Pagan Unity

I hadn’t intended to write on Pagan unity – or the lack thereof – any time soon.  But I’ve seen a lot of chatter on the topic in the past week – it seems like the time to chime in.

I’m not going to link to a bunch of people on this, mainly because I don’t want to take the time to look up quotes.  Suffice it to say the complaints fall into two main categories.

not this (image from the Robin Wood Tarot)

1) Someone attempts to define Paganism and someone else complains “your definition excludes me.”

2) Someone assumes a definition of Paganism, decides he or she is sufficiently different, then proclaims “I’m not Pagan.”

Let’s start with a couple of basic principles.  First, every person has the right to choose his or her own identity and his or her own labels.  If you want to call yourself a Pagan, a polytheist, a Druid, a Nature worshipper, an occultist, whatever, that’s your business.  Further, every person has the right to choose who he or she will associate with.  If the fine points of your religion are so critical you must set yourself apart from this group or that group, again, that’s your business.

Next, Paganism does not have a definition.  Institutions have definitions and boundaries.  Paganism is not an institution, it’s a movement.  Movements have centers.  The Pagan movement has four centersNature, the Gods, the Self, and Community.  I’m primarily a Nature-centered and Deity-centered Pagan.  The Self and Community are also important to me, but to a lesser degree.  Many who identify as polytheists are primarily Deity-centered and Community-centered.  Humanistic Pagans may be more Nature-centered and Self-centered.

I prefer a Big Tent approach to Paganism – a big tent with four main posts.  Some of us are right in the middle, some cling tightly to only one post, while others are in one of the corners.  Some people are close enough for me to see them but not close enough for me to tell if they’re actually under the tent or if they’re standing outside.  What about Green Christians?  I think they’re outside, but their fundamentalist brethren over in the next camp think they’re standing right in the middle of us.  What about the Kabbalists?  I think they’re in, but many of them say they’re only in the Jewish tent.  The Hindus are over in that corner – some of them are insistent they’re in our tent and others are just as insistent they’re not.

Complicated?  Yep.  Messy?  Sure is.  Living, growing, reproducing organisms are like that.

The problem with big tents is, well, they’re big. Try to embrace the whole tent and you can find yourself bouncing back and forth between pouring libations to Zeus, protesting fracking, organizing the Beltane picnic and meditating on The Fool.  Those are all worthwhile things to do, but they can lead to a personal religion that is the proverbial mile wide and an inch deep. That’s a problem – if you’ve been reading Under the Ancient Oaks for any time at all you know one of my favorite soapboxes is the need for spiritual depth.

This isn’t just a problem for individuals – it’s also a problem for Pagan religions.  I think we pretty much agree that while we are inspired by our ancient ancestors, what we’re doing right now is new.  It’s a response to our circumstances, our problems, and our needs.  It may be more than that – perhaps much more – but it’s at least that.  We’re trying to figure out how best to respond to the religious impulses and calls we feel, and we’re responding in different ways.

Our spiritual growth is coming through depth, not through breadth.  It isn’t coming through “Paganism” – it’s coming through witchcraft and Druidry and Heathenry and ceremonial magic and Dark Green Religion.  All the folks who are saying “I’m really more of a <fill in the blank>” are absolutely right.

If that was all there was to it we could forget the Pagan label.  But it isn’t, so we can’t.

but this (image from the Robin Wood Tarot)

What we offer – through all four centers of Paganism – is something many people need and want.  Separately, none of us have a strong enough signal to get through the noise of the dominant religion and the dominant culture.  Together, though, we have a fighting chance.

I can’t think of a better example than the Pagan Channel here at Patheos.  Among the regular bloggers we have a Wiccan, a Druid, a Voodoo priestess, and a Humanistic Pagan.  Do we have some commonalities?  Of course we do.  Do we have some differences?  Absolutely.  Would I feel comfortable at one of the other folk’s rituals?  Probably.  Would I want to do their version of ritual all the time?  Absolutely not.

Here’s the thing:  Patheos isn’t going to invest the resources to create a Druid channel and a Wiccan channel and a Voodoo channel – there isn’t enough traffic to justify it.  But together, we’ve got a nice home – and on the front page, we get equal billing with the Evangelicals and the Catholics and the Muslims and everyone else.

This isn’t about persuading Evangelicals and Catholics and Muslims to like us or screaming that we’re as good as they are – that’s a fool’s errand.  This is about showing religious seekers that they have options beyond Evangelicals and Catholics and Muslims.

Maybe they find the Pagan channel.  Maybe they find Pagan Pride Day.  Maybe they find the Covenant of UU Pagans.  Some will learn a thing or two and move on to something else.  But others will stick around.  Eventually, they’ll find their way to one variant of Paganism or another and start digging deeper.  But they can only do that if we have a strong enough signal for them to find us.

Boosting our signal requires growth in numbers as well as in spiritual depth.  I want the Humanistic Pagans in our tent and not in the atheist tent ridiculing all religion.  I want the Nature lovers in our tent recognizing the inherent worth of Nature and not in the Christian tent talking about the value of Nature coming from the god they think made it.  I want the polytheists (and I count myself among them) in the big Pagan tent and not in their own tent that’s so small it can’t be found.

Ultimately, what tent you choose is up to you.  But just because “Pagan” isn’t your primary identity doesn’t mean there’s not a place for you in the Big Tent of Paganism.

Pagan unity isn’t about forgetting our philosophical and theological differences and doing the same Wicca Lite ritual on the Solstice.  Pagan unity is about working together respectfully to advance our common interests and boost our common signal while we explore our individual traditions in depth.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Ken

    In this metaphorical tent, I see it as a Grand Pagan Bazaar. I’m currently seeking the right spiritual goods. Each shop peddles their unique wares, but in a setting that will bring in more than they would alone.
    Thanks for this post on unity, I think this post could shed light on some of the issues of privilege in the community as well.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      A Pagan bazaar – that’s a good metaphor.

  • Aine

    “This is about showing religious seekers that they have options beyond Evangelicals and Catholics and Muslims.
    …they can only do that if we have a strong enough signal for them to find us.”

    Really good point.

    I’ve also noticed that while I may be at certain corners of the tent, I enjoy interacting with those not just in those corners and still learn a lot. One thing I really don’t like about a lot of the rhetoric I’m personally seeing and saw this year is this idea that you have to stay in your corner or you’re ‘muddling’ your specific religion or a ‘traitor’ or ‘impious’.

  • Conor O’Bryan Warren

    I LOVE the fact that you address people who DO NOT WANT the Pagan label ‘foisted’ upon them. I cannot say that I’m one of those people (as you can tell :) ). Self-identification is the key point when we are looking at Paganism for what it is, a sub-culture. I still don’t like the four-centers approach (as we’ve discussed) but I do like the big-tent approach, furthermore, I like it when it is approached from the perspective of “your religion does not automatically include or exclude you from the tent”. Yeah, I think that a lot of recons have something to gain by making their presence and voice known, but no religion (and I include Wicca in this assessment) is ‘automatically’ under the tent. Rather, I like the approach that INDIVIDUALS are in the tent, and it as individuals that we unite and form groups that are driven in certain directions.

    I like the tent and I like what happens when folks of different faiths come together and speak and talk and worship the gods together. Whenever I pushed through my own biases and preconceptions about this gigantic and colorful tent, that is when my real growth started happening, and it is through this big tent that I learn and am challenged.

  • http://orphicplatonism.com/ Todd Jackson

    “The Hindus are over in that corner – some of them are insistent they’re in our tent and others are just as insistent they’re not.”

    Add to your list, “every Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist.”

  • http://blog.dianarajchel.com Diana Rajchel

    This is a nice approach. I’m sure over time it will get broken down and reassembled – all of us who try to make an all-encompassing Pagan definition end up with that happening over time as a natural consequence of this movement. I think some of this, however, is not because self-identified people are identifying out. There’s an undertone I’ve gotten over years from multiple polytheistic types that they are identifying *out* of Paganism because of pressure to “Wiccanize.” This may be a weird offshoot of certain Wiccans that feel entitled to say who is and isn’t Wiccan, that only 3-4 longtime trads are valid, etc. I, obviously, refuse quite heartily to get on that particular boat. Somehow the “you are, you aren’t, oh, I confer it!” is somehow weirdly spreading and twisting into “Wiccanize it or leave the entire thing!” I don’t think it’s a gigantic problem… but I think it’s a factor in the number of people doing a mic drop and then exiting.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks for the comment, Diana. I hear that all the time, but I never seem to see it first-hand.

      There is absolutely an assumption of Wicca as prototypically Pagan – the idea that “Paganism” involves Goddess and God, calling quarters, casting circles, etc. But I don’t see Wiccanish folks telling (for example) ethnic reconstructionists “you don’t cast circles so you’re not Pagan.”

      What I do see is reconstructionists saying “we don’t cast circles so we’re not Pagan.”

      Maybe I just don’t see it, since I’m an OBOD Druid (which has many similarities with Wicca) and a member of CUUPS (which “borrows” anything that isn’t nailed down). But I’m seeing opt-out, not push-out.

      • kenofken

        I don’t think there has been a time where trad Wiccan hegemony in the pagan world has ever been at a lower ebb than now. I almost never see any old-line Wiccans at any public event, and from what I can tell, they’re almost as underground now as they were in the 60s, if not more so.

      • http://blog.dianarajchel.com Diana Rajchel

        I’m actually one of the *Wiccans* that has been subject to “push out.” Despite practicing almost 20 years including frequent but not high profile publishing, I have often been subjected to either a)accusations I am making up my experience or b)being informed I am “not legitimate” because I do not participate in what the US identified as British Traditional Wicca. Almost every time I’ve entered a Wicca-specific forum I’ve had accusations and paranoia hurled at me immediately…and it’s behind every Wiccan-dominated door. The responses are too immediate and too vicious for it to be just me. It’s a habit, a game, a sick way of achieving a high.

        Most recently, while soliciting interviews for a book I’m working on, I actually had a thread derailed because people were more concerned with questioning *my* legitimacy (which, since i said up front I’m American eclectic is pretty pointless) rather than doing what rational people would do and investigating the legitimacy of my project. My faith is strong as ever but I am really, really alienated from my own religious community to the point where I often avoid fellowship with Wiccans in favor of those “not-Pagans” because they treat me in a sane, reasonable manner that adheres to basic civility and equanimity.

        Since you are a Druid it’s very likely you haven’t seen it – this behavior doesn’t happen in areas you are likely inclined to frequent.

      • Henry Buchy

        I can relate to Diana’s experiences though I opted out of ‘Modern Paganism’,The opt out was partially due to similar experiences,and partially due to definitions of Modern Paganism that I don’t identify with, but do identify with the older definition of pagan. Although you stated Modern Paganism is a movement not an institution, there is a momentum towards institutionalizing Modern Paganism under the guise of a new cohesive religion. One of the forces driving that is Modern Pagan academia. Just check out the petition to capitalize ‘Pagan’ that is floating around. This also ties into the notion of the “Wiccanate”- which roughly is based on the notion derived from Huttons “Triumph of the Moon”, that it “all starts with Gardner”. I have no problem with Hutton’s work, but all he proved was there was no LITERARY evidence to show a tie between ancient and modern practices of witchcraft, and tended to ignore/disparage any undocumented claims via oral tradition. In doing so he followed along the same premise as Murray,et al, looking for signs of a specific religion, where there never was one, and only in regards to witchcraft not in regards to paganism in general. it’s the old badger, lack of evidence equates with impossibility. Then there’s the stigma of being “cognitively dissonant” leveled upon those who don’t take this academic theory as gospel.
        Then there is the marketing approach. As I mentioned a while ago on another blog post about Pagan proselytism… “Right, Modern Pagans don’t proselytize, they market”.

      • yewtree

        As a Wiccan, I would rather see everyone else do their own thing and develop their own specific forms, rather than doing Wicca-lite, which misrepresents what Wicca is. Also it means that if I visit someone else’s tradition, I get to see something very different and not a fun-house-mirror version of Wicca :)

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    I think where the tent metaphor strains a bit is in the closing paragraphs where multiple identities are framed as conflicting rather than synthetic or independent.

  • Roi de Guerre

    You had me at “movements have centers”.

    Thanks for this.

  • CarysBirch

    Really enjoy this metaphor, thanks. Gives me more motivation to stay in the Pagan tent.

  • Henry Buchy

    “Next, Paganism does not have a definition. Institutions have definitions and boundaries. Paganism is not an institution, it’s a movement. Movements have centers. The Pagan movement has four centers: Nature, the Gods, the Self, and Community. ”
    Ha! you just defined it tho :-)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Henry, I haven’t defined Paganism – I’ve described it.

      Definitions draw sharp lines – they declare “this is in” and “this is out”. You are a Gardnerian Wiccan if you have received a valid initiation from someone with a lineage to Gerald Gardner, and if you haven’t, then you aren’t a Gardnerian Wiccan. You are an OBOD Druid if you have completed the OBOD Bardic and Ovate grades and you have begun the Druid grade. If you haven’t, then you’re not an OBOD Druid.

      With the Four Centers, I’ve given a general description of Paganism. You aren’t in or out of these centers, you’re more like them or less like them. If you’re really close to two or three, it’s probably accurate to call you a Pagan. If you’re not so close, maybe it would be better to call you a Green Christian or a reverent Humanist.

      Institutions have black and white definitions. Movements have descriptions with many shades of grey.

      • Henry Buchy

        lol, okay John, but that wasn’t where I was going. You defined it as a movement, or is there no definition of a “movement”? only descriptions? I’m not trying to bust your stones on this, just trying to draw attention to one of the blocking points to pagan unity. Not all definitions need draw sharp lines. I’ll refer you to my own comments on both John’s and your own first posts on the centers.

        sometimes a simple definition allows for many shades of grey, take for instance one word that seems to be a stumbling block- Polytheism-” belief in many gods” full stop. There is no qualification as to the ‘nature’ of gods, simply that you believe there are many. Anything after that narrows the boundaries, and skews things toward a certain viewpoint. How does one describe someone who believes in many gods? We’d call them a polytheist.
        On the other hand, one of the definitions of ‘definition’ is a statement that describes what something is. tom aa to, tom ah to.
        even so, your description of the Pagan movement does give a bit more clarity than others I’ve seen, and that is part of the purpose of definition.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

          Fair enough, Henry. You’re not wrong, and I don’t want to get buried in the definition of “definition.” And you’re right that regardless of what we call it, it IS a blocking point to Pagan unity. My main point is that whatever “Pagan” means, it’s not just one thing, Our lack of a creed is metaphorical as well as literal.

          • Henry Buchy

            no worries, John. It’s not about being ‘not wrong’ nor is it about getting buried in the definition. Thinking about it, ‘describe’ is probably a better choice than ‘define’ due to the extraneous coloring that the word ‘define’ carries .this was more a way of demonstration, or example of just the type of thing that tends to get out of hand, as it were.

  • Mother Wolf

    I really appreciate your outlook. I am a big proponent of the “big tent” philosophy because I see Paganism as a counterpart to Christianity : large tent covering many denominations with many different approaches. I am a Witch with both Jewish and Celtic ancestry and traditions. I don’t want to be annexed by a group who says “this is acceptable and this is not.” I call myself a “Witch of my persuasion”. There is room for all of us. The beauty of Paganism is its festive, joyous inclusion of so many approaches, because we have these things in common : love of Nature, devotion to the deities, whether literally or figuratively, and a profound respect for the approaches and journeys of our brothers and sisters.

  • Robert Paxton

    The way I (as a humanist Pagan who worships Nature and thinks of the rest of it as interesting metaphor) think of it is…I caucus with the “pentacle people” for a bunch of reasons. It’s a good cultural fit for me, but the real point of it is: regardless of the language we use to set the stage & bring ourselves and each other into a shared mindfulness, the stories we tell each other are (at their best) deeply meaningful and compelling.

    I’ll put up with a lot of squabbling over detail if the stories are good.

  • ex pagan

    I am an “ex pagan”. But not because of prohibitive theological issues, or because I cannot dissolve my ego sufficiently to tolerate plurality or diversity.

    I am an “ex pagan” because what I saw within the pagan community were rampant egos, rampant delusions, territorialism, play ground popularity contests and bullying. Because I found pagan rituals on the whole quite boring and dishonest. Because when I met and observed those pagans who had been committedly following their path for many decades, I did not meet individuals who were spiritually evolved. I did not see individuals who were even particularly giving, kind or emotionally mature. Of course on the surface some of them attempted to appear that way, but scratch bellow the surface and they were pretentious, begrudging and judgemental. The only ones I had ever met of any emotional maturity or spiritual advancement had withdrawn entirely from the pagan community, many years previously. I have never entered a pagan shop that did not make me feel embarrassed to be pagan. I have never attended a large pagan event and not felt embarrassed to be pagan. I have rarely seen a pagan portrayed in the media and not cringed.

    I don’t want to spend my time in the Big Tent of Paganism. I will never forget how unpleasant and disappointing I experienced the Big Tent of Paganism and no well constructed blog post, appealing to a sense of unity is ever going to entice me back.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I understand what you’re talking about – it happens too frequently in the Pagan community.

      And yet here you are. My prayer is that whatever drew you here will also draw you to a healthy community, or inspire you to form one… whatever you choose to call it.

  • Vivianne Crowley

    Thanks, John, for starting this interesting conversation. And Merry Yule!

  • Voidhawk

    I thought the original meaning of the word ‘pagan’ was used by Christians to describe just about any non-judeo-Christian belief? If that’s true then I see ‘pagan’ as being a little like ‘geek,’ a term used originally by people to describe others with a wide set of hobbies and interests which the targets have now adopted for themselves.
    A lot of this post could equally describe the arguments within geek culture and who ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ a geek. Not sure what the ‘four centres’ would be, though? (Fandom, specialised knowledge, community and self?)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      “Pagan” comes from the Latin paganus meaning “country dweller”. The occupying Romans used it to refer derisively to the Britons, with a meaning along the lines of “hick”.

      “Pagan” v2.0 is pretty much as you’ve described – a condescending term used by Christians to refer to anyone other than Christians or Jews, or if they were feeling especially inclusive, Muslims.

      “Pagan” v3.0 is what we’re arguing about today – those of us who are trying to restore, recreate, and/or reimagine the beliefs and practices of our ancient ancestors… with widely varying concerns for historical accuracy.

      • Voidhawk

        Didn’t know about ‘Pagan V.1″ but the move to define paganism as pagans see themselves bears an interesting connection t a lot of maligned groups who reclaim the word and then try to give a definition to it. I think part of the problem is that people who use a word as a slur are rarely concerned about accuracy so virtually everybody can be caught by it.
        If I may continue to use the comparison wth geek culture, it was a word used to describe virtually anybody unpopular, from comic-book fans to people bad at sports. Now that we’ve decided to use the label there is a real difficulty in deciding who it applies to. For instance, is someone who loves football and can name every player in the league and every result of their team in the last season a geek? They have exactly the same dedication to their passion as a Star Trek geek who can tell you how a warp engine works but they would never have been called ‘geeks’ by the people who used it as an insult, so can they really be reclaiming it?
        Perhaps it’s best not to define either ‘pagan’ or ‘geek’ too tightly and try to be understanding to those on the fuzzy edges who want to use the terms to describe themselves, which is pretty much what you suggested.

  • RaptureNow

    Interesting discussion, thanks. Most of the “pagans” that I know, are of all spiritual stripes.

    It’s funny how we get bogged down in our differences, when it is what we share that is really important. If we look at Western history over the last 2000 years we see the big religious schisms between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet the crazy thing is they share the same holy books, prayers, prophets – they are over 90% the same in their shared religious beliefs, principles and practices. Yet they are radically and violently opposed.

    Most of the issues that keep us apart are truly minor, and by realising that, we can more easily come together.

    The Big Tent? I don’t know… Does it work for the United Church? It would appear not, based on declining attendance and vagueness of identity perhaps?


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