A Caution Against Pagan Fundamentalism

A caveat to start with: No matter how well a writer writes something, inevitably someone will misinterpret what they were trying to say. Such is the limitation of language. In that spirit, allow me to make one thing very, very clear before this essay even starts: I am not equating hard polytheism with religious fundamentalism. I am concerned that because of certain patterns I have seen among some, not all, hard polytheists, that this may, not necessarily will, in the future give rise to a form of pagan religious fundamentalism. Additionally, the “You’re wrong, I’m right” attitude that I’m observing is not limited to debates regarding polytheism, but other areas of paganism as well, and any of these could also give rise to a form of fundamentalism given the right circumstances. Polytheism happens to be the topic of the moment which finally gave me a chance to voice some concerns about fundamentalism in paganism that I’ve been chewing on a while. There. Now that I’ve said that, feel free to proceed.

I’ve been watching the recent discussion on several pagan blogs concerning hard polytheism, “bringing back the gods”, and so forth with some interest. I admit that the older I get, the more I am moving toward a more pantheistic viewpoint, with a good dash of humanism as well. It’s not that I discount the existence of the Divine, spirits, and so forth, but that my experiences with them simply haven’t led me to adopt a hard polytheistic view (and anyway, I tend more toward totems and nature spirits than gods).

So that obviously colors my perspective on all this. I don’t have a stake in the proven reality of deities as independent entities, but neither does it bother me that some people do. What concerns me is the possibility of the rise of pagan religious fundamentalism. (Yes, I know there are polytheists dropping the term “pagan” from their experience because they associate it with Things That We Aren’t, but for the purposes of my discussion, polytheists are still pagan, in part so I don’t have to keep writing pagans/polytheists over and over.) Fundamentalism as a concept was originally described in certain areas of Protestantism in the early 1900s. These people had a very strict and literal interpretation of their religion, and today “fundamentalism” is often used to describe any of a number of religious perspectives that hold similar, inflexible views on God(s) and the way humans are supposed to act.

There are a lot of pagans (and other people, but let’s stick to pagans for now) who have had bad experiences as a result of fundamentalism, usually of the Christian variety. The community is full of stories of people growing up in strictly religious households and being treated pretty poorly for the mistake of exploring new beliefs. These could range from having their pagan religious tools and effects taken from them and destroyed, to being assaulted or thrown out of the home. Adult pagans have lost jobs, homes, and children due to religious persecution. Pagan prisoners are routinely denied access to religious materials and clergy, and it’s rare for a pagan clergyperson to be asked to lead a prayer in a civic setting where such things still occur. While Christian fundamentalists proper were not always the opposition in these cases, the attitudes of fundamentalism tend to leak out into the wider cultural consciousness (I’ll talk more about that in a minute).

With these consequences of fundamentalism in mind, it seems strange to see echoes of them in paganism. Yes, of course there’s the fact that people often subconsciously emulate the behavior patterns they were raised around, but surely that can’t be the source of every single instance of “You’re wrong, I’m right!” in paganism. And while not every one of those “I’m right!” instances constitutes fundamentalism, the long-standing tendency for some pagans to tell others “You’re doing it wrong!” seems to be heading closer to fundamentalism to a troubling degree. And so while I don’t want to point at any single claim of “hard polytheism is the best and only way!” as fundamentalist, because of the general trend I do want to put forth a warning against the dangers of falling prey to fundamentalist stances. Allow me to present a few points for consideration.

Not all pagans are theistic, and paganism is not just about the gods.

I really like Christine Kraemer’s Venn diagram in this recent post. It’s a reminder that “paganism” isn’t ONLY about gods, or ONLY about nature, or any other single influence. I agree with her when she she says in her own words (and italics), “for some pagans, polytheism is not a main focus for practice or belief.” Her post was in response to this one by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus whom I should mention, for disclosure’s sake, is a friend of mine and someone I respect highly. He wrote a really good essay (even if I don’t quite agree with all of it) that sparked a lot of discussion, and one of the key ideas was the possibility that the emphasis on “nature-based” paganism is to make non-pagans feel more comfortable with us, and that those of us who don’t embrace polytheism are making that choice because we’re uncomfortable with polytheism.

I’m not uncomfortable with polytheism. I spent most of my pagan “career” that started in 1996 being a polytheist to one degree or another. The shift toward pantheism has been a more recent thing, ironically brought on by my attempts to deepen my practice (another thing I’ll touch on more later). Being more comfortable with pantheism does not automatically mean a discomfort with polytheism, any more than choosing to be pagan means a discomfort with any other religion. If I’m uncomfortable with anything it’s the growing resemblance to fundamentalism I see in some sectors of hard polytheism, but that’s not why I am not a polytheist any more.

As my spiritual practice becomes more entwined with my path of service to the environment and to other humans, I find myself more and more rooted in this world. And my increased engagement with the physical world brings me closer to being a naturalist, with a combination of armchair scientific study and feet-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt direct experience. So pantheism–seeing the Divine as directly manifest in the natural world that I interact with–makes more sense to me at this point. Truth be told, my involvement with most deities, other than Artemis, has never been particularly deep. I worked with the Animal Father as part of a personal pantheon early in my Therioshamanism work, but he eventually faded back into the wilderness from whence he came, and the energy I touched with him I see in every living animal, and I connect more strongly that way. As to Artemis? She’s always been an internal part of me much as my primary totem Gray Wolf is; it’s hard sometimes to tell where the boundaries fall between us. These days I’m simply not that concerned with proving once and for all whether my invisible friends are independent beings or manifestations of human consciousness and myth, and I’ve never had much note from any of the beings I work with that suggested they cared what I thought, either. What’s important to me and to them are the immediate and measurable manifestations of my practice, whether that’s a shamanic journey or a day spent cleaning up litter along the river.

The anger and debate seem to all be on the human side of things. When someone doesn’t perform a ritual properly, or refers to several goddesses as aspects of one Goddess, I haven’t seen divine bolts of lightning streak down and smite them. There are historical debates, of course, where we can argue the facts of what the people of such and such ancient and no longer extant culture did, but that doesn’t lead to proof of what a particular deity or spirit wants. It’s always the people arguing over whether a particular practice or belief is correct, sometimes to an absurd degree–I’ve seen people on Tumblr debate whether a store-bought strawberry tart was a fitting offering for Loki. Regardless, it always comes down to the “You’re wrong, I’m right” debate; it’s only the details that differ.

Saying that everyone MUST believe or practice in a particular way is at its heart fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is characterized by people insisting that their way is correct and everyone else’s isn’t. It’s what keeps fundamentalism alive. As social creatures, we like having something sure to crowd around to unite us, and religion makes a great standard for rallying. Unfortunately, we also get this idea that the more right we are, the stronger we are, and so in order to increase our strength and security we have to prove our rightness. This fervor is part of how religion has very often been used as a tool for political and social machinations and power plays. The people involved are so focused on the surface message of “You’re wrong, we’re right” that they ignore the men behind the curtain. Look at the Crusades, for example; Pope Urban II called for them in part because the nobles in Europe were being rather rowdy, and he figured that sending them east under the guise of a holy war would at least get them out of the way for a while, as well as ingratiate him to the Byzantine emperor Alexios I who was being attacked by Muslim forces. Most people think it was just a matter of Christians versus Moslems in a grand melee for the Holy Land, but that was just the surface.

Religion in general plays on a lot of human behavioral tendencies, and while these can sometimes be beneficial, as in prayer and meditation to relieve stress and anxiety, and the benefits of a healthy community, fundamentalism has a poison to it. It’s divisive and exclusionary, and it builds identity not on connection but on isolation. And this isolation can be a very bad thing indeed.

Fundamentalism has a tendency to breed ignorance.

When you build your entire worldview on an idea, any opposing idea becomes a threat to that power base. There is absolutely no incontrovertible proof that any religious belief is more objectively and measurably true than any other, and the number of people who adhere to it does not increase its truth. Because we can’t prove a belief in the same way we can prove that gravity exists, or that water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, or that a mammal’s fur retains heat, adherents of beliefs can sometimes become very insecure about what they believe.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a strongly-held belief in and of itself, even if you can’t prove it. But one of the defenses against having your worldview shaken is willful ignorance. I would imagine that most, if not all, of my readers are aware that homosexuality isn’t dangerous, that gay people are not more likely to be sexual predators, and that if gays get married it won’t cause the collapse of civilization as we know it. Yet because the Bible happens to mention in a couple of places that homosexuality is a bad thing, there are people who latch onto that and who absolutely refuse to consider any other evidence to the contrary.

We live in a 21st century where for a lot of us (though certainly not everyone) we have an inconceivable amount of information at our disposal through the internet and other forms of media. Even a quarter of a century ago when I was in elementary school writing my first essays I had access to several different sets of encyclopedias, dozens of magazines, and thousands of books, just in my little school’s library. The information is there; ignorance is the choice to not access it. And, I suppose, for some people the idea that they might be wrong is a terrifying thing, so much so that they don’t step out of their safe sphere.

I’ve made peace with the idea that I might be wrong. There was a feeling of liberation a while back when I finally felt the tyranny of “I HAVE TO MAKE SURE I’M RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING” lift away from my shoulders, and I had the liberty to move through the world unencumbered by that obsession. And it allowed me to be even more curious about the world than I already was. A sure belief doesn’t have to extinguish curiosity, but my own experience has been that allowing myself ambiguity has freed me to focus more on exploration and learning for its own sake, come what may.

Ignorance is dangerous.

Again, having a strongly held belief isn’t automatically ignorance. But ignorance, when it happens, has its own dangers. When we tunnel-vision so tightly on a belief that we refuse to listen to anything else, it can hurt us and others. It’s been proven again and again that vaccinations have absolutely nothing to do with autism, and yet there are increasing numbers of parents in the United States who refuse to vaccinate their children because of the strongly-held (and incorrect) belief that autism is somehow transmitted through common shots. As a direct result, diseases we’d significantly reduced or even almost eradicated, like pertussis and measles, are on the rise, along with the highest rates of deaths from these diseases in decades. We can prove without a doubt, due to decades of statistics on vaccination effectiveness and illnesses and deaths from these diseases, that these people likely died as a direct result of lower vaccination rates. And it’s not just the people who chose not to allow vaccinations who suffer: the dead include unvaccinated children who could still be alive today had they been given routine childhood vaccines.

Sometimes ignorance is on a grander, even deadlier scale. People have slaughtered each other for millenia based on religious and political propaganda which very often doesn’t paint the whole picture (remember Mark Twain’s The War Prayer?) And while modern paganism has not birthed such theocratic efforts, perhaps it’s only due to a lack of numbers and chance, as well as the persistent tendency for pagans to eschew preaching and converting–at least toward non-pagans.

And, in and of itself, insisting that the gods are real, independent entities a la hard polytheism isn’t particularly dangerous. You can believe whatever you like and still not be a problem to others if you just leave it to yourself and those who agree with you. It’s the desire to make others agree with you that’s the problem. And that desire stems from insecurity in one’s own belief, with ignorance another common side-effect. Ignorance only allows a person to learn about other ways far enough to be able to rail about how they’re wrong, to have fodder for their fight. They can’t venture too far from those shaking beliefs they hold for fear they’ll fall and so, like a dog chained to a rickety old dog house, they bark and snarl at the world around them, only knowing of the things that come close enough to feel like a threat.

Maybe the surest counter to this dangerous ignorance is genuine curiosity, and an openness to the world. There’s a certain strength in being able to hold your beliefs even when you’re learning about others, not out of the desire to disprove them, but simply to know more about them. This isn’t just knowing the words of others’ beliefs, but opening yourself to why people hold them. A little immersion in this way won’t make a person a convert, and the potential for a change in one’s own worldview shouldn’t be reason to shut the rest of the world out.

Fundamentalism is contagious.

Most adherents of a religion are not fundamentalists. However, many adherents do have some beliefs they hold strongly, and their communities help them to bolster that faith. Again, this in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s part of religious communities as vessels of social memetics. But as we can see throughout history, extremists of any sort tend to attract a crowd, and while some may discount them, others catch hold of their message. Sometimes that extreme eventually becomes the norm; look at how Christianity grew from a tiny little cult surrounded by other tiny little cults into one of the dominant religions on Earth. Unfortunately, sometimes the messages that are the most contagious are also the most negative.

I can tell you a story of this from personal experience. When I first started this blog in 2007, it was part of my quest for a deeper, more meaningful spiritual path. I had watched a number of people I knew in the pagan community engage in some truly beautiful devotional practices to deities and spirits, with wonderfully elaborate schedules of celebrations, and creative shrines and altars. While I had certainly had good experiences with the totems and other spirits I worked with over the years, I felt the need to have something similarly focused and devotional. You can look back at the first year or two of this blog to see where I was really trying to build that. Ultimately, as I mentioned earlier in this post, I ended up finding my depth and meaning in a totally different direction, but that doesn’t invalidate the appreciation I still have for the devotions of others.

Unfortunately, one of the things I also picked up from a few–definitely not all–of the people who inspired me was a thread of one-true-way-ism. Usually this would be people who were trying to reconstruct a particular ancient polytheistic pagan faith, and who were so dead-set on doing it right that they openly criticized anyone doing things differently. I suppose, having seen that modeled, I latched onto core shamanism as my target of “You’re wrong!”, and again you can read through some of my earlier thoughts in this blog. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my path, while I still have personal disagreements with core shamanism (especially when it’s presented as “genuine ancient shamanism”), I no longer feel the need to attack it as a whole path. There are people for whom it works just fine; in fact, I’ve seen some people in the counseling field integrate elements of it to help their clients in very genuine ways. How can I argue with that effectiveness?

Honestly, I feel like an asshole for being that heavily critical. It did speak to a certain level of insecurity on my part, and I feel bad that I probably influenced other people to be critical to a similar degree. Granted, I am not responsible for what people choose to do based on their interpretations of my writings, any more than the people who I saw modeling hyper-critical behavior were responsible for my wholesale attacks on core shamanism. But it does demonstrate the tendency of people to copy those they wish to emulate, sometimes without considering what it is, exactly, they’re emulating.

If proper fundamentalism takes greater hold in paganism, I worry about what direction it may take the community as a whole. Maybe instead of polytheists dropping out because they don’t feel any connection to everyone else, it’ll be pluralists fleeing the damning whip of fundamentalist criticism and harassment as the “You’re wrong! I’m right” arguments go from small bickering online to greater pressure to conform to one party line.

We do not need fundamentalism to be legitimate.

I’ve seen the argument that if we pagans are going to be taken seriously, we have to present a more hard-line, united front of beliefs. Supposedly because we’re a group of people with a wide variety of paths and faiths, this means that there’s no way we can rank up there with well-defined single religions–never mind that they at least have denominations that may vary widely from one to the next.

And yet I’ve seen some really admirable interfaith efforts on the part of people representing paganism in general. Look at what Patrick McCollum has been doing over the years in criticizing the “dominant religion lens” of Christianity in the U.S. He hasn’t only been advocating for Wiccans, but for pagans in general, and in fact his work could very well benefit people of many other minority faiths. He’s just one of many examples of how paganism can be a legitimate religious presence in the cultural and social consciousness without having to resort to fundamentalism for strict definition.

Final Thoughts.

As it stands, we are not embroiled in a massive pagan fundamentalism movement. I have no problem with hard polytheists wanting to define themselves more as such–or anyone else taking the time to more clearly explain who they are and what they believe and why. I don’t even particularly care about the existence of the ongoing “You’re wrong! I’m right!” argument that’s manifested in everything from the “Only Brit-trad Wiccans are REAL Wiccans” debate to the current trends toward a more hardline polytheism. What worries me is the possibility of any of the “You’re wrong! I’m right!” debates to turn into genuine fundamentalism with all its problems and poisons. I feel it’s better to bring it up now, before it ever happens–if it even ever happens for that matter–than after the fact.

Because I don’t feel I’m being too cautious about potential fundamentalism. We don’t really know for sure what happens when you offend a god, but we sure as hell know what happens when someone is so very focused on keeping others from offending the gods that they’ll go to extreme, dangerous, and even lethal lengths to prevent or avenge that offense. Even if that’s not a real threat in paganism today, let’s start creating a setting now that will keep it from being a reality in the future.

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47 thoughts on “A Caution Against Pagan Fundamentalism

  1. My approach to paganism has always been pantheistic, and that’s never been in conflict or even contradiction to those who are polytheistic. I just don’t hold those things in my mindspace as contradictions to each other, and intellectually, I don’t understand those who do. But so be it. I observe. I learn. I see the arguments rising, as well, and it concerns me, particularly in light of Star’s recent public disclosures. I remember back when it was Abrahamic faiths attacking pagans. We’ve come a long way.

    These are not new positions. They are not new paths, or theisms, or what have you. These concerns were coming up 15 years ago, back when people actually distinguished with phrases like “little ‘p’ pagan” and “big ‘P’ pagan.” I think because paganism, as a whole, has become more accepted, united, and *gulp* organized* it tweaks certain threads connecting back to fundamentalism and in many ways, ideas of providence.

    It’s an interesting time. I’ve watched and participated in the development of pagan culture for almost two decades. I’ve observed and participated in gestures supporting tolerance between faiths interpersonally and legislatively. Pagans, now, have an opportunity to be the change, not just in terms of forming community within ourselves in a whole new way, but as an example of how that can happen in so many other faiths (and across other faiths) that are experiencing decline. In a lot of ways, the changes in the pagan community now are what we have been asking for. What are we going to do with this opportunity to actually engage and act?

    As always, you roxor.

    • Oh, absolutely. I remember “real Wiccan” debates in the 90’s, and I’m sure I missed out on some hellacious arguments before that point, too. I think you hit the nail right on the head with “n a lot of ways, the changes in the pagan community now are what we have been asking for. What are we going to do with this opportunity to actually engage and act?” Things ARE different than they were two decades ago, both with intra-community and inter-community relations, and I’m curious to see, too, what we do with that.

  2. I think it helps that paganism is so all-encompassing of so many paths. We have enough variety to keep those more dangerous forms of fundamentalism in check, I’d think, simply because you will never have the support of all (or even most) pagans for any view, belief, or cause. Our community offline often manages to have civil debates on matters that, online, can appear out of control and even violent. Thankfully, those who bring about that kind of behavior tend to get weeded out by the community as a whole, if only by a failure to engage (blocked accounts on message boards, banning them from festivals, etc.).

    • Well, there are a few dialogues–there’s the face to face one which doesn’t get that heated that often simply because the people are *right there* and it’s tougher to be hostile. Then there’s the “behind the back” conversation where people say what they want about so and so when so and so isn’t around. And there’s the online debate, in which it’s easy to say what you will because there’s the safety of the screen to protect against flames.

      While I think that right now pluralism is still dominant, the thing about fundamentalism is that it can be very contagious at times. I don’t think the risk of fundamentalism is that great right now, but if things shift and change they very well could head away from pluralism. All it would take is the right sea change in the community as a whole. Granted, it wouldn’t necessarily mean every pagan toed the party line, but as there is with any sort of big pendulum swing, someone would end up marginalized.

  3. I’m unclear why humanistic pagans are left out of this discussion – as they are one of the reasons many polytheists leave or are /chased out of/ paganism or pagan groups. Belief isn’t inherently fundamentalist-inspiring, yet it has consistently been the hard polytheists who are told we are ‘fundamentalists’ or ruining modern pagandom.

    Fundamentalism is bad where ever and however it surfaces, but ignoring the way humanistic pagans treat faith-based pagans is dishonest and paints an inaccurate picture of what is going on. /Especially/ when these issues are entwined. I have just as much problem with polytheists telling me I can’t be pantheistic as I do with humanistic pagans telling me that I need to stop believing in my gods because it’s ‘uncomfortable’ for them.

    • Because this isn’t about humanism. It isn’t even about polytheism. It’s also not about gays, or vaccines, or any of the other examples i gave. It’s about fundamentalism, and it just so happens that the moment when these thoughts I had about fundamentalism congealed when this debate on polytheism was going on. Please don’t derail the discussion on fundamentalism itself and make it about a particular example thereof.

      • What’s not to understand, if I may ask? My primary point in this is “Here are some examples of things in the pagan community that resemble religious fundamentalism, and here’s why I feel that’s a bad direction to go in”.

      • And I pointed out that I found it problematic that you didn’t include examples of the fundamentalism that is in paganism but tied to humanism or naturalistic trends, because that is -actually- connected to the polytheist discussion going on, and then you said I was derailing – which I don’t know how, since I thought this was about pagan fundamentalism.

      • Well, sure, I could have made a post entirely about examples of potential fundamentalism, but then there’d be no room for discussion of the fundamentalism itself. I’m not making a polytheism vs. humanism debate here; I brought up the current discussion of polytheism as one of a handful of examples to illustrate my main point about the potential for fundamentalism. I don’t want this discussion to devolve into one that’s about who’s closer to fundamentalism, polytheists or humanists.

  4. Just a brief comment as I head out: I have to wonder if there isn’t some sort of regionalism at play here. My in person, face to face interactions in this region (I’m on the opposite coast from you, Lupa) has me associating the warning signs you list with those who are eclectic or Wiccan-esque. I’ve yet to meet, in person, any polytheists who react this way.

    Online is a wholly different matter…

    • Good thought. I haven’t taken a survey of where the people who are participating in the current polytheism debate are located, but it would be interesting to note. Really, though, as I mentioned above, I could have used all sorts of examples for the concern over fundamentalism, any sort of “You’re wrong! I’m right!” debate. Polytheism just happened to be the topic du jour when I finally figured out my thoughts.

      And yeah, there is a certain level of online vs in person-ness to it. People have said things to me online that I’ve never had anyone come close to in person as far as rudeness and viciousness. And that’s just the norm regardless of what the “You’re wrong! I’m right!” discussion we’re talking about.

  5. I’ve also been noticing a lot of the edges of fundamentalism and similar mindsets in the Therianthropy communities, as of late. It worries me that it’s getting harder to tell the role players from the real people, in that they’re all sounding similar – talking about how “mundanes” (WHEN did that come into fashion for referring to non-therian humans?!) are a threat and how horrible humans are….Come on, people, we’re humans too.

    Misanthropy is such a problem both in therian and pagan circles. >.<

    • Well hell, with therianthropy you had people trying to be really strict about defining what it is and what it isn’t years ago, people wanting it to ONLY be used for the psychological model of therianthropy (none of that spiritual woo-woo stuff!)

      It’s a matter of human behavior in general, I think. You can find it in just about any group, regardless of what that group forms around.

      • That’s very very true – and honestly that fact makes it even funnier when you look at it from the perspective that these people tend to refuse to acknowledge their humanity.

  6. My pagan church (Asphodel) has among its members hard and soft polytheists, pantheists/animists, garden-variety Wiccan types, agnostics, even an atheist or two as well as at least one “Episcopagan.” And you know what? The world hasn’t ended, and the god haven’t smited anybody for disbelief. We don’t have these sorts of heated debates when we do group ritual together,.nor has anyone flounced from a ritual upon realizing that we are not necessarily all in theological accord. People take what they need from the rites, then we have potluck and everything is fine. And personally, I don’t feel that my experience of the gods or the sacred is lessened by the fact that the person standing next to me might simply view the whole thing as ritual theater.

    So I have to wonder how much of this is an issue away from the Internet? Are there legions of atheist pagans trying to get into closed circles, the way some would have us believe? Is this even a problem in real life? Are any of us going to care about this five years from now? Will it change the way people practice their faith? And does it even matter when the mainstream views us all (regardless of theistic leanings) as harmless eccentrics at best, and puerile, ridiculous wankers at worst?

    • I need to be able to show this off as proof that a mixing of theological differences isn’t necessarily explosive! Thanks for adding that into the mix of this discussion (and proving that one can very well survive such blends and even thrive).

  7. Let me apologize in advance for the length of this comment.

    Let me also begin by saying that I, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, really do love and appreciate you, Lupa, and your friendship is dear to me, and your work is important and interesting and has been of great utliity as well as enjoyment to me over the years; and, I expect that no matter what comes of the present discussion and those to come, that the above facts will remain true, and I will do everything in my power to make sure that they remain true, because you are that cool and I love you that much.

    Statements like that usually have a “but” following them, and I want to do all possible here to make that not the case, since such statements often then invalidate everything that comes before the “but.” So, let me make an attempt at it.

    What you have written here is good, and I don’t have any fundamental disagreements with the principles you’ve laid out, nor the caveats you’re making. I, too, am someone who is not a fan of fundamentalism in any form, and have done everything in my power over the years to make sure that what I do doesn’t fall into that trap (and, I’m happy to say, I didn’t have to overcome programming for that to be true, since my family wasn’t fundamentalist), and I think I’ve been pretty successful with it up until the present, and I hope to also continue in that good path whenever and wherever possible. I constantly question my own path, invite dissent and discussion on a variety of matters that I raise in my columns, articles, blog posts, and other writings. No one who actually knows me would ever consider me a fundamentalist; a stickler for details and historical accuracy, yes, but not someone who insists that my own way is the “Right” or only way.

    So, as you might be able to understand, it’s very disturbing to me that a variety of people have been reading my article and then deciding that I’m not only a fundamentalist, but a proto-Nazi, and are leaving their judgements at that without actually looking at the substance at what I actually wrote (as opposed to what they might fear or suspect I’ve written) and what I meant when I wrote a variety of the things I did in that column. It is profoundly disturbing to me that a good-faith reading of my work has been denied to me by everyone who doesn’t agree with it already. I don’t care if people still don’t agree with me after reading what I’ve written, but I do care that their readings are not accurate or that they’re imputing motives to me that do not exist, and never will.

    I’ve been teaching my English 99 (Beginning Composition) students about writing summaries lately, and have explained to them that their opinion on what is contained in a particular piece of writing is pretty irrelevant when it comes to writing a summary of it, and for summaries, what one is looking for is “just the facts, ma’am,” and not what someone thinks might be going on there, and especially not what one thinks about the writer involved. They are getting that, for the most part; so, to see that a whole group of modern pagans aren’t at English 99 level when it comes to reading and understanding something is profoundly disturbing as well.

    As I said in the article, I think that bringing back the gods should be one goal of modern paganism; note, not “the” goal, not “the only” goal, not even necessarily “the most important” goal. There are many people–myself and a great number of my friends and closest co-religionists included–who have this as an important and integral part of our work, and who place a very high value on doing this sort of work; it’s what we like, it’s what we’re good at, and it’s what we think is important in terms of our overall contribution to the wider community. It’s also a minority viewpoint, and one that doesn’t get as much emphasis as I think it ought to get; however, it doesn’t have to suddenly become the end-all, be-all of modern paganism either, and I never suggested that it does. I was writing the piece in reaction to a trend–which based on the number of positive comments I received on the piece, is a trend I’m not alone in noticing–to have definitions of modern paganism that either exclude, reduce, or even deny the importance of the gods to modern paganism. All of the talk of “big-tent” and inclusive and pluralistic modern paganism sort of goes out the door when one group–and one which has a large historical connection to paganism in general–kind of gets questioned, if not seriously undermined, when there is a deliberate and concerted effort to marginalize or exclude that one group’s viewpoint, however small it might be. Modern paganism has been remarkably good at making the distinction that not all pagans are Wiccans, which is an important and essential distinction; why can’t it likewise have self-definitions that aren’t afraid to admit that some pagans are polytheists?

    Because I see this as a major problem, and one which threatens me personally with exclusion and marginalization on a deliberate level as opposed to an inadvertent one (i.e. I know I’m in a minority within a minority within a minority since I’m recon-leaning, queer, gender atypical, disabled, etc., and I know that people don’t always account for those things inadvertently/due to lack of knowledge or experience of their realities), I wrote in language that might have been more strong or assertive than may be my usual habit. I don’t think in doing so that I was being overbearing or bullying, nor prescriptive, nor condemnatory to viewpoints that aren’t my own. (I’m very willing to hear the thoughts of those who might disagree on the failures of my wording to convey my proper meanings and intentions, and I addressed some of those in the comments section on the column.) I thought that phrasing my remarks with a constant “But YMMV” at every turn would not have served my purpose to state that I object to this exclusion, and thus I didn’t include as many of those statements as I might have under other circumstances.

    And yet, there are some people out there–like a number of humanist pagans–who constantly bombard others with “But you must know that there is no such thing as deities, that they’re entirely in your head, and thus your cognitive dissonance on this issue is clouding your judgement,” and this is just normal and accepted behavior and a manner of relating for them, when in fact it undermines the experiences (which do, uncategorically and most definitely, exist for polytheists in terms of the realities of the gods–whether or not the gods exist outside of their heads, they seem to behave as if they don’t in experience, and thus are treated as such, which makes questions of the “reality” of the gods on some physical or metaphysical level rather irrelevant in favor of simply dealing with experiences as they occur) of other people, which is just downright rude. And yet, if I say something about the gods that doesn’t lace itself with caveats on “but they may all be in my head” and so forth to appease that particular potential audience, isn’t that a kind of fundamentalism as well? The insistence that I convey my thoughts in a manner that is consonant with other people’s opinions, and not my own, seems rather oppressive in many respects, at least to me. But, I don’t know, some people might enjoy having their every utterance policied and regulated in that regard–if they do, I wish them well with it! ;)

    Paganism is a useful term, and one I’m not willing to abandon (even though now, more than ever, I’m seeing the wisdom in the decision to do so by many people I love and respect), because it is both broad and specific; and, in its original and literal meanings, it describes me perfectly as a rather unsophisticated rural person and non-combatant. As mentioned above, there has been a tendency to want to broaden the definition (are Hindus pagan? Are Shinto practitioners pagan? etc.) and to water it down to lowest common denominators, all of which I think are problematic–there are loads of other religious groups that are actually polytheist and identify as such, but not all of them do, and many of them rather resent when we as pagans identify them as such. But, when the lowest common denominator definitions of paganism rule the day, or are taken to apply to people for whom they do not, they no longer become useful or meaningful, nor do they accomplish what using specific words is meant to accomplish–i.e., to convey one idea clearly and specifically and with a definite meaning. That’s why I told the story of the Christian chaplaincy council assuming that “pagan = nature religion” about me and my practices, even when told to the contrary that my religion historically was practiced in indoor temples, was not useful to me, because that group believed in their own definition (which reinforced their own theological viewpoints as Christians opposed to paganism) rather than accepting my own definition. As it was their space, and therefore their theology, that ruled the day, I can’t exactly blame them for acting from their own theological viewpint, but I can critique that viewpoint as an oustider to their tradition and an insider to my own.

    The whole question of the place of “belief” in all of this is the subject of my next column, which has already been written, and which will be posted next week, so I’ll refrain from commenting further on that at present–suffice it to say, I think the way this is being understood in the context of this (and other) modern pagan discussions is more in line with creedal religious traditions than experiential ones like modern paganism is supposed to be.

    My comments about nature religions and the problematic notions therein were in service to a point that got lost in the excursus, for which I apologize, and which I’ve already planned a follow-up article for the next column after the belief one (!?!), but let me first admit that should have been done much better, and try here to explain myself better. I have no problem with animism, animatism, pantheism, or panentheism, and in fact I’ve done and can be accused of having done or subscribed to one or more of those viewpoints for much of my life, and in the present as well. However, even for hardcore and dedicated animists, pantheists, and others, I’ve heard the argument that it is impossible to have a meaningful spiritual relationship with an aluminum can because “it has no spirit”…and that’s exactly the point I was trying to make in my comments in the column. Even if one is an animist or a pantheist (etc.), there has to be “something” there to relate with in nature generally, or each smaller aspect of it (a river, a tree, a rock, a region, etc.), or else there’s no point in doing dances, making offerings, and so forth. Whether it is one great spirit of nature, or many smallers ones, or the totems of tree or plant or animal species, or the individual spirits of any tree or animal or plant, or however one wants to discuss it, there is something there beyond what is strictly physical and what can be proven by science. The hurricane may still knock your house over, or the earthquake, or the bear attack you, or the deer eat all of your flowers, but the relationship one has with the spirits of these things might keep one in better balance in relation to all of those calamities despite the cognitive dissonance of one’s physical situation being vastly different. Nature and the cosmos more broadly, simply as it is and as it can be grasped via science, is totally indifferent to humans and our activities (which is why the vocabulary around global warming is so flawed–it’s not that “there won’t be a planet earth” if it gets six degrees cooler, it’s just that natural processes will edit human survival out of the picture; and many other examples could be enumerated). There is some amount of belief that is required in “something more” to all of this if animism, pantheism, and all of the other things that are being suggested as “more reasonable” alternatives to polytheism are to be viable. Making prayers and offerings to a spirit of nature that doesn’t care about humans and is indifferent to us–which is the model science provides–is as useful as making offerings to the blind idiot god Azathoth. In this regard, I don’t see there being a huge difference between polytheism, animism, pantheism, and so forth, because all of them have a spiritual force in them that is outside of the individual person (though the person may partake of a similar nature or some degree of connection with that force) with which one can relate if they so choose.

    So, some of us choose to relate to parts of it in a fashion known as polytheism, and we pursue experiences with the individual deities of our choice. I think it’s an injustice to treat us as if we’re freaks, and I think the attempt to edit us and the gods out of more wide and embracing definitions of modern paganism is both an historical and a personal injustice, and I oppose doing so. I think that one among many of the goals of modern paganism should be to bring back public consciousness of the gods rather than ridicule of them and disavowals of their existence.

    And, for saying that, I’ve been called a fundamentalist and a Nazi, and have been accused of embarking on a slippery slope that will result in forcing others to worship the gods, and to prohibiting worship of certain pantheons, etc.

    Do you see how out-of-place all of this feels?

    And, as you wrote in your excursus here, Lupa, one of the things that often results in fundamentalism is a fear of going outside of what one knows, and what one’s own viewpoint happens to be. Yes, it’s scary to learn new things; and yes, it’s quite literally the case that our brains change (and not just our minds) as we learn new things, which is both painful and stressful, and thus most people would rather not do it. But, I’m an educator in my public professional life, so my endeavors are dedicated to this; and, in my spiritual life, I’m a Doctor, which first and foremost does not mean “healer of ills,” but instead “teacher.” If one’s head is not hurting, one is not learning, quite literally! I am very dedicated to learning more and constantly expanding my own viewpoint, and so I’m naturally curious about other people’s practices, and not only other forms of modern paganism, but also other religions entirely (including some bits of them that I’ve already encountered–there’s many Catholic theologians I’d like to read someday still, as well as ancient Greek and Roman ones, and Sikhs, and Shinto, and Hindu, and Afro-Diasporic, and Zen, and Taoist, and Sufi, and so on). I’m constantly engaged with such pursuits, including in terms of my own most prominent and important devotions to Antinous, where there’s tons more to be known and studied, and a great deal more than that which could directly or indirectly relate to that pursuit.

    So, I wrote a column in which I stated my own viewpoint–which at no stage did I suggest was the only right or valid viewpoint–and suddenly, a lot of people attack me and say “Your viewpoint isn’t the only valid one” and “you’re a fundamentalist” and “you’re a Nazi.” Can you see how I wuold find this disturbing and upsetting? Can you also see how all of the objections by the non-polytheist pagans (often to things that aren’t even there in my column) also sort of proves my initial point, i.e. that the polytheist viewpoint is being marginalized and even maligned in modern paganism?

    Again, I apologize for writing you a mini-thesis here (which is longer than the original column!)–which I’m quite sure almost everyone won’t read!–but I think it’s an important set of issues to address, and to address fully, in a context appropriate to doing so like your post on these issues. I also want to re-affirm my love and appreciation for you, Lupa, and for your work, and for producing this blog where such discussions as this can take place!

    Very respectfully, with much love and many blessings,
    P. Suf. Viri. Lup.

    • Okay, very first of all: I am really sorry if I came across as saying you were a fundamentalist! I primarily linked to your essay as one of the prominent ones in the ongoing discussion, and I’m also really damned sorry to hear that you have been getting clear attacks and accusations. You are someone I respect highly and I know from personal experience that you’re about as far from fundamentalism as could possibly be; in fact, you’re a wonderful example of being able to be a very devoted and active polytheist *without* being a fundie. So my sincerest apologies for any misunderstandings and especially any backsplatter that may have occurred as a result.

      What I was attempting to do was to say “Okay, great, there’s an ongoing discussion on polytheism, and here are a couple of different essays on it so you all can see what’s going on. And now here’s something that this discussion brought up for me that’s related but not exclusively so”. I really, really tried hard to not make this into a polytheism = fundamentalism thing, and unfortunately just as some people have been doing so in one form over on your post, so it’s been happening on mine as well. Again, I could also have potentially used the previous arguments over humanistic paganism from a few months ago and the fundamentalism displayed by some members of that camp as an example, but the words weren’t ready at that point.

      I do feel there is strength in creating a more secure place for polytheism in paganism in general. I’ve run into more soft than hard polytheists, and I agree that sometimes hard polytheism is severely misunderstood on several levels. I strongly support paganism continuing to be pluralist, and I don’t like, for example, humanist pagan discrimination against polytheists any more than I like a small handful of polytheists claiming they’re doing things the most right. What that needs to entail, I think, is continuing to have an organic pagan community in which people ARE able to have these discussions and disagreements, rather than watching as everything collapses under the weight of a One True Way. Like I said, I don’t think we’re there yet; it was just a matter of “Okay, I see this trend and the discussion brings it up for me, here are my general concerns about what *could* happen”.

      I will admit that as a not-polytheist I probably don’t see the polytheism erasure as much as you do. I think I took it for granted that when people present paganism to the outside world they automatically include the deities in that discussion, but if you’ve seen differently that’s not to say you’re not just as correct in your perceptions. So it’s good that you bring that up; thank you.

      To address another point in your comment not quite related to the above, while I agree that for most pagans there needs to be that “something” and it needs to be natural, I don’t think it strictly has to be the case. I get a similar feeling connecting to many human-made things, particularly those of great meaning or power, but also something as simple as that aluminum can. As my path has become more infused with a sense of wonder, I find myself re-examining the things in this world I take for granted. (Of course, I also consider humans to just be really, really elaborate nest-builders, so I have trouble with the concept of “un-natural”. Go figure.)

      And, once again, thank you so very much for taking the time to write all this out and to respond with your heart and your mind alike. It’s one of the reasons I respect you so much. Even if we were at utter loggerheads that wouldn’t change.

      See you at PCon?

      • Definitely! By hook or by crook (and possibly a bit of both), I’ll be at PantheaCon! ;)

        And just to clarify further: I wasn’t suggesting you were saying I’m a fundie at all, and I was very careful to note that “others” had said so about me, and not you. (Though the effect of others having heaped that critique on me recently probably didn’t help my own reactivity to your subject line here, so for that I most certainly own my emotional reaction and apologize if it did spill over into my response above.) You didn’t do that, and I thank you for not having done so; and as I said, I agree with almost everything you wrote here in relation to being vigilant against the potential rise of fundamentalism.

        And, I also do agree that human-made things have often as much spirit as things in nature, up to and including aluminum cans. (There’s one in particular that I had a relationship with for many years…until my mom forced me to recycle it, and that’s no joke, alas.) Many buildings, objects, and other things that wouldn’t exist without humans have this quality, so we’re totally on board there!

        I have to go teach in a few moments, so I must dash, but again, thanks for doing this, and I can’t wait to see you next month about this time! :)

      • Good! Hugs for you then!

        It’s quite understandable; it’s been a tough day for me, too. I just felt awful about the possibility that I’d added to that. You and the vast majority of polytheists I know are sort of the antidote to fundamentalism, whether you’re syncretics or not. And thank you for reminding me that there are things in this that you agree with, just as there were things in your essay I agreed with.

        Thanks, as always, for being most awesome.

  8. Whenever people travel to a new country, they bring some of the old with them.

    It’s worth it, going through your own baggage and figuring out what to leave behind. Some things – thoughts, assumptions – these are harder to leave than other things.

    • I agree with you. I think one additional dilemma is deciding what to take and what to keep. Additionally, at what point are others allowed to tell you what to carry and what to drop? It’s a complex issue.

      • It is – and it’s not easy. Harder perhaps for refugees than others as they weren’t given a chance to pack or any choice in the matter – but it’s like that for us all – those who’ve travelled to a new life, new home, new setting, new direction. Perhaps some of us find homes in the wilderness, others in cities.
        But that said … it takes time to figure that kind of thing out. And if there’s any locals around, sometimes they can be a big hand to helping one settle.

  9. Really wonderful post, Lupa. Coincidentally, I’m in the process of preparing my keynote address for the Pagan Studies Conference in Claremont on exactly the topic of “The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism.” I’ve noticed some of the same trends, and they concern me for the same reasons. The “you’re wrong, I’m right” attitude extends to several other hot-button topics in our movement, including issues of historicity.

    I want to suggest that the Internet plays a central role in this hardening of attitudes by creating enclaves in which people can limit their interactions to those who share the same attitudes, and can interact anonymously without immediate social consequences.

    It also seems to me that this trend is part of the growing pains Paganism is undergoing in the process of becoming a recognized group of religions on the global stage. At root, these are struggles for authority, legitimacy and the produciton of knowledge, and they have characterized not only other prominent religions, but ideologies of all kinds.

    I hope that in the end, the spirit of ecumenism and the good will to continue discussing things with an open mind and open heart will prevail in our movement.

    • Thank you! I’m glad to see someone else covering this as well, especially since I won’t be at the conference. Will you have notes or video of your address available after the conference? I’d love to see what you had to say on it. Additionally, if any of what I wrote is something you may find useful for it, please feel free to cite/quote to your heart’s content.

      • I’m hoping to publish my address as a review article in _The Pomegranate_, if the editors will have it. That means if it’s pubished, it will be available as a free download. I don’t know whether my talk will be video-taped, but I can find out for you. Thanks for your interest! And yes, I’ll be quoting you….

  10. I see a problem with people creating exclusionary definitions for ‘pagan’, whatever ‘camp’ they’re in. But it’s a lot easier for someone to say “All paganism is earth-centered” than “All pagans work with gods as real beings” because the polytheists are all too aware that they’re in the minority. And it’s harder to exclude the majority.
    I’d like to see more definitions of ‘pagan’ that were in the format of: “May include one or more of the following:”

  11. Reblogged this on My Spiritual Journey and commented:
    If you get a chance this post is definitely worth reading – Lupa has done a great job with this essay.
    I definitely agree on a few things. I’ve recently overcome the need to be right all the time and I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing! I must admit it took some serious self reflection to realise that the reason why I felt too nervous to ask questions or blog about my experiences was because I was scared of being wrong. How will I grow though?! I talked myself through it by writing in my diary. There is nothing wrong with being wrong – it’s all experience and it will help you grow.
    I’ve never had problems with accepting people for their different beliefs but one of my friends and I always get into arguments about why I believe in a spirit. While I accept that he just doesn’t agree with me (and that I think it’s completely ludacrious! Can’t he feel it inside of him?) he’s just not happy with agreeing to disagree. He’s constantly trying to make me see that I’m wrong and that it’s cognitive dissonance that’s making me believe in it.
    And here we are – at the point of rightness or wrongness. In this instance there is no such thing. How can you be wrong or right when it comes to experience? It’s important to keep and open mind and heart.
    On the subject of potential fundamentalism – I was not raised in a strictly Christian or Catholic household and my parents are very accepting of everything and everyone so have no first hand experience of strict religious views. I have, however, definitely done my fair share of reading. It’s a good point that Lupa is raising because once these things get momentum they’re hard to stop.

  12. One question that does come to mind… people will align themselves with one of the ‘adversary’ gods like Set or Loki, equate them with Satan, and use that as a license to cause trouble.
    Is there any point in trying to tell them they’re “wrong” ? Is silence tacit approval? But would someone like that be swayed by any arguments anyway?

    • Well, there’s correct worship, and then there’s being historically wrong, and then on top of it there’s using one’s religion as an excuse to deliberately be a jerk. Keep these things organized, and I think it’s easier to figure out when to speak up, and when to agree to disagree, IMO.

  13. I just recently came across your blog and this essay in particular. I’ve seen some major changes in the pagan community the last 30 years that have been pretty astounding…and flat out disheartening. One of those is the fracturing I’ve seen with traditions becoming more specialised and hyper specific to one small area to the exclusion of all else. While I see a lot of folks coming out of difficult relationships with mainstream religion, what I have noticed are a larger number of people who seem to be attracted to the idea of being in a minority group of one form or another. This brings with it hyper sensitivity to any little thing percieved as possible insult as well as stricter adherance to the docterine and dogma of the specific group they belong to. The very fact that you felt it necessary to make such an elaborate pre-appology before your essay is testament to the hyper-sensitivity rampant among minority religious groups. It’s become an odd combonation of people who are almost pathological about 1) being as individualistic as possible and 2) looking for any reason they can find for being insulted. Along with the “I’m right. You’re wrong,” I feel this adhearance to victimhood and hyper-specialised, religion of one, sort has also has been factors in the slow movement toward fundamentalism within some traditions.

    I will outright call BS on anyone who says their practices are historically accurate when it comes to the old gods especially when I think to such dieties as Sekhmet. *shudder* Unless the rituals of getting trashed on beer and bathing in blood are kept that well hidden, some accuracy has to be left to history. There also the question of context and just how little is known and how much knowledge is constantly being added by historians. Voudoun is one example of a living historical religion I like to use. For those new to it, especially if they’re white and not from the South, are lacking in the historical context of what it means, how it developed, and *where* it developed. I recieved some training in it when I was in the PacNW (just enough to know it was a snake I didn’t want to pick up) and still didn’t get it until I moved to Louisiana. I also get a bit miffy when I hear someone say they practice Native American traditions. I always ask “Which one?” because the variations from nation to nation are so different and so contextual based on local that unless one has been raised with it from birth it is difficult at best to take in the whole of the religion. This is why many NA’s rankle about people not being raised “on the res” not understanding. Religion isn’t just what you do on the holy days but how you conduct every waking moment within the community that spawned it. My own family tried, almost desperately, to be Not Indian but still managed to raise me with those beliefs in spite of their best efforts. I spent a good chunk of my own life desperately trying to be Not Indian and failed horribly, Now I practice the traditions specific to the people my family come from because I don’t want to see it relegated to history. I also don’t want to see it changed too much more than it already has been in the last 200 some odd years. I still don’t get the full context because after the first few years of my life I was “off the res” and on the opposite coast from where my family hails from. It’s also sadly bent from that ingrained drive to be Not Indian. In a way I suppose that does make me a fundamentalist. However this is my way…the way of another tribe, another tradition, another culture, is neither less nor more than my own. My only concern is whether or not it works for the person(s) following it. But back to the beginning, if living religions such as mine and Voudoun have changed and are difficult to understand without the cultural context, how does one expect to fully understand a religion that hasn’t been practiced in thousands of years?

    That said, modern paganism, polytheism, and whatever other names people insist be used, is a thriving, *growing* thing. People are still feeling there way though it as a whole. This fracturing so early on is confusing within the comunity as a whole, let alone as seen by those on the outside. I stepped out of the fray about 10 years ago when I saw it heating up, this after being part of the fight to see Wicca and other minority religions be officially recognised by the VA and DoD. I just got pooped out by all the in-fighting and blatant self martyring that has been driving some traditions toward more fundamentalist positions and others to splinter further. My jaw dropped at your words “garden variety Wiccan”…and kind of brought a smile to my face considering how they were viewed only 20 years ago. Times have changed indeed.

    • Wow, thank you for adding in this perspective! I don’t really have anything to add to it, but I appreciate that you brought up these experiences and thoughts from the past few decades. Good stuff to think about!

  14. Excellent Point Lupa. I really appreciate your honesty of slipping into the “you’re wrong, I’m right” and it a great reminder that we can all fall prey to those tendencies. When ever I think of my funda-‘mental’ acts in my youth I get really embarrassed. But I take it as a reminder of where I don’t want to go. Just because I had stopped doing it then, doesn’t mean I’m no longer susceptible to it. Posts like this are great in reminding ourselves to remain vigilant against these mindsets. It also reminded me of a quote that you may like:

    “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Stephen Hawking

  15. “Saying that everyone MUST believe or practice in a particular way is at its heart fundamentalism.”
    Ok. But what about this (http://therioshamanism.com/2010/03/09/shamanism-and-racism/) post where you call all white people (ridiculous American concept*) racist if they aren’t fully initiated into traditional indigenous shamanic society? Implication of that post was that their practice was not valid, simply because they were born into wrong race. Apparently those shamans are also racist, as is their practice and worldview, which is greatest insult you could possibly launch at anybody who lives in the west these days.
    I agree with THIS post. But I still think you have your own “fundamentalism” as well, which hurts your overall message.

    *Try telling Spaniards they aren’t white. Or Italians. And look how wonderfully all different European ethnic groups, even those with pale skin got along throughout history.

    • Would you please give me an exact quote showing where I say “white people (ridiculous American concept*) racist if they aren’t fully initiated into traditional indigenous shamanic society”? Specifically where I said that on a blog where I’ve spent the past five and a half years detailing my very not-indigenous, white-girl (neo)shamanic path?

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