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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.


  1. Another brilliant article from you Stifyn, thank you. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, by any name. There have always been those who would dictate our spiritual beliefs to us and you're right; it never ends well.
    I remember having a recent conversation with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart who told me that he and other Pagan leaders struggled with the question of how not to become dogmatic and worried more about form than substance. IIRC, I don't believe they ever came up with a solution but it's something that stays in my mind anyway, as well as theirs. I feel that Paganism is changing and becoming something different than what it was when it started out.

  2. Well said. Paganism is a very broad umbrella. I was part of a group, ages ago, that came up with a working definition of a Pagan to be "anyone whose worship is not part of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, and identifies as Pagan." That definition still works for me.

  3. As a secular Pagan, I really appreciated this. Thank you.

  4. Bravo! I do not consider myself pagan, but I totally agree. Fundamentalist *anything* is injurious to clear thinking.

  5. I identify currently as an Agnostic Pagan. I wrote about why on my personal blog (I'll link at the bottom if anyone is interested in reading the whole thing).

    The upshot was that I felt disassociated from anything Divine within Nature and within myself because I kept focusing on the Deity aspect as outside of myself and kept trying to conceptualize a perfect being. It just wasn't working for me in lots of respects.

    The Agnostic part comes from a bit of waffling on my part. Some days I'm sure there are many God/desses out there, and other days I'm sure there are none, or if there ARE that they would have no interest in our puny species. Perhaps I'm still a fence sitter, but I am in full agreement that there is room in the community for all.


    1. The "agnostic" description really doesn't mean "diet atheism" or "doubtful theism", it has nothing to do with faith and belief. It’s simply the opposite of gnostic, an early Abrahamic, and arguably Christian sect that sought and maintained direct knowledge of their god. To be agnostic is to lack knowledge of one's god/dess/es, regardless of whether or not one believes they are real. Naturally, one who acknowledges their agnostic status is going to periodically have doubts, but (especially in pagan and polytheist communities) there is no shortage of those who have (or, feel that they have) direct knowledge of their god/dess/es to have doubts from time to time --after all, with all the current science, it's easy to dismiss the existence of deities as a wholly internal experience.

      The difference between doubt in pagans and doubt in Christians is that among pagans, doubt doesn't automatically lead to a crisis of faith, whereas most Christian sects I'm aware of makes every attempt possible to discourage doubt amongst followers and co-religionists. Pagans tend to treat doubt as an avenue for examination and growth, while Christians often regard doubt as little more than various tricks of devils.

  6. This discussion brought to mind another terrible outcome in history of those who are in and those who are excluded: Nazi Germany versus anyone who didn't belong to the in-crowd. why does there have to be only one right way? That is part of the reason I left "organized religion".

  7. I find it interesting that your interpretation of Lupus's article is so divergent of mine. And without claiming that mine is true one, just like in academics one should always be reading generously, meaning not assuming the worst but allowing for the best possible interpretation. And frankly, I do not think you do him that justice here.

    "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."

    No he did not. He never stated that paganism should be exclusively polytheistic. Instead he says paganism should include the gods. He does not state anywhere that this means every individual should include gods in their worship, though from his position he does not fully understand why a pagan would want to exclude them from their practice. Does polytheism stand central in his ideal version of paganism? Yes. But does that mean he forces this concept on anyone else? No. And Kathryn Knight's comparison with Nazi Germany is just off.

    "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."

    What he alludes to, is that nature worship should not be the single centre of paganism at large. This does not mean that people cannot be nature worshippers as core of their own practice (yes, he does think this is strange and illogical, but why cannot express that caveat?). What he mean is this I think: Some see paganism (at large) as earth-based first and foremost, and he does not. He would prefer the gods/polytheism as ONE OF its central goals as well. Often people claim that polytheism is not the only form of earth-worship, and that the latter term already includes the former, so why not just this one? Sufenas claims that polytheism does not equal earth-worship.

    One can disagree with him of course, but I think you all give a very flat impression of a very detailed and subtle position. Truly, I am disappointed. I see a lot of will-ful misunderstanding and not a lot of attentive and generous reading. Sufenas takes a stand on an issue, he doesn't exclude those with another. He presents not the evils of Nazism (he very serious an rather distasteful comparison) or those of organized religion. He organizes his own thoughts and publishes them. he cannot help it that he is more articulate than those who disagree with him.

    1. Only now I read the subtitle to your blog: 'overcoming prejudice with grace and courage. I understand to respond to something with sounds prejudiced to you. But please, is there a possibility that your own prejudice is also involved? With prejudice I just mean that you may not be looking at Sufenas' article quite objectively, a bit too eager to detect prejudice towards yourself. We have all been hurt, and sometimes we already assume we are being attacked again without closely examining the evidence

    2. Only now I read the subtitle to your blog: 'overcoming prejudice with grace and courage....

      Actually, according to the sidebar, that's the subtitle of his latest book.

  8. You've done a very good job of selectively reading, and actively misreading, what I've said, and interpreting a great deal in between the lines that I never intended at all.

    I was talking about a very specific instance in which the public and widespread perception of Paganism as "nature-worship" was taken by some Christians as "true" about me and my practices, with the result that they would not allow me to use an indoor area for a ritual. Go back and look at the context of that statement, and you'll see very clearly that you've entirely misunderstood it.

    I don't have a problem with pantheism, or panentheism, or animism; however, all three of those viewpoints presuppose that nature and the things in it are not just what they are...which is why I said that Nature, in that sense, doesn't care if you make offerings, because they don't--unless there is an awareness and a consciousness in them that is beyond what is merely physical, and that is usually understood as a god's presence being in everything, or many things, or individual spirits of nature, etc., all of which is another way of saying "polytheism."

    And, to the first point of mine that you quoted, and which you seemed to also miss: I said "one of the points," which is to say, one amongst many. The entire article was prompted by the fact that many modern Pagans are attempting to define Paganism once-and-for-all for everyone, and in doing so they're excluding the gods as even a component part of that definition, which worries me, since a huge amount of polytheist history and the inspiration and sources for a great deal of modern Paganism presuppose polytheism.

    As far as Nazi comparisons go: first of all, give me a break--ever hear of Godwin's Law? Second of all, if the commenter knew anything about me at all, they'd know that I am of Jewish descent, as well as being queer, so that sort of comparison is about as far off as one can get.

    Yourself, and many others who read my article, have not actually read what was written there, but instead have used it as a projection screen for all of your own fears and insecurities. I was never saying that Paganism should be defined one and only one way (i.e. my way), I was saying that I find it disturbing that many people are attempting to define Paganism in a way that excludes me, my practices, most of my co-religionists and friends, and--worst of all--my gods. Earlier in your own piece here, you argued that polytheism is a subset of Paganism, and while I don't entirely agree with that way of understanding the two terms, it's relatively close to what I was saying--i.e. one has tended to imply the other. So, when many people are purposefully trying to define Paganism in such a way as to exclude polytheism or the gods, it upsets and confuses me that they'd do this. What's the problem with stating that, especially since it looks like you agree with the general point at the beginning of this post?

    1. "Pagans are attempting to define Paganism once-and-for-all for everyone, and in doing so they're excluding the gods as even a component part of that definition ..."

      This seems contradictory to me: Those who are attempting a "big tent" approach to Paganism wouldn't be served by excluding some beliefs (i.e., polytheism). The entire point is to be inclusive. What we are saying is that polytheism is not a NECESSARY component of Paganism, which I believed is implied in the blog.

      " ... a huge amount of polytheist history and the inspiration and sources for a great deal of modern Paganism presuppose polytheism." This is certainly true, but it that doesn't make polytheism a necessary component of any Pagan's personal belief. I agree that we all need to be cognizant of the movement's history. What I don't think this blog did was adequately differentiate between historical awareness (which I support) and prescribing personal belief and self-identification (which I don't). I'm still not sure whether the author meant to do so. That was the problem I had.

      In a nutshell, I don't have any problem with polytheists calling themselves Pagan, and I don't think polytheists should have any problem with pantheists and others using that term to self-identify.

    2. And to be fair, the Nazi comparison was not mine. I took note of the fact that the author was gay and, though the name gave no hint that he might be Jewish, and am wholesale AGAINST bigotry against ANYONE based on sexual orientation, ethnicity or anything else. In fact, it is this dedication to acceptance that raised a red flag to me about the suggestion - as I took it - in the original blog that those who were not polytheists were somehow not qualified to self-identify as Pagans.

  9. I think the problem I'm seeing in the current definition of pagan is that, by and large, it has become a potentially flawed category. The recent trend, from my perspective, in humanistic paganism that denies the hypostasis of the divine with humanity is one example of using a very large umbrella to mean whatever one wants it to mean with the understood underlying emphasis, "...as long as it's not Abramic."

    P.S.V.L. is pointing at this in er article is just that and that one of the difining features of Paganism that it is in fact inclusive of accommodating a wide variety of divine figures in a way that is difficult in comparison to Abramic religions. He's not saying that animism is bad, but unless there's something behind that tree or stone on a metaphysical level then it's about as sensical as worshipping your cellular phone or coffee mug.

    What paganism has to offer is an economy of deities that, functionally, can be relatable to individual devotees who give them cultus and can provide a very diverse set of different interactions that sacralizes humanity, the context(s) in which we worship them, as well as gives respect to those forces in a way that is holistic as opposed to merely doing a ceremony or saying a prayer to an abstract that only exists because one conveniently decides it does at a particular time - which seems to be the popular cultural trend in paganism at the moment.

  10. Thank you so much for this! I had just read that Bringing Back the Gods post, which had me worked up into a bit of a fit, when I found this post, which made me feel better.

    It's bad enough having other Pagans automatically assume I'm a Wiccan, as though it were actually just the "Wiccan community". But to actually come out and say that non-polytheists are not even Pagans? *sigh*

    I went from Christian, to some kind of "Eclectic Pagan" (basically the stage in which I was finding my place), to Pantheism. I still participate in the Pagan community, because I find that I still have things in common with them. I would hate to be excluded on the basis that I don't have gods!

    1. Also, upon reading the comment by the author of that original post, I wanted to respond to one more thing: Being pantheistic does not mean that I'm polytheistic!!! I do not have gods "behind" the things I revere in nature. I am simply in awe of the universe. No gods involved. At all. Some pantheists might see things differently, but kindly refrain of lumping us all in together.

      My very non-polytheistic type of pantheism is called naturalistic pantheism. See http://www.pantheism.net/ for more info before making blanket statements.

  11. "Pagan Fundamentalism" is a value laden term with extreme negative connotations for common people. I have documented in the below linked article how results of existing Pagan scholarship are already being misrepresented on Christian blogs with a distinctively negative agenda towards Paganism. I am very concerned that the present discussions about Pagan Fundamentalism will be used against Pagans in the same manner. See my article on this important issue entitled:
    "Pagan Scholarship and anti-Pagan Propaganda" at