Parsing pagans properly

pagan holidayTom Breen is an extraordinarily good newsman in the Associated Press’ Charleston, West Virginia, bureau. He manages to write compelling national stories by focusing on local trends and events. I’ve been reading his coverage of the sad case of a 20-year-old black woman who was raped and tortured. Six white individuals have been charged in the crime. Terry highlighted his story this past summer about small-town churches struggling to keep their doors open. His thoughtful comments have enlightened many discussions here at GetReligion, too.

I was happy to see the way he covered the news coming out of Marshall University. Here’s how he gets us into the story:

When George Fain visits a grave to mark a pagan holiday, she won’t have to worry about the work she’s missing in her classes at Marshall University.

That’s because her absence Thursday on the Samhain holiday has been approved by the Huntington school, which for the first time is recognizing pagan students’ desire to be excused from class for religious holidays and festivals.

The university with an enrollment of about 14,000 may be the only school in the country to formally protect pagan students from being penalized for missing work that falls on religious holidays, although others have catchall policies they say protect students of every religious faith.

The story has been getting a lot of play, so I’m thankful for how thorough and illuminating his story was. Breen took it beyond West Virginia to find out how other universities handle pagan holidays and to look at broader developments with pagan religious recognition, such as the Pentagon’s recent decision to allow pagans a five-pointed star on veteran gravestones.

Breen took the time to interview reliable authorities on paganism, including Ronald Hutton and Helen Berger. He also interviewed our very own Jason Pitzl-Waters. And by “our,” I mean someone who is a valuable member of our commenting community. Pitzl-Waters’ Wild Hunt blog is a must-read for those interested in news and events dealing with the modern Pagan and Heathen communities — and religion coverage in general.

With the general lack of information about pagans, and the diverse group of people who fit under its umbrella, Breen’s story clarified what the term means:

The term “pagan” encompasses a diverse array of faiths that can include Celtic, Druid, Native American and various earth-centered and nature-based beliefs.

“What binds us together isn’t our theology, necessarily,” Pitzl-Waters said. “What binds us together is a sense of communal practice and togetherness.”

I asked Jason about the story and he said it was an important step in journalistic coverage to address modern paganism as a diverse movement of unique religious faiths, rather than as, say, a generic term for Wicca. Pagans have a broad diversity of thought within their religious culture, in the same way that monotheists do. One thing I find interesting is that The Associated Press Stylebook calls for a lower-case p when referring to pagans. And yet most pagan resources one finds in print use a capital p. Which do you think it should be?

Anyway, a shout-out to Tom Breen, for another well-researched and reported story. And to Jason Pitzl-Waters for his helpful quotes in same.

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  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Thanks Mollie, I appreciate the shout-out.

    Concerning whether to capitalize the “P” in Paganism, I like to follow the submission guidelines for The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies when deciding on capitalization.

    Terms such as “Pagan,” “Witch,” “Wiccan,” “Heathen,” etc., are generally capitalized when referring to self-consciously revived contemporary Pagan religion. They may or may not be capitalized when referring to earlier periods or when referring, for example, to “witchcraft” in anthropological sense.

    This helps avoids confusion between a “pagan” in the atheistic sense, or a “pagan” in the classical sense of the term. Plus it grants our faiths the same level of respect (journalistically speaking) as other established faith groupings.

    It should also be pointed out that other religious “umbrella terms” are given a capital letter, “Hinduism” for instance.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com Chas S. Clifton

    In all my writing, including my recent historical study of American Paganism, I have used the capital P, regarding the term “Pagan” as a proper noun.

    However, British writers, e.g. Professor Hutton, tend to use the lowercase, considering “paganism” to be a collection of religious practices, while reserving the capital letter for such movements as Wicca or contemporary Druidism.

  • LyricFox

    “The term “pagan” encompasses a diverse array of faiths that can include Celtic, Druid, Native American and various earth-centered and nature-based beliefs.”

    Or not. There are a whole slew of pagans that don’t have a single thing in common with the “earth-centered and nature-based” group. Most Reconstructionists take exception to that inclusion.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    LyricFox wrote:

    Or not. There are a whole slew of pagans that don’t have a single thing in common with the “earth-centered and nature-based” group. Most Reconstructionists take exception to that inclusion.

    While it could be argued that all modern Pagans are reconstructionist, Reco-Pagans typically have much more in common with other Pagans than they they think they do (or more than they often want to) such as working within a distributed socio-sacred network of Sacred Power anchored between Sacred Persons (human and otherwise) and Sacred Places (material or mental), just as Native American and other indigenous religions do. The problem with using the term “earth-based” and “nature-based” in journalistic articles is that everyone reads their own definition of what that means into the context instead of considering the deep structure of telluric theological frameworks. Just because someone takes exception to a classification is not always a reason to reject that classification.

  • LyricFox

    Christopher,

    The only way you can consider all modern Pagans to be Reconstructionists is if you stretch historical interpretation to the breaking point. In some of the religions, it would be very hard to consider them Reconstructionist because they aren’t reconstructing anything that ever existed.

    And to be honest, I’ve never met a person yet who has been able to tie most Reconstructionist religions to any of the modern neo-Pagan movements (i.e. Wicca) at more than the most superficial level. Once the connection is analyzed, it falls apart.

    “Just because someone takes exception to a classification is not always a reason to reject that classification.”

    Except that it is totally and completely inaccurate to apply those terms to some pagans. I’m sorry, but I tend to view such things with a very jaundiced eye, as do other Recons. If someone want to qualify the classification as “many Pagans”, I’m fine with it. If you want to take that qualification and stuff each and every pagan into it, there’s going to be a fight about it.

    Like I said, this isn’t something that only one or two people have problems with. I’ve actually never met a Reconstructionist of any flavor who likes to be pigeon-holed into an inaccurate description.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5/Site/Introduction.html Christopher W. Chase

    LyricFox,

    This is clearly one of those areas where there remains a lot of scholarly research to be done, and there are sure to be some toes stepped on, as there always are whenever religious devotees’ self-image is under the microscope. And these kinds of discussions and disagreements are precisely why it is so difficult to cover new religious movements within journalistic circles. One of the strengths of Tom Breen’s story is that despite much insiders’ criticism of historian Ronald Hutton, that did not prevent him from consulting such an important resource. As stories like this continue to be published, my hope is that comparative polytheist specialists like Jordan Paper and John Michael Greer become part of those conversations, because if comparative religion has taught us anything, it is that any religion’s or ideology’s claim to structural exclusivity is likely to be suspect on a number of levels. If ancient Chinese folk polytheism and modern Northeast Amerindian religions can be structurally related to one another (and they are), then RecoPagans, like other devotees, are going to have to live with the fact that they too exchange, inherit, and resonate with other facets of the human religious experience, regardless of how “different” and ‘nonconformist’ they might claim to be.

  • LyricFox

    Christopher,

    I wait with bated breath to read the scholarly work. Until that day, however, you are going to find that Reconstructionist Pagans are not going to blithely throw themselves on the altar of linguistic convenience as it seems you would like them to do. And, lest you forget, this is a side discussion on considering Recon pagans as “earth or nature based”; not on ancient Chinese folk polytheism and modern Amerind religious relationships.

    And, for what it’s worth, while Professor Hutton is well thought of by many in the more British areas of paganism, he’s not at all going to be accepted as a scholar outside that particular area. Nor am I certain that Hutton’s particular religious affiliation (Wicca) and writings claim some sort of commonality between the various pagan religions of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. This is common problem that I see with people unfamiliar with the various pagan religions when they begin quoting scholastic sources – there’s a tendency to consider a person who has scholastic expertise in one pagan religion/culture as expert in others.

    It’s also a reason that I can count on one hand the decent journalistic undertakings on pagan religions that I’ve read in the last several years. And it’s generally because the writer crams all pagans into some particular mold.

    (As a side note, John Michael Greer isn’t known as an historian or any particular polytheistic specialist, though he is well known for his writings on Ceremonial Magick. He is known for having written some of Llewellyn’s better published works. And as far as Jordan Paper, well, looking at his list of published works tells me he will have to go some to write anything that most Recons would accept as a scholarly work.)

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    Any readers — and the GetReligion crew — who want to see these issues debated as scholarly papers should stop by the sessions of the Consultation in Contemporary Pagan Studies at the American Academy of Religion‘s annual meeting later this month.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Or not. There are a whole slew of pagans that don’t have a single thing in common with the “earth-centered and nature-based” group. Most Reconstructionists take exception to that inclusion.

    I’m not getting in the middle of the debate here, but I would like to add that Breen in the article is saying that “earth-centered” religionists can fall under the Pagan label, not that all Pagans are necessarily “earth-centered”. I don’t think anyone here is trying to force reconstructionist Pagans/Heathens into a definition of their faith(s) that they feel are untrue.

    And as far as Jordan Paper, well, looking at his list of published works tells me he will have to go some to write anything that most Recons would accept as a scholarly work.

    I feel I must defend the honor of Jordan Paper, who has done some groundbreaking research into pre-Christian and polytheist cultures (with an emphasis on Native American and Chinese traditional religion) and has written books that are certainly accepted as “scholarly” by the bulk of academia. I’m not sure why books like “Through the Earth Darkly: Female Spirituality in Comparative Perspective” or “The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion” wouldn’t be accepted as scholarly by reconstructionists.

  • LyricFox

    Jason,

    ++I’m not getting in the middle of the debate here, but I would like to add that Breen in the article is saying that “earth-centered” religionists can fall under the Pagan label, not that all Pagans are necessarily “earth-centered”. I don’t think anyone here is trying to force reconstructionist Pagans/Heathens into a definition of their faith(s) that they feel are untrue.++

    You’ll go a lot further provided that rule is kept firmly in mind and is reflected in anything written.

    As far as Jordan Paper goes, he’s simply not going to be accepted by the vast majority of Reconstructionists as a scholarly source because the Reconstructionist groups generally don’t include Chinese culture or American Indians in that groups of religions. And as far as the Amerinds go, I’ve got up close and personal experience of how ugly that argument can get when many of them think they’re being lumped into the “pagan” fold.

    Paper might be perfectly accepted amongst scholars as a source within his field…but that’s the key…WITHIN HIS FIELD. He will not be accepted by Reconstructionists who fall into other cultures. What you’re quoting me as his works up in your post has absolutely nothing to do with my religion or the culture my religion was formed in. I wouldn’t touch them as any sort of guide of ancient Greek religion or culture.

    This is no different than someone of Hutton’s stature, Sarah Iles Johnson’s stature or Walter Burkert’s stature. Take them out of the field of their expertise, and it’s simply one more person talking. That’s it. Their opinion might hold some weight because of what they do, but if they’re not talking about the UK (in Hutton’s case)pagans or the Greeks (in Burkert’s or Iles Johnson’s case) or something somehow associated with those cultures, they are not going to be accepted as a scholarly source.

    Sorry. But that’s one reason so many of the Recon religions and religions inspired by Reconstructionism are different from other neo-pagan religions…the heavy emphasis on sources. And that’s something that is going to have to be kept firmly in mind if you want any of the Reconstructionist religions on board.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    LyricFox wrote:

    And, lest you forget, this is a side discussion on considering Recon pagans as “earth or nature based”; not on ancient Chinese folk polytheism and modern Amerind religious relationships.

    I have no desire to see RecoPagans bow out of any discussion and debate–insider perspectives are quite valuable for study, but my metaphor still stands–if religions as different as the ones I mentioned can be shown to have structural similarities, then Reconstructionist Pagans may find they too have similarities with other traditions they had not previously acknowledged. Until Reconstructionist Pagans make their presence felt by stepping to the task of becoming Religion journalists and specialists themselves, most of their protestations against other Pagans will continue to be seen as largely contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, rather than contributing to knowledge and understanding of contemporary Paganism. Perhaps discussions such as these will galvanize some into becoming more available as media sources to provide different perspectives for current Religion journalism. All in all, given what often passes for coverage of Pagan issues in Religion journalism, Tom’s article is quite commendable, and I will look for his specific contributions in the future.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    The upcoming issue of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies contains any interesting analysis of Northern Reconstructionist worshipers who “put the blood back in blot,” to paraphrase the article’s title.

    So you see, LyricFox, we do include Reconstructionists under the Pagan/polytheist heading.

  • LyricFox

    Christopher,

    It’s Recons, please. Not RecoPagans. I didn’t say anything before because I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or not, but it is Recons.

    You’re completely missing the point. We’re not talking about structural similarities. We’re talking about the appropriateness of labeling various Reconstructionist as “earth based.” It’s not appropriate. If you want to talk about religious or ritualistic similarities, I’m there. I think that’s a fascinating topic, but that’s not where I came in on this discussion.

  • LyricFox

    Chas,

    I have no idea where anyone came up with the idea that I was saying Recons aren’t pagans. I’ve never said that. What I’ve said is that it is incorrect to label them as “earth centered” and “nature-based.”

    Please let me know if I’m not being clear here, because I honestly have no intention of coming across as saying Recons aren’t pagans.

  • LyricFox

    Christopher,

    BTW…if you would like to continue this conversation about the similarities of various pagan religions, you might want to drop in over at The Cauldron: A Pagan Forum. It’s a place where there are some rather advanced pagans who will be happy to bat this around with you. Many of our staff are Recons, some trad Wiccans and one Catholic theologian. Several of the staff and members hold advanced degrees in various related areas and many of our members are quite serious about sources and debates. I will warn you, however, that this topic will generate heat if only because so many of us have been over this particular terroritory many times over the years.

    As a new member you’ll be limited to posting in certain folders, but that’s only for a short period of time. Once you apply for full member status, you’ll have access to posting in all the folders.

    I hope you’ll consider stopping in. I suspect you’ll find it interesting. :)

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    Lyric Fox, I think one could call Recon’s “earth-centered” in the same way that some Jews speak of themselves as “this-worldly” in contrast to the otherworldliness of Muslims and Christians.

    They focus on how this life is lived, not on the life thereafter.

    In addition, many Recon. Pagans whom I know are keenly interested in living in harmony with the wights and energies of their particular piece of the Earth. Is not that being “earth-centered.”

    Furthermore, as I argued in Her Hidden Children, to follow a ritual cycle based on solar or lunar cycles (I do not know if you personally do that) is to be “nature-based” in a sense — what I refer to as “cosmic nature.”

  • LyricFox

    Chas,

    Earth centered? Perhaps by your definition. By my definition, no. By others’ definition. Some yes. Many no. And, as with so many terms, they can become so broad that they are completely useless. Recons, for the most part, might be considered earth-centered because they are on planet Earth. Beyond that, no. As the term is generally used, they aren’t.

    It’s the same thing with your use of “nature-based”…if what you are using as a rule (soli-lunar, solar or lunar calendars), then yes. However, so are Christians or Muslims or Hindus or just about all other religions on this planet. Not very helpful, is it?

    Right now, the way you’ve got it, virtually every single religious person on this planet, and probably some who aren’t religious, are nature-based or earth-based. I wish you much joy in dividing the population from there because you’ve got your work cut out for you.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    Consequently, Michael York (Roman Recon, at least some of the time), argued in The Pomegranate [6:1 (2004), pp. 11-18] “Paganism is the root religion.”

    To get back to the blog’s original question, he is one of the lowercase “p” types, because to him “paganism” describes a group of religions practices — which are also found in the dogmatic monotheistic religions.

    So, yes, maybe they are indeed nature-based. Who knew? We are everywhere.

  • LyricFox

    Chas,

    And again, maybe they aren’t. Please quit trying to tell people of other religions what they believe and why they believe it. It’s incredibly hubristic and prone to inaccuracy. It’s as similar and annoying as having someone tell me that the gods I worship are really demons.

    For the life of me I don’t know why some pagans find this exercise necessary. Your religion and mine aren’t the same. What possible difference does it make and why is it so all fired important that they be? ::exasperated sigh::

  • LyricFox

    In the FWIW column, another poster said this in a comment:

    “Until Reconstructionist Pagans make their presence felt by stepping to the task of becoming Religion journalists and specialists themselves, most of their protestations against other Pagans will continue to be seen as largely contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, rather than contributing to knowledge and understanding of contemporary Paganism.”

    My reply: This set of posts underscores one of the main reasons Recons are loathe to start conversations about their religions with neo-Wiccans, generic pagans and other non-Recons.

    Most of us have spent years having these conversations to varying degrees of frustration. Or, if we’ve not been involved directly, we’ve read them on email lists and message boards.

    Ultimately, when you’re told what you are, what you believe, who you worship and how you’re the same as other pagans by people who have little actual practical knowledge of the various Reconstructionist religions, you get the point that you’re just unwilling to engage in the conversations.

    Most Recons are not going to want to have these discussions because they see that, ultimately, there is little point to them when the people they’re talking to are insistant in telling them all about their beliefs. It’s just not worth the time.