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The "Pagan" question, Beyond belief-blindness

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

If the "Pagan" question - i.e. who's Pagan and who isn't - were a political issue, it would decide elections. It's grown that large. It's come to a point where posts don't just reference others, they form catalogs of references to others. It's even spurred sub-issues: the "Christo-Pagan" question and the "Atheist Pagan" question (I have an obvious vested interest in the latter).

But in all this endless talk, few seem to have the balls to say in no uncertain terms what's really going on:

It's about kicking people out.

This isn't about labels

The question seems to be, on the face of it, about labels. It's about what it means to be "Pagan", if anything. The label gets analyzed, dissected, and pulled apart. But that's just a facade.

Underneath lies a clash in our collective conscience, an ugly truth we don't want to acknowledge. There's a painful cognitive dissonance coming from holding two mutually contradictory beliefs about ourselves:

  1. We don't police others' beliefs.
  2. We must police others' beliefs (if our community is to have any integrity).

Eating our tails

Serpient Alquimica, drawing from a medieval Byzantine Greek alchemical manuscript, 7th centuryWe are a community choking on our own relativism. Like the serpent Ouroboros trying to encircle everything, we've been eating our own tail for too long, and it's starting to hurt.

We always knew we were diverse in beliefs, but somehow at small scales it was okay. We told ourselves beliefs didn't matter. We made jokes like "I'm a theist on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and an atheist on Tuesdays and Thursdays." And we thought we were being sincere. Well, the "Pagan" question shows we still have some issues to work through. It turns out saying beliefs don't matter is kinda like denying racism by saying you're "color blind." We shouldn't be "belief blind"; we should embrace difference. Beliefs do matter to us.

When we come across others who believe radically different than we do, it feels like the bond is breaking. We want to say they're not Pagan, but then remember we're not supposed to police others' beliefs, and end up sputtering long-winded analyses of what it means to be "Pagan." Don't get me wrong - analyses are useful, and I'm as analytically-oriented as any other, but in this case I think we just need to say what we mean: we feel deeply uncomfortable, and don't know what to do about it.

I certainly haven't been blameless in this respect; I've felt that frustration, and made some mistakes as a result. I've also attempted to learn from my mistakes, and push toward something better.

We have crafted a community of "whatever works." We have posed ourselves as nondogmatic. We have championed orthopraxy, or shared practice, over orthodoxy, or shared belief. I have personally lauded this as amazing, a rare and precious thing in contemporary religion. But is it sustainable? The current debate over the "Pagan" question calls it into doubt.

So what can we do?

There are a few sensible ways out of the dilemma.

Option 1. Bow out from the label

One is to take the minimally exclusive approach, excluding only yourself from the label. Heathens have long since rejected the "Pagan" identifier, and those moving to the "polytheist" label are doing the same. I respect and applaud their intellectual integrity.

Option 2. Learn to exclude

Another sensible response is to give up our non-exclusionary ideals, and take a more realistic view of the Pagan community. Instead of trying to embody the antithesis of monotheist exclusionism by including everything, we can humbly learn to exclude some things. If, in the end, majority consensus were to decide to exclude me, I honestly wouldn't lose that much sleep over it. I'd just keep on doing what I was doing under a different label.

Option 3. Re-envision solidarity

A third and final option, probably the most difficult of all, but the most promising, is to re-envision what we hold in common. This must begin, first of all, by an honest and thorough rejection of false-consensus bias. We do differ in beliefs, and beliefs do matter. Second, after that admission, we must discover what it is that we do hold in common. I recently interviewed Jason Pitzl-Waters about this whole issue, and this is what he said:

"Community isn't about unity, it's about solidarity."

In that brief statement I sense an inchoate resonance. Solidarity, not unity. If we can come to a point where that collectively makes sense to us, then we'll have achieved something.

Beyond "belief blindness"

So, where does this leave us? I suspect a simple, six-point perspective can help us get over this hump and headed toward solidarity.

  1. Beliefs matter.
  2. We can talk about beliefs.
  3. We can talk about each other's beliefs.
  4. We will differ.
  5. That's okay.
  6. Because something else solidifies us, so let's figure out what that is

If we can manage such a perspective, then we can get on to the real work of forging solidarity. We won't feel others are " "stealing" our gods, posing some "militant, evangelical" threat, or promoting some kind of Calvinistic "orthodoxy." We won't arrogantly suppose others exist at our grace as our "clown-skeptics." Nor will we pretend to be "belief blind."

Rather, we'll stand side-by-side, a true community.

A plea

Finally, let me conclude with an appeal to both naturalists and non-naturalists alike:

Please, don't call me an "Atheist Pagan." Yes, I'm technically an atheist, but that's not how I identify. A fair number do answer to that label, but I don't, and here's why:

First, when you use that term, the first thing people think is "no gods" and the next thing is "not Pagan", which leads into the whole "Pagan" question. But it's all much ado about nothing: I do in fact work with deities, as do many other Naturalistic Pagans like me; we simply differ from theists in what we believe about them.

Second, atheism is too often associated with a moral judgment that religion is bad. That makes it rather awkward to stand side-by-side with your co-religionists. Personally, I think religion does a great deal of good; I just happen to believe differently about some aspects of it than others.

In the end, you may still disagree about whether we so-called atheists (I prefer "naturalists") are "Pagan" enough, but please at least take the time to learn what we believe and why we do ritual before making your decision.

Last modified on

B. T. Newberg is the editor of Humanistic Paganism, a community blog for naturalistic spirituality.  For eleven years and counting, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective.  He is a member of ADF, and frequent contributor to Patheos, Witchvox, and GoodReads.  Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language.  After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, and Japan, B. T. Newberg currently resides in South Korea with his wife and cat.


  • Editor B
    Editor B Wednesday, 13 March 2013

    Well said. Personally, "solidarity, not unity" makes perfect sense to me. But I was active in Green politics long before I came to understand Green religion. That may have something to do with it: I think it's a sensible political stance. Perhaps it makes less sense in a strictly religious-philosophical context.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Wednesday, 13 March 2013

    "There's a painful cognitive dissonance coming from holding two mutually contradictory beliefs about ourselves: (1) We don't police others' beliefs. (2) We must police others' beliefs (if our community is to have any integrity). ... We are a community choking on our own relativism."

    Wow! You said it, B.T.!

    The idea of pursuing solidarity is intriguing, but I think it needs to be teased out more. Jason defined the "solidarity" as "seeing some kind of relationship and having common goals". So what common goals do you think naturalists and polytheists and other Pagans might embrace?

    I have to disagree about the side point you made about orthopraxy though. I think the notion that Pagans are orthopraxic dates back to the Wicca-centric days, when everyone cast a circle and called the quarters, but believed different things about the gods they invoked. In my experience, there is even less orthopraxy among Pagans today than orthodoxy.

  • B. T. Newberg
    B. T. Newberg Thursday, 14 March 2013

    >So what common goals do you think naturalists and polytheists and other Pagans might embrace?

    I think you hit the nail on the head in your response article "Straight Talk About the Pagan Identity Crisis." You point to respectability in the eyes of the mainstream as a common goal. That's what I would say is the biggest part.

    Secondly, it seems to me that being rooted in or drawing inspiration from ancient Pagan religious or philosophical traditions ought to be a shared goal, even if not everyone wants to reconstruct the old ways per se.

    >the notion that Pagans are orthopraxic dates back to the Wicca-centric days, when everyone cast a circle and called the quarters

    Very interesting. That may have been a major factor. I think there is still a real sense of orthopraxy to be found beyond that, though. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, it was mainly orthopraxic. It's not that beliefs didn't matter at all, but it simply wasn't a looming factor.

  • Editor B
    Editor B Wednesday, 13 March 2013

    Regarding common goals, how about recognition of our holidays, for example, or chaplains in prison, or freedom from persecution?

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