Sunday’s post Dealing With Door Knockers: A Pagan Guide to Engaging With Proselytizers (Or Not) included one short but very important line that virtually all Pagans agree with, but that we rarely discuss: “Paganism is not a proselytizing religion.” We giggle at the memes asking “have you accepted Pan as your lord and satyr?” but the idea of seriously having that conversation borders on nonsensical. I think it’s worth exploring why that is.
I usually avoid disclaimers, but I’ll add a couple here. Paganism is many religions, not one. My polytheist Paganism is one version, not the only one. If some of these reasons don’t resonate with you, then they don’t – that doesn’t mean I think you’re wrong. If you have other reasons, by all means articulate them in the comments section – more is good.
And with that out of the way, let’s look at why Pagans don’t proselytize.
What is proselytizing, anyway?
The dictionary definition of “proselytize” is rather neutral: “to recruit or convert especially to a new faith, institution, or cause.” But there’s a big difference between simply having a presence in the “marketplace of religions” and the kind of high-pressure, fear and guilt based sales pitches of the conservative versions of Christianity and Islam.
Cable TV companies advertise on broadcast TV, on the internet, and in other places where they can be seen. “This is what we offer, isn’t it great?” If you want cable TV, you can call them up, ask for their prices, and if you like what you hear, sign up for their service. That’s rather different from someone knocking on your door, launching into a sales pitch, and promising you a “special deal” but only if you’ll sign right now.
If you’re interested in a particular religion, you’ll have no trouble finding information about it. That’s one of the reasons I like being a part of Patheos – it puts Pagans on the same platform with everyone else. But researching a new religion at your own pace is one thing: having someone show up at your door telling you to convert to their religion or burn in hell is quite another. Even if they don’t put it that way, it’s clear that’s what they mean.
Proselytizing, then, isn’t just religious recruitment. It’s aggressive religious recruitment that relies heavily on manipulative sales techniques, something Pagans find abhorrent.
Paganism isn’t about believing the “right” things
The idea that religion is all about believing the “right” things so you can end up in the good afterlife and not the bad afterlife is a very recent, very Western idea. For most people in most places throughout most of history, religion was and is about what you do, who you are, and whose you are.
There is no “right” religion – there are only different religions.
Which is not to say that all religions are the same, or that they’re all equally right. Clearly that’s not the case – there’s not much that’s right about the religion of the Westboro Baptist Church.
But how can we make an objective case that Evangelical Christianity is better than Zen Buddhism, or that Sunni Islam is better than Gardnerian Wicca? That’s not comparing apples to oranges, it’s comparing apples to okra – they’re both foods from plants, but that’s where the similarities end. Some people are a better fit with one, some with another… and some with none.
Religious coercion is unethical
Most religions at least pay lip service to the idea of religious freedom. The Quran says “No compulsion is there in religion” (Surah 2:256). The mythology of the United States begins with the Pilgrims coming to America so they could worship according to the dictates of their consciences.
Telling someone they should change their religion is like telling them they should change their family, their nation, or their language. It’s part of who and what they are – we have no right to impose our ways on others. If they freely choose to change, that’s their right. But such a choice must be truly free, not made at the point of a gun – either literally or metaphorically.
Religion is inherently uncertain
Religion is humanity’s attempt to deal with the big questions of life: where do we come from? Why are we here? What happens after death? How should we live?
Notice I said “deal with” and not “answer.” For all our experiences of death, our thoughts about death, and our conversations with the dead, ultimately we don’t know what happens after death. Different religions and cultures have different ideas. I have my own ideas. But we have no way of knowing.
Our virtues and values tell us what is good in life, based on generations of experience and collective wisdom. But many times we find ourselves forced to choose between competing virtues, with no clear answer. Our desire to make things simple, to make them black and white, has resulted in a flood of laws, rule, and cultural norms that are helpful to some but harmful to others – and that are easily exploited by those seeking power for themselves.
Religious questions have no certain answers and they never will. Pagans understand this – proselytizing religions don’t.
Many Gods, many ways
The reasons described above could apply to almost any religion, at least those who aren’t sure they have sole possession of the One True Way. But Pagans – especially those of us who are polytheists – have other reasons as well.
If there was only one God, perhaps it could be argued that everyone should understand and worship that God in the same way. But for those of us who acknowledge the reality of the Many Gods, such an idea is unthinkable.
Different Gods call different people to worship and work with Them in different ways. I worship Cernunnos and I worship the Morrigan. They share many of the same values, but ultimately They are different deities with different priorities. I have an occasional but long relationship with some of the Gods of Egypt. They are very different from Cernunnos and the Morrigan. They want different things from me and They teach me different things in return.
The people of ancient Egypt and the people of the ancient Celtic lands did not relate to their Gods in the same way. Modern Pagans do the same.
Many Gods, many ways.
Publicize, don’t proselytize
At some point, the ethical concerns around proselytizing give way to demographic concerns. Put simply, conversions are the lifeblood of any religion, at least in the contemporary West. Population growth is slowing (which is a good and necessary thing) – any religion that counts on childbirth for its survival is doomed.
Conversion is a fact of religious life. Some of our Pagan ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, but for many, a few here and a few there converted voluntarily, and after a while there were no Pagans left. As historian Ronald Hutton said “the more aggressive, determined and monopolistic religion had the edge over its rivals, simply because it cared more about winning.”
If we do not participate in the marketplace of religions, we will never reach a critical mass – the numbers required to insure continued existence.
And that urgency is still no ethical justification for proselytizing.
So we publicize. We write books and blogs. We record music and make videos. We hold public rituals and we talk to anyone and everyone who asks questions. We let people know “here we are – you’re welcome if you want to join us.”
[Yes, some Pagan traditions are still secretive, and I’m not saying we should change that. Not everything is for public consumption. But some things are.]
But we leave the aggressive, invasive, fear-and-guilt based, religious salemanship to others. It’s simply not a part of Paganism.