Making Religion Competitive

I used to feel that any effort to pick up converts to a religious point of view is dirty. In my most recent article at Patheos I question that. I wonder if the Pagan movement, as disjointed as it is, has in it the means to become a major world religion.

And if so, is an emphasis on heroic virtue its ticket to the big league?

Check it out for yourself:

Making Paganism Competitive

(For longtime readers I should point out I still think proselytizing is inappropriate, and that goes for Pagans too.)

Edit: I’ve closed comments on this post. One of our commenters descended into flamespeak, and the rest of the discussion was going too fast for me to monitor effectively. Many thanks to all those who weighed in with a respectful opinion, even (especially) a dissenting one.

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45 thoughts on “Making Religion Competitive

    • Mike says:

      Please don’t. I’m an atheist. I don’t try to convert religious people. All I ask for is the same courtesy. Don’t become as bad as the various flavors of christianity. Please.

      • Mike, thanks for this comment. I’d like to ask your thoughts on two things.

        First, what do you think of atheist evangelism? As I note in a comment on the article, the atheist movement is divided on whether to try to deconvert people or not. Do you approve of some atheists’ efforts to do that?

        Second, do you feel there is a way for a religion to do outreach to potential converts without being “as bad as the various flavors of Christianity.”

        • Mike says:

          Drew, Thank you for the polite response. First, most atheists are not any way part of “the atheist movement” and just want to be left in peace. As for atheist evangelism, I don’t get it. Why try to convince someone who isn’t interested in listening. Funny thing, there is a guy named Sam Singleton, calls himself “The Atheist evangelist,” who doesn’t believe in debateing Believers. From my admittedly limited experience, most of the atheist movement is more interested in secularism. In other words, keep your church out of our government, and we’ll keep our government out of your church. I personally don’t care what you believe as long as you aren’t harming others. And yes, bigotry and hatred, and alternitive medicine, hurt people.
          On to your second point. Paganism is already doing a good job of outreach. When I was leaving Christianity, Long story, I became interested in finding out what other faiths taught. At that point I still believed something had to be out there. Other than the Local bookstore, where I picked up a copy of the Tao te Ching, one of my first resources was a blog called “The Wild Hunt.” From there I found all sorts of different Pagan and Polytheistic websites. I thouroughly looked into many different types of both reconstructionist, and modern, hodge podge anything goes types of religion. At the same time, I was also Investigating buddism, taoism, shintoism, among others. It was finally a quote from a Pagan blog, which if I remember correctly, said that all religions have one thing in common, they are made up, that was the last straw, and made me admit that just because I wanted to beleive that something was out there that I had to follow the evidence. And I see no evidence for any god or gods of any kind. So If any one is interested in finding a religion, the resources are out there. I know I tried really, really, really hard to find one.
          As far as I’m concerned, there is no point in trying to have a conversation with someone who is not Interested. There is no point in trying to reason with someone who won’t follow logic, or thinks that emotion is more important than logic. And there is no point in being a dick just to get a point across. Most of my friends and family are christian. They don’t try to convert me, I don’t try to convert them. It is why we respect each other, and still get along. Sorry to write so much, but you did ask.

      • let’s see…the Christians are trying to convert everyone to Christianity. The Muslims want to convert everyone to Islam. There’s a number of Atheists out there trying to convert everyone to Atheism by constantly pointing out that science proves there’s no god.

        Hmmm, tell me again why I shouldn’t try to bring folks into my fold so that we have the numbers to back up our beliefs and make sure that our voice isn’t stamped out? Is it simply because you don’t? Sorry, that’s not good enough. you might not, but your fellows are, and in game of religions, as in the game of everything else, it’s numbers that matter. So if the only reason I shouldn’t seek numbers is because it makes you unhappy, too bad. The feelings of one man doesn’t equal enough to allow me to let my religion be potentially crushed because I wouldn’t tell people about it and try and get them to believe in something new.

        • B says:

          “I don’t care if it makes you uncomfortable, I’m going to tell you about it anyway.”

          I wonder how you feel when Christians try and save your soul from the devil. Probably similarly to Mike.

        • Mike says:

          Ok, So I am really trying hard to understand where you are coming from. Why do numbers matter to you? Legitamit question. I really want to know. Isn’t being right, haveing facts and evidence to back up your claims more important? I’m more worried about the kid who gets disowned by his parents because he doesn’t beleive the same things they do. I’m worried that in public schools in America they teach that the earth is 7000 years old. I’m worried that it is legal to bully kids that are gay, trans, bi, or members of minority religous groups as long as they have religous reasons for it. That simply is not acceptable. And you shouldn’t think so either. How is converting more people to your brand of belief going to solve any of that? I don’t care if I was the only atheist alive. To quote Jimmy Hendrix, “If 6 turned out to be 9, I don’t mind. I don’t mind. Cause I got my own world to live through, and I ain’t gonna copy you.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t discuss religion. I’m not saying you should hide your faith. I don’t hide my lack of it. I’m saying don’t be a dick. That’s one of the reasons christianity is slowly dying. That and the fact that they’re wrong.

          • Well, you really just answered my question. Those things you mentioned happen because those that believe those things have the numbers to enforce and support their views. Kids get disowned for believing differently than their parents, gays get bashed, (though honestly I don’t think I’ve heard of a school that’s still teaching the 7000 year thing). And they do it because they have the numbers to hold places of power in the system, elect their leaders, or support their community members when they do such things.

            But what happens to those who do not have the numbers? What happens if the kid who is kicked out of his parents house because he is a Heathen and has no where to go because there aren’t enough Heathens in his area? What happens if a mob of Christians or Muslims showed up and starts bashing heathens and destroying their holy places and their homes, if there aren’t enough Heathens to gather together in that spot and defend it? What if Christians and Muslims get together and decide in places like the UN to pass anti-blasphemy laws that effectively silence all other religions as being “blasphemy” against their religion (and the Muslims are trying to do this), and there aren’t enough Heathens or Pagans to protest that Freedom of Religion is needed?

            In history, the primary reason for the extermination of one group by another is because that group didn’t have the numbers to defend themselves. Survival is a numbers game. That is why I am willing to play numbers and recruit, no matter how unhappy or “dick” a move it is to try and expand my religion. Because I do not want to be on the short end of the stick and once again lose my ancestor’s ways.

            • Mike says:

              Ok. Now I get your perspective. Let me ask you something else. What happens if you get your wish and evangelical heathenism becomes a 70% Majority in this country? You’ve allready said that you’re willing to adopt christian methods. What happens after a few generations when evangelical heathenism is considered the norm? What happens to that kid who tells his parents, “Mom, I’m sorry I don’t believe in your gods, I’m a Christian.” ? The same thing that happens to that pagan kid today. I care about that christian kid as much as I care about that muslim, pagan, or atheist kid today. Tribalism is not the answer, It is the problem. If you want strength in numbers, work with people. Do you know why the majority of people in the U.S. support same sex marriage? They know someone who is gsm. And yet it is still speciffically illegal in 33 states. Numbers aren’t as important as you think. Tribalism is the problem; Empathy is the solution. Putting an actual support system in place in this country for people regardless of their beliefs is the solution. Education is the solution.

              • That only works when things are going nicely. As soon as s*** hits the fan, suddenly people have no problem selling out those relations based on “empathy.” You say tribalism is the problem, and yet the black community has it’s “tribe” and the glbt has their “tribe” and the christians and muslims have their “tribes” and so forth. So in reality, all you have is a bunch of tribes that gang together to try and get their way against other tribes.

                What happens to the child of heathen parents who decides to be a christian. No idea. That’s not my problem. Because I don’t see tribalism as the problem. my problem is that right here, right now, my people are at the mercy of those who despise their ways and would see them gone. I deal in reality. save your pretty words of cooperation, because without strong ties of loyalty, culture, and sometimes even blood, one group will sell another out in an instant to get a better deal for themselves, even to this day. :P

                • Mike says:

                  Well sir, it has been good talking with you. We obviously have different priorities, and will not come to an agreement here. I see lack of empathy as the problem, and you see lack of power as the problem. Have fun chasing it.

  1. B says:

    “[I]ndividualism, cultural pluralism, tolerance, social justice and ecological stewardship—are badly needed, and are never so clearly, so firmly, or so unequivocally insisted upon by any other religion I’ve seen (nor the new atheism)…”

    *raises an eyebrow*

    While ‘atheism’ is not anything more than ‘not believing in gods’, an enormous proportion of the ‘new atheist’ movement tags every single one of those virtues- and is quite angry at any that don’t.

    And the ‘new atheism’ certainly doesn’t have any large, well-organised explicitly racist segments like, oh, neo-paganism.

    • A year ago I would’ve agreed with you, B, but the more I delve into the new atheist movement the more disturbing some of their rhetoric is. I think that, like the Pagan movement, the atheist movement is good on individualism, social justice and ecological stewardship, but that’s not the entire list you quoted.

      I once thought the atheist movement was also good on supporting cultural pluralism; that was my ignorance about the movement as an outsider. The common use of racist and anti-Muslim language within atheist discourse is outlined quite well in this piece. (N.B., I know that many atheists are good on cultural pluralism, but that doesn’t make the movement as a whole good on the issue.)

      On tolerance, the atheist movement is quite divided: many consider it a mandate to actively work against religion, which is the definition of intolerant.

      A key difference with the Pagan movement is that within Paganism, the racist elements you speak of are actively shamed, rebuffed and rejected by the mainstream movement; within the new atheism movement there is not yet a clear consensus that racist language or intolerant behavior are unacceptable. Many atheists are working to make the movement better, and I hope they succeed.

      • B says:

        The key difference, which you calmly ignored despite it being my point, is that while there are individual atheists within ‘new atheism’ that are racist, neo-paganism has *entire organisations*. Much of Heathenism, for example, is explicitly racist, to the point that it is (or was, when I was interested) for an outsider to find those that are not.

        Individual bigots vs collective, organised bigots. That is a pretty key difference.

          • JeninCanada says:

            “neo-paganism has *entire organisations* that are racist.”

            Really? There are? Other than a few fringe Heathen groups out there, I’d love for you to point us in the direction of the rest. It’s your point to prove.

            • B says:

              Those ‘fringe’ Heathen groups are the ones to which I refer. When, a few years ago now, I was interested in reconstructed paganism of the Germanic variety, I went looking for like-minded folk.

              Almost all I found were racist organisations, around the world. A few good folk, but they seemed to be the minority in Heathenism.

              It was surprising, because (as Drew mentions), most neo-pagan types (including Wicca folk, Druids and the rest) are pretty lefty..

            • B says:

              Here is one group in my very own country:

              Here is the wiki article linking heathenry with neo-fascism: [I wish this had been around when I was looking at this stuff half a decade ago- would have made wading through the muck easier.]

              Even more neutral groups have a disturbing tendency to fetishize white ancestors and in-group mentality. ‘Separate but equal’ is still racist.

              The commenter above, Herr Svartwulf, has made quite a few comments on his own blog that sweep into Islamophobic territory, as well as referring to the Abrahamic God as ‘stealing’ souls from their rightful owners.

              General unpleasantness all around.

              • Sure, there’s no doubt these groups exist, it’s just that they’re a actively spurned by most Heathens: the use of widespread use of Heathen imagery in neo-nazi groups is considered anathema to actual Heathen groups. It was your statement of “almost all [Heathen groups] I found were racist organisations” and that non-racists “seemed to be the minority” which I find puzzling. It reflects either a very short search or some startlingly bad googling skills. Virtually every Heathen organization has a page on their site specifically addressing this, denouncing racist/neo-nazi views and affirming that they want no part of it.

                • B says:

                  They are actively spurned by *some* Heathens- I have no idea whether they are in the majority or not. I remind you that I did my research on this matter over half a decade ago, before Wikipedia became so thoroughly encyclopedic. It was difficult to find accurate representations of *anything*, let alone a fringe religious movement, itself fractured.

                  Yet I am not pointing the finger at neo-nazi organisations using ancient symbolism. I am gesturing to Heathen movements which emphasise race and ancestry. Several of them are explicitly racist. Several more (despite soothing words on the surface) place a disturbing degree of emphasis on the ‘correct’ gods for white folk, and ancestry in general.

                  My original statement, and my point, was that neo-paganism had “large, well-organised explicitly racist segments” within the community, in contrast to the atheist movement which merely has individual-level bigotry.

                  You flatly denied this.

                  My original seeking years ago may have been flawed, and it may well be that the majority of Heathens do not, in fact, care about ancestry or the righteousness of whiteness. I don’t care, because that is not the case I am making.

                  You claimed that pagan movements, as a universal whole, are better at leftist values of tolerance (&c.) than other religious movements, and explicitly called out atheism in this matter.

                  You were wrong, and I am still offended.

                  I would like an apology.

                  • Your “research” points to groups who do not count themselves Pagan, and generally hate the Pagan movement. I won’t call that “large, well-organised explicitly racist segments” in the Pagan community.

                    You also completely fail to address the issue of religious intolerance. Let’s just say I’m wrong on the cultural pluralism front – let’s say atheists are pound for pound every bit as pro-cultural-pluralism as Pagans are. That would be awesome. But the atheist movement, to whatever extent it is a movement, is divided on whether tolerance is even a good idea. There’s active resistance to interfaith dialogue, and a faction that is incredibly derisive of religion.

  2. JeninCanada says:

    The only reason I don’t see Paganism succeeding as a world religion is because it’s not just 1 thing. Under the Pagan umbrella is an enormous number of faiths and traditions, and that is a HUGE block to seeing Paganism as 1 thing. As you pointed out in the article, Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism and the rest have their set of beliefs and practises that anyone can pick up and learn about and follow if they choose. That doesnt’ exist for Paganism because it can’t; under Pagan you have so many choices that to simply say “I’m Pagan” tells someone so little about what you believe or practise. Hell, even Wiccan-Influenced-Pagan (WIP) gives more to go on than just Pagan, or Druid, or Heathen, or Hellenic, or Kemetic, Reconstructionist. There are so many great and diverse paths out there that to ask them to blend together enough that Paganism can be a Thing is wrong. Our strength is in our diversity. That’s not to say that we should be quiet about our faith and what we do; Pagan Pride is an excellent example of a festival time that educates non-Pagans about Paganism and also celebrates the various faiths under the umbrella. If non-Pagans head over to a PPDay event and then decides to join the local circle or even just start reading up on the ancient Celts and their Druids, that’s a plus ontop of their getting an education to what Paganism IS and ISN’T.

    • I agree that’s an issue. What I wonder is whether a central, “distilled” teaching can be a rallying point for otherwise diverse traditions.

      • JeninCanada says:

        If it can, you’ve certainly hit closely upon it in your post. I also tend to go with the official PPDay definition of Pagan, but there’s no set of beliefs there. I really don’t think there can be, except to paint with a broad brush like you’ve done already.

  3. Converting people is against my religion. It’s just not the Witch’s Way. The way of the future of religion is self-defined religion, yet it needs to be more virtuous and disciplined — that is what is lacking when tradition is kicked out the window.

    • B, I just read the article in full. I don’t think one sentence mentioning “heavy ‘blood and soil’ (and outright racist) elements within some radical traditionalist camps” is the smoking gun for “most heathens are racist!” that you’re looking for. The article goes on to state that groups like this “try to walk the ‘folkish’ line while rejecting the idea of racial supremacy.”

      Oh yeah, and the one guy this article is about? In a direct quote from him – in the very article you linked – he states he is not Pagan and tries to distance himself from the Pagan movement. (He accepts the word grudgingly in its small-p definition as a catch-all for non-universalist faiths.)

      So thank you for providing another example of how incredibly rare, fringe, and rejected racism is within Paganism.

        • I want to be respectful of atheists, but I also need to be accurate. Those who favor deconverting the religious and who use belittling language toward religion are not a small minority, nor are they universally shamed and rejected by their more moderate atheist brethren. The movement is really divided right now whether to be tolerant or whether to proselytize aggressively.

          In some cases, the very same people who make moderate, “please just accept us” style talks on mainstream public media are also the ones who use incredibly crude and bigoted language within atheist conventions – Greta Christina being a good example. I’ve heard moderate atheists complain about this kind of invective, and her in particular, but she isn’t denied speaking roles at conventions the way racists are at Pagan events.

          I refuse to be small-minded and state that all atheists are intolerant, but I also refuse to pretend only a tiny, shunned few are, when in reality it’s a huge and accepted segment.

          edit: Please note I’m calling Christina out for intolerant language, not racist language. She’s quite good on matters of race.

          • Pip says:

            I am a ‘new’ atheist and I do not feel accurately represented.

            The article you linked regarding atheist attitudes was about Sam Harris’ advocacy of racial profiling at airports, and a genuine concern that he was expressing a racist view. His piece was seen among other prominent new atheists as racist, and there was a strongly critical backlash.


            No-one on either side of this discussion denies that racism is wrong, both factually and morally. However, you’re equating it with something about which there is no such agreement, labelling atheists as “bigoted” and “intolerant” when they disrespect religion rather than race.

            The core of the new atheist ‘movement’ (and I don’t like that term particularly, any more than I like the label ‘new’) is that there should be no privileged respect for religion, any more than there is for a political viewpoint or a scientific hypothesis. Religion can and should be criticised as robustly as possible, particularly when

            A) Religious claims are made in a complete vacuum of sound evidence
            B) Religious beliefs are damaging the society the rest of us share.

            The truth of (A) and (B) is not an argument I’m trying to start here; I’m just laying out the position. The point is what stems from this: religion should be treated with boxing gloves, not kid gloves.

            Freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, is important. That’s what I (and I suspect others) hear when you say “cultural pluralism” and “tolerance”, which were the two virtues you contended were absent in new atheists. However, freedom of religion does not entitle you to freedom from being offended, any more than freedom of expression entitles you to freedom from contradiction (and in the case of religion, these two are often one and the same). The use of extremely disrespectful language by new atheists is in this vein often a consciousness-raising exercise, to contrast with the unwarranted reverence with which religious attitudes and authorities are often treated. It’s the same disrespectful language with which (on a blog, at least) you might treat someone who held any other kind of laughable belief – for example, Rupert Sheldrake or Glenn Beck.

            As an atheist I reject your description of this approach as “bigoted” or “intolerant” absolutely. If you see this as so wrong that you can declare it to be so by assertion, then you are not hoping that the ‘new’ atheism will reform – you are hoping it will go away.


            On a side note, you can describe this agenda of robust criticism as ‘proselytising’ if you want, but I wouldn’t. Yes, it has the explicit aim of breaking people out of religion, but it doesn’t have the aim of subsequently absorbing them into the New Atheist Club.

            Atheism has little baggage beyond not believing in gods, and what baggage it does have, here and now, is best defined by statistical trends rather than creeds. It’s not another religion with well-defined (or even poorly-defined) beliefs, it’s simply a space on a Venn diagram. No atheist document can speak for any atheist who is not its author; no atheist figure either.

            That’s why I don’t like the term ‘movement’. ‘Herd of cats’ would be more accurate, but probably quite clunky to use.

              • Pip says:

                I don’t like calling myself a ‘new’ atheist either – but for the same reasons I outlined above, I don’t think calling it “offensive” is any grounds to ask people to stop using it. Calling it inaccurate is much more useful.

              • The label “new atheism” refers to a specific movement among atheists, which (among other things) favors atheist activism. I understand that you aren’t part of that movement, Mike, but some atheists do self-identify with it.

                I referred specifically to the “new atheism” movement in the article precisely because it is a more specific movement than “atheism,” secularism or non-theism, which as you rightly point out are not an organized movement per se.

            • You make several points, Pip; I’ll respond in brief.

              1. On racism versus intolerance. Both are an issue. People within the atheist movement identify an alarming trend of racist language; the article I linked, though sparked by the Sam Harris issue, gives plenty of other quotes. Greta Christina also speaks about this issue. Separately, religious intolerance is also a major issue.

              2. I have never stated atheists are overall racist and/or intolerant. My point is that atheism does not champion cultural pluralism and religious tolerance. My own mother, for example, is definitely not racist – but she’s no champion of cultural pluralism. Paganism champions these issues.

              3. I agree religion, and any philosophic viewpoint, should be robustly questioned. I don’t think the T-shirts reading, “Too stupid for science? Try religion!” – being sold at a recent atheist convention – count as robust discussion. There *are* intolerant atheists; other atheists do very little to discourage them (with notable exceptions like Nonprophet Status); and using “robust criticism” as a smokescreen to pretend all your fellows are tolerant and reasonable is part of the problem.

          • Mike says:

            It is not just racism that happens in the pagan community. Do you want further examples of intolerance. How about trans exclusion at pantheacon events by dianic wiccans. How about the widespread support for the dianic wiccans to be able to continue to have their own sponsored wymyn born wymyn prayer rituals by other pagan groups, because they don’t want to dictate to another group what they can and can’t do. Sure some people call them out. But it is far from universal. My source for this information is the wild hunt. It is one of the many issues of intolerance and bigotry in the pagan Community. But I wont go around and call the majority of pagans bigots, because they aren’t.

      • B says:

        Dude, the ‘one guy’ the article was about was still a pagan, even if he wanted little to do with the too-left-wing Pagan Movement.

        Nonetheless, as I outlined above: my argument is not that ‘most heathens are racist’ (because that is impossible to prove), but that there *are* organised racist elements within paganism. A level of organisation to the hatred which simply does NOT exist within the New Atheism.

        This makes your point that pagans, all of them, everywhere, are better at being culturally tolerant than us…. void. And null. And stupid.

        [not to mention ‘religious war guy’ above, who wants to proselytise so he can fight back against Chrisitianity.]

        • When a racist says he isn’t Pagan, and basically adds that he dislikes Paganism because it is too progressive, I guess I’d call that a gold star for Paganism.

          Anyway, this thread has officially degraded to someone calling me “stupid” – itself not the smartest move since I hold the ban hammer around here. I’m closing comments on this thread now, because I don’t have time to babysit it.

          Notably, this is the first time I’ve ever had to close comments to shut down flaming – way to represent, B.

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