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The Opt-In Approach to Religion

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:

  1. No group is denied its freedom of religion rights based on someone else’s definition.
  2. 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.
Ultimately a religion’s culture, politics, history, behavior, practices and ceremonies are just as relevant as its beliefs. All of these help determine whether someone wants to be part of it. It’s their choice and they can choose to opt out.

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44 thoughts on “The Opt-In Approach to Religion

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said. I found those comments on the other post just as interesting as you did. I used to call myself a pagan but now I just say Irish Traditional Polytheist and let people decide what that is. I don’t identify with pagans and most of my friends on the path don’t either…

    • It seems to be a growing trend, CS. I like “and let people decide what that is” policy. Dropping small pieces of information lets people ask questions if they’re comfortable or change the subject if they’re not. I like your style :)

  2. Actually many of the earliest Christians believed they were simply another sect of Judaism. I think James and Paul argue this out in the book of Acts, in which James becomes exasperated with Paul.

    • Soliwo says:

      True. But Christianity really took of because they made is suitable for export. The point that anyone could become a Christian was stressed. Christianity got an identity of its own very early on.

      Of course, the Jewish heritage is still very important for Christianity. In a sense she can be both the new religion (Jesus not only being the final prophet, but also securing the end of history hen he returns). Plus the new testament is a sequel or conclusion of the ancient Jewish faith.

      But it’s the letting go of the Jewish target group, is what led to it’s great success. Greeks, Romans, women, slaves, anyone could become Christian (very different from for example Mithraism).

      • Not really… Christianity “really took off” through forced conversion, a practise which still exists to this day. Maybe it’s no longer done by sword, but instead through the withholding of aid or manipulation, but Christianity only “really took off” through bullying other religions.

  3. Soliwo says:

    Though I myself was very much prompted to respond to your article, I was surprised about the amount and some of the content of other responses.

    I think there were some people who lost sight of the fact you were mainly talking about your group’s choice, and that this choice was made in specific circumstances. For example, you found alternative platforms (such as the Irish fair) where the term ‘pagan’ was not useful. There are members in your group who already quit using the word ‘pagan’ as a label and some who never self-identified as such.

    I understand the need to reflect on the bigger picture, but I believed the focus shifted to quickly from a very concrete situation, to the universal. Suddenly people were fearing an exodus of reconstructionists and other groups. As I had understood, the main reasons for stop calling yourselves ‘pagan’ were of a practical nature, resulting from common sense. Nowhere did you state that the term ‘pagan’ has stopped being useful for the pagan community as whole (plus you’d probably wouldn’t make that point because you’re not pagan anyway). Yet that was what everybody was talking about.

    The fact is, Drew and his group are still here, still accessible, not really going anywhere. Not much has been de facto changed. I don’t think patheos-readers will now refrain from reading your blog, just because you are not pagan. That would be silly.

    Plus, I was sorry to see that some people lost their feel for humor. It got a bit too serious for my tastes.

    • Thanks Soliwo. I can understand why some people have been bothered, but I believe that honesty and doing what’s best for the community will prove to be the right decision long-term.

    • William Hood says:

      “Suddenly people were fearing an exodus of reconstructionists and other groups.”

      Which already happened a decade ago and has continued to go on since then. It’s funny that they fear something when they don’t even notice when it DOES happen.

  4. Sunfell says:

    I had to sweep away a lot of clutter as I grew up (and out) of my earlier stages of practice. Some of that clutter was actual (what I called my “Hardwarian” stage) and some of it was mental. But coming to that Abyss/Chasm/Void in my practice was inevitable. Could I traverse it? Who would I be on the other side? Could I shed these beliefs and notions, and still succeed?

    I could, and I did. I took the essence of all of what I’d learned and been initiated into- all the Trad-Craft, Rosicrucian, Spiritualist, Native American, and other things, and distilled it into a single word: Magus. If I have to elaborate, it’s TechMage.

    On this side of the Void, it isn’t what I do- it is who I am.

    • Sunfell, that’s awesome. What a terrific word and title to claim as your own. It conjures (ha) an immediate image with a lot of connotations. I bet that’s a conversation starter.

      Good for you. And thanks for posting, friend magus!

    • cigfran says:

      Nice strawpagan. But beside the point. No one is suggesting that Drew “must” call himself anything, and the actual comments he has received on this subject that do not fall under the category of “yes, this!” have been about something else entirely.

      For my own part, it’s simply a matter of getting tired of the constant need for schism and disassociation among minority subcultures of which I am a member. I also think Drew displays an uncharacteristically shallow and reactive attitude toward ‘paganism’.

      I am a pagan. I don’t see any relevant distinctions between my metaphysical worldview and what I’ve seen Drew describe as his own, though he chooses to say that he is not a pagan. The distinction he makes strikes me as meaningless and needlessly (and purposely) divisive.

      But really… he is free to describe himself any way he wants. I will call him what he wants to be called. That is also pretty basic to minority subcultures.

      So you can dispense with the glib misrepresentations such as those in your little ‘script’ below.

  5. Personally, I think you’re getting a bit… excessively fluid with your definitions. To say that practicing Irish traditional polytheism isn’t pagan is, in my opinion, a misuse of the English language. Not wanting to be considered part of the neo-pagan movement? Perfectly fine, knock yourself out. If you want to abandon the richness, power, and wild glory the term “pagan” evokes for me, don’t use it.

    But if “practicing a spirituality rooted in European polytheism” isn’t “pagan” by general definitions of the term, then you’re starting an argument that linguistic terms can be defined purely on a user-to-user basis, and common language thus loses all coherence and meaning. Without agreed-upon definitions, there’s no point in even attempting to communicate.

    Do whatever you want spiritually, but I think it’s ridiculous to insist you’re a European polytheist but not a pagan. (Keep in mind I’m a language teacher, and these things matter to me.) I’m perfectly happy to agree you aren’t a *neo-pagan*, and I’d never insist you self-identify as a pagan.

    *But* you’re saying everything you do fits the common definitions of what “pagan” is generally used to mean – polytheism rooted in European tradition – but because you think modern pagans are wimpy or dirty or whatever, you’re not a pagan. It’s an umbrella term, and I really do think what you’re practicing fits under that umbrella, whether you like it or not, and that umbrella term is too old and too widely used to escape or abandon just because you feel like it.

    By the way, this is an argument I get into with Asatruar too. I *like* the term pagan. I go to pagan places whenever I can – ruined Roman cities, sacred sites, megaliths and temples – where that history is explicitly identified as pagan (I’m in Europe, remember, so this is easier) – and I certainly agree that that the majority of modern American neo-pagans are… not living up to historical standards. Unfortunately. But to abandon that beauty, that mystery, that wild glory, just because you don’t approve of some of the people who do claim the word?

    How will that word ever again mean what it *should* when the best people keeping the pagan flame alive abandon it?

    • Hi Kira,

      You say that the term “pagan” evokes, for you, a “richness, power, and wild glory.” But two centuries ago it was a derogatory term.

      The reason you can take pride in the label “Pagan” today is precisely because definitions are, in fact, user-generated.

      The reason you can take pride in the word Pagan today is because people had the audacity to redefine it.

      • True, but she’s right about the way language works: it’s the agreed-upon sense that matters. In the context of interactions with yourself and your organization, any courteous person is going to agree to avoid use of the label “Pagan.” Those of us who support your goals are also likely to extend that usage to our interactions with others, to help popularize the new sense.

        But I cannot really blame anyone who refers to you as “Pagan” when talking about you with others, because you fall within the agreed-upon sense in that context.

      • Syna says:

        Exactly. I am all for taking charge of one’s identity and identifications, but there is an agreed-upon sense in which language is not negotiable. “Pagan” evolved organically, over centuries, to encompass a new meaning; that’s not something one individual or even one group typically has the power to control.

        So it’s fine if your group doesn’t self-identify as Pagan, and personally I totally respect your decision; I would not call you a Pagan. But other people are going to think of you as such, and they are justified to do so. Trying to slip out of that won’t work unless you opt for a completely different belief system and/or cultural context. :) Nobody’s trying to tell you what religion you belong to because Pagan isn’t a religion– it’s a blanket term, a generalized category. Which makes it hard to escape from.

        • I accept that, Syna. If people lump me in by accident that’s totally understandable. It’s when they have heard me explain why I’m not and say, “No, you actually are, whether you like it or not” that I shake my head.

          Great comment by the way. Thanks for posting :)

    • I pretty much agree with you, except for one thing: “because you think modern pagans are wimpy or dirty or whatever”. He’s made it clear he thinks modern pagans are awesome, but the term has become loaded with connotations that have caused confusion in practice.

      That’s why I think it’s actually a good idea in his case. He’s given a very practical reason to avoid use of the term.

      • Sorry, that’s more a personal impression of much of the modern pagan community, and the one I hear most commonly spoken out against by people who don’t like the term pagan.

        I have no objection to him avoiding using the term, and not self describing with it. To say the general umbrella term doesn’t fit his practice, though, seems linguistically inaccurate to me. (I am an English as a foreign language teacher, btw, I get picky about language.) To object to other people describing his work as pagan when they’re simply using common English, well… Is it pinpoint accurate? No. But I don’t tell everyone the detailed specs of the machine I’m writing this on, I just say it’s a computer, and they understand that. To someone who cares, I can give the details. Much the same with this argument. Much of our language goes from the general to the specific, and I don’t think you can so easily throw away the general for the specific.

      • “To object to other people describing his work as pagan when they’re simply using common English, well…”

        I actually agree. See my reply to his reply to you.

        “I don’t tell everyone the detailed specs of the machine I’m writing this on, I just say it’s a computer, and they understand that.”

        There’s actually a great computer analogy to what he’s saying, though: if you tell people you use a PC, they tend to assume you’re using Windows, when you could just as well be using Linux.

      • I saw your reply above posting my response – I think we must have been writing at the same time. Nice to see someone agree!

        Using the computer analogy, Windows vs Linux – more or less irrelevant, the important thing is that something is being written. (In my opinion.) The specifics of system are important to people into the technology; no one else cares.

        Anyway, to make the whole thing short, I think it’s fine for Drew to self-describe and clarify however he likes, but if someone else describes him as practicing a pagan religion, they are using English correctly and he doesn’t have much ground to object (though of course he can tell them on what points that generalization is and is not accurate).

      • Soliwo says:

        Actually, Drew has already stated he doesn’t mind when others do see him as being a Pagan, as long as they don’t presume to tell him how he should self-identity.

  6. So of these discussions about how you really are Pagan even if you won’t admit it are starting to sound like a stalker relationship.

    Drew: I’m sorry, Pagan, but I’m no longer your boyfriend. I still love you and respect you, though, can we stay friends?

    Pagan: What? What do you mean you’re no longer my boyfriend? I say you are still my boyfriend.

    Drew: No, really, we just aren’t compatible that way. But if you need something, I’ll be there. And I’ll see you around. We’re friends, right?

    Pagan: See? You just admitted it. you area boy and you said we are still friends, therefor you are my boyfriend!

    Drew: No. Friend and boyfriend are different. People choose what level of relationship they agree to be in. Please respect that choice.

    Pagan: You are my boyfriend, I’ll still cal you my boyfriend and you have no standing to object.

    Drew: *sigh*

    • Except that such a relationship is only a relationship if it’s actually mutual. That’s part of the very concept.

      Most descriptive terms are not like that. As Abraham Lincoln once put it, “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

      If I called myself a Christian, it wouldn’t make it true: I believe none of Christianity’s distinctive tenets. If I decided I was not a human being but a cabbage or something (fnord), that wouldn’t be correct, either.

      That’s the point some of us are trying to make.

      • I understand that Badocelot… but it’s beside the point.

        Language is not what’s at stake here. Words change. Enforcing dictionary definitions is a ridiculous basis for religious identity. It leaves people feeling labeled, judged and bullied.

        The main point of this post is to suggest a different, better basis.

        Basing it on personal choice completely bypasses the problems loaded into your approach. It allows for individual integrity and group cohesion. It has a flexibility that addresses the amazing complexity and diversity of human spirituality, without enforcing any one bias on a group of people.

        If the drawback of that approach is that words will be redefined, well, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. I have every confidence that people can communicate and understand new shades of meaning. They have done so for millennia.

      • Religion IS a relationship (or a system to foster a relationship) and belonging to a religious group/identity is voluntary. Unless it is a cult and let’s not be that, right?

      • William Hood says:

        Except that the word “leg” and the word “pagan” are to very different types of words. “Leg” has a definite, physical definition. “Pagan” is used to describe a human concept. Besides, the original meaning of the word “paganus” had nothing to do with religion until some people *decided* to use it as a derogatory term for non-Christians, so how do you justify REDEFINING the word to mean what you want but then get in a snit when someone else disagrees with how the word was redefined? This whole “linguistic purity” argument that keeps coming up is logically inconsistent.

  7. Guest says:

    Regardless of the factual rightness or wrongness of rejecting the Pagan label it’s feeling tremendously emotionally satisfying to leave it behind.

    The clerk might be right that the shoes fit me well, but I don’t like how they look so I’m not going to buy them. After all it’s not his money, and he’s not the one who has to wear them. End. Of. Story.

  8. I still say you’re one of us, hun. But mostly because it’s not fun if the good people aren’t at the party. And when you gonna come on the show and talk about that lovely temple of yours? :-)

    Lady Bless,

  9. Belinda T. says:

    I know how your “Catholic” friend feels. I felt totally betrayed by the Church. I have to call myself an agnostic now. I know there’s something much bigger and greater than mankind out “there” but I don’t know what it is.

    • Belinda, first of all my condolences that you were affected by those horrible scandals. Thank you for being willing to post.

      About the idea of not being religious but feeling something bigger – I heard this from so, so many people. I think it is a very common place to be in and you are definitely not alone. The reason I’m writing “Walk Like a God” is for people in your position – to offer a way to connect with that bigger presence, without shoving beliefs or dogma at people.

      When it’s ready, would you be interested in reading it and doing a review?

  10. Katherine says:

    I was a student of Drew’s temple for nearly 6 years. I still call myself a Celtic Polytheist, and describe the temple as a Celtic Polytheist Temple. However, for many of the reasons stated here and in the comments of the previous post, I have also always considered myself, and the temple, to be Pagan.

    There is yet another reason for that: while Drew has talked about how little our group fit in at Pagan Pride events versus how well we fit in at the Irish fair, I find that I have a completely different recollection of the events. True, we got some (and I stress the word “some”) interest at Irish fair. But often, at the end of an entire day spent there, there were maybe a few people who showed any genuine interest in what we do. Out of the hundreds who ignored us or gave us weird looks, those aren’t very good odds, and I certainly wouldn’t call that “fitting in.”

    True, the temple does things differently from many Pagan groups, but I’ve always felt that we have too much in common with Paganism as a whole to disassociate our religion from it. When talking to a Pagan, they understand where we’re coming from religion-wise, and that’s usually not the case when talking to someone from a different religious background.

    All that being said, if Drew doesn’t want to be called Pagan, then don’t call the man Pagan. It’s as simple as that.

    • Thanks for your comment. For what it’s worth, I figure humans naturally distort all truth (to varying degrees) with their own experiences and opinions, so I seldom take anything some-one says on the Internet says about how an event happened with less than a grain of salt.

    • Interesting. Thanks for posting this Katherine. I knew there were people in our community who still consider themselves Pagan, but I never would’ve thought you were one of them – based on some of the conversations we’ve had!

      Good for you though. I won’t tell anyone what to call themselves, and if you still feel a link to that wonderful community then more power to you :)

  11. William Hood says:

    “When talking to a Pagan, they understand where we’re coming from religion-wise, and that’s usually not the case when talking to someone from a different religious background.”

    That’s interesting, because I’ve had the opposite experience more often than not. I am not, however, a Celtic polytheist. Anyway, it’s been my experience that Pagans often have more trouble understanding where I’m coming from because they assume that they ARE understanding me. If that makes sense. Someone from a non-Pagan background at least starts with the assumption that they have to learn about me first. I think this reinforces that non-universality issue here, not everyone is having the same experience with the term and community, regardless of how similar any two people are.

    • William, I can’t agree with this more. Yes, I’ve had that exact experience—people assume they know what I practice or I am just like them, because they view me as Pagan. Thanks for pointing this out.

  12. Pingback: Dancing with Religion « Sassy Steph B's Blog

  13. strongdem says:

    This is just cool. Because you know what? I have the same discussion with myself and/or others about Christianity on a regular basis. I was raised Catholic, but in a liberal family. I never “bought” at lot of the theology. There were certainly people in my life who felt the same as I did, and also felt comfortable in the Catholic Church…for whatever reason, I felt far less comfortable. I went to church and felt like a fraud, felt like “all these people think they know what I believe, but I don’t!” Then I was just unchurched for a very long time, with occasional attendance at anything from a Catholic service to Quaker meetings to Buddhist temples. None of it was looking for a “new” church, I just sort of soaked stuff in. And then a few years ago I found the Episcopal church – or, I should say, the liberal Episcopal church. Because if you’ve paid any attention in the last few years, you know that Episcopalians, like ALL other religions, I believe, are not unified in belief. I LOVE this church. Honestly, it’s what I’ve always been – I just didn’t know there was a name for it. And you know what? A WHOLE LOT of Christians would say that I and my church are not Christian at all. I don’t believe Jesus died so that God could forgive my sins, I don’t believe that non-Christian-ness means you go to hell…actually I don’t really believe anyone goes to hell, but that’s a whole separate discussion. If I told you I was Christian, you’d pretty much think you knew what I believe, wouldn’t you? Yeah…you’d probably be wrong.

    Anyway, I just think it’s fascinating to get a look into the same debate in a different tradition. And comforting, too…after 30-odd years of fighting this, it gets old after awhile.

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