be worshipping him? We don’t see reality in terms of a great cosmic war between ultimate Good and ultimate Evil, and we certainly don’t mean Christians any harm by wanting to live according to a different belief system. On the contrary, we’d really just like to be left alone to follow our religion while we leave them alone to follow theirs, and it would be awfully nice if they’d stop harassing us about our beliefs every time we’re in the same room. Maybe we do wear funny robes sometimes, and our jewelry may look a little strange, but we like kids and animals and plants and books and computers and ice cream and all kinds of good stuff; if they’d just let us live our lives in peace we’d be quite glad to return the favor.

With more liberal Christians, this approach can actually work—once they figure out the basics of who we are and what we generally believe, they’re fairly likely to shrug and dismiss us as eccentric but Mostly Harmless. A few of the more thoughtful ones might even find us interesting, and be willing to have a genuine dialog with us, at which point we’ll be quite glad to return that favor, too. Fundamentalists, however, cannot do this. It’s literally impossible for them—it would require breaking out of their either/or theological and conceptual framework, which would send their entire belief system tumbling down. Meanwhile, the fact that non-Christians and non-fundamentalist Christians continue to exist around the world, living out in the open where everyone can see them, presents a real problem for fundamentalists, whose “dominion theology” –most recently manifesting in the “New Apostolic Reformation” movement—clearly states that other religions are to be wiped out and that Jesus has given them the authority to rule the world.

But while these “Bible-believing” Christians are busily trying to spread their gospel to all those other “non-Christian” nations, they’re having an increasingly hard time enforcing it in the parts of the world they thought they had already conquered. Europe and the predominantly English-speaking world—regions having what we refer to loosely as a “Western culture” or “Western civilization”—are showing serious signs of backsliding into multiculturalism. More and more, people of quite different religious belief systems (or none at all) are managing to live peaceably together, working towards a common set of shared moral precepts on which to base their government policies and everyday cultural interactions. For fundamentalists, these changes mean that they are no longer allowed to be in complete control of Western societies’ public or private spaces, and can no longer expect their own worldview to be constantly and unquestioningly mirrored back at them. Fundamentalism thrives best when its adherents—particularly children—simply aren’t exposed to any alternative ideas that might lead to questioning and analytical thinking; when people who are different from them live openly and outside of their control—however peacefully this may be occurring—such people are seen as an invasive threat that must be fought against at all costs.

Actual Pagans and a more generalized “pagan worldview,” then, are seen by hardcore fundamentalists as an invading force that is out to destroy their world, both in the sense of attacking their churches and families and of bringing about the downfall of Western civilization itself (which for them is synonymous with Christian thought and social order). They make no distinction between efforts to limit their right to control all aspects of our culture and social structure and a concerted effort to wipe out Christianity that would deny Christians’ right to exist at all. This longstanding theme in contemporary fundamentalist thought was nicely articulated by Peter Jones during his appearance on Janet Mefferd’s radio program a few months ago:

And the problem for Christians is simply this: that for 1700 years, the state defended and supported the Christian faith, and really all these radical Pagan groups of the mystery religions of the ancient world disappeared, and I believe we are moving into what I like to call a post-Constantinian age and I mean by that the government is no longer defending the Christian faith but is actually promoting the Pagan faith… I think in the future it will be very difficult for Christians to speak clearly the worldview of the Christian faith without receiving all kinds of sanctions… So don’t be surprised as this pagan ideology takes over our world that the classic distinctions we have known for 1700 years begin to disappear and we find ourselves totally marginalized as a group of right-wing cultists. This is coming and it’s coming very quickly, and we have to learn how to survive as the early church did in that kind of a culture.

The possibility of peaceful co-existence is never entertained here; Christians are either entirely in control of the government and the culture, or they’re being actively persecuted by those who do not share their worldview. Because their theology insists that Jesus has given them the authority to be society’s ruling class, denying them the right to have control over all aspects of society is perceived as denying them the right to practice their religion at all. When we non-Christians claim the right to exist openly and without discrimination, they turn around and frame our efforts as religious persecution directed against them. Because they have always striven to wipe out any competing belief systems—sometimes by force—they project that motivation onto us, insisting that we must be out to do the same to them and will gleefully do so as soon as we somehow gain the same power over them that they have for so long held over us.

In discussing what Mefferd describes as paganism’s “threat to the Christian church,” Jones also explains a common distinction fundamentalists make between “small-p paganism” and “capital-P Paganism.” When fundamentalists use the term “pagan,” it is important for those of us who are actual Pagans to realize that they are not always talking about us specifically, but rather about more generalized “non-Christian” ideas that have infiltrated society and thus threaten to infiltrate their own carefully guarded world as well.

One is the sort of radical small group…of Pagans who meet together in forests and worship some kind of pole or tree, and are very tied to the seasons like Samhain [mispronounced “Sam-hane”] and other times of the year. That’s a very specific form of Paganism that enjoys being called Pagan, and you have within that system the whole Wiccan movement, witchcraft, and they are very easily identifiable… But if we were to think that that is the only kind of paganism it seems to me that that would be missing the whole point of what is actually happening, because while they are known for their specific rites and practices, there is such a thing as a world-view of paganism, and really that statement covers every religion and every human being which does not and who does not affirm God as the creator of heaven and earth. So you have a much larger category of people who would be aghast to hear you call them pagan who in effect really do worship nature in some kind of way. [emphasis added]

Jones goes on to explain that the small-p paganism is actually much more dangerous and insidious than the self-described Pagans; while you can see the latter coming and stay out of their way (I guess because of the poles?), the “pagan worldview” is what is really starting to take over the West, spouted by dangerous types like Oprah, postmodernists, and yoga teachers.

Because fundamentalists cannot parse anything outside of their either/or worldview, they try to explain the existence of “Pagans” and “paganism” by concluding that there are only two possible religions—those that worship “the Creator” and those that worship “the creation” (extrapolating from one of Paul’s letters at Romans 1:25). Any religious perspective with a concept of immanent deity—animism, duotheism, pantheism, panentheism, some forms of polytheism, etc.—must then fall into the latter category. Deity and “the world” must remain forever separate—there cannot be anything sacred about the physical world, because that is Satan’s domain. Unlike other Christians (and Jews and Muslims) who more logically conclude that because God made it, the world must be essentially good—even given that humans have screwed up a lot of it—fundamentalist Christians argue that because the world is ruled by Satan, it must therefore be essentially evil. Asserting that the world itself is divine and sacred is therefore the height of Pagan/pagan heresy. From Jones’ perspective, then,

paganism as a system wants to get rid of distinctions [i.e. between men and women, acceptable and abhorrent forms of sexuality, etc.], and my hunch is it wants to get rid of distinctions because it finally then removes the distinction between God and the creation. The fundamental evil in paganism is the statement that God, the creator, is distinct from the creation…So that’s the conflict that’s always been, but in the Christian West that conflict seemed to go away for a long long time. And now it’s back with a vengeance, and we as Christians need to know how to be faithful to the Lord, speak the truth, live the truth, whatever that costs.

Again, there is no possibility of peaceful co-existence in this perspective, no acknowledgment of the potential for practitioners of different religions to have an interesting dialogue and learn from one another, no prospect of someday creating a government that truly allows people of all religions (and none) to practice openly without fear of persecution.

What are actual Pagans—and whoever fundamentalists are considering “pagan” these days—to make of such nonsense? How can we be a “threat” to the “Christian church” when we feel like they’re threatening us? I think we need to begin by understanding that our fears—and our definition of “threat”—are very different from theirs. We’re deeply tired of being verbally harassed and insulted, of having our rituals disrupted, of being afraid we’ll lose our jobs, of having to worry that so-called Christians will be vicious to our kids or even try to take them away. Despite their ongoing persecution complex, Christians simply do not have to worry about any of these things happening to them just because of the religion they practice; they can go about their daily lives safe in the assumption that the vast majority of people out there will perceive them as normal, ordinary, nonthreatening regular folks.

What fundamentalist Christians are afraid of is that they’ll no longer be able to take their cultural and political dominance for granted—that, like us, they’ll become just one of the world’s many subcultures, and have to deal with the fact that most of the other folks out there in the big wide world don’t share all of their beliefs. We Pagans are used to that, and I daresay that as long as we’re treated respectfully and left to practice our religions in peace, we really don’t mind it at all. Life’s more interesting in a diverse crowd, after all, and Paganism itself is nothing if not diverse! Those of us who are parents also have less of our identity and emotional energy wrapped up in trying to ensure that our kids will grow up to be just like us than fundamentalist parents do. While I’m sure most of us would like for our kids to choose to be Pagan, I think we’re generally comfortable with the idea of exposing our kids to a variety of belief systems so that they can find out for themselves which path “clicks” for them. Fundamentalist parents, however, live with the constant fear that their kids will be led astray by “the world.” When the rest of the world no longer echoes their belief system back at them over and over again, they have to work harder to keep their kids tightly encapsulated in a bubble that doesn’t allow the penetration of any other ways of life or thought. So they send their kids to Christian schools, listen to only Christian music and radio programs, watch only Christian TV and movies, and spend hours and hours in church, all in the hopes that they can shut out all those small-p “pagan” influences that might invade their homes and go after their children. With any luck, their kids will never have to actually see any big-P real-life Pagans out there, either. You never know, we might smile at them and say hello or something, and heaven knows where that might lead.

This, then, is why Janet Mefferd and her colleagues are so terrified of the thought that “paganism is mainstreaming.” With the age of Christian dominance of the West starting to come to an end despite their best efforts, other people are no longer easily bending to their authority, and some non-Christians are even insisting that the government should protect their rights to be different. Fundamentalist kids are increasingly likely to be exposed to ideas their parents don’t like, and might even find some of those ideas worthwhile and interesting. More and more people are walking around in public with pentacles and triskeles and Thor’s hammers hanging around their necks, daring to assume that they will be treated civilly by everyone else out there. Life gets more complicated when yours is literally no longer the only worldview in town—pretty soon, you end up having to deal with the real world the way it really is, just like everyone else.

So are we big-P pagans, or those amorphous small-p “pagan” ideas, really “a threat to the Christian church?” In terms of Christians’ right to exist, to follow their own religion in the privacy of their own lives, of course not. Despite their silly ideas that we’re somehow after them or their kids, we don’t go around seeking converts in their schools or hog-tying them in front of Harry Potter movies. We’re really not that interested in them, truth be told, and we’d be more than happy to just leave them alone. The key difficulty here, however, is that they will never be willing to do the same for us because their core theology simply will not allow it. They can never be satisfied with the basic right of being allowed to live their own lives as they see fit; they want power and control over everyone else’s public and private spaces as well. By simply existing out in the open, Pagans and people interested in “pagan” ideas do in fact present a substantial challenge to the fundamentalist Christian worldview. We are living proof that not everyone agrees with their theology and not everyone will tolerate their continued efforts to maintain an oppressive, monocultural society “in Jesus’ name.” We don’t proselytize, but we do write and teach and share ideas with anyone who’s interested—and THAT is what these people are truly afraid of.

Paganism is growing. That isn’t my mere opinion, it is backed up with statistical data from places like the Pew Forum and ARIS. More often than not, when mainstream newspapers and news outlets write about us, they mention how we’re growing, or how we’re moving into the mainstream. The growth of modern Pagan faiths, and other religious minorities, has also seen a growth in “nones”, those who profess to not hold any religious identity. This circumstance has led to a series of books by younger Christians who are trying to understand, and reverse, this trend. The latest entry in this genre is “Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith. . .and How to Bring Them Back” by Christianity Today editor Drew Dyck. In an interview with the Birmingham News, Dyck explains where all these young Christians are going.

“No two “leavers” are exactly the same, but some patterns did emerge. Postmodern leavers reject Christianity because of its exclusive truth claims and moral absolutes. For them, Christian faith is just too narrow. “Recoilers” leave because they were hurt in the church. They suffered some form of abuse at the hands of someone they saw as a spiritual authority. God was guilty by association. “Modernists” completely reject supernatural claims. God is a delusion. Any truth beyond science is dismissed as superstition. “Neo-pagans” refers to those who left for earth-based religions such as Wicca. Not all actually cast spells or participate in pagan rituals, but they deny a transcendent God, and see earth as the locus of true spirituality. “Spiritual Rebels” flee the faith to indulge in behavior that conflicted with their faith. They also value autonomy and don’t want anyone — especially a superintending deity — telling them what to do. “Drifters” do not suffer intellectual crises or consciously leave the faith; they simply drift away. Over time God becomes less and less important until one day he’s no longer part of their lives.”

Which is fine as far as these things go, many younger Christians are indeed turning to some forms of modern Pagan religion. What I usually have trouble with is their analysis of what Christians should do about it.

“Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith. To stem the tide of young people leaving, I believe churches need to get shift the emphasis away from an entertainment model and back to religious education and spiritual growth.”

It all comes down to teaching and role-modeling the elusive real fundamental Christianity to young people. Dyck’s book, and books like “UnChristian”, “Generation Hex”, “Wicca’s Charm”, and many, many, more, all call for a return to an elusive central core of faith that is pure enough to withstand the rigors of engaging the wider secular/non-Christian world. Christians love these books, because it not only addresses a problem that worries them, but tells them that the solution is to become more Christian as a way to solve the problem. But that solution is one built on faith, not on any real-world tested mode of engagement. Further, to classify “neopaganism” as merely a category of backslider instead of whole movement of individual faiths with theologies and beliefs of their own is setting up Christian parents and leaders for failure. First, it will not equip them to engage with those who have actually embraced a Pagan faith, and secondly, it will alienate those who have simply become interested in environmentalism, or simple ideas of immanence within a Christian context. Becoming more Christ-like (or fervent) won’t necessarily impress either category of “neopagan”.

If there’s a “secret” to stopping the move away from Christianity in the West, a trend that worries everyone from evangelicals to the Pope in Rome, it may be that Christians think you can change nothing about the faith, while putting a new spin on things to win people back. But younger people see that the faith they grew up in, and its moral failure to change on important issues, makes it an inviable option for existing in a tolerant and secular society. Modern Paganism, because it has had to engage on a decades-long project of reconstruction and re-envisioning since its emergence, has been able to absorb modern approaches to politics and society without having to deal with the “culture-war” issues in the same fashion. Further, polytheism can handle schisms, disagreements, and differences of opinion, in a far more fluid and healthy fashion than most of the top-down monotheisms can. So long as these authors address the “problem” of young people leaving the faith in this current fashion, modern Pagans will have little to worry about concerning its own growth.

Namaste, Wild Hunt readers! Many thanks to Jason for his invitation to bring some perspective on a subject that is more and more relevant – the issue of worshipping Hindu deities as a Pagan.

As the Pagan community grows, so do the various approaches to deity and ritual. While much of the Pagan world is involved in creating new traditions, reconstructing ancient ones, and everything in between, there are more and more Pagans who are drawn to living traditions such as the various African diasporic religions, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These practitioners typically want to maintain their basic philosophy and approach to religion, which often allows them to worship many deities in a spontaneous, eclectic way, and allows them to connect with many different Gods and Goddesses, while also incorporating deities or practices they find themselves drawn to.

One of the issues that comes up when this happens is appropriation. Cultural appropriation happens when someone from one culture borrows symbols, rituals, and practices from another culture without fully understanding the context, meaning, and complexity of those things, and then passes them off as one’s own, or uses their own interpretations and then passes them off as “authentic.” This becomes especially problematic when dealing with interactions between members of cultures with historical roots in colonialism, slavery, and exploitation.

With Hinduism, we often see Gods and Goddesses appropriated to give an “exotic” feel to a product, and in a religious sense when someone wants to worship a Hindu deity, but believes that their personal interpretation and experience of the deity is all that matters, and use pop cultural knowledge to essentialize these deities (i.e. Ganesha is reduced to a “remover of obstacles,” or Lakshmi becomes a “money goddess”). While putting a Hindu deity on a T-shirt isn’t so culturally offensive like putting one on a toilet seat is, plenty of my fellow Hindus are rightfully upset about the various appropriations of our religion, as it often betrays a simple disrespect or ignorance of Hindu culture and Indian history and philosophy, or a sense of entitlement to colonize and appropriate important symbols and deities.

From my own experience talking to and teaching people in the Pagan community about Hindu worship and deity, I have seen how paralyzing the fear of cultural appropriation can be, and I’ve also seen plenty of positive and negative sycretism. Some people feel drawn to these deities, but don’t know where to begin, and don’t want to step on any toes while they’re learning, so they never pursue it. I’ve seen plenty of neo-Pagans doing a great job at respectfully approaching Hindu deities and incorporating Hindu worship into their own with some amount of care and respect. At the same time, I’ve also seen a few neo-Pagans worship Hindu deities with some bravado, and have seen and heard about some rituals that are at best ignorant and at worst blatantly disrespectful of Hindu traditions and culture.

So what does it mean to worship a Hindu deity? Can you worship a Hindu deity if you are not Indian or Hindu? If you can, what does it require? I’ve run into a lot of spoken (and unspoken) misconceptions in the Pagan community around these questions, and I’d like to share some of my own perspective by debunking three common myths. You’ll also find this discussion relevant to approaching other living traditions.

Myth #1: You have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities.

There are some very orthodox Hindus who believe that you have to be an Indian to be a Hindu, and there are many temples that bar entrance to non-Hindus (generally meaning non-Indians, but that can also mean those of low-caste, or who have any known non-Hindu ancestry). But there are also plenty of Hindus who believe that it’s what is in your heart that makes you a Hindu, not your nationality or the color of your skin. Hinduism at its best is incredibly accepting of many ways of knowing Truth. There are also plenty of temples that welcome people from all religions to worship the deities housed there, with a recognition that no one can put a limit on God, or on the human heart.

So, you don’t have to be Hindu to worship Hindu deities, but you do have to have respect for Hindu traditions and culture if you decide to become a devotee of a particular deity.

For example, I am a student of classical Indian music, and I can relate to you countless examples of Muslim music masters who were devout Muslims, but nevertheless worshipped Hindu deities, often through heartfelt religious songs and Sanskrit prayers. In the same way, if you are a neo-Pagan and you feel drawn to a Hindu deity, it’s important to learn the ways in which that deity is worshipped, so that you can be respectful to the tradition from which it comes.

Learning how to do a simple puja (worship ritual) and sing a couple of simple traditional songs is a good first step. Learning from a qualified teacher within the tradition is a great way to deepen your knowledge and practice, and there are a number of books, free videos, articles, and even email listservs that can help you with the basics. The best way to respectfully incorporate worship of Hindu deities into your own Pagan worship is to put in the time and energy to learn how they are worshipped traditionally.

Myth #2: You have to learn Sanskrit to worship Hindu deities.

I hear this one a lot! Hindu deities are worshipped with Sanskrit, and in order to develop your worship, you should learn a few basic Sanskrit prayers (mantras) to offer to your chosen deity. This is both a sign of devotion to your deity, as well as a sign of respect for the tradition.

But the fact is, most Hindus, regardless of nationality, don’t know Sanskrit beyond the basic chants and mantras they have learned from going to temples or performing simple worship in their own home, and history is full of saints who worshipped deities with ecstatic poetry and songs in their own native language. And most Hindus have small shrines in their homes where they offer very regular, very simple worship.

Sanskrit has two levels of power – the meaning of a given word or phrase, and the vibration created when spoken. Some mantras cannot be translated, but are purely spoken for their vibrational power. Even if you don’t know the meaning of a mantra, speaking it will evoke the power and blessing of the deity for which it was formulated hundreds or thousands of years ago. Thus, it’s important to learn some Sanskrit in order to perform basic worship, both to honor the tradition and to honor the deity properly. But you need not learn the entire language. Just learn the mantras you need to worship your deity, and learn them well so that you can infuse them with your devotion.

Myth #3: I can worship this deity any way I want, because it’s all about my relationship with them, and what I intuit.

This is a tricky one. Intuition is important when working with any deity, but what we see when we look at a symbol (including representation of deity) is informed by our own cultural information. Cultural appropriation happens most egregiously when we adopt symbols from other cultures, and then reassign meaning without regard to their original meaning or purpose. This is why the sacred texts and reputable gurus and teachers are important – they help us to understand the deeper meaning of mantra and ritual, contextualize symbols and experiences, and help us learn how to listen to our highest selves in more meaningful ways.

When we look at the Goddess Kali, for instance, one might see a terrifying Goddess of death and destruction. In fact, many in the Pagan community misconstrue and appropriate Kali as a Crone Goddess, emphasize Her as destroyer even while acknowledging Her role as creator, or essentialize Her as a Goddess of transformation. But this would be a terrible misconception of this Goddess who embodies but is also beyond Maiden, Mother and Crone (in fact, She is nothing less than Infinite Being), who is understood as benevolent and loving in West Bengal, where some of Her most famous temples are, as well as in Kerala, Assam, Bihar, and elsewhere throughout India.

To say it more succinctly, Hindu deities don’t exist without Hinduism. Hinduism doesn’t exist without community. So the best way to understand Hindu deities and offer respectful worship is to actually understand Hinduism and Hindu culture by participating in it. If you haven’t had the benefit of being raised in a Hindu culture, that means you’ll have to spend some time learning about it.

Although it’s uncomfortable to talk about, I also find that there are a surprising number of white Pagans who are afraid to visit Indian temples because they are afraid of being the only white people, not because they are worried about religious differences. This is an important fear to acknowledge and confront, because it goes to the heart of the cultural appropriation problem. If you can’t worship a Hindu deity in the midst of Indian Hindus, if you can’t be yourself and make friends in a community of people who share your devotion to this deity, then how can you claim to really respect the deity and the culture? If you feel uncomfortable, then good! That means you’re probably ready to learn something! Not just about the worship and the community, but about yourself, which is part of both the Hindu and the Pagan journey toward Truth.

I’ll say it again: Hindu deities are not separate from Hindu culture, and have been worshipped in much the same way for thousands of years. Learn and respect the path!

I now consider myself a Hindu, but I have been a practitioner of Goddess spirituality for nearly 20 years, and I started firmly rooted in the Pagan community. I’m also not Indian – I’m of European descent – and so being a Hindu and running a very small Hindu Goddess temple constantly challenges me to learn more and interact fully with the culture and the traditions from which the Hindu tradition comes. But I’m grateful for the generosity and good will of those who have shared their knowledge and their traditions with me, which includes my gurus, teachers, and friends. And I’m committed to helping people of all faiths learn more about respectful, traditional worship in a way that is simple and straightforward for the average devotee.

My own temple is explicitly a Hindu Shakta Tantric temple, and we welcome anyone from any path who wishes to come and worship the Goddess. We also offer a number of articles and a podcast to help both Hindus and non-Hindus learn more about the deeper meanings of deity and worship. There are also plenty of Indo-Pagan groups out there, and you may find that someone has already forged a path that speaks to your own desire to worship Hindu deities within a Pagan context. And finally, Hindu temples are generally welcoming to non-Hindus, as long as you are a respectful devotee. Dress conservatively, and if you don’t know what to do or how to worship, just ask someone to help you. Human beings are generally helpful and generous creatures when asked sincerely, and Hindus are no exception.

Even if you don’t worship Hindu deities, if you feel drawn to deities from a living tradition that is from a culture other than your own, the guidelines above – learn the worship from a qualified teacher, learn the basic prayers, engage in the community of devotees – are good ones to follow. I hope that this has been helpful, and I look forward to seeing the discussion develop!

Turning the Witch-Hunter into a Hero: Summit Entertainment, the company the brought you the “Twilight” movie adaptations, is branching out from vampires into the world of witchcraft. But we won’t be seeing sexy heroic witches, or even gothy bad-girl witches like in “The Craft”, instead the protagonist will be the witch-hunter.

“Summit made a pre-emptive mid-six figures acquisition of The Last Witch Hunter, a Cory Goodman pitch that has franchise potential, and the attachment of Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov. The protagonist is one of the last remaining witch hunters, a breed that keeps the population of witches and warlocks in check. They are about to repopulate in a major way unless he can stop them.”

So let me get this straight, the historical figures who tortured, killed, and accused innocent men and women of being “witches” and “warlocks” are being revamped as broody anti-heroes trying to save humanity from real-live witches? What’s next? A film where heroic cops raid gay bars for the good of America? Films set in the old west where Native Americans are turned into villains again and again? Oh, wait. They already did that one.

That Darn Neopaganism: The newly launched conservative site “Alternative Right” comes out of the gate swinging against modern Paganism.

“The first and most important problem with Neopaganism is that, to put it simply, it is wrong. Whatever may be said about the dangers of egalitarian and universalist Christianity, that the Church was built as a repository of truth with the distinct purpose of spreading that truth and, through that truth, saving men’s souls, is beyond question. Neopaganism is built around an impulse that runs contrary to the truth… and this impulse is recognized by a vast majority of neopagans. Men that concern themselves with philosophy and ascetics in public find themselves slaughtering goats in the name of Thor in private when they know that the practice is utter nonsense. It is all well and good to desire a connection with your barbaric ancestors; it is quite another thing to bring your silly hobby into the realm of philosophy and politics. Which brings me to my second point: nearly every aspect of the western world worth saving is a product of Christianity, not Paganism. Even the distinctly non-Christian things are Christian in origin.”

First off, ten points are deducted from the essay for quoting G.K. Chesterton, the lazy man’s anti-pagan source material (seriously folks, Chesterton is not the alpha and omega of anti-pagan arguments). Another ten points for his ignorance of the pagan origins of things Christians like to take credit for, like democracy, charity, and philosophy. Yet another ten for faulting paganism for things it wasn’t around to do, like fighting Muslim advances into Europe, because the Christians had eliminated it! If this is the “new intellectual right-wing” is smells an awful lot like the old intellectual right-wing.

Get Religion’s Shameless Plug: Remember me mentioning Rod Dreher’s awful column defending his anti-Vodou attitudes? Well, religion journalism criticism site Get Religion just loved it! Singling it out for praise and discussion because, well, it praised Get Religion.

“We didn’t pay him to say that, or even plead for him to do so, but we’re glad that this concept was aired in a place where mainstream readers and journalists have a chance to read about it and, perhaps, even debate it.”

You can bet your boots I debated it. Dreher’s column was a biased self-serving ode to the reprehensible anti-Vodou tirades by himself and a handful of conservative-leaning columnists. The fact that he’s trying to repackage his outlandishly anti-Vodou attitude as a “respectful” journalistic “study” of the faith strains all sense of credulity for anyone who’s actually read his (and similar) work(s). So the plug really is “shameless”, but not in the way I think they mean. Oh, and if you feel the need to join the debate there, be sure to keep your criticism focused on the journalism, lest your comment be spiked.

That’s all I have for right now, have a great day!

For those of you enjoying the wide-ranging discussions about Pagan identity that have emerged in the wake of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (specifically the categories of “Traditional/Indigenous”, “Reconstructionist”, and “Neopagan”), I’d like to quickly point you to some explorations of this topic going on elsewhere. First, Pagan scholar Chas Clifton explores the politics that underly terms like “indigenous”, and whether they can apply to contemporary Pagans.

“So are today’s revived and re-created Pagan traditions “indigenous.” I think not—not because they lack ancient roots, but because they are not generally connected to land claims and other current political issues.”

Meanwhile, at the Pagans at the Parliament group-blog, T. Thorn Coyle has posted a three-part reflection (part 1, part 2, part 3) on Nature Religion, and Paganism as an indigenous religion, while on the road in Tasmania. Thorn wonders if applying “indigenous” labels to certain contemporary Pagan groups might become problematic in the longer run.

“In these conversations about which Pagans are “indigenous” and which are “neo-Pagans” how long is it before indigenous comes to equal authentic and authentic comes to equal pure and pure comes to equal superior?”

I urge my readers invested in this current discussion/debate to read and comment on all of the linked entries, because I think they have some important insights and wisdom to convey. Also stay tuned to the EarthSpirit Voices blog, where Andras Corban Arthen promises a report on the “The Revival of the European Pagan Traditions” Parliament panel that seems to have sparked much of this discussion.

Considering the fact that my initial entry last week about the language used to define (or not define) the various Paganisms at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne is edging near 200 comments, I think we can safely say it struck a few nerves. At the heart of the discussion was Ed Hubbard’s quotation from EarthSpirit founder and Parliament Board of Trustees member Andras Corban-Arthen that seemed to imply that some forms of Paganism were, well, not quite Pagan.

“Andras Corban-Arthen points out that Wicca, for example, cannot be seen as an indigenous Pagan faith practice and is instead a modern syncretic movement. Under this description Wicca therefore would not fall under the definition of Pagan, and would be squarely a New Religious Movement, while British Traditional Witchcraft could be considered a Pagan and Indigenous faith tradition.”

From the start of this discussion, I have urged my readers to await word from Corban-Arthen and the other trustees on this matter, before we jump to any conclusions.

“…there is always the chance that comments were misconstrued, or misunderstood. So we should await official word from the Pagan members of the Parliament Board of Trustees before we accuse anyone of trying to drive wedges between different Pagan groups. Context is king, and I don’t want to start any flame-wars for an off-the-cuff idea or mis-stated opinion.”

Now, we have some of that clarification. Andras Corban-Arthen has sent me a statement from Australia, clarifying his statements and positions. I am reprinting the statement in-full below.

On representing, defining & speaking for all pagans:

I am nobody to define “paganism” for all pagans, much less presume to speak for them. Neither is anybody else, for that matter. It would be absurd and laughable for anyone to seriously try to assume such a role. Paganism (however anyone defines that term) is far too wide and complex a topic to fit neatly within any one person’s definition. Whenever I talk publicly on the subject, particularly in front of non-pagan audiences, I start by mentioning that fact, and continue by saying that my views represent only myself, and, to whatever general degree, those in my immediate community who’ve given me permission to represent them. I said this at the Parliament prior to each of my presentations; so, for that matter, did my pagan co-presenters and colleagues on the Parliament’s Board of Trustees.

On the “redefinition” of paganism:

Not to split too fine a hair, but for there to be a “redefinition” of paganism, there would first need to be an accepted definition, and there simply isn’t one — there are many, and some of them substantially contradict each other. Some of the more alarmed comments from your readers seem to have been in reaction to the idea that someone would attempt to “redefine” paganism for all of them. This is not something that I or any of the other speakers at the Parliament ever proposed to do; in fact, I don’t believe that any one of us even used the word “redefinition” once. It was Ed Hubbard who started talking about “redefinition” in his blog, and while he’s certainly entitled to his opinion, his opinion does not accurately represent my own views nor, I daresay, the views of other speakers at the Parliament (more about this below).

On the definition of paganism in relation to “indigenous European spirituality”:

This is by no means a new definition of paganism — some of us have been using it for at least 25-30 years or longer, and it is fairly common among many pagan reconstructionist groups. If it is new to some pagans, then perhaps that is an indication that they’re not as well-informed as they could be regarding some important conversations and perspectives that have been developing in certain sectors of the pagan movement for quite some time, as well as an incentive to get better informed.

On the role of the Parliament:

Perhaps because in the U.S. we’re mostly used to hear the word “parliament” in reference to legislative bodies (e.g., the British or Australian Parliaments), there may be an incorrect and unrealistic weight being given to what happens in the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The word “parliament,” in its basic sense, means “conversation,” and that’s precisely what the PWR is and does — an ongoing conversation (or series of interrelated conversations) on topics that have to do with religion or spirituality. It is not a governing body of any sort, nor an accrediting institution or bureau of standards. It is not about to try to define paganism for pagans, nor decide who’s a pagan and who is not…

On the distinction between “Indigenous Spirituality” and “New Religious Movements”:

In the interreligious community, there are several different categories under which various religions are grouped. This is done for the sake of understanding better the nature of & relationships among religions, the categories are not cast in stone, and there is often a lack of consensus as to which categories certain religions belong to. Indigenous traditions are generally those associated with a specific culture, ethnicity, and geographical region and which predate the arrival or development of a larger, more “organized” religion (examples are the Lakota, Yoruban, or Wurundjeri spiritual traditions among many others). New Religious Movements tend to be those formed since around the middle of the 19th century which have a character uniquely their own, or which derive, but are significantly distinct, from older and more established traditions. These are generally considered to include, for instance, the Bahá’ís, the Christian Scientists, the Mormons, the Brahma Kumaris, the Hare Krishnas, the Pentecostals, the Theosophists, the UUs, various New Age sects, etc. It is simply not true, as some have suggested, that the interfaith movement bestows more emphasis or credibility on the Indigenous over the NRMs. There are some interfaith leaders who (usually in private) dismiss indigenous groups as regressive, theologically unsophisticated, and lacking anything of value to offer the modern world (I strongly disagree, of course). On the other hand, the Bahá’ís, for example, are hugely respected among interfaith people, and Dadi Janki, the international head of the Brahma Kumaris, was one of the speakers at the Parliament’s closing plenary, a role which many covet as a status symbol. Modern pagan groups are typically categorized as NRMs, and rightly so, in my opinion. But I, for one, have long been arguing that *some* forms of paganism which still can be found today more properly qualify under the Indigenous category, and this year, for the first time, that argument was finally seriously considered and, to whatever degree, accepted. I would add that while this perspective may indeed help other religions to look at us differently and thereby gain us some added acceptance & credibility, that is not at all the main reason (or at least not mine) for proposing this categorization.

On the question of Wicca not being “pagan”:

This statement, made by Ed Hubbard on his blog (and not by me or any of my fellow panelists), seems to have aroused the most controversy. For the record, here are the definitions which I used in my “Introduction to Paganism” which was widely distributed at the Parliament:

“Paganism is a term that refers collectively to the Indigenous, pre-Christian cultures and spiritual traditions of Europe, some of which have survived into the present, while others are being reconstructed or revived in modern times.”

Beyond that, I proposed three main categories of pagan approaches:

“There are three main general categories through which paganism can be defined. Traditional paganism represents the survivals into modern times of Indigenous European beliefs and practices among, for instance, the Celts, the Balts, the Basques, the Slavs, and the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. What has survived of traditional paganism is typically found in small, isolated rural communities in regions of Europe which retain strong ethnic identities and in which the ancestral languages have not been lost. Reconstructionist paganism is a modern attempt to recreate traditional forms of paganism through the study of literary, historical, linguistic, and archaeological sources; it includes such practices as Ásatrú (Norse paganism), Celtic Reconstructionism, and Hellenic Ethnikoi. Neopaganism is a mostly urban and syncretic effort to develop modern forms of paganism within mainstream Western culture, including Wicca, Neodruidism, and Celtic Shamanism.”

I fully understand that this definition is narrower than what a lot of pagans would use, and that many pagans (including some of my co-panelists) might well disagree to one degree or another with various aspects of it, and that’s just fine with me. Such a definition is not meant to be the final, absolute statement of what paganism is (again, no one can really do that), but a brief, working statement to serve as a foundation for further discussion & clarification of who we are. I don’t even agree with all of it myself because there are gray areas between the categories that just can’t get addressed by its brevity (for example, some forms of Ásatrú really fall more properly under “Traditional” than “Reconstructionist”).

All of this is by way of clarifying that this “controversy” comes from a misrepresentation of the above in Ed Hubbard’s blog. Ed writes: “Andras Corban-Arthen points out that Wicca, for example, cannot be seen as an indigenous Pagan faith practice and is instead a modern syncretic movement.” So far, mostly correct, though what I actually said was that Wicca didn’t belong under “Traditional Paganism,” but under “Neopaganism.”

Ed goes on: “Under this description Wicca therefore would not fall under the definition of Pagan, and would be squarely a New Religious Movemen…) I said no such thing; if Ed had left the word “Traditional” before “Pagan” there’d be no argument (though there probably also wouldn’t be any controversy). Finally, he writes: “…while British Traditional Witchcraft could be considered a Pagan and Indigenous faith tradition.” Again, not only did I not say that, but the term “British Traditional Witchcraft” did not once cross my lips during the entire Parliament. It is entirely Ed’s extrapolation & misrepresentation of what I said & wrote.

I don’t know Ed Hubbard; as far as I am aware, I only just met him at this Parliament, where he introduced himself to me as a pagan journalist. Since I don’t know him, I’m not in a position to judge whether this was an honest misunderstanding and thus inaccurate reporting on his part, or a deliberate misrepresentation meant to generate controversy for ulterior motives. I’d like to think it’s the former, especially in the light of other statements Hubbard made in Melbourne which would indicate a tendency on his part to jump to hasty conclusions without fully understanding what’s involved. If that’s the case, it might be useful for all of us to reflect on how easily a tempest can be stirred in the pagan teapot by the omission of just one key word.

I hope this sheds a little more clarity on some of what we discussed at the Parliament. In case anyone’s interested, I will be posting more about all this, including the pagan participation at the Parliament’s Indigenous Assembly, on our EarthSpirit Voices blog .

Thanks,

Andras Corban Arthen

So there you have it. Problems and controversies solved? New ones created? Was this merely a tempest in a tea-cup? Feel free to respond to the statement in the comments section.

You have to wonder if Slate.com is getting somewhat hard-pressed to find subject matter and writers for their regular “Faith-Based” section. How else to explain them getting journalist Robert Wright, author of several game theory/evolutionary psychology-boosting books, including his recent “The Evolution of God”, to write about Neo-Shamanism? Wright, who seems to be a proponent of the outmoded and inaccurate idea that monotheism is a more evolved form of belief than polytheism (Publishers Weekly points out that he uses a “naive and antiquated approach to the sociology and anthropology of religion”), is so eager to debunk popular myths about shamans that he makes some rather sloppy assertions right out of the gate.

“The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism, which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age spirituality. But the basic idea—that there was a golden age of spiritual purity which we fallen moderns need to recover—goes beyond New Age circles.”

While there is certainly some significant overlap between modern Paganism and Neo-Shamanism, the latter isn’t a “subset” of the former. Nor is modern Paganism a subset of New Age spirituality. These are all distinct religious/social movements with different starting points, ideologies, and goals. Wright is confusing the overlap of practitioners and subcultures (and the tendency of some academics to lump them together for the sake of convenience) with some sort of neat nesting-dolls order of New Religious Movements. Meanwhile, before Wright talks about all the indigenous shamans who were fakes and confidence men, he wants us to know that he isn’t trying to offend.

“But before I start, I want to stress two points: 1) I think it’s great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism; 2) I don’t doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were earnest seekers of a “holistic vision” who selflessly sought to share that vision.”

So big of him, don’t you think? Despite admitting that some shamans may have indeed been honorable and wise, he still wants to point out that some were not. As if human nature hasn’t taught us that some people, no matter how exhaulted their status, can still take part in some very real moral failings and abuse their power. In fact, Wright pretty much admits that there may be some real value to various shamanic ideas and practices (he “praises” them by comparing their worldview to followers of early Abrahamic religions), he just wanted us to take off our rose-colored (shamanic) glasses.

“I’m for that! In fact, I once did a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat that gave me just that feeling. And there are traditions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are big on oneness. I recommend trying one of them—or trying neo-shamanism. But if you try neo-shamanism, don’t be under the illusion that you’re helping to recover a lost age of authentic spirituality. Religion has always been a product of human beings, for better and worse.”

So to sum up, Neo-Shamanic adherents (who are a subset of Pagans, who are a subset of New Agers) need to remember that some indigenous shamans were fakers and frauds, but really, there is some  (early Abrahamic-esque) wisdom and good stuff to be found there. Heck, “ordinary consciousness could use some transcending”! So I guess now that the Neo-Shamans (not to mention the traditional indigenous shamans) have been taken down a peg by Wright, those crazy diamonds can all shine on. I have to wonder, was there really a point to this article? Did Slate.com actually pay him to just ramble on about animal bladders full of blood and how often shamans got lucky? Of all the topics he could cover, why was Robert Wright writing about Neo-Shamanism?

Note: This is a guest essay by author, artist, and harried graduate student Lupa, who is helping out with content while Jason’s doing his cross-country move.

In the United States, we have achieved what is possibly the most hyperindividualized culture in the history of our species. Some of the effects of this have benefited people, particularly minorities of various sorts who, while still facing oppression, are able to find more footholds for asserting their unique identities amid the masses. However, we’ve taken the archetype of the Rugged Individualist to such an extent that most of us no longer really know how to function as a cohesive community. More and more of us no longer live in the same state, let alone city or neighborhood, as our extended or even nuclear families. The average American moves over a dozen times in their lifetime.

Culturally, we feel rootless as well. Dissatisfied with mainstream (generally white) American culture, more people, neopagans included, are seeking connection with other cultures as a substitute for strip malls, reality television, and the aggressive competition associated with hyperindividualism. Unfortunately, this often results in varying degrees of cultural appropriation, in which an individual draws whatever isolated elements of a culture’s practices they prefer, while ignoring the context provided by what they’ve left behind.

I can personally speak only from an American perspective. However, while we’re not in a situation where “As goes the United States, so goes the world”, neopaganism has developed largely in individual-based Western cultures, and neopagan religions retain that influence to some degree, even when practiced in more communal settings.

I’ve run into countless pagans who want to form “tribes”, “families”, or other sorts of communities. Some may want to create intentional communities on land that no one yet owns; others just want some connection in their city or region. Many are inspired by the Temporary Autonomous Zones created in the context of pagan festivals, and wish they could extend that permanently. Unfortunately, community doesn’t just happen overnight. Nor can it be forced or even necessarily planned neatly. It’s an organic thing that happens at its own pace. Wanting to have a community doesn’t automatically confer the social and practical skills necessary to make it happen.

We aren’t used to being part of a community because our culture has slid so far into individualism. We’re used to being in groups of people, we’re used to making friends and other relationships, but we have a tendency to isolate ourselves outside of our preferred social circles. Many Americans today, pagan and otherwise, couldn’t tell you who most of the people who live on their street are—something that was very different even a couple of generations ago. Some of the pie-in-the-sky plans for intentional communities I’ve heard cooked up over the years have included “pagan communes”, self-sufficient and detached from “Christian America”.

Community requires interdependence with a variety of people, not just the ones we like. Yes, often communities are formed out of reaction to a lack of safe space due to being a minority of some sort. However, what keeps us from being able to create that safe space in the form of pagan-centric community is the intense focus on the self. We can see this in the common sabotage of attempts to create covens and other small groups, as well as other organization efforts. One or more people, miffed that the project isn’t going their way, will instead turn their actions towards destroying it out of spite—putting their own needs over that of the group as a whole. Personal disagreements take precedence over the greater goal. It’s not just isolation from non-pagans that is problematic—it’s the fact that we’ve been conditioned to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others to an unhealthy degree, even to the point of damaging one-on-one relationships.

These one-on-one relationships are the building-blocks of community, which also requires starting small. Relationships have to be established and built up over time if the people involved are going to survive the stressors of being in close proximity on a long-term basis. The most naïve daydreams I’ve seen often include a bunch of people who have little, if any, connection with each other, other than perhaps being friends with the ringleader(s). If your biggest concern is making sure that your needs get met, and you aren’t all that invested in the needs of most of the other people in your “community”, are you really going to be willing to temporarily set aside your needs in order to listen to everyone else’s as a way of facilitating group communication?

Conversely, “community” doesn’t always have to include every single member of the community all the time. Some of the strongest moments of a community are when one person with a problem simply knows that they can go to another person and get a solution. An example is the practice of borrowing a cup of sugar; we’ve so lost track of interconnectedness that very few of us feel we have an option in that instance beyond going out to the store, or doing without. While one’s pagan community may be scattered far enough apart across an area that borrowing that sugar may be difficult, there are other small but significant interactions that can still happen.

And it’s these small interactions involving trust and communication that are the building blocks for making community happen on a larger scale. I’ve been privileged enough to be able to go to festivals at permanent pagan sites, and observe the interactions among long-term residents, volunteers, and other staff. They get to be human beings, with errors and problems, but there’s a cohesion that’s impressive to behold. It took a lot of time, and weathering a lot of challenges to temper those relationships. But it can happen.

Admittedly I can only speak so much in practice at this point. I don’t live in an intentional community, and much of my time is taken up with personal pursuits (the Master’s Degree That Ate My Life being a primary one). However, that Master’s degree will be in counseling psychology, from a program with an emphasis on community involvement—not just taking on the clients who are most like me. And in my personal life, I’m attempting to make the first steps in creating an environment in which community can hopefully develop; last month, for example, my husband Taylor and I hosted a pot luck and swap meet in our home where people not only shared food but excess resources. Granted, our collection of “resources” looked more like the fodder for a yard sale, but it was a start. And while I’m not yet the greatest gardener in the world, I’ve planted some extra onion sets in anticipation of a barter with a friend of mine who raises quail. It just so happens that a large portion of my social circle happens to be pagan—but my goal isn’t necessarily a specifically pagan community.

That’s where I’m at right now, and I’m fine with that. I have a lot of individualistic tendencies to move past, and I have a lot of practical and relational skills I need to develop. But I can also learn from those who have made community—whether pagan or otherwise—so successful, and I can put those lessons into practice. And that’s what I’d suggest to those who want to build community: learn from those who have made it happen. There’s work to be done, but it can be done—it is being done.

(guest post by Elysia Gallo)

I’m committed to becoming another brick in the wall – one that makes it stronger – rather than becoming another sucker who punches a hole in that wall. What wall am I talking about? The wall of separation between church and state.

The Establishment Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” Jefferson later famously referred to this clause in a letter as having built “a wall of separation between church and state.” Like all walls (the Gaza wall, the US-Mexican border, the Great Firewall of China), this wall is not impermeable. It protects us from being forced by the government to join or financially support a church, but it does allow in streams of personal religious expression – the other right we hold so dear. The Constitution ensures that religious expression on a personal level is acceptable, as long as our government does not endorse one religion over another. However, there are many times when it does just that, whether purposely or simply because the majority thoughtlessly and naively sees itself as the default mode.

For example, when a crèche turns up in front of city hall, minority faiths who want equal representation in the public sphere often have to ask for inclusion after the fact. In many cases– in Wisconsin and Washington state, for example – the consequent opening of the door to all faiths is quickly followed by a swift slamming of it when too many requests flood in or the displays cause too much controversy. Baby Jesus and a menorah are one thing, but a Wiccan pentacle? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? The Festivus Pole? The mainstream can’t take it!

A poll last year found that “83% [of respondents] say a nativity scene on city property should be legal, but only 60% say a display honoring Islam during Ramadan should be legal. Overall, 58% of all Americans feel both should be legal, while 15% feel both should be illegal.” If the majority of Americans are for the nativity but only slightly more than half would open up that space to all faiths regardless of their personal religious views, you have the majority effectively suppressing the minority’s religious expression. We need to put a stop to this practice altogether, or else this stream could become a flood that washes away our Constitutional protection against such state-sanctioned oppression. The Constitution is supposed to protect the rights of minorities, not strengthen those of the majority – that’s what the Civil Rights movement was all about.

While not all Christians are trying to push their religion on us, not all non-mainstream religions are without ulterior motives of their own…

Should we support proselytizing by non-mainstream religious groups?

You may remember Jason blogging about the case of a fringe religious group called Summum trying to get its Seven Aphorisms erected in a city park in Pleasant Grove, UT, on equal standing with the Ten Commandments already displayed there.

However, Summum had challenged another city for the same reasons – the city of Duchesne, UT. While the Pleasant Grove case proceeded to the Supreme Court, Duchesne instead reluctantly moved its Ten Commandments piece to a cemetery to avoid further litigation. Surprisingly enough, this was not seen as a victory in Summum’s eyes; in an article published after the monument had been moved,

“We are saddened that the Ten Commandments monument has been removed from the city park in Duchesne,” Summum President Su Menu said.

“Summum has never requested that religious monuments be removed from government property. We have only asked that all religions be given equal access,” Menu said. “Just as the citizens of Duchesne have benefited from the display of the Decalogue, so, too, would they have benefited from the display of our Seven Aphorisms.”

So was Summum ultimately just trying to win converts, or did they believe that all beliefs could peacefully coexist if everyone had equal access to them? Would we ever want to erect a statue of the 42 Principles of Maat, or the Nine Noble Virtues, or the Wiccan Rede in a public park simply because others “may benefit” from its display? Proselytizing is not a central tenet of any Pagan faith I can think of, but does that mean we should bar others from doing so? If we are all for tolerance and acknowledging the validity of an infinite number of other paths, why would we be intolerant of a Ten Commandments statue in a park or courtroom?

And if we went to all the courthouses of the nation to dismantle any Christian-themed decorations, then what of Pagan decorations like Lady Liberty? Would you get rid of Moses yet keep Confucius? What of Mars in front of the US Capitol, or the Three Fates and the four elements in front of the Supreme Court building? Obviously we live in a society where religious expression is not easily extracted from the public sphere; indeed, in many cases it makes our lives richer.

Conversely, if tolerance is one of our core beliefs as Pagans, how can we tolerate intolerance and religious aggression? Wiccans say “An’ it harm none, do as ye will” – so the question then becomes whether Christians are actually doing harm by erecting the Ten Commandments in public places, placing nativities on City Halls, and so forth.

Pagans and Atheists – strange bedfellows?

Unfortunately what may have once been the simple, well-intentioned decorating of buildings and parks in the past is now being pushed as part of a malicious and divisive political agenda. That fits the definition of “harm” well enough for me. You can see this again and again as part of the “Culture Wars” that fundamentalist Christians believe they must wage to stop the secularization of America. In the words of Green Bay City Council President Chad Fradette, who placed the nativity on government property, “I’m trying to take this fight to the people who need to be fought. I’ll keep going on this until this group imposing Madison values crawls back into its hole and never crawls out.”

Because of people like Chad, I’m more inclined these days to crawl into bed with the atheists – to stop, or at least to impede, the progress of the Christian right juggernaut that is hell-bent on tying up taxpayer’s money in long, drawn-out court battles revolving around their supposed “persecution” by a secularized America. I realize that in not supporting religious displays on public land I’m in a small minority of Americans – but what else is new?

It’s not just Chad fighting to get us back in our hole – many Christians are organizing to be more proactive in thrusting their nativities into the public sphere, to deliberately inflame others. The response of setting up a Wiccan pentacle is just feeding into that – a retribution against having the nativity on government property. And then that pentacle gets trashed, which is just more revenge visited upon retribution. Does it make any sense? Can’t we just nip it in the bud by saying no to everyone before it gets ugly? Can’t religious displays be simply relegated to private homes, churches and temples? Why bring it to city property or schools in the first place?

A huge chorus of secularists saying “no” to these displays will probably be heard more loudly than one or two minority faiths’ disjointed efforts to fight these assaults or gain equal standing on their own.

One atheist organization, the Secular Coalition for America, has been lobbying Washington of late for initiatives that Pagans may also support, such as eliminating faith-based policies that impose mainstream religious tenets on the rest of us through discriminatory hiring, weakening science-based education and health services, and proselytizing through charity. They are also urging more atheists to come out of the closet; this article about their lobbying efforts reveals that of 23 privately self-proclaimed atheists in the House and Senate, only one was willing to go public with it! Ultimately they, too, fear PR damage on the basis of the mainstream American belief that only Christians can be moral or ethical and that atheists are necessarily evil, deluded, liberal or untrustworthy. (Sound familiar? Such labels are often applied to Pagans, too.)

As Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition, wrote to me in an email,

“Our mission is twofold: to promote non-theism and work for the separation of religion and government. We are on your side on just about all cases. […] I think it is a good idea for all of our groups to work together on the main issues and also to work for the visibility and respectability of our constituencies. The more Atheists and Pagans come out of their closets, the better off we will all be.”

Besides the Secular Coalition and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, there are more inclusive groups fighting for the same ideals (because believers of any faith can be secularists, too), such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State – the very same organization that helped Roberta Stewart and Circle Sanctuary with the pentacle quest.

What do you think? Do you want to join the atheists and other secularists to ensure that minority rights don’t get trampled by keeping faith out of the public sphere, where we still can? Or will it be more effective to fight for better minority faith inclusion in the long run? How should we respond when “culture warriors” provoke us to action?

What does community mean to you? Is it a place of magic? A gathering of like-minded people with a single goal? A place to get taken care of? A place to belong? Singing and drumming around the fire? Doing good work with others?

Come closer. I will tell you my vision. It is a vision of the present, and a vision of the future. All time is now, and magic is here, so everything is possible. The moment is reality. We breathe together, and the vision opens:

You have studied, and danced the spiral many times. You have walked the pathways of sun and moon. You have been guided, and rebelled a time or two. Slowly, you come to recognize your power, the power you’ve always been told was within you. Still, you study. You work. You play. You practice. Eventually, you come into your own work. You recognize the rhythm of the divine heart within your animal body. We stand and cheer. We celebrate your beauty and your power. You teach us what you know. We dance awhile to the beating of your drum. If others are called to similar work, they will join you, forming a coalition that creates something beautiful, that does meaningful work together, that is of help to all involved and to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, she makes her music and he writes his epic stories. She sits high amongst the branches to save a patch of forest. He campaigns for clean water. She teaches. He plants a garden. They come together to leap the fires in spring and to gather canned goods for the food bank come the autumn. This is community, this coming together and this moving apart. Nothing is static, the rising and falling belongs to a living, breathing, being.

Why does this image come to light so seldom? Why are we so worried about jockeying for position, and fighting over scraps? My answer: because, as communities, we are afraid of autonomous power. We seek to uphold the status quo. Her unique expression may rock the carefully balanced boat. His deep study is seen to take away from what the group needs in the moment. Anything different becomes a threat. We fight for what we have, instead of reaching for what we can become. We tear each other down instead of supporting someone else’s rise.

There is no need for this. Here is the secret: if we all have power, there is no need to fight for scraps. If each has a role to play, there is no need to jockey for position. The quiet bring in listening. The noisy bring in liveliness. Some grind incense and others teach our children. We can all be equal, but this means we cannot be equivalent. Every biosphere needs diversity and the ways of magic are no different. Not any one of us holds the fabric, but each holds a vital thread. Your thread does not trump mine, nor mine, yours. What is this fabric? It is the fabric of the Limitless Divine. God Herself flows in each thread, and we color these with our lives.

Community does not mean we all do the same thing. Community is not about who gets the biggest role in ritual. Community, for me, is what I have with my best peers. It is something we’ve been hard pressed to learn ourselves, after many years of our own squabbles and power plays. We finally reached a point where we went off by ourselves for awhile to discover our deeper talents and interests. We sought the magic that welled up from within, rather than always seeking the magic outside. We would come together periodically, to toast the longest night, or dance up the spring flowers. But mostly, we studied, practiced, and prayed. And now we are strong and beautiful. We each have something valuable to share.

I celebrate my friends: the artist, the dream-worker, the medium, my friend who helps heal sexual wounds, she who priestesses the dying, he who teaches. I toast my friends: the mystic, the poet, the singer and she who dances down the Gods. This is my community. These are my peers.

We all still seek out teaching. We celebrate together. We eat and laugh and raise a glass of wine. We do our work apart. We ask for help during the planting of something new, and we share the gifts of our harvest, knowing that there is plenty to go around.

This, for me, is community.

What do you wish for yours?

- guest posted by T. Thorn Coyle