The dirty words we use to describe each other

Some time ago, I heard a story on NPR’s “This American Life”, about a guy who lost a friend when the friend found out that he had voted for Obama. The friend had called him a “socialist”. Of course, he didn’t think of himself as a socialist, but was left feeling that he had been called a dirty name, without really knowing why it was dirty. This got me thinking about how the terms we use to define others are different from the terms that others use to define themselves. When conservatives call liberals “socialists” and liberals call conservatives “ideologues”, neither side really knows what the other one is talking about, but both sides are left feeling vaguely insulted.

The reason why neither side understands the other is because each side is using a different dichotomy to distinguish “self” from “other”. For the conservative, the dichotomy may be something like democracy-communism, freedom-socialism, or liberty-totalitarianism. For the liberal, the dichotomy may be something like pragmatism-ideology or or social responsibility-big business. But these dichotomies are usually not made explicit, so both sides end up talking past each other. This happens in politics, of course, but it also happens in religious discussions.

A good example of this is how (Neo-)Pagans talk about Christians. It’s not uncommon for Neopagans (myself included) to define the difference between themselves and Christians in terms of a transcendence-immanence dichotomy.  According to Neopagans, the Neopagan deity is immanent, while the Christian deity is transcendent. Neopagans will also emphasize their difference from Christians by denying a belief in the “Fall”. In reality, there are probably lots of Christians who experience God as more immanent (i.e., through the Holy Spirit) than transcendent. (The transcendence-immanence paradox is something Christian theologians at least have been wrestling with for hundreds of years, but especially in the last century.)  And there are lots of Christians who really don’t believe in the depravity of humankind or the falleness of nature. And while many Neopagans emphasize their earth-centeredness, we certainly do not have a monopoly on care for the earth. But setting aside the issue of whether the transcendence-immanence dichotomy is an accurate way to distinguish Christians and Pagans, what I really find interesting is the fact that probably very few Christians would define themselves primarily in terms of the transcendence of deity. The transcendence-immanence spectrum may or may not be a good way to define Christianity and distinguish it from Paganism, but it is not a common way for Christians to define themselves.

Take another example, from within the Pagan community. I noticed recently how polytheists often distinguish themselves from others within the Pagan community in terms of the poly-mono dichotomy. Polytheists believe in a multiplicity of deities and also often in a multiplicity of “truths”. In contrast, they describe others within the Pagan community as “monists” — those who believe in one ultimate divinity and one ultimate truth. This post by (the recently unPaganed) Star Foster is a good example. It took me a while after reading Star’s post the first time to realize that she was talking about me … well, not me specifically, but the type of Pagan that I identify with. The reason why I didn’t realize who she was talking about right away was because I don’t define myself primarily as a monist. I don’t use the poly-mono dichotomy to distinguish myself from others. Star is correct that many Pagans (including me) technically are philosophical monists, but that’s just not the term we use to describe ourselves. While it makes sense that polytheists like Star would emphasize the poly-mono dichotomy, because that is what is most important to them, unless that dichotomy is made explicit, then it is an impediment to communication.

Or take another term that Star uses to define others within the Pagan community: “atheist”. Here Star defines the “other” Pagans in terms of an theist-atheist dichotomy. While there are some Pagans who would call themselves “atheist” (see “Pagan Atheists: Yes, we exist” by Stifyn Emrys), there are a lot of others who fall into Star’s category who would call themselves “pantheist” or “panentheist” or “nontheist” or other terms. “A-theism” is an important term to Star because her theism is important to her. The problem is that, when Star talks about “atheist Pagans”, many of the people she is talking about are likely to be completely baffled. When I first read Star’s posts, I, like the guy whose friend called him a “socialist”, had the feeling that I had been called a dirty name, but I didn’t know why either “atheist” (or “monist”) is supposed to be dirty.  (I think it’s ironic that Star uses the term “atheist” to describe other Pagans in the same way that some Christians use the term “pagan” to describe atheists.)

And lest anyone think that I’m excusing myself here, let’s talk about the term “naturalistic Pagan” which has been adopted by an increasing number of Pagans, including myself. Naturalistic Pagans define themselves in contrast to “supernaturalists”. The funny thing is that the so-called “supernaturalists” do not identify with this term.  Over the last year or so, I have been challenged again and again on my assumption that polytheists see their gods as in some way transcendent to nature; but this just is not true of the majority of polytheists.  So, when I was talking to people I considered “supernaturalists” and I call myself a “naturalist”, they have no idea what I am talking about. That’s because the so-called “supernaturalists” consider themselves “naturalists” also. It’s very frustrating to tell a “supernaturalist” that you are a “naturalist” and have them respond, “Yeah, me too.” Then the discussion turns to unproductive task trying to explain to someone how they are what you think they are and not what they think they are.

The problem is not just a difference in definitions, it’s a problem of paradigms, where we are using different dichotomies to distinguish self from other. Now I’m not so naive as to suggest that we should stop using these dichotomies to distinguish ourselves from others. Our lives are full of them: male-female, homo-hetero, straight-queer, patriot-terrorist, Christian-immoral person, and so on. The problem is that, whether we realize it or not, these dichotomies are not self-evident. We may choose to define ourselves vis a vis others using any of the dichotomies above, but we should not think that any of these natural opposites. They are social constructs, and they are choices.  And we absolutely cannot assume that other people are using the same dichotomies to make sense of their own world.

Let’s be explicit about the dichotomies we use.  At let’s acknowledge that the way we distinguish ourselves from another group is likely not the way they distinguish themselves from us.  I hope that, in doing so, we might be able to communicate better with those with whom we do not identify.  And that is important, because it is the probably those people that we have the most to learn from.

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  • Moma Fauna

    You nailed it with the “naturalist”/”supernaturalist” dichotomy — a very helpful illustration.

    I have always considered myself a “naturalist,” but the word’s more recent usage in pagan circles befuddles me. I believe, by your definition, I would be categorized as a “supernaturalist” yet I feel quite strongly that I am both. I love the “naturalist” pagan blogs & websites, but I always sense that they are speaking to someone else, sort of, mostly. Obviously, there is a difference in our usages. I don’t really think we are opposites… just a little bit divergent or dissimilar. If that makes sense.

    • John Halstead

      Yes it does. Thank you for your comment.

  • ladyimbrium

    Well said as usual. I wonder how much of our communications problems arise from the fact that we aren’t really using the same language? There’s a basic urge to separate “us” from “them” which probably dates back to the dawn of our species’ sentience or before. The results can be very unpleasant. Racial conflict, gender discrimination, religious warfare and whatever this political mess we call an election process is are all undoubtedly affected by this language failure. One of the things everyone- myself included- needs to work towards is thinking in terms of “all of us” and in making things work across these self-made barriers. I believe simultaneously in an all-pervasive Divine which is probably impossible to describe in even the slightest fashion without limiting, AND in the idea of discrete beings with incredible power who might well be described as gods. This means that no one likes talking to me because they can’t put me in one camp or the other. I have a lot of experience in this position, since most of my beliefs, opinions, experiences and understandings thus far place me in very gray areas. I see the language misuse all around and I hear all kinds of words being thrown in my direction with negative undertones. Most of them are even accurate IF a specific connotation is understood.

    I’m not really sure where all of that leaves me, other than mildly confused, very frustrated, and in general agreement with what you said up there.

    • John Halstead

      Thanks. I’m still working through this idea myself and I appreciate your input.

  • Elani Temperance

    A wonderful post I will be referencing on friday, for the PBP. I really wish you would have included your explanation for the terminology used, though 😉 Now I’m still unsure about the naturalist vs supernaturalist and monotheist vs polytheist things. I’m pretty sure that I’m a supernaturalist and polytheist in your–and my–book, though. Thanks for this!

    • John Halstead

      Trying to define those terms is a whole can of worms I am increasingly reluctant to open, at least in public.

      • Elani Temperance

        That, I completely understand. Still, it might be a good way to get the ball rolling on a better understanding of each others’ believes?

  • B. T. Newberg

    On the Pagan/Christian use of the transcendence/immanence dichotomy, add to the confusion the fact that a great many, if not most, Pagans seem to describe their view as panentheist, which is precisely what the orthodox Christian view has always been.

    On the naturalist/supernaturalist dichotomy, as Moma said, you nailed it. I’ve stopped using “supernaturalist” at all because it’s simply not how people see themselves. I’ve also stopped using “literalist” (metaphoricalist/literalist) for the same reasons.

    When I first started the site, I figured “naturalism” wouldn’t go over well with Pagans because they’re so into nature, so I went with “humanistic.” Then the issue just never came up and it seemed like excessive worry, until recently. Now it seems to be becoming an issue. I’m not sure how to bandaid the problem. Hopefully we will not end up adding more and more labels to make our views understood (like “scientific evidentialist naturalistic pagan”!).

    • John Halstead

      I think it’s inevitable with any appellation. I still think humanist is a good term. I don;t think it alienates others to the same degree as the others I mentioned. (What is is the opposite of a humanist?) I think the best we can do is be explicit about our assumptions and not assume they are natural or shared by others.

    • vikingrunnergirl

      I would’ve thought “humanist pagan” would be a good way to avoid the naturalist/supernaturalist dichotomy, too. I haven’t been over there in a few weeks so I’m not sure what problem people could be having with it?

      I feel a little guilt-stung over the pointing out of that particular dichotomy, since I recognize that it’s one I use in my own thinking, and it’s very easy to see how somebody on the supernaturalist side could be stung by the appellation.

      I think you’re also spot-on about the poly/monist or theist/atheist categories as well. I have absolutely no use and very little respect for Star Foster at this point because of that mindset.

      • John Halstead

        Star is provocative, and I often disagreed with her, but she always got me thinking.

        • vikingrunnergirl

          Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d been reading her blog for longer, and had a more detailed background picture of her? But I only started reading just before she left patheos, and wasn’t really “reading” her blog (as in, something I checked every day, even if for just a few days) as I had just spent some time in one afternoon reading back through the archives starting from the most recent. So pretty nearly my first introduction to her was an obnoxious flaming of pagan atheists and humanists, where I self-identify. I found it especially obnoxious since I’d been reading the blog in reverse, and so read THAT post – her complaints about atheists and “monists” trying to force orthodoxy on all other pagans, everywhere, and how awful and not really pagan they are for that – after reading about four posts where she talked about how pagans really should have an orthodoxy so, among other things, we have some specific beliefs to pass down to our children. I just thought… yeah, I’m done here.

  • zenistao

    Hey John, its me Kelley. I think you are 100% correct. As a community (pagans), we need like to pull out the old label maker and put tags on us and on others. I think one of these reasons that we like to distinguish ourselves from others is the fact that we have an intimate relationship with our own spiritual path. We try and describe it to others and since their relationship with their path is different, we start from that point to the false dichotomy game. If I remember this one example correctly, if you asked a person in the United Stated their faith 100 – 125 years ago they would identify themselves based on denominational affiliation (Baptist, Methodist, Mormon, Catholic etc…). Sometime between the late 1950’s into the late 70’s people started to adopt a sort of Universalism looking at what they had in common instead of doctoral differences (Armenian Theology (like Methodist / Pentecostals vs Reformed Theology like Predestination) . The aftermath of this birthed a new rendering of the Word Christian. Today, many of the people I know use this to identify themselves, but if you ask what kind of church they go to, it just runs the gambit. The only groups I come across who label themselves by group are Catholics, Mormons, Episcopalians, and a few others. My point is that are fellow pagans, many already view each other as like modern Chrisitans do. I think when we get to the point of looking at each group as separate religions, then may be we can find more common ground. I mean a Hindu is not a Buddhist, but both would qualify as Pagans under most people’s definitions. So there is much ground work to to, and we tend to have tolerance on our side I would like to think.

    • John Halstead

      I think what you may be describing is the growth of non-denominational Christianity and not an actual change in how people define themselves and others over time. There is still plenty of Christian denominationalism going around. While there has been a growth of Christian ecumenicalism, it has not been so significant that doctrinal differences have become unimportant. In fact, in my experience, it is precisely among the non-denominationals that the minutiae of doctrine are most heatedly debated, while ironically you see more ecumenicalism among the old-time denominations.

  • darakat

    Lupa also posted on a similar topic recently here:
    Both of you have the idea of these false dichotomies cropping up, what do you think is causing it? A lack of education or something bigger?

    • John Halstead

      Well, since I’m prone to dichotomous thinking myself — you’ll probably find plenty of it on this blog — and if anything I’m over-educated, I don’t think that’s the problem. I really think it’s a natural human tendency, and I think the only thing we can do is be more conscious of it.

  • thefirstdark

    Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

  • C Luke Mula

    Man, the “naturalist/supernaturalist” dichotomy seems so obvious now that you’ve pointed it out. I’ve mostly not used it because I’ve always run into problems with it, but I never gave thought as to why.

  • Mira

    English is not my first language and not one I use very often, so I am a bit confused by some of the words used in this interesting post. Most of all I would like to know if “dichotomous thinking” is the same as what John Michael Greer calls “binary thinking”?

    • John Halstead

      Yes, I think it is a very similar idea.

  • Silvernfire

    Ah, at last I have a context for the term “naturalistic Pagan.” Thank you. I hadn’t realized it was half of a set (probably because I’ve never heard anyone use “supernaturalistic”), and without its opposite, I wasn’t sure I was understanding it, much less whether or not I was one.

    • John Halstead

      While I like the term, given that practically nobody in the Pagan community owns up to being a super-naturalist, I think the term has limited usefulness, and may be more confusing than it is elucidating.

  • Druweid

    I like this, but will have to find some time to read it more slowly and give it the thought and consideration it deserves. :-)

    My prima facie impression is that, back in my day, we had a different term for that which you call “dirty words” and “dichotomous thinking:” Pigeonholing. Sure, I can tell you that I’m a Panentheist, an Archetypalist, and even that I have an Agnostic view of Deity. If you think that gives you an idea of who I am and what my beliefs really are, I’ll gladly tear out a 1″ x 1″ section of a Rembrandt, show it to you, and ask if you think it’s a beautiful painting. :)