Star Foster surrenders the “Pagan” label to the naturalists

Star Foster surrenders the “Pagan” label to the naturalists June 3, 2012

Okay, not quite.  I overstated my title for dramatic effect.  But that’s how shocked I was to read Star’s post today.

Just when I had finally given up my pretension of being “more Pagan” than [fill in the blank], Star Foster has drawn the battle line again.  In a recent post here on this blog, I confessed that I had been guilty of a kind of Pagan fundamentalism, presuming to define my form of Paganism as the Paganism par excellence.  I followed that up with another post where I articulated a vision of the Pagan community that both (1) removed myself from the center of the Pagan universe and (2) made room for those whose Pagan credentials I had doubted (namely deity-centered Pagans, or as Star calls herself “devotional polytheists”).  Below is my picture of what I have in mind.  The green circle represents the penumbra of the “Pagan umbrella”.

Where do I fit in?
The three “centers” of the Pagan community

If you’re interested, you can read the details here.

Then today, M.J. Lee posted an essay at Humanistic Paganism where she questioned why hard polytheism seems to be on the rise in the Pagan community.  I think it is a legitimate question for a naturalistic Pagan to ask.  From the comments, though, several polytheists were offended, Star Foster among them.

In her blog, Star makes the remarkable claim that she and M.J. are just not part of the same religion:

“Lee and I aren’t of the same religion though, on any level. She’s an environmental atheist, and I am a devotional polytheist. The only thing that connects us is this word: Pagan.  I’m not saying Lee isn’t Pagan, or that I’m not Pagan, but I am saying this is one instance where the word Pagan loses all meaning.”

She concludes by practically conceding the label to the naturalists:

“I’m also aware that the perhaps the battle for the word ‘pagan’ may have been lost. As society at large increasingly begins to identify the word with secular environmentalism, and as environmental atheists embrace the term, then I have to wonder if I am on the wrong side of history.”

What’s so ironic about this statement is that, just a month ago, I was asking the same question, but from the other side of that “battle line”.  From my perspective, it was the deity-centered Pagans who are redefining me out of Paganism.  Check out Ian Phane’s comment to Star’s blog a year ago:

“P.S.: I think there are a small minority of pagans out there who are truly making it all up.

“They are those who don’t acknowledge any gods, ancestors, spirits, or anything else that we received from traditional paganisms. They are usually ecologically-minded materialist atheists whose spirituality is rooted in the sacredness of nature and life. They will sometimes describe themselves as “spiritually, but not religiously, pagan.” They tend to see ritual as psychologically meaningful, but nothing more, as they don’t believe in anything non-physical. For them, the gods and elements, and ancestors, and all that is non-corporeal are just symbols.

“From my point of view, they are fellow travelers, and welcome to fellowship with us, but I don’t think of them as pagans. I see paganisms as essentially religious, not just spiritual.”

Somehow, we naturalistic Pagans have gone from barely deserving a postscript in the discussion of Pagan community to practically taking over now.  As much as I wish that were true, I don’t see the evidence of it.

Ceres, goddess of ... victory?
Ceres, goddess of … victory?

I admit that I have been guilty of engaging in the “not Pagan enough” rhetoric myself on this blog.  But I’ve come to believe there’s room enough under the Pagan umbrella for me, M.J., and Star, for the “environmental atheists” and the “devotional polytheists”.

The balance of Star’s post is about what a pain in the ass it is to talk to militant atheists about spiritual experience.  And I totally agree with that.  See my post about trying to talk to atheists or check out the conversation I had with Rua Lupa in the comments to her essay over at Humanistic Paganism earlier this year which was like two trains passing in the night.  But honestly, I don’t think M.J. is guilty of the “evangelical atheism” that Star accuses her of.

I tried to figure out what exactly upset Star, but she only mentions one specific thing:

“My religion is not a matter of whim. It’s not a matter of want. Lee keeps asking why people want “supernatural” Gods. As an atheist she cannot conceive of people needing them, and so she phrases her questions in terms of whim.”

But I don’t think this is what M.J. meant at all.  In fact, she does phrase her question in terms of “need”.  M.J. writes:

“I don’t think people create or turn to supernatural beings because they have been befuddled by the use of personified symbols. It is not the symbol that is the cause, it is the need.

“I think if religious naturalism can truly meet our instinctual needs, the needs religion traditionally addressed, then it will grow and supernaturalism will decrease; if not, then humans will continue to find new and ingenious ways to justify supernaturalism and supernaturalism will grow (with or without personified symbols).”

M.J. could just as well have entitled her essay, “Why do people need supernatural gods?”  Personally, I think that would be more insulting, not less — but that’s not me.  It seems like Star read the title and stopped there.  Anyway, to all those polytheists who were upset by M.J.’s piece, I appeal to you re-read the essay and note that M.J. admits that she does not understand your experience.  Her essay, I believe, is more of an attempt to frame the question, than dismiss that experience.

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  • msabani

    A great response to what seems to be an unfortunate turn of events. Feelings seem to have been hurt by inference, and that is really unfortunate. I’m new here and all, but I would like to say I agree with Lee and John 100%. I don’t want someone to define my beliefs for me, and I also see a strong “devotional polytheist” reaction to the spread of naturalistic paganism. And that is strange and kind of scary to me. But that’s just me. I agree that there is (or should be) a place for everyone. When it comes down to it this is the same problem I see coming from my past in Judaism. When there is such a diverse set of beliefs living under one umbrella, who gets to define whom? Essentially, no one but yourself. There will always be those who say you are not one of them, on both sides, and you just have to ignore them. 
    Anyway, great response.

    • Thanks msabani! I’m glad you brought up Judaism, which is often described as having five (or more) branches: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist, with Messianic and others wanting to be the sixth branch. Anyway, there’s probably analogies that could be drawn between the divisions in Paganism and those in Judaism.

      • Falkenna

        Being two years behind, I have tried hard not to comment on this most interesting thread; but now you’ve struck something which I believe needs posting on the wall of any person who discusses religion with another.

        **The history of every religion for which we have any records is exactly the same, in this sense: there are those who believe literally, those who believe figuratively, those who believe mystically, those who believe magically, those who believe superstitiously, those who reduce it all to what they see in front of them, those who ignore or even rebel against gods, and those who go about their daily lives with no effect.**

        It was reading the history of Taoism that opened my eyes to this, because the abstract history was identical to that of Christianity, of which I already had a good knowledge. These differences are temperamental, in some cases even physiological (20% of people spontaneously have intense religious experiences, while 20% cannot have them even with mechanical brain stimulation that works on the other 60%). Those of a particular view tend to go off and form denominations. Exactly the same thing is now happening within Paganism, and the problem with it, as you say, is not that it is happening, but that people refuse to accept that there are good inner reasons why people disagree with them. I had hoped Paganism would be different in accepting this truth. Perhaps in the future we still will be.

    • “…I also see a strong “devotional polytheist” reaction to the spread of naturalistic paganism. And that is strange and kind of scary to me.”

      Why is it ‘strange and kind of scary’? The devotional polytheist reaction I’ve seen is usually the ‘Hey, there are Pagans that actually believe in literal gods, ya know?’ kind, and then an anger when we get brushed off as not being intelligent or not thinking logically enough for our non-theistic friends. Everyone, every Pagan, is trying to figure out what exactly the label means and where they fit in it, so it’s not surprising that we’re constantly swinging to and fro in regards to who currently ‘owns’ the label.

      It seems like people on both sides keep forgetting that someone simply stating ‘I believe the gods are just metaphors’ or ‘I believe the gods are literal beings’ isn’t actually trying to define another person’s beliefs. They’re stating their own beliefs.

  • Aron G.

    Interesting discussion. (Shalom, Michael) I wanted to comment simply because I’ve been involved at some level in many of these definitions and communities over the last few years, both Paganism and naturalism (as well as coincidentally also being Jewish). I can relate to the issues where divisions start to develop in a community and people start trying to define themselves. I’m wary of the distinctions getting too stark, though, simply considering the size of most Pagan communities. Can we have a dynamic community if we only converse with people we agree with, be that naturalistic or devotional? I definitely see that issue in the Jewish community.

  • I’ve noticed what seems to be a rise in hard polytheism too (or maybe it’s just because there are more hard polytheists with blogs and the like these days?) and generally have found it interesting but certainly not problematic–although, yes, I’ve sometimes felt like THEY are looking down on people who “don’t really believe in the gods,” as though they’re somehow more religious or whatever. Can we just call a truce now before this gets truly ridiculous??

    Just an interesting tidbit re: the picture caption–I think that’s Columbia acting sort of Ceres-ish. Wonderful old WWII graphic, where did you find it?

    • Thanks for your comments Nicole. When I was at Pantheacon this year, it definitely seemed to me that the hard polytheists were defining the conversation(s). I agree that both sides are guilty of looking down our noses at each other.

      I actually found the picture very quickly by just googling “victory”.

  • Literata has added some thoughtful commentary and the discussion continues on her blog.

    Star has weighed in again too. Atheist Pagans: “a nutritious part of this balanced breakfast”.

  • Teo Bishop has a conversation going on on his Facebook page following his posting of a link to MJ’s article. Scroll down in his posts to Sunday here:!/teobishop

    Also, polytheist and animist Corc Hamr has weighed in with a thoughtful and measured call for tolerance here:

  • My comment to the discussion on Teo Bishop’s Facebook page:
    “I understand that some polytheists maintain a certain amount of ambiguity in their definition of deity — so do I for that matter. But let’s be honest: “ambiguity tolerance” can be a cover for lack of intellectual rigor. Are we not even allowed to ask the question about someone else’s beliefs? And when someone is less ambiguous and says the gods are evolved beings (as Peter does above), I don’t see how it’s different than claiming to be visited by aliens. Both claims may be true or false. Both are probably ultimately unresolvable right now. But both are still subject to rational inquiry. So again, can we not even ask the question? When did the First Commandment of Paganism become: Thou shalt not doubt another’s interpretation of their experience?”

  • What about a fourth circle on that Venn diagram – being “folk centered” or “culture centered?”

    • That is a very interesting proposal. Check out M.J. Lee’s comment to the original post on this issue, where she proposes a community-centered circle.
      Are you thinking of something similar? I distinguished each of the 3 centers by how they define their identity and how they define authenticity. How would a folk-centered Paganism define identity and authenticity? I’d like to know your thoughts.

      • I am more folk-based as a whole- and for my experiences it’s locality. Knowing your location, it’s myths, spirits, folklore, and even local culture. Where I live is German, slight Polish, Welsh, and Irish with sprinklings of Mexican into our local gestures, mannerisms, and even folk beliefs. From the folk practitioners I’ve met (a few, unfortunately and also include me) is that the Gods are real, and while they are beyond us in ability and power, they are parts to the bigger whole. Here on the plains of Colorado, my locality will be different than Denver. Hell, different from Sterling, which has a higher Irish ‘flavor’ to it.

        My Gods are with me, and I have a very strong relationship to Them, though it is not stronger, nor lesser, than my spirits and Ancestors. I really try not to doubt, belittle, or insult anyone else because something an Athiest asked me left me to ask: Are you in my life? Do you walk in my shoes? Have you seen what I’ve seen?

        I think the labeling is nonsense in and of itself. With the larger whole, what good does that word do? The Gods, spirits, and Ancestors know who you are, what you do, and why. What good is a label then?

        Just my two cents. Hope it makes sense. Oh, I rhymed.

        • “I think the labeling is nonsense in and of itself. With the larger whole, what good does that word do?”

          As I hear from more polytheists, I am beginning to think much of this may have to do with temperament. I am a left brained type and I get the impression that many of the polytheists responding to this discussion are more right brained. (I also get the impression that some polytheists think left-brainers should not be Pagan.) Labeling, categorizing, organizing: this is how I make sense of my world — my spiritual/religious world as well. For one thing, in this context, it helps me identify my community, it gives me greater insight into myself, and I hope it helps me interact with others better. For example, when I understand that you and I are not coming from even remotely similar starting points, I will be less likely to make assumptions that will lead to miscommunication and offense-taking. Take for example my recent back-and-forth on Literata’s blog, where I assumed a style of communication that is normal and expected in the naturalistic community, but is (I am coming to understand) offensive in the polytheistic community. If I had understood the differences between the two communities better, I could possibly have avoided that unpleasant exchange.

  • You have the hand of diplomacy, which I admit I lack. I am right-brained (lefty here), but no matter how I try to understand people, the more confused and befuddled I get. I tip my hat to you on that!

  • The problem I face is the following. Many individuals seem to suggest that devotional polytheists and secularists/humanists/naturalists should part their ways. To be honest, I can understand that both parties may have little in common and thus some may want to abandon ‘paganism’ at large. I think this would do little harm to them. The problem lies with those, like me, who go back and forth between the two. Often, though clearly not always, there is respect between the two mentioned parties. They may agree on the standpoint ‘we are just too different, we’ll part ways’. Yet, us thirds, the agnostics who still decide to act as if the gods are real, might have to choose between the two or perhaps go back in forth without finding an actual community if ‘the amount of faith’ will be the boundary. As in larger debate between atheists and the monotheist faithful, where the agnostic is often portrayed as a weak coward who doesn’t dare to take a stand. Note, I do not claim to be victimized here. My position can also be seen a desirable one as I seem to get things both ways sometimes.

    But this whole debate does, again, point to why the level of faith, I feel, should not be the basis of a community, called pagan or no. I look for community among those we share my language, with whom I may share a culture, a ritual structure, roots, something like that. Yes, of course, if one is to join a deity-focussed group, one should act as if the gods are real at least when in ritual. Otherwise, what’s the point. I do understand the devotional polytheist criticism of pretence, but to me, I am never pretending. During ritual I do belief, it is afterwards I start to doubt and may even enjoy debating what the gods are exactly. Voices similar to mine seem to become rarer and rarer, Drew Jacob comes to mind. And exactly he of all people is no longer (calling himself) pagan.

    We all like to place ourselves in the centre of things. I think it is very admirable of you to recognize this tendency in yourself. We also tend to see ourselves as the victim. I understand Star’s concerns, and I understand those of the humanist (I heat the word by the way) sway. What I don’t like, in either party, is the tendency to play the ‘I am being victimized’ card. This defensive attitude is hardly helpful. There is a lot of intentional misreading of each-other blogs. Many individuals seem very eager to think the worst of the other person’s intentions. I find this very tiring. I myself was rather shocked at Brendan Myer’s essay at the Wild Hunt a few months back, but I always try to read what is written, and not what we imagine the other person’s true motivations are. Personally, I find the essays on ‘Humanist Paganism’ increasingly unimaginative. Is it truly so hard to imagine why someone needs the gods? And is it really so hard to understand why someone feels he can do without? For me it is not.

    So … whilst trying not to play the victim-card, I do feel a small pressure for people to pick sides. And I guess that’s way, I personally like terms like ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’ best. I guess in some people’s books this would make me a culture/community-orientated pagan.

    • I hope you resist the urge to pick sides. The most interesting part of this discussion has been trying to find the meeting ground of devotional polytheists and non-theistic earth-centered types. If you live in that overlap, then you can probably help bridge the gulf that seems to be opening between these two groups.

      I think it would be good for both sides to acknowledge that people in both groups are seeking just different types of spiritual experience, and that which path you choose has more to do with personal psychology than anything else, making no path more valid than another. This is not a zero-sum game after all. I think there’s no reason we can’t call both sides “Pagan”, but I very much understand the need of Star and others to distinguish their practice from others that they do not relate to. That is why I have been trying to articulate the multi-centered approach above.

      • I very much value your attempts at doing just that. I have just read one of your other posts and, being devoid of any physical pagan community, tend to place great value on what is going on in the blogosphere.