Monday, September 27, 2010

The extent of "Paganism"

This blog was inspired by a recent discussion I have been having on an interfaith forum.

The discussion focused around the need for a spokesperson to speak for Paganism. My position on the idea was that it was at best misguided and at worst, terrible. The crux of my opposition is that Paganism is so disparate, so varied that the idea of a spokesperson trying to speak for all, would result in a huge swath of those who find themselves under the umbrella ignored. The problem of course is that Paganism is an almost useless term when it comes to describing a belief system; because in its modern conception it means whatever one wants it to. The fact is that there are always outliers who throw a wrench into any kind of consensus among those who use the term.

Think about it, I mean really think about it; what do so called Pagan religions actually have in common? Nature worship; a vague concept in and of itself, but there are those who would not call their practices nature worship, I'm one of them. Polytheism; yes a lot of those religions under the umbrella are polytheistic, but some are monotheistic (admittedly rare), duotheistic, pantheistic, panentheistic, agnostic and even atheistic. Okay, no Pagans worship the Abrahamaic god right? Nope, there are both Christo-Pagans and Judeo-Pagans. Belief in or practice of magick; again many "Pagan" religions do not. Holy days which are based on the natural rhythms of the earth? Certainly more often than not, but again not every day is linked to seasonal patterns, they may in fact be based on a particular deity. Worship or belief in "the Goddess", certainly not, but indicative of the popular imagination and relative influence of eclectic neoWicca and "Paganism 101" books. A shared developmental history? True in some cases but not others, Asatru for example developed independently from "Paganism" and only later was placed under the umbrella. Of course not all Asatruars were happy with their inclusion, and so the use of the term Heathen came to prominence, as a way to differentiate between them and other Pagans. There is a similar push among many in the reconstructionist camp to do something similar.

The other consideration is that even if many "Pagan" religions share some of the above, they are also not the only ones who do so. Concern for the environment, different conceptions of deity, use of magic(k), seasonal holy days, etc. are found among many religions which do not fall under the umbrella. Yoruba and Santeria, for example may have many parallels to some of the "Pagan" religions, but are decidedly not classed as such.

What then is the use of "Paganism" as an umbrella term, when it does not really describe anything? We could certainly go back to more classical definitions; all those religions and beliefs outside the JCI model, but again that does little to impart meaning other than they aren't worshiping the god of Abraham (and then what about those poor Christo/Judeo-Pagans?) A friend of mine pointed out that even the old "getting Pagans to agree on anything is like herding cats" is not apt; cats at least are all the same creature. It is, she contends, more like herding cats, dogs and ferrets.

What then do "Pagan" religions really have in common with each other than they do not have in common with other religions? What do "Pagans" get from grouping themselves together, that other interfaith networking would not achieve?

Personally I think the existing structures and communities (web forums, mailing lists, conventions, PPD, etc.) more than anything prevent many from understanding how disparate "we" really are. Not that I am opposed to groups like the Pagan Pride Project, or interfaith online forums, I'm not. I am aware that differences exist, and are not mere quibbles or hair splitting; they are core beliefs which are not readily glossed over. I have participated in my local PPD for almost as long as I have been a polytheist, but I have not participated in their group ritual, because it is little more than a Wiccanesque framework with a variety of different deities called upon depending on the officiants that year. I do not blame them, but it is a ritual framework which is as foreign to me as a Catholic liturgy, and so I abstain from participation.

It has taken me some time to understand just why so many in the CR community are distancing themselves from "Paganism" as a label which describes their beliefs, but it has become fairly apparent.


P.S.: I would also like to point to an essay by Devyn Gillette and Lewis Stead, The Pentagram and the Hammer, which explores the differences between Asatru and Wicca.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Polytheism and you

I'm used to the typical discussions about religion where they happen; after all religion and politics are the two things not to be discussed in polite company. In most cases some people may be sitting around a table and drift onto some "out there topic" which gets tied into religion and peoples opinions on God. That is usually it, monotheism by default. "Are you religious ?" is code for "what church do you belong to?". So unless you are a visible minority (in which case Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist), the default assumption is some denomination of Christian. Even in the off chance that one extends the discussion to include non-believers, the discussion is couched in terms of monotheism. "Oh, you're not a Christian, so why don't you believe in God?" is something I have been asked on several occasions.

The either/or dichotomy, and the defacto monotheistic perspective are facts of life for those living in western cultures, I understand that. I get that a lot of people do not spend absorbent amounts of time contemplating the divine, and if they do, it is a contemplation of the nature of the Abrahamaic god. Understanding this however, does little to soothe my ire at having any discussion, be they layman or scholarly, couched in terms of a monotheistic conception of deity. There are other options, and for someone who is a dyed in the wool polytheist, it gets old. So most of the interfaith discussions I wind up contributing to are among pagans or other polytheists.

However, something amazing occurred today. I was in my ethics class, and the instructor was lecturing about how to make a strong argument, and got to talking about making an argument without facts. Someone asked what sort of arguments one could make without facts, and she replied, "well, arguing for the existence of a god...." My ears perked up, had I heard right? Maybe I had, for the remainder of the class I had that statement gnawing at the back of my mind. After class I approached the instructor and asked her why she worded her statement that way. She looked at me with a kind of flustered look, unsure of what to say, then simply said "some people believe in more than one god." Elation! I found out shortly after, that she had been concerned that she had somehow offended me by stating her phrase just so.

Why does this matter at all? Well that little "a" makes all the difference. For all of the times I have ever discussed religion, or the nature of deity, unless I was speaking to another polytheist I was always the one mentioning that there were perspectives other than monotheism. That someone who is not a polytheist (as far as I know) casually stated her argument to the class as "a god" and not just "God", makes all the difference. It means, in some small way, that people (who are not polytheists) are actually accepting that polytheism is a valid way of understanding deity.



Friday, September 17, 2010

Judging others...

I ought to start by saying that I may in fact be a dick.

Having gotten that out of the way, I often come across the sentiment that "judging others" is bad, and I have a hypothesis as to why many feel such an opinion has merit, but I find it decidedly hypocritical. People judge others all the time, what seems to throw people off is the context. I have found (this is anecdotal of course, ymmv) that few people have difficulty judging criminals, or people who cut them off while driving, or people who are rude to them. However were someone to turn the judging eye upon such folks, they are often the first to say, "You can't judge me!" or call you a condescending "bleep". Why is it fine for some people to be judged, but not others? Hypocrisy more often than not is the reason. What remains to be answered, though, is why the idea of judging itself is held to be problematic.

I can think of a number of reasons, and the two which come to the fore are relativism (and its stepchild, individualism) and the influence of Christian ethics. To explore the first in its entirety could (and has) fill several volumes of texts, but I will discuss it in short. The individualist perspective, that ones opinion is as valid as the next is not necessarily a bad thing, and forms the basis for many constitutions and charters. However it is also often untrue, the opinion of an expert in any given situation is stronger than the opinion of Joe Everyman on the same subject. Why do people seek out specialized professions for their needs (be it education, auto-repair, law, medical aid, IT, etc.) if everyone's opinions or knowledge base is equal? It could be argued that knowledge or skill is a separate category from opinion, but opinion is simply how one expresses their perspective, itself informed by their knowledge or skill set. The fact is that people who are more knowledgeable are recognized as being the people to ask for advice or services, and so their opinions are given more weight than others. Clearly then, not all opinions are equal.

Standards then, are the other part of the individualist dilemma. What is good or bad, what is proper or sloppy, what is noble or craven? It depends entirely on the context, and the values of a given society, culture or group. What each means does vary from individual to individual, and so the idea of judging someone else becomes problematic because one can not possibly know what paradigm they are coming from, right? Well no actually. Most of us live in nation states, with laws which provide a basic guide for acceptable behaviour. I do differentiate between law and ethics/morality, because law is a bare bones approach to develop a standard, while ethics/morality are often exemplary models for behaviour; doubly so because I do ascribe to the idea of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics are an interesting thing, because they differ from the more common deontological ethics, that being ethics as adherence to rules (often held to be universal). One is virtuous because they embody certain virtues, rather than following rules; one is focused on the individual, the other on what everyone should be doing. The great irony is that many people would find their conception of ethics are deontological, yet the same folks often do not believe in "judging others."

Why would people who believe that good behaviour is based on adherence to laws or rules, find judging others a problem? Doesn't the fact that there are guidelines make judging easier? It does, but you will note that I said many people would conceive deontological ethics as ethical system they follow, but this is more to do with how they conceive what constitutes ethics, as opposed to what they believe is actual ethical behaviour. This in itself stems from a hybrid holdover of a predominantly Christian world view. YHWH established a set of laws for humanity, and humanity utterly failed to live up to those standards. YHWH had to send his son to absolve people of this fact, people who accept this sacrifice are absolved of their "sins", people are then free to try their best again, but understand they will never be good enough on their own. This entire belief is alien, and belittling to me, but I'm not a Christian.

One would think that in a religion where there are innumerable laws and commandments from their deity, that they'd be willing to jump at the chance to judge others. In reality, this is actually often how it plays out, though again we come to the problem of standards; I consider myself an ethical person, but from the perspective of a Christian, I would be wholly unethical. The verse most often quoted is Matthew 7:1-6, itself depending on the interpretation of the Christian. More liberal Christians (again ymmv) would claim it is a condemnation of judging altogether, conservative Christians on the other hand, would claim it is a statement about avoiding hypocrisy. In this case, I tend to agree with the later, in its context it speaks about ensuring you are not condemning something you yourself have done. Likewise, John 8:7, states that he who is without sin, may cast the first stone, a slightly better example of what I am getting at. Since everyone is guilty of sin, humans (alone) are not able to judge others because they themselves are naturally awful. If we extricate the religious aspects, we find a common belief when it comes to ethics in the modern West, nobody's perfect.

Since nobody is perfect, how can people then turn around and judge others? "What gives you the right to judge me, you're no better than me!" I would make the argument, not being beholden to holdovers from a religious perspective I have never accepted, that this is a sentiment which accompanies someones actions who refuses to admit their mistake or take responsibility. If I have never stolen from someone, based on general cultural standards, I am in fact better (that is in terms of ethical behaviour) than a thief. If this was not the case, why is thief a pejorative and not neutral or an honorific term? If I am able to live by the ethical standards I believe in, this by default makes me an ethical person. It also means that I am more ethical than someone who has ethical standards, but does not adhere to them, regardless of my belief in a plural of ethical standards and situational ethics. Thus it provides a reasonable basis for judging others.

Why should I be held to be condescending if I live an ethical life, by someone who claims to believe in ethics, but not live by them? I accept that people fail; I have failed at any number of things. When someone has pointed out that I have failed, I do not consider them condescending for pointing out my failings, they are simply being honest. While "brutally honest" is often a euphemism for "I'm a dick"; I appreciate a tactless, but honest opinion over sugar coated platitudes. Don't get me wrong, tact is useful and it is far better to be eloquent than brash, but even this can be interpreted as being a dick.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Busy, busy, busy

I've been lax these past weeks in my blog, due primarily to getting back into the swing of school, but I've got my bearings now and hope to get back to some kind of regular schedule.

Having said that, one of the greatest aspects of being enrolled in a college program is access to their library, and while the physical library is decent enough, the access to online journals is what I am most excited about.

JSTOR, how I have missed thee!

Now, the down side is that because of the limited practical value of the area's I am interested in to a non-research oriented college; so I haven't got full access to all those wonderful folkloric and cultural studies journals. However what I do have access to is still vastly more than I had as an individual. In the future I may just purchase an alumni library card for the UofT's system, but until then I will be happy with what I can access.

Needless to say I found a huge number of articles (both recent and archaic) while flipping through the electronic periodicals, so I hope to have somethings to blog about in the near future.


Sunday, September 5, 2010


So I find from time to time a moderate degree of anti-Reconstructionist sentiment among the wider Pagan community, and paradoxically sometimes from those who claim to be Reconstructionist's themselves. There are a number of reasons why people dislike Recons:

1. Reconstructionists are elitists.
2. Reconstructionists do not care about practicing a living religion.
3. Reconstructionism is no more authentic than any other form of Paganism
4. Reconstructionism is a waste of time because ancient religion has no value in the 21st century.

I shall address each reason below, but they all feed into one another to some degree, perhaps why they continually crop up among those who are opposed to the idea of Reconstructionism.

1. Reconstructionists are elitists: This is more of a sentiment, than an argument, but it permeates most of the arguments and really amounts to no more than an ad hominim attack, but a common one. Reconstructionists are elitist because they dismiss the opinions of other people and think their opinions are better then everyone else. This is a bit of a misnomer, because there is a difference between the weight of say a scholars opinion on a subject they have researched thoroughly vs. someone who has read a book on the subject but little else. I have no problem believing that someone who has spent the time researching something has a more informed opinion than one who has not. As such, because Recon's tend to be better read and eminently knowledgeable on the cultures they are reconstructing from, this can come across as being "elitist" because they know what they are talking about, and do not simply accept the claims made by someone who has not done the research.

2. Reconstructionists do not care about practicing a living religion: This criticism has to do with the "presence" of Recons, and the kind of discussions they tend to be involved in. Often involving academic topics of considerably specificity and minutia, often on understanding of cosmology, framework and mythology. As such topics like the practice of the rituals or an application of the understanding of cosmology is left for more private or personal conversations, and so the perception is that Recon's are only concerned with the scholarship, and not the application of religion.

3. Reconstructionism is no more authentic than any other form of Paganism: This is a bit trickier, as it needs to be clarified as to what "authentic" means. I would certainly say Reconstructionism is closer to the beliefs of [pre-Christian culture], than other forms of Paganism. The entire basis of Reconstructionism is the study of archeology, folk belief, literature and history in order to try and as accurately as possible reconstruct the earlier beliefs of a given culture; many forms of Paganism have no such focus. When it is pointed out that "we [Recon's] can't really know anything for sure" or "you  [Recon's] are just stating an opinion, and it is no better than mine", what is really being said is that the one making such accusations give no heed to scholarship, yet we should be treating their opinion as equal to that of someone who has spent a concerted amount of effort studying. I think this is preposterous. I have no problem with Pagans who have made the decision to not try and incorporate historic elements into their practices; or have even developed a religion based on more modern discourse (such as many of the forms of neo-Druidism, largely derived from Victorian and early 20th century scholarship). The problem arises when one then argues that such a belief is (despite its modernity) the same as it was in [pre-Christian culture], when it is clearly not the case. Not everyone who denounces Reconstructionism necessarily does this, but it is disconcerting how frequently this particular claim is made especially in the guise of "The [pre-Christian culture] made it up as they went along, so why can't I?", the answer of course is that you'd first have to prove that "they were just making it up", which is simply not the case when one has actually studied [pre-Christian culture]

4. Reconstructionism is a waste of time because an ancient religion has no value in the 21st century. This is becoming a more frequent claim, as many sensible Pagans realize the fallacious nature of argument 3. Unfortunately this criticism has its own problematic issues. The chief concern I have is if ancient religion (and the deities they worshiped) have no value, or no applicability to the modern Pagan, why bother with the worship of those deities at all? I have yet to see a compelling response to this question. I believe that if one is going to worship a pre-Christian deity, then they ought to learn as much about the culture that knowledge of said deity was developed in. This gets back to fundamental issues of cosmology, and how one see's and understands the cosmos; as in any scholarly, effort context is of vital importance. Understanding the cultural context in which worship of a deity occurred historically, provides the best means of trying to understand said deity within the larger cultural framework in which it was originally understood. This is doubly important for GRP's because the mythic texts we have are all Christianized to some extent; understanding what is [supportably] pre-Christian then is dependent on one's knowledge of the pre-Christian culture of the Gaels and corresponding cultures which share cultural and linguistic roots. Without this knowledge, one is going to come away from the myths with a very different picture of pre-Christian deity, which will unfortunately be wrong.
There is certainly room for innovation, there are certainly aspects of pre-Christian culture which is so wholly divorced from the modern, that recreating it would be difficult, to say nothing of he wisdom of doing so. This often comes with accusations of "selective arguing"; based primarily on an "all or nothing" gambit. Why is it okay for you [Recon] to pick and choose what elements to recreate, but not okay for me [eclectic] to do the same? I would argue that this is decidedly a wrongheaded approach. As far as I have experienced Reconstructionism, the central component is found in recreating and adopting the world view of [pre-Christian culture], everything else follows from this. So for example, many have commented that [pre-Christian culture] performed human or animal sacrifices, had slaves, engaged in blood feuds, had trial by ordeal, and so on. The argument then becomes for Recon's to have any meaningful claim to authenticity, they need to do these things as well, or the whole effort is moot. However, with an understanding of the why behind such beliefs as the necessity of sacrifices, or the context in which blood feuds arose, provides a good reason as to why these elements need not be recreated (or could be adapted) to suit modern sensibilities.



Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Joy of Work

I began my new part time job as an FDA on Thursday, but I had my first full day today. It was certainly a busy day, and I did more cleaning than anything else (two vans, a lead car, fully detailed) and about 14 caskets, polished to a high sheen. I realized during my 40 hour observation, that a great deal of an FDA's (and FD's) time is spent cleaning. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining; I relished every moment (even when I cut my finger open when cleaning a hubcap).

I consider myself extremely lucky, because not only do I already know what to expect, and have no problem with starting at the bottom, but I am working in the field of my career path. It certainly helps when you understand this is what you're supposed to be doing, and I am truly blessed to be firmly on my path.