Real World Benefits of Not Being Pagan

Find other posts related to this topic on the link round-up post!

When Drew Jacob wrote his post yesterday, I commentedsome even claim that their religious communities actually thrive after they leave the Pagan label and community behind.

I think a lot of people overlooked that point. People began to argue semantics, the history and meaning of the term Pagan, the need for solidarity, and what that label means for their personal identity. Few considered what it means that while not changing your beliefs and practices, your spiritual community improves simply by walking away from the Pagan label and community.

I’ve heard this from Hellenics and Heathens alike, but I’d always filed it away in the same part of my brain that processes the “where’s the birth certificate?” kind of statements. It seems so improbable and so against what I’ve truly believed for years about the Pagan community. Then again, some of the most successful lines of Witchcraft have maintained some distance from the Pagan community, my own tradition included.

My elders, almost none of whom identify as Pagan, had some interesting things to say about this. One told me the main problem with interacting with each other and trying to build pan-Pagan solidarity is that “we horrify each other” and I find that a fascinating way to characterize casual Pagan interactions. While we try to be open-minded and tolerant, so often deep inside we’re simply horrified because we secretly believe they’re doing it wrong. Even when we meet in good faith, somewhere deep in our soul we’re gasping and clutching our pearls.

I was given a useful analogy from a Wiccan perspective: on an energetic level pan-Pagan community can be like casual sex. Even though you’re perfectly prepared for this to be a one-time or very occasional event, energies still get mixed, and an egregore, however slight, is formed. Which makes sense when you hear people speak of pan-Pagan interaction as exhausting and frustrating. Even so, my elders were all for the greater Pagan community, even though in practice they keep our tradition quite separate and don’t tend to jump on board many pan-Pagan initiatives. As one of my teachers told me, the only flag we fly is the Wiccan one.

Since my tradition has been going strong since the mid 70′s, I have to say that maybe keeping some distance from Paganism (we participated in PPD for the first time last year) has helped them manage that. The Wiccan law regarding not splitting your energy between two covens might apply here, as Drew and others report limiting their interaction with Paganism, as an identity and community, benefited them. It conserved their energy, resources and thought processes for the very unique thing they are trying to do.

One of the teachings of my tradition is “nothing succeeds like a secret,” or as I like to think of it “you will love those shoes until your sister sneers at them, so don’t show your sister the shoes!” Why open up something that you love and works for you for critique by every Raven, Merlin and Rowan? Your tradition isn’t a dissertation to be challenged by every Pagan that comes along, so why not remain separate?

Of course, it’s not just Witchcraft that advocates smaller congregations, as most Pagans and even emergent Christians are committed to smaller groups. According to Robin Dunbar at Oxford, you can’t truly be friends with more than 50 people, so how many people can you have spiritual kinship with? Just what do you base that spiritual kinship on?

Semantics aren’t the underlying factor in this argument. As a polytheistic Wiccan, I often to find that my values are more often found among folks in other Pagan religions than my own. I generally have little in common with Wiccans outside my tradition, and I think that’s likely because we have a values base. It’s not that we aren’t engaging the Mystery and the Magick, but my experience has been that by emphasizing values the Craft itself thrives. When Drew talks about having more in common with Hindus and Native Americans, I get what he’s saying. I recently had a beer with a friend who is part of a Cherokee community and listening to him talk I heard the same values of my own tradition being expressed in a different language.

I had chatted with Drew awhile back saying I sensed a future schism between values/community based traditions, and those based on individuality/magick. Some of us are looking to create tribes and communities, some of us are looking for occult enlightenment, and some for spiritual anarchy. While there is and always will be overlap, I think that difference in emphasis will define the future of Paganism.

So while values, emphasis and such may help explain why groups do better when separate, it doesn’t address the idea that the very label “Pagan” may have become too charged, too political, too Wiccan or too tarnished. Just because it works “on paper” does that mean it truly works as a unifying and inclusive label in real life? Is it truly useful, or merely nostalgic? I honestly don’t know.

I do know that Paganism described in Wiccanate language bugs me, but I am honestly in love with the word. For me it evokes Cicero, Julian, Sappho and Hypatia. My vision of the word “pagan” is very Victorian, and probably not reflective of it’s modern reality. My vision of the Pagan community is “festival culture” where Pagans create a common reality for a few days of sweet harmony, or positive and supportive projects like IPCOD or PAGANdash. I know when I get to Pagan Spirit Gathering in a few weeks I will be engulfed in a truly supportive and inclusive pan-Pagan community.

Yet I don’t have any real answers to the experiences of those who’ve found life outside of Paganism a little greener. If Pagan has ceased to be a useful umbrella term, and if the Pagan community has become a stumbling block, then what next? How do we work together? How do we support each other?

About Star Foster

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

  • http://greattininess.wordpress.com/ Johnny Rapture

    Hallelujah!

  • http://greattininess.wordpress.com/ Johnny Rapture

    Hallelujah!

  • http://lifencompass.com Scott K Smith

    I’m always very happy with saying Witch, I am in the magickal practice and thus can stand proud in that, but also Spiritual. Labels are for identity but they, more often than not are exceeded by our growth and so new labels are sought. 

    Our little peyton’s as we journey forth. I’ve always come back to Witch. I occasionally use Pagan but only to illustrate a point or communicate something, I might addend it with “-ish” r “similar too.”

  • http://lifencompass.com Scott @ Lifencompass

    I’m always very happy with saying Witch, I am in the magickal practice and thus can stand proud in that, but also Spiritual. Labels are for identity but they, more often than not are exceeded by our growth and so new labels are sought. 

    Our little peyton’s as we journey forth. I’ve always come back to Witch. I occasionally use Pagan but only to illustrate a point or communicate something, I might addend it with “-ish” r “similar too.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/marienne.foxwood Marienne Hartwood

    I tried using the pagan label for more than a decade and found that, like a pair of shoes that just doesn’t fit, walking in them day after day simply causes more callouses and irritation than making for a better fit. I’m a firm believer that you do not define something by stating what it is not, so saying that pagan = non-Christian (or non-big-three-religion or anything in between) doesn’t work for me. It even gets more complex as I do occasionally fire up some saint candles or toss a psalm out there to help the needs of Christians I know. I also am very happy embracing life in suburbia as a spiritual pursuit. Going “out in nature” is something I might do for vacation on occasion (although I grew out of a desire to camp half a decade ago), but the idea of living in the wilderness, or even a place as “civilized” as a small town farmstead does not fit in my desired way of life. So if I’m not a “nature person” and certainly not a “country dweller”, and I’m not merely “not a Christian”, what justification can I personally use to say I am pagan? If I can’t justify my use of that word to describe myself in my own mind, how would I be able to display that identity to the world around me? So pagan…no thanks. Not for me. Polytheist, kathenotheist, pragmatic spiritualist, or witch…that’s what fits best for me.

    • Anonymous

      Well said!  “I’m a firm believer that you do not define something by stating what
      it is not, so saying that pagan = non-Christian (or
      non-big-three-religion or anything in between) doesn’t work for me.”  I’ve run a Pagan Pride event for the past several years in my town and the constant question of “What is Paganism?” and stumbling over an appropriate answer has been a test every year. You can’t define something by what it’s NOT.  I use the label Pagan, for now, because I haven’t dedicated myself to a specific path. There may also be a component of fear, not wanting to let go of something I’ve known so long.

    • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

      I’m a firm believer that you do not define something by stating what it is not

      I agree fully, but I don’t think the answer is to ignore reality.  The reality is that there is a complex, interconnected milieu that we call modern paganism.  I approach it by telling people that it is an umbrella term and talking about the diversity of the umbrella, never by attempting to define paganism.

      • Rua Lupa

        Good Tip. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/marienne.foxwood Marienne Hartwood

    I tried using the pagan label for more than a decade and found that, like a pair of shoes that just doesn’t fit, walking in them day after day simply causes more callouses and irritation than making for a better fit. I’m a firm believer that you do not define something by stating what it is not, so saying that pagan = non-Christian (or non-big-three-religion or anything in between) doesn’t work for me. It even gets more complex as I do occasionally fire up some saint candles or toss a psalm out there to help the needs of Christians I know. I also am very happy embracing life in suburbia as a spiritual pursuit. Going “out in nature” is something I might do for vacation on occasion (although I grew out of a desire to camp half a decade ago), but the idea of living in the wilderness, or even a place as “civilized” as a small town farmstead does not fit in my desired way of life. So if I’m not a “nature person” and certainly not a “country dweller”, and I’m not merely “not a Christian”, what justification can I personally use to say I am pagan? If I can’t justify my use of that word to describe myself in my own mind, how would I be able to display that identity to the world around me? So pagan…no thanks. Not for me. Polytheist, kathenotheist, pragmatic spiritualist, or witch…that’s what fits best for me.

    • GimliGirl

      Well said!  “I’m a firm believer that you do not define something by stating what
      it is not, so saying that pagan = non-Christian (or
      non-big-three-religion or anything in between) doesn’t work for me.”  I’ve run a Pagan Pride event for the past several years in my town and the constant question of “What is Paganism?” and stumbling over an appropriate answer has been a test every year. You can’t define something by what it’s NOT.  I use the label Pagan, for now, because I haven’t dedicated myself to a specific path. There may also be a component of fear, not wanting to let go of something I’ve known so long.

    • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

      I’m a firm believer that you do not define something by stating what it is not

      I agree fully, but I don’t think the answer is to ignore reality.  The reality is that there is a complex, interconnected milieu that we call modern paganism.  I approach it by telling people that it is an umbrella term and talking about the diversity of the umbrella, never by attempting to define paganism.

      • Rua Lupa

        Good Tip. :)

  • http://profiles.google.com/tpoaic Cora Post

    I think the first thing that needs to change is this all inclusive “every Pagan does this…” or “every Pagan celebrates this…” because it simply isn’t the case.  As I was explaining to a very dear friend of mine this morning it’s like saying “All Christians pray to the Saints” or “All Christians celebrate Lent”.  Well, no, that isn’t correct just as it isn’t correct that *all* Pagans celebrate the Wheel of the Year or read Tarot cards.  But if you pick up any Pagan 101 book that is exactly what people are being taught.

    Years ago I was actually told by a Pagan that if you don’t like camping, if you wear bug spray, or if you don’t walk barefoot outside then you are not a true Pagan because *all* Pagans are Nature based.  That got me thinking (and questioning):  would that same logic apply to Cicero? He certainly was “pagan” (without getting into a sematics war over the history of the word, for arguements sake I am using it in this sentence to describe a person who worships the Gods…bear with me…) and yet I don’t believe he walked around barefoot nor do I think he made a habit of camping.  So where does this idea come from that in order to be Pagan one *must* do these very particular things?  And further still, I guess I am not Pagan as I will wear bug spray and I do wear shoes outside (goat horns alone make it a must).

    I think if we can all come together and accept the fact that, yes indeed, we very well can worship the exact same Deities but have vastly different approaches to worship then we all will be okay.  My relationship to the Gods cannot in any way be critized by another for my experiences are personal. No other human can tell me how to approach Them or what is *right* for me.  Being a Polytheist, and stepping away from the often ego-led Neo-Pagan community, gives me freedom to grow at my own rate and in my own way without the stress or worry of my fellow humans telling me how un-Pagan/Polytheist I am.  For the only ones who can tell me if what I am doing is not enough is Them…and I have yet to have a complaint.

    • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

      But if you pick up any Pagan 101 book that is exactly what people are being taught.

      This is why I dislike Pagan the 101 books I’ve seen.  Books should either be specific (e.g., ADF Druidism) or be focused primarily on diversity.  That is, any book on modern paganism should emphasize not the most common practices, but on how broad the range of practices really is.

      If anyone knows of books on paganism that do this successfully, please let me know in the comments.  (The closest I’ve seen is collections of interviews with people from different trads, but that isn’t quite there.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/tpoaic Cora Post

    I think the first thing that needs to change is this all inclusive “every Pagan does this…” or “every Pagan celebrates this…” because it simply isn’t the case.  As I was explaining to a very dear friend of mine this morning it’s like saying “All Christians pray to the Saints” or “All Christians celebrate Lent”.  Well, no, that isn’t correct just as it isn’t correct that *all* Pagans celebrate the Wheel of the Year or read Tarot cards.  But if you pick up any Pagan 101 book that is exactly what people are being taught.

    Years ago I was actually told by a Pagan that if you don’t like camping, if you wear bug spray, or if you don’t walk barefoot outside then you are not a true Pagan because *all* Pagans are Nature based.  That got me thinking (and questioning):  would that same logic apply to Cicero? He certainly was “pagan” (without getting into a sematics war over the history of the word, for arguements sake I am using it in this sentence to describe a person who worships the Gods…bear with me…) and yet I don’t believe he walked around barefoot nor do I think he made a habit of camping.  So where does this idea come from that in order to be Pagan one *must* do these very particular things?  And further still, I guess I am not Pagan as I will wear bug spray and I do wear shoes outside (goat horns alone make it a must).

    I think if we can all come together and accept the fact that, yes indeed, we very well can worship the exact same Deities but have vastly different approaches to worship then we all will be okay.  My relationship to the Gods cannot in any way be critized by another for my experiences are personal. No other human can tell me how to approach Them or what is *right* for me.  Being a Polytheist, and stepping away from the often ego-led Neo-Pagan community, gives me freedom to grow at my own rate and in my own way without the stress or worry of my fellow humans telling me how un-Pagan/Polytheist I am.  For the only ones who can tell me if what I am doing is not enough is Them…and I have yet to have a complaint.

    • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

      But if you pick up any Pagan 101 book that is exactly what people are being taught.

      This is why I dislike Pagan the 101 books I’ve seen.  Books should either be specific (e.g., ADF Druidism) or be focused primarily on diversity.  That is, any book on modern paganism should emphasize not the most common practices, but on how broad the range of practices really is.

      If anyone knows of books on paganism that do this successfully, please let me know in the comments.  (The closest I’ve seen is collections of interviews with people from different trads, but that isn’t quite there.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1226891346 Cara Schulz

    “Few considered what it means that while not changing your beliefs and practices, your spiritual community improves simply by walking away from the Pagan label and community.”

    It’s hard to argue with success.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1226891346 Cara Schulz

    “Few considered what it means that while not changing your beliefs and practices, your spiritual community improves simply by walking away from the Pagan label and community.”

    It’s hard to argue with success.

  • EdThePagan

    The answer is, we don’t. I watched as the Pagan Trustee’s of teh Parliament of the World;s Religions basically changed the definition of Paganism to fit the best ideas they had, into being Indigenous European Religion, and everything else being at best Neo-Pagan.

    I believe that many Wiccans are seeking to remove the Pagan label as well, because they are accused often of taking over the community, or being fluffy bunnies, or an number of horrifying ideas. I believe  that this is the beginning of the end of a almost unified Pagan community, and a more fractional religious movement with a thousand different names. 

  • EdThePagan

    The answer is, we don’t. I watched as the Pagan Trustee’s of teh Parliament of the World;s Religions basically changed the definition of Paganism to fit the best ideas they had, into being Indigenous European Religion, and everything else being at best Neo-Pagan.

    I believe that many Wiccans are seeking to remove the Pagan label as well, because they are accused often of taking over the community, or being fluffy bunnies, or an number of horrifying ideas. I believe  that this is the beginning of the end of a almost unified Pagan community, and a more fractional religious movement with a thousand different names. 

  • Rua Lupa

    This is why I follow your blog Star. You speak from the heart and go right to the heart of the matter at the same time. The questions you pose at the end are very real and important ones I foresee being the main topic for a while. Perhaps discussion will do little and it will all organically happen the way it is going already?

    I personally see the word use and label of Pagan slowly drift off into some historical blip as the beginning of a Big Bang of Diverse Religions that will nullify the heavy hitting influence of the Big Three Religions of our time. Creating the very thing that Paganism was reaching for, Tolerance and Harmony among all peoples and paths.

    If something remotely like this happens, then I honestly don’t mind the transition we may very well be seeing now.

  • Rua Lupa

    This is why I follow your blog Star. You speak from the heart and go right to the heart of the matter at the same time. The questions you pose at the end are very real and important ones I foresee being the main topic for a while. Perhaps discussion will do little and it will all organically happen the way it is going already?

    I personally see the word use and label of Pagan slowly drift off into some historical blip as the beginning of a Big Bang of Diverse Religions that will nullify the heavy hitting influence of the Big Three Religions of our time. Creating the very thing that Paganism was reaching for, Tolerance and Harmony among all peoples and paths.

    If something remotely like this happens, then I honestly don’t mind the transition we may very well be seeing now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Reimers/659542888 Scott Reimers

    I wonder though.

    A while back my group Reno Magick decided to flout the democratically elected “community pagan leadership.”  We felt that the whole situation was a rigged popularity contest that didn’t meet our personal needs so we would build what we were looking to experience despite the preferences of others. 

    A couple years later our group is one of the most active groups in this area and is working to hold one of the largest pagan festivals our area has seen in years.

    If we had tried to “be pagan” and work within the systems trying to hold everyone together and build cohesiveness we wouldn’t have achieved this. There are just too many differences in what people want… and when you try to please everbody, nobody is happy.

    I’m not sure that these groups grew because they stopped being called pagan.  I think they grew because they stopped trying to BE “pagan” and focused on expressing those qualities and practices which which make them unique and powerful.   

    Lots of people drink soda, but we all have our preferences.  To say that Pepsi isn’t a real soda because you prefer Mountain Dew is silly.  

    The fact of the matter is that by definition persons who worship Gods other than the Judeo-Christian God are Pagan.  If we try to run away from that fact we’ll just look silly.  However, if we take control of it and collectively work to redefine the term pagan to include positive values that we choose, we will do what the Christians did when they turned the Name Christian from an insult into declarative statement and a Banner under which the vast majority of persons who share that faith come together.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Reimers/659542888 Scott Reimers

    I wonder though.

    A while back my group Reno Magick decided to flout the democratically elected “community pagan leadership.”  We felt that the whole situation was a rigged popularity contest that didn’t meet our personal needs so we would build what we were looking to experience despite the preferences of others. 

    A couple years later our group is one of the most active groups in this area and is working to hold one of the largest pagan festivals our area has seen in years.

    If we had tried to “be pagan” and work within the systems trying to hold everyone together and build cohesiveness we wouldn’t have achieved this. There are just too many differences in what people want… and when you try to please everbody, nobody is happy.

    I’m not sure that these groups grew because they stopped being called pagan.  I think they grew because they stopped trying to BE “pagan” and focused on expressing those qualities and practices which which make them unique and powerful.   

    Lots of people drink soda, but we all have our preferences.  To say that Pepsi isn’t a real soda because you prefer Mountain Dew is silly.  

    The fact of the matter is that by definition persons who worship Gods other than the Judeo-Christian God are Pagan.  If we try to run away from that fact we’ll just look silly.  However, if we take control of it and collectively work to redefine the term pagan to include positive values that we choose, we will do what the Christians did when they turned the Name Christian from an insult into declarative statement and a Banner under which the vast majority of persons who share that faith come together.

  • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

    I’m not sure if this was mentioned before (probably so given the reams of discussion), but when you have a new group looking for people to participate in any kind of Pagan-ish activity, and you go to the existing community looking for members, most of them already have their equivalent of what you’re offering. It was very smart to go to the Celtic cultural people, in Drew’s case. If there was a Sumerian Culture Club in Birmingham, I would visit it in a heartbeat ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

    I’m not sure if this was mentioned before (probably so given the reams of discussion), but when you have a new group looking for people to participate in any kind of Pagan-ish activity, and you go to the existing community looking for members, most of them already have their equivalent of what you’re offering. It was very smart to go to the Celtic cultural people, in Drew’s case. If there was a Sumerian Culture Club in Birmingham, I would visit it in a heartbeat ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

    Honestly, it sounds to me like a lot of the friction is coming from expecting things from pan-Pagan community that one should only expect from one’s small group or tradition. The benefits of pan-Pagan community are political and social on a wide scale. Defining Pagan as a useful umbrella term means there might be a Pagan chaplain at the hospital who has at least heard of your religion or that you might be allowed to practice your Pagan tradition in prison. Folks who aren’t interested in these things don’t need to stick around the pan-Pagan community. 

    I see nothing wrong with keeping the connections loose between one’s tradition or group and the pan-Pagan community if that’s what makes things work. Although I am very much involved with pan-Pagan community in my professional work, because I do want things like a local Pagan hospital chaplain, my spiritual practice is separate and private.

    I have to wonder why so much virtual ink is being spilled over the issue of whether to use the term Pagan on a Pagan-identified blog. It seems to me to be just another instance of the draining pan-Pagan interactions that this post is talking about — interactions where there is little interest in putting community needs over individual or small group ones (even in relatively small ways, like accepting a label that isn’t perfect — as if any label is), and little ability to choose appropriately modest goals and expectations for the larger group — evidently over a million strong in the US. The choice is *not* to either be deeply invested in the Pagan community or label or not invested in it at all; the choice is to what degree one is invested, and in what ways. For myself, I am most interested in a certain amount of political and social legitimacy — enough not to be actively discriminated against by public institutions. That doesn’t require a particularly strict definition of Pagan or more than a modicum of political solidarity — just the conviction that even those who “aren’t doing it right” also deserve rights.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chkraemer13 Christine Hoff Kraemer

    Honestly, it sounds to me like a lot of the friction is coming from expecting things from pan-Pagan community that one should only expect from one’s small group or tradition. The benefits of pan-Pagan community are political and social on a wide scale. Defining Pagan as a useful umbrella term means there might be a Pagan chaplain at the hospital who has at least heard of your religion or that you might be allowed to practice your Pagan tradition in prison. Folks who aren’t interested in these things don’t need to stick around the pan-Pagan community. 

    I see nothing wrong with keeping the connections loose between one’s tradition or group and the pan-Pagan community if that’s what makes things work. Although I am very much involved with pan-Pagan community in my professional work, because I do want things like a local Pagan hospital chaplain, my spiritual practice is separate and private.

    I have to wonder why so much virtual ink is being spilled over the issue of whether to use the term Pagan on a Pagan-identified blog. It seems to me to be just another instance of the draining pan-Pagan interactions that this post is talking about — interactions where there is little interest in putting community needs over individual or small group ones (even in relatively small ways, like accepting a label that isn’t perfect — as if any label is), and little ability to choose appropriately modest goals and expectations for the larger group — evidently over a million strong in the US. The choice is *not* to either be deeply invested in the Pagan community or label or not invested in it at all; the choice is to what degree one is invested, and in what ways. For myself, I am most interested in a certain amount of political and social legitimacy — enough not to be actively discriminated against by public institutions. That doesn’t require a particularly strict definition of Pagan or more than a modicum of political solidarity — just the conviction that even those who “aren’t doing it right” also deserve rights.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X