Revisiting Pagan Calvinism

From Searching For Sahsnot, an essay by Thorbeorht Linleah found in the now defunct Hex magazine and currently available in  Ghosts and Godpoles.

From Searching For Sahsnot, an essay by Thorbeorht Linleah found in the now defunct Hex magazine and currently available in Ghosts and Godpoles.

Back in 2012 I wrote about a fundamentalist aspect of Pagan religious culture that I dubbed Pagan Calvinism.We tend to think of fundamentalism as springing from separatist groups, not universalist groups that espouse inclusivity as a core value. But really isn’t fundamentalism any insistence that you are right, others must accept your perspective as true, and there is no possible alternative to your view?

I was part of a heated conversation at a social gathering of Pagans and Pagan-like folk. Discussing a hot-button topic revealed rifts in the moral and religious perspectives of the participants. The subject of the conversation is irrelevant for the purposes of this, but one participant was speaking from a place of privilege regarding how people who lack privilege within the context of the topic should speak and behave. While this is hardly newsworthy, I found it fascinating that the foundation for this person’s argument was their religious beliefs. I’m going to breakdown the two religious beliefs: Positivity and Universalism.

The first religious concept used as a foundation for this person’s argument is that words have an innate magical power and their use brings about supernatural, not tangible or even psychological, consequences. As an example, talking about rain causes rain. Which seems harmless until you consider that merely by talking about mass shootings you are causing mass shootings. Talking about illness is causing illness. Talking about oppression causes oppression. This is victim-blaming and no less heinous than saying the sexual assault you experience is all part of Jesus’ plan for you.

This talk about intentionality is mostly popular among Neo-Pagan, Wiccan, Witchcraft, and New Age religious cultures. Sometimes it is taken as far as saying your thoughts, not merely your spoken words, have the power to manifest good or ill in the world. It is sometimes used as a type of prosperity gospel, such as in The Secret. In many Pagan communities this is not merely a theory, or even a spiritual tenet, but ultimate reality and thus the theory is infallible. Like gravity, it is perceived to be true for everyone, and those who dissent are simply ignorant, unenlightened, and possibly putting others in danger by discussing non-positive topics like oppression, violence, and misfortune.

The religious concept of positivity is rarely brought up in the context of heavy traffic, and most often trotted out when someone is discussing really difficult, painful concepts in order to shut them up. The positivity police don’t want to hear that you were raped, mugged, laid off, or discriminated against. So they make you feel guilty for actually naming what happened to you out loud. As the Catholic church abuse scandal has demonstrated, silence breeds more abuse. So words do have power, but not in the way the theory of magical intentionality suggests. Speaking up about the difficult things that have happened to you actually makes it less likely they will be repeated, either for you or for others. The LGBTQI movement is a perfect example of this, as is the civil rights movement.

The second religious concept is universalism. At a certain point in the discussion this person became very angry and insisted there was no difference between anyone or anything. We are literally no different from a blade of grass, and the differences of gender, sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, culture, etc… don’t really exist. The differences that make us unique, that bring us joy, that marginalize us, and that form our identity are an illusion. There are no oppressed or marginalized communities because we are all one. Acknowledging, focusing on, discussing and taking pride in the differences between us is inappropriate or perhaps delusional. At the very least it is divisive.

For many indigenous cultures, and some modern Pagan/Polytheist cultures, the doctrine of Oneness is nonsensical. It holds no place place in their worldview or cosmos. Polytheism, multiversalism, tribalism, and regional identity form a large, and positive, part of their religious culture. Valuing our differences and providing safe and sacred space to explore those differences is a good thing. Taking pride in what makes us unique is a good thing, being free to choose those we identify with is a good thing, and with proper perspective and moderation is very good for us. Being a Green Bay Packers fan is a great thing. Preferring cherries to blueberries is a great thing. Loving the skin you are in and all those who survived to bring you into being is fantastic.

Celebrating uniqueness, and forming communities to explore the joys and pains of a specific identity or way of being is marvelous. Saying “We Are All One” is as much of a religious statement as saying “We Are All Different And Not Supposed To Be The Same.” Yet one of these statements is seen as positive, while one is seen as negative. Inclusivity is a the virtue of this moment in history, and while that is fine in moderation, it is abhorrent when that inclusivity is forced. No one should be expected to check their personal identity, gender, sexuality, culture, ethnicity, race, ancestry and physical reality at the door, to be silenced in preference of speaking positively in the great Oneness of All Things. Saying “this isn’t my experience, this isn’t my reality, this doesn’t resonate with me, this isn’t what I believe or hold sacred” makes the majority uncomfortable, and you are expected to conform, smile, and chant. Usually for the sake of “community.”

It genuinely fascinated me that someone could become so angry, on a very personal, emotional level, by people who do not believe in the doctrines of Positivity and Oneness. I tried pointing out that these doctrines were not objective reality, but religious beliefs that it wasn’t reasonable to expect everyone to share. Yet for this person, they were concrete reality, and I suspect for many modern Pagans this is the case. Dissenting from these concepts will often leave the dissenter subject to vigorous proselytizing in an effort to “enlighten” them.

While any concept taken to extremes can be harmful and all things should be moderated with wisdom, the doctrine of Oneness is really harmful in my opinion. You can see it most easily in Christianity, where we are all sinners and all one in the body of Christ. In Thorbeorht Linleah’s Ghosts and Godpoles he speaks of how hard the Saxons fought to retain their unique culture and religious identity. Pagan Calvinism is the default belief and attitude of most modern Pagan gatherings and organizations. Advocating for true inclusiveness for dissenting points of view is much like trying to beat back Charlemagne. Is it no wonder that so many Polytheist groups that don’t ascribe to the doctrine of Pagan Calvinism are simply dropping out or intentionally avoiding the Pagan community?

Unlike the Saxons who were facing a violent physical threat, modern Polytheists face only a semantic consequence for their resistance or non-conformity. The labels are confusing, but Pagan Calvinists are no Charlemagne. They have no power to conquer unless it is given to them, and when they encounter dissent I think that often makes them very angry. They are “right” and that makes them deserving of support, of followers, of attendance, and anyone who thinks otherwise is selfish and doesn’t support the “community.” In much the same way were the faithful Saxons demonized by the Christianity of Charlemagne who preached the gospel of cultural and religious Oneness.

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About Star Foster

Southern polytheist in the Midwest.