Here I get into what sparked the last post, which is the debate I’ve been lurking at the edges of in the Pagan community about “what is Paganism?” Because other people are noticing that there seem to be quite a few of us who are atheist, and yet consider ourselves Pagan. To be fair, many people are fine with this. But there are also a number of people who seem to be saying “WELL, if THOSE people who don’t even believe in GODS are allowed to call themselves Pagan, then I refuse to be sullied by the same label!”

Those people piss me off a bit.

It’s the hypocrisy, mostly. In a recent piece that I’m not going to link to because that would require me to go look it up again and then I’d probably read bits of it again and then I’d get angry all over again, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus at once complains about how horrible some local Christians were for assuming they knew all about his tradition (the assumption being that “his people” would prefer to worship outdoors, being “Pagan”) and also about how horrible atheist/humanist pagans are for participating in rituals without actually believing in any gods. See, the galaxy doesn’t care if we do ritual or not, therefore it can’t possibly have any meaning for us.

Notice the contradiction there? Christians assuming knowledge about his beliefs and practices = evidence of how narrow-minded Christians are and how beleaguered his religion is. Him assuming knowledge of humanists’ beliefs and practices = perfectly fine, apparently. Also, it’s good I didn’t go look the article up again, because I’m getting pissed off just thinking about it.

Also in the article was a complaint about an assumption on the part of non-theists that believing in deities automatically makes one creedal. This seems like a bit of a straw argument, to me. Partly because I’m not sure how many non-theists actually think that, so ascribing the belief to all of us is more than a little presumptuous. And partly because, well, I do think Virius Lupus and his commenters are creedal, but not because they believe in deities. I think they’re creedal because down in the comments some of them went on a rant about the eclectic religious, and how wrong it is that people think they can just make up whatever they want and call it X without citing the proper historical authorities.

I’m sorry, but saying “we’re not creedal” while also saying “you’re doing it wrong if you don’t have everything you do checked and double-checked to ensure that it’s properly tied into the Ancient Tradition which was obviously the only right way of doing things” is pretty damn hypocritical. That’s “not creedal” in the sense that American Evangelicals are where sure, maybe they don’t recite the Apostle’s or Nicene or any other formally written creed, but they DO require their professors and leaders and elected officials to sign multi-page “statements of faith” as a way of keeping them in line.

The whole debate reminded me quite a lot of my days in the Christian evangelical world. What it basically comes down to is Drawing The Lines, Us vs. Them, the Right and the Wrong – and you know that Us is always Right. I saw a lot of discussion of “Whither Paganism?” and “What Is Paganism When You Get Right Down To It?” and “How Should We Define Paganism?”* But here’s the thing. We don’t really get to define Paganism. Do we have some impact on the definition? Yes. But I think it’s more precise to say that we have an impact on the connotations that the word has within our culture(s) as opposed to the definition. And again, it’s easy to look at Christianity for the parallels.

You probably have enough different belief systems under the umbrella of Christianity that if we assumed each to be devoted to a distinct deity, we’d probably double the number of known deities in mankind’s history overnight. Maybe more. It took a Pagan to point out to me that Protestants and Catholics are both Christian. When I was in college. Raised in the Protestant church, and nobody had really bothered to mention this before. There was always sort of this unspoken attitude that Catholics weren’t “real” Christians because they put Priests in between God and Man. Many Christians would not allow Mormons the label. Many Christians would not allow the label to anyone outside their own particular denomination or, in very extreme cases , their own particular church.

But all of those opinions don’t matter. To the outside world, they’re all Christians. Christ is held to be a divine figure, therefore they are Christians. Who gets the label is more up to individual adoption than the ability of Christians to sit down together and say, “Ok, what does it mean to be Christian?” Which isn’t to say that they don’t do that, or that that isn’t a valuable exercise. They do it all the time, and such examinations can be pretty darn important when it comes to figuring out your view of the world and your place in it. But all the discussions among Christians in the world are not actually going to have any impact on what outsiders think when they hear the term, and it’s going to be the same for Paganism as well (granted, it’s not really as simple as saying “this one thing is important”, but it isn’t really quite that simple in Christianity, either).

That outside view is one of the issues that I heard about recently – that oftentimes people without much understanding of Paganism or polytheism hear “Pagan” and think “nature worshiper”. I think that’s probably pretty true. Hell, it’s the main thing that drew me to Paganism in the first place. If your version of polytheism doesn’t have a particular connection to the seasons or other natural elements, it makes sense to want to dissociate yourself from the label. I’m not totally sure I buy into the idea that anybody could be following a Reconstructed religion and NOT be following a nature religion (I’d say “How could you be a devotee of Demeter and not consider that a nature religion??” but I have faith in the ability of humankind to rationalize anything), but since I haven’t made any sort of study of any of them I’m not qualified to assert that. It’s far more likely that I’m missing something than that people who have spent years developing their spiritual path have completely overlooking the blindingly obvious. ;-P

I do want to mention that since, as I said earlier, I sort of stayed on the edges of the most recent outburst of this debate, one of the things I saw the most of was actually a lot of people saying “Um, I never took this label for myself, so it really doesn’t matter to me HOW you want to define the word, because I don’t want you putting a label on me that I didn’t choose.” I personally think that’s pretty hard to argue with. I know not everybody agrees with me on this; e.g. the sort of person who says you can’t call yourself a Catholic if you don’t believe every single little thing the Catholic Church has decreed over the last several centuries, including the parts that contradict reality and each other. At this point in my life, a Catholic could show me their personal shrine to Krishna and I wouldn’t call their Catholicism into question. I’d probably ask about the story behind their path! But adding things here, removing them there – whatever you’re comfortable calling yourself is what your primary identity is, in my book.

(Spiritually speaking, of course. More simply defined labels don’t fall in the same category for me. If you eat lamb, you’re not a vegetarian. Not even a bi-vegetarian.)

So my ire is not directed at those who feel that the label connotations have shifted so that it’s not appropriate for them anymore, and especially not at those who never felt the label fit them in the first place. No, it’s just aimed at those who grouse about those horrible, horrible atheists and Humanists who are destroying their perfect, perfect religion. Because you know what? THAT connotation hasn’t shifted. People do not see the word “Pagan” and assume “atheist”. Theism is still the expectation from someone who declares themselves pagan – polytheism, at that.

To close, this is what my little boy has to say about things: hjkh Z2HJ1GCVHJFDSZH E “I did it, Mommy! I helped you!”

It may not be as involved as my own words, but it certainly is more concise.


*Please note: I have not been engaging with any in the Pagan community on Pagan topics for more than a few months, so I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling that this is not actually a new discussion, nor will it ever really have an ending. It’s kind of a human thing.