Principles of Good Religion

Photo by NYC Andre

Since 2006 I’ve participated actively in interfaith work, first on behalf of my polytheist temple, then as an organizer on a larger scale, and now as an author. Much of my travels are aimed at meeting and learning from leaders of other religious traditions—especially small, culturally rooted traditions like Vodou.

I’ve learned to respect and embrace traditions very unlike my own.

But I don’t believe that all religions are good. Like any broad group of human institutions, some are better executed than others, meaning they’re more effective at using their values to shape the world. And they don’t all have the same values.

That led me to adopt a set of Principles of Good Religion that I used in guiding my own temple. Eventually, a colleague asked me to share these at a large interfaith event. I was hesitant, because I didn’t want to insult anyone. But these principles don’t judge a religion by its beliefs—they judge it on the effect it has both on its followers and on society as a whole.

Here are the Principles as originally presented by my temple.

Principles of Good Religion

We do not believe our religion is the only right way, nor that religion should be fought over. We recognize certain principles that mark out helpful, compassionate religions. We endeavor to uphold the Principles of Good Religion which include:


There are many paths to spiritual perfection, and no one path has the right to overturn others. We hold public events so that people can learn about us, meet us, and participate if they like—but we never try to convert people to our religion. Those who wish to join us are welcome, and those who don’t are treated with equal respect.

Freedom of Belief

Even within a religion, people always have their own unique views on spiritual issues. Belief is a personal matter, something the individual decides based on their own experiences. Religion exists to bring the community together for celebration, not to enforce a unanimous belief.

Love of Diversity

We believe that people define themselves by their actions and their choices. People around the world have spoken with the divine for thousands of years, and all of their experiences are of value. We do not discriminate based on gender, sexual preference, race, or any other basis.

Supporting Spirituality

Religion is an institution administered by human beings. It involves buildings, jobs, financing and all the other things that make human society run. Yet the goal of religion must always be to support and encourage the private spirituality of each member. Spirituality must come before any institutional concern.

Respect for Science

Religious beliefs should be based on experience and observation, arising from the natural world. This is the same as the basis of science, and there is no reason the two must conflict. Religion should adapt as our scientific understanding of the world grows. No source of knowledge should be ignored.

(I would appreciate comment on any or all of these principles. How well do they actually work at differentiating positive “compassionate, helpful religions”?)


When We Heart Villains, Does It Matter If They’re Pretend?

Tomorrow, as every year, I will tweet out and re-share my article Fuck Saint Patrick. Then I will get a slew of criticism missing my point.

My point is, of course, that we shouldn’t praise people who do bad things, no matter what our religion. Patrick legendarily defiled temples in order to get his foothold in Ireland, and that’s just not someone I raise a pint for.

I can understand why some Christians would ignore that little snag (though I would suggest that immoral acts remain immoral even if you’re on the winning side). But it seems you don’t have to be a crusader for Christ to stand up for Patrick. Pagans and the non-religious have been kind enough to tell me over and over that the green bishop is totally great and his violent methods are no big deal. Why?

Because maybe they’re imaginary.

John wields bookkind.

John wields bookkind.

The Hagiography Defense

Even Pagan blogger Alison Leigh Lilly offers a version of this argument:

I like how the hagiographic (read:mythic) stories about a single man more than a thousand years ago weighs… on the minds of modern Pagans

She’s not the only one—this is the single most common reply I get (other than grateful high fives from other polytheists). After all, the stories of Patrick’s life come to us from medieval manuscripts written long after his time. They may not be accurate.

To which my reply is: and?

For starters, many Christians for many centuries took those stories as fact; they were happy to praise him believing the stories were true.

More to the point, I don’t know that celebrating a mythical villain is really any better than celebrating an historic one. (Note the difference from fictional; I’d gladly attend a Darth Vader Day.) Figures of myth are powerful symbols, and this one is tied up in forceful conversion. If we’re willing to celebrate that it should raise serious questions.

It’s worth noting that even if the scenes from Patrick’s life in his medieval biography are fictionalized, it’s unlikely that he was more tolerant. The biographies weren’t written by his enemies, trying to make him look bad, but by fellow Christians. They could have made him seem as peaceful as they wanted to. They chose to depict him as someone who would interrupt blessings, wreck holidays, smash religious statuary and desecrate temples.

But that’s long over; frankly it doesn’t get my blood up. What I find deeply uncomfortable is that people today continue to celebrate a man famous for such alleged acts—and then shame anyone who refuses to join in.

I’m not interested in playing the victim. The acts wreaked against my religion 1600 years ago do very little to affect my life today. And I don’t begrudge the wild partying; I’ll likely be out at a pub myself. But when I do I’ll be wearing black, my small non-violent, non-confrontational gesture of objection to what the myth named Patrick stands for.

Every year, this approach gets people asking questions, and when I answer calmly and unjudgingly, every year it turns into great, thoughtful conversations.

Please join me in wearing black, not green, on Patrick’s Day.

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