Syncretic Electric: Looking at our History (Part 4) – Egocentrism and our Future

Over the course of my last several posts, I have been examining some of the broader cultural and historical forces that have shaped and informed Modern Paganism. That work is by no means complete, but it is also a huge and expansive work. I do feel that I have, at least, begun to demonstrate that Modern Paganism is grounded in the history of Western Culture and is largely the result of the same cultural forces that have shaped our advance into the twenty-first century.

It is my honest belief that a proper understanding of Paganism, its history and its present, is vital if we are going to continue to move forward as a community into this next century. The same forces that our progenitors strived against in order to form Modern Paganism are still acting upon us and will tear our community apart if we are not attentive. Indeed, the great burst of action that set about the development of Modern Paganism was the initial reaction against increasing industrialization and the growth of materialism, scientism, and egocentrism that accompanied it. Now, these same trends continue to work against the Pagan community.

Some of these trends are, I believe, very apparent within the community, namely egocentrism. In my last article, I discussed the particularly American idea of spiritual iconoclasm. I suspect that for many Pagans this iconoclasm has begun to run amok. An example of this could even be our increasing fascination with unverified personal gnosis. Gnosis is used to justify all manner of idiosyncratic beliefs, and then, when those beliefs are questioned, the believer retreats behind gnosis and personal experience as though that is the absolute end of the discussion. This kind of behavior is incredibly dangerous to the work of community building, and I believe leads to an overindulgent, self-obsessed, special snowflake mentality. So many contemporary Pagans seem to have convinced themselves that they are in constant direct communication with their Higher Self/Guardian Angel/Dionysus/Superman that every single thought or desire is automatically given Divine imperative. This is the sort of thing that so many of us find so disturbing about the New Age community, which is almost constantly being critiqued as solipsistic and blinkered.

Unique Snow Flake By Pen Waggener (Flickr: Unique) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Further, this egocentrism seems to have blinded many people to the fact that there is a distinction between a spiritual experience and divine revelation. I may have  spiritual experience reading a book or watching a movie, but that does not then mean that J.R.R. Tolkien or Peter Jackson are Gods or otherwise worthy of veneration. It simply means that my spirit was moved by my experience. It is a great mistake to think that every flutter of my heart is a direct divine message sent to me and only me. These are category errors. We, as spiritual explorers, must learn to tell the difference between our own desires and inner voices and the real, exterior, spiritual forces around us. If we are unable or unwilling to do so, then we are in no fit shape to govern the form and content of any spiritual practice.

It is even more difficult for me to see the growing cache of the “umbrella term” definition of Paganism as anything but yet another symptom of egocentrism. Not only is the “umbrella term” definition utterly vapid, it defines absolutely nothing at all. Rather than providing a coherent description by which one could understand the content or even form of Paganism, it says that anything at all can be Pagan, as long as someone, somewhere, decides to call it that. This is a further example of the kind of egocentric behavior that denies all personal responsibility  and raises one’s own desires above everyone else’s. “I can be Pagan if I want to be,” is a great slogan for a t-shirt, but utterly useless as a definition, and it only serves to protect people’s feelings on the internet. I have never understood the idea that we must constantly protect people’s feelings, as if upsetting someone was a mortal sin. This is the social justice mentality gone berserk. It should not be taboo to insist the words have meanings. In fact, I believe that Aristotle had something to say on that matter…

I do honestly suspect that part of this egocentrism is a result of the idea that every individual Pagan must serve not only as their own priest, but also liturgist, mystic, healer and shaman. Unfortunately, the Pagan community is singularly ill equipped to train a person to fill any one of those roles let alone the whole constellation. If Paganism is going to continue to exist as a religious movement largely without clergy, then we must be willing to do the work to become clergy ourselves. One does not become a mystic or a shaman because one decided to identify that way. There is a great deal of work that one must undertake in order to qualify for such positions, and there are responsibilities they go hand in hand with.

The solution to at least some of this is an understanding of history, not only the history of Modern Paganism, but also some awareness of religious history in general. We are facing problems today that religions around the world have faced all across time, and if we are willing to look beyond our own immediate concerns, we may even discover that the solutions already exist. We do not need to spend all of our time reinventing the wheel. We must, as a community, make ourselves aware of our history and our collective development. If we are going to speak of ourselves as a community, then we must educate ourselves about our community. We must support our institutions, as John Beckett has pointed out. Most of all, we must educate ourselves.

Given the amount of material that I intend to cover in this series, I have decided to turn it into an every other post affair, in order to give me the proper amount of time to do my research. I do hope that you readers have enjoyed my comments thus far.

Syncretic Electric is published on alternate Fridays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

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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.

  • dashifen

    I’m not sure I agree that using Paganism as an umbrella term (I prefer to think of it as a collective noun, myself) is devoid of meaning. I think it’s the opposite: there are too many possible meanings. Could it not be that this is a call to work together to try and reign in some of these possibilities in some way?

    This comment brought to you by an Erisian looking to reduce chaos. Happy Friday!

  • kenofken

    I don’t think individualism within paganism necessarily precludes community building or even institutions. Personal gnosis and individual priesthood is at the core of my belief and practice, but they are not the sum of it. Is that egocentric? I suppose so, but it realizes the fact that only one person is ultimately responsible for and capable of realizing my spiritual development. Me. Whatever communal web of interconnection we might envision as pagans, it is only as strong as its individual links.

    Personal priesthood recognizes that connection to the divine is immanent and available to all of us. It no more needs nor benefits from intermediaries than the relationship between a mother and child. Is my gnosis inerrant? No, but it’s not for lack of signal strength or a translator. Certainly I can choose to use the gods as cover for whatever self-serving BS suits me, and who of us hasn’t fallen into that trap at some point?

    On the other hand, I’m pagan because I was called to my path and my gods. I’m much too long in the tooth to be in it for parental rebellion or as a goth fashion mode. I’m in it because I am connected with my deities and ancestors and because I want to do the work to grow in wisdom and honor and excellence in their sight and with their help. I separate egocentric nonsense from real gnosis through an act of submission and humility before my gods. If you approach with respect, they’re there and willing to help, and it’s not (usually) as dramatic as Moses on the mountain, big R revelation. Their counsel helps me get out of my head and into my heart and the deep connections with them and all of creation. They give reminders and omens and affirmations to what you usually know is the right thing to do, deep down. They lend strength when they see you’re truly fighting your hardest, and they let you fall flat on your face when you persist in willful dumbassedness.

    My work in this gnosis is not foolproof, but I’ve never, ever, had cause to truly regret my base trust in my gods or my priesthood. I have ALWAYS regretted the outcomes when I turned over that role to others, first Catholic priests, then a “high priestess” who deigned to interpret revelation and dispense orthodoxy. I will never again submit to another person that way or let them debase my personal interaction with the divine. If lining up behind congregational worship and a separate caste of full time clergy and a church-style heirarchy is the requisite for “pagan community”, count me out.

    That said, I’m perfectly happy to admit I’m not an expert in everything. I strive to learn the work of shamanism, and healing, and divination and liturgy and pastoral counseling etc. Some of it I’m not half bad at and with most of it, I can at least squeak by enough for day to day tasks. But I know when I’m in over my head and who the real experts are. I cherish them and have no problem honoring them with money or whatever else is fair trade for their work.

    I take the same view with institutions. Just because I don’t want to be a pewsitter doesn’t mean I don’t see value in collective projects. I don’t have to accept the exact theology or doctrines of the folks at, say, Circle Sanctuary or the New Alexandrian Library or Cherry Hill Seminary to support the excellent work they’re doing. It’s not a matter of getting everyone to be pagan in the same way. To me, the question becomes, are they filling important roles that we unruly self-ordained priests can’t do, and are they doing work that broadly comports with my core values as a pagan?

    The “pagan umbrella” as a concept is of minimal importance in the long run. You speak of its “growing cache” but I would say the concept has never been in as low esteem as it is now. It’s never been anything more than a rough descriptor to categorize a divergent group of religions which didn’t fit anywhere else and which shared a few similarities. Now many don’t want the label for themselves. Others, like me, are happy to wear it, but it won’t hurt my feelings if someone doesn’t care to accept me as “pagan.” Wear it if you want, acknowledge in others if you want. Again, who is going to dispense orthodoxy on the matter? Do any of us really have time and oxygen to replay the “witch wars” and arguments of what a “fluffy bunny” is from decades past?

  • Sunweaver

    I think this is a rather cynical view of Paganisms and dismisses out of hand many of the things that make a religion a religion and not the scholarly study of a religion. Paganism is not a single religion, of course, and scholarly work in a religious context is extremely valuable for clergy such as myself, but without personal gnosis, we don’t form relationships with the gods. What the heck kind of religion frowns on its followers forming relationships with the divine?

    I would bet you an oblus common folks had all kinds of idiosyncratic beliefs back in Ancient Greece. I’m certain even some of them were kooky and woo. We only see the stuff that survived. And the people who were in constant contact with the divine? Many of those were called “priests” and “priestesses.” Rigorous clergy training is, of course, necessary and well-trained clergy can help the individual discern between his or her own thoughts and desires and that of the gods, but I find that dismissing personal gnosis out of hand is ultimately not practical.

    • Sarenth

      I did not get that he was knocking UPG, but that he was merely raising concern when UPG is the do-all end-all of religion, when, to paraphrase what he has written, every reaction from your heart is interpreted as Divine contact, Will, etc.

      I don’t have a problem with anyone having a very mystical, powerful, use-your-description experience with their Gods. More power to the proverbial you, provided you can handle it. More power to the proverbial you, provided you can handle the responsibilities that come with it.

      The issue is that there are no community standards, or if there are, they are exceptionally few for what constitutes spiritual specialists in the wider Pagan community. Individual paths, such as some forms of Wicca, Heathenry, Kemeticism, etc. have their own guidelines for spiritual specialists, but it is difficult to talk about Pagan community standards when the basic defining of the word as a descriptor cannot even be agreed upon.

      • Bianca Bradley

        I think community standards are great in the individual paths. To me Pagan is an umbrella term, and thus should not have community standards. I don’t think that Pagan should be a religion(Wicca is a religion, Asatru is a religion) but a term like Scientist is a term. There a wide variety of Scientists, and they don’t do the same things and they argue about who is a more valid scientist then others.

        • kenofken

          Scientists actually do have a sort of baseline standard which we will never achieve because religion uses very different ways of approaching and defining knowledge. There is of course arguments among different scientific disciplines as to who has a better grasp of certain phenomena or who has more quantifiable or rigorous methods, but they all share some basic understanding of how the scientific method works, how to properly design an experiment, the limits of what should be inferred from results, the idea that theories are just working models which are subject to radical revision from new evidence etc.

          A big part of their consensus, however, rests upon the idea that everything they do is, or should be, testable and repeatable. If they publish a paper saying they synthesized some compound with certain starting ingredients and conditions, anyone anywhere in the world should be able to follow that recipe and get exactly the same results, or substantially the same.

          We will never be able to test UPG that way. The gods speak to us in their own ways for their own reasons, and they don’t much appreciate being treated like computers or trained monkeys. If Herne reveals something to you after a certain invocation in a certain grove. If you write it all down and I go out and repeat it and get nothing, or something radically different, it proves nothing about whether your experience was “true.”

          • Bianca Bradley

            I was using it more as an analogy then we should be like Scientists. A Psychologist is not a kineaologist(sp?), is not an Astrophysicist, is not an engineer is not an Paleontologist etc.

        • Sarenth

          I think that community standards are desperately needed in individual paths as well as throughout the Pagan communities as a whole. We ought to be able to hold people to baseline standards of conduct, what they are/are not able to do, and what our words actually mean in context, i.e. what is a priest? What does it do, especially in the context of the larger Pagan community?

          If we’re going to gather outside of the various communities, i.e. coming to big community events like ConVocation, Pagan Spirit Gathering, I would think that it would be helpful to determine who does what and how. I’m not saying a godhi/gydhja = a Wiccan 3rd degree priest nor vice versa, but what do we expect from those who lead services?

          I agree that “Paganism as a whole is too diverse” because “every tradition, and for that matter, most individual pagans, have radically different and incompatible understandings of them. ”

          What I see as the problem is that too few people are willing to actually be exclusionary for the term Pagan to actually concretely mean anything substantive.

          “There is, for example, no universally accepted Christian definition of who and what makes a properly ordained minister, for example.”

          Actually I will disagree with you here. Each and every Christian ordained minister must understand the Bible’s message (according to their denomination’s understanding), be a practicing Christian, and be able to execute the responsibilities of their role, such as solemnizing marriages, performing funerary rites, How each denomination relates to their minister is different from one another, i.e. Catholic priest vs. Pentecostal minister is very different in terms of how they present and execute their function, seeing as how their theology differs in important ways. How the functions of the office are carried out differ according to community needs, and the functions that community asks of its religious representatives.

          The calling required for service, and willingness to embrace the responsibilities are still there regardless of how they are expressed through the lens of that theology and culture.

        • Quentin

          I think community standards are great in the individual paths. To me
          Pagan is an umbrella term, and thus should not have community standards.

          Well, consider also that “Christianity”, and moreso “Abrahamic” are umbrella terms that encompass a wide variety of individual paths and practises. All believe in the covenant of Abraham, and Christians in particular believe in the divinity of Jesus as Christ (if one believes that Jesus was not divine, but just an important guy who said stuff, and one also places importance on the covenant of Abraham, then I suggest looking into Islam, or maybe some of the more liberal sects of Judaism; if one doesn’t place importance on the covenant of Abraham, then the whole “Jesus was a Platonic philosopher” sort of Christo-Paganism has been a thing off-and-on since ancient times, so maybe check that out). Basically, umbrella terms still have a minimum standard that defines who fits under the umbrella –it sucks, but even the biggest umbrellas I’ve seen are only just so big, and can’t fit literally everyone who wants to join underneath it, sometimes you just gotta find an umbrella you can fit under.

          • Bianca Bradley


      • kenofken

        We will never find pagan unity on a basis of theology or ecclesiology (which encompasses things like who is properly qualified to lead what). We should not even try, because every tradition, and for that matter, most individual pagans, have radically different and incompatible understandings of them. This is not a problem unique to paganism either. There is, for example, no universally accepted Christian definition of who and what makes a properly ordained minister, for example. What makes a pastor a “real” pastor? Attempts to force standardization on who carries the authority of the divine invariably devolved into bloody civil war.

        Over the years, I’ve seen various attempts by coven leaders to form local “grand councils” ostensibly as a way to set standards of some kind. They were, invariably “mean girl” clubs that were all about personal politics, achieved nothing of value, and were (wisely) told to shag off by most of the local community within months.

        When it comes down to knowing whether specialists are the real deal, you have to do your research like anything else. Make connections with other pagans in your area and try to plug into regional or national stuff like PSG if you can. Figure out who the respected elders and heavy hitters are and then learn which specialists have reputations that THEY trust.

        To put it in another context, years ago I found a doctor I really like in my first year in a new city, but had no dentist. Rather than asking for references, I asked him point blank, “who do YOU go to?” Medical folks don’t knock each other among strangers, but they know who the hacks are, and who’s worth trusting for their own body and families.

        The only sorts of community standards that might work are those which involve a bare baseline of ethics. A few years ago, Brendan Myers and some other folks were trying to craft some statement of ethics about sexual abuse. I don’t know that it caught on in a formal way, but we adopted it for our group.

        It’s an example of how UPG can be balanced against the rights of others. We’ve all read the stories of the pervy middle age dude who forms a coven and recruits young women and tells them “Goddess told me you should service me for your own spiritual advancement.” We can, I think, as a community, call bullshit on that. Likewise we had Isaac Bonewits’ cult warning matrix or whatever it was called, which set a sort of standard for ethical group leadership.

        • Sarenth

          I take you at your meaning, but even people outside of the medical profession can research what the baseline expectations of a medical professional’s job entails and have expectations of them on arrival to a facility. That is, to my mind, part of the problem. There is no expectation to be had, no baseline really, for the Pagan communities.

          We cannot point to the word priest, for Pagan communities, and say ‘this is what they do’. The goal posts change so much dependent on the community being served. One Pagan community may identify priests as those serving one God or Goddess, or a set of Gods on behalf of the community, performing rites and maintaining good relationship with Them. Another Pagan community will identify priests not only as those who do the above, but those who also counsel, lead community activities, do activism, etc., among other duties.

          While I feel it is every community’s right to designate the standards of their priests, I also feel that it would be useful if, among other things, Pagans could come to some meaningful consensus on what functions our priests and priestesses are to serve in the wider communities.

      • Quentin

        I did not get that he was knocking UPG, but that he was merely raising
        concern when UPG is the do-all end-all of religion, when, to paraphrase
        what he has written, every reaction from your heart is interpreted as
        Divine contact, Will, etc.

        That’s kind of exactly what he said, but some people feel utterly compelled to take every critique of this sort as a personal attack, and twist it around to make it seem less personalised and more like that the critique is about X, instead.

        Individual paths, such as some forms of Wicca, Heathenry, Kemeticism,
        etc. have their own guidelines for spiritual specialists, but it is
        difficult to talk about Pagan community standards when the basic
        defining of the word as a descriptor cannot even be agreed upon.

        And until paganism, as an “umbrella community”, can agree on some semblance of standard in its definition, I fear it could be the death of the community. Words without any meaning are called gibberish and nonsense, and I fear paganism may be headed down that road if those bent on not defining it at all get their way.

        • Julian Betkowski

          I do recognize that occasionally my tone can be very aggressive, but that is a result of my frustration. I do try to simply critique cultural trends in my writings, and it is a never end source or irritation when people respond as though I am directly attacking them.

          We should be allowed to critique each other as members of the same community, and not immediately be accused of fundamentalism or “shittiness” as someone said about a previous post of mine.

      • Julian Betkowski

        Thank you for so eloquently condensing my point! Of course, I am not attacking UPG itself, just the lack of standards, as you say.

        I do think that religion consists of more than just UPG, religion is also communal experience. I fear that, looking at the kind of discussions that can occur, at least online, revolving around UPG experiences, that UPG often only serves to reinforce ego defenses and self-glorification, and it fact is often a fractious and destructive influence on community experience.

  • Traci

    Just wanted to say I agree, and have written about this myself in my column here.

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