Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wondering about Pagans (actually, I don't know what this is about)

Stasa just recently blogged about how much it hurts to have quakers (and others?) assume that all pagans do ritual. And I have to say I'm a little surprised. I suppose I was one of those guilty parties. My natural reactions so far have been all along the lines of "but don't they?"

Which I guess I just have to leave out there until some pagans stumble across this and have something to say. I suppose I could also go poke my nose around, but I feel like I have. The thing about looking things up online is that stuff that's posted about pagan rituals is mostly going to be rituals that happen. you're not going to find an instance on the web of a pagan going for a walk in the woods and communing with nature (well, you might, you might even find it here, but it's not gonna turn up on a calendar of what's happening at your local community center, where a ritual just might)

I've actually been wanting to just whine about pagans, really, for a coupla days. It's silly, but I feel like when I encounter organized pagans in real life they're like afraid of nature. This really boils down to two experiences. Once a year or two ago when we were having a meeting of some sort at the meetinghouse on or around June 21st and there was a scheduling conflict because the pagan group that uses our meetinghouse had booked it for summer solstice, and I just though, my god, don't they want to be outside on summer solstice? is that more prejudice? is it silly to assume pagans want to worship outside? I want to worship outside! especially at midsummer. Then again, I don't think I'm pagan.

The second instance was just a week or two ago at our local May Day celebration. Some pagan group (except maybe they didn't even say they were pagan, they were "earth" something, oh well) was trying to recruit members and their big upcoming thing was a camping trip they take for a week every summer, and like three different people told me enthusiastically that it's at a professional campground and you can take hot showers every day and there's electricity at every site. I personally like camping without electricity, and can do without a shower for a few days (though I'd probably want one if I was gone a week)

I can't quite explain how it makes me want to cry that people who identify around, and, well, worship, the earth can seem so disinclined to like BE on the EARTH.

And no, this is not meant to be a pagan bashing rant. Like I said, I don't even know if the people I'm talking about are pagans, or if other pagans would think they were pagans or what. Plus, I'm not very good at organizing my thoughts before broadcasting them. I learned the word "tact" as a child from people telling me that I don't have it. Sorry (really, I'm sorry)

Which actually maybe brings me to my point (really? can that happen?) which is more about how pagans seem even harder to pin down than quakers. Who are they? what do they believe? Do they marry same sex couples? do they have female clergy? do they have a book? What do they DO? (which,I have to say, I've been asked more as a lesbian than as a quaker, but it might be close) This is something I should be able to look up somewhere, right?

Is there a membership process for being a pagan, what would you become a member of? I get the impression there are pagan clergy (like, who can marry a couple legally and stuff) so then, who ordains them? what sort of things do they have to know first? What IS a pagan? is there any agreed upon definition? Can you be an outcast from Paganism? I suppose I had thought not, but I don't know.

dictionary.com says:

one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks.
a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
an irreligious or hedonistic person.

So I don't think that's all that helpful.

Actually, writing this, I am finding I have a lot of similar questions about christianity, possibly another post to come soon.....

I think for me, the thing is, that why I'm a QUAKER has a lot to do with basically the spiritual power I feel in the world. As a christian-by-default child, I felt what they were talking about sometimes - love for my fellow human beings, a strong sense of justice, I just didn't think that stories about fishermen and churches with stained glass windows, men in robes, incense and candles, had to do with any of it. I found that they detracted from something that needed no embellishment, so leave it alone.

As I've grown I've been somewhat inclined to call myself a pagan quaker, because that power that I feel is most present in nature and "natural" things (trees yes, cars no) - for me this is roughly parallel to being a christian quaker - yes to Jesus, but no to most of that other stuff we (possibly) grew up with as non-quaker christian children. But most pagan quakers I know seem to be more organizedly pagan than that, maybe because they didn't have it growing up and still feel the need for it? I'm not sure. I personally don't have a strongly anti-ritual view of quakerism. it doesnt' work for me, and I don't want it to become, even a little bit, how my community "does" quakerism, I think that would be a problem, but I don't think that people who do ritual (be it catholic or pagan, or something else) outside of meeting need to be excluded or shunned or anything. I guess I'm also wondering if that's a concern among people for whom ritual in other contexts is important?


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Hi, Pam,
Nobody can speak for all Pagans everywhere, and I certainly don't want to get a rep for trying. That said, I've been Pagan for almost a quarter of a century now: I've got initiations in two traditions of Wicca, I helped found the fist-ever graduate level Pagan seminary (Cherry Hill Seminary, focused on ministry skills like pastoral counseling and chaplaincy), and I've been published in more different Pagan magazines and books than I can remember this late in the day without more caffeine than I've got in me at the moment.

A lot of what you've got to say is valid, based on what I've observed at least.

I didn't quite get what Stasa was distressed about, either; most Pagans I know do in fact do ritual of some type. I think maybe it was the implication that ritual is always "empty ritual" as opposed to what Quakers do?

Actually, I see that aspect of being a Pagan as quite similar to being a Friend: both groups see a religious life as more something you do than as something you merely think about or believe. We like to know things "experimentally" in both cases, and we think that our gods can actually communicate with us in the present, not just in some distant past.

I've been at empty Pagan rituals, certainly. But I've also been at ones where my life changed forever. (You don't want to do too many of those: how many death and rebirth experiences does one girl need, after all?) Still, these days my own Pagan practice is more about walking in the woods and experiencing nature unfiltered by ritual or mythology, as it were, than about rituals. And of course, I am very active among Friends; I find most of my needs for direct spiritual communion get met in meeting for worship.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...


But the Pagan gods know where I am, and how to get in touch with me--dreams, signs, funky series of coincidences.

You are right that most Pagans are at once more and less organized than you might expect. There's no one place to register or to visit to become a Pagan, and in fact, anyone who identifies with Paganism is as entitled to call themselves Pagan as anyone else. No Pagan pope, and not even any one process akin to a clearness committee to say who is or who isn't one of us.

But at the same time, most Pagans do connect with the organizational side of Paganism. I think that's because there's a strong value on community in Paganism, and it's hard to find a Pagan community without engaging with one of the many Pagan organizations out there. Those are mostly a lot like mushrooms, springing up overnight, but seldom lasting long--few Pagan organizations have evolved methods for, say, dealing with conflict yet. (That's on my personal wish list for Pagan communities, at any rate.)

What can I say? We're working on it. But in a religious community where three years' experience makes you an authority, and a head of gray hair automatically makes you an elder, we haven't got a very deep bench just yet.

The allergic to nature thing: yeah. That can be a little maddening. My own favorite summer solstice ritual, for years and years, was hiking a mountain with my coven. But when my coven began to involve people with disabilities, I had to rethink that. Part of the reason we often meet indoors is that we're trying to accommodate various levels of physical ability; part is the need for privacy from intrusive and sometimes bigotted observers.

But part of the reason can be that Pagans can be really attached to their purple crushed velvet cloaks, heavy crystal balls, and various bits of beaded, embroidered, emblazoned and overdecorated costumery and props. There is a place for theater in ritual... though I've been pretty happy, myself, to leave it behind.

Worse still, part of the reason can be that we're too often a set of couch potatoes, more suited to watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television than sweating and playing in the outdoors. That is rather sad, when it is true. But it certainly is sometimes true!

Finally, on the Pagan gathering phenomenon: speaking as a fifty-year old, though I have loved the primitive camping retreats I've been on in younger years, I have begun to really appreciate things like actual beds to sleep in at night, and hot showers! Because Paganism is both subject to discrimination and is a low-budget affair (way less upper class than Quakers, in fact!) there aren't usually a lot of choices of venue for our events. Can you imagine how happy Quakers from FGC would be with things like hot water showers if every gathering for the past ten years had involved either sleeping on the floor of someone's house, in winter, or primitive camping without flush toilets? Me, I love it when I get up in the morning and my joints work right away. That no longer is the case when I camp out, and though I camp out anyway, I'm also really happy with the more comfortable accommodations available at some retreats.

I know you weren't necessarily asking for an answer to all these questions,and it's not like my answers are the only set. But all the questions were ones I've thought about myself from time to time... so I thought I'd go ahead and lay them on you.

(I'll be happy to hike in the woods with you anytime. And you're Pagan enough for me if you want to be--though there is something about committing yourself to Pagans as a people, a tribe, that is also really worth doing.)

Blessed be.

Hystery said...

And then again, my experience as a Pagan is pretty much hugely different from Cat's and I totally understood Stasa's post. In fact, I've been deeply upset and hurt by the conversation because it has made me feel invisible and unheard.

I have no Pagan affiliations although I've been a Pagan for about twenty years and have studied it academically for my entire adult life.

My Paganism involves no ritual at all unless you count the goofy holiday stuff we do with our children. Most of my focus is on spiritually based environmentalism (ecofeminism), ethics, and history. My Pagan practices are all but indistinguishable from my Quaker practices.

Part of the difficulties, as I see them, in this conversation are matters of self-definition and the hegemony of certain Pagan perspectives and the marginalization of others in the popular press, in Pagan publishing, and on the internet. I would maintain that Wiccans are the most easily and popularly identified group of American Pagans but that it would be very hard to prove that they were actually "most Pagans". Maybe it is true (I wouldn't be surprised) but I'd also be very surprised if there weren't at least a significant minority of people who don't fit into that category. How would we know? I'm not sure we can know with any reliability. Sure, it is easy to count people who identify with an organized form of Paganism but how does one count those of us who don't? (And those of us who don't are perhaps more likely to be the ones whose Paganism looks least like the stereotypes). No one has ever asked me if I am a Pagan and yet I am and have been most of my life. Others will not identify openly because there are still dangers in "coming out of the broom closet" in many communities. My husband, for instance, would never identify as Pagan in his jobs for fear of violent reaction. Many folks who practice Paganism do not identify because of community condemnation, custody issues, workplace disapproval, etc.

Religious historians have the same problem in identifying Spiritualists in the late nineteenth century. There were certainly a large number of people who identified with Spiritualist beliefs (historical antecedents of American Paganism btw). Some condemned the Christian churches. Some kept their church memberships. Some joined organizations, attended Spiritualist conferences, or published in Spiritualist journals. Many more did not. Some actively wrote about and honored an identifiably Spiritualist perspective during at least a part of their life but never claimed the word. As a result, historical estimates of their numbers varies widely. So although we know they were one of the most important and influential spiritual groups in the Anglophone world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we don't know who they all were. The same is true of Pagans. Most of the people I know who follow similar beliefs as myself do not call themselves Pagans although I would identify their beliefs as such. They call themselves ecofeminists, or green mamas, or Unitarians, or Quakers, or "seekers" or "this is what works for me" folks.

I'd agree that not all practices identified as Pagan are appropriate for Friends just as not all Christian practices and beliefs are appropriate for Friends. I think the only way to get to know about how Paganism and Friends fit together is to get to know those of us who call ourselves both Pagans and Friends as individuals. You might be surprised.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

A couple of points, Hystery:
First off, I would term your goofy holiday stuff you do with your kids "ritual," and I suspect that most pagan ritual (lower case here denotes in history, rather than modernity) looked like goofy stuff to do with kids.

The high Episcopagan rituals that are familiar through Wicca owe a lot to Gerald Gardner's Church of England upbringing; to him and to his generation, it couldn't be a "religion" unless there was a set liturgy (complete with faux King James English, the more's the pity). But my experience of cross-generational and mulit-generational Pagan community shows me something that looks a lot more like fun and goofy holiday stuff with kids. The Pagan communities that are into their third and fourth generations of practitioners look like that, not like the funny cloaks and chanting they like to show on television.

We do know something about what the Pagan movement outside Wicca looks like, because sociologist (most seriously Helen Berger) have been studying it for at least 20 years now. And non-Wiccan Paganism is a significant and growing proportion of the movement... though it is still Wiccans getting the most press time, because newspaper reporters like best to cover familiar stories, and writing the most stuff. (I know that, at Cherry Hill Seminary, while I was there, there was a constant frustration that students wanted more teachers and written material from non-Wiccan perspectives... but we couldn't find the teachers or the writings to share, though we certainly did try.)

I would guess that Wicca is somewhere between 1/2 to 1/3 of the movement, depending not just on how you define Wicca, but on how you define who is or isn't "Pagan."

And, of course, unless a movement has institutional control over who is a member--as, say the Catholic church does--there are always fuzzy boundaries around a group, as you note in the case of Spiritualism.

Leaving aside the issue of concrete and specific boundaries, I'd say that other major streams within Paganism include, in something like order of numerical importance, Druidry, Asatru/Heathens, unaffiliated or multiply-affiliated Pagans (including feminist goddess worshippers, though they are in some ways outliers to the movement overall), and then other assorted reconstructionists (Hellenics, Egyptian, etc.) I am guessing, of course.

I will say, however, that of course you will be both invisible and unheard to the degree that you do not participate, if not by affiliation, then by writing, with Paganism. There is a community here; if you find it not to your liking, and do what you can to avoid it, that's fine, but it will remain unaware of your values and ideas. That's how it goes.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Wow. Amazing number of typos. Sorry about that--that's what I get for posting during my lunch. (Lots of interruptions today.)

Hystery said...

Technically, the goofy stuff I do with my kids is ritual but I seriously doubt if it is the kind of ritual most contemporary Friends would find offensive any more than people saying grace around a Thanksgiving dinner is offensive or going house to house singing carols is offensive. My "rituals" are in that vein. The only reason they get called "ritual" is because they are Pagan- otherwise they are just holiday traditions we do with the kids and most of the other participants are Christians or atheists.

My background in Paganism is most closely related to Goddess feminism and ecofeminism so an "outlier to the movement". That's fair, I guess. Academic spiritual feminism is its own thing and marginalized in both the wider Pagan world and the academic world. That has advantages and disadvantages. It also has a great deal to offer Friends.

I am hurt by the suggestion that my silence is a chosen fate. I've put a great deal of energy, money and time into developing my Pagan voice as an academic and my blogging is another, less cerebral, manifestation of that energy. I've focused my energy on interfaith conversations regarding heterodox spiritualities including Paganism(s) rather than on intrafaith dialog. I have fewer connections within Paganism than I do outside of it but that doesn't mean I'm rejecting my own Pagan voice.

But more importantly, I think that maybe we should be asking all Friends of all backgrounds about how their lives and practices affect them as Friends. Regardless of the reputations of their religions of origin, each individual Friend should be granted the dignity of telling their own story to people who will hear *them* and not the echo of a prejudice in their own head. When I join my meeting in business and worship, I do so as myself, not as Paganism.

staśa said...

Pam, you wrote:

"Which I guess I just have to leave out there until some pagans stumble across this and have something to say. I suppose I could also go poke my nose around, but I feel like I have."

Wow. I don't know how to explain how I feel about this, except to point out that I make lots of information about Pagans and Paganism as well as Quaker Pagans available through my blog and on my website. I realize you wrote this before I posted a comment on my own blog reminding people of this.

If you, in general, capitalize the word Quaker, then I would appreciate it if you also, in general, capitalize the word Pagan. A lot of us feel that not doing so conveys that someone discounts Pagans and Paganism. Somewhat analogous to using homosexual instead of lesbian.

"dictionary.com says:"

Why would you trust dictionary.com more than a Pagan source like the Pagan Pride Project or the Covenant of the Goddess?

Like Hystery, it's not so much the first assumptions that bother me. What bothers me is when they linger once people have been educated and have heard from real, live people who don't fit the assumption or the stereotype. You've now heard from several people that not all Pagans use ritual as a spiritual practice. Do you still believe that in order to be a Pagan, one must do ritual? If so, why do you believe that?

earthfreak (Pam) said...


I must admit that a) I hate researching things, b) I really hate researching things online and c) Paganism isn't something I particulary have an interest in researching. What's more, when I do poke my nose around, aside from you blog post, it mostly reinforces my assumption that Pagans are mostly about ritual (I know there are sort of vaguely pagan-identified people who aren't, because I am one. When I went to a pagan quaker interest group at gathering 5 years ago I left with VERY much the impression, "this isn't for me, because everyone else there was much more about ritual than me")

And, I generally don't capitalize religions, pagan, christian, quaker, jewish. Sorry if I randomly capitalized quaker without capitalizing pagan, it was not intentional.

My point is much more that if you want people not to believe something false about you, it might be helpful to talk about how it's not true, rather than just being mad at them for believing it. I am finding Cat's and Hystery's input interesting and informative, but it seems like you DO do ritual, so I'm yet more confused about why it offends you so much that people assume that you do.

I also am getting the impression that this is really tied up with that (potential) next step of saying, "because you do ritual, you're not a quaker" - which isnt' of interest to me at all. I'm fine with quakers who do pagan ritual, and I'm fine with quakers who go to catholic mass, or whatever else. I think it would be best to treat them as separate issues.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

PS - I started this blog because I felt that there wasn't anything out there giving voice to nontheist friends (that's changed some) but I get why there is very little, and I dont' get mad at people for thinking quakers cant' be nontheists. I do get mad and hurt when quakers say nontheists can't be quakers, but that's a discussion that we apparently have to have and probably will be having for quite a while to come.

staśa said...

"My point is much more that if you want people not to believe something false about you, it might be helpful to talk about how it's not true, rather than just being mad at them for believing it."

My big point is that when I talk about how it's not true, people don't believe me. That's the first part of why I'm so angry.

"I do get mad and hurt when quakers say nontheists can't be quakers, but that's a discussion that we apparently have to have and probably will be having for quite a while to come."

Same with Pagan Quakers. And that's the second part of why I'm so angry. When people can stand up in Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business and block the Meeting from a minute b/c they believe Jews, non-theists, Pagans, Buddhists, or people who are too Christian aren't "real" Quakers, that's a problem. I've experienced this in two different Monthly Meetings (which were not exclusively Christian), in two different Yearly Meetings (which were not exclusively Christian), in two different parts of the country. I've watched non-Christians who weren't involved in the original issue run from the Meetingroom in tears. Those are problems. Those are occasions where we failed as Friends.

Thinking about the two examples you cited of where it seemed like Pagans didn't want to be in nature reminded me of an experience I had. When I taught a workshop for Pagan Friends at FGC Gathering in 2007, I had people who used a wheelchair or scooter to get around, used oxygen, were having a severe asthma flare-up, were having severe allergies, couldn't walk long distances, couldn't sit on the ground and didn't have a folding chair b/c they flew to Gathering -- more than 1/4 of the group! One of those people needed to use a nebulizer every night, as well as a CPAP machine while ze slept. Several Pagans I know take daily injectible medications that need to be kept refrigerated.

So while I don't know what the situation was/is for the Pagans you know of for Beltane or Summer Solstice, sometimes things like being indoors or having electricity are about a commitment to accessibility.

Also, although I don't know if your Meetinghouse has one, when you're throwing a potluck, sometimes it's just really nice to have access to a kitchen.