Snakes Have Nothing to Do With It

On Monday I offered my usual quiet, respectful protest to Saint Patrick’s Day by wearing black instead of green, and daring to point out that the good saint is famous mostly for smashing Irish temples and traditions. One reader pointed me to an interesting defense of Patrick, which makes a line of argument I haven’t seen before.

The article, written in 2012 by Pagan journalist Jason Pitzl-Waters, essentially makes two points:

  1. Patrick’s fame for “casting out the snakes of Ireland” is often misunderstood;
  2. And therefore Patrick is a totally swell guy, and worthy of our reverence.

If you’re not familiar, the story of Patrick driving out the snakes is a fairly late piece of folklore, often interpreted as a metaphor for driving out the druids. Neopagans have seized on this mini legend, and those few who dare to abstain from Ireland’s anointed holiday often make reference to snakes.

Some of these references are kind of clever. (I’ll always be fond of a friend’s “The snakes are back” T-shirt showing a Celtic knotwork snake burping up a miter). Others are just ludicrous, like this one Pitzl-Waters chooses to quote:

“The “snakes” that Patrick drove out of Ireland were the Druidic priests, who had serpents tattooed on their forearms. Celebrating him is like celebrating Stalin or Hitler.”

(That’s both historically inaccurate, and preposterous.)

Most snake-centric approaches are somewhere in the middle. Some Pagans celebrate March 17 as “All Snakes Day,” essentially trying to reclaim the holiday while still getting drunk and wearing green. I’ve never been much for All Snakes Day, and I generally avoid reference to the snake story at all because it’s one of the weakest lines against Patrick.

But it is a fair approach. Even though the “snakes” story is over a thousand years more recent than Patrick himself, it’s pretty much always been interpreted as a reference to the conversion. And regardless of snakes, Patrick’s earliest and friendliest biography is very clear that he destroyed Irish sanctuaries and festivals. So the snake issue is kind of irrelevant to the (very reasonable) decision of some polytheists and Pagans not to celebrate a conversion saint.

But those interviewed for the article consider it an oddly strong case. Quoting two Celtic reconstructionists, Pitzl-Waters frames Patrick’s hostility as “debunked” by discrediting the snake myth. But one of the quotes directly contradicts that:

“…the rest of Patrick’s hagiography has him dueling Druids right and left, killing those who oppose him with callous righteousnes [sic], so why would the story suddenly get cryptic about him driving the Druids out?”

Why indeed. And how does a killer of druids “right and left” now seem any more druid-friendly? That may undermine the snake myth, but it doesn’t make me think druids should start toasting the Green Bishop.

As a good reason to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, the article fails. It touches on some of the many good reasons to dislike St. Patrick, but then tells us to ignore those reasons and celebrate him because (shock) Neopagans got their history wrong. Of course, the article closes with my personal favorite chastisement: that there is no other way to stay in touch with modern Irish heritage than celebrating this one holiday. If you don’t like Patrick, you aren’t Irish enough.

Why I don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Someone who’s in touch with Irish heritage.

It used to baffle me why, of all people, Pagans and polytheists would find such strange reasons to be pro-Patrick. I understand when Irish Christians put peer pressure on me to celebrate the holiday, but why polytheists? Why get so attached to the celebration of a man who actively worked against our religion—and why use such ridiculous arguments for doing so?

Nowadays, however, it doesn’t surprise me. The Patrick apologists never present serious arguments, because they don’t really care about the hagiographic picture of Patrick at all. They don’t care if he was a good guy or a bad guy. They’re only pro-Patrick because they grew up enjoying his holiday, and they’re going to keep enjoying it even if doing so requires intellectual gymnastics. Accuracy or integrity isn’t the issue here, and neither is cultural pride.

The issue is rationalization.

It’s just easier to go with the crowd than it is to abstain from a minor holiday. Even a holiday that’s essentially about a bigot—in legend and, likely, in reality—against your own religion.

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.

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?

Religion, Spotlight

Vision of a Different World

I believe that we should respect nature. I believe myths have important lessons to teach us. And even though I no longer believe in souls, I know that spirituality can be a powerful, positive force.

These beliefs of mine are not too different from what many Pagans believe.

I’m not Pagan, and neither are most of you. But I was once, and I believe that movement has a vital message to share with the world.

I just don’t know what it is.

This month at Patheos I share my vision of a Pagan world—a world “that celebrates, rather than demonizes, the rich life of myth and ritual that Pagans bring to the table.”

Small shifts add up to giant changes. A minority religion can become an axis of culture. If the religion is as awesome as Vodou or Paganism, this is a win for both the religion and the society it’s part of.

Getting there, however, will require steps forward on that perennial problem: what the heck is Paganism all about, and what can Pagans unify around? What is the essence of Paganism?

You can see the vision here. If you’re Pagan, please comment there and give your own answer.


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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Religion, Spotlight

Incinerated by the Dragon of Karma

I have a lot of respect for the Neopagan movement. But that movement rests on a key conceit: that something precious can be recovered from ancient European tradition and reinstated today.

I have my doubts about that premise. To see why, check out my latest column at Patheos:

Incinerated by the Dragon of Karma