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Saturday, January 12, 2013

There's Far More to Paganism than Worshiping Gods and Goddesses

Pagan fundamentalism.

These two words aren't generally seen together, but that may be about to change - and yes, it worries me. It worries me greatly.

In the past week or so, there's been a movement to either 1) remove disassociate polytheism from Paganism in general or 2) identify Paganism as exclusively polytheistic.

The first of these ideas involved a personal decision by Star Foster, a well-known blogger in the Pagan community, to discard the "Pagan" label while continuing to identify as a polytheist. This was somewhat confusing to me, as polytheists always seemed to be Pagan by definition, in much the same way that Anglicans are Christian by definition. One is a subset of the other.

Though I found this puzzling, I want to make one thing clear: I've always respected and defended the right of self-identification. If someone wants to identify merely as a polytheist without reference to Paganism, that's entirely a matter of personal choice - and such personal choices should be respected, even where they may not be entirely understood.

That's why I find the second development - the suggestion that Paganism is, or should be exclusively polytheistic - far more troubling. This view is being advanced in a blog titled Bringing Back the Gods by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus.

In this extensive blog, the author starts out by stating that "one of the points of modern Paganism is to bring back the gods."

The problem with this statement is that it lumps all Pagans into the same category. Certainly, plenty of people were attracted to Paganism for this reason, but many others weren't. Some other reasons people are attracted to Paganism include its balance between masculine and feminine, a reverence for nature (more on this in a bit), a disenchantment with monotheism, an interest in the mystical, a desire to better understand one's self, etc. I could go on.

Worse than this, however, is the fact that Lupus goes on to specifically denigrate "nature worship" as fitting "perfectly with the Christian conception (and, as in my case, misconception) of ancient polytheists as unsophisticated bumpkins with no place in civilized society."

There are so many problems with this statement, it's hard to know where to begin.

First of all, should Pagans really be expected to define themselves based on whether or not their behavior reinforces Christians' false impressions of them? That's certainly not how I want to define myself. I'd much rather be proactive than reactive. Second, Lupus appears to be setting up "nature worship" as a sort of straw man for pantheism. News flash: This is offensive. It's very much akin to Christians calling polytheists "idol worshipers."

The author then proceeds to denigrate pantheists further by stating that "Nature doesn't care if you make offerings, hold festivals or sing its praises and dance and feast with your friends." Again, the author is mimicking the perspective of the fundamentalist Christian vis-a-vis polytheism. Just substitute a couple of words in the previous sentence, and you get this: "False gods don't care if you make offerings, hold festivals or sing their praises and dance with your friends."

Suddenly, the author's view on pantheism looks very much like the fundamentalist Christian's view of polytheists.

Lupus attempts, near the end of his blog entry, to cushion the blow by demurring that he is "not against" religiosity that focuses on "nature, self, or community." But he then goes on to state, definitively that "Modern Paganism should not have, as one of its major goals, a self-presentation defined by 'nature worship.' "

Had Lupus said that his own personal practice does not have this as one of its major goals, that would have been all well and good. The problem here isn't Lupus' personal beliefs - he's as welcome to them as I am to mine and Star Foster is to hers - it's his presumption in seeking to make that statement on behalf of everyone who identifies as Pagan.

Where does this leave secular, cultural, symbolic, philosophical or pantheistic Pagans, all of whom has every bit as much right to call themselves Pagan as Star Foster has to eschew that label?

Three letters: S.O.L.

Sorry if that's crude, but the point needs to be made, and it needs to be made forcefully: P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has no more right to define any individual Pagan's personal belief than I do. This is not the Catholic Church. We aren't subject to the Nicene Creed or any other dogmatic statement of belief. Indeed, the absence of such dogmatism is what attracts many people to modern Paganism - perhaps more so than what apparently attracted Lupus, "bringing back the gods."

Dogmatics such as this are dangerous, whether they're elucidated in a Christian framework, a Pagan framework or any other context. Polytheists excluding all others on the basis of dogmatic statements is simply unacceptable - and it would be just as unacceptable if pantheists were to adopt the same position with regard to polytheists.

We've gone down this road before.

Indeed, Pagans are just now starting to make progress in educating the public at large that Wicca isn't a synonym for Paganism - that Paganism encompasses a much broader collection of beliefs, practices and philosophies. On the cusp of this achievement, will the "purist" polytheists drag the entire community once more into the morass by declaring that all Pagans are (or must be) worshipers of many deities - when this simply isn't so?

If we start down this road, what's next? Will one pantheon be elevated above another? Will it be acceptable to  revere the Celtic gods but not the Greek or Sumerian? Are Egyptian deities to be excluded because they're often represented with animal heads (or wings), and are therefore too close to "nature"?

Who decides? A blogger? A high priest? A self-appointed "expert." Or does each individual have the right to self-identify and worship (or not worship) as he/she sees fit?

I would argue strenuously for the latter. There's room enough in the Pagan community for polytheists and pantheists; for worshipers and philosophers; for Wiccans, Druids, mystics and secularists. When a community starts excluding people because some leader or another doesn't like the way they worship, pretty soon people start labeling these "others" as heretics, excommunicating those who don't agree with them and conducting witch hunts.

Yes, we've been down this road before.

And it never ends well.