Speaking for Others: Part One

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In the recent discussions that have gone on in the Pagan community about ‘Wiccanate privilege’, a large number have mentioned interfaith gatherings.  Some have asked for more Heathens and devotional polytheists to come to the table, and others have expressed frustration that their views are being misrepresented by Pagans who tend towards a duotheistic or monist worldview.  Now, this brings us to an interesting question – is it okay to talk about the beliefs of others (even if they fall under your same umbrella term) if you’re not a member of their tradition?

I often volunteer to teach Sunday school at the local Unitarian Universalist church; my children enjoy attending and I try to give back a little for all the wonderful teachers have done for them.  This past year I found myself in the uncomfortable position of assisting a class learning about the holy month of Ramadan, about which the lead teacher knew nothing, and the materials she had were inaccurate.  I am married to a cultural Muslim, and his family are firm believers and dedicated to their religion; but I am an outsider to all of this.  I only know what I’ve observed and picked up over the years – but it was enough to see that the ideas being presented weren’t quite right.  As a non-Muslim, a person who grew up in the culturally dominant Christianity and then became Pagan at a young age, was it okay for me to speak for that faith, if the alternative is the spreading of misinformation?

I often feel like this when explaining Paganism to others, as well.  Interested people will ask me what Pagans believe, and I can talk at length about Celtic Reconstruction or Heathenry; but realistically that’s only a small percentage of those who identify as Pagan.  Usually I find it sufficient to explain my own beliefs and then add the tagline “but there are certainly others who feel differently”, but I feel that doesn’t help the person who’s trying to form an overall understanding of Paganism rather than my personal version.  And it certainly doesn’t help the next Pagan this person meets, who may believe very differently from me, but has now had certain ideas painted onto them by my well-meaning but limited descriptions.

Having discussed the difficulties of talking about a tradition that is not your own, in Part Two of this article I’ll talk about what I feel is a good solution for those of us who, out of necessity, find ourselves representing a Paganism not entirely our own to others.

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