The Non-Negotiables of My Religion

The Non-Negotiables of My Religion March 22, 2017

The new Pagan Bloggers site is up and running and I could not be happier with their first blog post: Thinking Theologically: The Concept of Non-Negotiables by L.V. Boloix. The essay is excellent and I encourage you to read it in its entirety, but here’s a key excerpt for the purposes of my own post:

What exactly makes a religion – and its theology – absolutely distinguishable from another? What are the cornerstones that, if removed from the base, would destroy the entire building? In short, a non-negotiable is a section of the foundation: an idea, a concept, a belief that is necessary to the well-being, identity, and structure of a religion. It is the thing that cannot be negotiated with under any circumstances, precisely because it is the most crucial, fundamental truth about what you believe and how you believe and act in it.

Non-negotiables vary widely from religion to religion. Given that so many of our Pagan and polytheist religions are in their infancy, non-negotiables can vary from individual to individual. So I wasn’t even finished reading this post when I started wondering “what are the non-negotiables of my religion?”

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Before I try to answer that, I need to address the question “what is my religion?” I write about it all the time, but I’ve stopped trying to name it. I’ve described it as “ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public polytheism.” It’s polytheism, but it’s a particular flavor of polytheism that is yet unnamed.

My first thoughts led me back to this piece from early February titled How a Commitment to Facts and Truth Led Me to Paganism. That essay articulated three key principles: facts are sacred, we should follow where the facts lead, and truth is built on facts. But those are not elements of my religion – those are my deepest core values. Those core values led me to Paganism, but they could have led me to pretty much any religion with the exception of the various fundamentalisms.

I think confusion about core values vs. non-negotiables was one of the primary sources of the discord on this blog last year. I certainly didn’t do a very good job of articulating the differences. My core values are part of who I am. My religious non-negotiables are the truth claims that flow from my core values.

I have three non-negotiables. If I abandoned or significantly changed any of these three concepts, I would be practicing a different religion.


I take a simple, intuitive approach to animism:

We intuitively recognize something of ourselves in cats and dogs, in plants and trees, and if we’re paying really close attention, in mountains and rivers. These aren’t things, they’re persons. They have inherent value and worth that does not depend on their usefulness or desirability to humans. Whatever animates us also animates cats and dogs, trees and rocks, rivers and storms.

Everything has a spirit. Or perhaps, everything is a spirit – if there are beings that are pure spirit, perhaps that means spirit is the primary form of life. That’s another post for another time, and in any case I’m more than willing to negotiate the question of whether body and spirit are separable, and if so, what that separability (or lack thereof) means.

But I’m not willing to negotiate the idea that we live in an inspirited world, or the idea that all of these spirits are persons with their own inherent sovereignty and worth. If I changed that, I wouldn’t be practicing the same religion.

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If you were around for the polytheist-atheist debates in 2015, you will not be the least bit surprised to find polytheism on my list of non-negotiables. While I have no desire to re-open those arguments, I retain the definition that came out of them: polytheism is the religious regard for many real Gods.

I’m a hard polytheist: the many Gods are distinct, individual beings. They are not aspects of one great God/dess. They are not archetypes, metaphors, or psychological constructs. I am certainly open to speculation about Their nature, but Their individuality and Their sovereignty is non-negotiable.

I’m a devotional polytheist: the Gods are worthy of our respect and devotion. Not because “They’re Gods and we aren’t” but because what They do is worthy of worship and honor. We can debate what it means to worship the Gods and how we should (and shouldn’t) worship Them, but the need to honor Them with our devotion is non-negotiable.

You may disagree with me about these points – that’s fine. Who knows – you may be right, or at least more right than I am. But if you disagree with me on these points, we are practicing different religions. The religious regard for many real Gods is a non-negotiable of my religion.

Respectful and Reciprocal Relationships

Animism says we live in an world of spirits. Polytheism says some spirits are mighty, wise, and deserving of our honor. How should we relate to these spirits, especially given that we too are spiritual beings?

Some religions claim their God demands submission and subservience (and I’m not talking about Islam, or at least, not only Islam). Some religions claim the Gods and spirits must be appeased and placated with costly sacrifices. Some claim there is a hierarchy of authority and we can dominate and exploit “lesser” spirits at our will, or at least, as we are able.

I understand some ancient pagan religions were built on these ideas of hierarchy. I understand some contemporary Pagans and polytheists think they’re important. They are welcome to them, but I reject them as unethical and unhelpful.

All beings possess inherent sovereignty – the right to rule their own lives and the responsibility to rule them rightly. If we expect them to respect our sovereignty, we must respect theirs. Rather than finding our place in some great hierarchy, we form and maintain respectful and reciprocal relationships.

The Gods and spirits are not vending machines. We don’t make offerings so They’ll give us stuff. We make offerings because They are mighty, virtuous beings who make our lives better by Their very presence. I am in the service of the Morrigan because She helped me in some difficult times, and then She asked me to reciprocate. That relationship has been rewarding and I stopped keeping score a long time ago (it’s also been difficult, but most rewarding things are).

This is not a naïve concept. I try to have respectful and reciprocal relationships with my human neighbors, but I also have locks, alarms, and weapons. If any person – human or otherwise – tries to deny our sovereignty or the sovereignty of others, we must respond appropriately.

But that is an as-needed response, not a default approach. Respectful and reciprocal relationships are a non-negotiable part of my religion.

The Big Tent Has No Non-Negotiables

There are no theological non-negotiables at Pantheacon. There is no creedal test to dance the Maypole. If you come to our Imbolc circle and pour an offering to Brighid, no one will ask if you think She’s an individual or an aspect, or for that matter, if you think She’s a Christian saint. There is value in emphasizing orthopraxy over orthodoxy.

But if you truly want to work with Brighid, you need a clear concept of who and what She is. We don’t need the “right” answer (though we need to avoid answers that are clearly wrong) but we do need a good, consistent answer.

These are my religious non-negotiables. What – if any – are yours?

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