The many shades of Pagan embarrassment

“You will be ashamed because of the sacred oaks in which you have delighted;
you shall blush because of the gardens that you have chosen.”

— Isaiah 1:29

In a previous post, I wrote about “Being Embarrassed by Paganism”.  I’ve been surprised at the responses.  While some people took it as an attempt to perpetuate the “pagan hierarchy”, a surprising percentage expressed sympathy.  Among the commenters were Humanistic/naturalistic Pagans, polytheists and Recons, Neopagans and witches.

Drew Jacob responded twice in “Why More People Aren’t Pagan” and “An Open Letter to John Halstead”.  In the latter instance, he asks whether we share enough common ground to claim a common spiritual practice:

“We have many beliefs in common. Above all, we revel in the world as-is. The world is majestic and beautiful yet uncaring and destructive. It is at once the source of every joy and every misery we will ever experience. To love the joys and suffer the miseries is one thing, but to savor the joy and race the misery, loving the whole in honor of its perfectness, that is sacred awe. I believe we share this sacred awe.

“We also share a certain deism. I hear you talk about gods; I do the same. It’s human to call out to these gods. They wear faces for us. But we don’t expect deities to change the face of the world. They are our silent tutors, we carry them in our blood. ‘Revere the gods but do not count on their help.'”

Drew also asks what we should call this common spirituality.  He, for one, believes that “Pagan” isn’t the right word anymore.

Dave responded to Drew’s post with this beautiful affirmation, which for me defines what Paganism is all about:

I salute the moon whenever I see him, like a lover being recognized with an airy kiss. He shines down brightly, like hope from heaven.

I lie out beneath a vast blanket of stars and feel grateful to have ever been born. Being alive feels so good it hurts.

I pour libations – effervescent, sanguine, and enthusiastic. I set apart who and what I love and remember them forever.

I greet the dead throughout the day and hold close the living always. I revel in the bonds of camaraderie.

The gods and spirits watch me, some curious, others playful, all loving in their own ways. All stupefyingly beautiful.

I run and sing, laugh and dance, make music and art, and fuck like my life depends on it – it does. Love makes the heart sing.

I don’t have a church, or an dogma, or a stately forbearance or respectability. I’m just one man who loves to be alive.

I don’t want to be dead, but I wouldn’t mind it – I don’t want to live forever. I just want to live right now, for as long as that lasts.

I guess that makes me human. So if people ask what religion is he, tell them that my religion is life well lived – through love and ecstatic joy.

Dáire Hobbs responded with a sympathetic post from a Recon perspective entitled “Embarrassed to be Pagan”.  The difference between Dáire’s phrasing and mine (“embarrassed of Paganism” vs. “embarrassed to be Pagan”) reflects our respective relationships to the word “Pagan”, a label which I have not abandoned.  Dáire cited another interesting post of his about “The Biggest Difference Between Neopagans and Recons”, in which he argues that NeoPaganism and Buddhism are not religions, because they do not worship gods (“real, individual beings”).  Instead, NeoPagans “honor ourselves, the Earth and each other”.  That’s how I understand NeoPaganism, too.  (See B.T. Newberg’s four-part series on the “Three Transcendents”: Nature, Community, and Mind.)  But, while Dáire is embarrassed by this, I see it as NeoPaganism’s greatest strength.

Dáire also mentions Brad Hicks’ LiveJournal post, “Not That Kind of Pagan”, which is an entertaining rant against my kind of Paganism:

“It’s also fundamental to Neopaganism, at least where I live and as I see it in my Neopagan friends, that you don’t have to believe any of that to be literally true. Some large percentage, probably approaching half, are for all practical purposes secular humanist agnostics or atheists to whom the god(s) and goddess(es) of Neopaganism are merely convenient spiritual or artistic symbols. In fact, if you count in the further large percentage of Neopagans who believe that The God and The Goddess exist because they’re projections of our own human collective spirit, collective unconscious, and that what we’re really worshipping are things that we made up ourselves? Then the percentage of Neopagans who believe that the gods aren’t ‘really real’ probably approaches the high 90% range. And they’re okay with that.”

Valentina the Witch responded to my post with “Why You Don’t Have to Be Ashamed of Paganism.”  Valentina suggests that I may be on my way out of the Pagan community because I have violated what I have called the First Commandment of NeoPaganism: “Thou shalt not judge.”  I didn’t find that injuction helpful when I was Christian, and I don’t find it helpful in Paganism either.  As I said in one of my responses to Valentina:

“I think there is a role for constructive criticism, and I think sometimes the love-and-let-live attitude can be as problematic as destructive criticism. I appreciate that there is a difference between constructive criticism and ‘bitching’. In the blogosphere, I think the difference is that constructive criticism is characterized by openness and vulnerability and backed up by personal experience. I strive to be an example of the former, but I don’t always succeed.”

Certainly, it’s no fun being on the receiving end of someone else’s judgment (I get it from Recons like Dáire).  But, as I wrote previously:

If you want to avoid orthodoxy, then we need to have more discussion, not less.  And some of that discussion needs to be (constructively) critical.  Or else we become vulnerable groupthink.  Sometimes it is only the best of our friends that force us to ask the hardest of questions about ourselves.  […] I wonder if the ‘tolerance’ being advocated is not, in some cases, an excuse for insularism.”

While I disagree with the polytheist critique of my kind of Paganism, it has driven me to consider the way in which we experience deity as “other” and has led me to a more complex and nuanced understanding of divinity.  If I had not been challenged by those I disagree with, I might have missed this opportunity for growth.

At her blog, Nathara wrote about her own “Pagan Embarrassment” at some, but not all, of the same things I complain about, and wonders about her own relation to Paganism.  And she wonders: “Are the public Pagan rituals playing a political game, dressing up to be as harmless as possible? Catering to the lowest common denominator?”

In her response, Alison Leigh Lilly discussed embarrassment as  “an invitation to growth”.  I found Alison’s post the most challenging and I attempted to respond to it in my previous post: Embarrassment and the twin threats to Paganism: Shallowness of the mind and of the heart.

Mention was also made of this discussion by the always awesome Jason Mankey and as part of this week’s Mysteria Misc. Maxima.  And B.T. Newberg published a poll asking which label the readers at Humanistic Paganism identify most with (a few of which do not use the word “Pagan”).

Finally, John Becket offered his advice “To My Nontheistic Pagan Friends”: “Let’s all find the right combination of pride and humility as we explore the great mysteries of Life.”  John reminds us that Paganism is a young religion.  Alison said something similar in her post when she analogized Paganism to adolescence.  I agree patience is necessary when when dealing when young religions as it is when dealing with teenagers, but at the same time, both kinds of adolescence benefit from structure — tolerance is helpful, but at point it can be an obstacle to growth.  In the end, John calls us to remember what we love about Paganism:

“Remember that something called you to Paganism – otherwise you’d be an atheist. Perhaps that was a love of Nature, or an interest in ancient literature, or as with one non-theistic Pagan I know, a love of ritual. Perhaps you believe that developing reverence for the Earth is the only thing that will save us as a species. Whatever your reason for being in this big tent we call Paganism, you do have a reason, and I’m glad you’re here.”

I very much appreciated this.  And it prompted me to go back and read my post about why I love Paganism.

I want to thank everyone who commented or responded to my original post.  As I indicated in some of the comments, it was not easy to write and I realize that it made me come off as elitist and disengaged.  The responses have been thought-provoking and challenging for me, and with time I hope to be able to integrate their insights into my own understanding of my relationship to Paganism.

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  • I’m glad you’ve taken the time to tease this out more. It’s a complicated issue, to be sure.

  • Dave

    Hello John,

    First I’d like to thank you for the shout out. It’s kind of cool to be mentioned in a blog post, as silly as that sounds. Second it may interest you to know that I am a practitioner of Druidry and a member of Ár nDraíocht Féin. Given ADF’s reputation and having been a reader of yours for some time I was deeply amused that you would point to me for a definition of your kind of Pagan.

    Of course you were unaware of my association with her at the time. Which leads me to wonder, are “naturalist” and “polytheist” Pagans really that different? I don’t mean to gloss over the differences of course, and there are differences, but I think it is enlightening that two people coming from seemingly opposite sides of the tent could reach much the same conclusions. Perhaps there is hope for the “Pagan” label after all and for your Pagan identity as well?



    • Dave:
      One of the positive outcomes of my engagement with the issues raised in this post was that I realized there were important similarities between my own experience and that of many polytheists. At the very least, we share a concern with the perceived shallowness of much of Neopaganism (at least the public face of it), and we both approach the respective objects of our devotion with a level of reverence that is not always present in other forms of Paganism. Beyond that, your comment to Drew’s post shows that we share much of the same language, which I think means we can worship authentically in the same space. Thanks for sharing.

      • Dave

        Thanks John,

        Your posts on this topic have been very timely for me. I love ADF and I love her people. There will always be a home for me there. I meant what I said about not having a church though. I know ADF likes to present herself that way and I don’t want to contradict that but she’s not my church – I’m not married to all or even much of what she stands for.

        In fact my own “Pagan embarrassment” comes specifically from my association with ADF. While my coreligionists may lay claim to the mantle of scholarship, much of what is written about ancient paganism is taken out of context, romanticized, or just plain wrong. One of the things I find most irksome is the insistence on developing a pseudo-reconstructionist practice based on research about Indo-European cultures. Building up a more-or-less historical understanding of pre-Christian polytheist practices and beliefs only to drop them into a thoroughly Neo-Pagan “one-size-fits-all” liturgy disrespects both Neo-Paganism and reconstructionist polytheism – to say nothing of ancient paganism.

        I don’t have a problem with the recognition that we are a 21st century, modern (typically American) people, that kind of honesty and self-awareness is refreshing. Compared to the religious reconstructionists I’ve encountered who seem to think that the pinnacle of Pagan achievement is found in a limited window of time, thousands of years ago and that the culture must be replicated as exactly as possible. An impossible task in many cases. I’m aware of, and often admire, methodological reconstructionists but their religion is not mine either and in any case seems inappropriate to a Neo-Pagan church.

        For me though, what has been most fascinating is realizing that while I remain deeply polytheistic I often have more in common with naturalists and non-theists than I do with many “hard” polytheists. I’m not sure what that says about me. I’d like to think that’s a symptom of a more nuanced theology rather than a secret desire to be a tree hugging, dirt loving atheist. No, I’ve seen religious humanism in action and more often than not, in my experience, it simply cannot approach genuine worship. I need something more than a lecture and some friends otherwise I would have stayed Christian. I need religion.


  • Oops… typo. I think you meant “Jason *M*ankey”! 🙁

  • Ashley Yakeley

    Belief in God is an essential concept of Christianity: it’s considered necessary to being a Christian. But this kind of belief is not an originally pagan concept. The problem is, the debate in modern paganism over whether the gods “really exist” is played out within this Christian paradigm of belief. Even atheism doesn’t so much reject religion as such as reject belief.

    The original pagan attitude was very different: one does not believe in gods so much as awaken to their presence generally at particular times, places, points in one’s life. Abstract philosophical/theological musing doesn’t much help here: you’d be better off reflecting on what is sacred, that is, what one has unconditional respect for.

    Something I would ask any humanist (or other) pagan, what is it you have unconditional respect for? This gives me a much better sense of someone’s paganism than their theories of the “existence” of gods. (Brendan Myers gave an excellent answer, and it looks like B.T. Newberg has something similar).

    • These things I hold sacred: all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships.

      • Ashley Yakeley

        “These things I hold sacred: all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships.”

        I don’t quite share this, because “selves” sometimes do bad things, and “relationships” are sometimes toxic, so for me it must be something in these that might inspire my unconditional respect.

        • And nature sometimes tries to destroy us or eat us. And sometimes the gods are malevolent. All of these things have my respect — *especially* the things that try to destroy me — the way I would respect a Bengal tiger if I was trapped in a lifeboat with it. (I just watched the “Life of Pi” — can you tell?)

          • Ashley Yakeley

            I can respect a Bengal tiger trying to eat me, especially as that’s how tigers “naturally” behave. Or maybe it’s some spirit within the tiger, its “natural tigerness”, or something, that I have truly unconditional respect for.

            But I can’t respect a relationship where, for instance, someone is trying to deceive and hurt the other. The best I can say is that there is something in relationships that is sacred.

            Generally I’ve found this kind of examination very helpful for discovering my own values. I want to know: what kind of “self” should I be, what kind of relationships should I be in? For instance, I might do something I’m ashamed of, and that action is something I should not have respect for. If I own my actions, then it comes from a part of me that I should not have respect for, and if I wish to improve, I should discover what it is within myself that is truly worthy of respect.

    • The problem is that all of us in the West grow up surrounded by Christianity. (or at least the culture it spawned) The Levant (the “big 3” religions) all insist that there stories are literally, historically true. So they assume everyone feels exactly the same way. But in the end it almost doesn’t matter if the stories are true or not. They are supposed to be educational. The stories are supposed to tell you something about your life. (Aside from just a list of commands.)

      The idea that the world is fundamentally a loving place is a very Christian idea. I don’t think too many traditional societies had that idea – not when faced with famine every winter, or whatever. That idea of the loving nature of the cosmos gets incorporated into a lot of popular, modern paganism. It is familiar even if it is dressed up differently.

      Not many people want to look at the destruction of Shiva, the end of the gods in Ragnarok, the destroyer gods in many religions, or think about the monsters in the forest. Most Americans don’t even want to think about their own deaths long enough to draw up will. Too uncomfortable.

  • John, this is slightly off topic – though Alison picked up the theme in her response to you – but I’m interested in what antecedents you find in ancient paganism (if any) for the thisworldly or inworldly neo-paganism that you are attracted to? So many of the ancient pagan ways such as Orphism, the Eleusinian mysteries, and so on, have strong otherworldly elements and present some form of dualism between body and soul.

    And I guess my follow up question would be … is this the real divide within modern paganism, i.e. between inworldly and otherworldly metaphysics?

    I suspect that there are antecedents for the inworldly view but that they tend to be drowned out by the weight of the classical literary canon. I found this interesting snippet recently:

    • dhiosdh:
      I would agree that the more this-worldly antecedents in ancient paganism may be “drowned out” by the classical literary cannon. There were the Stoics, who may have been somewhat more this-worldly. I think B.T. Newberg could probably give you more examples. I believe folk religion may often have been more “earthly” than the state cults which have left us records. Archeological evidence and the little documentary evidence we have gives at a reason to suspect that the folk religions in many cultures were more concerned with human, animal, and plant fertility than immortality. But I do suspect that the majority of “pagan” religions in the history of humankind have been more otherworldly than contemporary NeoPaganism. Of course, none of these people called themselves “pagan”.
      For me, the word cannot be understood outside the context of monotheism. Whatever was meant by the early Christians when they coined the term “pagan”, the word came, at least by the 18th century Romantic revival, to have the meaning described by Henry Hatfield in *Aesthetic Paganism in German Literature*:
      “The term ‘paganism’ denotes first of all a ‘this-worldly’ view of life, as opposed to Christian dualism. [… It] implies a belief in divine forces immanent in nature and man. The typical modern pagan […] tends to a belief in enjoyment rather than asceticism, and vindicates the physical side of life, often with a special stress on the sexual element.”
      As Ronald Hutton demonstrates, the NeoPagan revival was inspired by the German and English Romantics, as much as it was by the Western Hermetic Tradition. It was in this sense that Tim Zell used the word when he started calling the the religious movement that coalesced around the *Green Egg* newsletter “NeoPagan”. And it’s in that sense that I use the term now. For me, it calls up thoughts of people like Stephan George, Thomas Taylor, Charles Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, and Harry Byngham more than Enheduanna, Homer, or Julian.
      By the way, that was an interesting quote you shared. I would be curious to hear how Kerenyi backs that up. In my limited exposure to his writings, it seems that he sometimes sees what he wants to see in the ancient past. The Minoans left very little documentary evidence and much of the archeological evidence was tampered with by Arthur Evans.

      • I think one of the many questions that every person has to confront, and so every religion must address at least a little is, “What happens when you die?” Valhalla. Folkvanger. Stygian caves, Elysian fields. Whatever. I’m sure there are religions that don’t explicitly deal with the hereafter, but I doubt it is common.

  • First, thank you for mentioning and including a link to my blog post. I really like that you pointed out “If I had not been challenged by those I disagree with, I might have missed this opportunity for growth” and that is what I truly appreciate about our differences, why encountering and confronting our questions and criticisms is so important. I consider disillusionment, not embarrassment, the real lesson at the root of what I felt when I grew disappointed with some other Pagans and Witches in my life. Disillusionment is a great teacher because it helped me to grow past my expectations and get to reality.

    After reading this post, I understand you are not on your way out of Paganism, and I hope you understand that I was not solely addressing you as my audience when I wrote “Why You Don’t Have to be Ashamed of Paganism” but in response to so many people I’ve known who have abandoned Paganism and rejected the very word “Pagan” as a term to describe what they believe. I can understand why some polytheists identify with particular movements and specific religions, but to continuously claim that embarrassment over Paganism, and constantly criticizing it as a way to recruit more people-of-a-like-mind to reject Paganism, I find that trend very suspect — a prejudice that needs to be addressed, guarded against. It’s something to think and discuss about Not a thing I want to point fingers at any one person about, just something that bothers me.

    I think this is why so many of my peers react very emotionally over this issue. We get a little insulted because it can feel like an attack on who we are — it is our identification and some of us have no problem with it, especially when we belong to a tradition passed down to us, a group we’re loyal to, and a people we have fostered or who have nurtured us. Understanding that some Pagans are sensitive about that is also something to keep in mind when critiquing the behavior of groups — some won’t care no matter what you say, yet some will very much care, not because they are insecure about who they are, but they are defending their fellowship, those who aren’t here to defend themselves.

    I’m not insulted, just concerned, and want things to be fair. You are right about me. I am a peacemaker, and I’d like us to work together.

  • John, I realize you have had your plate full trying to address a slurry of bloggers, and I appreciate this post. With that said, I’m not sure I see an answer to any of my questions in it.

    You’re entitled to call yourself whatever you like, and if you’re sticking with Pagan I respect your right to that term. But I remain confused as to why you prefer it.

    Dave’s affirmation, which you say “defines what Paganism is all about,” is indeed beautiful. But how is it Pagan? I believe what Dave believes, and I’m not Pagan; Thoreau believed what Dave believes, and he wasn’t Pagan either. Dave even says himself that those beautiful beliefs are “human” rather than belonging to any religion — such as Paganism.

    And Paganism today adds many beliefs beyond what that affirmation offers, many of which you’ve specifically said you’re uncomfortable with. Why the continued loyalty?

    Throughout its history “pagan” has carried many meanings, and none of them seem to sum up what you stand for. Does calling yourself Pagan help communicate what you believe? Or how is it useful as a label, for you?

    (As an aside, I’ll also point out the Dáire Hobbs does not speak for polytheists generally. Dáire consistently shows a narrow theology. Treating the gods as “real, individual beings” was not a requirement in ancient polytheism and certainly isn’t today, no matter how much he wishes otherwise.)

    • You’re correct, I didn’t answer your questions here. This was more of a blogroll survey post than an attempt to respond to everyone. I did attempt to respond to you on your site. I don’t think it is loyalty that explains my attachment to the term. I’ve never been accused of being loyal to the Pagan community or any religious community — if anything I could benefit from developing my sense of loyalty (that’s a post for another time).
      As I wrote in response to your post:
      “I love the term [‘pagan’], precisely because it has been used by monotheists to distinguish themselves from those who found divinity in nature in all its diverse forms. I embrace the term in the same way that many feminists embraced the term ‘witch’ in the 70s and 80s — precisely because it is a challenging term.”
      And as I responded to dhiosdh above:
      “For me, the word [‘pagan’] cannot be understood outside the context of monotheism. Whatever was meant by the early Christians when they coined the term ‘pagan’, the word came, at least by the 18th century Romantic revival, to have the meaning described by Henry Hatfield in *Aesthetic Paganism in German Literature*:
      “‘The term “paganism” denotes first of all a “this-worldly” view of life, as opposed to Christian dualism. [… It] implies a belief in divine forces immanent in nature and man. The typical modern pagan […] tends to a belief in enjoyment rather than asceticism, and vindicates the physical side of life, often with a special stress on the sexual element.’
      “As Ronald Hutton demonstrates, the NeoPagan revival was inspired by the German and English Romantics, as much as it was by the Western Hermetic Tradition. It was in this sense that Tim Zell used the word when he started calling the the religious movement that coalesced around the *Green Egg* newsletter ‘NeoPagan’. And it’s in that sense that I use the term now. For me, it calls up thoughts of people like Stephan George, Thomas Taylor, Charles Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, and Harry Byngham more than Enheduanna, Homer, or Julian.”
      I agree that “pagan” has accrued a lot of meanings beyond this, especially the associations with “magic” and hard polytheism. But when I call myself “pagan”, I am referring to Hatfield’s definition above. That doesn’t define all of my spirituality. I am also a humanist and a Jungian. But Paganism is a big part of it, and I can think of no better term (in our Christian culture) for the what Hatfield describes than “pagan”.
      … but maybe with a small “p”.

      • John, thanks for this! I’ve just scrambled to edit this into this morning’s Rogue Priest post.

        You are, exactly, talking about small-p paganism. Or rather, one of the several meanings of pagan with a small “p.” I agree that (that one of the several definitions of) pagan is a very accurate, and romantic, descriptor of what we both believe. Personally, I also find that that meaning is lost among its several other meanings, and that it’s hard for people to hear pagan rather than Pagan anymore.

        This is a case where Neopagans have, I think, successfully “reclaimed” a term, whichis good for them but maybe not good for language purists or those who liked the 19th century version of the word.

        I guess I understand now why you’re so comfortable with the term, and I appreciate that. My other question is: do you find that using it creates a communication issue? Does using such a challenging term create a barrier to understanding, or am I overblowing that? And if so, what makes it worth it?

  • Your forthrightness is very moving. I’ve personally dropped the pagan label (for now) because it is such a confusing conglomerate of ideas that can greatly disagree. There is still much appeal but until it becomes more clear to me of what Paganism is, I’ll go by a narrower descriptor that is arguably under the pagan umbrella. Paganism may very well be in the confusing stage of adolescence, in which case I greatly anticipate its maturity to see what kind of adult its become.