Last week’s flood of reader responses has had me thinking. A lot.
When I decided to write about why I’m no longer Pagan, I expected a variety of responses. I figured some people would be upset, angry, or sad. There wasn’t much of that, which I was glad about.
But there was another response that I never would have expected.
No, Let Me Tell You Your Religion
A few people took it upon themselves to tell me that I’m wrong. They told me that, despite what I may believe or feel or how my community asks me to represent them, I’m mistaken about what religion I am.
It’s one thing to extend an invitation and tell me there’s room under the pagan umbrella for what I do. That’s a sweet gesture. It’s a different thing to tell someone they aren’t allowed to decide their own religion.
This kind of attitude comes across as bullying. It disregards an individual’s dignity and, most interestingly, it showcases a fundamental misunderstanding of religion.
The Dictionary is Not the Decider
A while back I wrote about how religion cannot be defined. There are so many types of religions, with so little in common, that no one definition does them all justice.
So what counts as religion and what doesn’t? I find it useful to use an opt-in definition. Groups or movements count as religions if their leadership or members say they’re religions.
This is the best definition of religion for at least two reasons:
- No group is denied its freedom of religion rights based on someone else’s definition.
- Groups that may look like religions but don’t want to be called that, such as atheist organizations, don’t get lumped in.
Clean, simple, and easy. No mucking around with arguments about whether religions have to believe in a higher power. No Western or Christian bias. Just a straight act of self-determination: if you say your beliefs are a religion, well shit, looks like you’ve got a religion.
You Can Opt Out Too
The other side of that coin is this: if you can opt in, you can opt out. And just as it is fundamentally wrong to say someone’s beliefs don’t count as a religion, it is belittling and pushy to tell someone they have to be a member of this-or-that religion.
We can get into more blurry lines here. What if their beliefs seem really, really similar to that religion? Is it really accurate for them to say they’re not?
That’s arguable, but no amount of argument will yield a consensus. Instead, it’s once again simpler to turn to self-determination.
If someone doesn’t want to be part of a religion, then they are not part of that religion. Period. Even if their beliefs sound a whole lot like religion x, it’s not belief alone that makes them part of it—it’s choice. You can extend this same litmus test to a group of religions like Paganism.
There are good reasons why someone might hold beliefs similar to their old religion, but no longer want to be part of it. A few examples:
- Early in the Reformation, the Catholic Church viewed the protestants as heretical members of its own faith. The Protestants quickly decided they were a separate entity altogether. Founding their own churches separate from the old Church gave them a great deal of traction and helped them to survive.
- When Christianity was created, it was essentially an offshoot of Judaism. However, most Jews didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah, and preaching to them would not have been fruitful. If Christians had presented themselves as Jews it would have addressed the wrong audience.
- I have a friend who was a pious Catholic until there was a sex abuse scandal in her church. She felt so betrayed and heartbroken that she quit her religion. She still believes in virtually all of the Catholic teachings, but to call herself Catholic would bring tears to her eyes.
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