2012 Thing on Thursday #9
After numerous polls on liturgy, we now begin a series returning to fundamental concepts and questions. This week, let’s revisit debates about what to call ourselves.
This issue is complicated. Much ink has been spilled over labels in the Pagan community, especially in recent years. There are problems with every label, and it may be tempting to forgo labels altogether. Yet without them, it’s awful hard to find each other.
There’s also a difference between what feels right in the privacy of your own heart, and what works best in the public sphere. The ideal label fulfills both conditions, but it rarely works out so neatly.
Difficulties surrounding each label are detailed after the poll.
Complications notwithstanding, please choose the one that calls to you most.
Naturalistic Pagan. This seems to be the most widely-used currently, and it links up nicely with larger umbrella movements like Spiritual/Religious Naturalism. Unfortunately, the definition relies on a natural/supernatural distinction, which works fine in the Abrahamic sphere but runs into problems in the Pagan sphere. Pagans generally view their deities and magic as part of nature, so aren’t they naturalistic by default? This seems to necessitate the stipulation of adherence to scientific evidence to distinguish between our community and other kinds of Pagans. Does this mean we should start calling ourselves “Scientific Naturalistic Pagans?” You see my point.
Humanistic Pagan. This is, of course, the name of this site, but it doesn’t mean we’re stuck with that label. Humanism connotes an emphasis on human concerns as opposed to divine ones, which is accurate. It also draws a nice analogy to traditions such as Humanistic Judaism, Humanistic Buddhism, and Christian Humanism. There are two problems, however. First, there are forms of Religious Humanism that still believe in supernatural deities, even though the emphasis is on the human, so there remains the problem of distinguishing our community from other kinds of Pagans. Second, the very word “human” connotes to some an exclusion of nature. Modern Humanism is very green, but it seems the word alone is enough to mislead.
Atheist Pagan. This is what we often end up getting called by others, regardless of how we choose to identify. There are numerous problems, though. First, not all of us are actually atheists. Second, some Pagans are atheists (no belief in deity) while still believing in magic, energies, crystals, and other unverified notions which our community tends to reject. Third, atheism only describes what we deny, not what we do believe. Fourth, atheism is often taken to mean “no gods at all”, when in fact many of us work with deities as metaphors, archetypes, cultural entities, and so forth. Finally, atheism has always been a term of denigration. Can we reclaim it? It would be a hard row to hoe.
Agnostic Pagan. Agnostic is less negative than Atheist, and more accurate in some cases. However, it connotes wishy-washiness to many. More importantly, there is no specification as to what one is agnostic about. Some Pagans call themselves agnostic because they don’t know the nature of deity, even though they claim to know firmly that deities exist. Furthermore, some take an agnostic stance to insulate their claims from criticism, but otherwise behave like adamant believers (Tanya Lurhmann calls this “convenient ambiguity”).
Spiritual Naturalist. This is a larger umbrella term that generally includes our community, among others. Identifying by it loses specificity, with no reference to any kind of cultural tradition. It also suffers all the problems of “Naturalistic” (see above). In addition, some object to the notion of “spirit”, apparently unable to read it as referring to anything other than a metaphysical soul-like force.
Religious Naturalist. Slightly more popular than its counterpart, “Spiritual Naturalism”, this one avoids issues with the word “spirit”, but at the cost of objections to the word “religion”, which connotes undesirable institutionalism and hierarchy to some. It also suffers most of the same issues as its counterpart.
Secular Pagan. “Secular” can be read either as “not religious”, which may be accurate to some but not to others, depending on how you define religion, or it may be defined as “of our times”, following Stephen Batchelor‘s Secular Buddhism. With regard to the latter, it would be difficult to claim that other kinds of Pagans are not of our times. A good argument could be made that Neopaganism is a result of modernization, not a retreat from it.
Cultural Pagan. This may describe someone who considers deities and magic cultural phenomena, in which case it would leave out those who see them as innate psychological phenomena, such as archetypes. Or, it may describe someone who follows the Wheel of the Year as a cultural phenomenon, like non-Christians celebrating Christmas, which can suggest a certain superficiality.
Existential Pagan. This describes well the earthy, this-worldly ways of someone like Brendan Myers, but it can be mistaken for the theism of existentialists like Kierkegaard, who advocated radical faith in God even though it can’t be verified. It might also describe many different kinds of Pagans, far beyond our community.
Scientific Pagan. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone use this label before, but it would at least underline the emphasis on scientific evidence which many of us highly value. The problem is, it may sound a bit cold (due to an unfair but common mis-characterization of science). Further, many Pagans say they embrace science, and even hold out hope that magic is really an undiscovered science that will one day be vindicated by quantum physics or some such thing. Finally, when I put myself in the shoes of an outsider, the label elicits a certain skepticism in me. It makes me wonder if this so-called “science” will turn out to be something like Christian Science or Intelligent Design. Hmm…
Naturalistic Pantheist (added thanks to a comment by RadicalProgress). This label shifts the focus to pantheism, the view that the universe is identical with divinity, and “naturalistic” specifies the nature of that universe/divinity as non-supernatural. There are many such pantheists today, the largest organization of which is the World Pantheist Movement (WPM). The label shares the lack of cultural specificity of Religious/Spiritual Naturalism, no longer attached to Paganism in particular. It also shares the difficulties surrounding the term “naturalistic.” Finally, most in the WPM have proven largely uninterested in myth or ritual, though not necessarily hostile to it. While this difficulty is not inherent in the term, it has been a stumbling block that has led many from the WPM to the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group. Reportedly the Universal Pantheist Society has been a bit more conducive.
Please share alternative labels and thoughts in the comments.
About Thing on Thursday
Each week from the Autumn Equinox until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday explores a new controversy. Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better. Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word. We value all constructive opinions.
There are only a few rules:
- be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
- be respectful – no rants or flames
Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.
So please make your voice heard in the comments!