Friday, May 27, 2011

Who is Welcome Under the Umbrella?

My wife is more active in the pagan community than I am currently, and it was she who brought this round of the debate to my attention.  I started typing a reply to one of the subsidiary articles and, by the time I'd hit "post" on it, I found that I had actually written a longer reply than the original post.  It's just one voice in a comment box, and that is often the role I play in such debates, the perpetual outsider raising his voice at certain points to express a minority viewpoint among the minority.  This time, I'm not fully satisfied by such efforts however, and it was for that reason(as well as re-typing and re-uploading the first post on my blog defining and laying out some of my path for the curious) that I started this blog.  I don't know whether this post will gain acceptance in the larger part of the debate, or if only a handful of friends and friends of friends will ever see it, but still I am compelled to write it out.

I read through these posts, and I see three primary complaints among those who are distancing, or thinking of distancing themselves, from Paganism.  Some feel that the term does not describe them at all, and that they would rather have a label like "polytheist," which says what they are, rather than "pagan," which says what they are not.  Some feel that the term is too generalized as a whole, that there is not enough to unite our disparate beliefs and paths and that they'd be better served by the lot of us breaking up into smaller groups.  Some feel that the term "pagan" is inherently "wiccanate," either through the perceptions of the non-pagan community... Or in some cases, that it honestly should have such a connotation. 

Through the posts and the comments on them, I'm seeing a great deal of conversation between Wiccans, Reconstructionists, and representatives of all manner of Earth-based faiths, Ancestor and Spirit veneration practitioners and Old World religions.  I'm not seeing much from the Left Hand at all... Which is why I felt that our side of the argument should be represented, and since I've yet to see anyone else speak up(if someone has and I've missed it, my apologies if I re-cover your ground), then it falls to me.

For those who think the term "Polytheist" better describes you, perhaps it does.  Not all of us worship multiple Gods though, some of us are Animists, some of us worship a Multi-Faceted Godhead, some revere ancestors and spirits, some don't worship a God at all, and exist in a solipsist universe eternally experiencing itself...  Whereas, the people you're attempting to distance yourself from most, the Wiccans, are Polytheists just as much as you are and they're still in the same category as you, whether you like it or not.  If you're only interested in distancing yourself from Wicca, you're not going to be successful, and if you think that you'll escape the negative connotations "pagan" has...  Good luck, it's only a matter of time before those who would cast aspersions on us learn to add that word to the usual litany of "Gays, muslims, pagans and liberals."  Or just refuse to differentiate anymore than they do between "Pagan" and "Wiccan."

For those who feel the term is too general...  I always thought that was the intention when we decided to make it our word in the first place.  To have one place, one name, one banner that could be united under by all manner of believers in polytheism, animism, personal gnosis, or any other "fringe faith" that could easily be ground under the heel of massive organized religions who still have adherents, zealots, and bought mouthpieces at every level authority.  It gave solitary practitioners and those with small, isolated groups of worshippers a sense of community together.  It gave us a central ground where we could unite, discuss, grow, work, play, worship and, when necessary, fight together.  

Maybe some of you are now growing tired with the term, with the sort of drama and infighting and pettiness that is bound to occur whenever you bring too many people together.  To those, I ask you to think back, to remember when you were taking your first few fearful and cautious steps on your own path...  Most of you, I think, were relieved if not overjoyed when you found out that there was a Pagan Community that was not only willing, but eager to accept you for who you were, who you had been, and who you someday might be.  The more we fracture, the less of that safety net we have for new practitioners.  

Moreover, if we break up into a thousand subgroups, we lose the progress that we've made in taking an active role in finding the cults and those who would manipulate and do needless harm among us and pointing them out as unsafe.  As a whole, Pagans have proven better at self-policing than many other singular or aggregate communities of faiths that I've seen.  We are willing to accept many differences in one another(or we used to be), but we maintain standards of conduct and legality, and we highlight the dangerous elements, shun them, and warn the novice away from them.

Some of you are Asatruar, Kemetic, Hellenismos, or members of another group of Reconstructionist or Old Religion with several hundred, several thousand, or even tens of thousands of adherents world-wide.  You think that your section of the faithful is strong enough to stand on its own.  Perhaps it is, for now.  But ask yourself, how many who use the same term to identify themselves really practice and believe in the exact same manner as you do?  Have you never had internal arguments about minutae, or who deserves veneration for what, or how a rite should be practiced? 

You're going to have reformations and splinterings within your group.  People will eventually start to feel that "Hellenismos" no longer describes them, they are "New Hellenics," while others become "Children of Zeus."  Most of us left the faiths we were raised in and found our own at least partially because we were individualists.  If we do not find some larger grouping to hold onto, eventually we will all break back down to unconnected independent covens and suspicious solitary practitioners.  With no chorus to speak for our needs as a whole, our individual voices will be lost in the storm of public debate, and whatever progress we've made toward equality and freedom will stop, and then erode.  We have centuries left before it truly becomes acceptable in the Western World to practice a faith that doesn't have a definite, unbroken history stretching back for a millennium or more.

Then there are those who don't like the current connotations that "Pagan" has, mostly that in too many minds it is similar to, if not synonymous with "Wiccan."  This, I fully agree, is a problem that needs to be addressed, both outwardly and inwardly.  Outwardly, there are many who do not, or choose not to understand the difference.  The former is easily remedied with some fairly simple explanation(I like to use squares and rectangles), the latter will be remedied only by time and perseverance on our part.  

If you've grown tired of explaining the difference to outsiders...  Well, I apologize, but do you really think that you're not going to get tired of explaining the difference between your particular path and those of other Polytheists?  Doesn't it end as the same conversation even if it begins a little differently?
You've chosen a path of individual knowledge, do you really think you'll ever reach a point where you no longer are asked to explain it by others just because you put a different category name on it?  

For the others, are you really going to just let those who willfully and even spitefully choose to paint us all with the same brush drive us apart?  It sounds like falling for a classic "divide and conquer" strategy to my(admittedly somewhat paranoid) mind.  Why is it so preferable for someone to be unable to immediately define the difference between your path and Vedic Hinduism than between your path and Wicca?  

Which brings me to the inward-problem we must address with the perceived synonymic meanings of "Wiccan" and "Pagan."  People ask "What is a pagan?" and it's difficult to give them a simple answer sometimes...  But then, it should be.  Thinking that you can boil down something as complex as any spiritual belief-system, let alone multiple ones, into a simple, easily-remembered statement is a fallacy.  The simplest way I've ever found to define it is simply this: "Pagans are those who do not belong to the Abrahamic and other long-standing dogmatic religious traditions who choose their own paths of worship, often based on ancestral tradition, earth-reverence or animism, energy work/magic of varying kinds, or other forms of spirituality outside the mainstream."  It's not perfect, it's not simple, it's subject to frequent change, and no two people will ever exactly agree on it.  Sounds like a perfect description of any of us, and of all of us.

Oh, and to those who think that the word "Pagan" either cannot be salvaged, or should be freely given over to the meaning of "Wiccanate..."  There's already a word for that.  It's spelled W-I-C-C-A, often modified by another word like "Gardnerian," "Dianic," "Alexandrian," "Eclectic," or several other I've heard and doubtless dozens I have not.  "Pagan" is everyone's word, and I, for one, am not willing to simply give it up...

Which, finally, brings me to the original point I had wanted to make and not seen fully expressed yet.  Some who practice the less-common or completely individual paths feel at times like they are outsiders in a larger group of Pagans who share multiple traditions.  This is an understandable feeling, but one that I think can slowly be minimized, if not completely overcome, as our community continues to grow and evolve.  Also, there's the fact that even if you do not wish to partake in the rites of other Pagans, there is still the solidarity both spiritual and legal that I mentioned earlier that benefits all of us.

However, that is the passive feeling of being an outsider, which I do not wish to belittle, but others have spoken to more thoroughly and better than I can.  What I wanted to address was the ostracism that I and others are sometimes subject to among what is meant to be the most inclusive of communities.  I spoke of the finding, highlighting, and shunning of cults and the charismatic manipulators among us for the betterment of all as a positive thing, and I truly believe it is, so long as it does not become...  Yes, I must use the term, "a witch hunt."

Now, rather than speaking as a Pagan in general, I speak as a follower of the Left-Hand Path in particular.  I have never been a Right-Hand Path practitioner, I used to define myself as "grey," when I was still uneducated enough to think that there were truly "good witches" and "bad witches," but I have never willingly accepted The Rede, nor have I made any secret of that fact.  I have been a member of the Pagan community for nearly 15 years now, never a leader, never a loud voice, but always present, and so it is in all confidence that I tell you this.

There is a growing movement among, for lack of a better term, 'extremist' practitioners of the Right-Hand Path to exclude the Left-Hand Path entirely from the Pagan community.  I don't know if it's the source or symptom, but I certainly do not think it is coincidental to the fact that "Pagan" is being used more commonly by those who are inside the community to mean "RHP" or "White Witch" or "Follows the Rede" in some form or another, and that those who use it such believe that anyone who does not willingly accept the stricture to do no harm belongs with the Satanists(despite the fact that orthodox Satanism is atheist) simply because they don't want us associated with them.  

This is not always a matter of quiet exclusion or re-definition, either.  I've had years to grow used to people, even other Pagans assuming I was a Satanist.  What troubles me most is that fewer and fewer are interested in listening to the explanation of how little I actually have in common with one.  The inherent hypocrisy of a Pagan who lumps a belief they do not understand or do not wish to understand in with Satanism should not be lost on any of us, I feel.  

Which is the reason for the title of this article.  I've been told more and more frequently over the years that I have no right to call myself Pagan, and I've seen others told the same.  Not just Luciferians like myself, who there may be some small margin of forgiveness for that kind of confusion with.  I've seen the same said to Celtic worshippers of The Morrigan, to Asatruar who revere Loki, Hellenic followers of Ares, Sethites,  Chaotes, and anyone who freely wears their Left-Hand Path allegiance, or simply and openly says that they do not accept pacifism as a viable personal philosophy.  

The Left-Hand Path is part of Paganism, or at least, it once was.  There are many of us, many times many, and though we may not always be as active or integral a part to the regular functioning of the Pagan community as a whole, we have always been with you.  We may not agree with you on everything, but the vast majority of us respect and love you as reflections of ourselves, why have some of you stopped doing the same for us?

We have long been treated as the skeleton in your closet, the 'uncultured' relative who embarrasses you.  We have borne it with good grace, for the most part, because we fully understood why, and most of us found it a bit amusing.  Those who do not want to admit the Left-Hand Path has a place in Paganism are those who want to present Paganism as a non-violent, utterly friendly and harmless group of belief systems.  At least, that's what I like to believe, because the alternative is that you really think that you're somehow superior to us, and I'd hate to think that of you.

I read on more than one post that Wiccans in particular are concerned that it feels like everyone else is abandoning them.  They're asking the others "Why are you leaving?"  I posit that perhaps you should ask yourselves, "What have you done to make us want to leave?"  Or even, "What should you do to make us want to stay?"

I'm not suggesting anyone should change their faiths to suit others.  Nor am I saying that I expect some kind of reparation for the unkind words I've had spoken to and of me by people who should have had more wisdom and love in their hearts.  All I am asking, is that those who wish to remain part of the Pagan Community, who wish to see it continue to grow and thrive, pause for some introspection.  If you really feel that you can't belong to a larger group that includes those who share such differing beliefs as I and my non-RHP brothers and sisters...  Do you really all want us to go, too?  Or can you grow a bit and accept our differences the way we accept yours, with understanding, if not agreement?  If you can't, maybe "Pagan" is just going to become another word for "Wiccan."

...But not while I remain Ash the Free Man.


  1. An interesting argument from a person with an interesting point of view.

    I never encountered Right Hand vs. Left Hand. To me it was always fluff bunnies vs sane people. "An it harm none" always seemed to be a guideline for the immature or stupid until they grew up and learned to deal with consequences like adults who are aware of their responsibilities.

    I never felt pushed out of the term Pagan because I always interacted with people who considered the "fluff bunnies" silly and not worth mentioning.

    I do like your arguments toward continuing to use the term Pagan. Ironically I tend to believe that there is no need to hold the argument entirely. A Nike or a Reebok will always be considered a shoe... no matter how loudly it argues that it isn't.

    Of course my analogy fails in that either company (Nike or Reebok) could probably create a large enough marketing campaign to get people to believe that one of their products is not a shoe... Luckily my analogy is saved with the fact that pagans are very, very, VERY unlikely to be able to muster the resources and focus to accomplish such a feat with the term Pagan. :-P