I’m equal parts humanist and priest. This puts me on a lonely fence where both atheists and believers get to throw stones at me.
I wouldn’t mind some company.
Recently I invited blogger John Halstead to depart Paganism and join me in leaving that label behind. John’s spirituality, like mine, delights in the world as-is: a world both good and bad, with quiet gods who do not rush to help.
When John said he was “embarrassed” by mainline Paganism, I wasn’t the only blogger to jump up (though I was the only one tempting him away from it). John addressed a number of us in a single response post. The verdict? He’s sticking with the Pagan umbrella, even though it doesn’t represent his beliefs.
What remained unclear to me was why.
As I write in a comment to him:
[That] affirmation, which you say “defines what Paganism is all about,” is indeed beautiful. But how is it Pagan? I share those beliefs, and I’m not Pagan; Thoreau shared them, and he wasn’t Pagan either. [Your affirmation] even says that those beautiful beliefs are “human” rather than belonging to any religion — such as Paganism.
And Paganism today adds many beliefs beyond what that affirmation offers, some of which you’ve specifically said you’re uncomfortable with. Why the continued loyalty?
(The affirmation really is beautiful, though. It comes from a reader of mine, Dave, and I strongly recommend you read the whole thing.)
In comments however, John offers his personal reasoning:
I love the term [‘pagan’], precisely because it has been used by monotheists to distinguish themselves from those who found divinity in nature in all its diverse forms. I embrace the term… precisely because it is a challenging term.
“For me, the word [‘pagan’] cannot be understood outside the context of monotheism. Whatever was meant by the early Christians when they coined the term ‘pagan’, the word came, at least by the 18th century Romantic revival, to have the meaning described by Henry Hatfield… a “this-worldly” view of life, as opposed to Christian dualism.
As Ronald Hutton demonstrates, the NeoPagan revival was inspired by the German and English Romantics, as much as it was by the Western Hermetic Tradition. It was in this sense that Tim Zell used the word when he started calling the the religious movement that coalesced around the Green Egg newsletter ‘NeoPagan’. And it’s in that sense that I use the term now. For me, it calls up thoughts of people like Stephan George, Thomas Taylor, Charles Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, and Harry Byngham more than Enheduanna, Homer, or Julian.
I adore this usage of “pagan,” though I’m not sure the word implies that anymore. For good or bad, the word has been “reclaimed.”
It matters what John and I call our beliefs, because the number of people who share them is growing. Somewhere between humanism and animism lies the future of religion.
And today, it’s fragile.
Spiritual humanists are among the most disunified groups in existence. Most of us sit under umbrellas that don’t really embrace us—Pagan, atheist, secular humanist, Unitarian—and which don’t represent our interests. By calling ourselves these things we make our own lives harder. More seriously, we prevent actual fellowship or organization under a common flag. We keep our beliefs in the margin.
I also wonder what you think. Do any of you find yourselves in this non-faithful, yet spiritual position? What do you call it? Do you still use some larger umbrella term, and how does it help?
I believe these questions matter. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.