Straight talk about the Pagan identity crisis

You have got to check out B.T. Newberg’s newest post at Pagan Naturally, “The ‘Pagan’ question: Beyond belief-blindness“.  He writes about the chronic debate about the meaning of Pagan, and states “in no uncertain terms what’s really going on: It’s about kicking people out” (emphasis added).  I think he’s right.  B.T. goes on to reveal an underlying tension that seems to be tearing our community apart:

“There’s a painful cognitive dissonance coming from holding two mutually contradictory beliefs about ourselves: (1) We don’t police others’ beliefs. (2) We must police others’ beliefs (if our community is to have any integrity). … We are a community choking on our own relativism.”

B.T. argues that, contrary to what we say, belief does matter to us: “It turns out saying beliefs don’t matter is kinda like denying racism by saying you’re ‘color blind.’”  As a result, we need to either get comfortable with excluding some people (which ones?) or else re-envision our community as bound together by something different than belief (what?).

I don’t think we can take refuge in “orthopraxy” either.  As I stated in my comment to B.T.’s post, I think the notion that Pagans are “orthopraxic” dates back to the Wicca-centric days, when (nearly) everyone cast a circle and called the quarters, but believed different things about the gods they invoked.  In my experience, there is even less orthopraxy among Pagans today than there is orthodoxy.

So what can we build community around?  Shared values?  Shared goals?  Back in the 70s and 80s, Pagan solidarity arose from a shared experience of persecution (whether real or perceived).  Pagans were afraid to be “out”, so there was a shared sense of being “in”.  We’ve come a long way since then, as is attested by the fact that B.T. and most of the people he links to are using their real names on the Internet.

But we still have a long way to go, culturally and politically.  And we are not going to get there unless we build some solidarity, some class consciousness, some community integrity.  I personally want more mainstream respectability.  I want Paganism to be taken seriously as a religion — not by Fox News perhaps (which doesn’t take any divergent perspective seriously), but by my family, my neighbors, my boss, my kids’ teachers, and even by the more moderate Christian churches.

I know there are some who eschew respectability like its a dirty word.  I’m not suggesting that Paganism surrender its counter-cultural critique of mainstream society.  Christianity manages to both be mainstream and critique mainstream culture.  We can too, but in a different way.  And I think this may be something that we can build solidarity around.

There are valuable things to be gained from pursuing respectability:  Respectability means being able to share our beliefs with our friends and neighbors openly — not just on the Internet.  Respectability means our children can be raised Pagan openly, without fear of interference by well-intentioned, but misinformed social workers and courts.  Respectability means being able to be openly Pagan in the workplace.  Respectability means being a greater part of the inter-faith movement.  Respectability means having more influence in theological studies.  Respectability means having greater influence on critical social and political issues that concern us, including the environment, women’s rights, minority rights, animal rights, and so on.  Respectability means power … power to bring about change according to our collective will.  And that is a kind of magic that all Pagans should be interested in.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/catwheel34 Carrie Tuttle

    This is great! And I agree wholeheartedly on the respectability front. I would love to see Pagans viewed in a clear light by the rest of society (including other religions) and not a murky, suspicious, and kooky light. So, I am totally behind you on that. The sticky part is…who is going to get their cards revoked? I know I would not feel totally great about having to kick people out, though most can agree that there are some (the ones we hear about in the news having done some heinous thing under the guise of witchcraft or paganism and cringe) that need some serious pagan card revoking, but hey they aren’t really following the path in my opinion anyway. Still, we get our names tarnished by that. But then again how many people will do the serious work of reorganizing under what some might think of as a tighter structure, when part of the cohesiveness of paganism is, thus far, in diversity of belief? And It is all fun and games till you have to kick someone out of your group meetings in the name of respectability :0). So…while I agree with you, I have a hard time imagining the actual execution of this on a comprehensive scale. Not impossible, but it will take some time. I miss my Wiccan orthopraxy, things were so easy then..LOL! But there may be a way to find the solidarity you speak of. I too would like to see us come out of the murk and be able to be taken seriously as you say, by neighbors, bosses, teachers etc. We need to move out of the awkward teenager stage and in to something else, but without loosing our community.

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

      I don’t think it actually requires kicking many people out. We just need the more even-headed and thoughtful people in our community to step forward and be our public face. Jason Pitzl-Waters has been this for the Pagan community at large. B.T. Newberg has been this for the Naturalistic Pagan community. Teo Bishop, Patrick McCollum, and Thorn Coyle are other excellent examples — all for different reasons. We need more people like this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/catwheel34 Carrie Tuttle

    This is great! And I agree wholeheartedly on the respectability front. I would love to see Pagans viewed in a clear light by the rest of society (including other religions) and not a murky, suspicious, and kooky light. So, I am totally behind you on that. The sticky part is…who is going to get their cards revoked? I know I would not feel totally great about having to kick people out, though most can agree that there are some (the ones we hear about in the news having done some heinous thing under the guise of witchcraft or paganism and cringe) that need some serious pagan card revoking, but hey they aren’t really following the path in my opinion anyway. Still, we get our names tarnished by that. But then again how many people will do the serious work of reorganizing under what some might think of as a tighter structure, when part of the cohesiveness of paganism is, thus far, in diversity of belief? And It is all fun and games till you have to kick someone out of your group meetings in the name of respectability :0). So…while I agree with you, I have a hard time imagining the actual execution of this on a comprehensive scale. Not impossible, but it will take some time. I miss my Wiccan orthopraxy, things were so easy then..LOL! But there may be a way to find the solidarity you speak of. I too would like to see us come out of the murk and be able to be taken seriously as you say, by neighbors, bosses, teachers etc. We need to move out of the awkward teenager stage and in to something else, but without loosing our community.

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

      I don’t think it actually requires kicking many people out. We just need the more even-headed and thoughtful people in our community to step forward and be our public face. Jason Pitzl-Waters has been this for the Pagan community at large. B.T. Newberg has been this for the Naturalistic Pagan community. Teo Bishop, Patrick McCollum, and Thorn Coyle are other excellent examples — all for different reasons. We need more people like this.

  • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

    Newberg, as always, makes some good points (as do you). Any discussion of labels and definitions involves creating an in-group and an out-group. I saw the same thing in the atheist community a few years back towards agnostics, and again last year with the ‘Atheism +’ nonsense. I figure that as soon as someone sets themselves up as having authority to decide who should be in the club, that’s my cue to leave.

    I’m increasingly thinking that Newberg’s option 1 (bow out from the label) is the best for me. If ‘pagan’ means everything, then ‘pagan’ means nothing. I’m happy to let the religious, theistic, magic-using pagans keep the term for themselves and just go by ‘Druid’ for my own practice.

    I agree that paganism and other non-mainstream religions should gain respectability, but I also happen to think nobody should have automatic respect for their religious beliefs (all ideas need to be open to criticism), and I’m not sure how collective political power could be used by a group of people that have little to nothing in common.

    • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com Soliwo

      People deserve respect, beliefs do not. But of course the two are connected.

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

      Some day you may find yourself being defined out of “Druid” too, though.

      • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

        According to some Druid organisations, like ADF for instance, I already am defined out of ‘Druid’. Which is why I’m not a member of those groups. That’s why I like OBOD. They’re pretty clear about not being a ‘religious’ order, and about being open to people of all faiths and no faith. If that changes, then I probably wouldn’t want to remain a member anyway. I see your point, though.

  • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

    Newberg, as always, makes some good points (as do you). Any discussion of labels and definitions involves creating an in-group and an out-group. I saw the same thing in the atheist community a few years back towards agnostics, and again last year with the ‘Atheism +’ nonsense. I figure that as soon as someone sets themselves up as having authority to decide who should be in the club, that’s my cue to leave.

    I’m increasingly thinking that Newberg’s option 1 (bow out from the label) is the best for me. If ‘pagan’ means everything, then ‘pagan’ means nothing. I’m happy to let the religious, theistic, magic-using pagans keep the term for themselves and just go by ‘Druid’ for my own practice.

    I agree that paganism and other non-mainstream religions should gain respectability, but I also happen to think nobody should have automatic respect for their religious beliefs (all ideas need to be open to criticism), and I’m not sure how collective political power could be used by a group of people that have little to nothing in common.

    • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com Soliwo

      People deserve respect, beliefs do not. But of course the two are connected.

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

      Some day you may find yourself being defined out of “Druid” too, though.

      • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

        According to some Druid organisations, like ADF for instance, I already am defined out of ‘Druid’. Which is why I’m not a member of those groups. That’s why I like OBOD. They’re pretty clear about not being a ‘religious’ order, and about being open to people of all faiths and no faith. If that changes, then I probably wouldn’t want to remain a member anyway. I see your point, though.

  • http://wheelgunner.wordpress.com/ Zendo Deb

    You make a couple of interesting assumptions. It might boil down to just one, so lets start with the one you mention explicitly.

    “And we are not going to get there unless we build some solidarity, some class consciousness…” So, are all pagans blue-collar, or middle-class/college-educated? If you want to build solidarity on class consciousness, you assume that everyone is a member of the same class. Maybe you sincerely believe this. (Everyone thinks they are middle class today, no matter their income it seems.) I think it is a bit of a stretch.

    This leads you to believe that everyone who is pagan has the same progressive, social goals in mind. And yes, relative to the mainstream religions there are probably some goals we can all agree on, like more tolerance. But to assume that all pagans are invested in the Democratic notion of social justice, doesn’t work for me. So am I one of the people you would throw out of the movement based on belief? It is a set of beliefs about the structure of the good society that doesn’t have much to do with my theology. So the litmus test is “All pagans must believe in the unbridled welfare state?” Maybe I am misreading you, though it is clear that several writers at the Patheos Pagan Portal believe that every good pagan is a Democrat.

    I think if you follow this path far enough, you could prove, that all – or at least some – of the historic pagans (ancient Greeks, Vikings, Druids, whatever) would not qualify for your new definition of paganism.

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

      By “class”, I don’t mean economic class — but religious class, as in a class of religious minorities.

      I’m not sure how you get from a general concern for the environment and racial/gender/sexual equality to the “unbridled welfare state”. In any case, I think the advancement of progressive social goals are only one advantage of achieving respectability for Pagans. I listed several others above. But yes, I do think that greater political influence for Pagans would generally be a boon to liberals.

      Honestly, I don’t care if ancient pagans qualify as contemporary Pagans; if fact, I hope they don’t. I don’t think ancient vikings have any place in a contemporary liberal democracy. That betrays my prejudice as a Neo-Pagan, but I do not look to the past for my values, political or otherwise. Life for those people was nasty, brutish, and short, and it wasn’t just because they hadn’t learned to wash their hands.

  • http://wheelgunner.wordpress.com/ Zendo Deb

    You make a couple of interesting assumptions. It might boil down to just one, so lets start with the one you mention explicitly.

    “And we are not going to get there unless we build some solidarity, some class consciousness…” So, are all pagans blue-collar, or middle-class/college-educated? If you want to build solidarity on class consciousness, you assume that everyone is a member of the same class. Maybe you sincerely believe this. (Everyone thinks they are middle class today, no matter their income it seems.) I think it is a bit of a stretch.

    This leads you to believe that everyone who is pagan has the same progressive, social goals in mind. And yes, relative to the mainstream religions there are probably some goals we can all agree on, like more tolerance. But to assume that all pagans are invested in the Democratic notion of social justice, doesn’t work for me. So am I one of the people you would throw out of the movement based on belief? It is a set of beliefs about the structure of the good society that doesn’t have much to do with my theology. So the litmus test is “All pagans must believe in the unbridled welfare state?” Maybe I am misreading you, though it is clear that several writers at the Patheos Pagan Portal believe that every good pagan is a Democrat.

    I think if you follow this path far enough, you could prove, that all – or at least some – of the historic pagans (ancient Greeks, Vikings, Druids, whatever) would not qualify for your new definition of paganism.

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

      By “class”, I don’t mean economic class — but religious class, as in a class of religious minorities.

      I’m not sure how you get from a general concern for the environment and racial/gender/sexual equality to the “unbridled welfare state”. In any case, I think the advancement of progressive social goals are only one advantage of achieving respectability for Pagans. I listed several others above. But yes, I do think that greater political influence for Pagans would generally be a boon to liberals.

      Honestly, I don’t care if ancient pagans qualify as contemporary Pagans; if fact, I hope they don’t. I don’t think ancient vikings have any place in a contemporary liberal democracy. That betrays my prejudice as a Neo-Pagan, but I do not look to the past for my values, political or otherwise. Life for those people was nasty, brutish, and short, and it wasn’t just because they hadn’t learned to wash their hands.

  • http://gravatar.com/aliothsan aliothsan

    B.T. Newberg’s post seems to have moved, and your link is broken. The new URL appears to be: http://witchesandpagans.com/EasyBlog/the-pagan-question-beyond-belief-blindness-2.html

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

      Thanks. Looks like he revised it and reposted it.

  • http://gravatar.com/aliothsan aliothsan

    B.T. Newberg’s post seems to have moved, and your link is broken. The new URL appears to be: http://witchesandpagans.com/EasyBlog/the-pagan-question-beyond-belief-blindness-2.html

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

      Thanks. Looks like he revised it and reposted it.


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