Dabbling November 10, 2013
dabbling? I’d rather just call this a very eclectic altar

Aine Llewellyn of the Dalliances with Deities blog raised an issue I’d like to explore a little more deeply – that of “dabbling.”  Aine says:

I would really like to see the term ‘dabbling’ retired from Pagan usage, especially by people who claim to want to build religious communities. If we treated people less like ‘dabblers’ and more like people exploring a religious choice, whatever type of Paganism they may be putting their toes into, we would radically shift the way we approach newcomers and those who leave. Words matter. Getting rid of ‘dabbling’ and the idea that people just ‘dabble’ might  help us restore some respect to newcomers, and it might even encourage people to treat their choices more seriously. Because they’re being considered serious choices. And people are allowed to explore and not immediately commit. There is nothing wrong with taking a look at Paganism before committing, and there’s nothing wrong with leaving even after you’ve been involved for some time.

I’m pretty sure I heard the phrase “dabbling in witchcraft” long before I knew what real witchcraft and Paganism were.  It was usually spoken by a conservative Christian concerned that playing with magic – even if it wasn’t serious – would lead to trouble.  I don’t think my experience is unique, so the context of this phrase raises immediate concerns with its usage.  If dabbling leads to real witchcraft and Pagan practices – something we have found to be good things – why wouldn’t we encourage more dabbling?

Merriam-Webster defines dabbling as: “to work or involve oneself superficially or intermittently especially in a secondary activity or interest.”  I think this is part of our problem.  As Aine points out, we frequently fail to distinguish between the superficial dabbler and the serious but tentative seeker.  Not everyone who hears the call of the gods or of Nature or of magic responds suddenly and completely.  Not everyone moves from Cunningham’s Guide for the Solitary Practitioner to finding a year-and-a-day Wiccan dedicant program or signing up for the OBOD Bardic grade studies.

In my case I had a defining moment, a clear message from at least a few of the goddesses and gods to begin a serious program of study and practice.  That message came in an instant… after EIGHT YEARS of dabbling, after eight years of working superficially and intermittently on magic, witchcraft, and Paganism.

Do I wish I had gotten serious sooner?  At one level, yes, of course I do.  But that’s how long it took me to figure out the vague deistic universalism that had replaced the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood wasn’t an adequate foundation for spiritual growth.  If someone had pushed me to “stop dabbling” midway through those eight years without helping me build the foundation I needed, I almost certainly would have crashed and burned, then gone back to an unfulfilling spot on a pew in a nice mainline Protestant church (no offense to my mainline Protestant friends, many of whom are good people doing good work, but my soul needs something that’s not on their menu).

Part of our problem with dabbling is the idea that since we – who, of course, are the good, serious Pagans – have moved beyond it, so should everyone else.  As Aine said, this isn’t helpful for people who want to build religious communities.  We’re being hamstrung by the coven model which says everyone should be a strong witch on their own.  Maybe that’s a good goal for a group of 13 or less, but it’s simply not realistic for any group big enough to be called a community.

Do we have room for the people who just want to come to a circle on the major holidays?  Do we have room for the people who just want to help out with the roadside trash pickup?  Do we have room for the people who want to learn enough magic to find a job but aren’t interested in becoming a full-time witch?  Do we have room for the people who want to honor the gods but aren’t interested in becoming a priestess?

Can we make room for these people, accept them for who and what they are, and not insult them as “dabblers”?

We’ll never build an effective Pagan community if everyone is expected to eventually become a Druid grade graduate or a high priestess.

So, can we retire the term “dabbling”?  I tend to doubt it – it’s pretty well lodged in our vocabulary.  And for some things I think it fits – like for describing teenagers trying to work a spell they saw on a TV show before going back to discussing the sex life of some pop star.

But let’s show a little more respect for seekers, beginners, and those who just want to be a part of our Pagan community.

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  • Roi de Guerre

    ’nuff said.

  • puritangirl1970

    Nicely put & interesting thoughts. I would add also that the full back story of a person’s life may put context to what seems at first religion shopping. For example, there could be an underlying consistency to any given person’s belief system across time, but not all parts of their beliefs may find expression in any particular religion, with their particular emphases and foci. They may migrate, therefore, that such long-held and sincerely-held beliefs find expression, until the lack of a good fit chafes there, too. If I had a house that were blue-green, but no such compound word existed, and I were limited to the adjectives “blue” and “green”, I would sometimes describe my house as blue and other times describe my house as green. Or “sort of blue”. Or, “sort of green”. Labels and changing labels can mask deeper consistency. (edited once for a typo)

  • Ken

    I like the cut of your jib, sir!

  • Very true. As you demonstrate, the term arises because Paganism is intertwined with magical practices, and as such is more practical than most religions. I don’t have strong opinions on the matter when it comes to magical practice, because it’s not really a part of my spirituality, but there definitely needs to be a distinction made between true dabblers and people who are exploring Paganism and related paths, or who are just not the kind of people who will ever commit huge parts of their lives to it. I read a blog post a while ago about the term “newbie”, which is used similarly, and is similarly problematic.

    • Qweird

      Why? What purpose does that distinction serve? WHO does it serve?

      • It serves those people who are coming to Paganism for the first time; it serves Pagans who feel needlessly inferior because they are what they or others would consider to be dabblers or newbies; it serves the community as a whole because it is more inclusive, projects a more positive image, and removes the implication that Paganism is in some way less serious than other religions that one might investigate or incorporate into their lives.

  • I think we also have to resist applying a negative connotation to the seekers, tentative or otherwise, who continue to seek longer than others.

    I realized that as of this past August, I’ve been calling myself a Pagan for 15 years and I’m still a seeker; still a “dabbler.” At times, this bothers me and I move toward a more grounded liturgical and ceremonial practice but, seemingly inevitably, it’s not what I’m seeking and I go back to a more generalized, eclectic form of Paganism that leaves me feeling a little bland.

    The “dabbler” label, used negatively, has been tossed my way more than once. It always leaves me feeling bullied. As if I should “get a haircut and a get a real job” with respect to my practices. But, as you said in the post, John, not all of us are ready for that sort of practice or find it at the same time or in the same length of time.

    • I do hope you’ll keep dabbling until you find what it is you’re looking for.

  • Bianca Bradley

    Disagree. For myself, it’s pretty obvious between someone who is new and someone who is in it for superficial reasons. If you are coming to this religion thinking(because you can’t be arsed to do a bit of reading) that you will meet Tom Hiddleson, or thinking this is a craft re run or charmed, because again, you can’t be arsed to read, then why should I step on eggshells. Calling someone a dabbler then is highly approrpriate.

  • Bianca Bradley

    I would like to add, that not moving beyond Cunninghams Wicca for the solitair does not a dabbler make. We all move at our own pace at stuff. But if you think that spells of magic website is real, if you can’t be bothered to read and get to know the real Gods, not the fantasy creations(I’m leaving the whole pop culture thing alone), then dabbler applies and we shouldn’t hesitate to use it, for fear of hurting someones feelings.

    • My point is, let’s use the term carefully and mindfully.

      • Bianca Bradley

        What makes you think, those “serious” Pagans aren’t using it carefully or accurately?

        • See Aine’s original post.

          • Bianca Bradley

            That doesn’t prove that people are using it inaccurately or carefully.

          • fey paz octav

            are you just refusing to see aine’s point? are you just so willing to believe that paganism is an actually welcoming community that you will ignore and toss away actual truths? i spent a lot of time in this community not knowing what i wanted. i oathed myself to loki after one offering! i was that asshole who made tons of mistakes. now i have an altar and i pray mostly three times a day and there may be some mysticism going on. i was not a dabbler. i was confused and lost and attitudes like yours made me feel even more excluded and unwanted. not to mention me being queer, nonwhite, and mentally ill. do you not realize that your refusal to listen is part of the problem?!

          • Bianca Bradley

            I read Aines post. I disagree with the theorem. I don’t see a darn thing wrong with A. being exclusionary. and B. calling a spade a spade.

            Loki calls who he wills, and while I would caution newbies on oathing to him, without doing further reading, generally fortune favors the ignorant when it comes him, partially because he is who he is. However, it is not my issue, your issues. If you don’t make it known, that communicating with you requires some understanding, I’m not gonna sit there and assume you have issues. To do so, is rather condescending.

            I should like to point out, the fact that you are queer, would not have been an issue in being a Lokean, many of us have non traditional sexuality. I doubt the fact that you aren’t white, would also have been an issue, many of the ones i know really would not have cared. I have yet to meet a racist Lokean. The fact that you have mental issues(ok which Lokean doesn’t, theres got to be at least one) would not have been an issue. What would have been an issue depending on the Lokean and how serious we are(ironic cause we do play the sacred fool) is trying to fit Loki into Tom Hiddleson, or pretty much not bothering to listen to many of the kind people who would point out not only where you would be wrong but why and give you sources.

            I am talking ONLY of Lokeans. Mind you, we don’t always like each other. It would really have depended on WHERE you went.

            Mind you there are plenty of people who have those issues, who are quite capable of taking valid criticism. I treat you like an adult, not a child. I am not going to hold your or others hands. I will be civil, but I am not going to bend over backwards, when it comes to peoples ego. Which is what the whole debacle on calling someone a dabbler.

        • Aine

          Cause they/we pretty consistently haven’t demonstrated any carefulness when using the term? Maybe?

          Ah, don’t listen to me. I’m one of those people that ‘can’t be bothered to get to know the ~real Gods~’.

          • Bianca Bradley

            How is that? Because if you are referencing the whole pop culture thing, or what makes a polytheist fight, pretty sure their points were accurate. Don’t recall the term dabbler tossed about. Recall some heated things but nothing out of line.

          • Aine

            You seem preeeeetty focused on the pop culture thing. You do realize there exist other debates and fights outside of that, right? Where the term dabbler /has/ been used? Is there a reason you’re bringing up a debate where it wasn’t used?

          • Bianca Bradley

            Ummm I do believe you brought it up: ” Ah, don’t listen to me. I’m one of those people that ‘can’t be bothered to get to know the ~real Gods~’.”

            Having been part of dot pagan snark for a number of years, I am very aware of the various fights. The polytheist and pop culture one is one of the more recent that came to memory.

          • Aine

            So the actual issue that I was commenting on in my post wasn’t the one that came to your mind? Alright then.

          • Bianca Bradley

            I really don’t care if Teo converted or not, so no I haven’t really been giving it any viewing, of any particular drama storm in that area. Religion is a personal choice and it really isn’t any of my business nor anyone else’s on why he did what he did. Since this topic was a more in general piece, my points stand.

            I will say though, no people don’t get to be uncomfortable if Teo converts. IT isn’t about respect, it’s about whether or not it is anyones business. It isn’t. It is his and his alone.

            It wouldn’t be anyones business if you decided one day to leave the otherfaith and your 4 gods, and become a Shinto Buddhist. It is your decision and no one really gets to say anything(oh they will, but again it isn’t their business to do so) nor should they have the right to complain about being hurt or anything else. It isn’t anyones business, even if you write about it. It’s a personal journey.

            There is a communication term for this. Boundaries.

          • Aine

            I think if you establish yourself as a public persona or try to speak for communities then, yeah, people get to respond. If you’re blogging about your religion, you’re making your religion other people’s business.

            And because I’m a priestess and oracle, it dang well /is/ other people’s business if I just up and decide to convert. It’s other people’s business even if I take a long while and eventually decide to leave. Cause I have obligations, to my community. I’m not walking this road alone.

            But I doubt we’ll ever agree on this, and that’s fine.

          • Bianca Bradley

            Diana Princess of Wales was a public persona. It wasn’t anyones business when she and Prince Charles decided they no longer wanted to be married. It was their personal decision. Yes people gossipped about it, but it frankly wasn’t their business and they should have kept their noses out of it.

            Just because Teo Bishop is well followed, doesn’t make it anyones business when he chooses of his own accord to go to Christianity. That is between him and his Gods. If he had any oaths to any prior Gods, it’s between him and those Gods and whomever those Gods decide to bonk him over the head with a reminder.

            If he had anything he needed to clear up with the ADF, then it becomes between him and the ADF. How the reactions occur should be looked at, for those considering joining the ADF, otherwise it still is no ones business and we can and should keep our noses out of it and stop rubbernecking.

            If he leaves to join Christianity and it affects people, then they IMHO should take a good darn hard look and start asking why. Did he suddenly become an icky person, no, then what’s the issue. Is he annoying people by trying to convert them, no then what is the issue? Has he suddenly lost his marbles and joined a dangerous cult, then no, what is the issue?

            If you can’t play with him anymore now that he is a Christian, it says a lot more about that person then it does Teo. I’d also ask that person, why they are following the Jehovah Witness model to who you can have as friends and family, and why it is so imp to them to do the same in Paganism?

            I’d ask why they are that emotionally invested in another’s spiritual journey?

            As to whether it is the communities business if you convert, not it isn’t. Your community will find a replacement, even if the gods have to sigh, train yet another one, and the world will continue to turn.

            Frankly the larger Pagan community has far more imp issues then whether or not Teo decides to convert, or you, or John Beckett above. It isn’t theological discussion, it’s simply gossip imho.

          • Aine

            I disagree, but as I said, that’s fine. You’re not going to change how I think about this issue, I’m not going to change how you think about it.

  • kenofken

    I too had a path to “serious” paganism which took the better part of a decade. I don’t consider that time to have been spent in “dabbling” but rather discernment and learning. I see nothing useful or positive in applying that label to people based on whether we consider them to be dedicated or advanced enough by our own standards. Our various communities wasted an enormous amount of time and effort in the 60s through the 80s (and beyond) dismissing people who didn’t have the “right” lineage or a severe enough initiation, or the wrong spell book or who didn’t seem to do dark enough magick, or read the wrong authors and on and on. It’s a fundamentalist instinct we don’t need. People should just be reasonably honest with themselves and others about where they’re at with their study and practice and what they’re willing or prepared to do next, if anything. If that answer isn’t a good fit for you, don’t circle with that person or buy their book etc.

  • Aine

    I’ll be writing a longer post in response to some points you brought up here, but –

    I don’t actually think we should try to make a distinction between True Seekers and dabblers. That’s just setting the situation up again. I’m also hesitant/uncomfortable with the comment you brought up about teenagers – it’s overused and, honestly, most people I know started their religious lives as those sorts of teenagers.

    I’m going to cut myself off here because I’m pretty sure I could ramble on for 1K+ words, and that would be an obnoxious comment. Basically, your words have my thoughts turning (again) and I hope to dialog/write more about this topic.