This post forks off of P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’ post from yesterday in which e mourns the apparent death of discussion between (Wiccanate) pagans and (devotional) polytheists as an intrafaith exercise. This got me thinking about whether there’s more to be gained or lost from our presenting a common front to the wider community. What is it that we actually have in common? Is it more than what we share with the generality of humankind? And would it be better to share it with one voice or two? What do we actually have to advocate for together?
Let’s imagine a panel of Wiccans and polytheists who make a pitch on their joint behalf to the wider public. Here are some worthwhile themes I think we might all agree to hit on:
- Freedom of cult. You don’t have to fall into a single “orthodox” mode of doing religion. Wiccanate pagans may emphasize how you can worship in whatever way works best for you, because the archetypes are all there in your head anyway. Polytheists may emphasize the range of deities and traditions within the historical record, and also the fact that new gods can emerge. (We may also like to add that the deities choose the worshipper as much as the other way around; the fact remains, however, that there is choice involved in how and when we offer cult, which pantheon we focus on, etc.). We may not be saying the same thing here, but the message seems complementary.
- Freedom of conscience. Both of these flavours of paganism are non-creedal. There is no notion of “salvation by faith”, no confounding belief with virtue and unbelief with sin. Our gods are not patrolling our minds, taking note of every wavering doubt. Wiccans and their allies can make this point even more forcefully; if the divine is purely within, there is no external authority people could be reported to in the first place.
- Ethnic and social diversity. Here I think polytheists have some advantage over Wiccanate pagans. In some ways, Wicca still retains the imprint of its early 20th-century middle-class occult mystique, while polytheism speaks in every language and represents every ethnic and social stratum of the globe. Within the framework of Roman Gaul, I know deities who are Celtic, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Hittite; who are the friends of slaves, of freed people, of aristocrats, of merchants, of free yeomen; who represent individual rebels as well as social order; and so on and so forth.
- Affirmation of women, transgendered people, and those with non-heteronormative sexualities. Wiccans can point to their worship of the Goddess (in often wonderfully creative ways) and at least ostensibly friendly attitude to queer people. Polytheists can point out a litany of goddesses; transgendered, androgynous or gender-bending deities; gods with male lovers; and so forth. (Curiously, offhand, I can’t think of a goddess with a female lover—although one is of course suspicious of Diana, and it occurs to me that the Graces look pretty happy together.) The point is that non-male, non-heterosexual, and non-cisgendered realities are already part of our religious picture.
- Affirmation of life and the here-and-now. Other religions ground their appeal on unlikely promises about the afterlife, trafficking in the fear of death. This is not religio, however, but superstitio. Practically any flavour of paganism has a more positive view of the here-and-now, affirming for example that the whole world is full of gods; that Earth and Nature are among the deities; and that people should focus more on living virtuously here than worrying about the afterlife. As might be expected, every variety of opinion about the afterlife is represented somewhere within paganism, and nobody’s compelled to ascribe to any creed about it.
Surely this would give us something to talk about, if there were any mood to talk about it.
I will just briefly show my hand here and say that I think of paganism in the broad sense as the natural home for the growing millions of people who identify as spiritual but not religious (which, in Ciceronian terms, we could render as religiosi non superstitiosi). Thomas Taylor termed it the “authentic religion of humankind”, and not without reason, for it primitively underpins essentially every spontaneous act of piety or folk religion the world over. People are heathen by instinct; we have to get it beaten out of us by Christian Brothers, Wahhabis, nuns, missionaries and other wholesome instructors. But if more people were aware of how natural and congenial the choices really were in paganism—that there is such a thing as a learnèd, cultivated, sophisticated paganism with thousands of years of artistic and literary tradition—I can see wide swaths of the public saying, “Oh, sure; I’m somewhere in that continuum.” But maybe I’m just tripping.
Anyway, as a practical matter, I don’t really see my imaginary Broad Pagan/Polytheist Intrafaith Movement launching a publicity campaign in any case. (Billboards showing Diana and Hercules, with the slogan, “These gods don’t care who you sleep with” ?) Coming back down to earth, I think Lupus’ concern about “intrafaith” erasing differences as a more pressing matter. Long-term, we may yet be able to bridge the gap between Wiccan-derived pagan traditions and polytheism—but if there is reluctance to even recognize polytheists, how can we be recognized as somewhere worth building a bridge to? I’m coming to the conclusion that to make a worthwhile intrafaith statement, we’ll need to ground it on interfaith understanding.