Beyond the Pagan Community–my disappointments at our growing isolationism

Paganism isn’t just one religion. It isn’t just one lifestyle. It isn’t just one way of thinking, one way of voting, one way of decorating your house or spending your holidays.  It also doesn’t mean doing whatever the hell you want. Pagan religions have their own rules, their own ideals. Learning to recognize and respect those differences has always been a connective force among Pagans.

Rather than call these differences divisions, another word. Sects has unfortunate connotations. Variety sounds good. Variety is good.

Variety’s goodness is not limited to Paganism alone – embracing variety in the whole of society tends to strengthen its subcultures the most. Embracing this variety takes curiosity, genuine interest in others, a genuine desire to learn. I’m a little sad at how much less of those qualities I’ve seen in my fellows since 2002.

This absence of curiosity or even an outright separationist ideology seems to appear the most among those that identify themselves as “mainstream” Pagan, whatever that means. Suddenly non-Pagans are “normals,” or the more derogatory “mundanes” or “muggles.” People who practice magic differently from what’s deemed as one person’s acceptable are pounced on for the sake of the high imparted from argument/gaming/debate not only creating negative feelings but derailing intellectual and magical development for everyone involved in almost always unproductive debate.  Disclosure: I consider nearly all debate unproductive – if you’re trying to win, you likely have no interest in learning a goddamn thing.

In Scott Cunningham’s The Truth about Witchcraft Today, he stated, “If you want to know what a Catholic does, you don’t ask a Baptist. If you want to know what a Wiccan does, you don’t ask a Christian – you ask a Wiccan.”  ((12/15/12 – this may be misattributed and/or misquoted – dr.)) I always saw that wisdom as a call to treat other religious practices with the same consideration. For years other Pagans I met gave me the impression that they did too.

But in recent years, the opposite has happened. One woman went on to me about some research she did on Islamic women. “It’s fascinating,” she said while rattling off a bucketload of secondary sources written by Western scholars – and as flawed as Islam is, Westerners have laid a lot of ground by passing off some outright lies about it, especially around the concept of jihad. Muslims have repaid the favor with some outright lies about westerners. It all needs sorting, and maybe a chart.  So I asked her if she’d ever spoken with a Muslimmah. Not only did she not know what that was – so much for research – it had never occurred to her to approach a woman for an interview.

Muslims are common in Minneapolis, especially in our academic institutions. She had ample opportunity to find someone even assuming a a large number of Muslim women might turn her down. Rather than go to the source and ask, she preferred to hide behind books and assumption – even as she on that very day complained about people doing the exact same thing to her when it came to her Pagan religious practice. She took a group of our neighbors and went out of her way to further other them in her own mind.  To add layers to the irony, we happened to be volunteering in a “talk to a real Pagan!” tent at a Pagan Pride celebration when this conversation happened.

The above is far from the only conversation of its kind I’ve had. I’ve also talked to people who actively want to seek converts to their Pagan religions, try to force disinterested spouses and partners to engage with their practices and who seem completely incapable of distinguishing between a difference of opinion and a genuine danger that requires address.

I came to Wicca at a time when the following ideals were popular among American Wiccans:

  • Pagans absolutely did not convert people. It’s considered an act of violation to try to force another person to take up your spiritual beliefs. For this reason, it was wise to exchange ideas about religious belief but to debate them was not only pointless but pretty much the act of a raging asshole.
  • All religions and non-beliefs are to be tolerated at minimum and even accepted or supported in the name of a greater good. There were much discussed boundaries on this one, for  good reason.
  • As a corollary to harm none: if it doesn’t harm you or harm a non-consenting being and you don’t like it, tough shit. So if you’re offended by homosexuality, polyamory, voting for a Republican that does NOT wish to strip people of their human rights,  or you just don’t like tomatoes, that’s fine – but you do not get to force others to conform to your opinion.
  • Consent above all else and it was not just restricted to sexual behavior. The “easier to obtain forgiveness than permission” is the mentality of the narcissist and a sign that person lacks basic empathy.
  • Empathy was viewed as a skill that could be developed. It might be very difficult for some people to the point of a repetitive intellectual exercise, but even for those it wasn’t natural to, it could be done with practice.

Now I’m seeing Pagans dismiss working with interfaith groups – ostensibly all people with the common interest of making neighborhoods safe and more welcoming – because “it’s all just an excuse to try to convert people.” Really? I thought it was a chance to practice listening and practice boundary setting with people who are in conversion faiths.  If you don’t have the skill, that’s fine, but if you’re making it an ego contest you’ll be just as much of a problem among other Pagans.

There are Pagans who have absolutely no friends outside of Paganism. A few years ago I realized when I went to a party of a Christian friend that I had lost the ability to have a normal, non-witchcraft based conversation. Since the only reason to carry on about my religious practice in that context would have been about my ego and certainly not about the kind people that had offered me hospitality, I realized I needed to broaden my view again, to get to know the mainstream world on adult terms… to become part of my whole community, not just my Pagan community.

This work has come at cost to some of my Pagan connections – and it has also cost me some tolerance for my own tribe. There’s a lot of bigotry woven into the collective Pagan mentality that gets praised as right thinking. The ideas may be different and oppositional to the fundamenalists, but it’s just as poisonous as the kind of right thinking praised in those churches. I’ve been  told I should interpret the facts that way I’m told to – and only accept new facts when I was invited to. “Of course I should tell you what conclusions to draw!” – a total flag you’re dealing with a cult or an abuser. There went the basic concept of questioning everything and thinking for myself. I’ve  been yelled at, nagged, and pushed over my distaste for camping rather than having my disinerest in festivals and my rather serious demophobia respected.  I’ve been questioned multiple times as to why I don’t push my partner to take up my faith by Pagans who not only did not know myself or my husband well enough to make those comments but who behaved as though having the same religion was the only way for a couple to really connect.  I’ve been forced to witness one well-known local Pagan become repeatedly passive aggressive with anyone Christian, black or  poly. When confronted she excuses herself repeatedly with “I was abused by my church.” When it is pointing out that a)Christian denominations are wildly different from each other b)this explains neither her racism nor her slut shaming or c)she was not abused by every Christian, ever, and that she is herself abusive – she pretends nothing has been said. These are expressions of fundamentalist mentality.  When I mentioned that I happen to experience the Divine in male form at a salon ostensibly intended for the exchange of ideas and said “that’s how I see God,” in one circle, a woman self-importantly piped up “and GODDESS” as though she had any right at all to correct my perception – after I’d carefully laid out that this was my experience, not some final answer.

These behaviors all run deeply counter to the ideals I assumed when I became Wiccan. While I can’t reasonably expect all other Pagans to share these ideals, the people that are the loudest, rudest, most obnoxious and most controlling have all identified as some form of Wiccan.

They are everywhere in my Pagan community.

The chief idea that drew me to Wicca was the honest assertion: We might be wrong about all of this. A religion that could admit it might be wrong was everything I looked for in a faith. There are people – idiots – that assumed my conversion was about the Goddess and my feminism, or about magic (which I do love), or about some childhood fantasy come true. It wasn’t. I was attracted to American Wicca for its humility, for its woven empathy, for its willingness to take a path while listening to others, while respecting that a person might experience divinity in a different way, that a person might see the Mississippi as male or female and simply discuss – not debate – why that is. The humility it takes to live in that self-accepting open doubt is beautiful and difficult – and it looks to be fading. That makes me angry and sad.

It also means I see scores of lost opportunities because Pagans as a group have become so utterly self-involved, so steeped in their own mythologization of their differences from the rest of the society that they completely ignore easy ways to build bridges with the greater community that could ensure greater safety and freedom for everyone. I’ve heard the argument for staying fringe, that “occult” means hidden – and it’s irrational double speak. If you’re already out where other Pagans can see you, if you have a blog or a profile or a fan page, if a person can walk into an open to the public occult shop and see you … you’re not fucking hidden. You’re just firing off ego-driven double speak.

There are police officers in Minneapolis who have told me firsthand they would love to have a group of Pagans to consult when investigating crimes that appear to involve the occult. There are other predominantly ethnic communities that do ask you to earn their trust – but are willing to exchange ideas about using magic to make a neighborhood safer or if nothing else appreciate religious variety because they way they always know who won’t object to working on Christmas day. Those that wish to ally Pagans or who are at least neutral about them outnumber the loud-mouthed hostiles.

There are so many times, so many ways that compassion and empathy matters a lot more than religious identity. If a Christian friend needs you, you’re a douche if you make their needs about your Paganism. You’re a bigger douche if you refuse a decent, kind person’s friendship just because s/he is Christian, or atheist, or a Pagan that looks at Paganism a little differently from you.

I’ve met a lot of good folks amidst the Good Folk, too – but I really do feel that most of the time, when dealing with my tribe, I get looked at askance because I’ve rejected spiraling down the rabbit hole of my otherness in favor of seeking non-religious ways to connect to subversive forms of “we-ness.” Because my tribe isn’t just one made of Pagans.