Spiritual But Not Religious and The Solitary Pagan

I ran across a CNN news story yesterday that really got me thinking. It spoke of the danger of the “Spiritual But Not Religious” movement creating self-centered, selfish people instead of creating community and promoting charity.

Yesterday I raised the question “what if we get big and mainstream?” without actually exploring it. Today I’m wondering “if we get big and mainstream and are made up mostly of solitaries, what then?” because it suddenly seems like we’ve got a big ol’ elephant in the room I’ve only just noticed.

Backtrack: I was solitary for almost 10 years. I was interested in being part of a group and I joined a few of organizations and was active on a few forums, but I was not in the business of creating community. I held no responsibility to anyone and depended on no one. I studied what I pleased and where I pleased and my obligations were fleeting and social.

Today I am a student of a trad coven and the whole dynamic has changed. I have homework, I have copious notes to take, practices to practice and an obligation to help my coven with gardening, buying supplies and even being the designated driver at Beltane! (which was an adventure!)

The truth is, despite all my wandering among the ideas of the Pagani, I never really actively engaged the Pagan community at large until I was involved in a coven. I paid more attention to Pagan news, contributed to Pagan charities, listened to more Pagan music and attended more Pagan events. Being actively aligned with a religious identity engaged me and pushed me to give back to the community that has been so important to me.

I am by no means saying we should all be Wiccan. What I am saying, is that being active in a Pagan group of some sort, being bound by mutual obligations, is good for us individually and communally. There is nothing wrong with being religious, in participating in religious rites and belonging to a religious group, as long as it’s kept green and dynamic.

Trees shed their leaves every fall to sprout new leave growing in the old pattern each spring. Just like the leaf, we need our time “attached” and our time “detached”, but we always benefit from belonging to a tree.

From Wikimedia Commons

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • Sara A.

    The community you are part of need not be other Pagans. One of the basic flaws in the assumption of the priest quoted in the article is that ONLY religious community provides connection and draws people out of themselves. The other is that solitary practice has no value…when there are centuries of solitary contemplatives from many traditions who are evidence otherwise.

    There’s a tradition of the solitary witch or shaman that is world-wide. Such a person does relate to and serve the community, but not only their co-religionists and not only the human community, even.

  • Sarah Morningstar

    I am active on pagan Forums, blogs, and events in the TC. I am also solitary. I agree with Sara above. The point is to be part of a community. When the time is right for me to join a group it will happen, but as solitary and a mom I seek out to build a community all around me. As the world becomes less Christian that community has moved out of the church basement and into the streets and parks of the world.

    As a note to “I have homework, I have copious notes to take, practices to practice and an obligation to help my coven” As a solitary, I take many notes, work on new rituals, memorize lines and have the obligation to my son to pass these things along. I don’t mean to belittle your experiences. I want to point out that just because one identifies as solitary doesn’t mean they dont practice their spirituality as vigorously as ones in groups.

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

    I’m not against solitary practice. Like I said, I was one for years.

    Being part of a group has a different level of responsibilities and support, regardless of how active one’s personal spirituality is.

    I’ve been reading about tribalist Heathen groups, and I think there’s some value there we should look at. Having a network of friends and family is a good thing, but being part of an intentional religious community bound together by common practice and values has worth.

    Ancient Pagans built temples and formed cults for a reason. It’s a way to be rooted and to support one another.

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  • Sarah Morningstar

    Star, I’m not against group practice either.i simply pointed out your line because when I read it it sounded like you were saying that solitary’s ( or in that case, spiritual but not religious people) dont take the education or exploration of their faith seriously. Perhaps I miss interpreted what you were trying to say.

    I agree that groups are an important part of the pagan community. But belonging to a spiritual group does not make you any more or less spiritual simply because you belong. That is something that comes with the dedication to your faith, and, I think, completely separate from your group experience.

  • http://erynn999.livejournal.com Erynn

    I think the idea of solitary versus group/community work is a false dichotomy. Even people in groups have a private, solitary spiritual life and practices, at least in most cases. The ones who don’t are often (though not always) the type who go to festivals and then don’t really do anything the rest of the year; it’s like Christians who only ever attend services at Christmas and Easter. Most people won’t dispute that they’re Christians, but their involvement is very low.

    One obviously doesn’t have to be a member of a spiritual community to engage in deep thinking and study, in activism, or in work that can benefit the community at large. The vast majority of my spiritual life is solitary. I’m a member of the local CR group, but this is only a small part of what I do. I consider the bulk of my spiritual life to be engaged in my writing and my private rituals and practices, from meditation to publishing to writing to my legislators on topics of import to Pagan communities.

    And some practices partake of both solitary and communal aspects. There are a number of Brigid flamekeeping orders where each of us keeps the flame individually in our own homes as solitary practitioners, but which is coordinated in a larger, communal way, into cells of 19 individuals who pass the flame (metaphorically) hand to hand in shifts over a 20 day period where Brigid keeps the flame on the 20th day. We may not communicate with one another regularly, or even at all, but we are all conscious that we are part of a community and a cycle of ritual that joins us together even as we practice separately.

    I think it’s clear that there are some things that are easier to learn as a part of a group. There may be a few things that are nearly impossible to learn as a solitary, like some sexual magic techniques that require two people for proper execution. One can read about these things but, without at least a partner, one can’t experience them firsthand. Beyond that, it’s never a question of whether solitary or group work and study are “better” in any meaningful sense. Both are valuable and might be necessary for some things.

    Monotheist traditions where attendance at regular services is encouraged or mandatory have often taken a dim view of people who have solitary practices because they cannot be sufficiently controlled by the hierarchy. Someone who practices alone may be seen as suspicious or heretical. Even in such religions, though, there are exceptions.

    I certainly don’t think that practicing solitary inevitably results in more “selfish” people, nor that group practice inevitably results in more generous people. Such things are a matter of individual temperament and inclination, not of the manner of practice one pursues.


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