Curious Antipathy: The Ongoing Struggle to Define Modern Paganism

Modern Pagan belief is largely founded on personal spiritual experience. Though there is, sadly, a great deal of infighting about what constitutes authentic experience, and near constant accusations of cultural appropriation, Modern Paganism marks a return of spiritual authority to the lay practitioner. Each Pagan has a unique and personal relationship not simply to the divine, but to discrete deities and spiritual beings. Paganism allows us not only to worship God as we choose, but to choose which Gods to worship. Essentially, Paganism is about building our own relationships with Divinity distinct of church structure. I am not, of course, saying, that everyone is therefore correct, no matter what they do, merely that Modern Paganism allows us much more spiritual freedom than many of us have ever experienced. There are still rights and wrongs, those concepts have simply been recontextualized.

From that basis, I find it baffling that so many of us spend so much energy trying to dismantle Christianity. We are all familiar with the various arguments against the authenticity of the Bible, with the historical malfeasance of the various churches and of the contemporary issues which many Christian faiths continue to struggle with or blatantly ignore. However, none of this says anything about the authenticity of the spiritual experience of Christians. How many of our source texts can evade the critiques which we level at the Bible? None. Not a single one. We talk about the lack of historic references to Jesus and the absence of archaeological evidence for the events depict in the Hebrew Testament, but how many trustworthy historical references and archaeological proofs are there for our own beliefs? Why do we require this kind of evidence from Christians, but not from ourselves?

I myself was raised in what I casually refer to as a cult. I personally understand the desire to distance ourselves as much as possible from Christianity. My experience was difficult and painful and I am still recovering from a lot of the trauma that I experienced. However, the reason why I eventually left that church had almost nothing to do with my personal struggle. The more I spoke to my fellow church members and to people of various faiths, the more I came to realize that my personal faith was simply not strong enough to justify my continued identification with that church. That itself was a traumatic experience. I had used that identification as a badge throughout much of my childhood. I hid behind it and used it to excuse my alienation from my classmates and peers and to disguise the things I found shameful about myself. That breakage was just as affecting as the religion itself. For years, I felt as though I had no solid identity. Eventually, this spurred me to do a great deal of personal reflection, and to figure out what I myself needed to foster and support my spirituality, my faith. I emerged from Christianity, and am emphatically not Christian, but that history had a profound effect on me and played a vital part in my spiritual development. While Christianity caused me profound pain, I know that without that experience I would not be the man I am today, a man that, for the most part, I am proud to be.

I think that we, as Pagans, need to accept our personal histories and understand the ways in which they continue to influence not only our personal progression, but also our progression as a culture. We need to resist the urge to attack the faiths with which we cohabitate. Of course, we feel persecution and alienation in contemporary culture largely as a result of the high saturation of Christian faiths in the Western World. That said, we do ourselves no favors by placing ourselves explicitly at odds with the people to whom we are trying to prove our authenticity, our equality. It is especially problematic when we, as a faith community, co-opt the strategies of the Atheist movement to attack our perceived enemies. We cannot require hard evidence of faith. We cannot demand proof which we ourselves cannot provide.

If we are willing to accept people who claim to have deep spiritual relationships with deities who have not been properly worshiped for close to a thousand years as speaking the truth, why do we refuse to recognize the deep spiritual relationships which Christians have with their God? We simply cannot denounce Christianity as false because it makes us uncomfortable.

The fear of Christian persecution has been built into the foundation of Modern Paganism. The Wiccan Rede reads as it does as an attempt to make Wiccans appear less threatening to their Christian neighbors. How many times do we hear random Pagans at Pagan events miscellaneously bad-mouthing Christians with little to no provocation? Our Christian antipathy frequently seems to be incorporated into Modern Pagan culture itself. That is problematic for so many reasons. Some of this, I believe, is a result of our continuing struggle to define our community identity. The simple question, “What is Paganism?” is notoriously hard to answer to everyone’s satisfactions and the current fuss brewing over at Patheos about polytheism versus nature worship is a good example of the constant back and forth bickering that has come to define the question. Pagansisms, and the plural there is intentional, are so varied from person to person, from practice to practice that any single rubric fails to account for all of the various forms of worship and theology that the Pagan community has incorporated into itself, or which have blossomed out of the occult and spiritual revivals of the first half of the twentieth century.

It is because of that difficulty that I suggest that many of us fall back on negative descriptions of ourselves. We are Pagan, and that means we are not Christian. Mallory and I have discussed this dilemma at some length, and she, quite rightly, asserts that people need something to define themselves against as a means of solidifying group identity. It is true that group identity is strongest in opposition, psychology has shown how deeply entrenched people become when challenged with an opposing idea, even casually. To a certain extent it makes sense that we look for things which differentiate us from the faith communities which surround us. The problem arrises, as I see it, when we solely define ourselves against other groups. Paganism cannot be defined negatively. Now, I know a lot of people have been doing a lot of work to produce positivist descriptions of Paganism, and yet it seems like a good deal of the community is content, in a practical sense, to simply identify as Non-Christian. There is, of course, the other pole of this wherein we end up saying things like “We’re just like you, only we worship the Goddess instead of the God.” Both of these definitions retain Christianity as the central term. Paganism is defined in relation to Christianity. These descriptions fall back on simple reductivism.

We simplify our identities to make them more palatable either to ourselves or to others. I firmly believe that if we are to continue to identify as a single community despite the broad variations which Modern Paganism contains that we need to do a lot of work as a community to build a coherent and cohesive definition. In doing so, however, we need to be willing to set aside our own identity defenses and end up in inter-community bickering, trying to establish ourselves as more Pagan than you. There is a large array of characteristics which combine and overlap to describe contemporary Pagan practice, and we need to be careful not to privilege anyone of those over the others. Doing so only leads to defensiveness and tension between different Pagans and Paganisms. We cannot reduce Paganism to Polytheism versus Monism, nor Nature Worship versus Deity Worship, nor thaumaturgy versus theurgy, nor any any other combination of polar relations.

Part of the difficulty in this discussion, I believe, is that may people see these polar relations as just that, polar and therefore incompatible. This dualistic relation, I do think, stems from the Christianity infused culture that Paganism has emerged from, at least in the United States. We as Pagans need to be able to release the dualistic world view of God against the Satan, of good against evil. At the very outset, Paganism has proposed a plurality of forces which act in the world with a variety of prerogatives none of which are necessarily good nor evil, nor even concerned with human activity. If we are willing to make that theological leap, why do we seem so hesitant to follow through with the appropriate ontological shift?

Hard and Soft Polytheism are not necessarily incompatible. Dionysus was worshipped across the Hellenistic World with a variety of guises and epithets, and yet each iteration still relates back to the same essential deity. Different regions, different villages would all have unique and idiosyncratic forms of worship and conception of Dionysus depending on the needs of the people, and yet, across these differences, the same God was being worshipped. We need to recognize that the Ancients’ relationships to their Gods was not as hard and fast and strictly defined as we would like. Our grade school mythology fails to describe the actual experience of these Gods and their relation to their devotees. Across cultures, the Ancients viewed their Gods as having profound control over their presentation and prerogative depending on the task at hand, on the social class of the supplicant, on the needs of society, and yet they still remained the same volitional beings, the same discrete Gods despite the variety of epithets with which they may be approached. We also seem to be properly terrified of admitting the role of syncretism in the Ancient World. The spread of Gods across Europe and Britannia should be sufficient to show that this was a strategy consistent with Ancient Worship which each culture had very little issue with. Would we really be willing to assert that the Isis worshipped in the British Isles is an entirely different being from the Isis of Ancient Egypt? What about the Isis cult of Rome? Are these not the same Goddess in different guises, in different aspects suited to the needs of the varied communities and cultures? Hard and Soft Polytheism begin to collapse into each other.

I recognize that I have provided very few strategies for moving forward and that, as it is, this sits as a rather harsh critique, and yet I feel like this is a necessary part of the greater conversation. Part of the difficulty with generating strategies is that it seems to me that we have a great deal of work to do both personally and as a community on coming to terms with the unique stresses that being Pagan in a domineeringly Christian culture has placed on us. A good deal of the time these stresses get ignored or externalized and the blame ends up getting passed around either within the Pagan community or pushed off onto our perceived foes. We need to be willing to do the work we need to do on ourselves before looking out into the community at large for all the answers.

Of course, not everyone wants to be part of the larger Pagan community, but those people need to respect the work that others our doing to build and foster the Pagan community, and if they are unwilling to do so, then they must simply keep themselves to themselves. We simply do not have the time nor resources to indulge in this petty sniping, these divisive and alienating more Pagan than Pagan arguments. We must be willing to approach the work of community building compassionately and intelligently, and foster understanding of our selves and our relations to others, as well as the roles which we play in the world at large. If Paganism is to survive as a community then we need to be willing to lay our personal issues aside and approach each other mindfully focussed toward the community, and finding that which makes us alike rather than that which makes us different. Only then will the community be able to serve broadly as a means of strength and support. Otherwise we are better off fracturing off into our own little schismatic factions and focussing our attention on our private affairs.

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4 thoughts on “Curious Antipathy: The Ongoing Struggle to Define Modern Paganism

  1. Phae says:

    Sometimes I think that Pagans as a whole need to keep away from each other unless we are working politically or celebrating our holy days. This argument has been going on since the inception of Paganism, and I doubt it will end any time soon.

    I’m also going to point out to you a misunderstanding in your definition of soft polytheism. Isis being worshipped in different places and being depicted differently by different artists is not the same thing as Isis is Athena is the Morrighan is Freya. That’s why the hard/soft poly arguments get so heated. It’s a matter of respect and not playing “plug and pray”.

    • eidolos says:

      Actually, I do quite well understand hard and soft polytheism, the argument that I was making was that these distinctions didn’t exist in the ancient world. The reference to Isis was relating to syncretism, and the fluid spread of deities throughout the ancient world. It wouldn’t have been a useful distinction for the ancients to claim that all goddesses were emanations of the feminine divine. This is a very modern conception that has its foundations in hermeticism and modern kabbalistic thought. Dion Fortune is a great example of the ways in which polytheism is rewritten to collapse back into monism.

  2. [...] Julian Betowski counsel against defining Paganism in contrast to (or even in comparison with) Christ… [...]

  3. Kimberly Wolf says:

    It’s refreshing to read an intelligently written article devoid of the angst, animosity, or self righteousness that accompanies most religious discussions.

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