After yesterday’s post of an open letter to atheists, here is the “next installment,” so to speak, of pieces that I’ve been putting off for a few weeks that are likely to make some people upset. So be it…
This particular post was initially inspired by a round-up post on The Wild Hunt, which had quite a conversation in the comments about what I’m going to discuss here. The round-up post featured a link to Don Frew’s article “The Rudiments of Neopagan Spiritual Practice.”
Not long after that occurred, I read a post on Wiccanate Privilege by Rúadhán McElroy, and then shortly after that, via further links on The Wild Hunt, I read Melissa Harrington’s essay on the dangers of conflating different pagan traditions together. Both of these address the problem I’m going to speak about here, without actually dealing directly with Frew’s article; nonetheless, it was timely that all of these things appeared at about the same moment.
Something that non-Wiccan modern pagans and polytheists have been fighting to have realized, tooth and nail, on a wider scale for decades now is that “while all Wiccans are pagan, not all pagans are Wiccan,” and similar viewpoints which challenge the notion that Wicca is pretty much the lingua franca and “universal” modern pagan methodology. Even if this is “true” on a practical level based simply on the size and general popularity of Wicca, nonetheless it flies in the face of the supposed respect for diversity and difference that general paganism (including Wicca) is supposed to have. There are many traditions that have developed out of or alongside the modern pagan movement which are not Wiccan in basis. Perpetuating the falsehood that Wicca is somehow a “default” or an assumed “lowest common denominator” for modern pagans is incorrect, foolish, and reckless to say the least.
[I will leave aside for the moment the common response to this objection that often gets raised by more mainstream pagans: "Well, you just need to get out there more, go to more conventions, write more, etc." That conversation has been had many times, including in the comments to Rúadhán's post linked to above. Some of us, speaking only for myself, are putting on two to four events at PantheaCon yearly, have published six books and innumerable essays, teach classes, hold public rituals in our own communities, do blogs like this, and have columns or blogs on other mainstream pagan websites as well, in addition to any number of other things. And, I know that I'm not even the most active or "out there" modern polytheistic pagan in this regard--Galina Krasskova does far more than I ever could, for example!--and yet most of the people who make the suggestion that we "get out there more" have not heard of us because they literally do not care and don't have to take notice of us at all, because they have the Wiccanate privilege that Rúadhán so eloquently spoke about. But, I digress...!]
So, it is extremely disheartening to read a direct statement, in an interfaith forum that likely is the assumed “best” source of information about modern paganism for some people in other religions, by a major pagan interfaith “leader” like Don Frew which ignores and marginalizes any non-Wiccan form of paganism, and in particular misrepresents polytheistic theology entirely, while yet claiming to speak on behalf of any and all modern pagan groups. Forget that I know of no single Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic, Norse/Germanic, Canaanite, Thracian, Lithuanian, or any other culturally-based reconstructionist form of polytheism that has empowered Don Frew to speak for them and on their behalf; nonetheless, this is an extremely irresponsible move on his part, in my view.
Unfortunately, it’s not at all surprising, either. My own (though limited) personal experience with Don Frew at PantheaCon demonstrated to me the very matter that I’m talking about here, and though I’ve told this story on a few occasions with the “names withheld” because I didn’t think it would be worthwhile to name the offending parties and no good would come of it, the fact is that actual and active harm and misunderstanding is being perpetuated by someone, and that someone needs to be named and corrected actively, or else things will not ever get better for polytheists and non-Wiccan pagans in the general visibility of our religions on the greater interfaith scene, and more widely.
The “personal experience” I am speaking of here was at the 2010 PantheaCon, on Saturday, February 13th, at 9:00 AM, in a session that was attributed solely to Don Frew in the printed schedule called “Pagans in Global Interfaith Work.” It was more of a panel, and also featured T. Thorn Coyle, Rachel Watcher, and Rowan Fairgrove. The panel itself was fine, and I went and spoke with Don after it was over and introduced myself (he didn’t seem to care and hadn’t heard of me–but then again, at that point, most people didn’t). I praised him and thanked him for his interfaith work, and then said “What is your experience with intrafaith work?” He sort of knitted his brows for a moment and said “Intrafaith? That’s when religions have discussions within their own groups.” I said yes (though I found his answer to me more than a bit patronizing), and said that I think there is a need for this within modern paganism because of the diversity of the movement and the distinct religions within it. He shook his head and continued to do whatever he was doing, and I then tried to tell him about the Ekklesía Antínoou’s Communalia ritual on Monday, as that is (as far as I know) the only properly intrafaith ritual that is being observed within modern paganism and polytheism broadly speaking. As I got into my giving of details on this, it became very clear to me that Don was no longer listening to me and was actually actively ignoring me, including speaking to other people/starting conversations with others while I was still speaking. Not only was this rude (though I did say “thank you” before I left, not that he cared nor acknowledged it), but it illustrates the very root of this problem: people are not listening to each other.
While many people within modern paganism and polytheism have questioned the usefulness of interfaith work, and it isn’t something that appeals to everyone nor is possible for everyone (for any number of legitimate reasons–it’s hard enough re-building ancient religious practices and actually practicing them, which doesn’t always leave a lot of time for doing interfaith work as well!), nonetheless I do think it’s important and useful work, as I’ve indicated on here and elsewhere many times.
However, not unlike the situation with anything having to do with polytheism itself, I think it is probably a much better idea to make sure that everything in interfaith work is contextualized and specific, even to the point of repeatedly emphasizing “This is how it works for my tradition; others do differ, and often widely.” The more of this kind of specific, authentic, and contextualized interfaith work that occurs, the better the understanding of our diverse religious viewpoints there will be in the wider landscape of modern religious people of all varieties.
Likewise, the more that pagan interfaith work ends up being a rehash of Wicca (or, at best, Wicca-like practices) to the detriment of any other possibility, and the more that individuals who have no intention of representing viewpoints other than their own, and who have no interest in nor even respect for such viewpoints, go about speaking on behalf of everyone and are not called out for doing so, the worse off we’ll all be for these supposed efforts that such individuals get praised for and have made their own brand-name.
I find myself in the position of not finding it possible to praise the work, or the individuals responsible for it, when the work in question is actively marginalizing some groups (including my own) and is misinforming others. I therefore cannot approve of this type of “pagan interfaith” work unless it is done in an actual spirit of informed understanding and respect for the diversity within modern paganism (including polytheism!), rather than simply giving the thoughts of a majority for convenience’s sake and representing that majority as the only worthwhile viewpoint to take seriously in an interfaith context.