After the Parliament: Statement from Andras Corban-Arthen

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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 .


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.