Holiness and Sacredness are Rooted Words: A Reply to John Halstead’s I Hold These Things to be Sacred

For clarity and to keep things as orderly as I can, I will be responding line by line to John Halstead’s post on Patheos, I Hold These Things To Be Sacred: A Reply to Sarenth Odinsson.

Sarenth Odinsson says that, because I don’t believe in gods, nothing is sacred or holy to me. 

I intentionally avoided using names in my piece, Holiness is Rootedness, because I wasn’t talking specifically about one atheist Pagan or another. My entire point is in the first paragraph.

In order to have a sense of what is holy, one must have ideas and concepts related to holiness. In order for these ideas and concepts to be related to holiness, it must have roots in a religion, a theological framework, in which holiness as a concept is able to take root. If one’s religious framework has no Gods, there is nothing to consecrate. If there is no God or Goddess, no Holy Power to consecrate, then there is no holiness just as there is no profanity or things lacking in that consecration.

If you have no theological framework then there is no theology to explain what is or is not holy. If you have no theological framework to discern what holiness is, its qualities and characteristics, then you have no concept of holiness to draw upon. Atheism’s main characteristics are that there are no Gods, and most of the atheist lines in regards to religious thought and phenomena directly state that there is no such thing as a God, Goddess, Supreme Being, etc. Most, though certainly not all forms of atheism, reject religious cosmology. I find it odd that pointing this out is cause to offend someone who identifies as an atheist, though my article was certainly not aimed solely at Mr. Halstead.

You can say all you like that you believe that things are sacred or holy, but those words carry absolutely no theological or philosophical weight when you say them because you don’t actually believe in the Beings nor the cosmologies that imbue them with that weight to begin with.

So, you know that feeling theists get when atheists tell them their gods are imaginary? I think I’m feeling something similar. Something like, “How dare you!”

Here’s what Odinsson says:

If one’s religious framework has no Gods, there is nothing to consecrate. If there is no God or Goddess, no Holy Power to consecrate, then there is no holiness …”

An atheist framework is one in which there is no God or Goddess, and thus, no sacred. One may hold things reverently, that is, with deep respect, but without a religious framework that very concept that one may hold anything as holy has no basis. An atheist claiming to hold something as holy is a person claiming something to which one has no right …”

I was pointing out what I had thought was patently obvious. I find it odd that Halstead is having such an emotional response when he has flat-out stated he does not believe in Gods. It would follow that there is no existent concept of holiness, as there is no theology in which holiness may take any kind of root. Keep in mind when I write Holy Power or Holy Powers, I include the Ancestors and vaettir, or spirits, in this. I don’t think that animists lack a conception of the holy, as in order to be an animist there is some sort of cosmology present, and accordingly, a way to establish things like what is sacred/not sacred.

Atheism cannot be invested in this understanding as it has no basis for holiness and the sacred, as atheism denies both on their face by its very outlook. Atheism denies that Gods exist, and in so doing, denies the cosmology They are rooted within. The notion of holiness within an atheist context, therefore, cannot exist.”

Now, I’ve never really gotten along with Odinsson. (I think he was the same person who once threatened to punch me if he saw me at Pantheacon.) But I don’t think it should be only atheist Pagans or non-theistic Pagans who are upset by what he is saying here. Odinsson is saying if you don’t believe in the gods, then nothing is sacred or holy to you. Implied in this is the statement there is nothing sacred or holy in the world except the gods.

Nothing sacred in the world but the gods?!

Wow! I would have a hard time imaging a less “pagan” statement than that.

I am not the person who threatened to punch Halstead if I saw him at Pantheacon. I’ve never been to Pantheacon, and given the extreme amount of travel I would have to do and time off I would have to take right before ConVocation here in Michigan, I have no interest in doing so.

Note here that Halstead actually does not refute my points here, or anywhere in this post. He quotes me, but misses the point entirely. There is no implication that there is nothing sacred or holy in the world except the Gods. It is not surprising to me that he misses this point, as Halstead has no conception of holiness himself, and I imagine is probably not familiar with Northern Tradition or Heathen cosmologies. To be quick, the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are holy. The Gods and Elements Themselves are among our Ancestors. Many of the Gods directly made vaettir, i.e. Odin and His Brothers formed the Dvergar from maggots burrowing into the flesh of Ymir. Many Gods are part of the vaettir of this and other Worlds, and vice versa. For instance, landvaettir may be seen as being part of Jörð’s Body/Being, Jörð being one of several Earth Goddesses within Heathenry.  Some vaettir have ascended into being or have become seen as being Gods unto Themselves, and some Gods have descended into being or have been seen as being vaettir unto Themselves. There are methods within the Northern Tradition by which an area may be made to be sacred, or that sacredness may be inborn to a place, such as a grove, or a prepared ritual area, altar, and so on.

There is something deeply disturbing, I think, about a paganism which cannot find the holy or the sacred in the earth or in another person.

Certainly, but that is not my position here, nor was it. I view Jörð, the Earth Goddess, as a holy Being. Do I view all the Earth as sacred? No, as I do not find CAFOs sacred, nor do I find the floating garbage that chokes the oceans sacred. Those, I find profane. Wrong. Unholy.

Are all people sacred? No. All people are bound together in Wyrd, but that merely makes you part of reality, not an inherently sacred person. It doesn’t mean people are valueless either, but sacredness actually means something in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. Namely, that a thing, Being, place, etc. is dedicated to, belongs to, is consecrated by, or is devoted to the Holy Powers. This is why an altar is a sacred thing, a grove where rituals are performed, or a single tree representing Yggdrasil itself is regarded as sacred. These things are devoted and dedicated to the Holy Powers (Gods, Ancestors and/or vaettir) of the Northern Tradition and/or Heathenry. They are sacred.

As for myself, I hold these things to be sacred and holy: all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships.

They are not just things that I hold “reverently” or with “deep respect”; they are holy and sacred.

He says he regards these things as sacred, but without any of these things being involved with, dedicated to, devoted to, or consecrated to Gods, Ancestors, or vaettir, what are these words worth? Without the necessary relationship inherent in a cosmology, in which one relates to all life, the earth, nature, our selves, our bodies, our relationships, and so on, saying something is sacred or holy are empty words. Claiming one holds something sacred or holy without any requisite theology to back these words up is intellectually sloppy or dishonest.

Holiness is rootedness,” says Odinsson. My religion is rooted. It is rooted in these things: Life, Matter, Relationship.

How can Halstead claim his religion is rooted when the soil of the Holy Powers is denied?

Indeed, how can Halstead claim to be religious whatsoever when he denies any of the requisite things for which religion itself functions: namely, to provide a framework for and means by which people may establish relationships with, interact with, revere, understand, and worship the Holy Powers? All these things Halstead claims his religion is rooted in has no meaning without an actual theology in which the sacred matters, and so long as the sacred is, in actuality, absent from his worldview and thus, any religion he would lay claim to, all these words are empty.

  1. October 30, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    I said this on another Halstead-related post, and I think it bears repeating here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/betweentheshadows/2015/09/seekers-and-guides-antagonists-in-paganism/

    “Attacking: Antagonists often have valid points, but they are surrounded in personal attacks and condemnation. Antagonists do not offer constructive criticism. They are interested in painting “good guys” and “bad guys” in a conflict, and they want their opponents to be seen as the “bad guys.” A variation of this is portraying the opponent as stupid for having the beliefs they have (such as some Atheist Pagans have done in regards to more mystical Pagan beliefs.) Argumentum ad hominem is another logical fallacy Antagonists try to employ, attacking the character or behaviour of their opponents rather than engaging with the (apparent) argument.”

  2. October 30, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I don’t think that Halstead has a genuine need for dialogue, or he’d have long ago agreed to disagree; I think he enjoys engaging in antagonistic behavior.

  3. Kauko
    October 30, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    This kind of thinking is the inevitable result of the watering down of the concept of sacredness or holiness in modern, Western societies, possibly as a result of the misapplication of the term ‘pantheism’ to mean something vague like ‘everything is sacred’. Everything can’t be sacred, as that makes the term sacred itself to be meaningless. Something can only be sacred if other things are profane or not sacred. And our pre-Christian ancestors developed these terms specifically to denote things relating to gods, spirits or other objects of worship.
    Like most modern Western people, the atheist contingent feels entitled to appropriate whatever term suits their feel-goodism, regardless of the historical meanings of those terms.

  4. Keen
    October 30, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    I think pagans like Halstead are mistaking “things they really, really like and appreciate” for “things that are genuinely sacred and holy and of the Gods”. (Of course, there is a Goddess I’m familiar with who would possibly disagree with you on the CAFO and garbage thing, but the point still stands.)

    • October 30, 2015 at 11:02 pm

      In regards to “pagans like Halstead are mistaking…of the Gods””.

      I don’t understand how words like sacred, holy, etc. have meaning without the theological context to give them the weight that such words require when used.

      In regards to the CAFO and garbage thing, note I used “I” phrasing throughout it.

      “Do I view all the Earth as sacred? No, as I do not find CAFOs sacred, nor do I find the floating garbage that chokes the oceans sacred. Those, I find profane. Wrong. Unholy.”

      I left open the possibility that some Being out there would find such a thing desirable, but none of the Gods I worship have voiced this to me, and I don’t expect will.

      • November 1, 2015 at 6:26 am

        I think that the miscommunication (that is, assuming Halstead actually wants to communicate rather than just be offended) is based on a very simple difference:

        For a theist, sacredness is a given. It has nothing to do with what any one person thinks or defines, and everything to do with being in a specific place in relation to what many refer to as Holy Powers. Now, from the sacredness of a thing or an entity, it follows that this thing or entity is regarded with the utmost respect and reverence by theists.

        For a non-theist, the implication is reversed: instead of seeing reverence as the consequence of sacredness, they define sacredness as bestowed upon something by reverence.

        That is a fundamental difference (though as a theist I think the former definition to be more substantial than the latter), and in order to even communicate, one needs to understand this difference first and foremost.

      • Keen
        November 1, 2015 at 11:25 am

        It’s an interesting point, the more I think about it though. Clearly, then, what is sacred and what is not is delineated by tradition, despite the potential for all things to actually be sacred if you take all the gods into account.

    • October 31, 2015 at 8:14 pm

      Though now I am curious Who.

      • Keen
        November 1, 2015 at 11:30 am

        I’m not sure I’m at liberty to say, but filth, waste, purification (but not necessarily purity) and infidelity fall under Her jurisdiction.

      • November 1, 2015 at 12:11 pm

        Okay, thanks.

  5. James "TwoSnakes" Stovall
    October 30, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    He is, without a doubt, highly published troll

  6. October 31, 2015 at 9:25 am

    I wouldn’t let the words of Halstead bother you. This is probably what he wants to begin with. Nothing brings attention like a little pot stirring.

  7. October 31, 2015 at 10:08 am

    One of the things that annoys me the most about modern paganism is how so many of us think that words don’t need to have clear definitions. Maybe it’s because of my science background, but I like it when words mean things, and once you make a word mean anything you want, that word becomes useless.

    (I also suspect it might offend Odin and any other deities of speech, communication, writing, etc. when words are butchered this way.)

    Science terminology always needs to have precise definitions. A “species” is “a group of organisms that can interbreed with each other and produce viable, fertile offspring.” Now, that doesn’t mean there can’t be exceptions (it doesn’t work for asexual species, and sometimes you get inter-species hybrids), but most of the time when you hear a biologist refer to a “species” of something, you know what they’re talking about.

    It also doesn’t mean that words can’t have definitions in different contexts. Ecologists are notorious for borrowing words from popular speech (like guild, niche, population, consumer, etc.) and giving them ecological definitions. In that case you understand by the context that we’re talking ecology here and not economics or sociology.

    It also doesn’t mean that words can’t change their meanings over time, but ideally they should do that naturally and gradually, and not so fast that people can’t even keep up with what the word means now vs. what it meant five years ago.

    I just don’t understand why Halstead keeps wanting to appropriate religious terminology and redefine words that already have well-known meanings. That’s why whenever Halstead gets into an argument with you or John Becket or any other religious pagans, you keep talking past each other. You’re using different definitions for your words. In order for anyone to communicate, they have to use words with the same agreed-upon definitions.

    The problem is Halstead is an atheist who keeps wanting to be in pagan spaces and use pagan terminology (and even represent pagans outside the pagan community), but with his own definitions of the words that don’t match our definitions of the words. It’s like if I tried to teach an economics class without understanding any of their terminology, but hey I have a degree in ecology so that should be close enough.

    • October 31, 2015 at 10:18 am

      Totally off topic, but I’m a polytheist currently in college for a BioScience degree, how do you deal with science and your spiritual beliefs?
      On topic, can’t disagree with anything you’ve stated.

      • October 31, 2015 at 10:24 am

        I don’t think that science should conflict with polytheistic beliefs. I think that the whole science vs. religion thing was cooked up by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. Other religions have no problem with it (including some sects of Christians and Muslims). Shucks, science was invented by the ancient Greeks, and they were polytheists!

        That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes have personal issues reconciling the two, but I think that’s my own problem getting past the cultural conditioning I’ve had that religion and science are incompatible. It doesn’t mean that cultural conditioning was right.

      • October 31, 2015 at 10:29 am

        Exactly, how I deal with it. And what you said about the Greek polytheists being basically the progenitors of modern science is how I sum it up. Right now, the religion vs science nonsense is being drummed up by Richard Dawkins. While I respect his work into evolutionary biology, I can’t say I agree with his militant atheism.
        I have the same problems reconciling the two at times, but I bring Odin to mind, he isn’t one to appreciate ignorance since he sacrificed his eye and hung upside down for days on end to acquire the knowledge of the Runes. I also use Buddhisms belief of the middle path as being the best way, find the middle road between the two and follow.

      • October 31, 2015 at 10:44 am

        The irony is that Richard Dawkins has the exact same view of religion as a fundamentalist Christian. They both believe you have only two choices: either you believe in Young Earth Creationism, or you are an atheist.

        But I must say, Richard Dawkins annoys me much less than John Halstead, because at least he’s straightforward about what he believes.

        Odin is a very good “scientist’s god,” because it’s all about the pursuit of knowledge.

    • November 4, 2015 at 12:15 am

      As someone who’s put in time to get a BS in Psychology, I feel you in that regard. Words need to have meaning for us to communicate effectively. The DSM, all of my textbooks glossary pages, and dictionaries would be totally unnecessary if we did not need this. It would also not be needed if language did not change, but then, the OED and similar bodies don’t just change the meaning of words because they, or another small group of people feel like doing so. They do so because the meaning of words change and drift over time, and words may develop different meanings, or become slang, jargon, etc. As you said, “once you make a word mean anything you want, that word becomes useless.”

      Agreed with regards to your point about ecologists, but that’s also why we have differing vocabularies dependent on the field of study.

      “I just don’t understand why Halstead keeps wanting to appropriate religious terminology and redefine words that already have well-known meanings. That’s why whenever Halstead gets into an argument with you or John Becket or any other religious pagans, you keep talking past each other. You’re using different definitions for your words. In order for anyone to communicate, they have to use words with the same agreed-upon definitions.”

      This is part of why I keep on insisting on using definitions when I write posts like this. I’m explaining not only the definition, but the context in which it is occurring. When I read Halstead’s response post, I didn’t even read a working definition of sacred there. That’s frustrating as hell.

      I don’t have much to add beyond generally agreeing with what you have written here. Given I’m a psychologist, and given the education I received at the hands of my teachers, I have heard frustration from them of religious folks and self-help folks co-opting their words. It seems to me that at least in part, we occasionally see the development of language spurred by keeping things specific enough to be of use, but esoteric enough not to be completely denuded of meaning outside of academia.

  1. November 12, 2015 at 9:48 am
  2. November 12, 2015 at 11:58 pm

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