Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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Interfaith, Multifaith, Interreligious, Intrafaith, Spiritual/Spirituality – What?

For some years now I’ve been active in organizations and projects that are called “interfaith.”  For instance, my own local group is called Marin Interfaith Council, and is comprised of individuals from a wide variety of religious persuasions, as well as people in social service and social justice organizations, such as hospice, advocates for the homeless, LGBT activists, “soup kitchens” and the like.

I’ve represented the Covenant of the Goddess in most interfaith situations, including as a representative in the academic world by virtue of my membership and participation in the American Academy of Religion.[1]  This is my favorite.

Other terminology I’ve encountered is, for instance, The Biodiversity Project Spirituality Working Group, comprised of religious leaders, environmental activists (editor of Sierra Club magazine), a government agency (EPA), pollsters and policymakers. 

Auburn Theological Seminary, where I’ve presented twice, has a Center for Multifaith Education where seminarians can study for a “Doctor of Ministry in a Multifaith Context” degree.  For that purpose, they define multifaith thusly:

…multifaith education refers to the phenomenon of learning about faith traditions other than the faith tradition of the learner, e.g. a Catholic learning about Islam, or a Jew learning about Buddhism. The motivation, subtext or theological underpinning for the learning is not a factor. ..

Although we do not do so in the context of theological study, we who work “on the ground” in the interfaith movement do just that: we learn about one another’s faith traditions, in an atmosphere of respect and open-mindedness.  Not with a goal of changing anyone one way or another, but simply as a path towards friendship and mutual understanding.  In addition, in my own interfaith experiences, we engage in work based upon shared values and towards common goals.  Not every member necessarily supports every effort of a given group.

Recently MIC issued a statement in support of stricter gun control.  My friend Dominican Sister Marion and I, both of whom serve on the Justice Advocacy Team, drafted the initial statement.  With minor revisions, the Board signed it and issued it.  I did not sign it; I’m not a member of the Board nor was this statement signed by individual member congregations.  It was signed by the Board.  Unfortunately, when I reported this to the membership of the group on whose behalf I am a member of MIC, some members who held different opinions about gun control became upset.  An example of the sensitivity and delicacy sometimes required in interfaith situations.

We Pagans usually consider discussions and activities done among different individuals and groups within the Pagan community as being intrafaith.

There are also the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and the KAICIID Dialogue Center (King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue) “…founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different religions and cultures around the world. Located in Vienna, the Centre is an independent, autonomous, international organisation, free of political or economic influence.”  This group, based in Vienna, seems primarily Abrahamic and has a membership that appears to be via governmental or religio-governmental agencies of member nations.  These are but two of several groups that use the term “inter-religious” to describe themselves.

Last week a participated in a gathering called MountainTop: Advancing a multifaith movement for justice; report here.  Until now I’d heard the terms “interfaith” and “multifaith” used synonymously, so I began asking some of the other attendees.  Most had to stop and think about it, some didn’t distinguish between the two terms, and at least one person understood them to be different.  The way I understood this man’s distinction, he considered interfaith to be getting together with practitioners of other religions and learning about them, kind of a kumbaya experience.  He considered multifaith to have a more outward focus and to be goal-oriented.  But of course, as he said, he was speaking only for himself as he’d not heard the question addressed before.

So I’d like to ask readers, presumably Pagans, who are interested in engaging constructively with people of other religions what terms they might use, and why.  I’m eager to read your responses.

[1]             Unfortunately, due to the financial limitations of an older person, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to continue attending the annual meetings, which are held in a different city each year.

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Wednesday, 26 June 2013

    We Pagans usually consider discussions and activities done among different individuals and groups within the Pagan community as being intrafaith.

    I must disagree with this specific piece.

    Until and unless someone comes up with some sort of common definition, whether it be theological, social, ritualistic, or practical, for what "Pagan" means, then it will forever remain an enormous umbrella term, covering a wide swath of distinct religions, each of which has its own theology, praxis, and social mores.

    A Druid is not a Wiccan (and for that matter a Gardnerian Wiccan is not a Reclaiming Wiccan, and neither is a Seax Wiccan or a Blue Star Wiccan), and neither of them is a practitioner of the Religio Romana or Hellenismos. Asatru is not Celtic Reconstructionism, and so forth.

    I would say that discussions within that broad umbrella of "Paganism" would be more akin to your definition of "multifaith" than anything else.

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Thursday, 27 June 2013

    Actually, there is such a definition, from Michael York's book Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion.

    "An affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and/or nonempirical."

    That carefully constructed phrase covers everything from "dark green" spirituality to hardcore polytheism, if you think about it.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Thursday, 27 June 2013

    It's also impossible for anyone to actually understand.

    If I'm understanding the gobbledygook correctly, the "polymorphic sacred" would cover not only Pagan polytheism, but also the cults of Catholic saints, Hindu Gods, and Amerindian spirits. I would point out that all three of those groups would strenuously object to being described as "Pagan". The definition becomes so broad as to be meaningless.

    On the other hand, the "tangible, sentient, and/or nonempirical" would seem to cut out the entire atheist Pagan sub-community which has been the subject of so much discussion as of late.

    I hardly think this qualifies as the be-all and end-all definition of Paganism.

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Thursday, 27 June 2013

    You can also come at it another way and define Paganism as one way of being religious (York does this too, to some extent), but I warn you, that will be a broad definition too. :)

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Thursday, 27 June 2013

    Not at all! An atheist Pagan certain has a relationship with the tangible: the earth, a mountain, a person, right?

    Yes, the definition does include Hindus, and if you read the book, you will find an entire chapter devoted to that.

    See also the upcoming article in the Pomegranate on the "Pagan International," by a scholar of Hinduism.

    It is not so broad as to be meaningless because it excludes certain categories, although as York discusses, we are talking about ideal types here, and what people actually do often blurs boundaries.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Wednesday, 26 June 2013

    Thanks for your comments, Joseph. We have more agreement than might be obvious. I agree with you that Pagan is a big umbrella term.

    No, a Gardnerian Wiccan is not a Reclaiming Wiccan because Reclaiming, tho some within it may claim otherwise, is not even Wiccan. We were Witches when we emerged, and to me Reclaiming is still Witchcraft, not Wicca. It's eclectic and bootstrap, has no acknowledged system of degrees and no acknowledged lineage. To me, Wiccan describes those who trace a lineage in British Traditional Craft. I realize that in common usage the word Wiccan has expanded to cover a wide variety of witchy practices. See "The W Word, or Why We Call Ourselves Witches" http://machanightmare.com/herself/?page_id=133, with which you may also disagree. (Emphases on "acknowledged" are intentional, because they're there, just not acknowledged.)

    That said, leaving aside the gnarly problem of defining the word Pagan, I maintain that over my years of involvement in Paganism (which I often spell as a plural in acknowledgement of our diversity), the word intrafaith has been used consistently within Pagan contexts.

    First of all, I'm interested in our defining ourselves. Otherwise, we are defined by journalists and sociologists and others who do not necessarily follow a Pagan path.

    Secondly, we're talking about society at large here. In society at large, these terms may have meanings we don't necessarily intend when using them. In society at large, the most common term used for interfaith dialogue and actions is interfaith. To me this is inaccurate because for many Pagans their practice is not based on faith, per se, but rather on praxis or ethnic identity or other things. To me, the more accurate term would be inter-religious, religion being an easier cultural phenomenon to identify and articulate than faith is.

    Just as I, and other Pagans who engage in inter-religious activities, accept and use the term interfaith because it's more widely understood to be working with those of other religions, so, too, more conventional, mainstream (mostly Abrahamic) religions understand Pagan only in a broad sense as a word that covers more than just Wiccans and Witches. In fact, they tend to think all Pagans are "Wiccans," which I tell them I am not. They tend to see us as being more monolithic than we are, and that's because they come from traditions that tend to strive for what I've heard called, by a high-ranking Episcopal priest, "crippling certainty." Hence, a council at Nicea to make some rules.

    I hope it never comes to something like that for Pagans, but from the looks of recent blogging on theology and related topics, it's obvious that many Pagans would like to adopt that model.

    I try my best to educate curious non-Pagans (the Craft word for whom would be "cowans") by explaining that there are other Pagan paths besides Witchcraft, and I mention some and explain some differences, but still the reality of the situation is that we are viewed as a single demographic.

    Within the larger interfaith community, discussions within, say, Christianity, among Baptists and Lutherans, are considered to be intrafaith. That's the term they use.

    We live in exciting times. New words are coined, new areas of endeavor are explored. It is my hope that we can explore them together. So thanks again for participating.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Thursday, 27 June 2013

    "...the word intrafaith has been used consistently within Pagan contexts."

    I don't dispute that at all. I maintain it has been consistently misapplied.

    "Within the larger interfaith community, discussions within, say, Christianity, among Baptists and Lutherans, are considered to be intrafaith."

    In that case, Baptists, Lutherans, and other Christian sects have enough in common that I believe the term applies. Even if it's something as vague as "a faith in Jesus", there is still some kernel of belief and/or practice within the term "Christian" that is common to everyone. Thus, it qualifies as a faith, and interactions between factions within that faith are best described as intrafaith interactions.

    "Paganism", on the other hand, has no such central kernel of belief and/or practice. It is not the case that Druidry, Wicca, and Hellenismos are all factions within the same faith-identity. Each is its own separate and unique faith, with its own separate and unique identity, beliefs, and practices.

    It would, for example, be right to call interactions between, say, Gardnerian Wiccans and Blue Star Wiccans "intrafaith", as they are taking place within the faith of Wicca. But the Wiccan faith is not the same as the Asatru faith, and thus interactions between Wiccans and Asatruar cannnot be said to be intrafaith.

    By lumping together all "Pagans" into a single faith, which is essentially what happens when one uses the term "intrafaith" to describe interactions between Religio Romana practitioners and Wiccans, one is actually falling into the trap of being defined by those outside of Paganism. They see us as one homogeneous mass, and we accommodate this view by using terminology that upholds it.

    By drawing stark lines of distinction between the many faiths that come under the Pagan umbrella, and insisting that each is, unto itself, a faith just as legitimate and self-contained as Christianity or Hinduism (by using terms like "interfaith" when it truly applies to interactions between unique faiths), we will not only educate those outside the Pagan umbrella, but we will also strengthen the faiths within it, by giving them the distinction and respect that they deserve.

  • Ian Phanes
    Ian Phanes Thursday, 27 June 2013


    While it is true that we are not all one religion, it is equally true that we are not a set of discrete religions. I think the most accurate term to describe modern paganism is a milieu, though my preferred descriptor is spaghetti. There are no neat bounded entities in modern paganism. There are cross-cutting ties, given that many individuals in modern paganism are--and have always been--involved in more than one strand. (What's more, wherever we have sufficiently detailed evidence, we see this was true in ancient paganism as well.)

    I primarily practice a style of non-Wiccan Craft, but also belong to a Druidic group, a Wiccan coven, and a Christian church. My personal practice also includes offering to a range of holy powers, including individual gods, ancestors and land spirits, in a folk-pagan style, rather than in any formal ritual style. At another level, I'm on a ritual team that puts on public rituals for the larger community, which has an ongoing commitment to express the diversity of paganism, not "generic paganism". Expanding outwards, one of my covenmates is also part of a women-only group. One of the women who participates in the Druidic group is Kemetic Orthodox. Another woman I ritual with regularly privately worships certain gods in a Hellenic style, and others in a Heathen style. Some of us make offerings to orisa/lwa, but aren't part of any Afro-diasporic initiatory tradition.

    And this is in just one small community. If I lived in a large city, the interconnections would be at least an order of magnitude more complex.

    The thing I find most ironic is when reconstructionists insist on cultural purity, when my background in anthropology and my studies of what we know about ancient paganism shows clearly that our categories for ancient cultures are largely a consequence of the development of the modern nation state. When we look closer, we see that the various communities interacted with each other, absorbing ideas, practices, and blurring all our boundaries by intermarriage. Cultural purity is a nationalist myth.

    We are not the same, but we are not a superset of discrete subsets either. We are individual threads interweaving to create something beautiful.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Thursday, 27 June 2013

    If I may, I think your example makes my point.

    The mere fact that a given individual may consider himself to belong to several different faiths does not mean that those faiths are not in and of themselves discrete entities. By your own admission, you belong to groups that are themselves "Druidic", "Wiccan", and "Christian". If those labels have no actual meaning theologically, psychologically, socially, or in some other way, then why apply them? And if they have meaning, then they define distinct faiths.

    The cognitive dissonance of one individual does not mean that the different groups to which he might belong can suddenly be considered one big happy whole.

    I find your reference to reconstructionism and "cultural purity" to be rather non sequitur. The problem of mutually incompatible faiths within the Pagan umbrella goes far beyond reconstructionist faiths. Wicca is one faith, and Stregheria is a completely different one, and neither is reconstructionist in nature.

    So yes, I maintain that Asatru is one religion, Wicca is another, Druidry is another, etc. The mere fact that some individuals claim membership in organizations that follow those distinct faith no more invalidates their distinctiveness than the fact that someone could belong to a Catholic parish and a Mosque at the same time.

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Thursday, 27 June 2013

    Thanks, Ian. This is a very helpful comment on a state/phenomenon I recognize.

    I've done some interfaith work with the Hindu American Foundation, which, of course, does not reflect every single Hindu in this country or every single type of Hindu practice and belief. They see Hinduism as a spectrum of religious expressions, all under the overall umbrella of Hinduism. I think we can make a parallel case within American Paganism. http://www.hafsite.org/

    It has been helpful to have formed a relationship with HAF, which, BTW, HAF initiated with Pagans because they viewed us as allies in defense of religious freedom in this country. They now have an office on K St. and have welcomed the first Hindu American Congressperson. She'll be speaking at their annual dinner this Summer. Last year one of the speakers was a young graduate of West Point who'd served in the Middle East.

    I consider myself a Witch, but my overall spiritual package, if you will, contains plenty of Hindu thought and practice -- I am dedicated to Kali Ma and attend Kali pujas on new moons -- as well as those from other sources. Visualization practices learned from Tibetan Buddhism, meditation from Zen, ecstatic dance shared with Sufis, songs, chants and dances from Ireland, Greece, and points beyond. In other words, eclectic. The Dianic side of me worships and appeals to several culturally unrelated goddesses, beginning with Kali, but including my namesake, of course, as well as Brigit, Sekhmet, Hekate, Isis, and others as called (from both directions -- from them to me and from me to them).

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Saturday, 29 June 2013

    Dear Aline, Chas, Ian and Joseph -

    Some of us are syncretists who see human spirituality as an ever-evolving experience which can never be frozen in time or pinned on a wall like a butterfly specimen. People of our persuasion see no harm in blending faiths and practices, since this is what has always worked for each of us. Our esteemed colleague Joseph, on the other hand, is definitely not of this persuasion; he is a purist. Furthermore, he has every right to be. The question yet remains, how can we hope to communicate respectfully with each other in mutual terms that we can all accept?

    I would like to offer another word as a possible aid in describing our differences: "denomination." Here in Arizona (part of the Bible Belt) I have observed that most religious groups who proudly call themselves "Interfaith" are really nothing of the sort - for they consist merely of Christians from different church backgrounds. They are, in fact, Inter-denominational. I read somewhere that there are over 650 denominations of Protestant Christianity, alone, in the United States. Each disagrees in some manner with all of the others - but they are all Christians and all Protestants!

    Perhaps (and this is a suggestion only; no offense is intended to anyone who disagrees, and no offense will be taken by me) we can decide what our major religions are - and then delineate, within each of those religions, splinter groups and spiritual mutations which can be designated as denominations of those faiths.

    I foresee that detail-oriented people will delight in drawing a World Tree (or Family Tree) diagramming each of our branches and their relationship to each other - while more intuitive sorts will see my suggestion as just another form of unnecessary complication, and will resent the day I ever made it. But there it is; do with it what you will.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Saturday, 29 June 2013


    I disagree that the presence of syncretic or eclectic faiths in any way invalidates my point. Indeed, as with Ian's point about non-reconstructionist faiths, the content of the various Pagan/Heathen faiths is irrelevant. It is quite possible to have one unique faith that is Asatru, another that is the Religio Romana, and yet a third that straddles the boundaries of the two.

    The fact that one faith combines elements of two others does not in any way invalidate the uniqueness of the two. It merely creates another, unique, third.

    Your suggestion is actually what I have been saying for some time; I simply move the designation of "major religion" down a notch from the level of Pagan and place it at the level of Wicca, Asatru, Religio Romana, Celtic Reconstructionism, etc. Thus, dealings between (for example) Asatru and Wicca would be interfaith in nature, as they are two distinct faiths. I would also make the point that you should also leave room in your system of categorization for minor faiths that do not fall within those major groups; Theodish Belief, for example, is also its own distinct faith, and deserves to be on the same level, organizationally, as Asatru, even though it is much smaller and has much less of an impact, organizationally and socially.

    Of course, just as we seem to have as many definitions of "Paganism" as there are Pagans, so too would we have as many versions of the "world tree diagram" you envision. So it goes.

    (And, I should point out, I am not nearly the "purist" you seem to think I am; my own practice is, in and of itself, somewhat syncretic between historical Norse practice and more recent folkloric practices in England and Scandinavia; many other Asatruar tend to make their boundaries firmly at the shores of Iceland in the 11th century.)

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Saturday, 29 June 2013

    Joseph, thank you for the clarification - though I never suggested that the presence of syncretic or eclectic faiths in any way invalidated your point. I like your recommendation for the placement of the major religions. I also apologize for calling you a purist!

    Getting back to Aline's original question - about what terms we might use in an attempt to engage constructively with persons of other faiths - are we coming to the conclusion that the subject is already too complicated, and that there are too many terms whose meanings nobody agrees on except between individuals? I fear this may actually be the case; so in my own personal dealings I try to understand the terminology used by the other guy, and use the same words as best I can to explain my own faith to him. It may be that true communication will always have to be between individuals, rather than organizations.

  • Patrick
    Patrick Thursday, 27 February 2014

    Thanks for the pointer here from the morass of WH comments.

    I've done some of what has been labeled interfaith work, mostly related to religious freedom (city ordinances against Muslims and Hindus). I've never liked the term, however; for me it carries connotations of "interfaith services," usually organized by liberal protestants, in which they assume all other religious people are essentially liberal protestants too (to put it pointedly). For dialogue, or joint action, multifaith or even multireligious sounds better to me, since to my ear it stresses the plurality of those involved.

    Pagan intrafaith discussions could certainly benefit by the mutual respect found in most interfaith dialogue. Of course, there's nothing unique to paganism about this. In the 17th century, Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and Quakers were all certain they weren't practicing the same religion. In the 19th century, anti-Catholicism led to a coalition of Protestants willing to grant the genuineness of each others faith and a willingness to downgrade areas of disagreement to minor status. Then in the mid-20th century, conservative political activism brought Catholics and Protestants together as fellow Christians, and fear of Obama pressed some into even allowing Mormons in the club. From the inside, differences look much larger than they do to those on the outside.

  • Felicity
    Felicity Tuesday, 13 March 2018

    The difficulty for me, a fairly new addition to Interfaith, has been how to say what Paganisms are succinctly to a very non-Pagan and unaware audience. They are keen to know more but not too much more, one because attention spans demand soundbites and two because they want to see that there is some evidence that I am not making it up. Within the Interfaith context the reception, generally, to 'I am Pagan/Witch' is delighting surprise. However outside that context but also outside Pagan circles the reception is not quite as warm.
    If I answer that 'Paganisms are not that easy to define as they are a diverse group' (which I then do not follow with examples for the sake of brevity) I look like an idiot who does not know their own religion and confirms that it is fiction, which is a massive disservice. If I actually can get further in a conversation the closest descriptions include,'umbrella term', 'sort of like denominations but that there is no common faith' to quoting Nelson Mandella's 'No man should come between another man and his God' and adding that 'Each of us has our own path to the divine', which goes someway to appeasing initial curiosity.

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