It seems to me that my Druid colleague John Becket and I are more often than not picking up on the same vibes. Once again, as I was struggling with this blog post, John posted one that helped me come to terms with what I was trying to say (thanks, John). In one of his blog posts, “Pagansim Doesn’t Need Unity” he lays out that the important element of paganism is not unifying behind one holy truth, but to create enough robust versions of Paganism so that the beliefs and practices survive in the future.
That is all good, and I wholeheartedly agree with John. I also do so on another stance of his, where he writes:
While we have an obligation to respect the religions of others (at least those that are worthy of respect – I don’t respect Christian fundamentalism and I don’t respect Pagan folkishness) we also have an obligation to examine beliefs and practices in terms of their truth and in terms of their helpfulness.
Sometimes this means we tell someone “if that’s helpful to you, fine, but it’s not true.“
This is where John struck the string of my mind’s harp, and it resonated with a recent discussion on social media. There I read a lament of a Druid friend of mine, where he shared his horrible experiences at a Pagan gathering in the Midwest of the United States. In his account of what he witnessed he mentioned that there were constant physical and verbal altercations, spell-cursing, heavy drinking and other substance use, and general alt-right behavior. My friend summarized the attitude at the gathering – the name of which he didn’t share – with the words:
After all, pagans aren’t supposed to have ‘rules’
And…let’s stop right here. Because no, that is absolutely not what Paganism is about. Because, no. because that’s where I would say, if I was as nice as John, “if that’s helpful to you, fine, but it’s not true!”
For me, it’s not even “fine”.
I guess in the land of the free one has to accept this kind of thinking as much as any other, but please don’t be mislead that unruliness makes one a Pagan. You can be unruly, rude, violent and generally a jerk as a member of any faith. No need to convert to Paganism if that’s what you’re after.
Yes, I do get where this idea comes from. Paganism is not dogmatic. There are no rules as in “if you’re a Pagan, then you have to believe x”. But that’s it in regards to anything that could possibly fall under the “no rules” attribute of Paganism. Any other moral value of our advanced society as homo sapiens sapiens still apply when you’re Pagan. Beating up your camp comrade (as it seems to happen at such Pagan gatherings) makes you as much of a jerk as it did 2,000 years ago in pre-Christian times.
And don’t be fooled that while the times back then were rougher, that there were no rules. There were quite many, and freedom of speech, just as an example, was not one of them. Unless you were a wealthy land owner with their own homestead and entourage, you pretty much didn’t have any say in anything, and just worked your butt off 16 hours a day, seven days a week. No vacation to go to a Pagan camp, mind you.
Oh no, there were plenty of rules in Pagan times; what you can wear, where you can sit, with whom you can talk, what piece of meat you get at the feast etc. etc. And general unruliness got you killed by those in power – which were not necessarily those with the greatest physical strength.
Again the behavior described above is simple unruliness, while what makes Pagan attractive to many, and should attract more, is the lack of dogma. That you can find what’s true for you by choosing your own path.
But even there some extend the no-dogma idea beyond what it is meant for. I say that because what I read and hear frequently in discussions amongst Pagans is the claim of some that they don’t follow one essential rule – we might even want to call that almost a dogma – the rule the Wiccans call Rede, the Druids call the Law of the Harvest, and many call by the more general term “Karma”.
Again, “if that’s helpful to you, fine, but it’s not true!” Or, more precisely: It doesn’t really mean anything when one says “I don’t follow these rules.” It’s like if you’d say, “I don’t follow stop signs.” That doesn’t make the stop signs disappear, does it? And it sure as hell does not exempt one from the consequences when breaking the rule and being caught. So, even if one claims not to follow these particular Pagan rules, that does not affect the rules as such. The stay in place, and you will be subject to them, no matter your personal belief (or non-belief). You can ignore them, but that will not mean they will ignore you.
So please, in our quest to bring Paganism to a more robust place in society, embrace the non-dogmatic essence of our movement, but don’t discredit and possibly destroy it with mere unruliness.
Unless it’s December 5th and you’re one of them. But that’s an entirely different story.
The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.