A Plainly Declared Position

Every time recently that I have sat down to write here at The Great Tininess, I have been caught at an impasse. I wish to speak of issues pertaining to contemporary paganism, and yet the bulk of what I want to say is that “Paganism” is itself a faulty notion, a mis-nomer. How can I write about something whose reality I deny? Thankfully, I have found a passage from the late great French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, one that I think addresses my predicament pretty well:

“To accept as a theme for discussion a category that one believes to be false always entails the risk, simply by the attention that is paid to it, of entertaining some illusion about its reality. In order to come to grips with an imprecise obstacle one emphasizes contours where all one really wants is to demonstrate their insubstantiality, for in attacking an ill-founded theory the critic begins by paying it a kind of respect. The phantom which is imprudently summoned up, in the hope of exorcising it for good, vanishes only to reappear, and closer than one imagines to the place where it was at first.

Perhaps it would be wiser to let obsolete theories fall into oblivion, and not to awake the dead. But, as old King Arkel says, history does not produce useless events. If great minds were fascinated for years by a problem which today seems unreal, it is because they vaguely perceived that certain phenomena, arbitrarily grouped and ill analyzed tough they may have been, were nevertheless worthy of interest. How could we hope to tackle them for ourselves, in order to propose a different interpretation, without first agreeing to retread pace by pace an itinerary which, even if it led nowhere, induces us to look for another route and may help us to find it?”

Lévi-Strauss sought to debunk the anthropological construct called “totemism,” and, regarding totemism, he immediately goes on to say this:

“It should be emphasized that we employ the term totemism, skeptical though we are as to the reality of what it denotes, as it has been understood by the authors whose theories we are about to discuss. It would be inconvenient to put it always in quotation marks, or to prefix it with the word “so-called.” The requirements of the argument authorize certain concessions of vocabulary. But the quotation marks and the adjective should always be understood as implicit, and a reader would be ill advised to raise objection on the ground of any phrase or expression which might appear to contradict this plainly declared position.” (From Totemism chapter 1, “The Totemic Illusion” trans. Rodney Needham)

From now on on this blog, I would like to stick to a similar “plainly declared position” regarding contemporary paganism: As became clear to my readers over the last few months over a prolongued discussion concerning what constitutes contemporary paganism, I have come to regard this so-called “movement” or pathas an illusion. I maintain that there is no such thing as a “pagan community,” because those who call themselves pagans are too-often dissimilar in terms of potentially unifying theology, custom, values, and culture. I maintain that “Pagan” can not be used as a meaningful religious identifier, because it denotes nothing specific about an individual or a group’s religious practice or belief. I also maintain that no religious community or communities can hope to form without a group of people first making the effort to ground themselves in a common Unitive Story, a theology and a practice.

I have decided to make this declaration now because I believe that it will allow me to move beyond the block that has kept me from writing for the last several weeks. Given this position, I hope you’ll look forward to an upcoming series of posts regarding what it might mean to begin developing “pagan” theology and values.


About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

6 Responses to A Plainly Declared Position

  1. While I agree that there’s no pagan society and barely anything recognizable as a culture, I really must disagree that there’s no pagan community. To be a community doesn’t have to mean that you’re bound by the same, to use your list, “potentially unifying theology, custom, values, and culture.” I think you’re describing society, not community. Community exists because of shared interest.

    While I agree that we’re not bound necessarily even by the same religion, there is a community mired in the midst of all of this uncertainty and chaos. Paganism isn’t a church, certainly. But this group – I maintain, this community – is at the very least bound by a perceived unified connection of nebulous religious theory. We get together throughout the year, as we can, in this enormous community. We even share ritual as a communal whole.

    I agree that we need to push towards definition and truly unified identity. And I also agree that there is not necessarily a pagan culture or society. But I defy you to say that there is no community. Experience and reality is colored by perception. So long as this community perceives itself to be one – and it does – we will exist as such. Absurdly nebulous and disjointed, sure. So perhaps not even the ideal community. Still, though, a community that has told itself to exist through mainly sheer stubbornness.

    I know that you’re aiming for something bright and good and shining at the end of this, but where you’re starting seems harsh and severe. It feels like you’re just ignoring the connections that people calling themselves pagan have made for themselves. Like you’re ignoring the work that people have put into all of this and the unity that everyone else seems to feel and accept, even if you don’t.

  2. Hystery says:

    A brave post and well said. I look forward to reading along as you develop your thinking on this matter. I find myself thinking along similar lines- hesitant to say there is no “Paganism” as a useful category, at least in terms of religious definition, if only because it sounds as though I am denying the lived reality others understand as their Pagan experience. I am not. On the other hand, despite my trepidation, I am looking forward to the development of a more nuanced vocabulary for discussing what is now inadequately framed as “Pagan.” It is a structure that cannot stand the stresses and strains we bring to it. We need a better architecture.

  3. Pingback: Pag*n Values, Flying Bison « Pagan Godspell

  4. Pitch313 says:

    I think that it’s sometimes useful to look at Paganism as a complex of intertwined story universes and characters and Pagans as a fandom. That’s how it seems to go in a mostly postmodern cultural environment.

  5. Pingback: (Repost) Pagan Values and Flying Bison « Pagan Godspell

  6. Pingback: UnPause, Follow Up and Moving Forward « Pagan Godspell

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