*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
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.