The Transforming Power of Pagan Religion in a Christian World

Over 1000 years of Christian domination, enforced by swords and guns, fires and pogroms, has decisively changed the way even most non-Christian Westerners view the world.   Most particularly, it has made it difficult for people to see the world as anything more than a backdrop of the human drama, the stage upon which we strut, and a supply of resources to be used as we wish.  In America, this tendency reached its most extreme expression.  The Protestant conception of God tended to be completely transcendent, and the world was seen as fallen, often thought of as doomed to be destroyed in the final battle with Satan.  This battle was between absolute good and absolute evil. If there were spiritual forces in the land, they were likely of the devil. Angels came from elsewhere, if they were admitted to exist at all.

Western science incorporated secular forms of these views. Nature was red in tooth and claw and without moral worth. Morality had to come from reason if it did not come from divine command.  Either way, it came from elsewhere than the world. An abstract God was followed by abstract thought.

For a long time, the dominant scientific view of animals was that they were not really conscious and did not have individuality worthy of consideration.  When Jane Goodall published the first of her groundbreaking works on chimpanzees, reviewers took great exception to her giving chimps names rather than numbers. Wherever value could be found, it could not be found in the world, where even perceptions of natural beauty were regarded as about as informative as preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

In short, the Christian dichotomization of reality into good and evil took on a secular twist. Humans had value, often absolute value, and nature had none.  Her only value was as a servant to us. Evil was replaced by the complete absence of value. This is the world view nearly all of us inherited.

This is the worldview that Pagan spirituality challenges, and it does so all the way down.

The difference between Pagan traditions and Western monotheism are far deeper than whether we worship one god or honor many. When modern Westerners become Pagan, and begin to think about the implications of their religion, they enter onto a path of learning that will transform them if they allow it to. Immanence, Harmony, and Beauty are key concepts that tell us how.

 

Immanence

Initially it might still seem to new Pagans that the sacred is elsewhere, away from us. If it is not in Heaven, then it is in Valhalla, the Summerland, on top of Mount Olympus, anywhere but around us.  With such a view, it is easy to turn Pagan deities into versions of the Christian God, living far away in His heaven, bestowing blessings from above on His favored people.  To me this attitude is Paganism 1, not even 101. There is an aspect of this view that I think is true, but it barely scratches the surface of Pagan spirituality. If we stop there, we have safely domesticated Pagan insights so they will fit politely within a Christian and secularized Christian world. We celebrate the Solstice, they celebrate Christmas, and nothing else changes.

But Pagan religion universally sees Spirit as immanent and often also as transcendent.  Immanence, the idea that the world itself is in some sense sacred, is one of the most fundamental distinctions between Pagan religion and transcendental monotheism. There were major Greek deities that to some degree existed separate from us in a transcendent realm. But every stream had its maenad, every tree its dryad, and the distinction between the physical world and the gods was often nonexistent, as when Odysseus was battling for his life in the sea and saved by a river.  It is outside the polis, in nature, that Socrates is possessed by a nymph and a deity.  Similar insights were held elsewhere, in societies as varied as those of the Celts and Native Americans.  The world was responsive and we were but one dimension, one “nation” among many,   as many Indian tribes would say.

When spirit manifests in and through the world, the world is filled with meaning beyond the narrowly human.  It is no accident that most of us are impressed with its beauty and peace, its capacity to help us get out from under our personal worries and be refreshed by entering a broader context. These are the most easily accessible dimensions of what the world really is. Pity the person who lacks such a capacity! Realizing these perceptions are not analogous to preferring chocolate over vanilla ice cream is a first step towards appreciating the sacred in the world.

Scientists have recently discovered that when people are out in nature, their being immersed in the other-than-human increases our physical and mental well-being.  Even more significantly, these increases appear correlated with the variety of plants in our area.  The more varied the environment, the stronger the impact. Hospitals have discovered people heal more quickly when they can see a beautiful scene outside. Photographs do not work as well.  We are integrated into our world far more deeply and subtly than we are into purely human constructions such as rooms and cars, and deprivation of contact is bad for us mentally and physically.

Pagan practice opens us to still another dimension of our world: that it can respond to us today as a river once responded to Ulysses. We are immersed within a field of awareness that is greater than us.

My own initiation into a more shamanic practice of Paganism took place on the final night of a several-day vision quest high on a mountain in California.  It was one of the strongest and initially most terrifying experiences I ever had, and opened me up to ways of perceiving and feeling that have never left me.  That was some 20 years ago.

Pagan traditions pretty much universally say that to make these stronger connections we must put out the effort, whether alone on a vision quest or with others in rituals seeking to make contact with the immanent more-than-human. In a way similar to establishing good human relationships, acts of care and gratitude help to create relationships with the more-than-human.

As a society we “know” this kind of thing cannot be true, and so, like the famous example of people watching a basketball change hands and never seeing the gorilla walking across the court, people never take notice of what they “know” cannot be there. Nor do they seek relationships when they believe such relationships could not exist.  Shifting to believing in many Gods rather than one or none does not automatically change this experience, but it opens the door to new realizations for those who pay attention.

 

Harmony

All religions realize something is out of kilter between human society and the largest contexts of meaning.  We are captivated by our most immediate concerns and beguiled by the promise that power and wealth will set right the problems of our lives.  Religions seek to restore our relations within larger contexts that can make the darkest parts of our lives bearable and add dimensions of joy we otherwise would not experience. Religions such as Christianity promise salvation; others such as Buddhism promise enlightenment.  Both share two basic assumptions: worldly life is intrinsically flawed and we can only save ourselves.  Ultimately we are alone.

Because they conceived the world as reflecting or embodying the sacred, worldwide Pagan religions have emphasized a different strategy: restoring a lost harmony. A traditional African proverb puts this insight very well: “I am because we are.”  We can restore harmony within ourselves, restore it within our society and restore it between our society and the more-than-human world.

When anyone speaks of harmony, they inevitably speak of relationships. I seek salvation for myself. I cannot be in harmony by myself.  It takes at least two notes to harmonize.  Harmony situates us squarely amid “all or relations,” mitakuye oyasin, as the Lakota blessing goes.

And who are our relations?  We know today that we arose out of the world. We are genetically extraordinarily close to chimpanzees, and having mirror neurons seems central to our ability to care for others.  There is no sharp biological or mental gap between us and the rest of life unless, ironically, it is in our capacity to care for other beings with whom we have no relationship and expect no benefits from in the future.  In other words, if we are unique, it is in our capacity to love more widely and deeply than others.  As Aldo Leopold observed,

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. . . . we, who have lost our [passenger] pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. Du Pont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts. 

Further, if the world is sacred, no single part of it is just a thing.  Every dimension has some connection to the more-than-human.  Some of us who have pursued or been led into more shamanic dimensions of our Pagan path know that when properly approached plants and even land forms and the ocean can respond.

No one has ever suggested that as a consequence we should not make use of the world. We are as much a part of it as anything else, and all beings make use of the world. But ideally we make use of it with an awareness that what we use is not just our tool. The original Pagan insight was to relate to everything with respect.

This insight about respect transforms how we view our most appropriate ways to act both towards one another and towards the other-than-human.  Consider for a moment the secular doctrine of rights, which has religious roots in its earliest expressions and which even in secular form treats individual right holders as discrete units analogous to individual souls.

Some environmentalists are confused today about the issue of animal rights because they realize nature has moral standing and our language for talking about morality revolves around rights. But the world of nature depends on predation.  Even farmers destroy the homes of many beings when preparing a field and kill others to defend their crops.  To live is to take life. The language of rights simply does not work here, and so, like the ‘pro-life’ movement, the strongest advocates for ‘animal rights’ use intensity of belief and self-righteousness to replace the lack of reason and evidence for their views.  But this problem is rooted in accepting how the Christian and secular West thinks about ethics.

To take another example, many free market liberals and libertarians say that because nature does not have rights, we have no ethical responsibilities to the nonhuman world beyond acting in our self-interest.  Like animal rights advocates, they assume that rights constitute the basic ethical concept.  When a society with such views loses belief in arguments for rights, many of its members become nihilists, either refusing to stick their necks out for any principle, or putting power and domination ahead of all other considerations. Our society has become so today.

A Pagan perspective heals these confusions.

Around the world, the initial ethical approach to the world in Pagan societies has been respect.  All things have genuine value of their own, and so all things are appropriately treated with respect.  Certainly this was the ethic of hunting and gathering peoples who achieved sustainable relations with their environment.

What then of rights?  They are the form respect takes among equals who are strangers.  They are not a good way to describe all good human relationships.  As soon as we are friends and lovers, other values take precedence over rights. For example, while I have the right to free speech, I have no right to talk unfeelingly or rudely to my friends and intimates. Doing so, especially consistently, converts that relationship to one of strangers. If my friend is drunk and wants to drive home, I might act better as a friend by taking their car keys than not, even if I thereby violate their right to their property.

This point means that a Pagan sensibility does not eliminate the idea of human rights, it places them within a deeper and more all encompassing framework of getting the relationships right. Doing so establishes and maintains harmony.

 

Beauty

The world is beautiful. This is so universal a perception that what requires understanding are those few poor souls who do not see it. When we love something or someone, we love their beauty.  When we see beauty, it calls forth our love for it. Beauty and love are two sides of the same phenomenon. In people we might be attracted initially by their physical beauty, but if our love deepens, we are also attracted by their inner beauty.

Love and beauty are two of three qualities Pagan mystics have said unite the world in a seamless whole: the good, true, and beautiful.  Love is the ultimate expression of the good, beauty is integral to love, and the realization of this unity is what we grasp as most ultimately true.

In this sense, that which is beautiful celebrates the sacred.  A beautiful flower or sunset or storm expresses and celebrates the sacred. So does a beautiful ritual.  And the more deeply we are aware of the sacred, the more pervasive our perception of beauty becomes.

When we see something or someone as beloved and beautiful, we want to be in harmony with it or them.  This does not mean that those we love are not also useful, but that is not why we love them.  We love them because they are beautiful, and love them more deeply the more deeply we see their beauty. To refer to my distinction in an earlier essay between house, home, and temple, we seek to be at home rather than just be passing through on a journey elsewhere, because that ‘elsewhere’ will never be reached until we realize it is also here. As the Charge of the Goddess states:

And thou who thinkest to seek Her, know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not unless thou knowest the mystery; that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, then thou wilt never find it without thee. For behold, She has been with thee from the beginning; and She is that which is attained at the end of desire.

By seeking harmony in our lives, in our communities human and more-than-human alike, and in our rituals together, we seek greater harmony with that which is more than any of these. And in doing so, we heal ourselves and our relationships of many of the distortions that arose when a world-denying outlook became our guide for relating to the world.

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About Gus diZerega
  • Lee

    Simply brilliant. I had the privilege of taking a class from you at Cherry Hill Seminary several years ago and you were a great professor. Your posts on modern Pagan religion and spirituality are among the best in our generation. Thank you!

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  • lorna

    Thank you for putting into words what I have been feeling over the last two years.

  • Guy

    Look, I have absolutely no interest in trying to bash Pagans. Bashing never gets anyone anywhere. But as a Catholic, I have serious issues with the straw man version of Christianity you prop up in your article. I mean, for the love of God, man, if you’re going to talk about your faith, don’t do it in a way that relies on a false contrast.

    “Over 1000 years of Christian domination, enforced by swords and guns, fires and pogroms, has decisively changed the way even most non-Christian Westerners view the world.”

    Dude, really? That’s all you know about Christian history? You’re ignoring how much growth was caused by peaceful missionaries and martyrs, hell, before Constantine (who actually hurt Christianity in the long run) came along, 1/3 of the empire was already Christian and growing, and it sure as hell wasn’t because of violence from Christians. And Christianity in medieval Europe was held up by violence? Hardly. It was held up by the individuals that had meaningful lives because of Jesus. And the Church – unsuccessfully- often tried to reduce the number of wars between bickering European kingdoms.

    “With such a view, it is easy to turn Pagan deities into versions of the Christian God, living far away in His heaven, bestowing blessings from above on His favored people… But Pagan religion universally sees Spirit as immanent and often also as transcendent. ”

    I wanted to slam my face against the keyboard when I read this. Christians -Catholics at least- believe that God is transcendent AND immanent just as well, please do not spread falsehoods about what we actually believe. God is immanent. God is transcendent. Remember that Christians believe that God entirely took on human nature to be one of us and show us the way. And that he is present always in the Sacrament of Eucharist. So please, understand what Christians actually believe about God.

    “Religions such as Christianity promise salvation; others such as Buddhism promise enlightenment. Both share two basic assumptions: worldly life is intrinsically flawed and we can only save ourselves. Ultimately we are alone.”

    First of all, Christians can’t save themselves, only Jesus can save us, and it is up to us to accept his gift. I struggle to understand what you mean by ‘worldly life is intrinsically flawed’. I mean, isn’t that obvious and you don’t even need to be a Christian to believe that? Look at the homeless on the street, the broken families, the suicides, warzones, oppression, starvation. The world is a horribly damaged place. We chose to make it this way. But however, we are not alone, contrary to what you assume what Christians believe. Christianity has the idea of relationships foundational to its theology. Our God is three persons in a relationship. Sin is linked to disordered relationships between persons, God, self, and nature. A relationship with God is the path to salvation. Heaven is described as a place of perfect communion (community). So saying that Christians see themselves as being alone is the exact opposite of true.

    “To live is to take life. The language of rights simply does not work here, and so, like the ‘pro-life’ movement, the strongest advocates for ‘animal rights’ use intensity of belief and self-righteousness to replace the lack of reason and evidence for their views.”

    I’m not turning this into an abortion argument. But pro-lifers have MANY reasons and pieces of evidence to believe that all human life, event the unborn, must be protected and that the unborn child does in fact have a right to live. The concept that human life is a most precious gift and demands protection, much like the idea of relationships, is foundational to Christian thinking, particularly ethics.

    And this may surprise you, but many Christians do value the beauty of nature as well. Keep in mind our Creation story (it is bad theology to read it like a literal instruction manual of the earth’s creation, but good theology to read it as a rich symbolic story), the world is created by God and it is declared to be “very good”. And nature IS good, because in being created by God it is reflective of his beauty and glory. You might of heard of a dude named St. Francis of Assisi. Most famous saint that was not a biblical figure. A certain high ranking clergyman recently took on his name? Well, Francis was famous for being a huge fan of nature and animals.

    So I really have no interest in bashing paganism, but seriously, do some actual research on what Christians believe. It benefits nobody if we support our own faiths with straw man conceptions of what the other guy must believe. Christians do see God as immanent, spiritual living as relational, and nature as good. And we are not violent automatons.

    • http://dizerega.com Gus diZerega

      Guy-
      The only straw man here is the one you created.

      I did not say that was all there was to Christian history and anyone who has read my stuff for very long would know that I also emphasize some good things. Even in this essay I said rights theory grew out of Christianity – John Locke’s liberal Christianity to be exact. But grasping that must get in the way of your desire to spout off, so you chose to import meanings that demonstrably were not there.

      Second, I rather explicitly said that the importance of a purely transcendent view was emphasized in Protestantism which, last I checked, had differences with your variety of Christianity. The Catholic Church also believes in original sin and a fallen world that separates us from God. The world is CREATED by God, it is not an aspect of God. In this respect it differs from Orthodox Christianity which does believe in immanence and describes itself as panentheistic. So if you think that God is also immanent and want to be a Christian, check ‘em out.

      Whether you do or not, get your theologies straight.

      I am not going to get into a discussion of the Eucharist, where the Catholic views makes more sense to me than the Protestant, but it is very far from saying God is everywhere in and a part of the world.

      Regarding the issue of salvation, the word I used, you quote, and then ignore is “intrinsically.” Western Christians mostly believe the world fell with Adam and that original sin exists. Pick a fight with your own side.

      This is not the place to discuss abortion – that needs a column of its own – but in my view you are wrong.

      I am well aware that many Christians find nature beautiful and some have done much to protect it. I was exploring not how Christians as human beings feel but how they THINK about it if they try and make sense of their feelings. They do so in different ways than us- generally they think nature is God’s creation and since He found it good we should treat it well. Except of course for those Christians for whom nature is fallen and those Christians who emphasize our dominion over it and those Christians who see it as God’s gift to us to exploit. When something is a creation it has no intrinsic value, only the value others have for it, and Christians argue about what that means with respect to nature. Come back to us when you’ve settled it.

      It might come as a shock to you but this was a philosophical column on how one’s religious perspective changes the way we see things. I was uninterested in criticizing or evaluating salvation and enlightenment oriented traditions. That you read it as saying Christians are violent or deny beauty in nature or any of the other misreadings your post is filled with proves just how far removed you are from the conversation.

      My most recent discussion of monotheism is not far away or long ago, and you might take a look at it before trying to read my mind. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pointedlypagan/2013/02/the-mirage-of-monotheism/

      • John Hurley

        Mr. diZerega,
        I am not trying to hurt your feelings by saying any of this, but I feel that I do have to challenge a few of your statements because in my opinion they are based on confusing myths. First there is no monolithic “Christainity” any more than there is a monolithic “Paganism.” So claiming that “…the Christian dichotomization of reality into good and evil took on a secular twist,” begs the question of which Christianity you are talking about. Such generalizations do not help your argument. Indeed your argument can be reduced to “Christianity has sickened the world; Neo-Paganism will heal it” and is of itself, the same sort of dichotomy which you are criticizing. A dichotomy is any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts, meaning it is a procedure in which a whole is divided into two parts. It is a partition of a whole into two parts that are: jointly exhaustive: everything must belong to one part or the other; and mutually exclusive: nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts. With regards to Christianity and Neo-Paganism (as you choose to use the terms) this dichotomy simply does not exist as much of Christianity has Pagan origins and most neo-Pagans seem to have Christian ideas among their beliefs.
        However, it might be instructive to remember that ancient Pagan religions often took their teachings directly from nature and then interpreted these cues with often tragic results. I for one, would rather listen to the dictates of my own mind when making a major life decision than ask the wind, the moon, the stars or a convention of ravens which direction I should go in life. Or, if I lived in ancient Pagan times, I would not like to travel to Delphi to inhale psychedelic fumes from deep in the earth when deciding whether or not I should take that new job or marry my girlfriend.
        You wrote that in the Christian world “Humans had value, often absolute value, and nature had none. Her only value was as a servant to us. Evil was replaced by the complete absence of value. This is the world view nearly all of us inherited. This is the worldview that Pagan spirituality challenges, and it does so all the way down.” The problem then, is really one of emphasis because we have to remember that, even today in the Pagan world, in Pagan nations like India, humans have almost no value, whereas nature has absolute value and therefore more value than human life which is an equally unbalanced approach. Your basic point seems to be that “Christians” do not respect nature enough, whereas even from the earliest days of Christianity, the argument against Pagans has been that they have not had enough respect for human life and rely too much on the chaotic and often heartless dictates of Nature and Her wrathful gods.
        You wrote “Around the world, the initial ethical approach to the world in Pagan societies has been respect. All things have genuine value of their own, and so all things are appropriately treated with respect. Certainly this was the ethic of hunting and gathering peoples who achieved sustainable relations with their environment.” Well, that sounds good so let’s take just one example of a Pagan religion with a healthy Pagan culture and even a nation to back it up – Hinduism and India – to illustrate your point. And let’s take just one aspect of Indian Paganism – the worship of cows – and see how many neo-Pagans today would really like to emulate that worship that you are claiming our world needs to be healed.
        The reverence of cows is tied in with the Hindu precept of Ahimsa, the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature because all life forms are seen as manifestations and aspects of God. Again that sounds very nice after “over 1000 years of Christian domination, enforced by swords and guns, fires and pogroms,” and all. But is it really? For a moment, let’s take this belief to its non-theoretical conclusion and see what wonderful results arise to challenge all this Christian dichotomy raging against nature. Afteral, who really wants to continue living life like a mean old, (allegedly) nature hating, immanence denying, curmudgeon Christian when the Joys of Paganism await? Back to Pagan cow worship:
        - Cows are allowed to wander around pretty much wherever they like at the expense of humans.
        - Hindus love their cows so much that calendar pictures have the faces of beautiful women on the bodies of white cows. (I’m sure neo-Pagan feminists will love hearing that).
        - Hindus believe that sacred cow milk, urine, curds, dung and butter will cleanse the body and purify the soul. Even the dust of footprints of cows has religious meaning. As a result Hindu devotees are periodically anointed with a holy mixture of milk, curds, butter, urine and cow dung.
        - Cow dung is also mixed with water to make a paste which is used as flooring material and wall cover. Cow dung is such a prized material that great effort is made to collect it. In the countryside women and children are usually responsible for collecting dung; in the cities sweeper castes collect and make a good living selling it to housewives.
        - Cow dung has been used for centuries as a medicine; it is now made into pills.
        - Hindu nationalists in India operate a laboratory that is devoted to developing uses of cow urine, much of it from cows “rescued” from Muslim butchers. Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “In one room, its white-washed walls spattered with saffron-hued posters of Lord Rama, devout young Hindus stood before test tubes and beakers full of cow urine, distilling the holy liquid to get rid of the foul-smelling ammonia and make it drinkable. In another room, tribal women in garishly colored saris sat on the floor before a small hill of white powder, dental powder made from cow urine…The nearest, and probably unwilling, consumers of the various products made from cow urine were the poor tribal students in the primary school next to the lab.”
        - Hindu nationalists have heralded the patenting of cow urine as a medicine in the United States as proof that traditional Hindu practices are superior to modern medicine, which is only starting to catch up.

        Wow, sounds like a real Pagan Paradise on earth to me, all this respect for nature and bacterial life and stuff, pills made of cow poop to heal all ills and stuff, really “restoring a lost harmony” and all but wait it gets even better…

        - In March, 1994, New Delhi’s Hindu government approved a bill banning the slaughter of cows and the sale or possession of beef. Those arrested for possession of beef faced prison sentences up to five years and fines of up to $300. Police were given the authority to raid shops without notice and hold people charged with cow murder in jail without bail.
        - The bill mentioned above also established 10 “cow shelters” or retirement homes in Delhi—home of an estimated 150,000 cows at that time—for old and sick cows. Supporters of the bill said, “We call the cow our mother. So we need to protect our mother.” When the bill was passed legislators shouted “Victory to mother cow.” Critics said it was an attempt to restrict the eating habits of non-Hindus. Between 1995 and 1999, BJP government appropriated $250,000 and set aside 390 acres of land for gosadans (“cow shelters”).
        - Sometimes it seems that the life of a cow is more valuable than human life. Murderers of humans sometimes get off with lighter sentences than someone who accidently kills a cow. One religious leader suggested having all the cows in the world designated to be destroyed be airlifted to India instead. The expense for such an effort is quite high for a country where children die every day from diseases that could be prevented or cured with cheap drugs.
        - In some parts of India killing a cow accidentally can result in a multi-year prison sentence. One man who accidentally killed a cow when he hit it with a stick after it raided his granary was found guilty of “gao hatya”—cow murder—by a village council and had to pay a substantial fine and host a banquet for all the people in his village. Until he fulfilled these obligations he was excluded from village activities and was unable marry off his children. It took the man more than a decade to pay of the fine and raise the money for the banquet.
        - Sometimes wandering cattle are not so benign. In the early 2000′s, three sacred bulls ran amok in a small villages south of Calcutta, goring to death four people and injuring 70 others. The bulls were given as a gift to a local Shiva temple but became aggressive over the years and became fond of rampaging through the local market and tearing up stalls and attacking people.
        - Every year, there are bloody riots in India involving Hindus who have accused Muslims of being cow killers. One riot in Bihar in 1917, left 30 people dead and 170 Moslem villages looted. In November, 1966, about 120,000 people led by holy men smeared with cow dung protested cow slaughter in front of the Indian Parliament building and 8 people were killed and 48 were injured in the riot that followed.
        Hey, I’ve really been missing out! How do I get in on all this?!?!? Oh yeah, the magic key of the path of Neo-Paganism. Of course here comes that pesky dichotomy again…you see not all the Hindu Pagan world treats all of nature so kindly. Take this example from Hindu Nepal:
        “At least 15,000 buffalo and “countless” goats and birds were sacrificed in a temple in southern Nepal on Wednesday in a ritual billed as the single biggest animal slaughter on earth. Hindus in Nepal routinely offer animals for sacrifice to appease deities, especially power goddesses, for good luck and prosperity. But the festival held every five years at the Gadhimai temple in southern Nepal was condemned this year by animal rights activists, who called for an end to the centuries-old ritual of slaughtering animals.
        “We had more than 15,000 buffalo sacrificed Tuesday. But the number of goats and birds, including roosters and pigeons, sacrificed Wednesday is countless,” Shiva Chandra Prasad Kushawaha, chief of the festival’s organizing committee said.”
        Animal sacrifice? Oh yeah, another pragmatic Pagan solution to the world’s problems. Like eating cow dung. See, despite the re-writing of history and the hype, the world was not such a rosy place before Christianity came along and ruined everything. And believe it or not, nations that have been largely Pagan and continue to be, are among the worst societies in the world in which humans can live. Not because of some misguided Christian ideology but because of Pagan caste systems, Pagan greed and the resulting poverty and the placing of more value on “Nature” than on human life (as in the case of Hindu cow worship).
        The Christian religions do have a terrible record of misdeeds but have that record precisely because the many so-called Christians in questions have not actually lived up to the ideals and acted like Christ! In point of fact most of the Christians you’re talking about have acted like…well…Pagans, and that is the real problem. Paganism and Pagans created and produced warfare, slavery, religious persecution, sexual exploitation – the list goes on and on – long, long BEFORE the birth of Christianity. You seem to want to forget that. Christianity has attempted to heal those “Pagan created” evils but being Pagan is the natural, inherent state of all humans and we keep reverting to our natural state of self-interest at the expense of others and nature. This is why, in Christianity as in Paganism, the idea of sin denotes an actual state of reality (as well as choices we make) that expresses the imperfect world that we live in, versus the Utopia we hope to find in the afterlife. Pagans tend to be just as worried about sin as Christians except they worry more about offending cows and the wind more than other people.
        The real evil in question is religious scrupulosity – a psychological disorder characterized by pathological guilt about moral and religious issues. Too many Christians suffer from it because they cannot handle the stress of trying to be perfect all the time (which Jesus never asked them to do btw). In the end, the overly “perfect” Christians degenerate into hurting others who do not agree with them while other Christian sufferers of scrupulosity simply have to give up and drop out of Christianity and revert to a more relaxed, natural Pagan philosophy or vague belief system.
        I have to say that your statements about the healing value of modern neo-Pagan religions seems to be describing more of a wished for reality, a belief in the Greek “Chryson Genos” or “Golden Age,” than an actual reality. The Golden Age being the Greek legend that refers to the first in a sequence of four or five Ages of Man, with the present Age, (the Age of Iron), being a period of decline. The phrase “Golden Age” has also come to denote a utopian period which never existed, of primordial peace, harmony, beauty, stability, and prosperity which was the basis of the Romantic School. The Romantic School, we should all know, gave rise to extremist militant nationalism in the 19th century and 2 world wars in the 20th. So it seems that in reality the mirage of a Utopian neo-Paganism is as much the culprit in today’s problems than it will ever be the remedy.

        • Vision_From_Afar

          Well Mr. Hurley, I can see you don’t share Guy’s desire to avoid pagan-bashing, but let’s get down to it.

          In talking about “monolithic Christianity”, most neo-pagans are referring to the cultural intersection of the Western Christianity that is recognized the world over. Sure, the Catholics disagree with the Baptists who want nothing to do with the Pentecostals, but they have an overarching mythos that each agree on: The Triune Deity, Jesus was real, etc. The problem with your counter-argument is that there is very, very little in the pagan spectrum for such overlap. As Mr diZerega pointed out, respect and intrinsic theism are pretty much the only broad strokes one can use, and sometimes even those don’t work (see the modern Secular Paganism for a brain twist). Given the Christian overtones of so much of modern American politics, I have a hard time that even someone well-couched within that privilege can fail to recognize the cross-denominational dominance enjoyed by the religion known as Christianity.

          Your argument for the creation of dichotomy is a red herring. Touting Pagan origins to Christian practices does not remove, but rather serves to enhance, the argument for the world-rejecting view of Christianity mentioned by Mr diZerega in his first reply. What he’s arguing for is a spectral shift, a moving of the slider of worldview and outlook. You’re the one insisting on cutting the baby in two because you can’t agree which part is yours.

          Side Note: Most neoPagans have Christian overtones because most are converts from a late age still living in a society steeped in Christian overtones and myths. Your argument is again misleading and misunderstands the point of the article.

          I thoroughly enjoyed your attempt and fact-deluging to obscure the point completely. Most Wiccans I know eat hamburgers. Anyone can count on one hand the number of vegetarian Heathens they’ve met. African Diasporic faiths don’t use cattle very often due to their size and the trouble with handling them, but I doubt they eschew beef or steak. You took a heavily populated country where religious extremism is an ongoing backlash to Imperial Colonialism and attempt to paint all Pagans with the same cow-colored brush? Amusing, to say the least.

          – How can you explain “the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature because all life forms are seen as manifestations and aspects of God” and “At least 15,000 buffalo and “countless” goats and birds were sacrificed in a temple in southern Nepal”?
          – You’re confusing a cultural and historical Pagan nation with NeoPaganism, a modern belief system that has almost zero political power in any country.
          - Neo-Pagan feminists aren’t that concerned with Indian cultural calendars. They’re more concerned with the pervasive rape-culture and victim-blaming authorities right now.
          - In March, 1994, New Delhi’s Hindu government approved a bill not that far removed from Oklahoma’s attempt at banning “Sharia Law”, North Carolina’s recent attempt at making Christianity the official religion of the state, or any number of Christo-centric legislation being shoved through legislatures from the Federal level on down.

          Believe it or not, Christians for a couple centuries condoned slavery through a Vatican loophole (the Vatican wasn’t too happy, but that’s never stopped Christians) that no “Christian” could be a slave, so they simply refused to baptize any of their slaves. Sounds kind of like a caste system, doesn’t it? People are cruel and power-hungry the world over, that’s not a Pagan, Christian, or cultural thing, it just is. So India’s farther behind than others culturally. You can chalk the slave trade and massacres of First Nations in the New World to Christian “caste” systems, Christian greed, and the resulting death and poverty of the natives of placing more value on “Nature” (in this case crops/gold) than on human life.

          So just because Christianity is relatively new, all the evils of the world before it belong to Paganism? Are you going to stake a claim on Democracy, Republicism, Art, and Science too? It’s obvious at this point in your reply that you’ve demonized “Pagans” (are we neo- or not? You keep switching) by doing exactly what you’re accusing us of. You’re holding all the past misdeeds over our head with a religious Sword of Damocles, daring us to convert before you get a pair of scissors!

          neoPagans are worried about offense, i.e. the loss of respect, not sin. Your straw-men keep blowing over. Is your argument really that neoPagans are just Christians who “couldn’t hack it” (to paraphrase)? Any neoPagan will tell you, it’s much easier to be a Christian, where a nice Book has all your answers, your community is vast and varied, and there is always someone to bounce ideas and problems off of, than it is to be an isolated, self-educated neoPagan.

          “The Romantic School, we should all know, gave rise to extremist militant nationalism in the 19th century and 2 world wars in the 20th.”

          You actually did it. A comment that long, and you finally compared us to Nazis. Brava and good day, sir. Thanks for the laugh.

    • Lauralye

      Guy, I think you misunderstood a lot of the points in the column. To address the idea of Christianity as a violent religion, have you ever heard of pagans killing people of other faiths? Think about the Crusades, the Witch Hunts, and every other act of violence driven by the belief that the Christian God is the only God that is valued, or even tolerated at all. It’s Christians and monotheistic believers who cannot accept the concept of a multi-faith society in which all spiritual paths hold credence. Christians (and other religious groups as well) have a history of trying to force beliefs upon others, whether that be through peaceful “missions” or forceful and violent endeavors to convert those who hold different beliefs. I think the important idea to take away from this is that the very essence of what it means to be Christian allows no room for accepting other faiths as just as valuable.

      “Religions such as Christianity promise salvation; others such as Buddhism promise enlightenment. Both share two basic assumptions: worldly life is intrinsically flawed and we can only save ourselves. Ultimately we are alone.”

      I think you really missed the point on this one. Yes, you could argue that Christians believe the exact opposite of this. “A relationship with God is the path to salvation.” But I think the point he is trying to make is not that we have a relationship with the spiritual, but that Christianity demands a conscious effort to pursue this relationship. Why should we have to actively make specific choices that ensure our salvation? We are all Divine in our own right, just as all creation is part of the Divine and must be treated with respect rather than as a tool to be used for our own purposes. Morality and appreciation for the value in all things is what we should be focusing on, not whether or not we are taking the right steps to ensure a divine life AFTER death. Christian traditions implies that we are alone because we are not united to nature and creation by Divine right. We alone must make the choice to ensure our own salvation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

    A lot of ideas about the immanence of the Divine were put forward by Unitarians in the 19th and 20th century (and UUs after 1961 of course).

    See Celtic Spirituality: a Unitarian and Druid perspective and Pagan and pantheist tendencies in Unitarianism

    But then Unitarians and UUs can be seen as a religion in their own right.

  • Gus diZerega

    Thank you Yvonne. That was very interesting and included a great deal I did not know.

  • Tree Thunderchild

    Religions do not create what is true,
    Religions are created by what is true.
    Hopi say human came from center of the earth,
    Christians say center of earth is fire and brimstone (heaven up, hell down).
    Science say N. Americans first came through Alaska,
    where I live, were the sun in summer is full circle on the horizon,
    as if standing at the center of the earth.
    Would make that then a 15,000 year old handed down verbal account of where the first humans to this new world came from.
    Human is native to land that does not require clothing to exist.
    Human existed before clothing (a human invention) did.
    First thing human did when it left the garden of Eden,
    was put on clothing.
    If true then this account would be a handed down origin story of this invasive species into lands we were not created to inhabit but could only do so after clothing was invented.
    Making it a story millions of years old handed down before writing was invented.
    If religions are speaking truth, and science is letting truth speak for itself,
    listen carefully to them both, for both may be telling the truth.
    And united the story have greater, not less meaning.
    I am against one religion,
    same as I am against taking a beautiful painting and making it all one color.
    All reflections of truth, that speaks more clearly, when all sides come together.
    Rome was founded by 2 brothers raised by wolves.
    Using those teachings the place became a paradise including for learning.
    But indoor plumbing was learned and dementia from lead poisoning not yet learned the hard way. Rome then sought to take over the world, was “above” its citizens, “above” all other nations. Dementia from lead poisoning lead to its fall.
    England sought to rebuild civilization, copied Rome,
    copied lead pipes for indoor plumbing for its wealthy and ruling class,
    who then sought to Rule the world. Above other nations, above others with different skin colors, different languages and ways.
    Then America, were freedom was taught, by those who had no lead indoor plumbing, and cities grew and the wealthy got indoor plumbing and America sought to rule the world.
    I came to this land when my ancestor was abducted as a child from Scotland sold into servitude in the late 1600′s.
    I am the 27th grandson of the uncle, who raised William Wallace.
    My ancestors are connected to me through my DNA, and I with them, to time that goes farther back than recorded history. I am a continuation of their life.
    I am not above all life on earth,
    I am part of all life on earth.
    I will not become less than the truth of who I am,
    by telling myself I am more than the truth of who I am.
    Peace.
    Thank you for what you all have written, and allowing me a voice also.
    In respect,
    Tree

    • JoFro

      The centre of the Earth is fire! And Christianity does not claim Hell is at the centre of the Earth, though the idea is quite popular among many Christians but not because that is what their Faith teaches. It has to do with popular mythology that has made that claim since the time of the pagan Greeks.

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  • John

    Alternate title for the OP: “A Defense of Catholicism for Neo-Pagans” – and the post would need only minor adjustments.
    (I intend to recommend this post to friends, both Catholics and non-Catholics. Apologies for the insults in Guy’s screed – I’m not sure what he thinks “bashing” would look like.)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/hvchronic Hudson Valley Chronic

    Maybe. But the commission of evil deeds in pursuit of economic and social advantage continues to be the dominant paradigm among the human majority at all levels, whatever the rationalization. Here’s a song about that:

    http://biffthuringer.bandcamp.com/track/devils-cry

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