Five questions about Paganism

From Michael York:

In preparation for a paper for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s annual conference, I am seeking answers from pagan practitioners to the following questions. The title of my presentation is “Religion and Theology: A Contemporary Western Pagan Perspective on Identity Formation and Modern Policy.” The analytical framework I propose to use is one that differentiates paganism (broadly of course) from Abrahamic, dharmic and secular religions or perspectives, but for the questionnaire itself that differentiation need not be considered if it does not seem to be relevant for any respondent. There are five questions overall and concern theological and other distinctions of paganism from other religions. I welcome any and all answers that anyone wishes to supply. These answers will be presented anonymously in my paper unless a respondent explicitly allows me to use her or his name.

The questions are:

(1) How is paganism different?

(2) What is the significance of its difference?

(3) What are the key issues in a modernity project?

(4) What can paganism contribute to these issues in contrast to contributions from other religions?

(5) How can or does paganism work with other religions in addressing issues of economic imbalance, corporate power, industrial pollution, global warming, disaster relief and constructive cooperation?

I am most appreciative for any responses anyone is able to return to me. My email address is exchange@michaelyork.co.uk.

Here are my personal responses to these questions:

(1) How is paganism different? 

Paganism is different from non-indigenous religions in that its goal is to integrate spirit and matter, not for spirit to escape matter. Indeed, whilst many religions have succumbed to the Cartesian split between mind and body, it could be argued that Paganism has resisted this split (though not entirely escaped it).

Paganism is different from indigenous religions in that they are specific to a particular culture and people; Paganism tends to include specific ethnic elements, such as Celtic, Norse, Hellenic, Roman, etc, but is not restricted to a particular ethnic group.

Paganism does not claim to be “cosmically necessary” (in other words it is not needed for an individual to have a pleasant afterlife); nor does it claim a monopoly on the truth. Paganism does claim to provide a way for individuals to relate to the world around them.

Paganism is an umbrella term for a number of different religious traditions, but it is possible to belong to more than one of them without conflict with the others.

Pagan traditions don’t have a single canonical text like the Bible.

Most Pagan traditions affirm the sacredness of (consensual) sex.

(2) What is the significance of its difference?

The differences are significant in that Paganism(s) offer(s) a way of being in the world that is life-affirming, sexuality-affirming, and LGBT-inclusive.

Pagans can regard deities as a metaphor and perform rituals with other Pagans who believe more literally in the existence of deities.

(3) What are the key issues in a modernity project? 

I am not sure what the phrase “modernity project” is intended to signify. if you mean the relationship between modern life and Paganism, I think there is no conflict, because the Pagan revival occurred in a modern context.

Pagans don’t have a problem with modern life being in conflict with the commandments of a canonical text, because we don’t have a canonical text, and because the source of our ethics is reason, conscience, and empirical evidence. 

Many of us do have a problem with rampant consumerism, capitalism, and corporate greed, because we want to live sustainably and in a way that respects the planet and the other beings with whom we share it.

However, the question does not take account of postmodernism. I would define modernism as the tendency to assume that facts can be objectively known, that it is possible to take an objective stance on any given issue, and that economic and social progress are inevitable.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, assumes that all knowledge is subjective, that everyone’s perspective is coloured by their circumstances, and that progress is not inevitable, and not automatically desirable if it leads to living social injustice or environmental destruction.

(4) What can paganism contribute to these issues in contrast to contributions from other religions? 

Pagans are particularly well-placed to discuss environmental ethics and sustainability, because our outlook is very similar to that of deep ecology. Other religions may have the theology and the ethics to cope with these issues, but they don’t necessarily have the mythology and the stories to illustrate them.

(5) How can or does paganism work with other religions in addressing issues of economic imbalance, corporate power, industrial pollution, global warming, disaster relief and constructive cooperation?

Pagans can and do participate in interfaith dialogue and other work (usually as individuals rather than as Pagans). These efforts are sometimes hampered by other religions’ prejudice against Pagans; sometimes by the relatively small size of the Pagan community; and sometimes by Pagans’ suspicions that interfaith dialogue is thinly-disguised proselytising (not a view that I personally hold, but it is widespread in the Pagan community).

A great set of answers to the five questions was posted by Ian C.  at Into the Mound.

About Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. She has written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is the editor of the Theologies of Immanence wiki, a collaborative project for creating grass-roots Pagan theology.

  • http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/ Erin

    This is tricky because the questions’ form assumes paganism is a singular religion to compare and contrast with others, rather than being a collection of various traditions, each of which would answer these questions differently. The author gives similarly confusing replies which sometimes refer to paganism singularly and sometimes refer to it as a plurality. In the case of its being a collection of many and varied traditions, these answers cannot possibly speak accurately for them all, as some answers contradict what a pagan from a very different tradition would feel and say. It would perhaps make more sense if the author could have replied to these questions from a more specific point of view, as say a Wiccan, or an eclectic pagan. I myself would have given very different answers and do not feel that practicing a pagan tradition means that these answers are forgone conclusions, as the author seems to intimate.

    • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

      Yes, I did not like that the questions referred to Paganism as a single tradition, and tried to reflect that, but where I thought something could be said about Paganism as a whole, I did.

      However, you can send in your own answers — it’s a survey. These are just my thoughts.

      I guess you’re trying to be courteous or dispassionate when referring to “the author” in your comments, but I actually find it a bit disconcerting. Could you just say “you”?

      • http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/ Erin

        Sure, I can do that for you, Yvonne. ;) Thanks for the survey tip, I’ll consider doing that. I love essay-answer surveys. :)

  • http://michaelyork.co.uk Michael York

    Hi Ian, & Yvonne

    One does not need an academic background to be educated. I would never have guessed otherwise. You (Ian) write not only well but with perceptive depth, and that in itself is a reward for the rest of us.

    I am certain that the supernatural issue is largely a terminological one. It is not a favourite term for me, but I used it because you had, and, without doubt, it remains the colloquial standard. I have preferred *preternatural* but have a partner who vociferously objects to the ‘other natural’ but does accept my compromise suggestion of the ‘co-natural’. Consequently, I bounce between the ‘co-natural’ and the ‘non-empirical’ and fathom both empirical nature and the co-natural as viable aspects of nature. I agree, in fact, with Robert Corrington that there is nothing beyond nature. Nature is all there is.

    Once again I can only say that I am in accord with virtually everything you express. Though sometimes I wish I were not, I too am firmly on the left – something that was brought even more at home to me when I found myself completely agreeing with “Tramp the Dirt Down” – George Galloway’s posting two days ago. What I am not exactly certain of is whether I am a Libertarian Liberal or a Liberal Libertarian.

    I am unsure, however, whether “the Golden Age is [really] classic Indo-European eschatology.” I have understood the Four Ages as essentially a Levantine concept that seeped into Greece through Hesiod, Plato and the Orphics and also into the Indian Subcontinent with the ascendency of the Brahmans. A case can be made for tracing the same notion of cosmic inversion found with the Odinic cult influence on the *Voluspa* to the ancient Middle East. I agree with you all the same that the apocalyptic fire-and-brimstone precedence of mass-death and various catastrophes to the Golden Age metaphor is best dumped onto the discard pile – however plausible that scenario may seem in the current scale of mismanagement of our precious planet.

    On this point, I would like to bring in Yvonne’s critique of the ‘modernity project’. I purposely did not mention the postmodern when formulating my questionnaire. When I first heard that term in lectures, I would invariably ask what was meant by the adjective ‘postmodern’ and as invariably receive the reply, “I was hoping that no one would ask that question.” The idea of something being *after* the modern, however, fascinated me, and I went with this construct for a long time – being influenced principally by Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, Jameson, Jencks and Spretnak. I think today by virtual overuse, the paradigm has finally come to have lost its utilitarian edge, but Yvonne appears to have captured the nuance between the two understandings all the same. If the modern speaks through the meta-narrative of rationalism, empirically-based technology and an Occam’s Razor economy, the postmodern speaks through many different narratives. One understanding is that it is the *completion* of the modern rather than its *rejection*, but in any event it gratefully restores the emotional, the mythic, the organo-spiritual and the magical to an operative domain that still includes the achievements and even legitimacy of technology founded upon the mechanical understandings of science.

    As with Ian, I find myself generally in agreement with what Yvonne says. I think I specially mentioned Contemporary Western Paganism (CWP) because it represents what Yvonne refers to as not being restricted to a particular ethnic group. Unfortunately, even among us in the West and certainly throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe, there are paganisms that can be described as chauvinist, quasi-fascist, overly romantic and even racist. This is a reality with which we all need to deal sooner or later.

    As with Ian’s “artisanal animism,” I adore Yvonne’s non-“cosmic necessity” in connection with the possibility of a pleasant afterlife. And surely in postmodern fashion, there is no monopoly on truth. The closest synonym for ‘postmodernism; I believe, is ‘pluralism’. Because we have the mythology and the stories to illustrate them, Yvonne argues that “Pagans are particularly well-placed to discuss environmental ethics and sustainability.” But Ian does not “encourage the dream of a future green settlement of peace and self-sufficiency as a religious goal” despite participation toward this ideal to some extent as a result of his religious values. Is it the dream itself to which you object and not the goal? Why do you feel this dream-goal is not religious? How are religious values then to be distinguished from religion? I wonder if we are really talking here about diverging understandings or if this is again a question of semantics. Unlike the Abrahamic and dharmic religions, paganism is principally concerned with the here-and-now, with this world, with what Yvonne describes as the integration of spirit and matter. How then can the sustainability and, when necessary, restoration of a green future not be a pagan religious goal?

  • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

    “Paganism is different from non-indigenous religions in that its goal is to integrate spirit and matter, not for spirit to escape matter.”

    Does Paganism think that escape of spirit from matter is possible?

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

      No, but some other religions seem to think that.

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

        Actually, some Pagans might think that. I can’t speak for the whole of Paganism. I don’t think that spirit can escape from matter; I think they are deeply intertwined, or that spirit is an emergent property of matter.

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