Saturday, August 25, 2012

We're here not for a long time, but a good time.

I've come across a lot of stereotypes and falsehoods when it comes to Paganism, both ancient and modern. There is, however, one accusation, or assumption, which tends to come out as often, if not more often, than that of vapidness; hedonism.

There is this idea, that Pagans were (are) only ever concerned with pleasure, and having a "good time", and that ultimately Pagan spirituality/religion is empty. This tends to come out in just about every example of "ex-Pagan" narrative floating out there. 'Drugs, Drinking, (often Sex), and just "having a good time". For the most part, these the people described in these narratives have barely even cracked open a "101" book, let alone actually lived their religion. No, these people consider themselves to have been "pagan", because they abused alcohol, used recreational narcotics, had sex (outside of marriage, for the most part) and were "spiritual" not "religious": In the world of the conversion narratives (so in their authors and audiences minds) Paganism is the same as hedonism.

A few examples:

"From Paganism to Islam" : Looking into Paganism means you were a Pagan?

"In and out of Wicca": This one is typical of the conversion cycle, was a Christian, enjoyed the "high life", got depressed, looked into Paganism, became "obsessed with it", was a High Priestess, then had a revelation and went back to Christianity (a literalist, fundamentalist Christianity)

"Ginger Howell Ex-Witch saved by Jesus Christ": This one is a little more well known, high profile even (as she once had a reality TV series or something), but follows the conversion cycle, except this one has an angry, vengeful coven cajoling and threatening our wayward convert. This tends more towards the seeking power/control over a crappy life, as opposed to seeking pleasure.

There are two problems with this understanding. The first is that hedonism as a philosophy is grossly misunderstood, and is not something which is exclusive to pre-Christian cultures. The second is that contained in these sorts of narratives, is an inherent disdain for joy. I happen to think that life is best when enjoyed, and that while suffering is certainly a reality, it ought not be all there is to life.

Hedonism, as a general philosophical position, holds that the pursuit of pleasure is the greatest good. Even in common parlance, the term hedonism evokes a slovenly, often lounging, laurel wearing Roman eating grapes.

Your typical hedonist.
 Hedonism, as a philosophical position, on the other hand is at least rational, and not an unreasonable approach to living. The philosophical position is of course a rather ancient one, and the most notable proponents of it being Epicurus, founder of Epicureanism. The issue of course is that the actual philosophical perspective has been greatly overshadowed by the common understanding, to the point where referring to someone as a hedonist is almost certainly pejorative. So when I point to these narratives, and their portrayal of Pagans as hedonists, I am using the perspective of the narrative, and the understanding therein of what constitutes hedonism.

For the most part, the accounts of "ex-Pagans" contain some mention of narcotic and alcohol abuse, which has as much to do with the "have a good time" aspect, as it does with the "Born Again" (or in some cases "clean living" religious) obsession with not reverting back to addiction.You may have noticed that in the examples above, the concept of "black siding" or "liberal" religious adherents is trotted out as a sort of midway point between their "pagan" lifestyles and their (re)newed faith. It is as much, and in most cases more of, a diatribe against non-fundamentalist forms of the religions they find themselves joining, than it is against the shallow "paganism" they were members of. This is founded upon the logicall fallacy of the "slippery slope" argument, and there is a real fear, even terror, emanating from these stories about back sliding into their former lives, and this ties back to the idea of addiction. It appears that such people are only able to resist their former addictions/lifestyles/etc. because they have their religion. If not for it, they would revert back to the out of control beasts they were, and by proxy everyone who does not belong to their religion, is.

This is accomplished through a nearly puritanical disdain for joy or fulfillment found outside of the religion. H. L. Mencken said it best when he described Puritanism as "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Of course, as these narrative emphasize the idea that someone can be happy, let alone have a fulfilling spiritual life, outside the strictures of their own religious perspectives, it is not surprising that the narrators life's are fueled by substance abuse and shallow spirituality. That is all that is out there for "the other", and since these people were miserable failures as human beings, obviously everyone else must also be miserable, empty and seeking a more fulfilled life. The desire shown for people to have spiritual or religious lives, is simply a reflection of their intrinsic desire to seek out the deity of the religion they now belong to; so the malevolence which was the meat of such stories in the 80's and 90's, has been replaced with misguided longing for "spiritual truth".

The world view expressed is, of course, necessarily insular. So rooted in the newly adopted perspective that reading the accounts of their former beliefs raises a number of concerns, and outright belies any sincerity on their part. When you read about "pagan" high priestesses who focus on "nature worship" and do not mention any sort of deity at all, well even the most basic 101 Wiccan book will mention The God and The Goddess. It is entirely possible that they were non-theistic and really were only focused on nature worship, but for someone to have every sincerely believed in the things they were doing to look back and utterly renounce them, and speak about them in a way which calls into question the very beliefs they held, it smack of insincerity and dabbling.

Back on track though, there is nothing at all wrong with actually enjoying life. Eudamonia, the good life, or human flourishing are noble endeavours and ends, which contain so much more depth than the shallow depictions illustrated above. The idea that the pursuit of happiness, real, full happiness, could occur not only outside of a given religious perspective, but in a way which sees said perspective as anathema, is soundly rejected by those narratives. Without X religion, there is no means of being truly happy, is necessarily a component of the belief of adherents of religion X. The figures in the conversion stories were only concerned with temporary, shallow self gratification; mostly to cover over psychological problems. So then we are to believe that not only will joining religion X make your life have meaning, it will also become a panacea for any and all psychological issues you may have. Good, if not very credible or realistic, marketing is a key component of proselytizing, and that is after all what these narratives are supposed to exist for. They really exist to reaffirm in the faithfuls eyes their own world view, and to see just how empty and shallow the "other" is.

The disdain for joy is something I find disturbing, if only because I question how one can be said to be flourishing and yet reject or deny joy. The golden mean, that one ought not to wallow in excess, nor cringe in deficiency, is a concept which is simply not understood in said world views. They perceive that there really is no mean at all, and that the preference is deficiency, rather than excess. Chalk it up to an underlying cultural affirmation of the "purity of poverty", if only subconsciously; better to suffer righteously than wallow in ones own crapulance. This is primarily a product of a very binary world view, and so the idea of balance is one of those ideas which lines the slippery slope. I suppose there is also an element of my own perspective where denial as a spiritual virtue is extolled, and that I generally disagree with it. I understand the reasoning behind it, and how it can be a profound and meaningful expression of ones commitment, but it's never something which has struck me as indicative of spiritual maturity. Fasting for justice, a custom and practice which is native to Irish tradition, operates on the idea that people shouldn't be fasting, and that by supporting an unjust decision, you are causing the death of someone through starvation. It takes will power and comitment, but it is understood to be bad to begin with, so to hold it up as a spiritual ideal is not terribly practical or sensible.

The long and short of it, is that I strongly disagree with the world views presented in these stories. There is nothing to indicate that by avoiding pleasure, by holding joy as some great evil, that one will live a full and meaningful life. Rather one will find that in abstaining from joy, they are in fact abstaining from life.

After all, we're here not for a long time, but a good time.


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