Pagans for Secularism: an interview with Megan Manson

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TWH – “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” or so says the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which goes on to say that “this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” But in practice, the right to religious freedom is hotly contested, and minority religions such as Paganism frequently find their adherents enjoy more limited rights than members of dominant religious traditions.

Pagans for Secularism is a Facebook discussion group for “Pagans who support the separation of religion and government, challenging religious privilege, and the promotion of freedom and equality for people of all religions and none.” The group is open to all and focuses specifically on Pagan spirituality. Its founding principles include the UN’s Universal Declaration, along with the Secular Charter of the National Secular Society.

Broadly, both documents affirm that individuals should have freedom of conscience, that there should be separation of church and state, and that all people, regardless of their religious belief or non-belief, should be held equal under the law.

The Wild Hunt‘s Jake Leibowitz recently spoke with Megan Manson, the founder and administrator of Pagans for Secularism, about the group and its mission.

Megan Manson [courtesy}

The Wild Hunt: Welcome to The Wild Hunt and thank you for taking the time to participate in an interview with us! How do you define secularism within the context of Pagans for Secularism?

Megan Manson: Secularism simply means equality for all, regardless of religion or belief. What follows from this are other concepts, such as separation of church and state – you cannot have a society that treats people of all religions and beliefs equally if it favors particular religions or beliefs over others. Human rights and democracy are also essential concepts in secularism. The concept of universal human rights recognizes that whatever our religion or belief, all humans have certain basic needs, so laws based on human rights ensure these basic needs are not undermined by religious concerns. And democracy and secularism go hand in hand. Secularism essentially says that it is better to make laws based on the democratic process, rather than basing them on religious texts.

A common misconception is that secularism is a philosophy or spiritual outlook, like atheism, or Paganism. It’s really more of a political concept, like socialism or capitalism. You can be a secularist and be deeply religious, or not religious at all. You can be a secularist of any religion or belief.

TWH: What inspired you to start this group?

MM: The reason I created Pagans for Secularism is because I have met many Pagans who have quite a secularist outlook, even if they do not realize it. Many Pagans believe that freedom of religion is extremely important – but that it should not eclipse other human rights, such as the rights of the LGBTQ+ people to be treated as equal citizens. They also believe in adaptability in their spirituality. If there’s something about their spiritual practice that doesn’t quite seems right to them, Pagans are often keen to change it – for example, if it turns out that certain spiritual practices harm the environment, like leaving non-biodegradable offerings out in nature, a lot of them will cease to do it. This flexibility to change one’s spiritual practices to ensure they do not harm or impose on others is important for maintaining a secularist society – one’s freedom of religion ends where it infringes on the freedoms of another. In fact, the Wiccan Rede, “Do what thou will, and it harm none,” sums this up quite nicely – you are free to do what you like, provided you harm no one.

Additionally, while most Pagans are very tolerant people, many are also quite wary of some religions – particularly Christianity. I’ve met a lot of Pagans who were from Christian backgrounds originally and had negative experiences, and others who are interested in spirituality but find Christianity unpalatable due to the long record of human rights violations that have been committed by Christian institutions. I think a lot of U.S. Pagans in particular are also wary that some Christian groups have a deep dislike of Paganism and do not wish for Pagans to have the same freedom of religion as themselves. Talking about these issues in a secularist context is an excellent way to deal with them – it’s about discussing these issues objectively and constructively while trying to avoid generalizations about people and working to counter extremism and hatred. As the secularist organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State often says, religious freedom should be a shield to protect people, not a sword
to harm people.

Members of the Lords Spiritual, bishops from the Anglican Church who by law have seats in the U.K.’s House of Lords [U.K. Parliament; parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament]

 

TWH: When many people hear the term “secularism,” they associate it with being inherently anti-religion. Would you address this issue?

MM: The idea that secularism is anti-religious is, unsurprisingly, propagated by religious institutions who would lose privileges under a secular democracy. For example, in the UK the Church of England would lose its massive influence over government, its 26 bishops appointed as of right in our House of Lords – Iran is the only other country that explicitly includes religious clerics in its legislature – and its huge control over our education. In fact, there are quite a few members of the Church of England clergy who agree that the Church should be disestablished, that is, separated from the state, because while it’s shackled to the state, the influence of church stakeholders over the church itself is diminished.

TWH: Your spiritual path has taken you to many places, all over the world. How did you find your way to Paganism?

MM: I was raised Roman Catholic. However, Paganism was part of my childhood. My father owned a business specializing in giftware like jewelry, incense and music that was of particular interest to those involved in the Pagan, Gothic and New Age movements. As a family business I was deeply involved in it, including designing and advertising products, so I grew to understand a lot about Paganism. But being quite a scientifically-minded person I always resisted practicing Paganism myself – even though deep down I wanted to.

It wasn’t until I went to live in Japan for three years that I started really becoming interested in practicing Paganism. In Japan, the approach to religion is quite different. The Japanese are very respectful of science, but they see no conflict at all in embracing a scientific view of existence together with engaging in regular spiritual practices, such as visiting Shinto shrines for blessings. They also don’t get too hung up on the concept of “faith,” belief, being an essential component of identifying with a religion to the same extent Christianity does. This was a really new and liberating concept for me, which made me realize that I could practice Paganism and still have a scientific view of the world, and I could practice it without worrying to what extent I believed in the supernatural elements of Paganism. I came to realize that what’s important is how Paganism makes you feel when you practice it – and that can help you to build up a picture of what you do and do not believe.

When I came back to the UK and joined a local Pagan group, I also became interested in local interfaith activities as well. This was partly because I had a genuine concern about intolerance and bigotry against certain members of the local community, particularly Muslims. But this was also partly because I wanted to ensure Paganism “had a seat at the table,” was taken as seriously as other religions, and that the interests of the local Pagan community were being represented. But as I participated more in interfaith activities, I began to realize a lot of important things.

One was that non-religious people were not being represented at interfaith groups, despite them making up more than half the population. Another was that while tolerance of different ideas is important, there are some religious practices that I realized I could not tolerate because they harmed or imposed on others – and that it was not bigotry to object to such practices. And another was that UK society itself is structurally unfair, with certain religious voices being projected over others – and, in many cases, religious voices being projected over the voices of those with no religion.

So I realized that what I wanted was to be able to discuss religion without excluding the non-religious, to explore religion but not be afraid of criticizing it, and to ensure we had genuine freedom and fairness for all, whatever their religion or belief.

TWH: After reading the description of the Pagans for Secularism page on Facebook I was struck by the assertion that criticizing a religion is an acceptable practice within the community, but attacking or criticizing individuals personally is not. Is that an accurate observation?

MM: I think it’s more accurate to say that ideas should never be protected from criticism. All ideas, be they political, scientific, artistic or religious, should be open to criticism and ridicule. They should not be protected by law from criticism. To protect religion from criticism is to curtail freedom of expression, one of the most basic human rights of all. Many countries around the world – including parts of the UK even today – have ‘blasphemy laws’ that prevent people from criticising religion; very often, the very religion that is oppressing them.

And that’s why making sure all ideas, including religion, can be freely criticized and lampooned is in fact a way of protecting individual human rights. It’s about ensuring we do not protect ideas from criticism, but that we do protect individuals’ human rights.

TWH: Where do you see the secularism movement in the U.S. going as we move forward under a new administration?

MM: Being British, it’s not easy for me to say, I do hope that the new administration will be good news for America’s constitutional separation of church and state. Certainly, things look positive, with moves underway to repeal anti-abortion laws, give greater protection to LGBTQ+ people, and end the unfair blanket ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries.

TWH: What lies ahead for you?

MM: I’m really hoping to build awareness of secularism and its merits in the U.K. Secularism is poorly understood, despite many Brits believing strongly in equality, democracy, human rights, rule of law, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, which are all fundamental to secularism. And I’d love to see more Pagans understanding this concept too. There are growing numbers of Pagans in the U.K., and as they grow in number they will also grow in influence. I hope that, if and when Pagan institutions have influence over policy, they use that influence to ensure equality for people of all religions and none – not just Pagans.