Building a Strong and Free Pagan Community

*Sigh*  Well, I had hoped that we, as a Pagan community, were past the whole “so and so isn’t Pagan because I don’t like her beliefs” thing, but I was wrong.  We’ve made a lot of progress since the big discussion in 2015, but apparently acceptance and inclusion take more than two years.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at that.  Overall, I’m still quite happy with how far we’ve come.  So with that, I’m weighing in with some thoughts about how we talk about (and treat!) various Pagan types (polytheist, naturalistic, theist, pantheist, apatheist, etc.).  This will include the fact that I think the venue in which a statement is made can make a big difference on how I see each given statement.  These are my thoughts……

First point  – Everyone who considers that they have a sufficiently Pagan spirituality are “Pagan”. There is no creedal test (or practice test – where if you miss a Sabbat or something you aren’t Pagan). Saying someone is “not a real Pagan” or “a non-practicing Pagan” or “that type of Paganism is not a real religion” or “not really a true type of Paganism” are all the same type of denigration that many of us have been attacked with from the wider society as part of Christian privilege, and I hope we are better than that.  If someone considers themselves Pagan, and supports that in their own mind, it’s not my place to be the judge of Pagan orthodoxy/orthpraxy and say they aren’t Pagan.

Second point- All statements about one’s own belief/non belief are acceptable. “I firmly believe that my Goddess is real.” Fine. “I’m certain there are no real goddessess.” Fine.  “I’m sure that space aliens abducted me”.  OK.  I might ask for support for why one believes this or that, especially if the belief is testable – but to suggest that one doesn’t actually believe what they just said they believe is suggesting that they are not being truthful, which I need a lot of evidence for before suggesting it.  That also goes for experiences, like “I felt lifted up”, or “I had a vision of distant planets, and I heard the voices of my gods”.  I won’t disagree that you experienced that.  We might discuss how to interpret it, but that’s a separate discussion.  This is especially important when one is speaking in a venue where there are many who don’t share  your beliefs.  For instance, if I’m in a discussion on an Asatru page, and state that “your gods don’t actually exist”, I’d be a jerk.  On the other hand, if I said “I don’t think that your gods exist”, then one who does believe in them can simply say that they don’t care what I believe, or offer reasons, or experiences, or whatever – and that’s OK too.  In public/open Pagan places, this is especially important.  There, one person could say that they believe that Isis is real, and if I believe differently, I could leave it at that (after all, I agree that they believe Isis exists), respectfully discuss it, or whatever.  Similarly, pointing out evidence is OK, because I hope we all agree that evidence denial isn’t helpful.

That second point is why I think we all need to remember both that all people deserve respect, and that ideas (like corporations) are not people. People deserve respect. Ideas deserve to be discussed, tested using evidence, tried out, accepted or rejected, etc. If someone disagrees with my belief, that in no way insults me, because I am not my belief, and you are not your belief. In fact, insisting that ideas/beliefs deserve respect is the basis for blasphemy laws, and has the actual effect of disrespecting (indeed, harming) real people. We can’t have both the requirement to respect people and to respect ideas – it’s one or the other, and in a free world, it has to be people that deserve respect – not ideas.  This also means that everyone needs to be able to point out and openly discuss harmful ideas, regardless of where they came from.  When someone makes a statement about their belief, they are making it easy for us to separate the belief from the person, and thus respect them even if we don’t share their belief.

Third (and not as easy) – is how to deal with statements of universal truth.  For instance, one could state “my god Hunab-ku is real”, or “the Earth is flat”.  If that’s done in a general Pagan place (say, in the vendor area of Pantheacon), and next to them, another Pagan said “my god Odin is real”, then there is a contradiction.  After all, Odin is the supreme god according to the Norse religion, and Hunab-ku is the supreme god according to the Mayan religion.  They can’t both be the supreme god in reality.  Add to that another Pagan who says “I don’t think either are real”, or “the Earth is a sphere”, and all three disagree.

For testable statements (like the shape of the Earth), one could look at relevant evidence and discuss the ideas.  For ideas that are harder to test (like the existence of Odin or Hunab-ku), we can choose to discuss them or not – but no one can claim to know the truth without objective evidence.

So it seems to me that courtesy suggests that statements of universal truth in public places instead by couched as statements of belief, which are always fine, like “I believe Odin is real.”. Or, if we as a Pagan community decide that they are OK, that we allow them fairly. For instance, if “my goddess, Isis, is watching over you.” is OK, then so is “Kali is real.” as is “There are no gods.”.

For areas that are mostly for one segment of the Pagan population, universal statements of truth seem fine – for instance, on an Asatru-only blog, saying “Loki is very active today, don’t try to launch any big projects”, or on a non-theist-only blog “many people love their gods, even though we know they aren’t real entities.”. During rituals or other poetic spaces and times, I hope we all operate under the assumption that each of us may understand the words used in different ways, an are OK with that – or don’t attend the ritual.

I’m sorry if I just repeated obvious things that everyone already agrees on.  I think friction comes from at least two main cases. The first is where someone starts making universal truth statements in a perceived or real general Pagan place. If they get challenged, they might feel they have the right to make their claim without it being questioned or anyone else being allowed to make a similar statement, and then people who notice the double standard rightly object, and an argument ensues. Another common case is where someone makes a makes a universal truth statement in a more private place or blog, and someone objects to it in their own more private place/blog – and arguing blog posts ensue.

Perhaps we need to be more clear about what spaces are, and are not, general Pagan places? And be fair and inclusive to all Pagans in those places, while being content with statements we don’t agree with in more focused places, at least unless there is agreement to have an open discussion, which would need to be based on evidence?

And perhaps most importantly, that all of us keep the first two points in mind when interacting with other Pagans (heck, when interacting with other people of any religion or none).

I hope that moving forward, we are able to disagree respectfully, as friends, to recognize our common goals and community, and sometimes, to join in powerful and moving rituals, regardless of the fact that some of us see the underlying basis of those rituals differently.  With that, we might be able to bring a life-centered Paganism to millions, who might fit better into this or that part of our wider Pagan community, with many of us working together to build a better future for the whole web of life.

Blessed be –          Jon Cleland Host

Jon Cleland Host

Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997.  He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature.  He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University.  Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org).  Jon’s youtube channel, with videos about DNA, spirituality, and more, is here.  Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality.  He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism and maintains a hub page for Naturalistic Paganism.

Jon is also a regular columnist here at HP.  His column is called Starstuff, Contemplating.

See all of Dr. Jon Cleland Host’s Posts

 

 

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7 Comments on “Building a Strong and Free Pagan Community

  1. This is a great framework, Jon, and a very necessary reminder! I would also emphasize that a focus on personal relationships also help in potentially sticky situations of disagreement. If a fellow pagan tells me, in your example, “my goddess, Isis, is watching over you.” then I ought to recognize that as an expression of support and good-will. Arguing over Isis’ existence, in that instance, would be inappropriate because I’m willfully ignoring the other’s offer of good will to me. (Granted,this is sometimes difficult to do over the internet, of course.) Sometimes, the true value of communication is behind the statement itself – which is a reminder to all of us not to take things so literally!

    • Yes, that’s a good point and a special situation. So much of that depends on the relationship between the people, and of course the fact that if someone is being offered support because they are grieving, that the grieving person is especially vulnerable. I try to think of the other person’s beliefs whenever I offer well wishes, and especially so if they are grieving – after all, this is about them, not me. So in your example, even if I’m a firm believer in Isis, if I don’t know for sure that they are too, I won’t mention Isis (and, as you mention, try to remember intent). This article comes to mind.
      -Jon
      http://www.salon.com/2015/10/24/please_stop_telling_me_my_daughter_is_in_heaven/

      • I definitely agree, Jon – it’s pretty annoying (and insensitive) when people only offer good will and support on their own terms, rather than starting from what they know of the other person. I find that most people tend to assume (especially if they’re in a majority – like theists) that others share their sensibilities, and so don’t wait for confirmation before offering heaven/god/”better place”/”happens for a reason” kind of sympathy. But articles like the one you linked to are good reminders that we need to build community etiquettes around these kinds of situations, out of a genuine sense of care for our relationships. (But, of course, easier said than done!)

  2. Well said, and I completely agree a hundred percent on all those points. I just think it’s silly we have to have these kinds of conversations. Whenever things like this happen, I compare Paganism to other religions and I rarely see these internalized conflicts from their own members, so why is it always us who continuously debate, argue, and question the validity of each others specific beliefs and practices? Is it because we’re more historically diverse, being an umbrella term and thus, have greater differences? Then, in my opinion, why can’t we accept the differences of our beliefs and appreciate the diversity we offer; being able to learn from each other, and move on with more pressing matters outside our circle? That’s my opinionated rant. 🙂

    • Yes, I think that’s a lot of it – that we are more diverse. After all, our diversity includes very different worldviews, with very different gods or none. Few Pagans even worship the same gods. That’s practically unheard of in other religions, where practically everyone agrees on the pantheon, and often on much more. With that, it’s kinda amazing we have only some verbal conflict, and non beyond verbal conflict.

      It seems to me that we have a staggering level of peace by comparison to any other religious approach. After all, when’s the last time you heard of Pagans killing each other for 300 years, with millions dead, and whole countries devastated because they were the wrong kind of Christian (like they did in Europe, 1500 to 1700)? It’s practically a running joke that so many Christians not only consider other denominations “not Christian”, but even those not in their same local church – and again, look at how similar their beliefs are compared to ours.

      Sunni and Shia Muslims kill each other every day over “who’s the real Muslim”, and have had (and still have!) full scale, country sized wars over that, with millions dead. Oh yeah, even within Sunni or Shia Islam, it’s the 7ers vs. the 12ers vs the 9ers and so on (who believe that the Islam found by the 7th Imam after Mohammad is the one true faith, etc.).

      Hindus kill each other all the time over who’s the real Hindu. The Gujarat slaughters were just a few years ago, killing hundreds to thousands of people, and that started as an intra-Hindu conflict (later spreading to be also Hindu vs Muslim), and that’s just the start of Hindu vs Hindu violence.

      Buddhist intra-religion violence doesn’t come to mind off the top of my head, but a lot of that could distance, and the fact that China (the country with the biggest Buddhist population) is official non- religious, discouraging open religious conflict.

      Jews kill or attack other Jews (mostly in Israel) over who is the true Jew and who is a heretic.

      And of course, all this violence is generally less than what intra-religion violence was in the past.

      If the Christians weren’t so often saying that all other Christians aren’t true Christian, jokes like “True Christian TM” and so on wouldn’t be so obvious and common. Heck, check out the joke below, which won an award in 2005. I agree that it would be nice if we Pagans were more accepting of each other – but by comparison with practically anyone else, we are doing really, really awesome, and no one has killed or even physically attacked anyone, as far as I know. -Jon CH (sorry, another comment that maybe should be it’s own blog post).

      Heard this before? **********************************

      Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

      He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

      He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

      Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

  3. I agree with all of this, Jon, but I think the sticking point is what constitutes a “general Pagan” space vs. a “specialized Pagan” (Asatru, Polytheist, Atheopagan, e.g.) space. Seems each blog or online venue has its own “home brand”–are none of them “general” enough for us to be able to express different opinions? We know that the “Pagan” Reddit subreddit is monopolized by zealous Polytheists who vehemently reject the very existence of atheistic Paganism; if REDDIT isn’t a “general space”, what is?

    My other question is around the distinction between respecting ideas and respecting people. I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH YOU, but I suspect that the majority of the Pagan community does not. They do not agree that you can prod at ideas when they relate to cosmological beliefs; rather, they appear to have a culture of “just nodding and smiling” when confronted with beliefs they do not share. Several of us have written about this before, and I believe it is a major cultural difference between non-theistic Pagans and theistic ones. We, on the one hand, welcome having our beliefs poked at: it helps us to refine and substantiate them, and thus to be less wrong. Theists (many of them, anyway) take as a personal affront any questioning of their beliefs.

    I don’t know that this is something that can be bridged, because the very kind of questioning that we value is seen as insulting (even blasphemous) by those in the theist camp. If we want to get along, I suspect we have to nod and smile ourselves, perhaps saying as little as, “Well, I believe differently, but go on.” Or not even that.

    • On the two main points you are raising:
      First point – that “general Pagan” vs “specific Pagan” is tough. I agree it’s a tough distinction sometimes (as I said in the post), and in fact that there is a continuum, with many venues being in the gray area. Nonetheless, I think that the behavior of others often helps give a clue. For instance, say we see a lot of posts referring to Egyptian gods, and someone posts a truth type statement affirming Freya (and people are fine with that). That says to me that it’s a more general type venue. I just hope people aren’t too often hypocrites about it – where they’ll treat it as an open area for some different gods, but not others. If truth statements about different gods are allowed in one case, then they should be in other statements (including statements of no gods). Otherwise, it starts to look like hypocrisy.

      On the second point (respecting ideas vs. respecting people) – a lot like the point above, I sometimes see hypocritical behavior. “We need to respect ideas” when talking about this specific goddess, but that changes to “your idea doesn’t deserve respect” when I say that I personally don’t believe any deities exist. Nobody “respects” all ideas – because that’s insane. There are always lots of gods (the vast majority!) that any given Pagan doesn’t worship, and often doesn’t believe in. If someone says that I’m being “disrespectful” because I say that I don’t believe in their god, then what about when they say, in the next breath, that they don’t believe in satan? I think that when people realize that “respecting ideas” includes ideas they don’t like, such as “Yahweh is the one true god”, or “the KKK is right”, then they are closer to realizing that the whole “we have to respect ideas” is often just a cover for “we have to respect the ideas that I personally like”, and might consider respecting people instead. After all, the KKK is a religion, and if we “respect all religions”, that means respecting that one too – among other unsavory religions.
      -Jon CH

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