I have a cousin who doesn’t understand how I can love C.S. Lewis and still be Pagan. I completely agree with him that Mere Christianity is a fabulous book that everyone should read, but simply because it’s a great example of religious writing and reasoning. I like writing, reasoning and religion. Therefore, I like C.S. Lewis.
Something he wrote, I believe it was in The Four Loves, has always stuck with me. He makes some observations on the use of the words “real” and “really”. I believe the example he uses is that “close male friendships are really homosexual”. There’s a sort of hubris at work here that states despite the intent, feelings and self-identity, the speaker knows better what lies at the root of other people’s behavior.
We as Pagans get this a lot from outside sources. Are you really a Pagan? Do you really believe that those Gods exist? Are you a real Witch? Is that even a real religion? We’re used to this sort of disrespect from the outside world. It’s rudeness at it’s root and completely dismissive of what we are trying to communicate. Lately I’ve heard this language used within our communities, and though I ain’t nearly as eloquent as Mr. Lewis, I’m compelled to pull out my soap box and tell you why this bugs me.
Think long and hard about anyone calling anyone a “real Pagan”. Doesn’t this tell you more about the person using this language, than the person they are directing it towards? What does that even mean? If your intent is to serve the Gods and seek the Mystery and you act upon that intent, then really all the rest is window dressing. Important window dressing to be sure, but that’s basically what makes you Pagan. Whether you are a monotheist practicing the cult of Sol Invictus or a solitary blending paths and working with an eclectic pantheon, it all boils down to good intent and matching action. There is no Pagan Pope to divide us into the faithful and the damned, because if there was we’d all want a ride in her popemobile!
Recently I’ve heard this language used to disparage some Pagan organizations. The argument being that they appease monotheism by conforming to mainstream religions in order to be accepted as a “real” religions, and by doing that they lose sight of the inner Mysteries. It’s an old argument but this time it had that warning label: “real”. I had to sit with this for a moment before I could formulate a response. The first thing I had to think about was whether Pagan religions are doing anything different today than they did in ancient times. Pagan cults ran public temples, held inner mysteries for members, trained clergy, collected needed resources from members and were sanctioned in some form by the local authorities. When Christianity came along it followed the same pattern, merely dropping the inner Mysteries, unless you consider being able to read the Bible itself a mystery, in which case they survived for centuries. Pagans reclaiming a public identity being characterized as a “sell-out” is as ridiculous as claiming the Catholic church is destroying tradition by going back to the Latin Mass.
The Aquarian Tabernacle Church and Covenant of the Goddess both embrace the Mysteries wholeheartedly in their own ways though they have an organizational structure that almost any religious person can understand. Circle Sanctuary might be considered the most “mainstreamed” Pagan organization in the US in both it’s structure and outlook, but I doubt anyone who attended the rituals at Pagan Spirit Gathering last year felt a lack of ecstatic Mystery. I know a lot of Pagans who, either independently or as part of a tradition, engage in temple building, interfaith work, clergy training and Pagan education but though they may be trying to build lasting resources they don’t resemble monotheists in the slightest. In fact, some of the Pagans I know who are most passionate about this type of work are some of the most radical people I know, because they fight not only mainstream religions to accomplish their goals, but also Pagan naysayers who tend towards armchair quarter-backing.
This dismissive language reminds me of musical arguments on who’s “really” punk. The answer almost always is that if a band is popular, makes a living and receives recognition for their talent outside of the punk community they aren’t really punk. This argument is repeated in every musical genre. This stems from a subcultural need for exclusivity. “Me and my friends are cool because we listen to X.” When this “hipster language” is applied to Wicca I always imagine Gerald Gardner in a black turtleneck and shades saying that Louis Armstrong sold out when he started singing.
Sometimes it really does feel as if there is a movement of “Hipster Pagans”. They lounge in coffee shops spouting obscure references and mocking Pagans who are out there getting things done. That tends to be all they do though. I’m not saying Pagan organizations are to be immune from critique, but this sniping from the sidelines isn’t helpful. Some Pagan organizations have a rule that your voice is as big as your contribution. I think that’s an excellent concept. It doesn’t mean only leaders get a say, but it does mean that even if you’re just a neophyte in your organization yet you show up for clean-up projects, volunteer for ritual prep, be present, active and supportive then your opinion carries some weight regardless of your degree/level/rank/position.
When you hear language like “real Pagans” and “real religion” what you’re hearing is disrespect. Paganism isn’t about who’s the coolest kid on the block. It’s not about eyeliner, tattoos, titles, lineages, obscure lore, bling or degrees. It’s about your actions, your relationships, and being authentic to your values. When you show respect you receive respect. Disrespect brings you dishonor. It’s really that simple.