Is it wrong to be bothered by the growing secularisation of paganism?

With all my talk of finding the word “pagan” more and more meaningless, it might be contradictory, sure, but that’s pretty obvious to me.

This has really been eating at me for a while, and I just see it as more and more reason to see a clear need for recognising the differences between the pagan community and the polytheist community (which I’ll treat as a single entity in this piece, because of not only syncretic types, but because even single-pantheon polytheists, in general, even two worshippers from incredibly different religious tribes, tend to share more in common with each-other than they’re likely to share with the average pagan, or so it seems from where I sit) if only because “polytheist” actually means something, its etymology is not that of a “reclaimed slur word” (as “pagan” very clearly is), so there’s none of this “means different things to different people” nonsense. The word “polytheist” means something, it means “one who believes in many deities”, end of story. The nuance of that belief can vary, sure, no-one is saying that it can’t, but it means something.

But I’m still bothered by the growing atheist, humanist, and secular voices claiming to be “pagan” because my first exposure to even just the word, before I even stuck a toe in the community in my adolesence, the word “pagan” carried connotations and implications of “pre-Christian religion and pre-Christian beliefs in Divinity”. It had nothing to do with the Neo-Flower Child community at Faerieworlds and Burning Man, but it was soon clear that it could have some overlap with that, as well, but that what made people pagans and not merely hippies was that they were religious in a certain way. I now see that, cos I was like ten or something, I had blinders on, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and I was just really excited to learn that there was another way to experience the divine than Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Taoism, the Shenism my brother-in-law’s family practised (which I’ve since learned is rarer in Hong Kong than in the PRC —and just to be a pedant, they’re also Taoist), or a Hinduism that I (mistakenly, at the time) believed didn’t accept converts.

A friend of mine has, in recent years, made a distinction between “scene pagans” and “religious pagans”, and I really can’t say they’re wrong in doing so, because there really does seem to be two distinct approaches to “paganism”, and the latter seem to be on a trend to just divorcing themselves from the term “pagan”, even if they do at least sometimes still participate in that community. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a party, or polyamoury, or geek culture, or folk music, or caring about the environment, and homesteading —but it some seem striking to me that the sorts of “pagans”, in my experience, who seem to be most-likely to dive head-first into the latter two are far more religious than those mostly interested in the “pagan community” for the former items. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to come down on people, indeed, my own environmentalist habits are somewhat lacking, and even though I know enough to know that urban homesteading is, indeed, a thing, I don’t intend on staying in Lansing for the rest of my life (I’m warming up more to the idea of Philadelphia rather than Chicago before I expatriate), so true homesteading here just seems a bit much, even if I could stand to adopt some more skills along those lines; I’m just saying that I find it interesting that (again, in my experiences) there seems to be a general correlation between being clearly religious and adopting a lifestyle that actually does treat the planet as something human beings should take care of.

I also really don’t understand the seemingly visceral aversion to “beliefs” that a lot of prominent pagan bloggers have recently “come out” about (ex: [1]). I mean, to an extent, I can understand when people have come from the most abusive of Christian households, and so they think that “beliefs”, in a religious context, are something that must not ever be questioned, and if there is any doubt, then one simply doesn’t believe hard enough, and that “lack of belief” can be beaten out or something —like I said, I can understand that to an extent. Ultimately, though, you’d think that people who seem pretty good at clearly putting forth their desire to sound smart would actually be smart enough to recognise that they know nothing about “beliefs” and their history, and recognise that pre-Christian religions have always had their beliefs, even if the intricacies of said were generally treated as something that could be very individual. On the other hand, don’t assume I’m so stupid as to take the absurd intellectual dishonesty of that post as anything more than that, because here’s the thing, let’s take Hellenic schools of philosophy for an example, if you held beliefs that were clearly at odds with one school or another, those who actually took their time to study and contemplate that philosophy wouldn’t accept your nonsense if you told them you were just as much of that school as they were. I mean, sure, you were more than welcome to join or even start a different school of philosophy, but if you were a staunch Monist, you WERE NOT, in any circumstances, a part of the Pluralist schools, such as that of Empedocles. Were Pluralists free to discuss and debate what that actually meant? Absolutely, the nuances of Pluralism can be very individual (indeed, that’s kind of one of the main reasons to be a Pluralist), but there is, indeed, a line where, if you cross it, you’re clearly not a Pluralist anymore —maybe still a polytheist, still a Hellenist, just not a Pluralist.

And that’s where I see the beauty of “Pagan Beliefs”; they can be very individual, and even within the same umbrella group of religions, such as Hellenismos (to be frank, Hellemismos is more an umbrella of several tribal religions than a single religion), if a certain set of broadly defined beliefs no longer work for you, well, here’s another school of philosophy with something that works better, and if that doesn’t really work either, nobody said you need only one school of philosophy, or even any at all, you’re more than free to just have your patchwork quilt of beliefs to keep you cozy, and you can add or remove patches as you go, you have no set time-frame wherein you must finish the quilt —you’re even more than welcome to believe that you continue to build it even after you die, if that so pleases you.

On the other hand, it should seem obvious that some beliefs for Hellenismos are going to be a given, that they’re just as much a part of the whole “orthopraxy, not orthodoxy” as a certain ritual script. Like believing Aphrodite is a Goddess of Love, Sex, Beauty, Affection, and yes, even has War and Motherhood aspects, as one example. While exactly What Aphrodite is, and how literally you believe in Her Goddesshood is entirely up to you, it’s kind of expected that She’s going to be a part of almost every Tribal Hellemismos, is not literally every single one, and that this is one of the things that Hellenists do, in fact, believe. Hellenists also clearly believe that Hellenic religion is best for them, and believe in adopting a Hellenic outlook on life or syncretising that outlook into their own individual outlook.

And this is where I see the inevitable divide between pagans and polytheists: Even “Eclectic Polytheists” believe in deities, in one way or another. If Pagans don’t want to believe in anything, well, apparently they don’t have to —except, of course, when one professes the belief that “pagans don’t need beliefs”.

And yet, I’m saddened. I’m saddened because, for years and years, I was under the impression that “pagan” and “paganism” meant something, and it specifically related to one’s religious culture and outlook. And while I’ve certainly been aware of debates about how much stress “should be” placed on religion in the pagan community for years, even before I was an active part of said, I can’t really source the rise of secular paganism until fairly recently.

I think part of the reason I so easily become bothered by this is because, frankly, in the last few years, I quickly got used to the fact that the general “pagan community” is not only my default go-to for religious items, including (but not limited to) statuary, incense, and books, but also a source of simply finding co-religionists, or even selling a tea or coffee reading. I also have so few people I have much of anything in common with, so seeing what appears to be a pool evaporating before my eyes can be worrisome.

While ultimately, I do believe that people who were meant to find something ultimately find it, whether it’s a religious outlook or a Pete Townshend record, it’s still not comforting to acknowledge that more people I have little, if anything, in common with are going to cross my path, and yes, potentially belittle or degrade me. It’s bad enough that I have to deal with the homophobes and Nationalists in YSEE, and it’s bad enough that I have to deal with a Mod scene that both seems generally ambivalent toward religion and doesn’t really appreciate about half of my record collection, and a local Goth scene that seems allergic to music with live drummers, and a GBQ men’s community that very seldom wants to stick their weiners in trans men, and a FTM community I generally can’t stand. Why do I have to have a low potential for friends in yet ANOTHER community? Why is it too much to ask for a large and relatively diverse social circle where I can both easily get along with and share common ground with plenty of people?

Oh well, I guess I’ll just chalk it up to “extrovert problems” —but why should I even have to?

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for almost a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros most of that time. He also paints, makes music, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival subculture of the early 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.
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0 Responses to Is it wrong to be bothered by the growing secularisation of paganism?

  1. Kaye says:

    I find this disconcerting as well. To some degree, I think many people think that they can change world paradigms without actually modifying themselves at all, but that’s just part of it. It takes a lot of substantial time to recondition one’s head into a polytheistic framework. Not everyone seems up for it.

    Otherwise, I think that many atheists are coming at paganism from the same place Shelley did. He left offerings to Pan on at least one documented occasion, but he was a very in-your-face atheist who loved scandalizing the Christians around him.

    • I gotta admit, I never am sure whether I believe Shelley and / or Byron were really atheists, or really pagan or polytheist, and just trolling Christians by playing into the other (letting Christians believe they’re pagan while being atheist, or vice versa). Either way, both men were clearly more complex than simply straight up one or the other.

      I also agree that a lot of people don’t seem to have really adopted a truly pre-Christian / polytheist mindset, as is evident by the plain fact that certain, even certain prominent pagan writers are presenting religious concepts, like “belief”, in a purely Christian manner, as if it’s something invented by and unique to Christianity, which is almost never the case. Rather than present it as something that should be re-learned in a polytheist mindset, it’s presented as something to be unlearned as useless Christian baggage, which is just factually incorrect. And yes, one has to become the change in a world paradigm one wants to see FIRST, at least before expecting to see any real trend toward change in the world. One just cannot be a polytheist while holding onto what’s still essentially a Christian outlook on life, it’s just not possible. But apparently, cos one is now totally allowed to be Christian, not even necessarily Christo-Pagan, in the classic syncretic sense, but Christian and yet somehow pagan, too, I can’t even say that one can’t be pagan whilst still holding onto an inherently Christian outlook –unless I want the dumbass Tumblr SJW brigade up on my ass, trying to convince me that Christian “pagans” are some of the most-persecuted of all…..

      • MsChievous says:

        You had me at “Dumbass tumblr SJW brigade”. :D

        • I would have just completely divorced myself from that site, if not for the fact that it’s the ideal format for my How I See Eros blog, and the Hellenic Problems blog I also do. I mean, shit, I thought LiveJournal users has a tendency to guilt-trip people over social issues, but now, even the heyday of LJ Social Justice blogging seems incredibly level-headed, in comparison. And I’m not a nostalgic person, convinced “everything was better before now”.

          • MsChievous says:

            Oh LJ. If you’d like and if it has meaning to you, you’re welcome to follow my Pagan seasonal blog- I really hope that someday this brand of “social justice” dies off again as an angry teenage fad.

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  3. Anne Welch says:

    The word ‘Pagan,’ has lost all meaning to me, due to some people I know that have gone that route of ‘feel-good,’ and even ‘hobbyist,’ paganism. There’s about as much umph as cellophane. Can’t tell them anything, can’t try to bring in anything to them – and I’ve stopped talking to several of them because Paganism has become a sort of ‘pseudo-pagan playtime.’ I don’t know what to say, I really don’t.

  4. Puny Human says:

    Another thoughtful, beautiful post. I also see this secularization, not just in paganism, but as a kind of backlash against the repressive religiousity of fundamentalism and religious extremism. Christians are becoming divided in just this way as scientific materialism makes inroads into the religious sphere, filling the vacuum left by fundamentalists. Many self-identified pagans are materialists or humanists, wanting the beauty of religious ritual or the camaraderie of a spiritual community, but having rejected all gods because of rejecting a particular monogod or because it clashes with the scientific world view. All religions expression then becomes abstracted. The gods become “forces” or energies or metaphors. I am a religious polytheist. I believe that there exist many gods, and I have chosen particular gods to follow, because I believe these particular gods will be good for me, for humanity, and for the world.

    I am sad to read of your alienation. I also experienced this from a pagan community, about 15 years ago now, but I still have hope of finding like-minded folks online. Maybe someday, we can worship our gods together in peace.

    Best wishes, Puny Human

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