If you missed yesterday’s HuffPost Live Paganism roundtable with me, Amy Blackthorn, Gus DiZerega, Morgan Copeland and Patrick McCollum, you can watch it here:
We covered a fair bit of ground in the brief time we had allotted, and it was an honor to be seated beside (digitally speaking) so many interesting thought-leaders and organizers from the Pagan community.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the experience for me was what happened after the Google Hangout ended. The panelists stayed on the call and talked for a good 30 minutes more, sharing perspectives about a whole variety of topics. We re-addressed some of what happened while we were on the air, and there are a few things that stuck out that I’d like to get your take on.
First, Gus DiZerega says in the conversation:
“If Christians emphasize salvation, and Buddhists emphasize enlightenment, we emphasize harmony…That means harmony with one another, and harmony with the earth.”
Does that ring true to you?
It came up that Amy Blackthorn has been a Pagan since she was a kid. This led to an interesting conversation about whether or not children are self-aware enough to choose a religion. I suggested that Paganism might have something uniquely valuable to offer young people, mainly the emphasis on self-awareness and self-direction. To me, it seems that these qualities are very healthy for a kid, and one might add to that list the emphasis on family and community.
Do you see other ways that Paganism is inherently good for kids?
Lastly, are we “earth-based” anymore? It came up in response to Gus’s later statements about the political landscape that there are a wide-variety of Pagans, many of whom no longer identify as “earth-based.” This struck a chord with some people, and I’ve already received some feedback on Facebook which voiced appreciation for pointing out that some Pagans are more centered around deity.
I think this one is worthy of a little unpacking. Do a little research, and you’ll see that the roots of the Neopagan movement were very much in the dirt, if you will. Earth-centered, or at the very least earth-aware spirituality has, up until fairly recently, been synonymous with Paganism. How exactly did we get to a place where someone could consider themselves a Pagan and not be “earth-based?”
I think about Isaac Bonewits, the founder of ADF, who said that he believes that all Neopagans, especially those who identify as Druids in some way, should be environmentalists first and foremost. He believed that we should be on the forefront of the environmental movement.
Not all Pagans think that now, and I’m not exactly sure why.
As I said yesterday I’m not an expert on Paganism, I just play one on the internet. I believe that there are many voices that deserve to be heard, and now’s your chance to pick up where we left off on HuffPost Live.
The floor is yours!
On Gus’s assertion, I’d have to say that harmony is a goal yes, however what we are seeking to harmonize with varies widely. Some of us are wishing to seek harmony with Gods, some with nature, some with anima, etc etc, however harmony is certainly a goal. I think the same could be said for many religions, Christianity focuses on reaching harmony with Christ, for example. However, I’d say we strive to reach harmony in more aspects (as a whole) with the Gods, with ourselves, and with our surroundings as a general rule.
On Amy’s statement, I firmly believe that children are self-aware enough to spiritually search, if they are old enough to question their spirituality they are old enough to search and pick their own. As for what Paganism has to offer young people, I’d say quite a bit. It teaches us to respect our elders, yet it doesn’t cast us as inferior to them, it encourages us to contemplate and introspect, and it encourages us to not be materialistic and hedonistic (which we far too often are.) Even the very loose structures of Eclectics provide a good framework with which to strive to better one’s self without feeling crushing guilt when you slip up (such as is felt by some Christian and Catholic youth)
Lastly, the most difficult question. Firstly, we have to address the fact that “nature-based” means different things to different people. For me it means revering nature over deity or seeking to harmonize one’s self more with nature than with deity, so going by my own definition I am not nature-based. However, going by the definition of *caring* about the environment and seeking to raise self-awareness of the natural cycles and of our own impact, then you could say I am. I firmly believe that a Pagan should have some care for and respect for the environment. To have no concern for our land is to disrespect Demeter, Persephone, Epona. To pollute the sea is to spit upon Poseidon or Manannan mac Lir..So even if one considers themselves deity based, you cannot and should not take that as an excuse to not respect the land. I respect and adore the Gods, and thus I must have concern for the land, but I don’t feel that constitutes one as “nature-based”. Of course, our definitions may vary.
(Also, as a little P.S. and a bit of information to those who haven’t heard it, the talk of the environment has reminded me that the Green Party candidate has been arrested for supplying environmental protesters. You can donate to her campaign on her website. Sorry to throw this in here Teo, but I feel like it might garner some support or help for her)
I think that the term ‘earth-based’ is problematic at best, especially as a prime descriptor for modern Paganism. It might work well for some Pagans/ Heathens and the like, but not so much for others. Personally, I wouldn’t say that my practice or beliefs are ‘based’ on the earth. It’s based on human traditions and on being in the right relationship with my ancestors, the local spirits and the deities (listed in the order of importance). Certainly, respecting and conserving the natural world is important to me, as it is to most Pagans; I just don’t think of the earth as the center point of my religion. The tendency to identify as ‘earth-based’ could be seen as a response to religious backgrounds in which the natural world is denied any kind of divinity (namely Christianity); in which case it’s an important point in identifying how we are different than the dominant religious narratives, but I would still object to it being used as the designation for our religions.
This is along the lines of what I was going to say.
If you compare Paganism against a religion that believes that the earth is “fallen”, or that all things divine are super-natural and originate outside of the earth; or compared to religions that see our existence on earth as some kind of trial that we must go through to get to the heavenly paradise that comes later and is therefore somehow less valuable than the afterlife to come, then ok, call me “earth-based”. But if you look at my every day practice, my beliefs about the divine and about deity, and the philosophies that inform those beliefs on their own merit, I think it would be a stretch to call them “earth-based”. If you were to compare me to someone who believes that their deity created humanity to dominate the earth, then I would imagine my beliefs about where humanity fits into the grand scheme of things would appear earth-centered. But I don’t want my religion to be defined by what it looks like compared to the dominate religion. Even when I’m celebrating the season or connecting with the divine inherent in the natural world, my religion is only “earth-based” insofar as it is compared to a religion that celebrates only the things that are perceive as originating outside of the natural world.
I don’t have a neat catch-phrase to define what Paganism is if it is not “earth-centered” or “earth-based”. Maybe part of the problem is that one of the defining characteristics of Paganism is that it is decentralized, so by it’s very nature Paganism isn’t “centered” on anything. When I’m explaining my Paganism to people who are not familiar with Paganism, I usually talk of what I *do* believe, about the Divine, about the deities I worship and have relationships with, about the nature of spirituality. I find myself talking about the experiences I have had, about what my daily practice looks like, about what I think is holy and how and why I celebrate the days that are holy to me. Yes, the Earth is sacred, and in many ways that sacred-ness of our Earth influences my beliefs, but it is not all that is sacred to me. If I found myself on another planet or another plane of existence, I believe I would still be able to connect to the Divine and would still have sacred, holy beings/places/things/ideals to honor, and therefore “earth-based” is not really and accurate definition of my practice.
I feel I should clarify that when I say:
“Maybe part of the problem is that one of the defining characteristics of Paganism is that it is decentralized, so by it’s very nature Paganism isn’t “centered” on anything.”
I mean that Paganism as a whole is not focused on any one thing, we are a diverse community of religions. That’s not to say that individual Pagans and Pagan Traditions do not have central beliefs or practices, but that the broader community that identifies as Pagan would be hard-pressed to find one central, common belief or practice to showcase as “The Center” of all things Pagan.
I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive, although of course for some folks it is so.
I believe there is definitely a generational aspect. Margot Adler, in her groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon back in 1979 stated that she was attracted to mid-20th century Neopaganism because of its ecological connection. I saw a snapshot last spring of a very young Selena Fox heading off to do a ritual at a celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970. For more than 40 years, Isaac wore a wedding ring symbolizing his “marriage” to Mother Earth. (He explained to me that he would be wearing two wedding rings, and hoped I wouldn’t mind. No, I didn’t mind 🙂 But Margot, Selena and Isaac all clearly had and have a connection to the Gods, too.
When I received my formal training in the last quarter of the 20th century, the Gods in their many forms were part of our practice, but I was also specifically enjoined to honor and observe the cycles and seasons of the earth.
In the ’90s, I began to meet people (mostly through CUUPS) who were not interested in the Gods at all. But they felt a great connection to the seasonal celebrations, both for the ways that they connected them with the earth (very grounding!) and for the ways that the rites gave them metaphors to connect with the seasons and cycles of their lives. It is this emphasis on the seasons over deity-based theology that gives traction to the idea that UU Pagan spirituality is a path unto itself, not just placing”regular” Paganism (which I say with a bit of tongue in cheek) under the local UU roof.
Now, it happens that Gardnerian and post-Gardnerian Wiccan forms are very well suited for seasonal celebrations. It may be one of the reasons that those rituals have persisted so successfully. As one of my mentors said, how can you beat a party every six weeks! But if one focuses more specifically on a particular pantheon or a particular deity, I can see where the seasonality would lose emphasis.
But with these Wiccan-derived forms, we’re also looking at the remnants of “they cared for for the earth more than we did” romanticizing of pre-industrial people and pre-Christian religion. It’s an attitude that certainly colors our view of Native American spirituality, for example. (The non-romantic view would be, of course, that our forebearers didn’t so much care for the earth as they just picked up and moved when the local resources were depleted.) However, without question the seasons and the weather were more important to pre-20th century people. No air conditioning, dodgy heating and lighting, no food out of season–seasonality was much more a part of life. And again, we have a generational gap. At age 60, I am old enough to remember when fruits or vegetables out of season simply weren’t available. My generation and older has a different sense of the seasons that you youngsters 😉
That last is just the argument I’ve made for many years of why urban, techno people need a nature religion. There is something of value in reconnecting to what our ancestors took for granted.
Could it be that if ancient pagans had information about the environmental consequences of their actions (as we do today) their faith would have lead them to act differently? I think yes, we all are animals with certain genetic predispositions (and selfish genes) but I think our social context is huge in determining how we live.
This is regarding children. I believe we are all born pagan and children naturally lean towards it. Children tend to love nature and the outdoors and to believe in magic, spirits, fairies, etc. until they are taught not to along with other unnatural ideas such as that the human body is dirty, that women are second-class, that homosexuality is wrong, etc. Kids are not born with all this baggage. And I’ve always found children to be perfectly at ease in ritual. So, Paganism is not a chosen religion unless we are driven away from it, as we often are, and later choose it. I think this is why so many people refer to converting to Paganism as “coming home”.
The question about Paganism being earth-based is more complex. I don’t agree that the roots of contemporary Paganism were in the dirt. Wicca in the England was born in domesticated nature and grew up in cities. Contemporary Paganism in American was largely developed and influenced by California urbanites. I’d say we’re ecologically minded and many of us follow a wheel of the year based on seasonal changes, but I think we need to examine just what ‘earth-based’ even means before we can determine if we fit that mold.
I wonder, Cosette, if you distinguish “pagan” from “Pagan.” Your second sentence makes me curious if you see a distinction.
I suppose I meant that the early ecological mindedness, or even the act of recognizing the earth as sacred, divine, or conscious in some way is being “in the dirt.” I agree that it’s valuable to examine what “earth-based” means.
What do you think earth-based means?
I do distinguish between pagan and Pagan. Speaking broadly, “paganism” refers to a collection of spiritual behaviors that include animism, pantheism, polytheism, reverence for nature, ancestor veneration, numinousness, and magic. In contemporary usage, Paganism (with a capital P) refers to modern movements that attempt to reconstruct or draw from historical paganism. We tend to think of Paganism as a religion (or a collection of them) with specific theologies, ritual practices, structures, etc.
I keep to a very general (and not very good) definition of ‘earth-based’. That is, an umbrella term to cover any religion that worships the earth, fertility deities, etc., but this definition has problems. It’s pretty vague and can probably be applied to religions whose adherents would not label themselves as such.
Thanks for clarifying your distinction here. Although, with reference to the discussion we were having above in which you stated you feel children are born ‘pagan’ (little p) which does not encompass religion or theology, animism, pantheism, and polytheism do specifically reference theology and religious orientation in their very definitions, and nature reverence and ancestor worship and the numinous speak to worldview which tends to be a cultural orientation encapsulated within a people’s religious framework. All of these things do point to theology, whether directly or obliquely.
It seems to me that most of the time when people say “earth-based” they are talking about some sort of veneration of the planet or ecosystem, and I’m afraid it very often is expressed in a kind of romanticised framework that would not be out of place with the variety of particularly weird Christian who insists that predators did not eat meat before the Fall from Eden, because everything was of course peaceful there.
Most of the rest of the time, they’re talking about adhering to natural cycles and the pattern of the seasons and so on. Often, they are using a strict and inflexible system of festival dates that does not usually adapt to local conditions of when and how the seasons actually progress. (The machine-like feel the standard Wheel of the Year has for me is one of the reasons I left Wiccish paganism; it was too regular to feel like the actual natural world to me.)
And, of course, in the “we celebrate the seasons and the natural cycles”, these pagans generally neglect to acknowledge that by that standard, Catholicism is earth-based – and the only reason they don’t know about Catholic planting and harvest blessings and the like is because urbanisation means they don’t have to have that awareness – it’s not relevant to their lives.
What it actually means? Fucked if I know. It’s never really felt relevant or true, so I tend to file it in the “This is a problem for people for whom it is a part of their religion” bucket.
When I run into “paganism equals earth-based/centered” directed at me, mostly it irritates me – partly because it’s really, really really vague, and partly because I am pretty sure that the meaning ascribed to it is inapplicable and wasn’t applicable in ancient times. (The ancients, after all, were really bad at environmental preservation.)
Children aren’t ‘born Pagan’ any more than they are born Christian or Sufi or atheist, because being any of those things requires holding a theological point of view and babies are not born with that, or the capacity for that, for quite awhile. Children do respond to faery tales because they are written in the poetic language of symbolism, which speaks directly to the parts of the brain developing at that stage of their lives. When the higher brain and abstract thinking develop in the teens, abstract thinking becomes possible. Children could feel at home in any ritual of any religious tradition, as ritual speaks that same poetic language as do faery tales. Religious ideas and behavior though, are just as much a part of social conditioning as are those ideas you mentioned above which you find distasteful.
I invite you to re-read my comment. I didn’t write that children are born Pagan; I wrote they are born pagan. There’s no mention there of religion or theology.
Cosette, the word is popularly used to denote a religious orientation, which includes theology, whether it is capitalized or not. If you’re using the word outside of its common usage it would be helpful if you would clarify how the word is meaningful in your context. When we don’t have a common sense of word definitions we can’t communicate clearly with one another.
I think it’s moving away from that (or, likelier, it just seems it is when in fact it’s just reflecting the diversity to be found within “paganism”) because of 1. the rising popularity of reconstructionist religions, which were often civic or urban religions, and 2. because paganism isn’t as uniformly white, cis, hetero, and middle-class as it once was. And with diversity comes awareness and complexity– there’s a lot of privilege associated with your typical USian environmentalist movement, and maybe that’s beginning to see the light of day. I say if you still have prejudice against your fellow human beings, then you’re a piss-poor environmental activist anyway.
“there’s a lot of privilege associated with your typical USian environmentalist movement…”
Could you unpack that a bit more, Lo?
I guess I’m more referring to the “green” and “locavore” movements as major cornerstones of modern environmentalism. I just don’t know as much about the history of the other types/branches, so I can’t really speak to them, but I know that “green” definitely has its roots in the movements of years past.
I can’t… really summarize this very well, because it’s so pervasive and complex. But, to me, the most dangerous thing about it is that the entire “green” conversation is framed in terms of -choice-, and the issue of necessity, of survival, is never addressed. Among many, many other things.
Because my explanation is far from adequate, I can give you some good links that touch on it:
You’ve brought up a complex issue, and I both agree and disagree with you.
On the one hand, a lot of things in the “green” movement, as you say, reflect a kind of upper-middle class privilege. I can easily spend three times my grocery budget trying to buy organic over conventionally grown food and specialty green cleaners. You basically have to expect to pay a premium for anything that promises to be more “green” than it’s conventional counterpart, and there are no shortage of people willing to pay that premium – even when the “green” claims are dubious.
But on the other hand, I have found that a lot of the things I do that I consider green I began because I couldn’t afford the conventional alternative. Whether it’s cloth diapers, reusable napkins and kitchen towels, reusable menstrual products, home-made cleaners, water-saving kitchen and bathroom fixtures, and meals made from scratch, a lot of the “green” stuff we do was born out of financial necessity as much as -or more than- a desire to be more environmentally responsible.
So while I agree that buying into a “green” product line and choosing always to purchase organic foods over conventionally grown foods will make a dent in anyone’s budget, there’s more to being green than buying the right products at the right stores, and anyone on any budget can find some ways to be more environmentally friendly.
“But on the other hand, I have found that a lot of the things I do that I consider green I began because I couldn’t afford the conventional alternative.”
That’s actually the crux of many of the criticisms of the green movement; the fact that this reality isn’t often acknowledged and for some, even a source of embarrassment on behalf of “their” movement.
There are just tons of different things that many groups ignore, and I know I’m not the only person that finds that problematic. Whether it’s simple ignorance of international politics, whitewashing or erasure of indigenous rights, villainizing other cultures, or just plain looking at issues too simplistically… all these things need to be considered and critiqued. No movement or school of thought is without its flaws.
But I am generally very suspicious of people who think it’s their imperative to “save the world” because they know better or something. And the majority of the green movement I keep a healthy distance from, even though I am as environmentally-conscious as my current circumstances allow.
And oh jeez, just started watching the video… not 20 seconds in and I hear “The Pagan Religion”. Yikes.
I know. I mentioned a little later that “The Pagan Religion” was a bit of a misnomer.
I had written out a long diatribe about how I disagreed with Gus, and then when I got to the bottom and figured out what I was really saying, I found that I agreed with him.
I feel a little sheepish now.
At what stage of development does a child’s thoughts then finally drift toward a spiritual level? Because I remember being at a surprisingly young age (like 5 or 6) when I started pondering my spirituality, asking myself questions so existential that I don’t think many people think to voice them until they’re in their teens or later.
I really think it depends on the child, and because we cannot know every spark of our children’s minds, whether they are young or not, there are those who approach parenting in a new way. By choosing not to meddle, or simply to remain objective. I don’t think that would keep us from forming family traditions.
I’m not saying children don’t question, but often at young ages it is at surface levels, not at abstract theological levels. This is also why young children don’t do algebra, for example; abstract thinking is required. Raising children with family traditions isn’t meddling, and providing a worldview isn’t obtrusive. Everyone eventually forms their own thoughts and ideas; that can’t be stopped, and family traditions aren’t designed to stop them.
Parents providing a family framework in a spiritual sense doesn’t have to be done in a stranglehold that cuts off personal questioning and exploration. Those things often arise from a lack of feelings of belonging and security, which are more relevant to childrens’ immediate needs, and if those are provided, children have less need to go looking for them elsewhere. We need not assume either that children will automatically find their family’s tradition questionable; they may well not.
Certainly be prepared to provide thoughts, answers and space should questions eventually arise, but not at the expense of leaving children floating on their own from the beginning.
I have no objections to raising children to be aware of and participate in the religious traditions of their families. If, as an older child or adult, that spiritual path no longer works for them, they will be free to explore and find something that does. That’s what we did.
My mother sometimes expresses confusion that her kids did not wind up in the religion of our family (we three were raised Roman Catholic, but wound up as a Witch, a Swami and an Christmas Catholic gone atheist). My sister (the atheist) told her that she should be proud that she raised kids who took religion seriously enough that they weren’t content until they found a religion (or lack thereof) that worked for them.
Your first paragraph, Phaedra, is exactly what I was expressing, yes, and also the approach I have been taking with my sons. I see it as leading them to the Well; whether they care to drink from it is up to them; that cannot be dictated or forced. And if they eventually feel the need to explore on their own, they will be supported in that too.
In regards to being “earth-based”: I honestly think you cannot sum up an umbrella term like Paganism with one ideology. But in my personal practice, yes, I am very earth-based. It’s about respect for everything that lives, and that includes the tiniest micro-organism in the dirt. Not only respect for what lives, but WHY it lives, and what processes of nature endure that life. One thing that often comes up is the subject of vegetarianism, that we should not eat animals because it would be disrespectful to kill anything for our own purposes (one of many arguments, of course), and I have to disagree with that. I would argue that every living thing – plant or animal – is sacred, and killing a living thing for our own sustenance is imperative to our survival. Now, how we treat the animals we rear to later slaughter is another matter entirely, but it does not remove my respect for a deer or a fish to say that I like to eat either of them. It’s really about not taking any life for granted.
Of course, that is my opinion only, and what matters is that comfort through faith is a personal experience. I may argue this or that, but that does not mean I am correct or, moreover, on the right path.
I would like to weigh in, although I think I’ll say what I’ve seen in the comments of others.
In regards to “earth-centered:” I guess this term only works if one’s religious narrative is that the earth itself is the object of worship; it is sacred and divine. Personally, I think that most Pagans worship a god or gods and see the earth as a part of creation. That the religious observances coincide with the changing of the seasons, I think that the term “earth-centered” might be more appropriate. I also see that when we follow the seasons for our religious observances, we do tend to be more aware of what is happening with the earth and develop a desire to change things for the better.
As for children and religion, I both agree and disagree with Eairanne. While very young children don’t have the capability to have theological dialogue or to fully understand religion, I don’t think that the values and morals we raise our children with need to be steeped in religion for them to be able to make their own spiritual decisions later in life. Raising our children to be good human beings with compassion and integrity can be done outside of a specific religious dogma.
I meant to say “earth-based.” Sorry.
Pagans should not lose touch with the earth based aspect of the tradition. Every other religion seems to have lost touch with it and it would be a shame if for the sake of modernization, indigenous religions lose what makes them so unique and important.
Well … calling the pagan religions indigenous is a whole can of worms in and of itself.
Another definition of indigenous is “innate; inherent; natural.” Less to do with a proximate area and more to do with the land as a whole, I think.
how could anything NOT be earth based? I suppose if we were on Mars it could be Mars-based. But I and many people consider “earth” to be a synonym for the “universe, all that it contains, and its laws” How could any being, whether ancestor, spirit or deity, not be based in the earth?
By also being based in a cultural mythic construct, and on the -part of- the earth from which one’s tradition derives. ‘Earth-based’ is over-simplified and under-nuanced as a descriptor.