‘The Impossibility Of Religious Freedom’

One book that I think everybody — but especially pagans — should read is Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. This work chronicles the legal battle Warner vs. Boca Raton, which was waged over the rights of individuals to engage in religious (?) practices at their loved ones’ grave sites. The work also highlights the fact that while we in America may think that spiritual practices of all sorts are protected under constitutional law, the reality of the matter is much murkier.

For example, in the case described in the book,  the city of Boca Raton banned the practice of Jewish familys leaving rocks on the headstones of their loved ones, framing the practice (which is carried out by Jews all over the world) as littering that created obstacles for the graveyard lawnmower. A judge ruled against the family members who objected to the ban because, in the judge’s opinion, the practice of leaving stones is not fundamental to the religion of Judaism. That is, the judge saw stone-leaving as secondary, merely ‘cultural’, not ‘religious’, not-so-central-to-the-faith —  and therefore not protected under the religion clauses. The judge was of the opinion that only practices specifically called for by religious law and holy texts are really “religious.”

Recently, influential evangelical David Barton, who was quoted on The Wild Hunt this week, has suggested that ‘paganism and witchcraft’ aren’t really religions, and that they are therefore not protected by the religions clause. I would like to suggest that, while Barton’s remarks came from a place of misunderstanding and hate, we may be able to take his remarks as a jumping off point into a broader discussion of paganism’s relationship to the law.

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On Rite Conduct

I want to take a minute and discuss something that has been rumbling around in my head for the last few weeks – piety. “Pietas” is a Roman word and referred to one of the virtues expected of a man (*gag*), wherein a man “performed all his duties towards the deity and his fellow human beings fully and in every respect.”

I hate the fact that historically this word has such gendered connotations. But – as with all concepts from the ancient world that we try to resurrect – we’ll have to do the best we can to overcome that bias. I’m also not very keen on the fact that having pietas also involved a man’s commitment to country – but we are talking about the Romans, after all. Of course, the concept has had a life since the Romans. Groups with roots in the Mediterranean world have all developed their take on pietas and, down through the centuries, Anglophone culture has inherited a Christian sense of the word “piety” that emphasizes psychological humility.

I’d like to go back to the drawing board and construct a new kind of piety, but a piety re-grounded in the aspect of “pietas” that emphasizes ritual propriety. Of course, propriety is all a matter of taste, and “Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition.” I’m not trying to lay down rules and regulations for how you should interact in your rituals under the auspices of your gods. But, I would like to see pagans and new polytheists enter into deeper conversations regarding ritual conduct and the theological implications inherent therein, and then to go about including their conclusions regarding ritual conduct into their ritual practices. My wish is that this piece of writing can inform some of those conversations.

So, I’d like to define piety as respectful and harmonious conduct in the presence of gods. Thus, I see two sides to piety: ritual piety and personal piety.

In order to discuss the relationship between ritual piety and personal piety, first it will be useful to outline a distinction I first encountered in J. Van Baal’s article on “Offering, sacrifice, and gift,” which has done a lot to shape my ideas about domestic polytheism and ritual. The distinction I’m referring to is between “high-intensity” ritual situations and “low-intensity” situations.

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Design Principle: The Gods Are Real

((For the moment, I’m going to be presenting design principles (as discussed here) behind the New Polytheism in no particular order.))

As I’ve said before (See: Pagan Opinions), we have to put our feet down about things. We need to have opinions and stick to them.  Just to make one thing absolutely clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone reading this needs to adopt the same opinions as everyone else, just that people need to gather with those of a similar mind and then conduct rituals with them. We need not continue our tradition of absolute theological relativism, where every ritual performed is expected to be accommodating to any and all theological outlook.

Ritual presenters especially need to decide on a few things before they begin. Isn’t this obvious? If one presenter wants to do a ritual to propitiate Cthulhu as an avatar of that person’s own psyche, and another wants to mourn the death of Lugh, I have two questions:

1) Why are they even planning a ritual together anyway? (something that I’ll address when I talk about “Rituals with Purpose”)

2) How could a compromise between these two goals result in anything other than contradictory, ineffective ritual?

Yet this is the situation we find ourselves in all too often.

Sure, some people see it as inclusive. “Everyone is welcome to bring their own point of view to the ritual,” one might say, “we don’t want to seem dogmatic.”

But let’s ask ourselves: Why does everyone need to be included? Don’t get me wrong: I’m not for physically keeping people out of rituals. But, why does a ritual need to bend itself into a pretzel trying to accommodate each participant’s theology? Why not, instead, don’t we expect participants to try to be challenged by the theology presented in the ritual if it is not their own? It’s not like they aren’t free to leave. This is one way that we can work toward evolving helpful boundaries around our religious communities–“We’re the folks who invoke the ancient deity Lugh. Those folks over there are the Jungian Lovecraftians. We don’t fight or anything, it’s just that they do what they do and we do what we do. We even have interfaith dialogue, given that we are of separate and distinct faiths.

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The New Polytheism

Any person involved in a religious community is, by their very involvement, shaping that community in some way. Theologians, priests, and other specialists (as well as lay people!) can of course write or do activism in such a way that dramatically reshapes their religion–Luther is an obvious example of this.

Additionally, I might make the cautious assertion that the founders of new religions (Jesus, Muhammad, Oyasama, Raël, etc.) are “designing” practices and beliefs to be disseminated among believer/practitioners in such a way as to bring about certain results. (Maybe. It’s just as possible that the Elohim did show up to Raël and tell him how to conduct himself as their messenger… I’m not a Raelian, so I’m tempted not to believe this…)

What are these “results” that I’m talking about? Well, I’m not sure. All I’m trying to say is that folks have to have a point when they begin leading a new movement: Some would say that Jesus’ point was to bring about a new era of peace (and some would disagree, obviously); others might say that Aleister Crowley’s point (the thing he wanted to get across to people) was a new sacralization of the individual, the bringing of the “New Aeon” (and some would disagree).

All of us being individuals speeding around in the no-man’s land of the cultic milieu (breeding ground of the heterodox and the heretical), we are constantly in the process of creating Religion; that is, of creating (however oxymoronical this may sound) new traditions. I would say that our situations resemble those of Muhammad and John Calvin: We freely empower ourselves either to stick with the old and riff on it, building something new on traditional foundations, or to totally reinvent everything. Muhammad or Jesus or Oyasama built on tradition (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17); but, they also produced new customs, new liturgical concepts, new theology.

“Johnny,” you might be thinking, “All of those traditions you’ve named have founders, they’re creedal, and that is nothing like our situation!” …I get that point, but I disagree. If we belong to any organization (ADF, Temple of Set, Covenant of the Goddess, Temple of Witchcraft, a local coven, whatever!) that organization had a founder or group of founders, and those founders held beliefs–beliefs that spurred them to form the organization–that, through participation, we are at least tacitly agreeing with.

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Public Statues, Pagan Shrines

On our way home from Iowa City’s annual Lammasfest, Ruby Sara and I (along with RS’s intrepid spouse) stopped by the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site to do something pretty unexpected: We paid a visit to a Goddess.

You see, nestled inconspicuously amid the park’s weeping willows and replica buildings there is an amazing statue of Isis. As you can see in the image above, Isis is enthroned atop zodiacal symbols, holds a brazier, and is eerily veiled. We had all had a long day, so we didn’t stay long; but, RS left a coin at the Goddess’s feet and we took a moment to say hello.

This little excursion of ours got me thinking: Why don’t I see pagans leaving offerings at public statues? Wouldn’t that make sense? The concept even tickles the anarchist in me, a sort of popular reclaiming of urban spaces – religious squatting, perhaps. Time and again I hear pagans complain about having no worship spaces (“We need a temple, but we’ll never have the money!” is a common trope), and now I look around and see a city full of shrines just waiting to be used!

The ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Semites all revered statues in one way or another, and I say that we can, too.

Interestingly, statues in the ancient world often changed usage: Though a given statue might be used by one people as the image of a specific deity, it might be appropriated by newcomers and used as a generic apotropaic image. Or, a rather unremarkable statue (one left long ago in a deserted city, perhaps) might be taken up as the image of (or very body of) a specific God. Sometimes, a statue of a given God could be taken to represent an entirely different figure by a new population. The re-use (or hijacking) of statues is as old as urbanism!

Did you know that outside the Chicago Board of Trade building there are two statues, one of “Industry,” the other of “Agriculture“? Why not leave a few coins at the feet of either of these two Goddesses? I’m talking about making each of these statues into a shrine, a place where the passerby might send up a prayer to Ceres for prosperity, or leave a chunk of bread for one of Hephaestus’s daughters (and the homeless, perhaps). I’m talking about creating a living urban polytheism, right here in Chicago (or any other big city), based on existing sites.

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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.

Pagan Opinions

or, Against Pagan Perennialism


I don’t believe in God. I mean I don’t believe in God with a capital G, YHVH, The God of the Hebrews, The Almighty. Or, rather, I guess I do: I believe that the ancient Levantine deity El got himself a fan club and changed his name. I’ve even had flirtations with worshipping the big guy, from time to time.

What I mean when I say that I don’t believe in “God” is that I don’t believe that any one divinity—or force, or whatever—that is the Ultimate Reality, the Truth. And I definitely don’t believe that such a force, even if it existed (which it doesn’t) could possibly be the same entity that talked to Moses on Sinai, or revealed himself to Muhammad—or the non-illusion toward which Buddhist monks strive—or an amalgamation of all the deities of India, Japan, or anywhere else—or any philosophy, for that matter.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe in The Ultimate, or The One. (*)

And so you can imagine how torqued I got a few weeks ago at an interfaith event at which a participant remarked, “Well, I think we can all agree that all gods are one and that god is love.” I certainly don’t agree.

Sure, this sort of statement isn’t going to get a room full of agnostics and UUs into an argument, but I think that it underscores a deep problem within the interfaith movement, and also Paganism. ((Briefly, let me preface what I’m about to say by acknowledging that interfaith work is absolutely essential in today’s world—especially in areas riddled with religious persecution or war—but that I’m talking about the sort of interfaith dialogue that I have seen here in the States over the last few years, which is much more luke-warm.))

You see, interfaith work today is often realized around the central idea of unity among all religious communities. That is, those involved in interfaith discussions concentrate on the commonalities among all religious traditions and search for a so-called “Perennial Philosophy” that undergirds all faiths. The idea is that all differences of doctrine or belief are culturally and historically brought about, and that such differences can be set aside for the purposes of everybody getting along.

A big problem is that the perennial philosophy is so often clothed in the language of the major monotheisms. Indeed, the perennial philosophy that is tacitly agreed upon at many interfaith gatherings that I’ve been to goes something like this: “Well, I think we can all agree that all gods are one God and that God is love.”

My issue is that I don’t agree with the whole perennial philosophy business in the first place. I don’t think that you can reduce all religions down to a few concepts, because in doing so you inevitably strip every tradition of everything that makes itself meaningful: You can’t take the divinity of Jesus out of Catholicism or the sole-ness of Allah out of Sunni Islam; If you do, you’re not dealing with either tradition anymore. Additionally, when you do try to reduce traditions into any sort of pan-religious belief,  those beliefs are usually at odds, in my view, with earth-centered, Feminist spirituality the second you get more specific than “It’s probably good not to flay people alive”. When all religious beliefs are boiled down to belief in one all-powerful personal and yet transcendent force, you are excluding the view points of anyone whose beliefs are predicated precisely upon the irreducibility of experience or deities into an ultimate reality or One. Anyone like me.

Let me put it another way: I think that we would all benefit from a rejection of inter-faith dialogue, which would be replaced by attempts at extra-faith interactions. In concentrating on our commonalities during interfaith dialogue, we essentially side-step all important (or interesting, for that matter) points of discussion. Why don’t we allow each other to hold to our own views instead of ignoring them and setting them aside as cultural “baggage”? Let’s really hash out why we believe things and then deal with those beliefs instead of constantly throwing our hands up and allowing that everyone’s opinion is “equally” valid.

Excuse me, no they’re not. Racist, sexist, classist, and agist ideologies are not valid. To me, ideologies that deny the body are not valid. Ideologies predicated upon gender essentialism or racial superiority are not valid. Ideologies which valorize large scale industrial warfare are not valid.

A Buddhist monk might say that the world we perceive is an illusion that must be denied. I COULD NOT DISAGREE MORE FUNDAMENTALLY.  But, I can choose to participate in a discussion in which we both engage with our held beliefs and try to convince each other of our view’s merits.

This would amount to active evangelism on the part of each participant in “extrafaith” situations. You believe you’re right, and I believe I’m right. Here, try to convince me otherwise! Then I get to try to convince you! This would require a certain amount of maturity, it’s true, and I hope that we as Pagans can work toward fostering that sort of maturity within our own community. In order for us to do that, I think, we’ll eventually have to start forming some definite opinions of our own.

Yes, opinions. Real ones. In order for us to coalesce into any real sort of religious community, I believe that we must set about rejecting the absolute relativism that plagues Paganism today. How can we work toward theological depth if we have to constantly ping-pong between the beliefs (and they have them, oh they have them, despite what some might say) of all the various groups that make up Paganism today? This issue is something that I touched on here.

Any ritual practice supposes a politics. I believe, then, that we need to start coalescing around our political ideologies and seeing them through in our philosophical, theological, and ritual outlooks. As an anarchist eco-Feminist, my Paganism will necessarily look much different than that of a free-market obsessed misogynist. Here we must draw the lines of our communities.

Listen, even though we both call ourselves Pagans, there are a whole lot of folks out there today that I have absolutely nothing in common with: If we weren’t all trying to get along all the time, there would be no reason for me to ever chill out in “circle” with people I disagree with on every point. We all need to get some opinions and stick to them! I don’t care if we all agree—well, I do, but we can hash that out later—but it’s important that we move beyond the wishy-washy theological kindergarten that we’re stuck in now.

I don’t believe in God, the ultimate Creator; but a lot of Pagans do (anyone who engages in a kabbalistically-arranged cosmology does, for example). Isn’t this difference fundamentally important enough that it should begin to define the contours of two or more separate religious communities? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, then, we could all sit around a table and actually get somewhere by discussing our differences instead of ignoring them?

(* Note: Long-time readers might recognize this as a far cry from some of my earlier declarations of faith; All of this represents the evolution of my own theology, which I’ll get to soon enough.)