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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