One issue I find problematic in the alternative-spirituality movement – including New Age, Neopaganism, and many Western non-Christian groups – is that we’ve emphasized a focus on validating beliefs and experiences, but we seem to have overlooked becoming better people.
For example – how many Pagan groups do you know that advocate acceptance for people the way they are? How many do you know that promote change to meet an ideal?
I am familiar with groups that promote self-improvement, or at least working to adhere to a behavior and ethical code. But my sense is that, among those who identify as Pagan, Witch, or New Age, the thrust is towards validation and acceptance.
So, this post is an exploration of how Paganism – and specifically Neopaganism – might provide options for us to become better people.
Also, this essay is an examination into the ways Pagans can get locked into response-mode, how that might be limiting to someone’s path. I offer a few thoughts on ways to break free from that mentality.
Quick note – it should go without saying, but these are simply thoughts and observations I’ve had around Paganism. I’m not married to any of these ideas, but I find them interesting to consider in the context of self-mastery. I reserve the right – as should all people who call themselves human – to change my mind or my opinion as I learn and grow.
Paganism as a response
First, I find it helpful to examine how modern Paganism became popular, and how Paganism functions for many of its practitioners.
So I’ll start by inviting you to consider – how many people do you know who became Pagan because they were pissed off at Christians?
I know only one person who was raised Pagan. All the rest became Pagan because they experienced shitty Christians (or shitty Christianity). I mean, I’m Pagan because of the way Christians treated me. And most Pagans I’ve talked to have similar experiences.
Since many people become Pagan because of something Christians (or Christian churches) have done, this kind of conversion can be seen as a response. We respond to a shitty situation or incident by leaving the Christian religion. In my case, Christians hold that love is the most important value to uphold. Some Christians express love by acting with cruelty. Cruelty is not an expression of love. Since Christians treated me with cruelty, they were acting hypocritically, so I chose to end my association with Christianity. My actions were a response to the experiences I had with Christians (and Christian churches).
Would I be Pagan if I hadn’t been treated poorly? I don’t know. Who can say what their life would be if they made different choices? But I can say that my treatment at the hands of Christians prompted me to seek another spiritual path. So my actions were a response.
A lot of people look for the opposite of Christianity when they experience a crisis of faith. That’s totally normal, and I’m not really qualified to make judgments about the validity or rationale for a person’s path (unless you’re harming or coercing other people).
But many Pagan practices, especially in Wicca, are a direct response to cultural conditions. Before 1951, Witchcraft was illegal in England. Once those laws were repealed, Gerald Gardner promoted Wicca as a religion. If we look at the practices of Wicca as Neopagan path, it appears Gerald Gardner stitched together ceremonial magic with nudism and nature-based fertility. Wicca has since grown beyond those origins, but it is not a pre-historical religion that was passed down in secret. It was invented in the 1920’s, and is often portrayed as a way to legitimize magic and alternate sexual practices. That is to say, Gardner launched Wicca as a response to cultural conditions that prohibited nudity and magic.
And that’s OK. But like my own exodus from Christianity, Wicca is a response – Gardner wasn’t able to fulfill his spiritual needs in the existing religious organizations, so he responded by creating his own.
And I feel like this is a bigger trend in most Pagan and Neopagan paths. Most people don’t change religions when they’re comfortable, so perhaps there’s a mass discomfort (or mass trauma) causing people to respond accordingly. Maybe Christianity simply isn’t fulfilling anymore, and is pushing people away. Many Christian groups are demonizing a group of people (like LGBTQ+ folks) in order to drum up a sense of tribalism, which has a polarizing effect. People in the in-group tend to bond more strongly against perceived enemies, and people in the out-group are marginalized, pushed aside, or labeled enemies. In a progressive, global, multicultural society, these actions alienate a fair number of followers.
Another factor in Paganism as a response, is that our society is becoming secular and materialistic. Naturalistic Philosophy – the belief that all observable phenomena arise from purely physical sources – is a constant subtext to our culture. Also called “Scientism” or “Scientific Materialism,” Naturalistic Philosophy implies that there is a rational and material explanation for everything a person experiences. (I used to call this scientific materialism, but some adherents of this philosophy find that term offensive, so I’ve adjusted.) This is a great philosophy when you’re trying to find a better way to build an iPhone, or to evaluate material usage and waste in a business process. But there’s no room in Naturalistic Philosophy for purely non-physical phenomena.
So even though everyone has a ghost story, in Naturalistic Philosophy, there can be no such thing as ghosts. Even though we can be spiritually or emotionally moved reading a book, it can’t be measured, thus is considered subjective – therefore invalid – evidence. There can be no Gods or Magic or Spirits, because those things are artifacts of consciousness, immeasurable, and therefore nonexistent.
And yet, people still have phone telepathy, or precognition of accidents, or ghost experiences. I’d like to suggest that one reason people are moving to Neopaganism is that most Neopagan paths offer a worldview that celebrates the intangible (and interesting) experiences that fall through the cracks of the laboratory floor.
It may not even be validation of the woo~, but simply acknowledging that immaterial experiences have merit. We read a good book because we like it, even though it doesn’t give us an edge in our next sales pitch. We enjoy a cup of tea with a friend without having to have a cost-benefit analysis of the time spent and the networking achieved.
Immaterial experiences matter. And Neopaganism celebrates them.
It appears, then, that Paganism is a response to this centuries-long devaluation of the non-material. Consider the story of Robinson Crusoe, who – through hard work – transformed his material world into spiritual and material prosperity. Crusoe does not rely on magic, but rather the physical mastery of the resources around him. So it is, in our modern culture, that we are taught that value exists only in the work we do (usually for a corporation), and that our value is measured only by the materials we can buy. This worldview leaves no room for immaterial experiences.
For those of us who’ve seen ghosts, it’s no wonder we’re looking for a spiritual path that celebrates immaterial experiences. (This is not a debate about whether magic is real. Who knows? But clearly something is happening, even if only in our subjective conscious experience.) This, again, is a response to the world we live in. Our jobs, our scientists, nor our economy cannot account for ghosts or magic. But people love a good ghost story. So we respond to the absence of immaterial effects by switching to a spiritual path that celebrates the immaterial.
I mentioned Wicca as a Neopagan countercultural response. I am aware that Heathens are less reactive, and tend more towards embodying a core set of values, which I would view as less of a response. Greek and Near Eastern pre-Christian practices are also being revived, offering a historically-based practice for people who are called to them. But even the most meticulously-researched historical Pagan spiritual path has gaps. What do we do when our reconstructed religion doesn’t have an answer?
How do we fill the gaps?
Young religions like Wicca and Neopaganism often have gaps in theology, ethics, or mystical practices. In contrast, religions like Christianity have the benefit of thousands of years of art, philosophy, and co-opting indigenous practices. These different techniques help to create a rich, full experience for people following that religion.
It’s a fundamental truth that humans share practices and information. (If you don’t believe me, do a quick search for “Grandma’s recipe” or “family recipe”.) In some ways, that’s good – I’ve got a batch of red beans and rice in the slow cooker right now because someone posted a recipe online. With religion, this can get a little complicated. Catholicism has a habit of absorbing the local spiritual practices of whatever culture it came to dominate, as is the (suspected) case with St. Brigid. This might feel like cultural appropriation. But it’s also a factor that leads to the preservation of many indigenous spiritual practices. This preservation is why Mexican Catholicism looks different from Vatican Catholicism. Or why Tibetan Buddhism looks different from Japanese Buddhism.
When we’re throwing out tradition “Because Christianity,” we lose a vast repository of spiritual tech that works and adds meaning to spirituality. It’s sort of a baby-and-the-bathwater situation. When you’re building a spiritual path from scratch, or building a spiritual path to be the opposite of a mainstream religion, important material will be left out. If Neopaganism can survive for a few hundred years, I’d expect to see artists creating robust, fulfilling spiritual practices, artwork, and narratives intrinsic to the tradition.
But that takes time. And many influential Neopagan artists haven’t been born yet. In the meantime, we have people practicing Paganism who reach for a guide to ethical behavior (or belief, or practice), wanting to do something different from Christianity or mainstream society, but instead finding a gap.
It’s not just newly-created religions that experience gaps. Some Pagan paths are reconstructions of ancient pre-Christian practices. Asatru and Heathenry are an attempt to reconnect with Germanic and Scandinavian spiritual practices, and there are numerous Druidic organizations that seek to reconnect with Celtic spiritual practices. The same can be said for ancient Egyptian, Greek, or even Sumerian spiritual practices.
I am a proponent of authenticity whenever possible, so I see the reconstruction of these spiritual paths as a very good thing. But even the most dedicated historian must admit we don’t have all the information about these ancient religions. There’s just not enough information for more than an educated guess.
Many practitioners compromise. We do our best to respect the historical record, then we use educated guesses and personal gnosis to fill in the details. This process of filling the gaps is a type of response – we’re using our contemporary understanding of spirituality to respond to the historical data, and create a living tradition that we can practice.
Much of the filler in Paganism comes from the New Age movement, which in turn borrows material from Helen Blavatsky and her (controversial) Theosophist movement. Surprisingly, some of the material also comes from Christian philosophies (though it might not seem like it). Plus, many Indian and Far Eastern spiritual practices have been imported, like yoga and Buddhism. So, part of the answer to where we get the material to fill the gaps in Paganism is that we borrow it from other religions, or we attempt to fill it in with material from the culture we live in.
One of the gaps – and a central challenge with Paganism – is that it lacks a central and functional guide for ethical behavior. Wicca has “An’ it harm none, do as ye will,” but problems with the Rede have been addressed by many folks more experienced than me. Furthermore, because of the inherent diversity in Pagan religions, right behavior for me is not necessarily right behavior for you. And worse, some Pagans aren’t even interested in changing their behavior, but rather finding acceptance and validation for their current behavior. Without a central pillar of belief for guidance, Pagans must look elsewhere to fill the gaps and figure out what is appropriate in a given situation.
Since most Neopagans are raised in a culture dominated by Christian religion, it makes sense that some of our fundamental values stem from Christianity. Even if we don’t realize it. For example: we think nothing of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to extend the life of a person for a few weeks, often without regard for the quality of that person’s life. This is an extension of the Christian value that God has given humans life, and it’s not ours to decide when it ends. It also reflects the Christian value to give people a chance to do good and/or “come to Jesus” in order to earn their way into Heaven. If we truly believed in reincarnation (as many Neopagans do), it seems to me that we’d be more likely to allow someone a merciful end to their suffering, so their soul can move on and reincarnate in their next life.
In a similar example, a Buddhist might look at the amount of pain and suffering a sick person is experiencing, and how that suffering is magnified amongst family and loved ones. Since a core ideal of Buddhism is to reduce suffering, euthanasia might be more acceptable to a Buddhist, in order to reduce the overall suffering in the world.
A different (and controversial) example might be Pagan attitudes towards money. Many Neopagans (and especially Wiccans) refuse to pay or accept money for teaching or spell work. The idea is that money is impure, and will exert a corrupting influence on the work. This comes straight from the Christian philosophy that money is of the world, and therefore less pure than spiritual matters. That is, immaterial, spiritual pursuits are godly, and therefore “better” than material things like money. This attitude also comes from the Christian belief that God is responsible for miracles, and that humans oughtn’t take credit (or payment) for that which is God’s domain. If we were truly Pagan, we might say that we incarnated into a material existence for a reason — perhaps to master the material realm as well as the spiritual. Money is an excellent way to negotiate and transmit value, and to expand the influence of our will. Furthermore, if we look to Nature, many animals participate in the exchange or saving of resources. (Think squirrels hiding acorns, or birds collecting trinkets.)
Now, some of these ideas may come as a shock. If you’ve divorced yourself from all things Christian, how is it possible that you’re still following Christian beliefs? It’s normal to feel a little disrupted by this. But consider pre-Christian tribal societies who ensure that their shaman is provided for. Consider hoodoo, in which practitioners are paid for their services. In some Buddhist countries, monks are only allowed to eat on what they collect in a donation bowl, and some monks offer blessings in exchange for donations. Even in a basic Animist worldview, we give gifts to the spirits in order to maintain good relationships, so that the spirits give us gifts in return. It is normal and natural to participate in an exchange of resources. If you don’t feel that way, I invite you to consider where those beliefs come from.
Side note: Also on the topic of money, maybe pay attention to how many Big Name Pagans have had to launch GoFundMe programs for medical or funeral expenses. For fuck’s sake, people, you can give up a trip or two to Starbucks so that someone who deeply influenced your spirituality can afford to be cremated. Buy their books, pay for their classes, and/or volunteer to help organize their events.
It seems to me that filling gaps in a spiritual path with something familiar is a normal and natural process. When someone is following an ancient or lost spiritual tradition, they may not know how to behave in a given situation. This could be because our technology is different, our laws are different, or simply lack of written resources. If we encounter a situation that our spiritual path doesn’t prepare us for, we fall back on the default behavior from our surrounding culture. Often, this comes from the way we were raised. (We may not even be conscious of these behaviors!) So in the case of money in Paganism, if we’re not specifically taught to make financial contributions to our Pagan community, we’ll probably just approach it by whatever default we grew up with.
In this case, Christianity. (Maybe New Age or Atheism.) And even if you were raised atheist or Pagan, you were still raised in a culture that is strongly influenced by Christian values, so you may have adopted Christian ethics without realizing they are Christian. (I live deep in Mormon country. Guess which religion I picked up counterproductive habits and beliefs from‽)
Want to see how Christianity has influenced regular culture? Have a picnic in a cemetery. How do you feel about that? How do you expect to be treated by other visitors? Maybe you feel a little uncomfortable with the idea. I know I do. That’s a sign that we’re bumping up against a Christian value we didn’t realize we had. I worry about what other people will think, or that I’ll be 86’ed from the cemetery, or even that ghosts or dead people will rise up and drag me to hell – which is another way Christian values have influenced society. In comparison to non-Christian societies – Japanese or Tibetan, for instance – the difference is stark. In Japan, ancestors are honored and welcomed – some people keep a shrine for ancestors at their home. Tibetan Buddhists have extensive rituals for contemplating death; if our culture embraced something similar, perhaps we wouldn’t feel acutely uncomfortable at the idea of a picnic in a cemetery.
It’s only here in the West that hanging out with dead people seems uncomfortable. Interestingly, people used to have picnics in cemeteries as recently as the 1800’s. Also interestingly, it’s socially OK for people to go to a grave and talk to a dead person. Humans seem to be wired for it. But try the same thing with a Ouija board, and watch how many people come out of the woodwork to warn you about Darque Speerits.
So, we fill in the gaps in our spiritual practice – consciously, or unconsciously – with existing beliefs and practices. It takes work to change those core beliefs. That means challenging our preconceived notions and biases (which is always uncomfortable). It means spending time looking at why we have knee-jerk reactions to things like paying for a Pagan event. Or having a picnic in a cemetery.
Kudos to everyone out there who is doing that work. If you’re not there yet, that’s cool too. Just realize that this is uncomfortable, but necessary. Your writing doesn’t get better when someone tells you it’s perfect. You don’t walk into a karate class already knowing karate. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that you’re not already enlightened, and that you’ve got some hard lessons before you get better at your spiritual practice.
A response typically isn’t as fulfilling as a coherent path
There are more than a few Neopagans who end up back in Christianity because Paganism doesn’t fulfill them the way they expect. They find that it doesn’t have the answers, it doesn’t solve an underlying anger, or it simply lacks depth and mystery.
This can happen when people engage Neopaganism as a response. Sometimes, a trauma is so deep that a person has to find the most opposite path they can to Christianity. What are some of the buzzwords that might attract people looking to rebel against Christianity?
Satanism. Witchcraft. Paganism. Et cetera.
Using spirituality for revenge can only be satisfying for so long. Longer, if it keeps getting a rise out of people. But eventually, the satisfaction of “sticking it to the man” just doesn’t fill the craving for a spiritual connection.
One possible reason for this, is that when a spiritual path is defined in relation to another spiritual path, it’s not standing on its own. It’s like a kid playing tug-of-war; we learn quickly that we fall down when the other kid lets go.
Side note: This is not to suggest that everyone participates in a religion for a spiritual connection. For many people, religion is just “something we do,” sort of like standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. This might explain some people’s sensitivity about non-Christians living in America. In their America, Christianity is just what everyone does. Unsurprisingly, most mainstream religions actively seek to dominate their social landscape; that way, the religion (and the control scheme inherent in that religion) is inseparable from the cultural and social behaviors. But I digress.
I was talking with my beautiful and intelligent wife about this the other day. She mentioned that, in her view, Pagans who stop being Pagan were never really Pagan to begin with. That is, they never had that full, deep spiritual Pagan experience. I thought that was a good way to put it. She also clarified that sometimes, people do find that deep spiritual experience in Paganism, but it’s not quite the right fit, and they keep looking. Simply leaving Paganism isn’t necessarily an indicator of fulfillment; it’s a bit more nuanced.
Thing is, it can be difficult to distinguish a spiritually authentic practice from a knee-jerk spiritual response. And that’s OK! We need the freedom to be able to try things out, and see which practices and beliefs fit. And to get rid of the ones that don’t work for us!
But that doesn’t mean that we just “do what feels right.” Well, it kinda does, but substantial personal or spiritual growth requires a level of discomfort or sacrifice. If a Neopagan only pursues “what feels right,” they risk locking into the pursuit of “positive” emotions, and attempting to suppress “negative” emotions. How many times have you heard a Lightworker or New Ager (or even a Neopagan) say, “Quit bringing your negative vibes into this space!”? Like, how else are we supposed to deal with life’s bullshit? I find it unhealthy to expect people to be “on” and “positive” all the time. (Not that I invite or tolerate drama in my groups. I just think it’s important not to condemn “dark” or “negative” emotions. Or even a healthy level of discomfort.)
Side note: if a person has exploitive, coercive, or harmful impulses that “feel right,” we should not encourage a person to indulge those impulses at the expense of others!
Many of the emotions that our society considers to be “negative” – things like sorrow, depression, anger, conflict, etc. – are feelings that we have for a reason. There’s a reason we get angry when someone treats us poorly. There’s a reason we cry when we’re feeling sad. If we just lock those feelings away, or pretend we don’t feel them, or anesthetize ourselves against them with fancy crystals (or drugs), we’re not living an authentic or fulfilling spiritual path.
Furthermore, and more to the central point of this essay, all of these actions are a response to something else. We feel bad, so we respond by seeking out healing and protection. Or validation. And those definitely have a place. My experience, though, is that validation, healing, and protection are a bottomless pit – no matter how much you throw at them, it’ll never be enough. On the other hand, karate is hard (physically and mentally), but it’s very fulfilling (to me) to work towards an ideal. I think spirituality is similar. If we’re following a path that’s coherent and authentic, and matching ourselves to that path (whether it’s set forth by a guru or our higher self), it might be hard or uncomfortable. But it’s more likely to be fulfilling than a path based on emotional reactions, or reactions to situations we encounter.
I mean, I get it. I experienced several childhood traumas, and I know how good validation and healing energy feel. They’re soothing, and it just feels good to be free of the bullshit for a while. But immersing myself in the Light isn’t actually helping me to deal with the ugly things in my life. Things might appear pretty on the surface, but there’s a mountain of shit building up in my unconscious – unless I put on my emotional hip waders and shovel shit through the pipelines.
Validation is good, until it leads to stagnation
One of the hallmarks of modern Paganism, at least on social media and the groups I’ve experienced, is the push for validation. Often, this takes the form of “You do what feels right,” or “Everyone’s path is valid,” or even “It’s not up to you to question another person’s experience.”
And Gods help you if you challenge someone’s beliefs or spiritual path.
Here’s the thing. If your spiritual path is valid, it can weather criticism – and if it can’t, then you should be questioning it. One of the factors I consider for the healthiness of a group is how well the teachings (or the leader) can stand up to criticism.
Or to a challenge.
I’ve noticed a lot of folks bristle at the idea of being challenged. There seems to be an unspoken rule in American culture that we’re not supposed to “talk back.” Are you uncomfortable asking for a lower price when you make an expensive purchase, like a TV or a cell phone? Do you feel like it’s rude not to take someone at their word? Do you get anxious when you need to say “no” to someone, without having an excuse as to why you can’t accommodate them? These are all symptoms of discomfort with a challenge.
Let’s put some context around the idea of a challenge. A challenge isn’t necessarily a demand to do what I say! A challenge should be seen more like asking, “Are you sure about that?” Consider two male deer. One of them says, “I’m taking this herd of females for myself.” The other says “Fuck you, we’ll see about that,” and they engage in a discussion/contest to decide the winner. Or maybe a more peaceful example; two English professors get into an argument about whether J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for World War II (with the ring symbolizing nuclear weapons, and the Orcs representing the Nazis), or whether it’s a story that reminisces about the loss of pastoral farming to industrialization. They might argue with each other, challenge each other’s positions, offer support for their positions. It could even become a heated discussion! At the end, though, they’ll probably both walk away thinking their perspective is right, even though the other had good points. (Interestingly, both of these professors can be correct.)
We experience challenges all the time. When a woman stands up on a plane to protest and prevent a deportation, we applaud – she challenges authority and refuses to surrender her phone. On a more personal note, I feel awkward when someone challenges me. Like, if I go to the deli counter and ask for shaved ham, and the counter lady says “We don’t do shaved ham here,” I feel uncomfortable – but that doesn’t mean I can’t challenge her back, saying “I’ve gotten shaved ham before, other people slice it thin like that for me.”
There’s a time and place for validation, and there’s a time and place for challenges. Including keeping our cool when we find ourselves challenged by others. We like it when other people validate us for what we’re thinking or feeling or saying or believing. It’s a lot harder when people challenge us. But we’re all different people, with different ideas and thoughts. Given the diversity inherent in Paganism, it’s inevitable that we will encounter people who challenge our beliefs (or whose very existence stands as a challenge to our beliefs).
So it behooves us to become passingly comfortable with being challenged. And with challenging others.
In Neopaganism, there’s an unspoken rule that we aren’t supposed to question or challenge people on their beliefs. The whole point, I think, is to nurture people, to validate them, to make them feel safe and welcomed. And these are great ideals (though I would argue that they come not from Neopaganism or reconstructionism, but rather the Hippie movement of the 1960-70’s). But how can we prevent people from being exploited, coerced, or harmed if we don’t challenge the people doing the exploitation, coercion, or harm? Very often, predators begin grooming their potential victims by validating them and making them feel good.
So validation is not inherently good; rather, it’s a tool used to achieve a particular purpose, good or bad.
More poignantly – how do we coexist with other Pagans who believe differently, if we need validation all the time? It would be more reasonable to expect differing beliefs might create tension. Likewise, it would be reasonable to expect to be challenged, just as we might challenge others. This is the price we pay for the freedom to choose our individual spiritual path – we have to find a way to live in tension with other people and paths that are different from ours.
One way to do this, is to remember that being challenged isn’t the end of the world.
The unquestioning validation I see in many Neopagan groups is also unhelpful in the long term for personal and spiritual growth. Why would you need to work on your habit of dominating a conversation, if you’re already perfect and beautiful just the way you are? What’s the point in working to commit more to your group, if you’re already accepted as a slacker? And worse – if a fake psychic is bleeding someone for thousands of dollars, how are we going to call them out without violating the “sacred truth” that all paths are valid? Hint: we can’t. And people do spend thousands of dollars on fake spiritual shit.
Side note: As usual, not all spiritual things are shit. But some people use fake spiritual shit to prey on vulnerable people. We need a better way to discern predators, which I think involves challenging them. Which in turn means that real Pagans need to get more comfortable with responding to being challenged. More of that “price to pay.”
Now, clearly there’s a lot of nuance on this topic. We don’t want society hurting people because of who they are, and we don’t want people feeling threatened for holding a belief or viewpoint. We also don’t want to leave room for people to hold a harmful view, justifying it under the banner of diversity. (Like, for example, the wackos advocating for legalization of pedophilia.) I think that there’s a way that we can challenge people on their views without it being a condemnation. That happens on both sides of the discussion. As a challenger, we can be more careful to avoid condemning a person before they have a chance to clarify their position. As someone being challenged, we can adjust our perception of a challenge as an opportunity to clarify, to which we can respond appropriately.
(Again, we don’t need to justify our inner emotions and beliefs. But if someone is asking us why we seem to be behaving unethically, we should be able to give a good response. If we realize that we’re not, in fact, behaving ethically, we should be able to recognize it and change our behavior.)
The same goes for spiritual paths. The Jewish religion, as I understand it, exists in a constant state of debate by rabbis over the interpretation of scripture. They have an official scripture, but the meaning of those words is subject to interpretation – and it’s the debate over interpretation which forms the central pillar of the religion. You could make the same argument about the conflict over teaching Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and whether it should be included or excluded from the canon for its depiction of race. The point is the tension between those arguments – because often, each side can be right, even if they conflict.
In Neopaganism, then, there is certainly a place for validation – we all like our views reinforced. But not when it leads to harm or exploitation. (We would not validate someone’s beliefs who advocated for having sex with underage children. We could validate someone who had a spiritual experience with a deity or spirit.) There is also a place for challenging beliefs, or having your beliefs challenged – if it’s a valid and defensible position, it should be able to stand up to the challenge. If your beliefs can’t stand up to a challenge, then perhaps that’s a sign to clarify, revise, or adjust your beliefs.
Final note on this point: to challenge something does not equate to condemning or invalidating it. Rather, a challenge is more like saying, “are you sure about that, or do you need to clarify your point?” A squirrel might challenge a thistle looking for a meal; the thistle’s thorny response sends the squirrel looking elsewhere. Another challenge might look like, “Was that really a ghost, or did the light flicker because of the guys practicing Jujitsu upstairs?” A lot of people get defensive about being challenged. But the older I get, and the more I learn about healthy boundaries and interpersonal skills, the more I believe we need to rethink the way we consider challenges. Rather than a condemnation, maybe we consider a challenge as an invitation to explore our position (or our beliefs) more deeply? Just a thought. There’ll probably be more on this in a later post.
Often, we don’t realize we’re stuck
My wife called me out the other day for playing a victim. It wasn’t my intent; I’ve suffered some shitty things in my life, which still affect me on an unconscious level. Also, our modern society gives special consideration and power to victims. I found myself stuck – my body was reacting in a way my conscious mind wasn’t aware of, and I was relying on old habits to navigate a difficult situation. (You might say I was reacting.)
I’ve had to pull the victim card to be taken seriously, as a white cis-gendered male Pagan. Apparently, I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be sexually harassed, or have to fear for my life when I walk out the door, or to be in a domestic situation where my grip on reality is in question. (Actually, I do.) I think there’s a tendency in Neopaganism to validate people’s victimhood, and to take people more seriously because of it.
As usual, I’m not saying that victims deserve to be victims. (And at this point, I think if you’re reading that into what I’m saying, you’re deliberately acting like a troll.)
But it’s easy, I think, to get stuck in victim-mode. When a psychiatric condition gives you control over the way the school treats your kid, it’s tempting to spam it as a way of influencing the school. When you get attention and compassion from talking about your trauma, it’s tempting to keep bringing it up. When you’re excused from being held accountable or responsible because of your victim status, it’s tempting to keep lean harder into it.
But the mindset and energy of being a victim places all the agency outside ourselves. While it might feel empowering, it’s actually the opposite. I’m a little wary about even saying this. It feels like a slippery slope to victim-blaming (and it can be, but is not my intention). But if we’re doing magic to try to make our lives better, then on some level we have to acknowledge that we want some level of control over our lives.
Playing the victim locks us into the space of responding to things. If you think about it, it’s very much like leaving the Church because of a disagreement. Or pulling harder in a tug-of-war. If you’ve experienced trauma, it’s important to get help to triage and heal from that wound, whether it’s physical or psychological (or both). But just like the problem with the tug-of-war, if we keep holding on to our victim status, it perpetuates the trauma on the other end of that dynamic.
The trauma on the other side of victimhood might be an abuser or attacker, or it might be an authority who takes action on our behalf. In the case of an abuser, perpetuating our victim status keeps the attacker present on the other side of the abuse. In the case of an authority, playing the victim surrenders all our personal agency to the authority to take action on our behalf. Staying in victim mentality locks us into a position where we are always operating from a place of responding, instead of being proactive or exercising our agency (and will).
So, just like it’s important as a Pagan to have a stable core of beliefs and practices, it’s important for each of us as an individual Pagan to stand on our own. If we really are seeking to be personally empowered, we’re not helping ourselves by staying in reaction-mode. We can’t simultaneously use magic or spirituality to improve our life our our situation, and also use a victim status to navigate our life’s narrative. The two are not compatible.
I’m doing this too, as I write this. Who would I be, if I hadn’t been bullied into accepting affection when I was young? Who would I be if any of the shitty things that happened to me, hadn’t happened? At some point – at least for me – I need to decide who I am and what I do. Not in response to some outside influence, but as an expression of who I am.
And I know that some folks might take my saying this as victim-blaming, or victim-shaming, or whatever. Not my intent. Again, if you’re the victim of a crime, go to the police. Get help. Avoid contact with people who try to keep you in a harmful situation. But also realize that it’s easy to get stuck in that victim mentality. You’ll probably find your life works better when you’re free from reaction-mode.
The duality of response versus authenticity
In general, I don’t like to oversimplify a topic into two opposites. For example, I feel like it’s problematic to simplify the world into “good vs. evil,” or “of the light vs. not of the light.” With that said, I still find value in looking at a topic through a duality, so long as I keep in mind that the metaphor is not the reality.
So it is with Paganism. In this case, I’m thinking “response vs. authenticity.” I can be Pagan as a response to the people and institutions around me, or I can be Pagan because that’s the most authentic expression of my spiritual self.
It seems like this perspective might be useful across a range of different topics. If victimhood is a response, then what might it look like if we flipped to the other side of the duality, and approached trauma with agency? (This is a train of thought that I’ve found helpful in dealing with anxiety, depression, and other side-effects of trauma.
One problem with getting locked into response-mode is that it becomes easier for other people to manipulate you. That might seem counterintuitive, given the current political climate. After all, most of the political left in the US is geared towards resisting the Republican regime. But here’s the trick – resistance is largely ineffective at enacting legislation. Sure, there’s a lot of noise, but actual policy changes are few and far between. What’s worse, people on the political right – from the Executive branch all the way to twitter-trolls – are acting in such a way as to evoke a response from the left, which functions as a distraction from the actual legislation and policy that’s being enacted.
In other words, when we’re stuck in response-mode, we’re letting other people set the terms on which we’re engaging with a given topic. All someone has to do is say “The Pussy Church is anti-Trans,” and suddenly every Pagan rushes to their keyboard to CAPS-LOCK their opinion. Only, no one seems to notice that by making the initial (and inflammatory) statement, the original poster locked every outraged respondent into the choice of voicing their outrage, or risking being ostracized as a TERF. No one seems to realize that there are other possible responses to this statement.
Consider the alternative. If a person has come to terms with their own views on transgender people in Paganism, and their beliefs and practices are authentically developed, a much different situation happens. If a person is a Dianic Wiccan, they might say “The Pussy Church seems similar to our practices, but we don’t know enough about them to really judge.” If a person is a God-Goddess Wiccan, they might say “It’s not my place to decide one way or another for another person’s path, but for me the magic and sexuality only works with biological gender.” A queer Pagan might say, “Every human falls somewhere on a spectrum between gay and straight, masculine and feminine, and a variety of other traits, so the Pussy Church isn’t at all for us.” A Transgender Pagan might say, “The Pussy Church is a bunch of assholes, and I want nothing to do with them.”
In other words, having an intrinsic and authentic belief system gives each of us a perspective against which we can measure other perspectives. Furthermore, a well-developed belief system helps us to be more resilient and less threatened by beliefs that we might not agree with. Alternately, if I’m shaky on my basic beliefs, I might feel threatened by a challenge presented simply by the existence of another group.
Side note: a challenge doesn’t need to be articulated. Simply existing can be a challenge to another person’s identity and perspective. As a white, straight, cis-gendered man, I’m sure my very existence – not to mention my hubris expressing an opinion – acts as a challenge to people who believe people like me are what’s wrong with the world. But if we’re committed to the idea that we’re all humans, then we must acknowledge that a person’s opinions are valid, regardless of their class. If it’s wrong to silence someone for being transgender, it’s likewise wrong to silence someone for being cisgender.
To me, it seem that the most measured, balanced, and nuanced opinions about complex Pagan topics come from people with a strong and well-developed core practice.
On getting better…
This whole essay is intended to give you things to think about, in the hopes that you examine your own beliefs and actions. Hopefully, this leads you to make deliberate adjustments to become more effective, more authentic, more compassionate, more spiritual, more coherent.
You might not agree with me, and that’s OK. (See Validation and Stagnation above, where the price of freedom of speech and thought is having to find a way to deal with people who disagree.)
Here’s the thing, though. If it’s true that response-mode makes us more susceptible to manipulation, and creates a mindset where we’re defined in relation to something else, and sabotages our ability to take action in the world – then it makes sense that ditching that mindset would be essential for becoming a more effective Pagan (and magician). So – we’ll be more effective Pagans if we pursue the beliefs, practices, and ethics that lead us towards having more agency, and away from being reactionary to outside influences. I see this as a Very Good Thing.
But I can tell you from experience that it is not a comfortable thing. The only suggestion I can offer on that front, is that you have to make peace with the edge of your discomfort. If you’re always comfortable, you’re not growing. But you don’t want to push yourself into stress or traumatic discomfort either. It might be helpful to consider a teaching from Yoga to find your edge, listen to your body, and pay attention to the line between “I can’t do this” (which is a lie) and “I shouldn’t do this” (which is the truth).
So. Some practical actions you can take to start getting better, and move out of the response mindset.
- Take a class, or join an existing movement. One of the great features of an existing program of study is that it’s been tested to work by multiple students and teachers. In some respects, there really is no good substitute for having a mentor observe, coach, and correct you from a position of experience. Also, if you’re not in the habit of self-change, joining an existing and established group can help you learn how to adapt to new information and create change for yourself.
- Learn to tolerate differences. By this I don’t mean shouting (or typing in all caps) that trans women are women. What I mean is that it’s helpful to cultivate a bone-level knowing that it’s OK for someone else to have a different opinion than you without it being a threat. If you feel good with where you’re at on this, take it up a notch and start letting your existence sit in tension with a person (or idea) you disagree with, without needing to yell or convince them. Just let the differences sit.
- Learn and practice setting and enforcing healthy boundaries. Also learn and practice respecting other people’s boundaries.
- Learn how to let shit go. Seriously. One way you can think about this is, that if you are not a member of a marginalized group, or if you’re not personally affected by an issue surrounding a marginalized group, maybe take a step back. Not every social injustice is worth amping up your blood pressure and stress level. The more you cultivate the ability to let an issue go, the better you’ll be able to resist the manipulations of trolls.
- Develop a deep personal practice. This may take some searching and experimentation to find a good fit. And don’t need to feel like you can’t switch horses if you need to. I switched martial arts after 15 years. I definitely have some habits to adjust, but that depth of practice gives me an edge many other practitioners lack. If you take the same approach to your spiritual practice, you’ll have similar results. So – if you like Wicca, cast a circle every day for a year, and draw down the Moon every cycle. If you’re into Sumerian practices, celebrate all the holy days for a couple years, and find a prayer or devotional to perform every day. If you’re going towards Norse, same thing – read the stories over and over, and practice regular rituals. Whatever you decide to do, you need to put miles on it. This helps you develop some of the deep bone-level understanding of your spirituality, and it’ll help you build a solid core practice. Which, as you read above, will help you become more resilient in the face of challenges.
As you can guess, none of this happens overnight. My guess is that if you’ve read this far, you’re probably someone who values delayed gratification, so some of this may be preaching to the choir. But I’ve done it both ways – I’ve whipped up a quick programming skill to perform a task, and I’ve spent years practicing the same series of moves. I can say, with no hesitation, which one is more effective in creating lasting and meaningful change. (You can probably guess too.)
Do you have thoughts on Paganism as a reaction? Send me an email at dmkoffer at gmail dot com.