My love/hate relationship with Neopaganism, Part 1

Why I hate Neopaganism:

#1   I hate magic.  Most Neopagans seem to believe in some form of instrumental or practical magic (i.e., spells).  I have complained extensively about this elsewhere.  Not only do I not believe in the mechanics of “raising energy” or the premise that intention is power, but I find the notion of controlling nature as a religious practice to be discordant with what I understand as the Neopagan ideal of atunement with nature.  I am fortunate to have found a group of like-minded “Naturalist Pagans” and “Humanistic Pagans”.

#2   I hate the “not that kind of Pagan” discussion.  Whenever I publicly identify myself as (Neo-)Pagan, I have to immediately follow that up with several qualifiers.  I watched my wife do this when she identified me as Pagan to her bishop (the local LDS church leader).  She described me as the earth-honoring kind of Pagan, “not the Wiccan kind” of Pagan.  She was 100% correct, of course, but I hate having to add qualifiers.  I would like to have an identifier that speaks for itself without qualification.  For example, my wife does not agree with everything the Mormon church teaches, but she can still unequivocally say “I am Mormon” to others and leave it at that.

#3   I hate the lack of organization.  John Stewart commented on this once on The Daily Show.  When responding in 2004 to an open letter by the Bob Jones University president referring to “the agenda of paganism”, he said, “Dude, pagans don’t have an agenda. They’re pagans. Organizational skills, not their strong suit.”  Being Neopagan seems to be synonymous with a license to start every ritual 30 to 60 minutes late.   I hate that Pagans seem proud of the “herding cats” metaphor.  Good ritual requires structure and planning.  Since no one seems to want to take charge at public rituals, they generally suck.  And the lack of organization means that we cannot present a united front when facing discrimination.

#4   I hate the conflation of Neopaganism with Wicca.  I hate that Paganism has become synonymous with Wiccanate ritual forms and beliefs.  I’ve posted previously about my experience at the “Spirit Circle” discussion group at my local UU church where we decided to talk about “Paganism” and the Christian in the group took it upon himself to announce an open invitation to “Wiccans” to come discuss Paganism with our group.  Then a couple came to the group the following Sunday who identify as “Witches”, but not “Wiccans”, because they are not initiated, even though their beliefs and ritual forms are all Wiccanate.  And then one of them announced that despite the diversity in Paganism, the one thing we all agree on is the Law of Threefold Return.  Sorry, I’m Pagan and I don’t believe in that.  I had to bite my tongue through the whole session.  I feel strongly that Wicca is on the margins, not at the center, of Neopaganism, in so far as it is rooted in the occultist tradition of ritual magic.

#5   I hate crystals.  And incense.  And magic wands.  And fairy art.  And hemp.  And all the other crap that is hocked at Pagan gatherings.  There is some high quality art and craftsmanship which is marketed to Pagans, but 90% of what is sold by vendors at large Pagan events is cheap, ugly, and/or stinky.  More importantly, crystals and magic wands have nothing to do with what I identify as Pagan.

#6   I hate that Paganism is taken as a license to confuse fantasy with reality.  It seems that Pagans feel free to believe any fantasy they want.  You were a Pagan priestess/a burned witch in a former life?  You can see fairies?  You have collect rocks with magical powers?  You can control the weather?  Well, it’s all good because you’re Pagan.  The one rule seems to be that no one is allowed to doubt another person’s authenticity.  I would like my religion to be taken seriously by the mainstream culture, but it never will be so long as there are are Pagans who believe in fairies.

#7   I hate the lack of ritual innovation.  We need to be more brave in deviating from Wiccanate forms for public rituals.  Steven Posch is one of my Pagan heroes for this reason.  He advocates abandoning the “tyranny of the circle”.  He doesn’t call the quarters.  His rituals are simple, evocative, and powerful.  I also admire Ruby Sara and Johnny Rapture, who have published a beautiful collection of alternative Pagan liturgies.

#8   I hate the costumes.  Let me preface this by saying that I love Halloween.  I love dressing up in costume for Halloween.  And even my everyday attire probably has a bit more flair than your average heterosexual male.  But Pagan events are the only place I feel out of place in jeans and a T-shirt.  Everyone else either looks like a hippie, a goth, or like they are celebrating Halloween early.   I want to be taken seriously by the mainstream culture and the fairy wings and wizards’ staffs are a real impediment to that.  I admire Patrick McCollum for representing Paganism in a suit and tie.

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Stay tuned for Part 2: “Why I Love Neopaganism” …

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  • http://quillismightier.wordpress.com Quill Is Mightier

    Reblogged this on The Quill Is Mightier and commented:
    I have very similar thoughts to this, most of the time.

  • thalassa

    I can agree with several of these as they are, and the spirit of most of the rest…though I’d reserve the right to quibble over the details. I, for example, happen to like “crystals” simply because I like rocks and I happen to like incense and smelly things just because I like plants and herbs…but I do sort of disdain many of the mass marked Pagan goods (some of them I enjoy since I have a well-developed appreciation for whimsy). Really, the only thing that I truly disagree on here is #1…and that is because I have a bit of a different view of what magic is and how it works and why (perhaps my view of magic is less magical than it is psychological and pragmatic).

    In the whole issue over the recent article about “needing supernatural gods” (or not), one of the comments I made on the matter was that spiritually I acknowledge and worship literally existing entities at work in the world (though I neither consider them supernatural, nor the type of god that I think was assumed in the discussion, but that is an entirely different discussion) but intellectually I doubt their very existence. And I don’t really see a conflict there, because I don’t think what is “real” is as important as what “works” (or perhaps, if it works, its real, even if its not factual or literal). Religious and spiritual thinking is on the opposite spectrum of scientific thinking, and I don’t expect it to follow the same rules because it doesn’t have the same purpose–its a different lens by which to view the world.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      “I, for example, happen to like “crystals” simply because I like rocks …”

      Crystals as rocks are awesome!

      “Religious and spiritual thinking is on the opposite spectrum of scientific thinking, and I don’t expect it to follow the same rules …”

      I think this is one of the main differences between naturalistic Pagans and many other Pagans. I would never suggest that science has all the answers or that rational thought is the final arbiter of all questions, but I can’t compartmentalize my thinking process in the way that you suggest. I suspect that is problematic for a most naturalists. Steven Jay Gould advocates what you are talking about. He calls it NOMA, non-overlapping magisteria. I’ve never found it satisfactory; it seems schizophrenic.

      Also, since I used to be Christian, and I feel like my rationality was compromised by by commitment to that tradition, I have to be suspicious now of the same thing happening again. I have to balance logic with other parts of me, but I can never surrender it in the realm of religion, or any realm of my life.

      I admit, for many naturalists, the question of literal deities with distinct personalities is primarily a “reality” question. But I think the practical question of what works is important too, and I don’t think saying “It works for me” answers all the questions. What does “works” mean? How is it working? Is it working to place the locus of power outside of myself? Is it working to distract me from the physical reality of the world around me? Is it working to satisfy my ego-self and avoid confronting my shadow? Etc., etc.

  • L

    I pretty much agree with all of this, except for the implicit assumption that “Paganism” is a single religion that needs a unified front, and that people whose wardrobes you have a personal distaste for need to get it together or somesuch. I’m not out to impress anyone, and if pagans want to make fools of themselves, then they can do that on their own merit, just as you or I can. Educating the general public about the legitimacy of The Pagan Tradition (which conveniently doesn’t include Neopagans and Wiccish stuff) wouldn’t be education– it’d be a truck-full of lies.

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  • http://druishinthedesert.wordpress.com wilderquill

    Not sure how I missed this post when it was published. I feel the same way about 99% of what you have to say. Especially the costumes.

    In fact here’s a little story: The local Pagan group was fundraising for our local Pagan Pride Day event and the spokesmen for a Tarot fundrasing event was on a local TV show at noon. The guy was dressed as a pirate.

    That is why were not taken seriously…because we present ourselves as flakes. Not only do we have to distance ourselves from the “Every Pagan is a Wiccan” perception, but we have to contend with spokesmen that can’t exist in the modern world.

    I never wear robes specifically for this reason. I’m not a Paleo-Pagan who wears a tunic, why should I wear one when I’m at a religious service. Although I do use a Staff :)

    -Todd.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      This past Halloween, my (non-Pagan) wife was throwing together a costume for a last minute party and asked me for a staff. I told her I didn’t think I had anything like that and she insisted I must have a staff in all my Pagan stuff. Apparently, staves are compulsory.

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  • http://daoineile.wordpress.com Eddie

    “I would like my religion to be taken seriously by the mainstream culture, but it never will be so long as there are are Pagans who believe in fairies.”

    I’m -so thrilled- that I can’t be ‘taken seriously’ because I have a practice that involves belief in fairies. I am /actually/ thrilled I dropped the term pagan and ID as a polytheist now, though, since I definitely don’t want to be associated with someone who throws me under the bus because I ~dare~ believe in something they do not.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      1. Are you surprise that mainstream culture does not take belief in fairies seriously?
      2. It’s ironic that you dropped the Pagan label, because the point of this post was that belief in fairies is currently acceptable in the Pagan community.
      3. You’re glad you’ve disaffiliated with the community because why? Because it includes people like me who disagree with you? It sounds like you’re doing what you you’ve accused me of doing.
      4. Every religion must draw boundaries. The Pagan community already does it with regard to the more racially-motivated forms of heathenry. The fact that I would draw the line so as to exclude your belief (not you, but your belief), is not equivalent to “throwing you under the bus”. It’s a legitimate disagreement about where to draw the boundaries that define our community. Something that has to be negotiated in community.
      5. It’s not that you believe something that I don’t believe that concerns me. It’s that you believe something that there is no physical evidence for. If Paganism is to be a this-worldly religion (and that is a big “if”), then I believe that excludes the “otherworld”. Obviously, I am in the minority on this point.

      • http://daoineile.wordpress.com Eddie

        I dropped the term pagan because it doesn’t encompass anything I believe or do, and because I find most of the communities lacking in regards to my religious needs. And because I was tired of people assuming I didn’t believe in gods or spirits because -smart people- (which is the implied and outright stated argument of atheist and humanist pagans) don’t believe in those sort of things. Polytheist is much, much more accurate – since I have faith and all that jazz.

        1. Did I say I was surprised? No. Amazingly, I don’t talk with most people about my belief in faeries until they come to me asking for help with a spirit. It’s really nobody’s business what I believe or the extent of my belief, unless they like being thought police. I’m not trying to be mainstream here, I’m trying to live my religion, which I place on a bit more important level than being accepted by the mainstream culture.
        2. Actually, my belief in faeries wasn’t acceptable in the pagan community because I don’t believe they’re all love and light and happiness. I’m the type of person that puts out placating offerings to the malevolent (read: most of the faeries folklore writes about) faeries. But thanks for telling me how my community reacted to my belief when, you know, I was actually the one there experiencing their reaction.
        3. I’m glad I did because it does not and never will represent me or fulfill any of my religious and spiritual needs, and I see no reason to affiliate with a group that largely has values in opposition to my own. Which is why, you know, I disaffiliated rather than demanding everyone change to suit my needs.
        4. “Not you, but your belief”/”Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Hm, interesting, because my belief and me aren’t separate. They’re the same thing. Same person, same life experiences, same belief. You’re embarrassed by me? Okay, good thing I stopped using the term – but if you’re so embarrassed and wanting the approval of mainstream culture, why are you using a term that is largely made up of people that embarrass you?
        5. I’m so glad you’re concerned, I really am. Except, I don’t actually care, cause…it’s my belief, not yours. If you’re so embarrassed by people, use a different label – there are seriously hundreds. Your religion is entirely this world? Great. We could probably have a really cool discussion about how that manifests in your daily life and actions and influences your life. But you seem far more interested in making people toe your party line than discussing how our religions change and shape us and having cool conversations about that.

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          “Actually, my belief in faeries wasn’t acceptable in the pagan community because I don’t believe they’re all love and light and happiness.”
          I dig that. This is one of the things I addressed in Part 2: Why I love Paganism.

          “I’m glad I did because it does not and never will represent me or fulfill any of my religious and spiritual needs, and I see no reason to affiliate with a group that largely has values in opposition to my own.”
          So you’re upset that I would exclude your beliefs from a community you no longer associate with? Or you’re upset that I, a person who you do not associate with, would be embarrassed by your beliefs?

          “but if you’re so embarrassed and wanting the approval of mainstream culture, why are you using a term that is largely made up of people that embarrass you?”
          Good question. One I struggle with frequently and openly here on this blog. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2012/01/15/pagan-but-with-a-small-p/

          “But you seem far more interested in making people toe your party line than discussing how our religions change and shape us and having cool conversations about that.”
          Seriously? Have you read this blog?

          Look, this is the place where I describe the “warts and all” of my private Pagan practice, as I explain in the little blurb that shows up on every page. This means sharing even the non-PC ideas I have about Paganism. This is the place where I admit that I am embarrassed by other Pagans, and where I also admit I am embarrassed by my embarrassment. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2012/11/16/being-ashamed-of-paganism/ . And I think it’s better than to have this conversation in the open than to let it percolate in the community on a subconscious level. As Alison Leigh Lilly wrote in response to my embarrassment post:

          “But even though creative work is hindered by constant criticism and self-analysis, it is equally handicapped if attempted in isolation. Creative work engages with the resistance of the medium, and the creative work of community-building absolutely demands that we overcome our embarrassment to have real conversations with each other about the things that matter, and that we do that openly and publicly. We can’t do that if we are politely escorting those who disagree with us to the exit, but we also can’t do that if we expect those disagreements to be pleasantly shelved for the time being while we all light candles and hold hands in a circle together. The one is a recipe for intolerant theology, but the other is a recipe for shallow practice.”

          http://alisonleighlilly.com/blog/2012/embarrassment-an-invitation-to-growth/

          I believe it is important not just to tolerate difference in community, but to challenge it so it can challenge us back. For example, in this brief and limited interaction with you, my preconceptions about people who believe in fairies has been challenged by your description of your practice. I think polytheist and atheist sub-cultures have a great deal to offer to each other.

      • http://daoineile.wordpress.com Eddie

        Oops – reading over my first comment, I meant to say I was so thrilled that -you- couldn’t be taken seriously, not myself. Pardon my bad fingers. I don’t care whether or not most people take my belief seriously, but I do find it weird how -my- belief would make you ‘look bad’.

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  • http://kemeticrecon.wordpress.com helmsinepu

    On the “magic” subject, the Egyptian “Heka” has a very different focus. For one thing, it incorporates the practical- setting the broken bone, applying an herbal substance, with ritual. Both sides are necessary. A lot of us seem to see it as influencing things on a quantum level- getting that butterfly to flap her wing in Borneo, getting a different roll of the dice, rather than shoving a natural force aside with ‘energy.’

    “Not that kind of Pagan”- That’s one of the reasons I try to hammer away at the “All Pagans do this-and-that.” Usually if someone identifies as “Christian,” most people will admit that there are wide differences between a snake-handler church and High Episcopal. I suppose the more ‘other’ a religion is from the cultural norm, the less likely people are to make distinctions about it. We certainly see that with ignorant ideas about Islam.

    I guess I’d go along with most of your ‘hates,’ which is why Wiccan or Wiccan-ish practice never appealed to me. And they’re often the ones who insist that all this is ‘universal’ to all pagans, and can be quite intolerant when it’s pointed out to them that it’s not true. I’ve had to do some educating at my UU church too.

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