Polytheists, Neo-Pagans, and Other Religious Critters

The least offensive thing on television as I sit down to write, my belly full of my roommates cat-head biscuits and sausage gravy, is The Song of Bernadette. So of course I’m listening to Jennifer Warnes singing Song for Bernadette. Maybe the song and film will bring me some kindness as I write today’s post, which is a topic that can too quickly become harsh and unkind.

Nefetari Temple

I spend a significant number of my waking hours considering the Pagan community, it’s limitless diversity, identifying trends and devising useful categorizations. Not merely as an objective exercise, but also in an attempt to better understand myself and where I stand within the modern religious landscape. As I’ve given this thought I’ve come to realize there is a very basic division in Paganism, and for this post I’m going to characterize it as the difference between polytheists and Neo-Pagans. I’m likely using these terms differently from most people for the purpose of this post, so I’ll begin by defining them, and by affirming that both groups are firmly part of the Pagan community.

Neo-Pagans

  • Neo-Pagans find the symbols, stories and Gods of ancient paganism inspiring, but use them within a mostly modern context.
  • Neo-Pagans largely reject organized religion.
  • Neo-Pagans eschew anything that might resemble an Abrahamic religious concept or practice.
  • Neo-Pagans prefer spirituality to religion.
  • Neo-Pagans base the foundation of their practice on Jungian and Campbell’s theories on psychology, archetype and myth; on feminism and feminist spirituality;  on New Thought and/or New Age theories; on ecology and nature-based spirituality.
  • Neo-Pagans focus on the intensely personal and broadly communal (i.e. personal spiritual development, healing for all humankind).
  • Neo-Pagans are more interested in creating new spiritual paths than in reviving the religions of the past.

Polytheists

  • Polytheists find the symbols, stories and Gods of ancient paganism to be best understood in their original context, and only adapted to modern life upon careful reflection.
  • Polytheists have less animosity towards organized religion.
  • Polytheists evaluate Pagan practices and concepts on their own merits, regardless whether or not Abrahamics have adopted them.
  • Polytheists are more likely to embrace the concept of religion and all it encompasses.
  • Polytheists base the foundation of their practice on historical paganism.
  • Polytheists focus on families and/or small communities first, and the individual secondly. Very rarely is the focus on humanity at-large.
  • Polytheists are more interested in reviving old forms of religion than in modern spiritual practices.

I want to stress that I see both of these groups as doing good and fine work within the Pagan community. Neither is better than the other. Yet these significant differences result in crossed-wires, and occasionally rudeness. The point of this post is not to be unnecessarily divisive, but to point out the very real differences already existing in our communities in order to foster better understanding and communication.

The are undoubtedly more Neo-Pagans than polytheists, and although the polytheists are growing fast they will likely never outnumber Neo-Pagans. Trends in the larger religious sphere reflect that same ratio as the spiritual outnumber the religious and keep gaining momentum. This is also why Progressive Christians, New Agers and “spiritual but not religious” people tend to have a lot of overlap with Neo-Pagans. Polytheists tend to have more in common with Hindus, and possibly Reform Jews, than any other religious group. The steady rise of polytheists in our communities, against the macro trend, is a fascinating development.

As for me, I am stuck with a foot in each camp. As an initiated trad Wiccan, I am a Neo-Pagan and find worth in that. As someone who rejects monism, transcendence and monotheism, and who is intensely interested in reviving ancient religion, I am a polytheist. Now that I lack a coven, I in truth probably lean more towards polytheism at this point in time.

What concerns me is what this set of differences mean. My personal preference is that we recognize each other’s differences and support each other as the spiritual siblings we are, but I also have to wonder if this difference is necessary? History shows us that those with spiritual and religious differences tend to thrive once divided, and perhaps the only way for each of these groups of Pagans to truly thrive is to disentangle themselves from each other?

 

About Star Foster

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

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

    Despite the time I spent on this, I have a sinking feeling this isn’t my best work by far…

  • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

    In my local community, we have Wiccans, Witches, Mages, Heathens, Druids, Other Recons, Satanists, African Diasporic, and sorry-if-I-left-anyone-out; details of theology and psychology matter very little. There are communal events and there are events for the various groups. No one is thinking we need to separate along theological lines. 

    • Fern Miller

       True, no need to sort by theology – OTOH I’ve seen people who want to ‘unite all Pagans into one political force’.  Uh …. not gonna happen. 

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

         Nope, no need to sort by theology, or politics, or practice, or anything. By that logic Lutherans are Pagans.

        • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

          My point was that we all relate to one another as Pagans, on some level, while being primarily identified as something more specific.  Any sorting that goes on is self-selected. Where I live, at least, we don’t make a BFD out of it. We do laugh at those who think “all Pagans should unite” about anything other than coffee or maybe a campfire.

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

             Nice to know folks in Alabama are so evolved.

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

       This was not your opinion when you found Pagans whose language was too Christian for your taste offensive in PNC-GA. Then you were all too willing to divide our community along theological lines.

      • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

        Oh, that’s what this is about. You have never forgiven me for that offense, nor, apparently, correctly understood what I was saying. I objected to people appropriating “A. D.,” turning it into “A. D. & D.” because it is (potentially) offensive to Christians and makes no sense.

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

           Tell you what. Let’s just say I’m ignorant and you’re a hypocrite and call it even.

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

           BTW, my forgiving you implies you did something wrong, and your suggesting that implies you do believe you were wrong. Also, you stated it was offensive to you, not to Christians.

          • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

            Not a good idea to twist my words when I still have a copy of them: ”
            Agreed. And I think any time a press release includes something even mildly offensive

            like this, it should be fixed. Remembering waaaaay back to when I was Christian-identified, I would have definitely taken exception to “Anno Domini et Domina.”

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

             Well, let’s make sure we write nothing to offend Christians, particularly in the Pagan press. We shan’t cover any Quagan, EpiscoPagan or Christian Witches either.

    • Robert Mathiesen

       Freeman wrote: “No one is thinking we need to separate along theological lines.”

      I’ve read what Star wrote several times, and I don’t see anything there to suggest that people need to separate along theological lines.  On the other hand, “details of theology” can be enormously important as people try to figure out how they should act on their religion and/or spirituality, or what they should make of the Gods and Goddesses whom they meet on the way.

      I’m something of an outsider to the Pagan community, by virtue not just of my old age, but also of my religious upbringing.  I was raised in the old-line magical pantheism that flourished in the San Francisco Bay area in the decades around 1900.  That was my mother’s family’s spirituality, ever since my great-great grandmother’s day.  She and her daughter and her granddaughter cobbled their form of it together, just for themselves, from the practices and philosophy of Spiritualism, 19th-century occultism, New Thought (and Christian Science), and from the nature spirituality of Joaquin Miller and John Muir.  My father was a third-generation Danish-American, so the first stories I ever heard of any Gods and Goddesses were the stories of Odin and Loki, Freya, Thor and all the rest of that quarrelsome crowd of Deities.  Also, our family didn’t “do community.”  Rather, we thought that creating what are now called “intentional communities” was a very bad idea indeed.  So I have always kept my distance from all such communities, even now.  But of all the religious or spiritual communities out there, it is the Pagan communities that I find easiest to understand and relate to in friendship — especially the ones that Star tentatively labels “polytheist.” 

      So Star’s thoughts on these matters make enormous sense to me, and I am very glad that she posted them. 

      From my vantage point, large sectors of the modern Pagan movement seems to me to be tinged with certain unnoticed echoes of Abrahamic religious worldviews, for instance, the ideas that all the many Gods care very much about human beings, or even about the Earth as a whole, or that they all have agreed on some special plan and purpose for humanity, some goal toward which we are all moving (or evolving, if you will). 

      Obviously, your mileage may vary, as may every reader’s.  But I wanted to register why I, for one, think Star’s post has great value.

      • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

        Here, I can help with the search for where she said that: ”
        perhaps the only way for each of these groups of Pagans to truly thrive is to disentangle themselves from each other?”

        • Robert Mathiesen

           Ah, I see what you mean.  I read that sentence as a worried consideration of a possibility rather than as a recommendation.

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

             I think it’s a possibility. For all the energy we channel into trying to be a single entity, what would happen if all that focus went towards our particular religious communities instead?

            It may not be wise, especially politically, but it makes you wonder.

  • Nicole Youngman

    Eh, it’s always interesting to try and parse this stuff out as an intellectual exercise, but I have a hard time thinking these two categories are mutually exclusive. We’re a hard bunch to define across the board. I think “neo-Pagan” works better as a broad umbrella term that pretty much encompasses all of us: new/contemporary Pagans as opposed to the original, ancient Pagans.

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

       But it’s true that there are Pagans creating new Pagan religions, and those reviving ancient Pagan religions. We’re not all the same, nor do we have the same aims or values.

  • Napoleon Zivkovic

    Not at all, I think you brought up some great points, in addition to highlighting important issues…in my opinion, with organized traditional (i.e., “establishment”) religion still exerting a tremendous influence on domestic realities, any of us in an “other” category should embrace common ground and strive for unity in the face of opposition – pagans as a whole have made important, visible gains in the past couple of decades, and this will hopefully increase.

  • http://wp.wiccanweb.ca/ Makarios

    You’re not alone in your views on this topic, Star. Tess Dawson has also blogged about this here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kargach Rob Henderson

    Not much I can disagree with here.  I only note that I find myself  entirely on the polytheist side of the line, and while I’m not hostile toward the “other side”, I’m finding myself less and less interested in going to their events.  There’s just nothing there that interests me enough to spend the time and money attending.  Ah well.

    • http://hellenicpolytheist.wordpress.com/ Pythia Theocritos

      This is, pretty much, where I am too. It’s also why I don’t frequent many pagan shops as well. Nothing is worse than going to a “Pagan” gathering and finding yourself on the outside looking in because you don’t “worship the earth” or “celebrate the wheel of the year.” 

      When asked my religion I normally say “Hellenist” or “Hellenic Polytheist.” Hellenist is short enough to blend into a conversation without sounding like it needs to be explained. For the most part, however, religion rarely comes up in conversations with people OUTSIDE of the religious community. It appears that’s one thing “pagans” and “evangelicals” have in common. 

      This isn’t one of those “Oooh just like those bad Christians!” kind of comment, but it’s an observation that many within our ranks tend to hold to staunch UPG that flies in the face of fact, expects complete agreement with the UPG without question or critical thinking, and creates tons of No-True-Scotsman fallacies while attempting to shove ‘the community’ into politics as some kind of cohesive whole with one single agenda and hive mind.

      I digress…

      But I swear, the  next time I go to a “pagan” gathering where “pagan” is basically being used to say  ” Eclectic Wicca” (Why this isn’t called out for the false advertising and attempted indoctrination that it is I will never know.) I’m going to have a clue by four ready and I probably won’t be so nice about it. I guess that’s the stuffy old Polytheist with Recon leanings coming out in me. ^_~

      • http://twitter.com/LilithsPriest Freeman

        I try to correct people on that, too, but the clue-by-four approach generally fails. So, for that matter, does speaking in plain English a lot of the time, sadly enough.

      • PhaedraHPS

         It’s interesting that if you went to a “Pagan” event 25 years ago, you would encounter quite a range of practices. Ceremonial magicians, Gards and Alexandrians, Khemetics — you’d find a mix, with people not expecting everyone to be alike.

  • PhaedraHPS

    And yet, and yet, and yet …

    No matter how faithful a Reconstructionist tries to be, we are all ultimately “neo” in our Paganism or Polytheism. We don’t live in the same society as the one that begat the religion that is being reconstructed. We don’t have the same social structures, or economic structures or climate, for that matter. No matter how much we reconstruct, our world is not the same, and what we do will not be the same.

    You brought up the example of Hinduism. I have little doubt that Hindu practices have evolved over the millennia. As time passes and the world around the society changes, accommodations and adjustments will be made. The polytheist religion remains viable and vital.

    I have to wonder, if our various Pagan/Polytheistic forebearer religions had continued more or less unbroken as has Hinduism or Shinto, what it would really look like? Would those trying to duplicate 1000 or 2000 or 3000-year-old practices “accurately” be looked at askance?

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

       No one is talking about static religion. Everyone likes modern conveniences, like indoor plumbing and women voting. Painting polytheists as luddites or cavemen is unhelpful.

      • PhaedraHPS

         I’ve hardly done that. Please don’t put words in my mouth (or my keyboard). Perhaps it would be clearer to say that the lines between the self-identified Polytheists and the self-identified Neopagans is blurrier than one might like.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    It is a tough divide to navigate, Star…I find myself in a position similar to yours in certain respects.  I’m waaaaay too “recon” for many people, and yet I don’t really follow Religio Romana or Hellenic or Kemetic “standards” on a huge variety of things; I am actively courting new deities and practice rabid and unapologetic syncretism, but I never forget where the roots of many of these things come from, and try my best to understand them in as thorough a manner as possible with all academic and linguistic interpretations available; I think that mysticism and personal spiritual experience (or, as the previous post discussed, “UPG”) has a very definite and important place in the continued vitality and development of modern Paganism and polytheism, but my critical faculties are exercised on anything and everything that comes my way, including what is “canonical” and unquestioned as “factual” in terms of inherited “lore.”

    While I’m always a fan of going the moderate route if and when possible, and to attempting to reconcile differences across various perceived divides, I do fear that the extremes in this particular matter–which have been outlined pretty thoroughly and accurately in your above characterization–are viewpoints that will be largely irreconcilable, at least as they’re espoused by some people at this point.  We can hope for the best, of course, and try and steer ourselves and our own individual communities to a fruitful and equitable balance point whenever we can, and that’s probably the best any of us can do, for good and/or ill.

    • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

       ”I’m waaaaay too “recon” for many people, and yet I don’t really follow Religio Romana
      or Hellenic or Kemetic “standards” on a huge variety of things; I am
      actively courting new deities and practice rabid and unapologetic
      syncretism”

      I find it odd that so many people on the reconstructionist side view syncretism in a not too favorable light. After all, ancient Pagans had no issues with syncretism, and, to my view, were far less concerned with maintaining some notion of cultural purity than some modern recons. In my own personal practice I am a recon myself and I largely keep my practice centered on one historical group of people (or perhaps closely related groups of people would be more accurate), yet I love to learn about and learn from any culture and religion I encounter.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Indeed–and, I suspect it is because of those notions of cultural purity (which are erroneous and often very modern indeed) that blind people to the realities of the ancient world.  No matter how resistant to “foreign ways” many Romans were, for example, they didn’t seem to have much of a problem with “foreign” gods.

        I don’t know where this blindness 0r refusal to acknowledge facts–no matter how insistent upon “fact” some of the people involved say they are–comes from, and it baffles me to this day…

  • William

    There seems to be some misunderstanding of what “reconstructionism” really means in some comments. From the Heathen perspective, at least, I’d suggest checking out the Heathen journal Odroerir: 
    http://odroerirjournal.com/ Particularly the first issue which delves into the misconceptions about reconstructionism. Just a suggestion because I think it’s a great magazine and it’s totally free. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/rpaxton Robert Paxton

    I start out with the notion that a religion is an expression of the spiritual life of the cultural community that produced it.  My job as a Pagan minister is only tangentially to act as an exponent of the faith — since all the really good stuff is Mystery experienced first-hand, whatever I’ve got to say is only commentary.  No, my REAL job is working with that cultural community — what my teacher refers to as “applied sociology”.

    So…there is something to the Neo-Pagan / Pantheist division I suppose, as a matter of reductionist study.  It doesn’t really matter where you draw the lines, nor how many of them.  But the value in this for me, Star, is to think about the people who might fall on one side or the other of that line — what else do they have in common?   

    The people you describe as “pantheist” are a little fussy for my taste, but I’ve still got a lot more in common with them — as people around a campfire or as a voter or as an online sparring partner — than I do with most of the evangelical Christians I know.  So while I’d land on the “Neo-Pagan” side, the strength of the division between me and any given pantheist (or what I believe Isaac Bonewits might call Meso-Pagan) is pretty small all things considered.

    To Pythia’s point above: the real value of the conversation for me is to go “ya know, while the ‘eclectic Wicca’ of a lot of festival rituals is a good least-common-denominator for me, some of those wonderful people who want the community of these festivals find them pretty thin gruel.  So as someone who took a vow to community, I have some thinking to do on how to satisfy them too.”

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      It’s polytheist, not pantheist–there’s a very big difference, actually…

  • Nicole Youngman

    Ok, after reading Tess’ blog post from last summer I think I’m understanding the distinction you’re getting at a little better–are you thinking in terms of romanticist-nature-worshippers-following-the-eightfold-year-calendar (“neo-Pagans”) vs. people who are more “hard polytheists” who worship a particular historical pantheon, follow the ancient calendar of that culture, and don’t emphasize immanent deity and nature worship (“polytheists”)?

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

       No, I mean the distinctions I outlined above. I see where Tess is coming from, but I think her delineation is too vague and esoteric.

      Roughly, I’m thinking in terms of old and new. Even if Wicca is 500 years old(which I doubt), it’s still new compared to religio Romana. Most of Druidry is modern religion created wholecloth from the material of old myth, and it’s distinctly different from the various strains of Celtic reconstructionist polytheism.

      People who are Wiccan have no desire to revive the religion of ancient Thessaly (a place associated strongly with Witchcraft), just as those who practice ancient Greek religion have no desire to revamp that religion into a wholly new structure.