Parsing Paganism, Rejecting the F-Word

This whole issue of “Pagan fundamentalism,” Pagan identity politics, and related disputes have been giving me a lot of agita.

In fact, I do wish that “the f-word” had never been introduced, because rather than helping the conversation, it shuts it down.

As soon as you refer to someone as a “fundamentalist” or to a movement as “fundamentalism,” you have, within the sub-dialect of the chattering classes, declared that nothing those people say is worthwhile, that they have nothing to teach you, and that they should just sit down and shut up. Or stop calling themselves Pagans, whichever.

Historically, the term “Fundamentalism” was coined by conservative Christian theologians of the early twentieth-century and named after a book series called “The Fundamentals.” In other words, it presented itself as a back-to-the-roots movement.

The Latin word for root is radix, which gives us “radical,” a term (or person) about stripping away everything seen as extraneous and getting “back to the roots,” renewing your tradition. About the same thing, no? Yet it is more acceptable in academia, for example, to refer to one’s self as a “radical,” at least in some quarters, than as a “fundamentalist,” which would suicidal, professionally speaking.

According to Sabina Magliocco — whom I wish had chosen a different word, but she consciously chose it to be provocative — “Pagan fundamentalists” seem to be those who think that they have the truth and who are overly dogmatic.

Prof. Magliocco suggests that in the good old days, practice mattered more than belief, but now some people are getting all “fundamentalist” about belief. Yes, but. In the 1970s, for example, I encountered some very “fundamentalist” American Gardnerian Witches. Some Goddess feminists could be pretty dogmatic too.

But the people taking offense today are not Gardnerians. They tend to come more from reconstructionist Pagan traditions. And they are the ones being targeted by this current discourse, as best I can tell.

Whatever your position on “hard polytheism” is, I tend to have some sympathy with their position because, as stated above, being called a “fundamentalist” is sort of like being called a “racist.” It puts you in a box that it is almost impossible to climb out of — and that is a deliberate rhetorical tactic designed to marginalize a political opponent.

A friend wrote to me of the “childish” polytheists who ought, in his words, to “detach themselves from contemporary Paganism.” (That is, sit down and shut up while the grown-ups are talking.)

No, I would argue, they are as much a part of contemporary Paganism as you or I are. Are we going to slide into heretic-hunting? Is contemporary Paganism going to develop a handy acronym, like those Republicans who accuse fellow party members deemed insufficiently pure of being RINOS (Republican In Name Only)? (Democrats do it too, but they lack a handy acronym.)

As an editor in the field of Pagan studies, I look at Paganism as a way of being religious, not as specific beliefs or specific practices. I want to keep the tent big and broad.

Paganism old and new is creedless and flexible, as Michael York wrote in Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, yet some have written creeds (Gleb Botkin with the Church of Aphrodite in the 1930s, for example), and we haven’t thrown them off the boat.

Continuing with York, I still like his definition, even though it reads like a legal document:

Paganism is an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangent, sentient, and nonempirical.” (162)

Parse those words carefully, and you will that Prof. York has stretched the tent as far as possible to include the hardest of hard polytheists and the nature-as-source-of-sacred value people, and everything in between. There is room under it for the committed “godspouse” as well as the person whose Paganism is heavily influenced by Jungian psychology. They are both doing religion in a way that we define as “Pagan.”

Here we do come back to the notion of “doing,” but I would allow that one’s “doing” might include relating to gods, spirits, and wights as discreet entities — and talking about it — which seems to be the crux, or a crux, of the current kerfuffle.

6 thoughts on “Parsing Paganism, Rejecting the F-Word

  1. It’s not an elevator speech, but I love the way Jenett defines “pagan”

    I think on one hand, some of this problem is the inability to identify simple trolling behavior that plagues every interest group on the internet.

    On the other, I think there’s an unwillingness among some pagans to admit that their definitions of “pagan” exclude a lot of other pagans. When the excluded say “I want a place at the table too!” They’re painted as “fundamentalists.”

    On the gripping hand, the cynic in me observes that some of the hosting sites like patheos pay bloggers by the number of hits they get. Posting charges of fundamentalism that attract large numbers of comments and continued reblogging pings…. cha-ching!

  2. This is one reason I don’t particularly think “pagan” is a useful descriptor any more. Any possible definition of the word is either so broad as to be semantically meaningless, narrow to the point that it excludes people who self-identify as “pagans”, or ends up being a an arbitrary list of groups, beliefs, and practices that have nothing in common other than being included in the list.

    Such attempts also almost always end up lumping in people who don’t want to be lumped in with one another, which ends up with declarations that so-and-so isn’t “really pagan” because they believe X, or don’t believe Y. And thus the exercise of definition collapses under its own weight.

  3. Rombald

    I’m sceptical about the different groups calling themselves “Pagan” having anything in common. I think there are political/cultural benefits to minority worldviews showing solidarity in confronting world religions and atheist materialism, but I don’t think it need go any further than that.

    Also, I don’t really see “fundamentalism” as a curse word.

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