Syncretic Electric: Community is More Than You

A Dedication to Bacchus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1889

A Dedication to Bacchus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1889

There has been a good deal of sound and fury recently over what legitimately constitutes a Pagan faith. I have to admit that I myself have been growing increasingly frustrated with a number of the antics going on in the online Pagan community of late, and I know that I am not alone.  Over and over again I have sung the praises of the variation and heterogeneity of Paganism. However, I have also warned against the increasing fractiousness of the community. I strongly believe that it is of utmost importance for us to figure out what exactly community means to us, what we want out of community, and most importantly, what we are willing to put in to it. If, as I suggested in my last post here, all we are looking for is a mutual appreciation society, then we really have no actual interest in building a religious community. Of course, I also have to wonder if we actually want a religious community at all.

At present, Modern Paganism is composed of a wide variety of faiths, many of which do share similar ideas, beliefs, and theologies. However, there are also a handful of movements clustering together under Paganism that seem to derive from other places, and yet still insist on calling themselves Pagan. Are we willing, when considering the Pagan community, to simply accept that we all claim the word Pagan as a sort of political bargain and nothing more? When we say Pagan, do we only do it for the sake of public opinion? Is Paganism just a way to talk politically about minority religious rights and nothing else? Given the way that the community is currently comporting itself, I have to wonder if this is not, in fact, the only legitimate use of the term at present.

I have to wonder if people’s attachment to the word Pagan has anything at all to do with the actual meaning of that word, and more to do with individuals’ own identity politics. Consider, there are many in the Pagan community who look down on the New Age community, despite the fact that there is a great deal of overlap between the two movements, and that they both emerged roughly contemporaneously from the same cultural milieu in the early twentieth century. For the outsider, it can be very difficult to discern the boundary between Paganism and the New Age movement, and yet we ourselves are often very careful to draw sharp distinctions between the two. Many Pagans simply do not wish to be associated with the New Age community, despite whatever similarities they may share, because of their own identity constructions. I have to wonder if some of what is currently going on in Paganism is not a result of similar political maneuvering.

Historically, the Pagan community has been very receptive and welcoming to new and different ideas, provided they were sympathetic to the basic Pagan worldview. I can understand, then, why people who are in the process of figuring out their own spirituality would be attracted to Paganism, and why they would come to feel so attached to such a community, particularly if they are emerging from a much more restrictive religious tradition. However, there is still a point at which people must recognize that by claiming membership to a community they are no longer entirely free in their movements, but reliant upon and bound to the demands, opportunities, and pressures of that community. Any community is allowed to police itself, to define its boundaries, and determine the qualifications for entrance. While you can call yourself whatever you like, you have no guarantee that other people will respect your identification. I could identify as Catholic, but seeing as I have never attended Catholic mass, do not believe in the trinity, nor accept divine salvation through the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, there is no reason for anyone else to respect my desire to claim membership to the Catholic religious community.

Theological discussions are increasingly difficult to have, particularly when disagreements only end in accusations of fundamentalism and erasure. Furthermore, a number of the permutations currently flourishing under the name Paganism are viewed by many as antithetical to the other faiths that have a longer historical usage of the term Pagan. If we are at a point when we can no longer even agree that we mean the same general thing when we say God, then perhaps we need to examine whether we really have any reason to claim membership to the same religious community. If, for one person, the Gods are discrete spiritual beings who exist independent of human action, and for another they are simply constructs of the psyche, or amalgamations of social energy, or even just nice poetic words, then there is very little room for actual conversation to occur. These ideas are not only antithetical, but are presently being viewed as heretical in opposition.

There is always going to be a difference between what you believe and what we believe. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, I would argue that it is a sign of a healthy spirituality. However, there is something wrong with claiming that we are not allowed to question or criticize what you believe, particularly if it strikes us as too far out of the bounds of what we believe. This kind of dialogue is a good thing, because it forces all of us to examine are positions and assumptions, and perhaps you will realize that you made a misstep somewhere and return to us, or perhaps we will see that you have a valid interpretation that increases the boundaries of our belief. Or, perhaps we will come to feel that you are now too different to still claim membership to our community, and if you are unwilling to alter your ideas, then we are well within our rights to ask you to leave. Paganism is not just a word, it describes a community of religious practitioners. When you call yourself Pagan, you are claiming membership in that community and are making yourself beholden to it. Regardless of what Paganism represents to you, it extends beyond you, and you must be aware of the responsibilities that claiming membership to such a community entails.

I personally think that one of the important steps that needs to be taken in order to understand the Pagan community is to reflect upon the history of the movement, the forces that shaped its emergence, and the role that it plays in the larger social and religious milieu. I suspect that such an examination will be of great help in understanding what Paganism really means, and will help to distinguish Modern Paganism from other similar emergent faiths. In keeping with the project of my writing here, I shall be devoting my next several posts to exploring this topic, and hopefully shedding some light on the usage of the word Pagan, the evolution of the community, and of our future progress.

It is of utmost importance in this discussion to realize that simply because we may no longer be able to lay claim to the words that we have developed such a strong attachment to does not mean that our identities are being erased. Simply because we may find ourselves outside the bounds of Paganism does not mean that we no longer exist, just that we have more work to do figuring out our identities. Spirituality should never be easy. If we are struggling, then I firmly believe that we are on the right path. If we came to Paganism looking for nothing but a pat on the back, then we have very little to really offer the community as whole. We must be willing to work, to argue, to come together in understanding, and to sacrifice if we are going to truly build a Pagan religious community.


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About Julian Betkowski

Julian Betkowski is an artist currently living in Washington State and has been a practicing Pagan for the last ten years. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, with the intention of setting up a private counseling practice to serve the Pagan and Queer communities.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    I’m sympathetic with your general argument, but I think differences in belief about the Gods are a red herring. Hinduism and Judaism are two religions where atheists and various kinds of theists routinely worship side by side — specifically because there is a common understanding of what proper practice looks like. If differences in belief create sufficiently different modes of practice, then clearly that can and probably will divide community. But if common practices are performed by people with different beliefs about them, we already know sociologically and historically that that doesn’t necessarily create community dissent.

    • Julian Betkowski

      I actually have to disagree with you pretty strongly about belief in God. Consider the permutations of the early Christian Church. Docetism and Arianism caused massive difficulties for the Church and caused debates the eventually determined the course of Christian history. Hinduism actually has its own history of internal conflict and violence over the nature of divinity, even if we in the West are largely unaware of it, and Judaism is kind of a special case, since the importance of “cultural Jews” is largely a result of WWII and the Holocaust.

      As Halstead remarks, Paganism is not orthopraxic, and while we have a generic sort of vaguely Wiccan ritual form that we pull out for public events, that doesn’t really serve to define communal practice.

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        The difference with Christianity is that in the conflicts you name, right belief is the key to salvation and membership in the group. That’s not necessarily the case in other religions. Any good university religious studies introductory text or class will beat you over the head with this point — I’ve TAed, co-taught, or taught several, and challenging American students’ Protestant assumptions that belief is the driving force behind all religions is a major part of introducing them to the scholarly field of religious studies. There are few religions to which belief is entirely irrelevant, but the position it holds in Christianity and especially in the United States is fairly unique. Contemporary religious studies scholarship is pretty much incomprehensible to students until they’re able to shift their definition of religion so it isn’t belief-centered. (For functional definitions of religion, I like Catherine Albanese best: religion arises from a combination of belief, practice, system of ethics, and community, all working in tandem.)

        I’m not saying that differing beliefs *never* lead to conflict, but I am saying that in the absence of differences in practice, they are much less likely to. Keep in mind that before the 19th century, Hinduism was not considered one religion, but many (and perhaps it still should be — but the desire to build a national Indian identity has changed Indian religion forever in any case); and secondly, although the concept of “cultural Jews” is new, the existence of observant but theologically agnostic Jews is something that is threaded throughout Jewish history and is alluded to frequently in Jewish commentaries and other writings.

        This book is a little dry at times, but it might help in terms of seeing how religious studies has shaken off its own overly-Protestant approaches to world religions as Western scholars have encountered other cultures: http://www.amazon.com/Religious-Studies-The-Making-Discipline/dp/0800625358/

        • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

          Even in American Christianity, you can be “observant” without belief (the pews are full on Easter and Christmas for as many cultural reasons). However, the difference is this–those folks who don’t believe, or believe something different, don’t get the pulpit. The orthodoxy (I wish this weren’t such a bad word lately–you can’t be a heretic without it) holds the community together and it is from this that the orthopraxy springs.

          So we come back to the question of “authority.” Who gets to speak for God/ the gods in the context of the community? The ones who believe God/gods exist, or the ones who think we’re all making this up but it’s a nice thing to do anyways? We need both voices, both the orthodox and the heterodox, but which one gets to claim “the center?”

          • Kathryn O’Connor

            My experience is the ones who can claim authority in the community are the popular ones or the ones with power. it’s as simple as that

        • Julian Betkowski

          I will happily add that book to my reading list! My Amazon cart is just waiting for me to make another giant purcahse.

          I do agree that there is more to religion that just belief, and I have suggested in the past that we look to the cultural ramifications of Paganism to help us understand why people are drawn to it (http://erosiserosiseros.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-why-not-what-of-paganism.html).

          Judaism is a good example of what Paganism could strive to be, and a bad example of what Paganism looks like, however. Judaism is a special case since it has almost always been a religion, an ethnicity, and a culture. Particularly when it has been surrounded by hostility, and a traditionally antisemitic Europe, even those Jews who were not religiously observant were still folded in to the larger community as a result of both internal and external forces. Modern Paganism simply does not have the strong communal bond that has defined the Jewish experience for such a long time.

          There are also pretty extreme variations in practice across the board in Paganism. With a lack of orthopraxy and a lack of at least elements of a shared theology, I’m not sure that we can really claim group identity, particularly as more and more variations are emerging that look less and less like the already established forms of Pagan belief and practice. It simply may be that Pagan community is nothing more than a political maneuver. I really hope that this is not the case, and that we can rise above our differences and begin to form authentic real world communities.

          At present, however, it was really only been Wicca and its close relatives that have succeeded in establishing long running community organizations. ADF and some of the other Druid organizations have been making a valiant effort, but they hardly seem to have much pull on the rest of Paganism. And even ADF has its share of orthodoxy, with its tripartite ontology and its set of core virtues.

          • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

            Yes, Wicca (especially lineaged Wicca) has everything it needs to be a religion — beliefs, practices, ethics, community. Druidry does too. But “Paganism”? Not so much — it has even less cohesiveness than nondenominational Christianity does (which at least has some agreement about the Bible and Jesus being important). I don’t think eclectic Paganism has what it takes to survive in the long term, but I’m hoping that the movement will produce more coherent traditions that will consider themselves to be related (and so be cooperative for the purpose of protecting rights and having good parties ;> ). I think you’re right that “Paganism” is a political strategy, but I don’t necessarily see that as a problem if we’re clear about it.

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        All of which is to say, I don’t disagree that Paganism is not orthopraxic. Paganism is also not a single religion (it’s a loose religious movement). But I do observe that Pagan groups that have clear standards for practice don’t tend to split over beliefs until and unless those beliefs change the practice. I circle with philosophical atheists in a group that has included them peacefully for decades because regardless of belief, we all get on our faces and kiss the carpet. But when my branch of the family started to do same-gender initiations? THAT was huge, and ended with a semi-formal split and a new name. Belief may have driven the shift in practice (and indeed the two are hardly ever cleanly separable), but in my experience of Pagan community, differences in belief alone are usually not enough to break up groups unless they’re reflected in action.

    • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com/ Áine Órga

      I definitely agree with this. I consider myself to be loosely pagan not because of my beliefs but because of my practices, and I don’t see a problem with that. Equally, I don’t see how my being a part of a community that includes hard polytheists needs to be a problem. I actually glean a lot from reading what hard polytheists have to say about their gods, even if they’re beliefs differ wildly from mine.

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    As you’ve alluded to in many of your other posts on your other blog, the complication seems to be coming from the influence of post-modernism upon belief systems. It’s almost analogous to the plundering of native/tribal beliefs for trophies; anyone can make a dream-catcher or go on a shamanic journey, because the artifacts of the culture/belief system don’t really appear to belong to the system from which it originates. Similarly, I can be a Buddhist without ever meditating, or a Sufi because I read a Rumi poem, or a pagan because I watched Braveheart a few times.

    These are extremes, of course, but the deeper point seems to be this–we embrace external titles because we live in a world where we’ve collectively decided they are merely externalities not to be taken seriously, forms without meaning and reference, simulacra, if you will. Anyone attempting to take something seriously is collectively pressured not to (or ostracized), similar to your re-working of Gallina’s concept of the Filter (http://erosiserosiseros.blogspot.com/2013/06/an-alternative-guide-to-filter.html).

    The They, or that mitigating filter, possibly also analogous with T. Thorn Coyle’s Overculture or even superstructure, seems to be this great membrane we are collectively attempting to break through towards authentic belief, struggling against the crushing weight of an intangible yet very real socialisation which asserts that nothing has any inherent meaning and anyone who asserts otherwise is being either totalitarian, delusional, fundamentalist, or just plain mean.

  • Bianca Bradley

    No we can’t all get along. Paganism has had many disagreements over what it is defined as. Nor do many Pagan belief systems have a lot in common with New Age. Asatru, Greek, Celtic Recon do not. Wicca may have some.

    No, just because I am Pagan, it does not mean I owe the community(as you construe it) a darn thing. It does not mean I have to abide by their rules. When you help pay my bills, come over and help me with my kids, then maybe I’ll give you power over my religious life.

    I was drawn to Paganism by the Gods, not by the community. Not that the “Pagan community” acts like it, like say the Catholic community or the local VFW community acts.

    I would like to know why you think anyone that claims Pagan owes anything at all to the Pagan community? There is no authority figure in Paganism. There is no thou shalt nots, because while a non BTW wiccan may not curse a BTW can, and so can other trads in the Pagan community. The rules aren’t even agreed upon. Despite that Sannion has been given the title “Pope”, we don’t have authority figures and why would I abide by them?

    • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

      We need you, Bianca, even if you don’t need us. :)
      Or, a little more seriously, wouldn’t posting here be a kind of indication that actually, we do sort of all need each other? Stating you owe the community nothing is in essence needing to tell other “pagans” something. And me reading your post is in essence me making the decision that your experience means something, is something I should hear, whether or not I agree.

      Of course this is just online, but it’s pretty much all that many of us have got for a little while until we come up with something more flesh-and-blood.

      • Bianca Bradley

        This is conversing, not needing me. Needing me, is coming to me, for what the Gods have me do. It isn’t conversing with me. I converse with Southern Baptists, and usually get more respect, then I do with many Pagans, but they certainly don’t need me. I needing others, is you coming over and putting in time and energy, or giving money, or having you check in to make sure I haven’t lost it and duck taped the kids to the ceiling and ran off nude in the streets laughing maniacally, or physically trying to drive my van up a tree(my daughters favorite visual when I say it) (Hyperbole if this isn’t obvious)

        It’s getting together no matter our differences and making sure we take care of each other. It’s making sure those of us, who can work have jobs, and going out of your way to do so. It isn’t talking online or arguing online. That’s easy, but it isn’t in my definition of terms community.

        • Allec

          I concur with Bianca. My friends were very active in the Christian community, and everything Bianca described was very much a part of that community as was going to church and Bible Study.

          I feel very betrayed by my local pagan community, and I don’t owe them anything.

          • Julian Betkowski

            I share your frustration, Allec. A good deal of my writing has been bent toward getting people to look past themselves and acknowledge that community is a valuable resource that we need to protect and build. It is terrible that you feel betrayed by your local Pagan community, and I suspect that these kinds of tensions result from people refusing to acknowledge that they are not the sole owners of group identity.

            • Allec

              It’s something like that. It’s more like that whole “Echo Chamber” article you wrote where they don’t like to include anyone who doesn’t instantaneously agree with everything they have to say/do. If you bring a different view point, it automatically means you are criticizing the majority and are being disrespectful.

        • Julian Betkowski

          As should be obvious if you read my last post, I am pretty fed up with the online community, and I agree that what passes for community online is about as far as you can from real meaningful religious experience.

          Part of my interest in writing here is to make people aware that community requires more than dicking around online. I would love for us to be able to get past ourselves and come together in support. Indeed, I find it odd that you say “community (as you construe it),” since I haven’t construed it as anything other than the generally accepted meaning in my writing.

          • Bianca Bradley

            I wasn’t talking online, I was talking phsyical community. This issue isn’t limited to online.

  • Allec

    The problem I am having with your article is that there is no centralized Pagan doctrine. Unlike Catholicism, which has quite literally a Pope.

    This brings forth the problem of a centralized pagan community. A lot of people are just grabbing at straws online, and I consider it even more sporadic in person. For example, I tried to become active in the local pagan community. I brought out ideas, criticisms, and solutions to make the community better…and in return was blacklisted. Now, I posted this online and friends from other states responded with how they sympathize and wish I lived near them, where my type of participation would be valued.

    Not to mention a lot of people who consider themselves pagans do so under the assumption they do not have to tailor their spiritual life to someone else’s doctrine, belief, or interpretations.

    So I guess what I’m getting at is… what community? Is there a building or community center I can visit to learn, educate, and get support? Who is deciding what is and is not pagan?

    • Bianca Bradley

      People are trying to define it, and have been for years. However, no central authority, and personalities that are as easy to herd as cats. Plus people like me who don’t take well to being told what they can and cannot do. Some mature and some not mature. Some capable of conflict resolution and handling critiques and others not so much.

      so in short, no one.

      Now, what type of Pagan are you?(in glinda voice, are you a good witch or a bad witch, only cause I find that amusing) mayhaps I can help.(AS I’m listening to Jethro tulls songs from the wood)

      • Allec

        I don’t have any problem with people trying to define it; I’m just not sure if there can be a consensus.

        I actually took the time to look up everything I identify with and here it is: Animistic hard-polytheistic agnostic-theistic Bardic Druid and sea witch. Currently studying to become an ADF Dedicant.

        • Bianca Bradley

          tilts head and looks confused. How does Hard Polytheistic and agnostic mesh?

          Have you thought of googling Celtic Recons in your area and see if any of those mesh with you?

          • Allec

            Well, I’m agnostic at heart in that I will constantly question my experiences, my viewpoints, etc etc. But so far, it has lead me to a hard polytheistic approach to the Divine and my personal spiritual path.

            Also, I haven’t really found many groups in the recent area, no.

          • Nigel Prancypants

            How does Hard Polytheistic and agnostic mesh?

            “Agnostic” simply means that one lacks knowledge, or rather Knowledge, of Deity. As a ready example, Sannion has pretty extensive Gnosis, or Knowledge, of Dionysos and other deities. There are likely gods he’s agnostic of, and one who worships Dionysos and other gods that Sannion does may do so without that gnosis. Gnosis is not a prerequisite to worship or even belief, especially in Hellenism (as a quick example); if it were, then the ancient Greeks wouldn’t have had all those philosophical schools and mystery cults promising to help seekers gain such gnosis.

    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

      One definitely has more choices for Pagan community in urban areas, but compromise is still usually required. I’m active in a coven that has a somewhat different theology than my own, but the people are great and the theology and practice fit is “close enough” (to draw a Christian parallel, it’s like being a Methodist in a Lutheran church or something. Or maybe a Quaker in a Lutheran church…). I get to work in my primary tradition only occasionally and usually only with one or two other people at a time, but I get stable community from these other lovely people that I’ve developed a committed relationship with.

      So… I think, just as with trying to find the right church or community group, finding workable Pagan community usually requires both shopping around and a willingness to “love the ones you’re with,” not the potentially more compatible ones who might exist 2000 miles away. (They *might* be more compatible, but being so far away, I wouldn’t underestimate the “grass is always greener” effect either — it might not be such a good fit if you were actually there trying to make it work.)

      • AnantaAndroscoggin

        Perhaps we should be thinking in terms of working “backwards” as it were, from the model of a bunch of different Christian denominations getting together to form an interfaith council.

        Maybe we need to create a great-many local-area Pagan Intra Faith groups out of which some Pagan denominations might perhaps coalesce.

      • Allec

        Well, the problem was less our difference in approaches to theology but that I wanted to recognize the racism in a local store and they told me that I was being disrespectful to the store for pointing it out.

        But, more to your point, I did recently meet with another group of pagans who–while we had vastly different understandings of divinity–were open to logically thinking, criticism, etc. As in, they didn’t exile me when I said how I was boycotting that local store as the other group did. So while we differ on beliefs (or, rather, I’m in the minority), I do not mind putting that down for a chance of spiritual community.

        Helps that this group is part of a Unitarian Church, which values this time of interfaith mindset.

        • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

          I hope it works out for you!

    • Nigel Prancypants

      The problem I am having with your article is that there is no centralized Pagan doctrine.

      There’s no centralised clergy in Judaism, either, and there are dozens of sects, and even within those, the rabbis still debate what their holy texts really mean. There’s no centralised doctrine within Hinduism, either. Like with Hellenic polytheism, there are narrative myths and various “schools” that basically amount to philosophies in the same way that Platonism and Pythagoreanism are defined as such within Hellenism. But Judaism still means something, and so does Hinduism.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Great post.

    I think that, nowdays, ‘Paganism’ is an obsolete term, because it has no definitive meaning to the wider world. It certainly does not define a religion.

    Perhaps, to update the word, all that is required is a single letter: S.

    Paganisms. A term to refer to a collection of disparate faith systems that have some shared basis.

    That shared basis is the important thing. It needs to be something positive. Something more than “Not of the Abrahamic faiths”. That, after all merely serves to encompass the vast majority of world faiths and still lacks a cohesive meaning (not to mention reducing the validity of all religions to being merely alternatives to the ‘One True Faith’).

    Where do Paganisms end and other beliefs begin?

    For myself, I prefer a ‘closed box’ approach. Something that makes me less than popular, it has to be said.

    For me, I would suggest that we use it to describe the belief(s) in the indigenous European gods (and other spirits).

    Yes, this excludes such things as Kemetism, but is that a bad thing, or does it mean we have another friend and ally at the Interfaith Table?

    • Julian Betkowski

      I wouldn’t go as far as you, and I am hoping to use my next several posts to lay out an historical method to help discern the roots of Modern Paganism and explore the larger cultural forces that shaped it. For example, I think that we can look at the Gothic and Romantic literary movements as antecedents to Pagan practice, particularly when we consider the impact that they had on the Victorian Celtic and Druidic revival movements. Given the Victorian interest in Egyptology, I see no reason not to exclude Kemeticism, as the exploration of Egyptian history, mythology, and religion was just as bound up in the larger movements that laid the groundwork for Modern Paganism.

      Hellenic and Roman ideas have a longer history of cultural cache in the West, and perhaps we could trace the roots of those forms of Paganism as far back as the late Middle Ages and the birth of the Renaissance, but that is rather beyond the scope of my current project.

      I think that it is important to acknowledge that while Paganism is a very young and very modern movement, that it did not emerge ex nihilo in the 1950′s and is caught up in a much larger cultural and historical context.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I think most people can agree that some line needs to be drawn, the dispute is mainly about location of said line.

        I can easily imagine that there are some particularly hardline types that would suggest ‘Paganism’ refers only to the faith(s) dealing with the rural spirits honoured in pre-Christian Italy. (I did briefly consider that, but discarded it.)

        Then again, there are those who feel it is best kept as inclusive as possible, and allows for pretty much everyone on the planet to identify as Pagan, somehow.

        Considering that an increasing number of Heathens feel that ‘Paganism’ does not include ‘Heathenry’, and we have to consider Whether we rule out those paths.

        Concerning Kemetism, why would that not be listed as an indigenous African spiritual system?

        • Julian Betkowski

          Ugh, well you are absolutely right to point out that there are a lot of subtleties involved in this discussion… I think that one of the reasons why Kemeticism would not necessarily be counted into an indigenous African faith is that it is entirely a work of reconstruction. There are no longer any indigenous peoples practicing the religion of Ancient Egypt.

          However, Kemeticism is divided into two camps: those who use it as a means of reconnecting with their African ancestors and as a source of pride and power for their ethnic struggles, and those who who do not come to it with any political or social agenda. This is honestly an issue that needs to be worked out within Kemeticism before the rest of the Pagan milieu can proceed on that topic.

          Your example of Heathenry is very telling, because historically Heathenry has been an important and key player in Paganism, and the fact that the “community” has developed in such a way that not only Heathens but many Hellenic Recons feel that they no longer belong should really concern us. I fear that, as you say, the idea that “pretty much everyone on the planet” can identify as Pagan is watering down our definitions and self-understanding of what it really means to be Pagan in the modern age.

          Paganism runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a variation on New Age teachings if we continue to refuse to thoughtfully engage with community and the ramifications of our choices and actions.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I think this schism-ing can be a positive thing, in some ways.

            It allows for greater clarity when discussion religious beliefs and it also allows us to have more people at the interfaith ‘table’.

            At the moment, if there is an interfaith meeting, there would potentially be representatives from the various denominations of Christianity (Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Evangelical, Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic…) but only the one Pagan. By embracing difference, there could be a whole raft of representatives from the ‘Paganisms’.

            Obviously, this will work better with larger numbers, but it works in our favour(s) by getting a increased influence in the larger society.

          • Nigel Prancypants

            Your example of Heathenry is very telling, because historically Heathenry has been an important and key player in Paganism, and the fact that the “community” has developed in such a way that not only Heathens but many Hellenic Recons feel that they no longer belong should really concern us. I fear that, as you say, the idea that “pretty much everyone on the planet” can identify as Pagan is watering down our definitions and self-understanding of what it really means to be Pagan in the modern age.

            Paganism runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a variation on New Age teachings if we continue to refuse to thoughtfully engage with community and the ramifications of our choices and actions.

            I certainly agree. The reluctance for many people to actually identify what “pagan” MEANS, or give any meaning to the word at all, will be its undoing. Overarching and very loosely-bordered diversity of membership works great for some communities –political parties, the student body of grammar schools and universities, national citizenship– but you can’t always apply public-sector rules to the private sector and have everyone happy. Free speech works great on the steps of the Capitol building or when distributing an Anarchist newsletter –but it doesn’t work so well when the KKK wants to trot out a “welcome message” on the lawn of the new immigrant Ghanan family in the neighbourhood. While the US government may not restrict its citizens from owning firearms, at the same time, the presence of firearms is contraband pretty universally in all private- and even state-funded schools in the US, and only a select few are allowed to carry them in government buildings.

            Letting “pagan” come to mean “anything and everything, as long as one considers oneself to be ‘pagan’” might not be anywhere near as physically or even emotionally threatening as the KKK or firearm examples, but it’s problematic because it’s both ignorant of the history of the term and the meaning it’s come to have through that, and it’s an open door to basically dissolving the pagan community from the inside, out, because a large community that once had at least some common ground to come together under now is given none whatsoever. If there’s no criteria to even call oneself a pagan with any truth behind it, then what purpose does the pagan community serve? What unites us, other than the desire to be recognised as pagans? What incentive do we have to work together, or even at least be in the same room together?

            With no definition, there’s no incentive for unity, and things fall apart. We’re witnessing this destruction with the fact that the recon traditions are splintering off, forfeiting any right they actually have to the “pagan” community, and leaving it to those who’d rather leave things so undefined as to be effectively meaningless and nothing. If this reluctance to define “pagan” continues, it would not surprise me in the slightest if the community totally disappears within fifty years.

            • Julian Betkowski

              “If this reluctance to define “pagan” continues, it would not surprise me in the slightest if the community totally disappears within fifty years.”

              This has been a legitimate fear of mine for a while now. I do believe that Paganism has a lot to offer us as we move forward, but unless we are willing to face some of these very basic community issues then I really do fear that the community will either continue to schism into disparate incommunicative segments, or else simple dissolve into yet another form of diaphanous New Age gibberish.

        • Nigel Prancypants

          Considering that an increasing number of Heathens feel that ‘Paganism’ does not include ‘Heathenry’, and we have to consider Whether we rule out those paths.

          Considering that the closet homo- or bisexual who actively seeks sex with the same gender doesn’t tend to think of themself as anything but “straight”, I don’t think that Heathens who opt-out of participating in the pagan community are at all relevant. We can certainly acknowledge that the closet homosexual has opted out of the greater queer culture, but the fact of the matter is, whether they like it or not, they’re homo- or bisexual. Likewise, when academics refer to historical paganism, the gods worshipped by the modern Heathen community are included in that, as are the pre-Christian people who worshipped them. The Heathen community doesn’t have to participate in the pagan community, but by classic definition, the word does fit.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            The words “Heathen” and “Pagan” are, really, synonymous.

            It is simply that the former is of Germanic origin whereas that latter is from the Vulgate.

      • Nigel Prancypants

        Given the Victorian interest in Egyptology, I see no reason not to exclude Kemeticism, as the exploration of Egyptian history, mythology, and religion was just as bound up in the larger movements that laid the groundwork for Modern Paganism.

        Buh? Did you mistype? Didn’t you mean, “Given the Victorian interest in Egyptology, I see no reason to exclude [or 'not to include'] Kemeticism…”?

        • Julian Betkowski

          Thank you for catching my mistyping! I did in fact mean to say that I see no reason to exclude Kemeticism. I will correct the original comment now.

  • kenofken

    It’s pointless to try to come up with some overarching definition of “pagan” or the “pagan community.” Saying something is “pagan” is about as specific and descriptive as “postmodern.” It evokes some broad ideas and points to some end of a spectrum of thought and movements. The whole thing boils down to self-identification. Who calls themselves “pagan” and who sees enough compatibility to recognize them as such.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Self identification is not enough, if you want a cohesive community with meaningful connections to the greater world.

      What happens when someone says “I am Pagan” to someone with now knowledge of Paganism(s)?

      Most people know enough about other big name religions to not need a dissertation on the term to carry on the conversation when those religions are self identified with.

      Terms are primarily of use for those who do not self identify as such.

      • Cat lover

        But if someone isn’t familiar with the term pagan, what makes you think they will understand terms like Heathen, Kemetic, Druid, or Naturalistic pagan?

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Easier to understand. The others can be easily simplified:

          Heathen: Think Viking gods.

          Kemetic: Think ancient Egyptian gods.

          Druid: Think the Celtic gods.

          Naturalistic Pagan: Like a Pagan, but atheistic.

      • Nigel Prancypants

        Self identification is not enough, if you want a cohesive community with meaningful connections to the greater world.

        Not only are you right, I think that you’ve hit on something: Those who don’t want a definition of pagan ultimately don’t want a cohesive and meaningful community united under the term. At this point, I do believe it is that simple.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          I will agree with that.

          I would be quite happy to see “Pagan”, as a term, be defined so precisely that it did not contain anything but Pagans. We are seeing the growth of different ‘umbrellas’ to the point where, I feel, they can survive without the larger Pagan shelter.

          A great example of what I mean would be Wicca. It is a diverse collection of traditions that can stand together outside the Pagan umbrella without having a detrimental effect. In fact, I distinctly recall that it used to be seen in that way. I would see material stating “Witches and Pagans”, giving a clear distinction between the two.

  • JasonMankey

    “Many Pagans simply do not wish to be associated with the New Age
    community, despite whatever similarities they may share, because of
    their own identity constructions. I have to wonder if some of what is
    currently going on in Paganism is not a result of similar political
    maneuvering.”

    To some extent that’s certainly true. I don’t want to go wading into New Age waters where white folks masquerade as deep repositories of Native American spirituality and Sylvia Browne is thought of an as authority, but those are only small components of New Age Spirituality as a whole. We certainly have a lot in common with many New Agers, but I’m not sure the problem lies just within Pagandom.

    There are a great many New Age folks and even bookstores who want nothing to do with Paganism. I’ve been into numerous “New Age” stores that lack a “Pagan” or “Magickal Arts” section, and have chatted with shop keepers who are uncomfortable with goddesses. New Age is such a broad category and includes many people who think of themselves as Christians or as practitioners of other faiths.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      “New Age is such a broad category and includes many people who think of
      themselves as Christians or as practitioners of other faiths.”
      The same thing can be said of broad-Umbrella ‘Paganism’.

      • Julian Betkowski

        That has essentially been my critique from the beginning.

    • Kathryn O’Connor

      honey, some of the white folks were native americans in other lives.

    • AnantaAndroscoggin

      There are many occasions on which I find myself reacting “New Age = fluffy-bunny Christianity”

  • Kathryn O’Connor

    ah, the old “are you a real pagan” discussion on someone. Been there myself with fingers pointed from others whose rituals are nowhere near as dynamic and energized at my own

  • AnantaAndroscoggin

    I was beginning to wonder if I had been banned from Patheos, but checking via my new laptop shows it was just that the most-recent browser my old Desktop (G5) can run is able to handle less and less of online content every week.

  • Lizsbet

    Yeah, I’ll agree with the points about how there’s so much disagreement that it’s hard to find a decent group within our religious umbrella (because congratulations, “Pagan” isn’t actually a religion, it’s a broad religious umbrella, kind of like “Christian” is) that represents or believes in (as closely as possible) the same things you do; I’ll agree with the asertation that people spend more time bickering and arguing about petty shit vs. building spirituality… But I draw the line at saying 1. There’s no community, 2. the community is fragmented, and 3. “Pagan” has been redefined and is too broad.

    On the subject of “Pagan” being “too broad” and used incorrectly, abnormally, etc… That fallacy needs to stop.

    “What if someone didn’t share any characteristics of ‘paganism’ and still wanted to call themselves that?” .. That’s there prerogative, and yet that begs the question of exactly what the “characteristics of Paganism” are… To which the answer is: there are NONE.

    The term / Umbrella ISN’T “too broadly defined”, and yet trying to force stricter definitions invalidates, excludes, and alienates people who genuinely feel like that is the correct identifier with them. Using the original and Archaic definition of “pagan” in order to force identifiers on, or take them away, from community members is incorrect and wrong… Not only because that’s a pretty shitty thing to do, but also because they have a right to identify as such because there isn’t one conglomerate definition… But more importantly, it’s wrong because the definition hasn’t changed in the first place other than to make it a bit more defined in order to 1. include those who WANT to be included, 2. Exclude those who DON’T want to be included, 3. NOT force identifiers on anyone.

    Even if we were to go by the original religious and historic uses of the word (by the Abrahams so please… Spare me the whole “other religions” thing as if there were more than the Abrahamic faiths who used the term in its originality) was an “everything else” term. It was “us” (Romans, Christians, etc, civilized, city dwelling, and superior, etc), and them (the Pagans… Or basically “everyone else”). It’s not as broadly defined NOW and the religious systems such as the non-Abrahamic world religious systems (buddhism, jainism, etc) are no longer inherently included, and neither are, rightfully, indigenous spiritual systems (like Tribal religions)… But guess what? It still means the same damned thing.

    On the subjects of “the community is fragmented” and “there is no real community”… I beg to differ in an extreme way.

    See, there IS a community… but it differs from most communities we’re used to, and yet it’s exactly the same as other communities. The Pagan community is more praxy-based… Or “action”/ “practice” oriented. We come together under the interest of practice and things like spell work, spirit work, magic, Witchcraft, and other things often associated with the Pagan and New Age movements… Not the spiritualities behind those practices themselves. That doesn’t mean smaller more spiritually oriented communities don’t exist within the greater Pagan community, though. They do, but the spiritualism is often second to the practice and the sharing of those practices with people of mutual interests- just like any other community.

    I relate it sorta to how I feel confident to call myself an Artist… That is, I relate to and share base interests and practices with other Artists, even if I don’t share those same talents, experiences, or levels (etc) as them. The fact that I’m a graphic artist, or a Graffiti artist, or an Oil Artist, etc, doesn’t change the fact that I’m still an Artist no matter my preferred method of creating that Art. It doesn’t matter what my specialty IS- that doesn’t exclude me from the community, it just gives me a smaller niche within that community to fit into, and that “smaller niche” or more defined interests within the larger community also doesn’t prevent me from, say, going over to the Graffiti community and talking to them… Because I still share a common interest and that common interest is the foundation of the community in the first place… Not the METHOD in which your participate in that interest.

    The same goes for any community, really.

    The fact that we, as Pagans, come together under mostly the non or semi religious elements of our religious umbrella doesn’t mean we’re not any less of a community; It doesn’t change anything. Community is still defined as a social group of any size (who may or may not share locality, government, heritage, ancestry, ethnicity, etc) who share common social, ethical/ moral, or religious (etc) interests and perceive themselves to be (or are) distinct from the greater society, culture, or community (etc) that they reside in.

    That’s not to say our community doesn’t have its issues- there’s still exclusion, elitism, incorrect definitions, misinformation, -ism’s, and a slew of other problems we desperately need to tackle (and I think on a wider scale, our community’s not doing too bad at tackling them), but the problems still don’t invalidate it as a community or mean it’s “fractured”.

    I think that’s where the discrepancy starts. Most of the time, pagans come together for non-religious or spiritual reasons. And you, the columnist, devalue and ignore it while striving for a better religious community. The community already exists in the first place, but people are only looking at the community at large and not the smaller, more religiously oriented niche communities within it.

    • Allec

      “The fact that we, as Pagans, come together under mostly the non or semi religious elements of our religious umbrella doesn’t mean we’re not any less of a community.”

      I completely agree and that statement pretty much sums up my current viewpoints on “the pagan community.” Well written.

    • Julian Betkowski

      I don’t know how you have concluded that I am devaluing and ignoring community when the entirety of my writing has been bent toward understanding community.

      When we say things like “Paganism is an umbrella term…” we are eliminating all defining characteristics. We are defining Paganism into nothing. The problem is that the exact same definition is used for the New Age community, which is an “umbrella term” for idiosyncratic Non-Christian spiritualities. Pagan just sounds more authentic to most people.

      Regardless of your protestations, Pagan does have a history of meaning and usage as it applies to the community, one that stretches at least as far back as the Victorian era. We ignore our history at our peril.

      • Lizsbet

        When history is inaccurate it should be disregarded. Not to mention that history does not necessarily define the “now”. Yes, Historically “Pagan” meant a lot of things. However, the movement grows, things change, definitions change. We either have to grow and change with it and figure out how to make it work… Or you’re stuck in the past and getting behind on the times. http://saltyourbones.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/what-is-paganism-really/

    • Nigel Prancypants

      “What if someone didn’t share any characteristics of ‘paganism’ and still wanted to call themselves that?” .. That’s there prerogative, and yet that begs the question of exactly what the “characteristics of Paganism” are… To which the answer is: there are NONE.

      So, then, by your own admission, “pagan” and “paganism” are words that have no meaning at all. That’s really what people are saying when they insist that there is no criteria that defines the characteristics of Paganism, or what Pagan religions are, they’re saying the movement is nothing. That it means nothing. That it should mean nothing.

      Undefined words are called gibberish and nonsense. While it’s cute that some writers, possibly the most famous being Lewis Carroll, pride themselves on their artistry of nonsense, in the context of these works, words like “snark” and “vorpal” are given implicit, if often ineffable meaning. That sort of deconstructionist artistry doesn’t really work in the context of human community. Humans make communities based on shared characterists, and when two groups of people, or even individuals, have no shared characteristics beyond “I give This Word personal meaning for myself”, that’s not really community because there’s essentially no reason to come together as one.

      That said, the historical usage of the word “pagan” is heavily steeped in a handful of common traits: Polytheism, the divine sacred in the world around us, religious ritual, celebration of the divine sacred through art, and reverence (through revived practice or respect) for ancient traditions. While Paganism does not own these concepts on an individual basis, juxtaposed together this has been consistent with historical and academic usage of “pagan” and related terms.

      The term / Umbrella ISN’T “too broadly defined”, and yet trying to force stricter definitions invalidates, excludes, and alienates people who genuinely feel like that is the correct identifier with them. Using the original and Archaic definition of “pagan” in order to force identifiers on, or take them away, from community members is incorrect and wrong… Not only because that’s a pretty shitty thing to do, but also because they have a right to identify as such because there isn’t one conglomerate definition… But more importantly, it’s wrong because the definition hasn’t changed in the first place other than to make it a bit more defined in order to 1. include those who WANT to be included, 2. Exclude those who DON’T want to be included, 3. NOT force identifiers on anyone.

      Yeah, it doesn’t really work that way.

      By asking for people to either work within the classic definition of pagan, it’s asking people to define themselves and what they actually are rather than fall onto a convenient word that doesn’t mean what they want to waste so much energy toward redefining. For centuries, atheists were lumped in together as “pagan”, but because that word had historical contexts as a pejorative against polytheists, they broke off and defined themselves. Maybe you think that might’ve been a misguided action (surely there must’ve been some people in the 1800s who, despite being Atheist, dug on nature and thus felt “pagan enough”), but it’s surely strengthened their community to to say “no, this is what defines us, and it’s not pagan, it’s atheist”.

      As for forcing words onto others: That happens, regardless of whether we like it or not. The homophobe who goes out seeking same-sex encounters in airport lavvies may very well consider himself “straight”, but the rest of the world is still going to call him a “closet case”. In practice, I don’t see a huge difference from what Julian is talking about here — there are clearly people who, for whatever reasons they’ve thought of for themselves, want to be pagans and want to be seen as such, but at best, are only such in the most superficial manner possible,and people who understand the history of that term and all it’s been loaded with for centuries, especiall the last fifteen decades, are calling this out and saying “look, we support whatever it is that you’re doing, but it’s just not paganism in any meaningful way [outside anything the individual may believe is personally meaningful]“.

      Communities have a right to define themselves, and with that includes the right to say “this is NOT what we do and has no place alongside what we do”. If you fit that Not, why hang onto a community that is saying you don’t stand within, but apart from what it’s defined by? When similar action takes place on an individual basis, it’s called an abusive relationship.

      • Julian Betkowski

        I have never understood the argument that people should be allowed to call themselves whatever they want because it’s their right. Your example of the closeted gay man is pretty much perfect. He can think of himself as straight all he wants, but that doesn’t accurately describe his behavior or his experience. It is more appropriate for others to identify his as gay, regardless of his desires.

        Is it mean to say that he is gay? Well, in as much as it hurts his feelings and sense of self, then sure, but it is the most accurate and honest identity for him, and in the long run, should he accept his honest identity, he will be able to grow and develop in a positive direction.

        I do not understand why we need to avoid hurting people’s feelings, as if that is the worst sin that we can commit. If people are behaving foolishly, selfishly, or ignorantly, then it is our responsibility to correct them, and if they refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their behavior, then is also our prerogative to exclude them.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          How do we force a functional definition, and what would it be?

          • Julian Betkowski

            Well, the idea would not be to “force” anything, but to look at what we have, where we have been, and where we are going, and try and pull a definition out of that. Ideally, this should be done as a community. However, this work seems near impossible when the moment anyone offers a definition, people start screaming that their feelings are being hurt.

            There have been a series of discussions here at Patheos fairly recently about the definitions of Paganism, and eventually, they all seem to dissolve into bickering.

            Regardless of the outcome of these discussions, though, I feel that we should be able to agree that the “umbrella term” definition is worse than useless, and only serves to dilute the community, rather than unite it.

            • Lēoht Sceadusawol

              ‘Promote’ rather than force, perhaps, but the idea is to enact change upon the minds of those currently embracing the meaningless terminology.

              Regardless, Not sure where to start.

              • Julian Betkowski

                I have been feeling really pretty pessimistic, lately, as I think the post that should be popping up tomorrow demonstrates.

                I wish I knew how to start, but it seems that every time someone really does try in earnest to have this conversation, they just get shouted down.

                I am beginning to think that the Pagan community, at least in its online incarnation, is beset with a bunch of egocentric children who refuse to acknowledge that religion is about more than “whatever feels good” at the moment and involves actual work and struggle.

                • Lēoht Sceadusawol

                  Then, perhaps, we ignore them? Not in a malicious way, just that we do not need the bickering of children to get in the way of what we want?

                  I am not quite ready to make that step, myself (real life does get in the way, somewhat), but I am moving in that direction.

          • Lizsbet
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