My Religion is Just as Fake as Yours

I’m pretty easy going when it comes to other faiths. I’m not a Christian basher, and with a few exceptions I tend to think of everyone’s religious experiences as valid. I think the Christian Church has probably done more good than bad during the last 1600 years, and I didn’t become a Pagan because I had some sort of falling out with Jesus. I’m not a rabid believer in inter-faith work, though I have done some. I don’t think I’m ever going to be buddy/buddy with most Christians, and that’s fine, I just want to be left alone and them to know that none of us are sacrificing babies.

About the only time I really get bothered is when someone tries to “explain” me, and acts as if they have some sort of secret understanding of Paganism that I’m too ignorant to comprehend. When someone from one faith community chooses to belittle another faith community they need to be careful of hypocrisy. Scholars are going to disagree with nearly all of us who are spiritual on a number of levels. You can’t use academia to discredit my faith because I can use it just as easily to discredit yours.

These two large pet-peeves of mine surfaced on Saturday when I came across the following article; My Views on Paganism and Neo-Paganism by Mark Shea over at our sister Catholic Portal. I don’t know Mr. Shea, and all I know about him is that he’s got a really impressive beard. I’m sure he’s usually a pretty agreeable guy when not saying ignorant things about Paganism. I don’t take this stuff all that personally, I just want to clear up some misconceptions and explore the fallacies in some of Mr. Shea’s arguments.

I’m not sure what engaging your article by proxy means. I was not super interested in your article. I was just interested in the (sadly brief and desultory) conversation I had with Earendel on FB, because it occasioned a couple of thoughts and my blog is about, among other things, stuff that occurs to me (recall the blog motto). As I say, I don’t spend much time fighting with neo-pagans. The movement seems to me to be what the Irenist describes: a boutique sect. It seems to me to be a particularly unrealistic species of Protestantism based on an even more fictional history than the fictional Baptist history of the Trail of Blood. It’s massively anachronistic. It is driven (like all revolts) by a perception of some real evils that need righting. In particular, it wants to restore a kind of sacramentality to the world that has been ruthlessly crushed by the materialism and scientism of the 20th century. It protests the violence in Christian history while overlooking the violence of human history. And it makes the fundamental mistake of worshipping the creature instead of the Creator (which truly *is* pagan). It has much that I empathize with. But it is hopelessly confused.

What puzzles me about neo-paganism is why it wastes all this time inventing a fake synthetic paganism based on some suburbanites’ supposings about what esoteric sects did centuries ago, when there are lots of real pagans running around in Asia and the global south they could just go join without all this laborious re-inventing of an almost entirely fictional wheel. The focus of the neo-pagans is on pretend recreations of ancient euro-paganism, based on fictionalized history , coupled with modern notions of relativism and libertinism that would have often baffled and horrifed many ancient pagans (who were by no means a monolith). So when you consult an actual pagan rooted in an actual historic pagan tradition like, say, the Dalai Lama on things like sexual mores, he sounds disappointingly more like Pope Benedict than like some sexually liberated votress of a goddess from a Joss Whedon fantasy universe dressed like a Frank Frazetta heroine.

I’ve never understood why some people refuse to capitalize “Neo-Pagan.” If you are writing about Neo-Pagans you are obviously writing about a particular group of people. No one refuse to capitalize Catholic or even Scientology, it would be nice to see the same courtesy returned to us. There are between one and two million Pagans in the United States, I think we qualify for the capitalization. Those numbers also refute the idea that we are a “boutique” faith. Modern Paganism is a growing faith, and it’s been growing organically for the past fifty years. People convert to Paganism because it calls to them, we certainly aren’t proselytizing to anyone.

What irritates me the most about Shea’s article is this idea that Paganism is “fake.” He makes two different references to this. In the first one he writes: ” . . . based on an even more fictional history than the fictional Baptist history of the Trail of Blood.” this is followed by “What puzzles me about neo-paganism is why it wastes all this time inventing a fake synthetic paganism based on some suburbanites’ supposings about what esoteric sects did centuries ago.” This is dangerous territory, not for us, but for Mr. Shea. I suppose he would use modern scholarship to discredit certain Pagan Creation Myths; things like the Burning Times* or the unbroken Witchcraft Chain starting in at least the Middle Ages. He’s certainly justified if he wants to go that route, I don’t believe in those things in their more romanticized re-tellings either.

The problem with using scholarship to discredit my faith is that it’s mostly the pot calling the kettle black. No scholar believes that Jesus rose from the dead, or that Paul wrote all of the thirteen letters attributed to him in the New Testament. We also know that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John didn’t write the gospels that bear their names. In that sense, most everything about Christianity is just as “fake” as Modern Paganism, though I’d argue that we don’t hold onto those supernatural historical elements as tightly as most Christians do. I don’t believe that the Old Testament is a valid historical document, but I also don’t think it’s “fake.”

While Mr. Shea likes to think he has a firm grasp on the historial origins of Modern Paganism, he shows his lack of knowledge by stating “it (neo-paganism) wants to restore a kind of sacramentality to the world that has been ruthlessly crushed by the materialism and scientism of the 20th century.” The problem there is that much of Modern Paganism began as a reaction to changes that went on during the 19th Century. We know for instance that poets like Leigh Hunt were worshipping the god Pan in the early 1800′s. In the second half of the 19th Century groups like the Golden Dawn began to openly rebuild and refine the Western Magickal Tradition. Modern Paganism might have coalesced in the mid-20th Century, but most religions have a long gestation process. Today’s Christianity is nothing like the Christianity of Jesus or Paul, if someone is going to make the argument that Modern Paganism is simply a 20th Century invention, then I could probably make a similar argument dating Christianity to no earlier than the Second Century CE, with Catholicism emerging long after that.

Modern Paganism is not in a fight against science either. Pagans happily accept doctrines like evolution, and see generally see progress as a good thing. It’s true that we aren’t the most materialistic group in the world, but that puts our values more in line with early Christians. Those anti-materialist values are something that most Christians who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus should be celebrating, not mocking.

I’m always wary about using the “non-Abrahamic faiths” definition of the word “pagan.” Mr. Shea believes that Contemporary Pagans would be wise to explore the “pagan” traditions of the Dali Lama, never mind that the Dali Lama would never think of himself as a “pagan.” The Dali Lama is a Tibetan Buddhist, he has no more in common with me than Pope Benedict does. Ancient paganism was not a monolith, and there were certainly ascetic pagans (like Julian the Apostate Great for instance). I don’t look to the non-Abrahamic faiths of Asia to define my Paganism because those faiths have little in common with the religion of the Celts, Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Egyptians, and Babylonians. For better or for worse, Contemporary Paganism is a faith mostly rooted in the Western Tradition. Most Pagan Ritual has been heavily influenced by groups like the Golden Dawn and the Freemasons, these are influences we wear knowingly on our sleeves.

More from Mr. Shea:

Neo-pagans also carefully ignore the fact that the last thing *those* pagans did was ask for baptism. That’s because, of course, the *real* motivation of neo-pagans is not to return to past religious traditions but to react against present ones and invent new ones. It is remarkably kindred in spirit to the evangelical Church I joined as a new Christian: a storefront church of college students with Bibles who knew a thing or two and were going to set Western civilization right. Neo-paganism aims to articulate a particularly strong form of Protestantism that rejects not just the Church, not just Jesus, not just monotheism and not just the hardboiled atheism that is a reaction to monotheism, but both the faith and the materialist reaction to it and the civilization that result from it. It wants theism and sacramentalism and a certain Middle Earth/world music/koyaanasqatsi multicultural fantasy aesthetic, as well as some of the trendier aspects of postmodern feminism dressed up in cool robes, all while ignoring the actual lot of women in the overwhelming majority of pre-Christian antiquity and the fact that it was the Christian tradition that, due to the influence of the Blessed Virgin, essentially invented the idea that the love of woman could be ennobling (a concept foreign to, for instance, the pagan Greeks, who saw women as breeder units for male citizens).

Ancient pagans asked for baptism? Really? Where is the footnote to this important piece of religious history that’s been kept hidden from me all these years? I’m a pretty voracious reader. especially on paganism during the formative years of Christianity. Oh Academy how you’ve failed me!

Of course Modern Paganism is a re-creation of ancient paganisms, exactly for many of the reasons sighted by Mr. Shea. The Ancient World had problems. There was slavery, patriarchy, war, and a whole host of other horrible things that didn’t go away when the Roman Empire became officially Christian in 381 CE (if anything, they became worse). I’m well aware of the failings of the Greeks and the Romans. Since worship of Isis and the Magna Mater was especially far-reaching during the early Christian period (and before) it’s hard to imagine that the Virgin Mary “invented the idea that love of woman could be ennobling” (though lacking in physical expression of that love). I’m going to ignore most of the Protestant/Middle Earth gobble dee gook that Mr. Shea included there in the middle. I’m willing to bet that Mr. Shea would be disappointed if he ever met a large group of Pagans since most of us don’t dress like SCA refugees.

I suspect this may be due to the fact that dilletante suburban Europeans and Americans don’t *really* want to adopt the lifestyle of a 15th century Maori cannibal, or eschew western science (a fruit of Christianity*) in favor of shaking mistel branches at statues when they have a toothache, or live the hardscrabble hand to mouth existence of a hunter/gatherer on the Veldt. That’s getting in touch with a lot more Nature than dilettante suburbanites want. So while I have a very high regard for real paganism, it’s hard to take neo-paganism seriously. It is, painfully obviously, the product not of ancients, but of suburban moderns, playing at fantasy.

I don’t understand why I would want to adopt the lifestyle of a Maori cannibal. What’s wrong with letting the fruits of Western Pagandom and the Western Magical Tradition grow and ripen in the Modern Era? I don’t see most Christians awaiting Judgement Day and selling off all of their possessions. Faiths tend to grow, even the Catholic Church doesn’t just use Latin at Mass anymore. By Shea’s reasoning any sort of progress is a negative thing. Religion should react to the challenges and circumstances of the Modern World. Modern Paganism does that, which is why it’s growing faster than Catholicism in the United States. You bet your butt that my faith is not the product of “ancients,” that’s why it speaks to me.

The real heirs to all that was best in paganism are, in fact, Catholics. If you want actual contact with cultural currents and thoughtforms that take you back to remote antiquity and connect you, not only with pre-Christian pagans, but with ancient Jews as well, then look there.

If you want to connect with currents and thought-forms that take you back to antiquity, why not worship the deities that shaped antiquity? I’m sorry, but I’m always going to feel closer to my ancient pagan ancestors while doing ritual outdoors with the gods they worshipped. You can keep your air conditioning, and your lack of understanding concerning my religion. I don’t care whether or not people agree with my faith, but it’s certainly just as real as anything else.

*It wasn’t eight million, but 80,000 souls is nothing to look at lightly

**Islam, but you can have your myths. In fairness the Catholic Church has been very supportive of scientific progress in the 20th Century.

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About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.


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