Solstice Series: Intra-Pagan Dialogue and Cooperation

Solstice Series: Intra-Pagan Dialogue and Cooperation December 10, 2010

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in December we will be asking people questions about Paganism and Pagan religions and culture. Want to weigh in? Find the next question at the bottom of this post!

There is a rather firm ideological and almost tribal divide between many of our traditions. Wiccans and Heathens, for example. Does this division serve a positive purpose? Or is the division harmful?

This so far has been an uncomfortable question and some people did not want to respond. There are those who deny a pan-Pagan community exists and discourage pan-Pagan efforts, advocating stronger division and more insular communities. I think there are pros and cons for when it comes to intra-Pagan cooperation and outreach. Traditions need to draw firm lines to maintain their unique identity, yet for both political and interfaith reasons we need to have a better understanding of each other so we can work together towards mutually beneficial goals, such as establishing Pagan military chaplains. I think I worded this question badlyand for that I apologize. perhaps I should have asked this instead:

How do we balance maintaining our unique traditions with intra-Pagan dialogue, projects and interfaith outreach? How do we assert our uniqueness while still working together towards mutually beneficial goals?

Here are the responses to the original question. Feel free to add your own response in comments.

Diotima Sophia writes:

Like almost anything, the divide between traditions can be either useful or harmful, depending on how it is used.

How it can be harmful, we all know – we need only look in the newspapers or turn on the TV or radio to see the results of religious disagreements. And often, the results are bloodiest between those whose religions ostensibly proclaim peace. However, I suspect this is merely because there are more people in those religions at the moment; left to themselves, humans will generally find something to fight with each other about, and religion is as good an excuse as any. The differences between our beliefs provide a simple rallying cry for hatred, segregation, what the sociologists call “othering” – which is a fancy name for the playground action of saying, “You are not one of us”. Adults, acting in precisely the same manner as Dr. Seuss’ star bellied sneetches.

However, these divisions can also be positive, or rather, can be used in a positive manner. Once one steps beyond the confines of the fanatic and the zealot, differences afford, at the most basic level, something to talk about. At higher levels, they provide that most human of elements: a platform for learning.

In the area where I live, I see people proclaiming their religious differences daily, and I realise how little I know. I have no idea if different coloured turbans, for instance, symbolise different things – there is something there for me to learn.

A teacher of my acquaintance was once bold enough to wear a symbol of his beliefs to school, and a student noticed his awen. Her question to him epitomises, for me, what ideological differences can mean, even if they so rarely do. She looked at the symbol, looked at her teacher, and said, “What does it require of you?”

And that, to me, is a useful starting point for ideological discussions – which are the best and brightest outcome of these differences. If we were to concentrate on what our beliefs require of us, and then to find out what the beliefs of others require of them, I’d suggest the result would be two-fold.

Firstly, we would learn about other ways of doing things, other ways of being, and in learning, we would almost certainly find a new respect for other ways – especially if the emphasis is on what those ways of being require of people.

Secondly, if we really were to articulate what it is our beliefs require of us, and share those requirements with others, we might be more tempted to live up to those requirements. And to support others, as they lived up to theirs.

Heady stuff – but certainly a better way forward than what we have now.

Morgan Daimler, gythia of the Stormlight Kindred, responds:

I think it depends on how the division is approached. It is healthy to have a clear sense of self and self-definition, but not when that identity is based off of not being someone else. I think the division between different traditions is healthy in the sense that each tradition should be unique and clearly it’s own entity; in other words each tradition should set its own boundaries for what that tradition is and isn’t and these definitions often divide one group from another. This becomes unhealthy when the view shifts from positive definitions of “we are this” to negatives; it is never constructive when a group creates a division by defining itself as not something else. Whether it’s Wiccans defining themselves as not Satanists, or Heathens defining themselves as not Wiccans, when a group defines itself with a “not” it automatically sets itself at odds with the group it isn’t and creates a false tension. This tension translates into a division that grows out of hostility and fear, not out of healthy self-definition. After all, if I am confident in what my tradition is then why should I feel the need to attack other people’s beliefs? Positive division nurtures respect of others, while negative division creates suspicion and defensiveness.

Kathy Nance writes:

My earliest experiences with Pagan groups were happily ecumenical.At that time in St. Louis, a group called the Council of Alternative Spiritual Traditions (C.A.S.T.) hosted monthly Open Full Moons, with a different group doing ritual in its way each month. Between 40 and 60 Pagans would attend. A few groups, like Diana’s Grove, would draw 80 or more.

Unfortunately, C.A.S.T. and the Open Full Moons are no more. The group fell to a combination familiar to many volunteer organizations—personality conflicts, volunteer burn-out, and financial difficulties. It did not fall to tribal differences.

The most successful event C.A.S.T. hosted was the annual St. Louis Pagan Picnic. It started as a small potluck, and today is a two-day festival drawing between 3,000 and 4,000 with no admission charge. It’s been operated most recently by Yarrow Coven and volunteers of various traditions, and this year was handed off to another cross-tradition group, St. Louis Pagan Events.

So in my experience, Pagans working together across traditions can do things of great value to their local communities. There were people, including me, who had never been to a ritual until we attended an Open Full Moon. There are people I meet every year at Pagan Picnic who’ve never seen another Pagan. They are ravenous for fellowship, desperate to know they’re not alone.

I remember being one of those people. I remember reading Drawing Down the Moon and assuming that all the Pagans must be in California, because there sure couldn’t be any in the conservative Midwest. It was years before I became spiritually hungry enough to forage for groups. In those intervening years, a couple large metaphysical shops opened in St. Louis which hosted classes and discussion groups for Pagans. Between those shops and the events hosted by groups of Pagans willing to set aside what I can only call doctrinal differences, I was able to find a spiritual home.

The groups that participated in Open Full Moons usually were covens and circles that practiced alone the rest of the year. I now work with a small group and communicate on line with others who follow our path. I find great fulfillment in this. But we have no illusions about being able to pull off a large annual festival or monthly open services. That kind of thing takes cooperation.

I recently had the good fortune to interview Starhawk. In part of the conversation, she lamented that there are currently no Pagan institutions comparable to those of other religious groups. No Pagan retirement or nursing homes or schools, for example. She said she thinks those projects will have to be among those undertaken by the next wave of Paganism.

I agree with her. And it will take cooperation among many paths to do that. As a faith path, we’re too new and too small for each little tribe to provide that kind of infrastructure to its members. It will take great maturity for us to cooperate on this scale. I have every confidence we can do it.

Tribes have one kind of strength. But a gathering of the tribes is mighty.

As for me? Well, every day I work with Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Heathens, Hellenists and other religious folk. I have found it a blessing to be in friendly, constructive and open dialogue with other faiths, and I have found it actually makes me more grounded in and committed to my own. So many times I have found something of value in other religious traditions and my response is to search for it’s expression in my own religion. It’s given me a deeper appreciation and understanding of the expanses and limits of Wicca. By understanding traditions other than my own I become better at interacting with people of other faiths and explaining my own tradition to them.

Next question:

Assuming you are a convert to Paganism, how has your relation to, and perspective of, your former faith evolved?

If you’d like to weigh in just e-mail me your short response (250-500 words) before Dec 13th. It’s sfoster at

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The ancient Romans were talented at swiping the ideas of other tribes and making them their own. In fact, the Romans were so good at this that they were originally not Romans at all; they were Etruscan. From the Greeks, they borrowed their gods and as they went on their merry way, they continued to adopt the gods of every tribe they encountered. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Colosseum… They stopped adopting and started adapting these foreign gods, equating them with their own rather than adopting them outright. The Egyptian culture was old enough and documented enough that we can still separate the Egyptian deities from the Greco-Roman, but the Gaelic Celts got the short end of the stick, having an oral tradition rather than a written one. As their gods were renamed for their Roman equivalent, the origins of the gods were lost more often than not. Reconstructionist Neo-Pagans have a heck of a time trying to separate the Roman spice from the Celtic stew.

    While this acceptance of the gods of other religions is a testament to tolerance, and enlightened for its time, it has contributed to our habit of “appropriation.” As neo-Paganism continues to evolve, we will see a great deal more of this happening. The practice is all well and good when there is an understanding of the idea being adopted, but when you have “new age” psychobabble mixing with Native American theology, for example, there is the potential for disaster as we saw with the deaths in the “sweat lodge” run by James Ray. Appropriation is probably unavoidable in the Information Age, but what is more likely to cause offense is appropriation without understanding or respect.

    As so many Pagans are coming to the religion as converts at this time, scholarship becomes more and more important. Not to be offensive, but most of us came from a Christian upbringing, where we were encouraged not to think for ourselves but to blindly and faithfully follow our religious leaders. One of the attractions of Pagan religion is our right to be solitary practitioners, but with this right also comes the necessity of doing your own research and not allowing others to tell you what to think or believe. Have Pagans traded one shepherd for another? A “tradition” is all well and good, but it also encourages a dogmatic approached, something else we converts have escaped.

    In the end, there are good points and bad points to the various Pagan outlooks. I do not feel there can be any positive interaction without understanding and respect. Let us not compound the error of the Romans in blind appropriation. A blurring of the history behind a particular practice does not equate with either understanding or respect, and as can be seen in recent history, it can even prove to be dangerous.

  • Minks

    Oh, get over your individual self/selves, Following a path, is to accept your own unique route. Accept that you are in your own place, of your own making even. Remember the value of compassion and that you would not be here had others not shown it to you. If you want a hierarchical religion to justify the faults of mankind and enable you to ignore the fundamental mistakes then you really are missing the point and not anywhere in harmony with your planet – in which case you have hardly learnt your lessons here on planet earth yet. Hmm, is it adolescence that thinks it should and can change the world? Is it staying power and constancy that actually makes a difference in the long term, which is where it counts?

    Long life, good heath and beautiful moments

  • Candace, some of your information is not correct. The Romans had deities that were perfectly “their own” before they started syncretizing some of them with either Greek or Etruscan deities; further ones were adopted wholesale from those other cultures. Jupiter, Mars, and Minverva existed in Roman culture long before the myths of Zeus, Ares, and Athena were then assigned to them after the conquering of Greece, etc. (And, oftentimes, traces of their earlier characters still remain–Mars as an agricultural deity, for example.)

    The “Gaelic Celts” never came into contact with the Romans (except in very small ways, mostly via trade), and thus none of their deities are recorded from the Roman period. When Christianity came along, then some of them were written down, and never in syncretized forms–only Ogma, Lug, An Dagda, etc. There are occasions, of course, in medieval literature when classical names are given, but the reality behind these is probably questionable–saying that Medb and Ailill made sacrifices via their druids to Iobh, Mairt, Apaill, and Os (Jove, Mars, Apollo and Osiris) is clearly not accurate at all, but they had no other information to use (or the author in that case was trying to show off his classical learning and make the ancient Irish look better by doing so), and they weren’t going to say that sacrifices were being made to Lug, An Dagda, and so forth because they were familiar “characters” in their literature at that point, and not “gods.”

    Are you sure you don’t mean the Gauls and the Britons, rather than the “Gaelic Celts”? Names do survive of deities from those periods, but again, they are syncretized–Vinotonus Silvanus, Mars Cicollos, Sulis Minerva, Apollo Grannus, Apollo Maponus, etc. In Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallicum, he does give a list of the Gaulish pantheon using only Roman names (e.g. Mercury being their most important god, etc.), but that’s very different than what one finds in actual inscriptions that can be studied archaeologically, etc.

  • My experience in working with students at a Pagan seminary is that students need one of the following to be effective pan-Pagan ministers:

    1. A tradition
    2. A deep personal spirituality, usually grown through decades of challenging life experience

    Students who are attempting to serve as community leaders without either of these seem to lack a spiritual center, which seminary training cannot give them. We train people in the skills that they need to be professional clergy — counseling, interfaith skills, knowledge of the pan-Pagan movement, public ritual skills, nonprofit administration, etc. We do not teach people how to connect to the Gods or the God/dess or advocate for their choosing a specific path. Students bring the Gods to the seminary; the seminary doesn’t bring the Gods to them.

    For this reason, I think the Pagan community needs its traditions. Without commitment to a specific path, spiritual growth is slower and more convoluted. Students flounder in their attempts to move into leadership because eclectic Paganism, while not completely without boundaries or definition, is very loose in structure — more of an umbrella for a variety of traditions and individuals than a religion in and of itself. Young Pagans without a tradition often don’t seem to have enough spiritual substance of their own in order to have meaningful dialogue with those who have been trained in a tradition and whose who (through decades of experimenting with half a dozen religious traditions, raising a family, doing community service, and probably having a bit of therapy) have developed a mature spirituality that is sufficiently self-sustaining so as not to need a tradition.

    My suspicion is that the spirituality of my mature but eclectic students is more durable than the tradition-trained spirituality of my younger students. Nevertheless, there is something about the process of committing to a tradition that deepens one’s experience immensely and speeds the process of becoming ready for leadership. Although having well-boundaried traditions also leads to a certain amount of conflict and infighting in the Pagan community, as traditions strive to differentiate themselves from each other, I think they’re necessary. To balance the benefits of having separate traditions, Pagan leaders simply have to work to find areas where the interests of different traditions overlap, and to advocate for unity around those. We are a small movement, even if we are growing rapidly, and we lose our ability to protect our rights in our wider societies if we refuse to support each other.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    As far as division or working together, I think it is yes about what we say and believe and more about what we actually do.

    I publish and online E-zine called ACTION and interview Pagans and Heathens from as many traditions as I can find out. It is presented on line free to all readers.

    I happen to be Wiccan so at first I only had contacts with other Wiccans. So I had to go online and get onto Heathen and Druid forums and ask for their suggestions.

    At first I was seen as a unknown outsider, but as I keep coming pack, and would post information of interest to that group, I found Heathens and Druids who were interested in talking to other people.

    I try to get a bit of background information about the people that I interview so I can create questions about the things that they do and are interested in. Then I create questions that help them tell their stories.

    Once I get their answers, I do whatever editing is needed, then send the corrected copy back for them to check over and change if they like. I want them comfortable with the final interview.

    I don’t care what my opinion is of them, it is for my readers to decide what is interesting, important, and true. I do not want to get in my reader’s way, nor in the way of the people that I interview.

    As a result over the years there are now some 1500 + readers in the USA, North America, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, Isarel that I know of and I have interviewed people even in Russia.

    These people can read what the people in other traditions say about themselves with no filter put in place by me. Meanwhile the readers and the people that I interview pass on me suggestions of other people interesting to interview people that I would never know about otherwise.

    So we, I, my readers, and my interviewees, are all helping people find out about each other. All of us are equally important to the process.

    So perhaps the real question is how can each of us help our different traditions work to together for our mutual interest without the need to attack our differences? We each have the choice to be part of the solution, or part of the problem, but we are never helpless. Our action is far more important than our words.

    Meanwhile I have to get my Yule issue ready before I take off for another eye operation.