Religious Bigotry Among the Pagans #paganvalues

[Dear Geoffrey – yes, I prestacked the deck this time. I drafted this on March 23, 2012.)

Map showing the prevalence of Abrahamic (pink)...
Map showing the prevalence of Abrahamic (pink) and Dharmic religions (yellow) in each country. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least some of my regular readers have seen that chart, right? The one that maps what Pagans/occultists look down on what other Pagans? The online FAQ about it seems to forbid reprinting/redistribution, so alas, I can’t give you the pretty chart to see here. It’s well worth a look, though.

The chart is funny, because it’s true. That infographic is very accurate, and I know I’ve experienced being the looked down upon while also looking down upon someone else. I’ve even had it happen at the same time, as we all drank from the same pot of coffee.

As I read about yet another struggle with religious bigotry between a Pagan and the overculture, it occurs to me that some Pagans aren’t much better to each other.

I sometimes confuse people by my contention that Pagans are, for the most part, MEMBERS of the overculture we see ourselves as separate from. I see a subculture; others still see Paganism as counter-culture and thus consciously separate.  Since even those who are still committed to the counter-culture views still mostly were born in ostensibly Christian households (and by that, I also include Catholicism, which to my mind is the closest to the original edition that exists) I think we may carry with us a common Christian-culture behavior: we view those who believe even slightly different from ourselves with suspicion, and even a certain amount of derision.

An example from my childhood: a Catholic friend invited me to church. I went. I invited her to my church, a Protestant denomination. She declined. “Aren’t you the people that don’t really believe in Jesus?”

That particular friend was carefully raised to be a bigot in many other ways – eventually she tore our friendship beyond repair with out-and-out racism towards a Japanese houseguest. Her religious bigotry and willful ignorance (we’d just gone over the Calvinist revolution in history class, so she really was just being a total jerk) was simply an early warning system about the kind of person she would eventually become.

Some of the same attitude layering plays out across Pagan social circles, and while it’s bad enough coming from people who aren’t part of our religious subculture, it’s just appalling coming from within the subculture itself.  If you look to the chart, you see pretty much the major variations.

There are also some specific variations that come from overculture stuff – I have witnessed some outright racist behavior in the form of active fear towards men and women of color who have joined me in circle or study; I have been spoken to by British-culture witches who assume my central North American accent and relatively unwrinkled skin means I can’t find my ass with both hands, and I have seen American witches act like anything that falls under the British Traditionalist Witchcraft header is 1984 with an athame. There are other overarching prejudices, including the concept that anyone under 40 has nothing of value to say, that people who pursue advanced degrees are being “taught what to think,” and that everyone needs somebody else’s permission to try anything magical.

What it all comes down to is something we learned, consciously or subconsciously, while being raised in one of the Abrahamic faiths or at least exposed to Abrahamic thinking on a daily basis. The base of this is that, to believe our religion/spiritual beliefs are valid, we must consider it the ONLY correct interpretation of divinity. Just as there is warring between Christian sects that will never end, Pagans also have their (mostly Internet) wars.

I personally consider this idea of one belief being the right answer a false belief, one to shed. Actually, it’s a series of false beliefs that need shedding – and it’s one of those things you have to do over and over again, throughout life.

Because I have to say it, since the first response to this is defensive quibbling (have you heard what 20 something fluff bunnies say???? type stuff) I also want to advocate the following line of questions. This is not about debate – there’s too much “trying to win” already, and we’re all losing for it.

These guidelines are, as always, mere suggestions, to be tried or argued with with no testing of theory whatsoever. But I still recommend them as evaluating what merits reaction – and what merits checking our own reactions.

1)Is this person a danger to him/herself or others, or in any danger should s/he pursue this belief structure? Magic does have consequences, and is highly imprecise. If the person is getting high as a kite and then invoking a deity that really hates trifling behavior, saying “don’t do that!” will work about as well as it does on the average toddler. (It doesn’t.)  Instead, you might want to broach with, “I’ve heard/witnessed x happening when someone does that too much,” or “have you thought of trying [much less dangerous thing] instead?”

Don’t do drugs, while usually applicable, does depend on the situation. People with serious chemical imbalances should certainly follow their prescription plans.

2)Context. Find out where/how this person came to his/her line or reasoning, as much as that person is willing to share. The more context you have, the fewer assumptions you’re maker. The fewer assumptions you’re making, the less change bigotry has to rear its ugly head.

3)DO NOT ASSUME A TEACHING ROLE UNLESS YOU HAVE ALREADY FORMALLY CONTRACTED A TEACHING RELATIONSHIP WITH THAT PERSON. No, REALLY, I MEAN IT. You can’t teach the unwilling, and just declaring that you want to teach someone something is about YOUR ego and will lead to YOUR comeuppance. You might know everything there is to know about everything. That doesn’t give you any right to force that information and worldview on another person. Obvious exceptions to avoid building explosions apply.

Believing someone will go to hell for what s/he believes –even in a Pagan context – is not even remotely the same as stepping in front of a truck. If it were, there would be craters all over the earth from all the people getting struck by lightning all the time. God/ess is not an asshole; s/he leaves that to his/her worshippers.

I once had an “anonymous” email from a cousin-by-marriage who actually said “I have deemed your religious values emotionally immature.” She then demanded I explain my beliefs to her in more detail. This is what I call “mistaking oneself for God,” and assuming such authority towards a self-sufficient adult got a much-deserved “fuck off.” She thought she was “teaching” by bringing me to her “right” way of thinking. All she was doing was demonstrating her own arrogance.  She just assumed I “didn’t know enough about Christianity,” and that I would “see the rightness of it,” with directed conversation. This completely ignored two years of seminary, 10 years of religious education on my own, and the reality that I was in fact in my 20s at the time, and not the 14 year old she was speaking to.

I speak to the Pagan-to-Pagan bigotry from a personal place. I have experienced it. I have distributed it – there’s one person who I offended by wincing when he said he got into magic because of Willow on Buffy. Many people would wince with me – but the truth is, the fault lie with me, not him. He was a conscientious, sweet young man who actually applied himself to his study. So what if a pop-culture figure inspired his journey? That wasn’t mine to judge, but judge it I did, and very much because of my own prejudices. Certainly what he did with it didn’t involve hamsters and vampires, and if I’d paused to ask him about his actual path, I would have known better sooner.

Being Pagan doesn’t automatically make us good or honorable people. It doesn’t maker better educated or smart. It does NOT mean we all believe the same thing – Pagan is a term for many religions, not just one – and be aware that you have assumptions about other people you are not even conscious of that will come out when you least expect self-confrontation.