Guilt By Association

Guilt By Association March 26, 2016

flowers 04.30.15The Pagan community is in the process of differentiation. We’ve come to understand that, no, we don’t all come from the Goddess and that any statement that begins with “all Pagans” is necessarily false. We’ve accepted this (mostly) and now we’re trying to sort out our various traditions and orders that gather around the principles and practices that are most meaningful to us. Hopefully, we will maintain good relations with other Pagan traditions and orders and continue to work together where we have common interests. This is a good and necessary part of becoming a mature religious movement.

We’re also trying to negotiate the outer bounds of the Pagan community: what is beyond the pale and completely unacceptable to our movement. While many of us strive to be non-judgmental, we all have things we will not tolerate: murder, rape, and child abuse are obvious examples.

In January, I wrote this post titled Racism Cannot Be Tolerated in response to a Heathen leader and blogger who attacked anti-racist efforts within Heathenry and who defended one of the most notorious racists in the wider Pagan world. I called for the blogger to be removed from Patheos Pagan and said “Racism is toxic to our religions and to our wider society. It cannot be tolerated.”

We must not be afraid to draw clear, bright lines around toxic beliefs, practices, groups, and individuals. But we must be careful and skillful where and how we draw them.

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The folks at Gods & Radicals have a new piece up titled Confronting the New Right. I assume it’s the work of Managing Editor Rhyd Wildermuth, but it’s unsigned so I don’t know, and in any case the “who” isn’t nearly as important as the “what.” It is a mostly necessary, mostly helpful piece with one major, damaging flaw.

It begins with a definition of the New Right:

The New Right is a Anglo-European intellectual, political, social, and cultural movement gaining influence within Paganism, Polytheism, Heathenism, and the Occult communities. Generally called either ‘proto-fascists’ or ‘crypto-fascists,’ their ideology mirrors many aspects of what we might call ‘traditional’ Fascists, though only a few on the New Right claim that identity.

While I have serious doubts as to just how much influence the New Right is gaining within the Pagan community (which tends to be extremely liberal, though not universally so), there is no question these people are using Pagan traditions, practices, and symbols to promote their vile ideologies. Gods & Radicals is right to shine a light on them – they often couch their racist and fascist ideas in softer terms that may not be noticeable to beginners until they’re already involved.

The problem comes when Gods & Radicals asks “What is the New Right’s influence on Paganism?” It lists six traditions whose beliefs and practices have some intersection with those of New Right groups. They are: Dianic and Goddess Spirituality; Druidry; Reconstructionism; Devotional Polytheism; Heathenism, Asatru, and ‘Northern Traditions’; and Occult/Witch/High Magic Traditions.

By my guess that’s about 98% of the Pagan movement. Although the article praises OBOD, Reclaiming, and Feri as traditions that “are much more immune to the New Right’s influence,” the list reads a lot like “everybody but us.”

In his Laws of Magic, Isaac Bonewits said “The Law of Association … is one of the most important of the magical Laws and is directly connected to most of the others.” Why do beer commercials (especially the mass market macrobrews) feature attractive young people doing fun stuff? Because the evil sorcerers of Madison Avenue know that if you see their ads, your subconscious will associate their product with sex, wealth, and good times, and you’ll be more likely to buy it.

The section has disclaimers at the beginning and the end: “it should be noted that none of these traditions are inherently aligned with the New Right.” The problem – as any competent magician should know – is that association is strong and disclaimers don’t work. In my earliest baby Pagan days, I was taught that magic doesn’t understand “not” – always write your spells using positive language.

This article associates many of our most meaningful and vibrant traditions with some of the most vile ideologies lurking at the edges of our community. It’s no wonder many Pagans and polytheists who have read this piece are upset. It’s a call for ideological purity reminiscent of McCarthyism, and if taken too far (and someone somewhere always takes things too far) it can lead to witch hunts. The irony of witches leading witch hunts would be amusing if this wasn’t so serious.

Yes, I just did my own bit of association. This may not have been the message Gods & Radicals intended to send, but it’s the message that was received. Not all of my baby Pagan instruction was right – intention isn’t everything.

Draw your circles wide enough and you will find that every group has some intersection with every other group. That makes for some interesting conversation, but unless those intersections involve foundational assumptions and goals, they’re probably not very relevant. Wiccans and Catholics both use chalices – I don’t think that says anything meaningful about Wicca or Catholicism. Baptists and Unitarian Universalists both practice congregational polity – that doesn’t say anything about their theology or their politics.

Some of these intersections are tenuous and their inclusion here casts aspersion on beliefs and practices that are meaningful and sacred to some of us. Yes, fascists and racists may abuse them, but that does not make them dangerous in and of themselves. As Pagans, we know that fire can warm our bodies and cook our food, and it can also destroy our homes. We know that water is necessary for life, but it can also drown us.

The ADF concept of hearth culture is a way in which we can connect to our ancient ancestors. By delving deeply into how they lived and worshiped, we can form authentic relationships with them, and we can re-learn and rediscover ways of thinking that have been wiped out by centuries of monotheistic domination. This adds strength and authenticity to our own beliefs and practices. Yes, taken too far it can become insular and racist, but I don’t see that in ADF, and I don’t see it in most forms of Heathenry. The problem is not with hearth cultures, it is with the abuse of hearth cultures by racists.

The paragraph on Devotional Polytheism says

Because Devotional Polytheism places final authority in ‘the gods’ and emphasizes hierarchical relationships (between human and god, priest and devotee), ethical questions cannot be challenged by concerned people because ‘the gods will it.’

This sounds dangerous… except that I’ve never seen it. Oh, I’ve seen a few polytheists say “this is what Odin wants for me and I can’t challenge it” but I’ve never seen any of those people go on to say “and neither can you.” And if they did, I expect the response would be “but Odin told me something different, so I’m going to listen to Him and not you.”

I argue that we retain our sovereignty even before the Gods. There are some devotional polytheists who disagree with me, but that does not stop us from working and worshiping together.

The New Right’s idea that “unequal relations between race, caste, and class are the way Nature intended” is unsupported by logic or evidence and has long been used to justify the privileges of the strong and powerful. I am in complete agreement with Gods & Radical’s statement that “every assumption about innate and natural authority or position must be dismantled.”

But there is still a place for hierarchy in an ethical society. If I go mountain climbing, I’m going to listen to my guides. If they give me an order on the side of a rock face, I’m going to follow it. They know more about mountain climbing and about this particular mountain than I do. There is a hierarchy here, not based on “innate and natural authority” but on knowledge and experience. Challenging that hierarchy may be fatal.

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Likewise, there is a hierarchy of knowledge and experience in religious matters. I’m a sworn priest of two Gods and I’m on good terms with several others. If I need Their assistance I don’t need the help of any other person. But if for some reason I need to contact one of the Afro-Caribbean deities, I’m going to talk to one of Their priests. I may ask the priest to introduce me, or even to intercede for me. I don’t know those Gods, I don’t know the Afro-Caribbean culture, and it would be foolish and disrespectful for me to assume I do.

Hierarchy is like any other human institution – it can be helpful if it’s done right, and harmful if it’s not. Likewise, egalitarianism is a worthy goal, and when done right it’s beautiful and empowering. When it’s done wrong it leads to paralysis and chaos.

Gods & Radicals should be retitled “Radicals With Gods.” They are Pagans (mostly), but their first priority is the elimination of capitalism, which they see as the greatest destructive force in the world. I have more than a little sympathy with their goals, although I frequently disagree with their methods. And as I like to remind Rhyd, if you want me to help you burn it all down, you’re going to have to tell me what you’re going to build in its place. I remember the old banana republic joke: “after the revolution things will be different. Not better, just different.”

Rhyd and his compatriots at Gods & Radicals put their politics first, and that’s fine. But some of us put our Gods first. Or we put Nature first. Or we put our magic first. Or we put our families and our communities first. And some of us agree with their diagnosis of the world’s ills but strongly disagree with their prescription. The acceptance of the genuine existence of many Gods or the reverence of Nature does not lead directly to the conclusion that Marxism and anarchy are the only or even the best approaches to politics.

This is part of our Pagan differentiation, which is a good and necessary process.

I do not think the writer(s) of this article intended to insult Druids, Reconstructionists, Polytheists, and others, but that’s what they did, because they associated our traditions and practices with some of the most vile and damaging individuals and ideologies in our world. The worthy goal of confronting the New Right cannot be allowed to turn into a crusade for purity.

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