You’re Doing It Wrong!

the lower level of the Roman Coliseum

The last post Am I Doing It Right? was about how to deal with healthy doubts surrounding your beliefs and practices.   But I also listed a few examples of how you might be doing it wrong:

if your religion tells you the world would be fine if other people would quit screwing it up, you’re doing it wrong.  If it tells you society is great just like it is, you’re doing it wrong.  If it tells you it’s all about you, you’re doing it wrong.

In the comments, Yvonne Aburrow said this needed more unpacking, so this post is an attempt to do just that.

Let me start by repeating a key point from the last post:  there is no such thing as religious certainty, particularly when it comes to beliefs.  There is no Pagan orthodoxy, and to say “if you believe this about the Gods or if you don’t believe that then you’re doing it wrong” simply has no grounding.

Now, as you move from the Big Tent of Paganism deeper into individual traditions, some things fit and some things don’t.  I like onions on hamburgers and pizza but I don’t want them in chocolate cake.  If I invoke Kuan Yin during an Egyptian temple ritual I’m doing it wrong, not because Kuan Yin isn’t real or because She’s inferior to Isis, but because She isn’t part of the Kemetic tradition.

Religious uncertainty is not license to do anything you want.  Nothing is certain, but some things are more likely than others, some things don’t mix and match very well, and some things are so unhelpful, so ineffective, and cause so much more harm than good that we’re justified in saying “you’re doing it wrong!”

If the primary focus of your religion is on how bad other people are, then you’re doing it wrong.  If you see something wrong, you can scream “it’s all their fault” or you can do something to make it better.  Guess which one is more likely to actually improve the situation?

“Prophetic witness” is popular among Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals.  But those who like to use the Old Testament as authority for such proclamations ignore the fact that the vast majority of the time, the Hebrew prophets were calling their own people to repent – not someone else.  There’s a time and place for calling evil what it is, but if you’re not careful you end up looking like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blaming the 9/11 attacks on Pagans and gay people.

If the primary focus of your religion is pointing out how wrong other people’s religion is, you’re doing it wrong.  Comparing and contrasting beliefs and practices can be helpful, and telling your story of how you escaped fundamentalism or some other abusive religion can be both therapeutic and an example for others.  But at some point, you’ve got to stop being a not-Christian and start being a Pagan. Or stop being a not-atheist and start being a Christian.  Or stop being a not-Muslim and start being an atheist.

While The Secret is a load of narcissistic crap, there is truth in the concept that you manifest what you dwell on.  Keep dwelling on how bad some other religion is and you let that religion’s hooks dig deeper and deeper into your soul.

If your religion tells you human society is fine just the way it is, you’re doing it wrong.  If it tells you the poor deserve to be poor because they sinned in a past life, or because they’re lazy or genetically inferior; if it tells you the rich and powerful are rich and powerful because they’ve earned the favor of their God, then you’ve bought into some very toxic religion.  Now, not every rich person is a crook and not every poor person is a paragon of oppressed virtue – life’s more complicated than that and you know it.

We can debate the best ways to end poverty, injustice and oppression.  We can debate the merits of individual initiative vs. collective action (hint:  it takes both).  And we can discuss the obligations those of us who have much (on a global standard) have to those who have little.  There are many ideas – some based in religion and some not – and many of them have merit.  But if your religion tells you you don’t need to worry about structural injustice – either explicitly or by omission – then you’re doing it wrong.

If your religion tells you it’s all about you, you’re doing it wrong.  This is another place where we have to draw some sharp lines.  There’s a huge difference in saying “it’s not all about you” and saying “you’re a worthless sinner who doesn’t count.”  As a Unitarian Universalist I strongly support the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.  As a pantheist I believe divinity is in all of us and we’re all part of divinity.  We have not only the right but also the obligation to develop ourselves:  to learn and grow, to become educated and wise, to become strong and powerful, to be beautiful and creative.  Modern Western society expects us to spend the first quarter of our life – or more – working on ourselves, and while that hasn’t always been possible, it’s been a good thing.

The problem comes when we forget why we spend all this time developing ourselves.  It isn’t so we can simply be strong and powerful, it’s so we can use our strength and power to make the world a better place.  Being a Nature-centered Pagan isn’t all about sunsets and full moons, it’s also about insuring that other species continue to live and thrive.  Being a Deity-centered Pagan isn’t all about experiencing Their presence, it’s also about doing Their work in this world.  Being a Community-centered Pagan isn’t all about picnics and spiral dances, it’s also about committee meetings, work days, and writing checks that represent a sacrifice of something substantially more than a Starbucks coffee.

Take care of yourself.  Learn and grow.  You’re a valued member of humanity and of your various communities.  But never forget it’s not all about you.

As I described in the last post, most of us are doing it right, at least most of the time.  But there are a few things in the religious world that are a clear sign you’re doing it wrong – be mindful and avoid them.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    This is great!

  • yewtree

    Completely agree.

    But don’t make me do committees – argh!

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

      They are a necessary evil… though committed members and effective leaders make them much less evil.

      • yewtree

        I am much happier volunteering to do a website or something. After all, some people actually like being on committees – i wouldn’t want to deprive them of the pleasure ;)

  • yewtree

    I wrote my own “You’re doing it wrong” post a few years ago:
    http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/is-religion-inherently-harmful.html

  • Cyn Qoaad

    I am reminded of many things, but one is a quote that Scottie used in a sermon once, about the hard questions raised in seminary. “I was afraid to ask God, how can you let people live in such poverty? How can you let people do such horrible things to each other? in case He turned around and asked me the exact same questions.”

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

      For those of us who believe the Gods’ power is finite, that quote becomes all the more important.

  • Wytchfawn

    Where would following one’s ‘True Will’ fall into your paradigm? I mean, for many of us this is the reason for being on the spiritual path. When each of us are improving upon ourselves it creates a ripple effect. At least, this has been my experience.

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

      Following your True Will is by definition “doing it right”. The challenge, as always, is discerning your True Will from what you think you want and from what you’ve told you should want.


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