Thursday, October 27, 2011

Paganism: Myths, Images and Reality

About a year ago, I was asked to write a post about myths commonly held about Paganism. The logic: to clear up the misinformation about this religion that has, over the centuries, caused an enormous amount of confusion, pain, suffering and fear.

Why me? I was raised in a devoutly Christian home, currently live in a comfortably "out of the broom closet" Pagan community, and, obviously, blog.

While it is (clearly) in my nature to procrastinate, what I didn't realize until very recently is that my resistance to this project was fueled, uncharacteristically, by a fear of how the information would be received. Seriously, just bringing up the word "Pagan" sends almost all non-Pagans into a fear induced panic attack.

Ironically, it's that very reaction that makes going down this road even more important. Besides, once I realized that my hesitation was wimpy, rather than pragmatic, well, let's just say that I have never placed a high value on pansy-ass attitudes.

Also, the drama of watching my Pagan and non-Pagan friends circle each other in fear-laced hostility is getting to me. As Kermit would say, "ALL DONE".

So here I go.

First, reading this is important, EXCRUCIATINGLY important, for my Christian readers. If for no other reason (though I will give a few more), a big part of Christianity centers on helping other people become Christian. As any good lawyer will tell you, persuasion comes easiest when the person attempting the convincing has a genuine understanding of the other's initial beliefs.

(Besides, it is very unpleasant to live in fear - and it's been my experience that many non-Pagans are afraid of beliefs that don't exist. Isn't it better to have the actual facts?)

Second point: unlike Christians (and Scientific Empiricists), this community has no, absolutely NO interest in converting people to Paganism. Out of respect for that, allow me to point out (probably repeatedly), that this post (and any that follow in this vein) is NOT INTENDED TO INSPIRE CONVERSION. It is my expectation that absolutely zero of my non-Pagan readers will emerge from these posts a freshly born Pagan. Non-Pagans will, I'm sure, still disagree with many Pagan beliefs. I just think they owe it to themselves (and to those taught by their example) to understand the actual principles of this faith rather than unknowingly play into the smear campaign that has (mud) colored the last 1500 or so years of its history.

So, let's straighten out some of the most poisonous and (sadly) famous myths about Paganism, so when folks encounter it (either socially, like I did, or as a missionary for one's own faith), they will have the knowledge and understanding they need to have those conversations without fear, and without sounding ridiculous.

Ridiculous? Read on.

When I was in my 20 % Catholic-Catholic high school (that Bible hanging on the Belt ain't a Catholic one), it infuriated me to hear my Church criticized for positions it didn't hold, to have my personal faith attacked for concepts that had no resemblance at all to what I (to say nothing of the Roman Catholic Church) believed. When I faced the numerous objections non-Catholics had about Catholicism, all it inspired in me was a firm sense of derision. If people couldn't bother to get their facts straight, what possible good could their conclusions be?

See the problem? Instead of making any headway regarding converting me to their side, I spent all of my time appalled at their obsession with a fantasy about a "faith" that had no resemblance to mine, or my Church.

For Pagans, this goes one step further - to absolute silliness.

There are so many hot button issues for non-Pagans when talking about Paganism. Honestly, I was quite torn about which myth I should attack first. That they don't believe in God? That practicing magic is the work of the dev-

Um, yeah, I think I know where to start, now.

MYTH - Pagans Worship Satan

Uhhh....they not only don't worship the devil...they can't.

I have a great deal of admiration for a Devout Christian. Not the loud mouth, judgemental bastards on TV, in special interests groups, or at the local office water cooler spewing "if you don't think like me" venom. I'm talking about people who model their lives after the teachings of the Gospels. Who genuinely believe that kindness is the true way to God. They may believe that the kindness in question has to be within the parameters of accepting Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior; they may honestly believe that anyone who doesn't will not go to Heaven. I may disagree with such hard lines, but I can respect and have great affection for any belief system that is truly trying to make the world a kinder, gentler place.

For most Christians, accepting Jesus is only part of the package - one also has to reject utterly the devil, and all of his works. Okay, fair enough. Bad guy is bad. Check. Only...

Are there people who worship the devil? In my first draft of this post, the next lines were "Yup. They're called Satanists. Or Devil Worshippers. But not Pagans." I have to amend that - as I just read that even Satanists don't believe in Satan, per se. Check out this crazy shit:

"Even Church of Satan founder, Anton LaVey, publicly stated in a 1986 interview in the Washington Post Magazine that he neither believed in, nor worshipped Satan, and that he regarded the Devil as nothing more than "a symbol of man's carnal nature - his lust, greed, vengeance, but most of all, his ego."" Gerina Dunwich, A Witch's Halloween

 Now, I realize that that was a bit of a tangent - but hey, learn something new every day - and I did NOT know that...

So, I stand corrected. Eh hem.

Are there people who worship the devil? Well, maybe. I'm not sure what they're called (or what they call themselves), but I CAN say that they ain't Pagans, because...

Pagans are incapable of worshipping the devil, because they do not believe he exists.

Now, to be precise, they acknowledge that there is evil in the world - just not a specific boogeyman whose purpose is to tempt humanity into wrongdoing. Essentially, the Pagan position on evil is much like Hobbes (of "Calvin and" fame) when Calvin asked him whether or not he believed in the the devil. Hobbes' response was (paraphrased here) "I don't think mankind needs the help". Pagans believe that the evil deeds done by humans are human based. People have free will. They can choose to do good things, or to do bad, but ultimately, Pagans don't recognize "the devil made me do it" card.

Oh, I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from here - "denying his existence is just another way of doing the devil's work!!" and "yuh-huh - my (insert appropriate religious leader) said they do!!!"

Keep in mind, I'm not trying to convince anyone that the devil isn't real - only that Pagans neither believe in, nor worship, him.

While Satanism is anti-Christian in nature, Paganism, neo-Paganism and Wicca are rooted in a belief system that is pre-Christian in nature. Although many religions have a "good cop/bad cop" deity system - Paganism is not one of them. Period.

Back to ridiculous. How can warning Pagans about the dangers and wiles of the devil seem ludicrous?

I love the story of Santa Claus. I LOVE that, worldwide, we all run with the tacit agreement to perpetuate this myth, facilitating a sense of wonder and excitement for our children. However, it is a myth.

Is it realistic to believe that this guy who lives at the North Pole (is he considered a North Polian?), has eight (in bad weather, nine) reindeer that can not only fly, but are badass enough that they can lug a sleigh big enough to store the Christmas loot contents of every Christian child on the planet, PLUS a really big man AND do it quickly enough to whip that sucker around the globe within a 24 hour span (with occasional stops for milk and cookies)...?

When it takes a jumbo jet 22 hours to travel from LAX to Australia...ummm...?

Real? Unbloody likely. But we keep it going. The Santa story brings an immeasurable amount of joy to millions. A happy myth, but a myth nonetheless.

Now consider this:

For Pagans, the Christian belief in the Devil and in a place called Hell is as bizarre as would be an entire faith based on the absolute reality of Santa Claus. As a Christian friend of mine pointed out, "it would be as if the whole group of faith believers says No, bitches. Santa is real. Fuck you, he is. And if you don't believe in him, you're going to get coal in your stockings. DO YOU WANT COAL IN YOUR STOCKINGS?!?!?"

As in, to Pagans, the devil is as real as Santa Claus. There are pictures of him displayed, statues (dolls) of him made, stories of him told...but that doesn't make Santa, or the devil, real. Not to Pagans. To Pagans, he is a fictitious character. As in MADE UP.

Now, if you want to have a debate over the existence of the devil - THAT is an argument worth having. Otherwise, it's probably a good idea to save the devil worshipping conversation for those who see him as something more than a creepy folk story character (to whom an inexplicable number of people give credibility).

And there lies Myth #1 - Hopefully, I've bludgeoned it thoroughly enough. Have I? Can we all acknowledge that, of all folks who believe in the existence of the devil, Pagans are not counted among them?

I hope so... because this myth crushing train has miles to go before it sleeps...