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Defining Terms and Setting Boundaries

June 18, 2013 18 comments

In reading a good deal of blog posts I am in agreement that part of the core problem of communication between different Pagan traditions and religions is that there is a sloppy use of words.  To help with this I first list the dictionary definition from the online Oxford English Dictionary as a starting point for discussion.  Then I will dig into the words and what they mean from my perspective if I have any perspective to add.  From there, I’ll go into where I see boundary lines in Paganism, and ask questions I find there.

Polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than one god.

This is pretty straightforward.  Each polytheist relates to the many Gods in a number of ways, some as son or daughter, some as servant, some as a worshiper, or a combination of these or something beyond this simple breakdown.

Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.

Atheism: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

Agnosticism: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

Henotheism: adherence to one particular god out of several, especially by a family, tribe, or other group.

This is a term I came across during my Religious Studies core courses, and it came up again in a Hinduism course.  It is a term rooted in polytheism in that it recognizes many Gods and worships only one.  Some bhakti worshipers are henotheists, and some Pagans devoted to one God are henotheist.  For instance, a Lokian may be a henotheist in that they believe in many Gods as Beings unto Themselves but only worship Loki.

Pantheism: a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.

Panentheism: the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.

Monism: a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in a particular sphere, such as that between matter and mind, or God and the world.  The doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

Monism started off as a philosophical term and used in philosophy by Christian von Wolff which purported there is a unity to all thing, lacking a mind/body divide.  Religiously speaking the term monism has been used to mean that there is no divide between ourselves and God/the Gods.  So a person who believes we ‘are all part of the body of God’ or ‘we are all part of the Goddess’ is a monist.

Humanism: a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Naturalistic: the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.

Rationalism: the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.

Archetype Psychoanalysis (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.

Pagan: a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.

Neopagan: a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or ritual practices from traditions outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe and North America.

Most of these definitions are fairly straightforward.  A polytheist is one who believes in and may worship one or more Gods.  A monotheist is one who believes there is a single God.  Henotheists believe in many Gods and worship just one of Them.

When I see these terms in this context it boggles my mind how archetypes are supposed to work in Paganism.  Archetypes are essential symbol sets we are supposed to have inherited from the Collective Unconscious.  While they may be full of meaning they are, boiled down, symbols, not Gods.  They are reflection of psyche rather than inputs from the Gods Themselves.  That said, I do not understand how one builds a religion around the notion of archetypes.  It is one thing to recognize something as archetypal, i.e. a fertility symbol being strewn out across many cultures and recognized by each culture as a fertility symbol.  It is quite another to boil a God, Goddess, or other Being down to an archetype, i.e. Odin is a Warrior, Loki is a Trickster.  While it may be true that Odin is a Warrior and Loki is a Trickster, that is not all they are.  Odin has up to 300 heiti.  How could one archetype possibly encompass all He is with so many heiti?  What does an archetypal Pagan cosmology look like?  How does it function?  What does it teach about the relationship one has with the world?  It would seem to me to be very hard to build a religion out of archetypalism, as it first stems from psychology and not religion, and its insights are geared toward the psychological rather than the religious.  That is not to say the two may not learn from one another, but describing deities, spirits, and people in merely archetypal terms belies the whole Being behind such categorizing.  It does not delve into the why of a God, or even into details, but what the God as a whole might represent to a person, i.e. Odin as a Warrior God or Dead-and-Risen God.  In viewing Gods through such archetypal lenses, while it may be useful to bridge a viewpoint or gain insight, it does disservice to the God or Goddess as a whole as it boils their Being down to this single facet.   It would be like someone boiling my whole identity down to a Psychology major or just my job title.

Where does atheism take its place in Paganism?  Do they hold religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions?  Well, considering all the followers of the major world religions, with the exception of Buddhists, believes in some sort of God, then the answer is yes in a basic sense.  But do atheists hold religious belief?  The hallmark of atheism is that, as the above definition shows, there is disbelief or lack of belief.  That is, that there is no belief in the Gods.  An affirmative belief from an atheist would then be “There are no Gods.”  What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.?  What kind of religious foundation can be placed here, in unbelief?  Again, I do not understand how one can be an atheist and a Pagan from these definitions and the understandings I have of Pagan and atheist.  If an atheist does not believe in the Gods, how does one have a cosmology?  If one does have a cosmology, how is it Pagan?  

Monism purports that there is no separation between the physical and spiritual.  One can take that to mean in the materialistic sense, that all things are part of the physical world, or in the more pro-spiritual sense, that physical reality and spiritual reality are on in the same.  Either way, the physical is it, all there is, encompassing all of reality.  How does this work within Pagan religion?  I do not see how a philosophy that would deny something as fundamental to Pagan religion as the Otherworld, the Summerlands, Helheim, etc. would effectively fit Paganism at all.  If the physical world is all there is, there is no Asgard, and Asgard’s usefulness from the view of cosmology is completely limited to symbolism or abstraction.  Accordingly, so is all that is told of the place to us from myth, legend, experience, etc.

I have many of the same questions for humanism, naturalism, and rationalism as I do for atheism as it relates to Paganism.  How do any of these engage Paganism within its own bounds rather than imposing its own philosophy on Paganism?  How does humanism, naturalism, or rationalism fit into any Pagan belief structures, many of which are deity-centric?  How does, as the Humanistic Paganism blog states “we carry on a long tradition going back to ancient times” if it actually denies the central tenets of many of those traditions?

I am a polytheist, and there is a great deal of unpacking that so simple a label now asks us to do.  Am I a ‘soft polytheist’?  Am I a ‘hard’ polytheist?  This seeming dichotomy is actually what I view as an improper use of language.  If you believe that everything is part of a single God in the end you are a monist,  pantheist, or a panentheist (depending on the particulars of your belief(s)), not a polytheist, no matter how many permutations of ‘God’ you feel and/or believe there are.

During the last few months I have read a great deal of posts and responses, and there is a pretty consistent question that comes up: why should we be so discerning or heavy handed in dissecting what Paganism means?  I won’t speak on anyone else’s behalf, but share my own answers.

First, the boundaries of my religion are sacred to me.  There are ways to properly believe and engage in my path.  There is such a thing as a blasphemy within polytheist Paganism, and every time I see the Gods called ‘nothing more than archetypes’ or the ancient traditions used as a medium for what I consider to be vacuous religion and/or spirituality, I see blasphemy being committed.  Can the Gods punish blasphemers?  Certainly, if They care to.  That said, as a member of the Pagan community it is also on me to say ‘this is not acceptable within my religion’.  If I am silent in the face of blasphemy I am giving it my tacit acceptance.

Second, the sloppy use or intentional misuse of language is often a way of erasure for minority paths in Paganism.  Statements such as ‘all Pagans believe’ are, like most blanket statements, incorrect.  Far too often have I heard this, whether from fellow Pagans, academics, or any number of well-meaning souls who are trying to speak on my behalf.  I may not agree with Atheistic Paganism, Humanistic Paganism, but I will not speak on their behalf.  The perspective I speak of is my own, from my own tradition and in my own voice. I recognize there will be polytheists who are just fine with Atheist Pagans, Humanist Pagans, and accept them as Pagan as they are.  Given my beliefs on the Gods I cannot do this.  I may not agree with you, and I will do my best to avoid characterizing you and your words wrong, but I will not speak for you.  

Third, I like my words to have concrete meaning.  Atheist Pagan, as with Humanist Pagan, leaves me with too many questions that are unanswered.  It, as a religious path from within Paganism, makes little sense to me, even on a baseline reading of the words without digging into the theology, or lack thereof.  If one does not believe in the Gods, and/or has a lack of belief in religion and/or spirituality it makes no sense to me to claim to be, in any way, shape, or form religious and/or to claim a religious title.  Archetypal Paganism leaves me with as many question, maybe more; are you worshiping images from the Collective Unconscious?  Are the Gods nothing more than thought/image symbols?  Is such a thing worthy of worship, or worth your time to worship?  If you are not worshiping, what is it one does with an archetype, religiously or spiritually speaking?

Fourth, I believe that having a better Pan-Pagan community means that we will run up against one another’s boundaries, and rather than pretend they are not there, I would rather acknowledge them.  You might hold the opinion that because I am opposed to including Humanist Pagans, Atheist Pagans and others in the Pagan community, that I am close-minded or a bigot.  Granted, you are entitled to your opinion.  This is not some decision I made overnight.  I’ve bandied this about back and forth for a significant amount of time both in my own head and with others.  I’ve thought on this a lot, prayed on it, and spent some time sussing out how I feel, and how best to talk about this subject.  You do not have to respect my opinion, or even my beliefs on this matter.  Acceptance, for me, does not change how I feel, or what my beliefs are in this.  I will respect your right to an opinion even if I cannot bring myself to respect the opinion itself.  In this, I am treating you no different than Christian friends or family, who feel much the same way toward me.

I know that, given the demographics, and overall feeling that is in the Pan-Pagan community the kind of boundary setting and exclusion I am speaking of will probably not happen.  There are too many people who accept Atheist Pagans, Humanistic Pagans, and so on as part of the community.  That is, after all, their right.  It is also mine as a polytheist Pagan to speak up and out against it, and against the marginalization of our voices in Pagan circles when and where it happens.  May the Gods be hailed, the Ancestors praised, and the spirits honored.

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A Useful Teacup

August 22, 2012 17 comments

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.

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