How Many People Can You Fit Under An Umbrella?
Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
What is Paganism? Ask a hundred Pagans and you’ll get a hundred answers. The definitions are vast and mostly vague. Many try to describe it by saying what it is not: “Paganism is a name for the many paths that fall outside the Judeo-Christian or Islamic faiths.” By this definition Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Shinto, and even Scientology all fall under the banner of “Pagan”. Would any of these peoples describe themselves as Pagan? Would they appreciate you lumping them with the neo-Pagan movement? Probably not.
Other definitions are somewhat more descriptive, but are again so vague that they could describe almost any path: “Paganism is earth-centered spirituality” or “we choose what we believe so anyone wanting to call themselves Pagan, may do so.” Some Pagans might not see their path as “earth-centered”, so they might feel cut off from the rest of the community for not subscribing to that definition. The second one is better for the individual Pagan, but it does nothing to actually define Paganism to the non-Pagan.
How about this one? “Paganism is an attempt to recreate the indigenous religions of Europe.” That sounds good, but what if you’re a Kemetic Pagan? Sure, there was a lot of cultural trade between Egypt and Greece, but that doesn’t make Egypt a part of Europe. Or, what if you’re Asatru and prefer to be referred to as a Heathen? Does that remove you from this definition?
The best, so far seems to be, “Paganism is an umbrella term for varying paths that attempt to recreate indigenous forms of religions. It’s an umbrella term in the same way that Christianity is an umbrella term for varying paths that follow Christ.” Sounds good, right? However, there is a major problem with it.
All who take shelter under the umbrella of Christianity, whether Catholic, Baptist, Koptic, or Snake-Handler, have one very big thing in common: Jesus Christ was born, lived and died on the cross for their sins. They might duke it out and think the other ones are wrong and “going to hell” for their wrongness, but at the end of the day, they have this unifying principle. Jesus is their umbrella.
We, as Pagans, don’t have that. We can’t agree on a definition of Pagan. We can’t even agree on the fundamental nature of “deity” (or even if there are deities or if they’re just energetic archetypes to be used for our convenience) . In our attempt to make everyone who wanted to fit under the Pagan umbrella feel comfortable, we threw away the umbrella. Paganism is really more of a “cloud” term. You might say Paganism is closer to how “Abrahamic” describes all faiths descended from Abraham (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) by definition, but we really don’t even have that much in common.
This lack of definition has led to several problems, within the community, when dealing with those outside of it and even with deepening individual spiritual connections.
We’ll look at the major issues within the community first. This largely deals with how individualized we are while still wanting to remain some sort of cohesive unit. The Witches’ Voice is a prime example. Certainly not everyone with a profile on this site is a Witch, but since Wicca (an umbrella term for varying paths unto itself, yet another reason that Paganism can’t be referred to as an umbrella term) is the most prominent form of neo-Paganism and many Wiccans also refer to themselves as Witches, it’s a place where many of differing Pagan faiths can get information and network with other local (and not-so-local) people of (some-what) like-mind. It also used to be a site that posted news articles that were relevant to the Pagan community at large (this has now been moved to its Facebook page) , and this leads to the interesting phenomenon of “Pagans in the media.” Every time there is an article that puts an individual Pagan in an unflattering light (such as a 40 year old Wiccan High Priest deciding it’s a good idea to do a private ritual skyclad with a 15 year old girl) , there’s a plethora of comments that say “He/she’s not Wiccan/Pagan because we all believe A and since he/she did B, there’s no way he/she can be a practicing Wiccan/Pagan.”
It doesn’t even have to be an unflattering article. I’ll give an example. Let’s say a large Hof of Asatru are featured in an article (most likely some fluff/local interest piece that goes Pagan-media-internet viral) about what they believe and how they practice. Now, this particular Hof is on a farm and raises organic/free-range goats that are ritually slaughtered in a humane way and then used in blots to Thor (in which the sacrifice is also eaten by the members of the Hof that they might commune better with Thor) . You are bound to get at least one person who (while supposedly an open-minded Pagan) will say something along the lines of, “Oh My Goddess! How terrible! These people are NOT Pagan! Pagans don’t DO animal sacrifice!” And when other commenters try to inform them that ancient Pagans sacrificed a lot (sometimes even having practiced human/cannibalistic sacrifices- no! not the peaceful Celts!) they either ignore archaeological evidence or give some fluff-bunny reason about why “we” don’t need to do that.
Here’s the thing: if we cannot decide on an actual definition of Paganism that is held up by the ENTIRE community, then we have no right to say that anyone else who refers to themselves as Pagan is not Pagan. We can agree that a murderer calling himself Wiccan is not Wiccan as he did not follow the rule that unifies all of Wicca: “An’ it harm none, do as ye will.” However, if he just claims to be Pagan (remember, Caligula was “pagan” too) we cannot say he is not. We can say that it’s no worse than the guy who claims God or The Devil told him to perform a heinous act and that it does not reflect the actions of the majority of adherents, but we cannot just say “He’s not Pagan!” We would need to be able to have a documented definition as to what about his behavior made him a non-Pagan. And the Rede is only applicable to Wicca, despite what some might prefer to believe. We cannot say we accept anyone while at the same time denying people based on nothing more than gut reaction.
When dealing with non-Pagans, this becomes an issue that leads some to ponder if we’re being discriminated against. Recently, The Pagan Federation has been fighting to gain charitable status (exempted from taxes) . Part of the reason they are being denied is that their religion is “too loosely defined” and the non-Pagans don’t know what they stand for and where their money will be going. Could this be discrimination? Perhaps, but given the definition of their religion, I sort of agree: “love and respect for nature, a positive morality and recognition of the divine.” This could define almost any religion. How “the divine” is envisioned (a major part in most religions) is completely left up for individual interpretation. Which is great, if you’re a practicing Pagan and don’t want to feel “left out” of the local community (as I do from the local Wiccan community, really) , but not so great when dealing with non-Pagans. If you refuse to give them even a hint about what you worship, then why should they believe you worship anything at all? Why should they believe this is a religious organization just because the founders say it is? Even Christians have their tax-evading televangelists, and their supposed beliefs were fully visible for the entire world to see.
Pagan churches have gained tax-exempt status in the past. Most notable is the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. The big difference between The Pagan Federation and the ATC is that the ATC is officially a church of Wicca, which has set rules, rituals and interpretations of “the divine” that can be pulled out and shown to non-Pagans and allows them to say, “This is what we believe, this is what we practice.” Now, the ATC does cater to the broader community and many non-Wiccan Pagans attend services there, however, since their basis is a specific Wiccan tradition, they have the definition that lets the general public feel better about their tax-exempt status (I’m not saying everyone likes it, but at least it “feels” more like a religion to them) . This is the model that I think the Pagan Federation (and others fighting for tax exemption) should try to adopt. Narrow the official focus but add something about catering to other alternative religions that have nowhere else to worship to the by-laws. The organization will seem more legitimate in the public eye and it will still be a place where Pagans of varying faiths can attend to their spiritual needs.
There is also the problem with dealing with the non-Pagan public on slightly more individualized scales. I once went to a meeting of ghost investigators that were having an informational lesson on dealing with Pagans. Our friend, also a Pagan, was part of the group and was very keen for us to meet the “expert” (he was a member of a local coven she was thinking about getting involved with and since has) . The problem was, she invited two very experienced, well read and opinionated Pagans (Barnabus Saberhagen and myself-and if you are shocked that I am opinionated…what have you been reading?) to a talk hosted by an expert that had only been practicing for six years (to put this into perspective, Barnabus and I had easily twice that experience under each of our belts, quite possibly more) and while I have met some who’ve only practiced that long but have managed to learn much and go through all three degrees of Wiccan initiation (within that same Tradition, I might add) , he had only managed to finish first degree (now, I don’t know if he decided he was a Witch/Pagan and didn’t find the coven for a few years but considering his opinion of reading books on Paganism-which I’ll get into later- it doesn’t seem likely) .
The point of this talk was to educate the ghost hunters on not being freaked out by Pagans should they ever investigate a haunting at a Pagan’s house. Most of the ghost hunters were some form of Christian and we all know that some of the tools commonly used have seeped into the Satanic Panic media. This was a fine idea…and then the guy opened his mouth. I’m not sure if his research skills are sub-par or if his teacher gave him incorrect information, but almost everything he said was quite frankly wrong, especially when trying to be as generic as possible. So Barnabus and I began to give counter points and examples from our seats. I suppose I could have left his holiday muddling alone (he claimed Ostara was the feast of Brigid) , it did no real harm (other than grate on my nerves) . However, he also claimed that Aleister Crowley wrote the Satanic Bible.
When I said that was Anton LaVey, the crowd of the uninformed asked that Barnabus and I refrain from commenting anymore because they found it confusing. The problem is, now these normal people are going to get freaked out by every tome written by Crowley because they will automatically associate him with Satanism (and even LaVey’s Satanism isn’t the Christian perversion you imagine when saying Satanism) . Many, many magical folk love Crowley; so this could be potentially damaging if and when they actually investigate a Pagan home. At the end of the discussion, the guy (and some of the crowd) performed a John Edwards style “read” (which I am always leery of, no matter who performs them) and was then approached by someone who wanted to learn more about Paganism. He told her NOT TO READ BOOKS, and to attend open circles to see what it’s about.
I don’t know about you, but the open circles I have been to have not been the deep rituals I sought. They were nice and beautiful in their own right, but sometimes depth of meaning and power is sacrificed in an attempt to be open to all. Also, books. BOOKS. Read them. They are important. His tradition was even started by a prolific Pagan author, so that he did not even recommend her works (as unrecommended by the over-all Pagan community as they might be) was a bit of a surprise.
The point is when the crowd asked us not to comment anymore because they were getting confused. They were getting information from two distinct Pagan traditions that had almost nothing in common aside from being called Paganism. I suppose the best thing to do in these situations is to explain that you only know things as your tradition sees them, so you can only comment on that. We step on each other’s toes quite a bit by trying to be all-encompassing in our rhetoric about our paths. We can’t speak for all Pagans and we need to make that clear.
Now we get to the individual. How is lacking a definition of Paganism hurting the individual Pagan? Well, I think it causes “101 Pagans” that don’t move on beyond it. The Pagan 101 books sell like hot-cakes. In fact, that’s the biggest seller and the most easily obtained form of works on Paganism. They try to be as generic as possible, often reading like Pagan Plug-and-Play or (at their very worst) Pagan Mad-Libs. This leads to new-comers thinking that that’s all they need to know and never seeking anything deeper. They think they can substitute Freya for Aphrodite just because they happen to like amber more than seashells. Or worse, their gods are faceless and unknowable, often either distant or immanent “mother/father energies” and often both at the same time. They have no cultural context for their deities and don’t feel they need to look any further because they can just call themselves Pagan.
Here’s the thing, to move beyond 101, you have to specialize. You have to specialize in technique and you have to specialize into a cultural framework. Without that, you lack the roots that connect you to the ancestors and what they practiced and if Paganism really is an attempt to “reconstruct various indigenous faiths” then you can’t move on without that connection.
But what if Paganism isn’t an attempted reconstruction of indigenous faiths? Well, then, what is it? Without a definition, it’s not an umbrella term, and is barely even a cloud term, really. It’s pretty much meaningless. You have to add another descriptor word to even give people a vague idea what you’re talking about and if you refuse to even narrow your focus that much because “you’re not about labels” then don’t expect to be asked deep questions about your path, because many will assume that it’s not deep and meaningful to you. I use at least three words to describe my unique path (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on with whom I speak) and that is without stating the name of any specific Tradition. The real lesson here is to read books, specialize, and don’t claim to speak for all Pagans, because you just can’t.