Green Burial at No Unsacred Place

Over at No Unsacred Place, I talk about green burial as a “best last gift”, endangered vultures in Asia, and how you can build houses out of cemeteries. From the post:

“I am decidedly agnostic when it comes to the idea of an afterlife of any sort. If there is one, great! The adventure continues. If there isn’t, though, then I would spend my last moment of awareness horrified if I felt I hadn’t made the most of this life. This includes the responsible disposition of my remains once I’m gone. I have no guarantee that there’s any life other than this one, but I know for sure that what I do in this moment can have reverberations in this world well beyond my own departure. I am not motivated by fear of a horrible punishment after I die. I am motivated by the care of the beings I share this life with right now. And I feel that the best last act I can do for this world is to responsibly return the resources I used to build my body back to their source once I’m done walking around in the flesh.”

Read more here.

Advertisements

Scrub and Steller’s Jays as Bioregional Totems

Note: This is my August offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Birds” as the theme.

I moved to Portland, OR in the summer of 2007. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this move would be the trigger that set off an entire series of major shifts in my life.

At the time, I’d only been in the Pacific Northwest for a year, and I was already disillusioned. I’d wanted to move up here because I loved the culture I’d seen in Seattle, and I loved the wilderness areas I’d visited, and I had the opportunity to get help from family to move anywhere I wanted. Unfortunately, it had been a decade since I’d last been to Seattle, and the shiny sparklies surrounding the city when I’d been there as a teenager had worn off, leaving the stark reality of being an adult trying to find work in a city with a high cost of living and an inadequate bus system. Furthermore, what I had intended to be a solo move, an adventure for one, ended up turning into a hasty engagement preceding a stressful cross-country trek with someone I’d committed to too quickly.

So after a year and change in Seattle, I was persuaded by friends to move down to Portland. So I dragged an unhappy and unhealthy marriage, an overweight cat, and a truckload of stuff and baggage down I-5 to Oregon. I have a tendency in general to romanticize any place I move to, and demonize the place I’m escaping, but I did have to admit that the old Craftsman house we moved into was a far sight better than the tiny little house we’d scraped by in up north. The neighborhood was a lot more walkable, the transit system far improved, and we had three great friends living right downstairs from us.

It must have been a day or two after we moved in that I met my first scrub jay. A few of these bold-spirited, blue and gray birds lived in the trees around my home, and I heard their raucous “VWEET! VWEEEEEET!” calls in the warm summer sunlight. The totem Scrub Jay then came to me and invited me to explore my neighborhood more, and so I’d walk around the area on foot, seeing what was in the area–a shop that sold handmade drums and supplies, a vintage clothing shop, a second-run independent movie theater, and more. That exploration extended further into the area, to parks and the downtown area and other neighborhoods with walkable streets and lovely houses, large and small.

Soon afterwards, I got my introduction to the Columbia River Gorge. My husband at the time and I headed out to Wahkeena Falls and did some hiking. I immediately fell in love with the cliffs on the Oregon side and their splashing waterfalls. The first wild creature I met there was a Steller’s jay, similar to the blue jays back east, but all of a deep, dark blue with a black head and crest. The staccato call was different from that of their cousins, though the boldness was familiar to me. The totem Steller’s Jay called to me and dared me to climb the switchback trail higher and higher to new places.

So it was that Scrub Jay and Steller’s Jay invited me into their homes–the urban streets and colors of Portland, and the forests of the Gorge and Cascade range. Their kindness and the reception of the Land in general prompted me to find out more and more about this bioregion, from the basalt cliffs of the Gorge and flood-carved Willamette Valley, to the rain shadow cast by the Cascades that birthed the eastern desert, and all the flora and fauna and fungi that lived in this place. I grew to know Mt. Hood and the Columbia River, Johnson Creek and Mt. Tabor, and all sorts of other wonderful beings.

I found a place in the human community, too. Scrub Jay coaxed me out of my shell; I finally found the courage to get a divorce, which left me the freedom to further explore healthier relationships with others, including the beautiful and compassionate man that I live with today. The Land invited me to explore and create a shamanic path for myself–Therioshamanism–which led me to becoming a mental health counselor, as well as a working artist and a more dedicated writer and author. I connected with people about the local environment, and got involved in volunteering efforts for cleaning up litter, planting native species, and the like.

Through these efforts my spiritual path became less and less about formal rituals and journeying, and more about creating direct relationships with the beings–physical and spiritual–of the Land that has adopted me. In this, I found the freedom I’d lost since my childhood. I finally felt like myself again, after decades of loss and dead ends.

In short, the relationships I have forged with the beings and places in this area opened me up in ways I’ve never experienced before, and I can truly say that I have found the home I’ve been seeking for many years. And they still remind me of my place here; I have returned to the neighborhood where I first met the scrub jays, and there’s a pair nesting where I work, too. And it seems like almost every time I go into the forests of the Gorge or around mt. Hood, at least one Steller’s jay makes an appearance. Through their children, my first two bioregional totems tell me they’re glad I’m here, and I have to agree that I am, too.

I Lost My Religion, and Gained the World

Note: This is my July offering for the Animist Blog Carnival, with “Becoming an Animist” as the theme; please note that the information about it has changed locations (again).

When I was young, I very quickly discovered the Great Outdoors. In fact, it was sometimes pretty hard to get me to go back inside! And even when I was under a human-made roof, I was usually reading books about nature, or playing with toy animals, or watching wildlife shows on TV. In short, the natural world was my first true love, and it’s a relationship that’s never ended.

However, it was about more than just the physical trees and grass and rabbits and snakes. Even at a young age I felt there was vivacity to the world beyond the basic science of it. People had been writing myths about nature spirits for millennia all around the world. Shouldn’t there be something to that, at least? And so I began talking to the bushes and the birds, and while they never spoke back to me in so many words, I sometimes felt that I was at least acknowledged.

These feelings came more fully into focus when, as a teenager, I discovered neopaganism. Here was a group of people for whom the moon was more than a rock in the sky orbiting the earth, and for whom magic was a possibility. I dove in headfirst, and for half my life now I’ve identified as some variant of pagan.

But what of the spirits themselves? Almost immediately I latched onto animal totemism; for years that was the center of everything I practiced. I explored generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, Chaos magic, and other paths, but the critters were always a part of it. In 2007 I began to formulate Therioshamanism, a more formalized neoshamanic path dedicated to their service (and you can trace my path all the way back on this blog if you like).

It was here that my animism began to really take shape. Not that I didn’t acknowledge spirits before. But I hadn’t really considered their nature all that much, nor the nature of my relationships with them. Formalizing my path caused me to take a step back and really consider the mechanics of my beliefs, not just practice them but explore them more deeply and my reasons for them.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of becoming more formal, with set devotional acts and greater structure and taboos and so forth, I found myself moving away from overt rituals and “thou shalts”. I struggled against this for a while. I was supposed to be honoring the spirits with rituals and journeys and offerings, like so many other devotional pagans I knew! So why did I grate against these things? Why did I feel less enthused about what I thought I was supposed to be doing? Why did the spirits themselves even seem tired of the rites and prayers and gestures of faith?

The answer lay in my childhood. Back then, my relationship with nature and its denizens was uncomplicated. I simply went out into the thick of it, and was a part of it, and that was where the connection lay. I had wanted to find that again so much that I tried entirely too hard, using other people’s solutions. Bu the spirits knew better. They kept calling me further away from ritual tools and altar setups and a set schedule of holy days, and invited me into the forests and deserts and along the coast of the mighty Pacific and down the banks of the rolling Columbia River. They coaxed me away from my drum and the journeys I did in the spirit world, and enticed me to follow them further on the trails I loved to hike.

It was there that I finally found what I’d lost so many years ago—that deep, abiding link to the nonhuman world, as well as my place as a human animal. Once I shed the religious trappings and artificial rituals, the barriers fell away, and it was just me and what was most sacred to me. I was called to learn and discover more and more, and like my childhood self I devoured books and watched documentaries whenever I couldn’t get outside. I found Carl Sagan and David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and so many other classic teachers of the wilderness, and I adhered to ecopsychology as a practice to deepen my cognitive understanding of the human connection to nature even more.

What I had thought I wanted was more structure and piety, sharing nature through an evangelism of orthopraxy. What I needed, in fact, was to toss the entire artifice away and simply immerse myself in the world of awe and wonder I’d rediscovered. As for the spirits? I no longer needed to try to keep convincing myself that their presence was a literal reality despite all my doubts and inconsistencies. I didn’t need “belief”, I didn’t need to use speculation and pseudoscience to “prove” that the spirits are “real”, and I ceased caring whether they even existed outside of my own deeply rooted imagination or not, because I only needed them to be important to me. I had the twin flames of science and creativity, the one creating a structure of general objective understanding, and the other adding wholly personal, subjective color that didn’t have to be “true” for anyone but me.

And that is where I am today. I still honor my totems and other spirits, but as a personal pantheon carried inside of me. They are what gives added vitality to the world around me; they embody my wonder and awe, my imagination and creativity, the things that I as a human being bring to the relationships I have to everything else in this world. Science is important in that it tells me how the moon was formed, what the dust on it is made of, and how it affects the tides, but there is a spirit inside of me that loves the beautiful silver of the moonlight and all the stories we’ve told about Mama Luna. In balance and complement, science and spirits both become my animism today.

Lupa Goes to the Death Cafe

Yesterday I attended Portland’s first Death Cafe. No, this wasn’t a group of stereotypical goths moping over Poe and lovely cadavers. Instead, Death Cafes are a new phenomenon, local events in which people meet in a cafe to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss the realities of death. They’re often organized by people whose work revolves around death, such as end-of-life specialists, hospice nurses, and the like. Rather than being a showcase for local funeral services or an evangelizing platform for a particular way of approaching death, Death Cafes are opportunities for people to come together and talk about this rather taboo subject in a safe, confidential and nonjudgmental environment.

Here in the U.S., death isn’t something most people talk about, not unless it’s necessary. That leads to a lot of people feeling unprepared for dealing with it when it happens, and I include myself in that. For all that I surround myself with death–the remains of animals, plants and fungi, none of whose deaths I caused or witnessed myself–there’s still a lot that I don’t understand or accept about it. I haven’t experienced the sudden death of someone very close to me, for example, and though I know how heart-wrenching it can be, I’m not entirely sure how prepared I am for it. Rather than sit in dread, though, I’d rather find out from other people what their experiences have been, and what advice they might have for the day when I go through the same.

And that was one of the key benefits from yesterday’s event. A Death Cafe primarily centers on small group discussion, usually three or four people to a table, all of whom are strangers to one another. Today we started with the topic of what brought each of us to the event, which naturally flowed into other topics over the next hour. Once we all had an idea of where each of the others was coming from, it freed us up to ask about each others’ experiences quite frankly. So I got to ask both a 25-year hospice nurse, and a woman who had recently lost both parents, what they had done and how they had felt when people close to them died, and it gave me a little more perspective. This helped to clear up the mystery just a bit, and while I still don’t at all relish the thought of my loved ones dying, I’m slightly less scared of how to get through those inevitabilities.

I think what surprised me the most about the discussion at our table was the amount of positive conversation that we had. It wasn’t just “Wow, I miss so and so, death is terrible for taking them away” or “I’m really scared of dying”, though those were touched on from time to time. Rather, the theme of our table seemed to be how death is a transformation, not just for the person who dies, obviously, but also for those they leave behind. And it isn’t just a matter of negative transformation, either. I listened to stories of people who journeyed through their own personal underworld in the wake of their loved ones passing, and who came out stronger, even happier and more at peace. They were able to take some of the worst experiences of their lives, and turn them into personal rites of passage that helped them adapt and move on while even more deeply appreciating the memories of those they had lost.

That resilience is incredibly inspiring. I have been through my own challenges–over a decade of daily bullying as a child, divorce, illness, and other low points in my thirty-four years. Yet I’ve managed to come through all of those; I’m still here, and I haven’t given up. And if I got through those things, maybe I can get through others in the future, to include continuing to live and thrive even when someone close to me has died. Plus there are other people who have been there who can offer their perspectives and support. Knowing I wouldn’t be alone is also helpful, and I was grateful to my tablemates for being so open and sharing in this.

We talked mostly about confronting the deaths of others, not so much our own mortality. I spoke of how my own death doesn’t scare me so much any more. While the idea of no longer being here in this amazingly beautiful and complex world is sad and, yes, still scary, knowing that I’m just a tiny part of a big, ever-cycling universe makes it easier to deal with my inevitable death. Any hypotheses about afterlives aside, as far as I can tell I didn’t exist prior to Samhain 1978, and I will cease to exist at some point in the future when my body decides it’s just not going to give a damn any more. But I do know that the molecules that make up my body have been bouncing around this crazy universe of ours for billions of years, and once they cease to be a part of this temporary conglomerate known as “Lupa” they’ll continue on their merry way. I feel better knowing that these tiny things that I touched, however briefly, will be forever changed in their course by having been a part of my life.

Of course, I would wager that if I were to find myself facing a terminal illness I probably wouldn’t be so calm about it as I am now, and I have a certain naivete that those who have been more closely touched by death, or who face it themselves now, lack. But at least for now I don’t have to feel so anxious about someday dying, and I can focus more on being alive right now. And I feel that may be one of the most important things Death Cafes may offer participants. If we can alleviate our fears and anxieties about death, it frees us up to enjoy and appreciate life more fully. Nothing is guaranteed except for the moments we have here in this world; better to make the most of them than to squander them on worrying over what may or may not come next.

If you’re interested in attending a Death Cafe yourself, here’s a list of upcoming ones on the official site. And if there’s not one scheduled for where you are, here’s how you can organize one yourself. There will be more held in Portland and I intend to go back to them; the ongoing conversation is incredibly valuable, and I’d love to see how it evolves.

Coming Together in Our Sorrow

Note: This is my contribution to the April edition of the Animist Blog Carnival; this month’s theme is “Ceremony and Community”.

Back in February when I was at PantheaCon, one of the workshops I presented was on ecopsychology and its relevance to the neopagan community. There’s a good deal of overlap between the spirituality of nature-based paganism and the secularism of ecopsychology. Both focus on strengthening relationships with the world around us, particularly the nonhuman portions thereof. They each utilize the outdoors in meaning-making activities, to include personal rites of passage and other ceremonies. And both have an emphasis on a systemic view of the world, to include one’s own community (human and otherwise).

At one point I mentioned the works of Joanna Macy. An environmental activist, Buddhist, and author, Macy is considered one of the foundational writers on ecopsychology. It’s not just because she helps readers to appreciate the environment, though that’s certainly an integral part of her work. What she does that’s so unique, though, is that she actively creates spaces for people to express grief over the loss of places, species, and other natural phenomena. Through frank and gentle discussions of grief and our relationships with it, and rituals such as The Council of All Beings, she’s offered up a series of tools for us to begin opening up to feelings we may have long suppressed.

In this society we’re allowed to grieve if a person close to us or whom we admire deeply passes away and is lost to us. It’s even understandable, as far as many are concerned, to feel a deep sense of loss and sadness at the death of a pet. And few would fault us for feeling depressed after losing a job or a home. But there’s less room on a societal level to feel grief for a place that’s been taken away, or a species that has gone extinct. We might be allowed a “well, damn, that sucks” if we read about it in the paper. And perhaps we might get away with a sigh of remorse when we drive by an open field that’s being torn up for yet another suburb full of little boxes made of ticky-tacky (or big McMansions made of the same). But those who openly grieve for the loss of a place or species or river are seen as “overly sensitive hippies” at best, and perhaps mentally off beyond that. Why grieve over progress? Why, that new strip mall going in will provide badly-needed minimum wage retail jobs! And don’t cry over that butterfly that’s gone extinct; see, there are dozens more in the garden. What’s just one more gone, really? And who cares if you can’t eat the fish out of that river? That’s what the supermarket is for.

When I wrote last year about the death of the place that raised me, the complete destruction of the tiny field where I played and explored as a child, I got so much support from people here and elsewhere. I heard numerous stories from other people who had had similar experiences, who shared that grief with me in their own words. I heard the fear and worry of those whose special wild places still stood, but were threatened with development and other encroachments. For once, I felt as though I had been heard, and that there was nothing wrong with me for feeling so much loss for a bunch of cedar trees and garter snakes.

I wish I’d had that sort of support twenty years ago, the first time a wild place I’d grown to love was leveled. That time, as I got off the bus that brought me home from junior high, I saw the entire field and forest behind my home torn to pieces and a big, ugly bulldozer sitting amid splintered tree trunks and raw, open earth. I was utterly and completely devastated. I fell to pieces inside, not just because my woods were gone, but the thing that had given me so much stability as a badly bullied child had disappeared. I was re-traumatized when the only response I got was “Well, the developer in charge of the new subdivision that’s going in had her favorite woods torn down when they put the high school track in, so she knows how you feel” and “Well, that’s progress; they’re supposed to be building some nice houses in there. Maybe we’ll look at them once they’re ready to sell”. Nobody understood why I couldn’t get over that shock, and why it was such a big deal that a half an acre of weeds and trees had been torn down.

It has taken me two decades to recover from that early loss. I fell down deep into a pool of depression for much of my teens, doing my best to put on a happy face while feeling sorrow I had no words for, and no one to offers words to even if I’d had them. when I discovered paganism, I at last found people to whom nature was an important thing, but so often in abstracts and images and symbols rather than direct contact. It wasn’t really until my path took me closer and closer to the physical world, as “spirit” and “material” blended and lost their boundaries, that I finally healed the connection I had with wild, open, outdoor spaces as a child. I couldn’t have done it without the support of countless people over the years who listened and spoke and conversed–and yes, that includes you readers here on Therioshamanism.

And that’s why I feel it’s important to talk about these losses, not just with facts and figures and calls to action to protect places halfway around the world, but the more visceral, personal connections and losses thereof. We need to know that it’s okay to feel these things, and we need to know that there are others who support us and care for us in those times of need. More importantly, that support and story-sharing can help us move through that grief and sorrow. Even if we don’t engage in formal rituals, just the telling of the tale to a caring audience can be ritual enough in and of itself. Sometimes speaking or writing the words is enough to help us move through the pain, and transform ourselves in the process. Sometimes all we need to find safety in community with others is a quiet, listening presence, a safe space held by strong, gentle hands.

A Modern-Day Ordeal

If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll notice that one of the themes I keep coming back to is Therioshamanism as a (neo)shamanic creation based on my own social and cultural background. The dominant non-indigenous culture in the US doesn’t have a clear shamanic figure, though I feel there are professions and roles here that can be analogous. On the one hand, American (neo)shamans may face accusations and feelings of illegitimacy, as though our lack of roots makes anything we do insufficient. And yet at the same time, there’s a great opportunity for creativity and flow in making something that is new and suited for the setting we found ourselves born into. I feel it is a fine balance between acknowledging how other cultures have formed their own shamanisms and related practices over hundreds or thousands of years, and making something that is uniquely ours instead of just wholesale copying. There’s a lot of trial and error, to be sure, and at times I really respect my fellow practitioners who are similarly trying to create something with no single existing cultural framework.

One of the themes that comes up as a topic of discussion is that of the ordeal. I have met people who claim that you must have an ordeal in a traditional manner–either a life-threatening physical illness, or a severe mental illness/breakdown–and that it absolutely can’t be a positive or constructive experience whatsoever. Nor, they say, is it something that you can openly seek out; it has to crash down on your head and ruin everything. Supposedly all these things separate the wannabes from the hard-core practitioners. I have a gentler approach. Not every ordeal a person goes through is a shamanic one; as attributed to John Watson/Ian MacLaren, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle“. What I think distinguishes a shamanic ordeal, at least in part, is whether it directly contributes to one’s work as a (neo)shaman. It may still be a great challenge with a significant risk of failure, but it can be something you willingly choose to enter into as a furthering of your path and development. In this, it doesn’t always have to be the initiatory ordeal; ordeals can also be ongoing challenges.

Many of the things I have gone through weren’t ones that I chose. I would be lying if I said that over a decade of bullying leading to the development of an anxiety disorder was something I decided to experience. At the same time, while it did directly lead to my walking this path, I could potentially have chosen other ways to focus the aftermath of those feelings. I could have ended up an addict trying to drown out the anxiety attacks and traumatic memories. I could have ended up a Catholic nun in a cloister, seeking refuge in a holy sisterhood. In short, I don’t feel that my eventual walking of a (neo)shamanic path was something preordained. But it’s where I ended up, and that personal set of decisions and paths has to be factored in as well as the cultural milieu.

Because I live in such a highly individualistic society, I don’t find it surprising that so many (neo)shamans enter their paths in part due to personal benefit–not in the case of “making lots of money”, but in “finding a focus for things that hurt” or “a way to grow in a healthier manner”. Rather than being a wholly self-serving path, though, (neo)shamanism has the added benefit of reminding us that we are part of a community, and emphasizing the need to be an intermediary in that community. Individualism is not in and of itself a bad thing, but sometimes the dominant US culture errs a little (or a lot) too far to that end. All things in moderation, to include self-identity and group-identity.

That being said, I don’t think there’s any shame in a (neo)shaman actively pursuing an ordeal in part to better themselves as practitioners and as people. The more any practitioner of any art, science, etc. knows and experiences, the better they are to serve their communities. This entire post came up in my head in part because I recently acquired my Wilderness First Responder training and certification. It was very much a challenge; for 8 days straight I spent 8-9 hours a day in ongoing training, to include daily hands-on drills and practice, plus an additional 2+ hours of homework every night. I had to process an immense amount of information each day and demonstrate that I understood its applications, and I went home every night almost too exhausted to do my homework. For those 8 days, WFR training was all I did–and there was no guarantee I’d pass. It challenged me in many ways, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and when I came out of it with my certification, it took me a while to absorb the reality that I’d succeeded.

Just as with going to grad school for a counseling Master’s degree, this is something that I chose to enter into despite the challenges because I wanted to be better able to serve my community. I spend enough time outdoors, both alone and with others, that I wanted to be able to act in case of a medical emergency. And as I do sometimes lead workshops at pagan events, to include some that are outside in fairly remote areas, I want to be able to take care of the participants on multiple levels. (Even if I don’t hold sweat lodges, I certainly haven’t forgotten about James Arthur Ray.) And even outside of a backcountry context, having basic first aid training could come in handy some day.

These all tie into my ongoing development of a (neo)shamanic role in my culture. I’m still in the process of developing what the counseling end of all this will look like (and I’m continuing to take a few courses through my alma mater), but each experience I have pulls it into more cohesion. I’m okay with it taking a while to come together; I’m still able to help people through writing and workshops and one on one work together. And I think whatever I end up with, it’ll be something that I feel fills that void, to an extent, that we have in this culture through the lack of a single shamanic figure. It’ll most likely be an ongoing work in progress, too, which I’m okay with. No system is stagnant, and if I can leave something for others to build on in the future, so much the better.

In my vision of a (neo)shamanism for my culture, I don’t see ordeals as being these uniformly awful things to be avoided. Challenging, yes, but there’s already so much negativity and discouragement here that I don’t want to include that idea of “it’s not real unless you hate it” in what I’m developing. I want to be a constructive practitioner, offering support and compassion to a community that’s all too often cynical and jaded, and I want to continue excising these things from myself. It doesn’t mean putting on rose-colored glasses and ignoring the problems in the world, or the fact that some ordeals and challenges are unwanted and destructive and we don’t always come out for the better. But the skills learned in constructive ordeals can come in quite handy when dealing with destructive experiences in general, and isn’t being able to weather the storms better a good thing in general?

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.