[Nicole Youngman is a sociologist at Loyola University in New Orleans. She’s been Pagan over 20 years and is active in a grove of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. She also does volunteer work with the Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans.]
Listening to fundamentalists talk about the looming threats of “witchcraft” and “paganism” can be a decidedly surreal experience. They use the terms in a variety of ways: sometimes they’re talking about actual Witches and Pagans, sometimes they mean anything that doesn’t meet their definition of “Christian,” and sometimes they mix it all up willy-nilly and throw in a few Harry Potter references for good measure. Despite our best efforts to explain who we are and what we do (and don’t do!), they never seem to get their facts straight—or they get things halfway correct in all kinds of weird ways—and they still can’t manage to pronounce “Samhain” correctly. How are we supposed to make sense of all this? I think the core difficulty we’re facing is that it is simply not possible to educate some of these people about our beliefs and practices in any meaningful way, because their underlying belief system renders them incapable of accurately processing and absorbing the information we’re trying to get across. There is no way to convince them that we’re not really a threat, because they perceive the fact that we even exist as deeply threatening.
Fundamentalist Christianity is at its core a deeply dualistic worldview: there is God and there is Satan, there is heaven and there is the world, there is righteousness and there is sin, there are Christians and there are those who follow Satan. From this perspective, we mere mortals are constantly forced to choose sides: we’re either for God or against Him. With no middle ground and no shades of gray, the battle between the people of God and the people of Satan is an ongoing zero-sum game in which one side must ultimately destroy the other and rule the cosmos. One of fundamentalists’ central beliefs is that everyone in the world must be converted to Christianity—not the wishy-washy “lukewarm” variety, mind you, but the good God-fearing “Bible-believing” version. In this worldview, Christians’ primary job is to fight Satan’s influence by following what they call the Great Commission: using the authority given to them by Jesus to convert all the nations of the world to their belief system.
Pagan belief systems are, of course, entirely outside of this framework, but trying to get that point across to fundamentalist friends, family members, or co-workers—most of whom have been immersed in this worldview their entire lives—is invariably frustrating as, well, hell. We don’t even believe in Satan, we keep trying to explain; how could we be worshipping him? We don’t see reality in terms of a great cosmic war between ultimate Good and ultimate Evil, and we certainly don’t mean Christians any harm by wanting to live according to a different belief system. On the contrary, we’d really just like to be left alone to follow our religion while we leave them alone to follow theirs, and it would be awfully nice if they’d stop harassing us about our beliefs every time we’re in the same room. Maybe we do wear funny robes sometimes, and our jewelry may look a little strange, but we like kids and animals and plants and books and computers and ice cream and all kinds of good stuff; if they’d just let us live our lives in peace we’d be quite glad to return the favor.
With more liberal Christians, this approach can actually work—once they figure out the basics of who we are and what we generally believe, they’re fairly likely to shrug and dismiss us as eccentric but Mostly Harmless. A few of the more thoughtful ones might even find us interesting, and be willing to have a genuine dialog with us, at which point we’ll be quite glad to return that favor, too. Fundamentalists, however, cannot do this. It’s literally impossible for them—it would require breaking out of their either/or theological and conceptual framework, which would send their entire belief system tumbling down. Meanwhile, the fact that non-Christians and non-fundamentalist Christians continue to exist around the world, living out in the open where everyone can see them, presents a real problem for fundamentalists, whose “dominion theology” –most recently manifesting in the “New Apostolic Reformation” movement—clearly states that other religions are to be wiped out and that Jesus has given them the authority to rule the world.
But while these “Bible-believing” Christians are busily trying to spread their gospel to all those other “non-Christian” nations, they’re having an increasingly hard time enforcing it in the parts of the world they thought they had already conquered. Europe and the predominantly English-speaking world—regions having what we refer to loosely as a “Western culture” or “Western civilization”—are showing serious signs of backsliding into multiculturalism. More and more, people of quite different religious belief systems (or none at all) are managing to live peaceably together, working towards a common set of shared moral precepts on which to base their government policies and everyday cultural interactions. For fundamentalists, these changes mean that they are no longer allowed to be in complete control of Western societies’ public or private spaces, and can no longer expect their own worldview to be constantly and unquestioningly mirrored back at them. Fundamentalism thrives best when its adherents—particularly children—simply aren’t exposed to any alternative ideas that might lead to questioning and analytical thinking; when people who are different from them live openly and outside of their control—however peacefully this may be occurring—such people are seen as an invasive threat that must be fought against at all costs.
Actual Pagans and a more generalized “pagan worldview,” then, are seen by hardcore fundamentalists as an invading force that is out to destroy their world, both in the sense of attacking their churches and families and of bringing about the downfall of Western civilization itself (which for them is synonymous with Christian thought and social order). They make no distinction between efforts to limit their right to control all aspects of our culture and social structure and a concerted effort to wipe out Christianity that would deny Christians’ right to exist at all. This longstanding theme in contemporary fundamentalist thought was nicely articulated by Peter Jones during his appearance on Janet Mefferd’s radio program a few months ago:
And the problem for Christians is simply this: that for 1700 years, the state defended and supported the Christian faith, and really all these radical Pagan groups of the mystery religions of the ancient world disappeared, and I believe we are moving into what I like to call a post-Constantinian age and I mean by that the government is no longer defending the Christian faith but is actually promoting the Pagan faith… I think in the future it will be very difficult for Christians to speak clearly the worldview of the Christian faith without receiving all kinds of sanctions… So don’t be surprised as this pagan ideology takes over our world that the classic distinctions we have known for 1700 years begin to disappear and we find ourselves totally marginalized as a group of right-wing cultists. This is coming and it’s coming very quickly, and we have to learn how to survive as the early church did in that kind of a culture.
The possibility of peaceful co-existence is never entertained here; Christians are either entirely in control of the government and the culture, or they’re being actively persecuted by those who do not share their worldview. Because their theology insists that Jesus has given them the authority to be society’s ruling class, denying them the right to have control over all aspects of society is perceived as denying them the right to practice their religion at all. When we non-Christians claim the right to exist openly and without discrimination, they turn around and frame our efforts as religious persecution directed against them. Because they have always striven to wipe out any competing belief systems—sometimes by force—they project that motivation onto us, insisting that we must be out to do the same to them and will gleefully do so as soon as we somehow gain the same power over them that they have for so long held over us.
One is the sort of radical small group…of Pagans who meet together in forests and worship some kind of pole or tree, and are very tied to the seasons like Samhain [mispronounced “Sam-hane”] and other times of the year. That’s a very specific form of Paganism that enjoys being called Pagan, and you have within that system the whole Wiccan movement, witchcraft, and they are very easily identifiable… But if we were to think that that is the only kind of paganism it seems to me that that would be missing the whole point of what is actually happening, because while they are known for their specific rites and practices, there is such a thing as a world-view of paganism, and really that statement covers every religion and every human being which does not and who does not affirm God as the creator of heaven and earth. So you have a much larger category of people who would be aghast to hear you call them pagan who in effect really do worship nature in some kind of way. [emphasis added]
Jones goes on to explain that the small-p paganism is actually much more dangerous and insidious than the self-described Pagans; while you can see the latter coming and stay out of their way (I guess because of the poles?), the “pagan worldview” is what is really starting to take over the West, spouted by dangerous types like Oprah, postmodernists, and yoga teachers.
Because fundamentalists cannot parse anything outside of their either/or worldview, they try to explain the existence of “Pagans” and “paganism” by concluding that there are only two possible religions—those that worship “the Creator” and those that worship “the creation” (extrapolating from one of Paul’s letters at Romans 1:25). Any religious perspective with a concept of immanent deity—animism, duotheism, pantheism, panentheism, some forms of polytheism, etc.—must then fall into the latter category. Deity and “the world” must remain forever separate—there cannot be anything sacred about the physical world, because that is Satan’s domain. Unlike other Christians (and Jews and Muslims) who more logically conclude that because God made it, the world must be essentially good—even given that humans have screwed up a lot of it—fundamentalist Christians argue that because the world is ruled by Satan, it must therefore be essentially evil. Asserting that the world itself is divine and sacred is therefore the height of Pagan/pagan heresy. From Jones’ perspective, then,
paganism as a system wants to get rid of distinctions [i.e. between men and women, acceptable and abhorrent forms of sexuality, etc.], and my hunch is it wants to get rid of distinctions because it finally then removes the distinction between God and the creation. The fundamental evil in paganism is the statement that God, the creator, is distinct from the creation…So that’s the conflict that’s always been, but in the Christian West that conflict seemed to go away for a long long time. And now it’s back with a vengeance, and we as Christians need to know how to be faithful to the Lord, speak the truth, live the truth, whatever that costs.
Again, there is no possibility of peaceful co-existence in this perspective, no acknowledgment of the potential for practitioners of different religions to have an interesting dialogue and learn from one another, no prospect of someday creating a government that truly allows people of all religions (and none) to practice openly without fear of persecution.
What are actual Pagans—and whoever fundamentalists are considering “pagan” these days—to make of such nonsense? How can we be a “threat” to the “Christian church” when we feel like they’re threatening us? I think we need to begin by understanding that our fears—and our definition of “threat”—are very different from theirs. We’re deeply tired of being verbally harassed and insulted, of having our rituals disrupted, of being afraid we’ll lose our jobs, of having to worry that so-called Christians will be vicious to our kids or even try to take them away. Despite their ongoing persecution complex, Christians simply do not have to worry about any of these things happening to them just because of the religion they practice; they can go about their daily lives safe in the assumption that the vast majority of people out there will perceive them as normal, ordinary, nonthreatening regular folks.
What fundamentalist Christians are afraid of is that they’ll no longer be able to take their cultural and political dominance for granted—that, like us, they’ll become just one of the world’s many subcultures, and have to deal with the fact that most of the other folks out there in the big wide world don’t share all of their beliefs. We Pagans are used to that, and I daresay that as long as we’re treated respectfully and left to practice our religions in peace, we really don’t mind it at all. Life’s more interesting in a diverse crowd, after all, and Paganism itself is nothing if not diverse! Those of us who are parents also have less of our identity and emotional energy wrapped up in trying to ensure that our kids will grow up to be just like us than fundamentalist parents do. While I’m sure most of us would like for our kids to choose to be Pagan, I think we’re generally comfortable with the idea of exposing our kids to a variety of belief systems so that they can find out for themselves which path “clicks” for them. Fundamentalist parents, however, live with the constant fear that their kids will be led astray by “the world.” When the rest of the world no longer echoes their belief system back at them over and over again, they have to work harder to keep their kids tightly encapsulated in a bubble that doesn’t allow the penetration of any other ways of life or thought. So they send their kids to Christian schools, listen to only Christian music and radio programs, watch only Christian TV and movies, and spend hours and hours in church, all in the hopes that they can shut out all those small-p “pagan” influences that might invade their homes and go after their children. With any luck, their kids will never have to actually see any big-P real-life Pagans out there, either. You never know, we might smile at them and say hello or something, and heaven knows where that might lead.
This, then, is why Janet Mefferd and her colleagues are so terrified of the thought that “paganism is mainstreaming.” With the age of Christian dominance of the West starting to come to an end despite their best efforts, other people are no longer easily bending to their authority, and some non-Christians are even insisting that the government should protect their rights to be different. Fundamentalist kids are increasingly likely to be exposed to ideas their parents don’t like, and might even find some of those ideas worthwhile and interesting. More and more people are walking around in public with pentacles and triskeles and Thor’s hammers hanging around their necks, daring to assume that they will be treated civilly by everyone else out there. Life gets more complicated when yours is literally no longer the only worldview in town—pretty soon, you end up having to deal with the real world the way it really is, just like everyone else.
So are we big-P pagans, or those amorphous small-p “pagan” ideas, really “a threat to the Christian church?” In terms of Christians’ right to exist, to follow their own religion in the privacy of their own lives, of course not. Despite their silly ideas that we’re somehow after them or their kids, we don’t go around seeking converts in their schools or hog-tying them in front of Harry Potter movies. We’re really not that interested in them, truth be told, and we’d be more than happy to just leave them alone. The key difficulty here, however, is that they will never be willing to do the same for us because their core theology simply will not allow it. They can never be satisfied with the basic right of being allowed to live their own lives as they see fit; they want power and control over everyone else’s public and private spaces as well. By simply existing out in the open, Pagans and people interested in “pagan” ideas do in fact present a substantial challenge to the fundamentalist Christian worldview. We are living proof that not everyone agrees with their theology and not everyone will tolerate their continued efforts to maintain an oppressive, monocultural society “in Jesus’ name.” We don’t proselytize, but we do write and teach and share ideas with anyone who’s interested—and THAT is what these people are truly afraid of.