A Useful Teacup

Boundaries are useful.  They mark out what is, what is not; what belongs, what does not belong.  Boundaries are, by their nature, discriminatory.  We do not want to live alongside bugs, animals, and other parts of our natural world, so we make houses.  If we lack the means or if we want to, we live in nature.

Utgarð, Innangarð.  There can be places between these boundaries, but sometimes there is a simple in/out binary that exists.  I would say there are few of these, but they exist.

I wish Pagans were more respectful of boundaries.  Take this to mean personal boundaries, such as being able to reject hugs, not get glitter-bombed at a convention, or getting ‘healed’ by a well-meaning but ignorant co-religionist.  Take this to mean between our  religions; I am not a follower of the Hellenic Gods therefore, I am not part of Hellenismos, as beautiful as this community may be.  They, likewise, are not Northern Tradition, Heathen, etc.  I respect this boundary by calling myself what I feel I am closest aligned with, and what my actual practice is aligned with.  Take this to mean ‘this is what makes a Pagan a Pagan’ and ‘this is what makes a non-Pagan a non-Pagan’.

An anonymous guest on The Wild Hunt asked of a poster there:

Yeah, how is all this labeling/limiting of Paganism (and others, too really) helping to create openness and understanding anyhow rather than just creating prejudices and misconceptions people got to work over?

This unwillingness to set boundaries is an issue in Paganism that needs to be resolved.  How useful is a teacup in a million pieces?  If the word Pagan, or Paganism has as much utility, how useful is it as a word?  Wiccan, or Northern Tradition are far more useful, (though I admit I get where Elizabeth Vongvisith is coming from in her irritation with the latter term) because they are functional.  They are words that have operational definitions within the Pagan religions’ umbrella.  Paganism, as a word and definition is so nebulous as to be almost completely unwieldy.  It is why I say Northern Tradition Pagan, or Heathen rather than just “I am a Pagan” most times.  They are intact teacups.  They hold the water of thought so that I can offer it to others.

The attitude of the poster assumes that openness is actually desirable, to whit Dver’s response was:

Who said the goal is always to create openness? At the expense of everything else? I’ve seen, for instance, many polytheist groups embrace openness and lose all their focus, intent and usefulness as they quickly filled with people of so many varying approaches that nothing could be agreed upon or accomplished. The “point” of paganism IMO is not to be concerned with making everyone feel welcome and included (which, as always, puts the emphasis on people and their feelings), the point is to worship the gods (emphasis on the divine). If being open doesn’t serve that, then it’s not going to be a primary goal, at least for some. Unsurprisingly, it is often the ones insisting on understanding who least understand this point of view.

Openness has usefulness, but so does limitation.  The negativity towards limiting the term Paganism, thus, increasing its actual functionality, is like saying “Well, I like my teacup in a million pieces.”  So how do we go about putting this teacup back together?

We start by limiting the definition of Paganism.  Perhaps to those who believe in Gods, Goddesses, spirits, etc.  Perhaps not.  Is Atheistic Paganism, for instance, a useful term?  If by Atheistic Paganism we mean ‘non-theistic’, that is, a person who believes in spiritual beings or in a form of deism or pantheism, perhaps that is functionally useful.  If we use the modern use of atheism, that is, a person without a belief in God(s) (usually included in this is a disbelief of the spiritual world), then I question how useful the term is.  Atheistic Paganism, as a straightforward term, muddies waters already fairly murky.  As a collection of religions we cannot agree yet on what the words Pagan and Paganism mean.  How much harder will it be to suss out Atheistic Pagans?  What of Humanist Pagans?

Brendan Myers, Ph.D., made this statement on Humanist Pagans as part of his guest blog post on The Wild Hunt:

Call it a case of observer bias on my part, but Humanist Paganism seems to be an emerging option for those who want to be part of the Pagan community, but who want to be a little more intellectual about their practices, and they really don’t care about the “woo” anymore.  From what I have seen so far, Humanist Pagans tend to be uninterested in ritual, or energy work, or developing psychic powers…

But they love folklore and mythology, they love going to pagan festivals, and they subscribe to pagan moral values like the Wiccan Rede, and the Heroic Virtues. They’re perfectly happy to shout “Hail Thor!” with an upraised drinking horn. They don’t care whether the gods exist or do not exist: for as they see it, the existence of the gods is not what matters. Rather, what matters is the pursuit of a good and worthwhile life, and the flourishing of our social and environmental relations. They are a kind of pagan that perhaps has not been seen since classical Greece and Rome, and their place in the modern pagan movement may still be marginal and unclear, but they are a kind of pagan nonetheless.

My problem to begin with, is that he does not define what Humanistic Paganism even is in this passage.  Looking at the links provided at the end of his article, Humanist Paganism is as problematic a term as simply Pagan is.  It is nebulous as a term, and there is very little agreement on what it actually means (from what I have read) between various Humanist Pagans.  This quote from Humanistic Paganism especially irks me:

Humanism and Paganism are complementary.  While Humanism is well-adapted to address the latest intellectual and social issues, it lacks the kind of deep symbolic texture conducive to psychological fulfillment.  Paganism is positioned to fill that void, providing a field of symbolic imagery in which the modern individual can feel rooted and nourished.  Meanwhile, Paganism by itself is prone to superstition and factiousness.  Humanism, which embraces a vision of knowledge rooted in the five senses and verified through the scientific method, offers empirical inquiry as a means to sift the wheat from the chaff, as well as to mediate the varieties of Paganism without eradicating their differences.  Together, Humanism and Paganism keep in check and mutually nourish each other.  Humanism keeps Paganism true to the empirical world around us, while Paganism enriches Humanism with deep symbolic imagery.

What I read in this, is that Humanist Paganism seeks to appropriate the symbols, Gods, etc. of Paganism while lacking in belief in them, not living in Gebo with those Gods, symbols, power, etc.  All humans are susceptible to superstition and factiousness.  Humanism brings nothing to Paganism it did not already have.  I also do not see how Humanism nourishes Paganism in this relationship, so much as feeds off of it.    What wheat does Humanism hope to bring from the chaff of Paganism?  How can it keep the differences between traditions?  How does Humanism actually keep Paganism true to the empirical world around us, when even scientists, who are supposed to keep true to the empirical method, and follow the scientific method, with peer-reviewed and published papers may lead us astray or be intentionally dishonest?

Myers makes the point in his post that:

For those who struggle with anti-pagan prejudices and stereotypes, Humanist Paganism might be a powerful educational tool. It can show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitain, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just.

Actually, rather than using Humanist Paganism as a tool, I would think that Pagans can and should be able to show themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and enlightened people, should they choose to do so, with or without Humanism or Humanist leanings.  The Fourfold Path of Humanist Paganism is already greatly expounded on in Pagan traditions.  As with Atheist Paganism, as a term, does Humanist Paganism add anything meaningful to the already admittedly murky definition of Paganism?

This is where boundaries are deeply needed.  If the term Pagan is a shattered teacup, then what good does adding more shards to it do?  How are we ever to come to an understanding of a term if we are forever breaking the teacup so everyone can have their sliver?  What tea does it hold?

Am I saying that Humanist Pagans are not real Pagans?  I am not sure that is my call to make.  I am one person in the communities that make up this great umbrella.  But real in what sense?  If we go with the definition “A person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions” then I suppose Humanism works under that definition.

Then, however, there is the definition of humanism: “An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.”

No.  This does not work for me.  I do not believe that humans are the do-all, end-all.  I do not believe we should or do come before the Gods, spirits, or Ancestors.  We are anthropocentric enough in America, and the devastation that has done to our environment alone gives me pause if not active disdain in supporting anything that encourages it.

I would far rather that Pagans come together to decide what Pagan means to them, than to have more users of the word take its meaning completely away from anything to do with our Gods, spirits, and Ancestors.  I would even prefer that the term remain nebulous to include polytheists, pantheists, duotheists, and henotheists, than to completely lose any attachment to the Gods at all in the name of inclusion.  I would prefer to repair the teacup, or find a new one so that it is useful once more.

17 thoughts on “A Useful Teacup

  1. Balance needs to be found between openness and boundaries. We can hardly expect respect from non-pagans if we cannot generate respect within the “pagan” community. This ongoing debate has caused me to reject labels because, just when you think you have found your “niche,” someone feels a need to question, debate, and refine the definition of the label that I thought defined me to others. This has been going on for quite some time, and I have abandoned labels because I have grown tired of it. As you stated, I find the Divine to be of the greater importance.

    I realize that we live in a formative time for Paganism, much like the early days of Christianity. Unfortunately, we lack an Emperor Constantine to force consistency of beliefs for political purposes. However, if this is what I seek, I could simply become a Christian! I think there may be far to many desirous of founding religions and becoming Popes in the general Pagan community.

    “I would far rather that Pagans come together to decide what Pagan means to them” is really too simplistic. “Pagan” is a label that has been thrust upon us by outside sources, whether we like it or not. While many have embraced this label, it is unrealistic to think that common usage does not lend definition to a word, so outsiders do help define the word.

    Openness is wonderful, but boundaries need to be respected. I am not a Lokean and do not expect to be, but I appreciate Lokean beliefs because I have listened (read) enough to learn that they are not outrageous like some might portray them to be. All in all, I would like to think Lokeans can be my sisters and brothers without either of us surrendering our beliefs. I only use Lokeans as an example here, not to single them out.

    In summary, I must say that I think you have written an excellent essay here. I hope many others read it. Blessed be.


    • After reading your post and thinking on it for a bit, I have to ask: how do you reject labels?

      In regards to Pagan popes, I get where you are coming from. However, while I find modern Catholicism holds no water in my teacup, popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and so on are useful teacups within Catholicism. They are ostensibly responsible to their religious and secular communities, perform functions withn their religious framework, and have universal standards within their religion to adhere to. Some Pagan religions are developing this, and I find this a good development as it has unfolded within our communities because it promotes responsibility and boundaries sorely needed in our religions.


      • I reject labels when they become meaningless, and some of this debate has been going on for many years. I cannot count the times that I have thought I had found the label that described my spirituality best, only to have it debated into meaninglessness. I recognize the convenience of having labels or names that quickly and easily communicate information about your spiritual path to others, but this only works if there is some stability in the definitions. For this reason, I will wait until the dust settles before I try again to determine which label best describes my path.

        Many people have turned to Paganism because of their disappointment in (so-called) mainstream religions. Now I watch “Paganism” already following the same patterns as those mainstream religions religions. So what is the point or purpose in this pattern? To become like the deceived and deceptive?

        The Divine make it clear through their Creation that diversity is natural. Can you connect with the Universe and not notice this? It is humankind that wants to order everything according to their idea of perfection – not the Divine’s idea of perfection. How can what works for Catholicism work for Pagans unless there is not much difference?

        Of course the alternative for one such as myself would be to break the tea cup more (to use your analogy) and create a new label to define myself… I am Ravencrow! Come follow my path to freedom for this is the path without politics and Popes!

        Hmmm… as I proofread this reply, I must ask if you think I have learned something about Loki?


  2. I see what you mean, and I think that the debates we have over labels is an important part of Paganism as a whole becoming more mature. Even if the label Paganism ceases to be used as it is now. These debates are necessary if we are to grow.

    I will say this though: I came to Paganism because I heard the call of my Gods. I have a vested interest in this community becoming better about piety, interreligious dialogue, and so on. I have a vested interest in developing our theology, beliefs, and understanding of where we stood, stand, and will stand in relationship with our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, this world, each other, and our communities.

    I am not for instance saying we should follow Catholicism’s example in their execution of or formulation of liturgy, deployment of religious persons, etc. However, I do not think that ‘Pagan’ should mean a religion without structure or labels. I also do not think it should mean that we should lack for religious professionals. Some people are good at building objects, buildings, and/or communities, while others are excellent as priests, shamans, spirit-workers, etc. Some may even be good, or really good, at more than one role in their life. However, the lack of accountability for those who take up the mantle of leader in Paganism at large sorely needs to be fixed, and having communities who have standards of conduct, defined roles, etc. helps to bring in both accountability and responsibility.

    How do you see Paganism following the same patterns as mainstream religions? So far as I know, one thing we do not have is 1) A Great Commission and 2) An exclusive religious tradition placing men above women solely in positions of power within the religious organization as a matter of both the particulars of the religion’s teaching and power consolidation. I wish to see Paganism reclaim its indigeneity, so that we no longer have to constantly work through what is the Christianity of converts to Paganism’s many religious paths, and what is genuinely part of our religious traditions. So that honoring the Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and landvaettir becomes a part of our lives rather than something special we do every now and again.

    The Divine do make it clear that diversity is natural. They also make it abundantly clear that there is order to this world as much as there is chaos, and that balance is not always hand-in-hand, or even within our lifetime. That there are animals that fill a niche where one lacks, and that for every piece of poop there is a consumer, that for ever death there is a feeder. There is no waste such as Americans or Westerners understand it, only fertilizer or food for the next thing.

    What works for Catholics will not work for Pagans in the particulars because our religious paths are not the same. What I said is that the accountability that, ostensibly, their priesthood and its attendant oaths and facilities engender is a positive and one that Pagans would be good to note. Some Pagan religions already have structures in place to make their priests, spiritworkers, shamans, etc. accountable to their communities. Many more could use this in their communities and personal lives. I find that the more people are called by both community and their own lives to responsibility, the better.

    *laughs* Politics will follow wherever people gather. It is our choice to make our systems of politics, especially the ones closer to home, better suited to our desires for life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, frith, and hospitality.

    To be honest, I have no idea if you have learned anything about Loki; I do not personally know you. If you are asking by this reply do I believe you have learned anything about Loki, all I can say is, “Perhaps.”


    • I am sorry. Initially, I thought we were in some agreement. Apparently, I was wrong, but I cannot be certain because I think there may be some misunderstanding here.

      The contrived social institutions of humankind follow a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. This is often recognized in the forms of government as they have come and gone throughout history. The same thing is true of religions as social institutions. I use Christianity as an example because it seems most familiar to many people, but it holds no exclusive license in the patterns of development of religions.

      The significant pattern in the development of Christianity (and other religions) is the progression from being persecuted to being accepted by the powers that be, from being accepted to conforming to the standards of power (organized), and eventually becoming the persecutors. I spoke of Popes allegorically, but you delve into the nuances and details of Catholicism. Here our conversations became divergent.

      Paganism (particularly Wicca) was successful in gaining acceptance through litigation. This is being accepted by the powers that be. Divisiveness seems to be prominent as organizing became the primary subject of discussion and goal. As quickly as modern Paganism is progressing through this familiar pattern or cycle, how long before Pagans become the persecutors? Sadly, there is no rule requiring us to follow this progression, except perhaps blindness.

      Initially, you spoke of openness and boundaries. Openness is wonderful, and boundaries are an essential component of respect. Initially, I wrote about finding balance between the two. However, our conversation seems to have become divergent over my remark about rejecting labels. I would have thought it clear that the current chaos in this area makes rejection the only sane reaction. I simply follow my path and see where it takes me. Is that really so difficult to understand.

      “*laughs* Politics will follow wherever people gather.” Only because they choose this. We can rise above the mundane if we choose to, and this is where my boundary lies. I am sorry that I commented. Blessings to you.


      • The problem is when Christianity is compared to other religions, there really is no comparison. No other religion spread as virulently, nor as destructively as it has in all of recorded history. History prior to Christianity is rife with various ancient societies freely adopting each others’ Gods and syncretizing them. What history teaches us about Christianity does not really wash, because no force like it has existed.

        Religions as social institutions have existed, from what scientific inquiry and anthropologists reckon, since we began speaking with our Ancestors, the Dead, and spirits. Shamans, spiritworkers, and the like in ancient societies were wisdom keepers, storytellers, keepers of social order. Religion has never not existed as a social institution, as Roman society was bound up with its religion, as was Greece before it, Egypt, and so on. The religious and the social, as well as the political, often were one.

        There is a great deal of difference between the evolution of Christianity and other religions. Christianity roared out of its little pocket of history, and has swept across the world like no other. It has enforced change in its sweep that even Buddhist suppression of Tibetan traditional religion could not compare to.

        Yes, I definitely took my tack in a different direction, although I admit I was not sure you were speaking allegorically, so I apologize for the confusion there.

        I do not think Wicca’s success was mainly through litigation, but because Gardner and his descendants were out and proud about their religion. There would have been no push to repeal the Witchcraft Laws had there been no swell from his corner to do so. Just because something is litigated as legal, or simply no longer illegal does not make it accepted. That has taken years of hard work, and years more will be needed if Pagans truly will have equal rights alongside the dominant paradigms in the countries we are in. There are still religious litmus tests for office, and many are quiet about their religion, especially in the American South, due to worry about loss of livelihood.

        For me, the current chaos in this area may be confusing and still in the midst of sorting itself out (and being sorted out between myself, my co-religionists, and various others) but I find a great deal of opportunity and beauty to be had in this position. Here we can help define ourselves, understand what the core of “Pagan” is for us, for our community, and really get down to brass tacks. While some concepts within the Pagan communities may crystalize, I feel that our various communities are fluid, yet able to be strong enough to be able to share our various flavors of tea without becoming a single flavor.

        That openness, for me, is really exciting. I may never be a Hellenismos, but the dialogue we can have between our paths, building common ground, and coming together in mutual respect, is a powerful, holy thing. I cannot reject the Pagan community, even as we figure out ourselves, fight with one another, and go throw the pangs of adolescence. I don’t think your position is so hard to understand. However, I am choosing this path though it may be impossible for a consensus between all the religions within the Pagan umbrella in our lifetime. Perhaps that tension, that push and pull, seeking order within chaos and vice versa, and in many cases simply living and let live, is a powerful thing that will bring us closer than deciding which teacup works the best.

        I am curious, though. If you would have people rise above the mundane, where would we go? I do not understand this. I am flesh, blood, and bone. I am part of a world that is both awe-inspiring at turns, and at others, very petty and cruel. The mundane is part and parcel of life for me.

        Why are you sorry that you commented? I am enjoying the dialogue, if for nothing else than it is making me think and expound. I ask questions not to attack, but to try to understand.


  3. From my perspective I have found that boundaries are perhaps the greatest weakness/problem area our society has. How many times have I treated for this illness in spirit I almost cannot count.


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  5. Yeah, I read Meyers’ essay and thought that he sounds like a condescending, smug asshat. I’m a deeply devout believer, and yet I am also intelligent and well-educated, with a healthy respect for science. The two are not mutually exclusive, as he seems to believe. His implication that pagans who believe in the gods are less intelligent and informed makes me think that theists scare him deep down, since, judging by his high-handed comments in that article, he seems to really want to believe that we are inferior in some way.


  6. Elizabeth :

    Yeah, I read Meyers’ essay and thought that he sounds like a condescending, smug asshat. I’m a deeply devout believer, and yet I am also intelligent and well-educated, with a healthy respect for science. The two are not mutually exclusive, as he seems to believe. His implication that pagans who believe in the gods are less intelligent and informed makes me think that theists scare him deep down, since, judging by his high-handed comments in that article, he seems to really want to believe that we are inferior in some way.

    I am glad I was not the only one insulted by Myers. Similar to what I said above, I think the idea of ‘using’ Humanism to prop up Paganism, as if it needed any propping, is an insult to both Humanists and Pagans.

    I think you are right; he keeps trying to make the case that Pagans without Humanists are inferior, and I simply don’t see it.


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  9. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment
    is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove
    me from that service? Cheers!


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