Home > Religion, Standards and Terms in Paganism > What Constitutes Pagan Fundamentalism?

What Constitutes Pagan Fundamentalism?

I have written about the value of words and meaning here and I think that the recent posts by P. Sufenas Lupus and Sannion hit the nail on the head.

Why am I so invested in the pop culture debate currently raging in Paganism?

Well, some of it has to do with the fact that I think conflating worship of fictional characters with my Gods is downright blasphemous.  I’ll admit that straight out.  You don’t have to agree with my position; it is what it is.

Rather than keep the conversation talking past each other, or spinning our wheels, let’s get to the point of this post.  Anomalous Thracian talks here that words are losing their meaning because they’re being stripped of them.  To quote Anomalous Thracian:

I want to address the bigger issue here, which is the overall misuse of words, the lack of “common ground” in conversations, and the entanglement of a thousand different topics as one “meta-topic” which is what fuels 100% of all fights and arguments in Paganism because these practices attack the very core of linguistic communion and expression: MEANING. A fundamental part of all communication must be an attempt to convey, achieve and establish greater collectivemeaning, otherwise it is purely about getting oneself off while looking longingly in the mirror that you’ve turned the internet into, striking all kinds of super-hero poses as you hammer out the dribble you call theology, debate, or “religion”. Religion itself, outside of the discussion of religion – which, by the way, is a real thing: religion outside of talking about religion does exist, if you shut up long enough to practice it! – is a thing that must orbit around the pursuit and exploration of meaning, which is a thing completely undone and undermined by using language and words that actually attack meaning. Directly.

Seriously, people. “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”

I could not agree more, and it is why I push for concrete definitions and understanding where and when possible.  I am not trying to dilute the numinous experience or cage a wild bird, so much as asking that we delineate the bird we’re watching from the sky it flies in from the tree upon which it lands.  There are relationships, and each thing has an underlying connection to one another, but the bird, the sky, and the tree are definitively separate things.  Words need to mean things or words like ‘God’, ‘Ancestors’, or ‘spirit’ lose all meaning.  To quote V for Vendetta:

Words offer the means to meaning…

The Gods exist without our leave, understanding, worship, or influence.  I do not know a polytheist for whom this is an untrue statement.    It is a concrete article of believing in the Gods, in interacting with Them, and worshiping Them.  This basic understanding is part of the foundation of polytheist understanding.  It places the Gods, Ancestors, the spirits, and us humans in cosmology, in the Web of Life, and gives us meaning for our place in the Worlds and in relationship with all things.  Without this notion of where we sit the cosmology essentially falls apart and all of the understanding of the Gods disappears in confusion.  Think about it.  If I was to claim I am a co-creator with my Gods, i.e. Odin, why would Ask or Embla need His breath to come to life?  Why would my Ancestors matter at all?  The very meaning of the Gods falls apart if for us in denying Their cosmological and mythic place, and Their fundamental relationships to us.  The Gods will keep on being, will keep on doing what They will, even if we deny the meaning of the word ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ and my Ancestors will still be my Ancestors even if I use another term wholly for Them.

In destroying meaning, in reducing words to whatever we want to be rather than what we are, we dilute the understanding we gain from words, and in so doing, reduce our ability to communicate effectively within our human communities and with our Gods.  How?  Try speaking another language.  In German there are very rigid sentence structures, and some words in German can go on for a damned long time because of the convention of sentence and word formation.  American English has seemingly dispensed with rigidity and in so doing words are harder to pin down, and accordingly, communication is more difficult.  German is, for all its complexities (from my perspective as a non-native German speaker) more accurate in its speech and use of words than our American English.  Factor this in with ‘words mean what I want them to’ kind of attitude, coupled with an open-source use of foreign words, sometimes without proper translation of the culture/subject matter, and you have a hodgepodge language that is hard to parse from the get-go and gets harder with actual use.  Dig into theological concepts with this unwieldy shovel and the hole you dig may well be far wider and deeper (or haphazardly dug) than your original intent.

So when someone uses the word ‘fundamentalist’ to describe Pagans such as myself, polytheists who believe in the literal existence of the Gods, you have pretty visceral reactions from people.  The word fundamentalism has a historical meaning according to Merriam-Webster: ‘a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching’ and a fundamentalist is a follower of these beliefs.  With the plasticity of words the meaning has moved from this to any belief structure that is ‘a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles’ (ibid).  In both cases applying the word to Pagans such as myself this word, fundamentalist, loses meaning.

When someone says “I worship Batman” and the response is “I do not believe that” even in rough terms, or an angry tone (or just outright venomous rage) that does not mean they are fundamentalist.  It means that you do not like their tone or reacting negatively to their anger, both of which are understandable, but taking in the words of another in that direction, even if accurate, is not fundamentalism.  Even when someone says “I worship Batman” and the response is “That is blasphemy in my religion, tradition, etc.” that is still not fundamentalism, but a statement of belief.  Having baseline standards for a religious community is not fundamentalist.  Those standards include standards of belief, praxis, relationship, roles for clergy/specialists, etc.  Those standard differentiate a polytheist Pagan from a monotheist Catholic Christian.  Heck, those baseline standards delineate one polytheist community from another, and Christian denominations from one another.

If I am a Wiccan, I believe v and x.  If I am a Northern Tradition Pagan I believe y and z.  If I am a Catholic Christian I believe j and k.  These baseline beliefs can be added onto with other letters, but take out v and x for a Wiccan and the religion is no longer Wicca.  Can a Wiccan be a polytheist and not a duotheist?  Sure, so long as the religious belief system is accommodating to that with and left intact.  Can a person be an atheist and a follower of the Northern Tradition?  Absolutely not because the y is taken out.  Again, this is not fundamentalist.  Without y, a person cannot be a Northern Tradition.  The may be that you must be a polytheist in order to be a follower of the Northern Tradition.  If you are an atheist you simply do not fit the criteria.

The ongoing debate between Pagan communities are part of figuring out where our boundaries lie.  It is part and parcel of figuring out theology.  It is part and parcel of figuring out who and what we are.  We do not have to agree, and I count that as a blessing.  I’m not interested in converting Wiccans, nor am I interested in converting Pagans who worship Pop Culture icons.  Both are a waste of my time, an insult to them, and a waste of their time as well.  What I am interested in is where my religious boundaries lie, where we are similar in thought, and where we definitely disagree on, and why.  Our answers probably won’t be comfortable with one another; we are talking about our personal relationships with our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and the stories that have unfolded in our coming to these Beings and understanding.  In some cases there is no translating between our varying beliefs because we either don’t have the existent structure, it does not translate due to theological differences, or we have not developed enough in one way or another to speak to another’s beliefs and experiences on a given topic.

I do not see this parsing as snobbery, but an unfolding of religious communities.  That unfolding can be a damned raw experience.  I know that some people will balk at my belief that the Gods are literally real, and they hold the idea that the Gods as archetypes makes the most sense.  Yet no one has called a Council of Nicea to figure out just what is acceptable in Paganism as a whole, and that plurality is a good thing.  I do not need to agree that atheists belong in Paganism if someone accepts them freely.  That is your right as a follower, priest, etc. of that religious tradition.  It is my right to say such a thing dilute the meaning of the word Pagan, and you in kind can disagree.

Saying something as a statement of belief does not mean snobbery or fundamentalism, but just that: a statement of belief.  When I say something definitive, but for all the power, or lack there is in my ability to say something I will exercise that right to say it.  You can disagree with me; that is your right.  Just as it is the right of a tradition to determine beliefs, ritual behavior, praxis, and a whole host of other things that their religion considers sacred, impious, acceptable, and unacceptable.  That is far afield from fundamentalism.

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  1. May 28, 2013 at 1:47 am

    Very much agreed.

    I don’t understand how “fundamentalism” has come to mean “anyone who can’t accommodate my own beliefs (and, preferably. congratulate me for holding them).” I personally thought those were called…well, let’s see…in my own case, Wiccans, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’i, Sikhs, Satanists, atheists, and a few other things. It is jaw-droppingly nonsensical when I see these words hurled at people like Sannion, and at me as well (when that was occurring a few months back after I said that there should be gods in paganism…the nerve of me!). Crikey…

    • May 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      I don’t get it either. It is as if we should entertain all ideas as right and true right alongside our own, while even the Dalai Llama acknowledges that for him Buddhism is ‘the One Truth’ and that others are not. He encourages pluralism, and in this I am in agreement. I also encourage people to own up to what they are and to actually say if someone is misrepresenting their views, understanding, ideas, etc. I’m not out to ‘hunt the Pop Culture Pagans’ but I have hard lines I eschew from crossing.

  2. May 28, 2013 at 4:52 am

    In German there are very rigid sentence structures, and some words in German can go on for a damned long time because of the convention of sentence and word formation. American English has seemingly dispensed with rigidity and in so doing words are harder to pin down, and accordingly, communication is more difficult. German is, for all its complexities (from my perspective as a non-native German speaker) more accurate in its speech and use of words than our American English.

    Very much agreed, from my perspective as a German native speaker. This is precisely the reason why, when I try to engage in discussion or debate, there’s misunderstandings galore, resulting in much puzzlement on my part, and that’s on a good day. There are so many cultural differences—a fact that I wasn’t as acutely aware of before I started engaging in discussions about religion and spirituality. The fact of the matter is: it is hard.

    For instance, in a group I’m part of, there are people who habitually and on principle don’t make the effort to be polite. I found this behaviour offensive, until someone explained to me that politeness means nothing at all to them in a normal social context. Everybody is nice to everybody, and it means diddly-squat. For me, being polite means: I’m making the effort because I think you’re worth the effort. Someone who is not polite, by that maxim, must be operating from the assumption/opinion that the other person is not worth the effort. Hence my being offended. [Also, of course I don’t mean you specifically, but the general you, as in “one”].

    There are a number of examples beyond that; some of which concern more important stuff than just one-on-one interpersonal interaction. For instance: I as a non-US person, find the style with which topics such as sexism, racism, pick-your-ism, etc. are treated by a large portions of the Americans I know or see interact, incredibly alien. I find the extent, to which extremes in general are taken, extremely alien.

    Maybe the best example for that latter one is the situation regarding the worship of Loki in American heathenism. There’s a large, vocal fraction who abhor Him. There’s a large, equally vocal fraction who love Him and declare something that sounds like “if you worship Loki or are chosen by Loki you’re probably-almost-certainly a Rökkatruar and also worship Fenrir, Surtr, etc etc.”. Please don’t get me wrong. If someone decides they want to worship the Etins and Rökkr, they’re welcome to their plight; it’s just not my cuppa. What I find strange though is that there’s only a tiny minority (or a large, silent majority but I really wouldn’t know about that) who worship Loki as one of the Aesir, and that’s it. In Scandinavia and Europe in general, Loki used to be a non-issue (perhaps with the exception of the Theodish, but I cannot be sure as I haven’t looked into Theodism). It is partly due to those vocal fractions in the US that Lokiphobia is slowly spilling over, and it is a development that I am deeply critical of.

    To cut a long story short: yes, I agree. Words and their meanings are very different in German. And there are consequences of that that aren’t immediately obvious.

    • May 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

      “The fact of the matter is: it is hard.”
      Truer words never spoken!

      Thank you very much for sharing your perspective on the deep cultural differences (a good deal of many which may not appear obvious to non-Germans/speakers) between American English and German speakers.
      I am curious how you find Americans dealing with -isms as alien. I would be interested to read you speaking to that.

      I am sorry to hear peoples’ distrust and hate of Loki is starting to spill over. So far as I know Theodism doesn’t have much to say on Loki since He does not occur in their myths or legends. There has been writing on him from Theodish corners, but I find it odd given the circumstances of His occurrence in their lore. *shrug* I can’t really speak to it, since I’m not Theodish.

      I am of the perspective that certain Gods and Goddesses will attract or call people to Them as They will. In worshiping Loki my life has certainly gotten better, as has my worship of Hel. I can only speak to my perspective that worshiping the Jotun has enriched and enlivened my life rather than destroyed it. Although *laughs* I have at times thought of it as plight. But then again, I’ve thought of following and worshiping Odin as a plight at times as well, and I mean that in all due respect to Him!

      Thank you very much for writing here; I found it very cool to get an outside perspective.

      • May 30, 2013 at 6:52 am

        Thank you, and I apologise for the word “plight” in there. It seemed much too negative to me on second thought, and I had planned to check whether it means what I thought it means, and then I forgot, and turns out it doesn’t. *blush* so sorry. I meant to say something neutral, like venture or endeavour or something like that. (Communication. How do? Quod erat demonstrandum). Although I do agree, sometimes Deity worship is probably going to look like “plight” to any worshipper, regardless of Who that Deity is.

        I’ve been thinking about your other question a lot, and I have to admit I’m reluctant to elaborate much more about it (it=the “ism” question). It’s just such a potential hornet’s nest. But then I thought, oh well, I was the one who brought it up, so I might just as well man up.

        So, the short version of my view (which is the common one around these parts) on isms and related concepts is this: privilege doesn’t figure into it. Which means that women can be sexist, ethnic minorities can be racist, trans* people can be bigots, and yes, it is possible to “cultural-appropriate” from so-called privileged cultures.

        The only thing that matters in the evaluation of a situation is this: does discrimination on grounds of gender/sex take place, yes or no. Does discrimination or violence (including violent speech) motivated by racial differenc occur, yes or no. Is this person agitating against another group of people, yes or no. And also: is this cultural element used in a way it is not meant to be used according to the tradition it came from, yes, or no. As an example: what the nazis did with Germanic heathenism was cultural appropriation. We—i.e., the religious people who’re heathens in the Germanic/Norse tradition, and who also happen to be Germans, get lumped into the same mold as the nazis because they took those symbols and used them in a way they were never meant to be used. And they still are doing that. The nazis weren’t heathens. They were asshats who appropriated heathen symbols for their own sick purposes, and the fact that the Vikings were a culture of conquerors (a “privileged” culture), is completely irrelevant to the debate.

        The extremes that some places (tumblr-oh-my-Gods….) go to in the privilege based evaluation of “ism” situations, means that in the end, it all amounts to “does this person have a privilege, in which case they’re automatically in the wrong, regardless of what’s actually going on.”. And that is a huge simplification. For me, it looks like an oversimplification, which will produce inaccurate results, just so people don’t have to think more. And that’s what I find so… weird.

        So… if, having read all this, you think I’m something of a… I don’t know… sexist-racist-bigot-cultural-appropriator friendly person: I’m not. I’m really, really not. It’s just that we see things differently here.

        On an almost unrelated note: even though there are a lot of bans on heathen symbols in Germany, it amuses me to no end that the DFB (the German national football association, by which I mean the game that is played with your actual feet using an actual ball 😉 ) has a logo that is quite obviously and blatantly related to Odin-worship:

        or click here if the image doesn’t turn up in the comment.

  3. June 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    I am very concerned about the way that Pagan scholarship is being misportrayed on Christian blogs, etc. antithetical to Paganism. I am even more concerned about the way Pagan scholars conjuring up the specter of Pagan Fundamentalist will be used in those same venues. I have written an article about this that I would like to draw your attention to entitled “Pagan Scholars and anti-Pagan propaganda” at:
    http://hermetic-golden-dawn.blogspot.com/2013/05/sabina-magliocco-and-ronald-hutton.html

  4. September 5, 2013 at 5:24 am

    “So… if, having read all this, you think I’m something of a… I don’t know… sexist-racist-bigot-cultural-appropriator friendly person: I’m not. I’m really, really not. It’s just that we see things differently here.”

    I didn’t actually think you were any of those things from what you’ve written, I think what you’ve written has a great deal of thought put into it, and makes a great deal of sense. I appreciate you sharing this. I do apologize, though, for how long it took me to respond!

  1. July 9, 2014 at 4:32 pm

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