On “Giving Ourselves a Bad Name”

It is not uncommon these days to run across a statement like, “We need to discourage people from saying (insert hated idea here) because it makes the Pagan community look crazy/flaky/fluffy/communist (fill in favorite pejorative to taste).” The idea being that “inaccurate” historical statements or other questionable notions will somehow “give us a bad name.” I’ve hinted that I find this position debatable before, but now I’d like to talk about it in depth.

My first problem with the “don’t make us look bad” viewpoint is that it tends to focus on things like historical information that are not actually settled issues. The fact that, say, Ronald Hutton, wrote a book saying one thing or another about Pagan history does not make it the consensus. It means that one person with an academic pedigree wrote a book. This book may be “more accurate” in some ways than past efforts (in fact one hopes so), but the study of pre-Christian religion in Europe is still quite a small arena when considered against other topics, and one voice in such an environment can seem to be the “voice of truth” simply because there are few others to counter it.

Second, the focus on history itself seems out of place. There are far more unpleasant things that have attached themselves to the modern magickal and Pagan communities. A troubling tendency for certain types of Pagans to gravitate toward ethnic chauvinism or even outright Neo-nazism for instance. Or the equally noxious drift toward fascism in the more Hermetic groups. Yet the number of Pagan run websites dealing with these topics appears small, while the number of “anti-fluffy” sites and discussion groups seems to be growing. I think this is a drastic misuse of energy if one is interested in improving the image of Modern Paganism.

Third, the tone of the discussion is not conducive to either persuasion or, should an outsider stumble upon such a forum or site, likely to achieve the stated goal. Were I an interested non-Pagan, googling around and discovering different takes on the various Pagan religions, and I came across a page called “Why We Despise Silver Ravenwolf,” I would be inclined to think that the page was run by someone with either serious maturity issues or that it was deliberately defamatory. Perhaps I’m a bit old fashioned, but I think that one can make a point without being insulting to the efforts of others.

Finally, I see very little chance that people embedded in the modern materialist worldview are going to ever truly see Pagans and magickal folk as anything but harmless eccentrics. The more we try to “live up” to their standards of philosophy or “accurate” history, the more we will look like fools because magick is diametrically opposed to the dominant paradigm and will sound like nonsense from that perspective. I don’t think the difference between worldviews has been adequately addressed, and in many ways I think there has been an tendency to sweep it under the rug.

It is my opinion that the modern, flatland perspective is part of the problem. Other religious minorities, without Christianity’s default acceptance, do not even worry about adjusting their views to suit those of individuals with no spiritual anchor whatsoever. They simply demand to be left alone to pursue their beliefs as they see fit.

I see the desire to be “acceptable” to the mainstream on its own terms as fundamentally wrongheaded. If we are truly something other than a weekend party religion, this means there are basic differences in our worldview and that of the more materialist society around us. Materialism will not accept a spiritual perspective, because it denies the existence of Spirit.

Yet Modern Paganism also emerged from the same fragmented and disenchanted worldview. At root it is a Romantic reaction to it, with all the issues that brings. I think it is growing out of that status that will determine the future of Neopaganism, not an obsession with an “accurate” view of the past.

  1. Have you ever actually read the essay “Why We Despise Silver Ravenwolf”? It doesn’t sound like it. The author’s complaints about Silver Ravenwolf’s false history is almost secondary- the primary complaint is about her bigotry and morality. SR doesn’t create revisionist history for it’s own sake, but to attack Christians. She sneers at any form of worship she doesn’t herself teach, and any diety she doesn’t include in her own books. She teaches children to lie to their parents, and adults to lie to their friends and family. Silver Ravenwolf is denounced not because of “an obsession with an “accurate” view of the past.”, but because she is saying things that should be denounced regardless of religion or history.

    • The mention of the essay is in the paragraph concerning the tone with which the “anti-fluffy” crusade puts forth its views, not the one about history. It was an example of an attitude and approach that I think is equally, if not more, detrimental than that which it opposes.

  2. You make some excellent points, but a couple comments seem in order.

    First, I think that the worldview differences are so infrequently adequately addressed simply because there is an inadequate awareness of them, or at least an inadequate awareness of their implications. Without such an awareness, even well-intended, honest attempts to foster “maturity” among Pagans are likely to appear to be attempts to “sweep it under the rug.”

    That many Pagans show signs of a certain anti-intellectualism is not in dispute, but attempts to “fix” this problem without first figuring out how a Pagan intellectualism would differ from a secular intellectualism will inevitably have serious problems.

    The second comment I have is that, even should we come to a greater awareness of how Pagan worldviews tend to differ from secular and materialist worldviews, some of us will probably always appear to others to illicitly or wrongly import aspects of it. Which is simply because some of us will have different answers concerning where the dominant paradigms go wrong. For instance, is one of the problems with contemporary America that the liberal ideals have not been adequately put into practice? Or is there some fundamental problem with liberalism itself?

    Finally, I think it goes nearly without saying that there must be some form of accommodation to be found with the dominant culture. Paganism as a subculture, a community, and a religious movement cannot last unless it continues to draw people in–especially people with significant talent or intellect. It cannot thrive unless its members can also find a way to thrive. Furthermore, if we do believe that Paganism offers some improvement over the dominant paradigms, we ought to find some way to communicate this and find a public ear. Appearing “respectable” in some sense has to be a part of this, though such respectability would probably have to be grounded in a positive presentation of the fundamental difference Paganism makes rather than minimizing the difference.

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