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Race and Religion in the Modern Pagan World

Race and Religion in the Modern Pagan World August 30, 2013

the Temple of Isis at Pompeii – an Egyptian goddess worshipped in Italy

I don’t think about race and religion much.

you don’t have to think about it – you’re white – it’s called “privilege”

So maybe it’s time to think about it.  In my last post on the strengths of polytheism, I pointed out:

Polytheism recognizes that different people have different languages, different customs, and different gods.

Most Pagans take that fact to mean we should respect our differences and honor each other’s gods, whoever those gods happen to be.  But a small minority argue those differences must be preserved with hard boundaries – that certain gods can only be worshipped by people with the “right” ancestry.

Morpheus Ravenna has an excellent rebuttal to this position.  I encourage you to read her whole essay, but here’s a key quote:

I reject any ideology that says those traditions belong specially to me because of race. I speak often of ancestors and ancestral tradition, but I affirm that the ancestral root of wisdom belongs to all humanity. I reject all arguments that imply race should be tied to religion in any way or that racial purity is a relevant concept or worthy goal. I challenge my fellow polytheists to also step up and take a stance against racism in our religious communities, as publicly as possible.

A few commenters on her blog are getting hung up on her claim that every person alive 2000 years ago is an ancestor of everyone alive today.  That’s not exactly true – isolated populations don’t fit into the mathematical model she used.  But her underlying point is correct – go back far enough and we all have common ancestors.

What’s more important is the theological implication of those common ancestors:  nobody has exclusive rights to gods or traditions on the basis of their DNA.

I’ve also had people tell me I can’t worship the Celtic gods because I live in America – they think the gods are tied to the land.

People move.  We aren’t seasonally migratory like some birds, but over the past 40,000 years or so our ancestors moved from East Africa to populate most of this planet.  We’ve brought our languages and customs with us and we’ve blended them with the languages and customs of the people who were already there.  And our gods have moved with us.  They aren’t omnipresent like the monotheists claim for their god, but either they can be in multiple places at once or they can move so fast it doesn’t matter – there are too many people in too many places who have had too many strong experiences of “foreign” deities for me to think otherwise.

So if we have no grounds for excluding people from religious traditions on basis of ancestry or geography, does that work the other way around?  Are all religions and cultures open to everyone?  That’s a more complicated question, particularly for those of us in privileged cultural positions.

The gods call who they call, and there are plenty of examples of deities calling people unexpectedly.  If you feel the call of a deity, answer, even if that deity comes from an unfamiliar pantheon.  Even if a particular goddess doesn’t call you to her formal service, there’s nothing to stop you from making offerings to her, praying to her, and asking her for help.  Perhaps she’ll respond and perhaps she won’t, but honoring a goddess is always a good thing to do.

Although I am a priest of Cernunnos, it would be the height of arrogance for me to tell someone “He would never call you.”  On the other hand, if the way that person manifests Cernunnos’ presence is at odds with what is generally known about Him (from others as well as from me), I may question who he’s dealing with, or at the very least, his commitment to Him.  If, to give what I hope is an absurd example, he cites the lusty aspect of the Stag as an excuse to rape, I will argue (among many other things) he is not properly committed to Him.

The gods call who they call and we are free to respond to the calls we feel, but we are not entitled to respond in any way we like.

Our mainstream culture looks at religion as being about what you believe, and it thinks changing your religion to anything you like is a basic right.  This attitude is reinforced by many Protestant churches where becoming a member requires nothing more than giving an affirmative answer to a few simple questions of belief.

But in most of the world for most of history, religion has been less about what you believe and more about what you do, who you are and whose you are.  These questions of identity can’t be resolved by reading a book or watching a public ceremony.  They can only be resolved by living them.

And for too many religions and cultures, part of that living has included oppression by conquerors and colonizers.

If you haven’t shared in the suffering, you aren’t entitled to share in the glory.  More than that, if you haven’t shared in the suffering, you can’t understand the glory.  The issue of cultural appropriation isn’t just a question of ownership.  It’s also a question of authenticity.

I’ve met a couple white Voudon priests.  They were all adopted into the tradition by the Orishas and by their teachers.  They did years of work (hard physical and spiritual work – not reading a few books) and they earned their place.  Now they live their priesthood.

I’ve also met a few white folks who like to play at voodoo, based mainly on what they saw in movies.  I try not to stand too close to them, just in case the Orishas decide they’ve had enough.  In any case, the difference between the two is unmistakable.

There is a third issue involved here – the overwhelming whiteness of modern Paganism.

To a certain extent this is due to the English roots of much of modern Paganism.  Sadly, it’s also due to poor hospitality and general cluelessness on the part of too many Pagans.  This is a complicated issue that goes far beyond Paganism, and as a middle aged, middle class white guy, I certainly don’t have all the answers.  But I do know some basic manners would help.

Be a welcoming and generous host.  Be a polite and unpresumptive guest.  Be yourself and allow others room to be themselves.  Join together with others where you have common interests or common cause  and be respectful where you don’t.

The issues surrounding races and religion are complicated and they won’t be solved by these kindergarten level suggestions.

But it would be a good start.

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