Religion, Spotlight

The Pagan Shoe That Never Fits

Photo by Spencer Finnley

Photo by Spencer Finnley

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.

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Religion, Spotlight

An Open Letter to John Halstead

Yesterday I highlighted an essay by Allergic Pagan John Halstead. There are parallels between John´s spirituality and my own developing path. This letter is for him, and for so many others.

Picture by Kiel Bryant

Dear John,

I share many of your beliefs. I embrace the gods even if they live only in our hearts. I love ceremony for what it does and not what it could do, and I find spirituality in the virtues and struggles of human hands.

Our style of religion will grow. It’s the religion of our century, it is nourishment for a questioning generation that wanders with a sense of meaning. A generation that feels the Infinite in quiet churches and bustling temples, yet does not submit to the teachings of those places. A people who wonder.

What path is this? Is there something to found, create, or nurture here?

I don´t think it’s fair to call it Paganism. That is the path that brought both of us to where we are, as well as luminaries like B.T. Newberg and Brendan Myers; but is that still the path we follow today?

There’s something precious in the word “pagan,” something guttural and full of meaning. There’s no historic reason we the faithless should be excluded from paganism. It was never a religion of faith—it birthed Western philosophy and the first known doubters. But today, Paganism has been thoroughly reclaimed by faithful theosophists and mediums. The word has changed. It irreversibly communicates certain beliefs: a soul, some gods, invisible powers.

I divorced “Pagan” because that word made communication harder, not easier.

Is there some other word we both should use?

We have many beliefs in common. Above all, we revel in the world as-is. The world is majestic and beautiful yet uncaring and destructive. It is at once the source of every joy and every misery we will ever experience. To love the joys and suffer the miseries is one thing, but to savor the joy and race the misery, loving the whole in honor of its perfectness, that is sacred awe. I believe we share this sacred awe.

We also share a certain deism. I hear you talk about gods; I do the same. It’s human to call out to these gods. They wear faces for us. But we don’t expect deities to change the face of the world. They are our silent tutors, we carry them in our blood. “Revere the gods but do not count on their help.”

We also have differences. I adore the practice of magic. Within limits I believe it works, and I suspect it works primarily by psychological means. I wouldn’t be embarrassed by a ceremony that gives out protection charms, because people act differently if they possess and believe in such charms.

And I maintain some hope that the gods are external, real. I remain on the line between theism and atheism.

So I wonder, is there enough common ground here that we are effectively practicing the same spiritual path?

Can formalizing it help others? Is this a path that can even be organized, or is it too individualistic? Are there practices that can help people reach and make peace with their doubt, and does it require crisis?

Our guiding light is a certain inner honesty. We are honest about what we know and what we don’t. If this is the future of religion, what can we do to be on the leading edge?

And dammit John—what is it called?

Who else has thoughts on these questions? What do you think? I hope John will have a response of his own and I´m happy to share it here.

Note: John responded here and I have a followup post here

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Religion, Spotlight

Why More People Aren’t Pagan

Two years ago I caused serious commotion by stating that, although I worship the gods of nature, I am not pagan.

Friday, Allergic Pagan author John Halstead made a similar declaration. He still totes the P-word—but he’s ashamed of it:

I was embarrassed. Paganism for me was a rich and complex tradition with the potential to transform consciousness and, dare I say, save the soul of the world. But the public face of Paganism seemed to me silly and naive. I’ve written before what I love about Paganism and what I hate about Paganism… What I want to do here is explore this embarrassment.

He explores not just the movement’s failings, but his own hang ups. These hang ups are more than personal quirks, they represent a growing recognition that mainstream Paganism is, well, just not that well suited to a scientific, humanistic and superstition-averse 21st century.

In the past I’ve asked why Paganism isn’t a major world religion: I think John answers that well.

He refers to Pagan powerhouse Teo Bishop’s own professed embarassment:

It turns out that Teo’s embarrassment was not so broad as my own… To me, the ritual Teo describes is flighty New Age drivel and not fundamentally different from praying to an all-powerful monotheistic God to save us from everything bad in the world… I think this type of ritual is characteristic of the public face of Paganism. And it is something I absolutely do not want to be associated with.

John then goes on to present his own vision of paganism: a belief that embraces the entire world, its good and its bad, the whole lively mix of pain and delight that we slog through without the help of gods. It is profoundly humanistic and yet, I sense, it leaves room for the Infinite.

Just like veins of Classical paganism and—not coincidentally—the Heroic Faith.

John will take a lot of fire for his critique of Paganism-the-mothership. But this is one of the best personal essays on religion I’ve seen. Paganism offers a beautiful promise to the world, undermined in its entirety by the behavior of actual Pagans.

You can read his words here: Being Ashamed of Paganism. Will John’s kind of religion, which blurs the line with humanism, ever grow? Is this the century of religion sans faith, and is that a good thing? Or will religion only succeed when it provides a promise of comfort?

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