The practices of Paganism are wide, diverse, even contradictory. Neopagan Animism is nothing like Wicca, which bears little resemblance to Hellenic Paganism, which is in turn very different from Dianic Wicca or Feri or Reclaiming. Anyone not saying, “Duh!” to this statement really hasn’t spent a lot of time in the community, or outside their own tradition.
The number of times I have heard the statement, “You’re Pagan? I didn’t think you were into Goddess Spirituality…” has exceeded the number of fingers on my hands and toes on my feet. Most of these times occurred back in Columbus, but there have been enough times in Denver and in Colorado Springs for me to think that this is by no means isolated to one area. It’s unfortunate. In the ranks of the Pagan community, we can count Jungian archetypists and “soft” polytheists, hard polytheists, animists, nature-focused materialists, duotheists, feminine-focused monotheists, atheists, philosophers, speculators, and (who can forget?) various flavors of magicians, as well as several combinations of any of the above. Being Pagan does not mean exclusively following any particular dogma or set of beliefs or practices.
Neopagan Animism was born from this fact as much as from any particular tradition. I was introduced to a number of religious practices and beliefs under one umbrella term when I was introduced to Paganism, from Wicca to Heathenry to Druidry, and many of the magical practices found within these traditions. Furthermore, we all practiced our religious beliefs together, several belief systems coming to one focal point and one practice in our rituals. Since then, I have heard hundreds – if not thousands – of times that this was the highest form of blasphemy to the Gods and Spirits. I heard this not only from elders in various local Reconstructionist and Traditional communities, but also from lovers, friends, and energy work partners. For a time, I even partially believed it. The development of a tradition which emphasized the animistic aspects of Pagan practice was an ultimate rejection of this attitude.
In a recent blog post on “natural” versus “hard polytheistic” Paganism (found through Teo Bishop‘s Facebook page), hard polytheism is plainly attacked, characterized as having “stolen the gods [sic]” and not honoring nature because hard polytheists apparently think it “is just not god-like.” My response on his page was:
Hmm. At least for me, this article assumes a lot about hard polytheism that I do not believe to be true. As an animist, to me, Gods are spirits, like any other spirit – landvaettir, ancestors, fey, and so forth. While I may believe they are more powerful than I am, I don’t think of them as supernatural. I don’t see the Gods as necessarily enlightened, though some may be. I definitely see limits to their abilities, personalities, and so forth. They are spirits, just higher up the food chain. People have called me atheist because of this view, because I don’t believe in omnipotence, omniscience, or omnipresence when it comes to the Gods.
Let me break for a second to emphasize the italicized portion. I have been called an atheist because I reject the common societal view of “God”. I don’t even think the universe, the largest spirit in this world, conforms to the mainstream conception of YHVH, Allah, Jehovah, or any other monotheistic overlord. I continue the comment by pointing out that hard polytheists who are also animists tend to revere the spirits of the land and nature at least as much if not more so than any God; a belief in “supernatural” people does not affect this practice one way or the other.
Star Foster writes her own response to the attitude of the blog’s author (emphasis mine):
Aside from the inescapable feeling of being insulted, of being painted as an ignorant and superstitious cultural looter unable to connect with nature and intent on ruining myth and metaphor for everyone else, Lee’s post resembles an “evangelical creep” of atheism into our community.
I find myself echoing the sentiment whenever I read it, but not just for atheism. Regardless of the flavor, there is a distinct influx of fundamentalism and orthodoxy into our family of religions. There is a sense of “This is the right (and therefore only) way” that has pervaded Heathenry, Celtic Reconstruction, Kemetism, Wicca, and even certain kinds of eclectic Paganism (which to me sounds like an oxymoron, but there it is).
Star Foster further points out in another post a political situation that had a lot of influence in the Pagan sector, that of Z Budapest and her cis-gendered women only ritual. Make no mistake – the central issue was not a religious issue, it was an issue of the politics behind including certain people in certain rites. No one is telling Z Budapest who can and cannot attend rites she is holding; a convention organization is simply saying that her rites must be held outside of their official schedule. Z Budapest’s beliefs were not found wanting, they were simply found incompatible with a more inclusive organization’s ethos.
Between traditions of Paganism, the differences that cause the most friction also tend to be hotbeds in secular politics. It is exactly these hotbed issues that tend to encourage and perpetrate a specific orthodoxy within a religion. As an umbrella religion, this is particularly dangerous to Paganism, as we are not merely different sects of one religion, but a full spectrum of pantheons and practices. However, we also cannot ignore that most – if not all – of these religions are influenced (some would say tainted) by the current of modern sensibilities that continue to pervade the movement. Therefore, what may have been so acceptable in what we know of the original form of the religion (such as the famous example of human sacrifice) may no longer be acceptable in its current form. This modern mode of ethics and understanding may serve to develop an orthodoxy in itself, which is exactly what has happened with several strains of Wicca, especially when compared with its traditional forms such as Gardnerian or Alexandrian.
Division of Tradition, or How to Enforce Orthodoxy Without Promoting It
It is common in the Pagan community to hear, “In my tradition, we believe/do [x, y, & z].” It is also common to hear, “For our tradition, [this] is the correct belief/practice.” The gathering together of a tradition is essentially a shorthand way of establishing both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This isn’t a bad thing. However, when a person uses one’s tradition as a way of discounting other practices or beliefs, I believe it’s about as helpful as a Christian using the Bible to try to invalidate the beliefs of Pagans. Traditions should not be used as bludgeons against those who differ from them. Yet this attitude is found in Heathenry when the subject of worshiping Loki comes up, and in Wicca when a tradition ascribes different elemental correspondences to the directions, and even when discerning the difference between a God, Ancestor, and demigod in Celtic Reconstruction.
I brought up Lee’s post and the issues with Z Budapest because they both do exactly that. Lee’s blog post has a fine command of rhetoric against hard polytheists, but assumes several stances that a given hard polytheist may or may not actually believe. She then insinuates that such stances (which are not hers) will bring about the ruination of Paganism as a religion. In the same manner, Z Budapest is facing opposition in her own tradition, based in the political situation I’ve already described. She has used her tradition as ammunition against gays, trans-gendered, and of course males. Now, other Dianics are using the politically liberal stances of much of the Pagan community against her.
The Experience of Paganism
I end the comment on Teo’s blog by answering a question that Lee poses:
To answer her question, why I venerate (or “seem to need”) the Gods? It is simple: because I experience them as real beings. I speak with them, they with me, and I am not willing to ignore these experiences, any more than I am willing to ignore my experiences with land wights, whom I also work with.
The experiences of individual Pagans inform the traditions that we develop. Neopagan Animism formed around the need for several belief systems to work together, while Dianic Wicca answered a need of women to explore and emphasize female spirituality. Our experiences do not invalidate another’s, because we who have experiences each have a different perception, a different viewpoint.
It is my hope that Pagans will eventually come to the realization of our diverse composition and heritage, rather than looking at other traditions with a mix of suspicion and surprise. When those of various traditions come together, new philosophies can be formed and new practices devised, if minds be open and hearts be honest. The practice of one tradition or viewpoint attacking another aids no one but those who oppose Paganism as a religion.