Today is both the Dies Natalis of Antoninus Pius in 86 CE, and also the syncretism festival of Antinous and Eunostos. Today was the first teaching day of the Fall quarter (which went fairly well), and there’s only one day of the season of Summer, proper, left. I had an eye doctor appointment this morning in which I had to get an injection in my left eye, and it has left a kind of “hole” in my vision, which I hope clears up over the next few days, but that’s something new that has never happened before. And, in my second medical marijuana experiment last night, I didn’t get better results for falling asleep or staying asleep, but I was granted an interesting quasi-dream/quasi-not-dream vision of how Mother Marijuana (that’s what I’m calling her until I know otherwise) helps to relieve one’s pain, which was quite cool…and it does seem to be doing a bit in that regard, which is great. I might continue to use it on weekends, as I was pretty dizzy today in the morning (as well as later), and suspect it might have been from that.
I wish I had some devotional material to share with you today for the day’s honorands, but instead I have a longer reflection piece–which I hope isn’t too polemical or political (given this and my attempt to do it this month), but may stray into that arena slightly. Oh well…so, without further ado, here it is.
Many things which are carry-overs from the hegemonic creedal monotheistic religions of the world have infected modern paganism and polytheism over the years. It takes a while to notice some of them and to begin to revise one’s thinking and to adjust to a situation in which such ideas, structures, or assumptions are no longer in operation and are not appropriate. Some are able to do so with relative ease, others take a while longer…and it’s an ongoing thing, and one that very few people are “done” with as an overall process at this stage. It is very difficult to overcome deep structures of language and social organization upon conversion to another religion, and polytheism is no exception, especially when the wider culture actively stands against some of the most basic premises of this religious mindset, as is the case with the modern U.S. (and many other “Western” countries). Sometimes, in the places we least thought, such ideas yet lurk and are ready to pounce if they are not found. But in any case…
There are many such pernicious ideas that have run rampant amongst mainstream pagans as well as polytheists over the last few years (and longer), which have sometimes been identified and checked, but also sometimes not. Unfortunately, fault lines within these movements have often been established along the contours upon which side (though often there are more than two) of the debate one finds oneself, which is often lamentable. Of the various examples of this, I think there is one idea in particular that is the worst of all, at least from my current viewpoint. (Ask me again in two years and I might have a different answer…)
No, it isn’t the ways in which some lore-hounds have used whatever the recognized (often academically-interpreted) mythologies and narratives of their chosen culture as a kind of “bible” in the same way that many Protestants do, i.e. “if it ain’t in there, it ain’t right!” That is a problem and an annoyance, but not the worst possible thing.
No, it isn’t that some people want to worship Jesus, Mary, or various other angels and saints, or even Iao Sabaoth (the Hebrew God–who is not the same as the Christian God or Allah, FYI!), as pagans or polytheists. Yes, Christo-Paganism is a thing, and a fine thing for those who wish to participate in it. Yes, syncretism is a thing, and a thing without which a great deal of what is known from Norse and Irish (amongst other) cultures would not now be available to us. And, it should not be any kind of existential, theological, or any sort of threat at all that these divine beings–however they are understood (as Hero/ines, spirits, egregores, deified abstracts, or whatever)–might be worshipped in addition to and alongside other Deities and divine beings. Any polytheism that is robust should not be threatened in the slightest by the addition of further divine beings and persons, it should be enriched by such.
No, it isn’t “fundamentalism,” which has become a buzz-word that has been used to brand anyone that one might not like with the most unflattering characteristics of the evangelical Christian movements, and to project these assumed characteristics on whomever the target-of-the-day within paganism or polytheism happens to be. What is often meant by this is that the people involved take their religion seriously, take the Deities and other divine beings seriously, and understand that social movements, politics, and other concerns–while they always touch religious subjects (for nothing is outside of the realm of religion to influence)–are not religion-in-themselves. This is a classic case of projection most of the time, and when the parties projected onto are in fact not remotely doing things that smack of Christian fundamentalism, with the exception of “taking the tenets of their chosen religion seriously,” then the question becomes why people are spending their minutes and their pixels focusing upon these polytheists or pagans when there are actual fundamentalists in a variety of other religions who are in positions to do great personal, environmental, and cultural damage (amongst other forms of harm) to others on a wide scale. Shooting at easy targets to have a high from being righteous rather than actually doing something to impact the wider world might make someone feel good on the internet, but does it really do anything useful for anyone other than that person? Probably not…and thus, I don’t think this is the worst problem inherited from creedal hegemonic monotheism, and using the accusation of “fundamentalism” is not a hobby that anyone should indulge, I don’t think, in a polytheist or pagan context.
Is it the attempted institutionalization of certain types of paganism and polytheism? Their increased organization? The fact that some clergy feel they should be compensated for their work? That various forms of infrastructure are desired and sought by a number of people, and they want to work toward creating or building or sustaining them for the future? Nope. (And all of those mainstream pagans who are pagan because they are against all of the structures of religion that they grew up with, no matter what those structures might be in the future with better management and less objectionable content just need to get over their allergies to such matters…I’d hope they might grow out of such views, like some people do with allergies after their teenage years, but given that some of these sentiments are most often and strongly expressed by some in the older generations of non-lineaged modern pagan traditions, I don’t know if that is a realistic hope any longer.)
Is it the organization of theology, and even the admission that there is such a thing as “theology” of which it is important for polytheists, pagans, and others to take heed? No, not even close. (And anyone who thinks this is the case probably needs to have their overall intellectual capacities re-evaluated.)
Is it that some people have personal relationships with Deities in, it is assumed, the same way that some Christians say they have personal relationships with Jesus? Is being too fervent in devotion the problem? Is it even that some Deities have relationships with Their devotees that involve the concepts of soteriology–of “salvation” and “being saved”–and even of both personal/soul-level as well as cosmic-level eschatologies? Not a chance–that’s a long-standing thing that has existed in the ancient Greek cultures (amongst many others) for millennia, and certainly long before anyone ever heard of some dude from Nazareth.
Then, could it be investing authority in priests and other clergy and other trained and lineaged persons? The only people for whom such a matter would be a problem are hard-core Proestants, and their eclectic Wiccan and other forms of mainstream pagan heirs (whether they recognize themselves as such or not), who don’t think there should be any intermediaries between them and any/all divine beings, and are not amenable to any kind of hierarchy, or who don’t recognize any possibility that someone might know a bit more or have easier access to certain spiritual information or resources as a good thing, or even actually exists. Whether or not it’s good is something to take up with powers greater than myself; but the fact is, this is a condition which does exist in an objective sense: not everyone knows everything that everyone else does (and “everything” also includes acquaintance with various divine beings!), and as a result not everyone is equal in every spiritual situation or context. Perhaps on a basic existential level, we all have a common level of respect that we are due as sentient beings; but beyond that, our differences do matter, and matter intensely where certain religious situations are concerned. Not everyone can be a sacrificial priest, a diviner, a ritual leader, an initiator into certain Mysteries, an exegete, or a devotee of any and every Deity that comes along at a high level on the first try, amongst a giant variety of other possibilities, for reasons up to and including people’s varying talents and lacks thereof, adequate or inadequate training, or the presence or absence of certain forms of spiritual experience with particular Deities…and many other reasons besides. So, no, this isn’t any kind of major problem, I don’t think, for anyone that thinks for more than a few seconds about it.
Then, could it be that there are “rules” involved? Ethical standards? Moral guidelines? Suggestions for what a good life is and by what good behavior is constituted? Some people in the past few years have tried to argue that paganism, at least, “has no rules” and anyone who tries to make them for it is being a bit “too Christian” (with that label meaning “morally authoritarian and/or prescriptive”). That lack of rules and standards, objectively, where many forms of mainstream paganism are concerned, may very well be the case–which is one of many reasons I try not to have too much to do with the mainstream pagan communities any longer. But, having rules and expectations of behavior, and minimum requirements for participation in certain events or for membership in certain groups is not a Christian holdover; it’s human nature and the nature of organized social life amongst humans–whether religious or otherwise–ever since humans began working together as a species. It’s older than religion, folks, so if it is a holdover, it’s one that is far older and more primal and important than that to which Christianity could ever aspire.
Then, could it be any concepts of Deities that might in any way have relations to what Christians and Muslims are required to believe of their Deities? I don’t think so; no, for the most part, our Deities are not all of the “omni-” categories that are ascribed to “true-and-only divinity” in hegemonic creedal monotheist contexts, and yet They can have some of those characteristics under certain circumstances, as I’ve written about here two months ago.
So, then, of all of these matters–and many more which I’m sure could be named and which might have been matters of contention at particular times over the past few decades (and if you have further ones I’m missing, feel free to mention them in the comments below!)–what is the one that is the most pernicious, in P.S.V.L.’s perceptions, at the moment?
I would argue that the biggest thing that polytheists (and, I’d suggest, mainstream pagans as well, but I have no standing to do so) should try not to copy from creedal hegemonic monotheism is the following notion, which has been a cornerstone of both Christianity and Islam ever since each of them had political hegemony: namely, the notion that “error has no rights.” Read that again, and really understand it: the notion that error has no rights is a pernicious idea in creedal hegemonic monotheistic religions and the cultures they spawn which is absolutely against every fiber of a polytheist mindset and its expected (and generally observed) pluralism, tolerance, and appreciation for diversity and variety. It is something which–despite all of its many flaws and its many failures–the American democratic system and especially the First Amendment of the Constitution (which provides six specific rights: the establishment clause/not having a government-mandated religion; the free exercise of religion; freedom of speech [and expression]; freedom of the press; freedom of assembly [and, I think, freedom of association is included in this]; and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances) articulates exceptionally well. The First Amendment should be something that every American citizen knows thoroughly, as our most important, sacrosanct, and sovereign rights as citizens are enshrined in it, and while it has been chipped away in various ways and on various occasions (often for rather nefarious reasons), often when such cases come up in the Supreme Court, they are decided in favor of upholding those rights rather than abridging them.
If you don’t like something, you should be able to say so, and should be able to debate and discuss and deliberate over it in public or in private; and, whether we like it or not, people also have the ability to demean and derogate and disrespect others in speech and writing as well, as long as it is not libelous. Where such activities of the latter sort can occur is something which can be regulated–one doesn’t have to put up with it on one’s blog comments, or in one’s house or place of work, or other such contexts. While I always hope interactions and discussions can avoid such tactics, it doesn’t always work, and I am not always able to abide by that ideal myself, which I freely admit. But, people are still free to act in that way, no matter how much we may not like nor approve of them doing so. As long as it remains in the realm of legality, and does not become either cyber- or actual stalking, libel, or other such things, people can and will do it…it doesn’t take much poking about the internet to see this is something that occurs all over the place with such frequency it is often sickening to take in, but there it is.
There are all sorts of people and things and activities that I don’t particularly like, and that all things considered I wish didn’t happen: racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, general ignorance, religious discrimination, classism, corporate domination of increasingly more areas of human endeavor, and the list goes on…but, guess what? It’s a free country, and the people who do those things and espouse those viewpoints have just as much right to do so as I do to espouse my own, and to oppose theirs. (As much as I like Warren Ellis’ words–“You are not entitled to your opinion; you are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to ignorance”–sadly, entitlement to ignorance is one of the most cherished of privileges that many Americans have, and they’re proud to declare it loudly.) I know some people absolutely hate what I write and what I say simply because I’m the one saying it, and they’re free to think that. I try not to think that of other people if and when possible, though I certainly avoid reading things by people for whom I don’t have a great deal of affection. When I write something, I don’t write with all of my potential critics in mind, or else I’d never say a word at all. If the criticism becomes known to me, I can consider it or discard it as appropriate; but if I never know about it, then I don’t really care about it.
All of this to say: I think part of being a mature citizen in this society (again, with all of its flaws unflinchingly acknowledged) is learning to be comfortable with the fact that not everyone acts as one might prefer they do, nor is everyone going to think well of oneself either. As Adam Phillips said very memorably to me in 1997, when I asked about how the lived experience of those who don’t always play by the roles which they’re expected to can best occur, his statement was that one must “allow others the freedom to hate oneself.” It’s been one of the most useful lessons I’ve ever learned in my life, I think. We always hope for better, certainly, but one literally cannot please everyone, nor should one even attempt to try.
Unfortunately, over the last year, more and more people who might have unpopular (or even “wrong”) ideas have been not only criticized, but have been silenced, shunned, or prevented from engaging in their work in a variety of contexts within mainstream paganism, and occasionally even in polytheism. While event runners can certainly say “Not here,” and no one has any inherent right for their contributions to be included in any larger collaborative event, the idea that someone might have done something which someone else didn’t like then gets used to exclude someone or some group from an event…there, that’s where things have gone over the line. Having been the recipient of threats of this several years back (which, luckily, came to nothing), I’m especially worried when it happens to other people, and I’ve seen it happen to many over the last year.
The idea underlying such viewpoints, I think, is that one I mentioned above: error has no rights. If you’re what I decide or deem is “wrong,” then suddenly you are no longer a human being. You don’t deserve to be respected, you don’t deserve to be heard, and any arguments you make are automatically not logical, not sane, and are frankly NOT ALLOWED. Not only should you be mocked mercilessly and turned away from all civilized persons and their doings, but your livelihood and your relationships and your every aspect of life should be undermined…because you’re wrong, and you need to understand how wrong all of us think you are by having your very existence questioned and your rights ignored until you are no longer wrong.
The “you” and the “I” in the majority of that last paragraph is a theoretical “you” and “I,” because the actual “I” who is P.S.V.L. certainly does not think along those lines, and would never do anything of that sort. I can and do disagree with many people on many issues, large and small, but I am not about to assume that I’m allowed to indoctrinate others into the “right” way of thinking that I have determined for everyone. If they ask me for advice or guidance, then we might work something out, or if they are taking a class with me, then there are parameters of such relationships that are presumed in such an arrangement; but, that’s very different than setting out to right all of what one sees as wrong in the world by enforcing a single idea, or even a small number of approved viewpoints, on all people, and that universal agreement and approbation is expected and demanded as a consequence. That isn’t a form of thought that is healthy, secure, or remotely mature, and I think most psychologists, sociologists, and others would agree such is the case. People in certain religions–like the hegemonic creedal monotheistic ones–of course think that is their right, but because “they’re right,” and no one else is, they thus have that right in a tautological fashion…and one should beware of few things as timidly as tautologies.
[This entire situation seems especially strange in some forms of modern mainstream paganism, since it has been repeatedly emphasized and re-emphasized over the past few years that “no one makes the rules” for paganism, and there are no rules for it…other than the ones that say some people can be drummed out of it if their views don’t match those of the majority, even if the people concerned only keep to themselves and aren’t seeking to harm or influence people outside of their own group or to do anything to the larger movement. But, again, I don’t have any investment in that group as a whole or in part, so this is just an observation on how quickly such non-rule rules fall apart relatively easily and quickly. I’ve seen several statements and hashtags and such that are to the effect of “Not In My Paganism!” That may be very well for one’s own paganism, but what about someone else’s? If this kind of argument is used to deprive others of the pagan label if they self-select it, then it seems at odds with what the very essence of paganism has set itself up as over the last few years, i.e. something that can mean anything one wants it to so long as it is a self-selected and self-applied label.]
The Christians and the Muslims have a more direct way of dealing with this kind of thing, especially in situations where they did or do have the political establishment in a given culture or location on their side as well: they killed such people. Heretics, schismatics, free-thinkers, or anyone who didn’t espouse the party line was “free” to have their continued right to existence removed at the pleasure of those who decided what was right or wrong for everyone. Error had no rights, and the right to live is one such right which those who were in error forfeited for their errors.
Does that sound fucking disgusting and crazy to anyone else? Does that sound like something that is useful to anyone other than those who are pushing one and only one viewpoint–theirs–as what should be acceptable, accessible to others, and even “the norm”? Does that sound like something laudable that mainstream pagans or polytheists should decide “Yes, indeed, I want this because it’s THE BEST” and we should therefore emulate it and begin enacting it in our own contexts on a much greater and more pervasive scale? If your answer is “yes” to that latter question, please stop reading this blog and never look at it again.
Even with the greatest intentions for trying to remove injustice and inequity from the world and reducing its impact on others, this sort of situation takes it just a bit too far, I think. As someone who is as liberal-as-fuck, in the original sense of not only liberated (and hopefully liberating in what I do in the world) but also generous (in terms of the allowances I presuppose all others have to do as they might wish), it goes against every fiber of my being to suggest that someone else should not be able to do what they want, publicly or privately, as long as it is legal (and preferably it is also consensual–so, anyone who verbally abuses others who have not agreed to be verbally abused by them is doing something that I don’t really think is a good thing, for example), simply because I don’t approve of it or agree with it. I am not a monist, and don’t think it’s “all one” and thus such difference are irrelevant; and I certainly am someone who will speak against certain viewpoints that I find to be unfair or unjust, and will even do more than that under certain circumstances. But, as long as the people and institutions who think those things aren’t able to prevent my access to a restroom, or to impede me from obtaining my basic civil rights, access to a livelihood and healthcare and so forth, they can preach and so on as much as they like. If they had their way, they’d prefer I be silenced or even killed in many cases, and have said so; but I’m someone who tries not to return bad for bad, personally. If they come banging at my door with torches and pitchforks, they’ll get a fight; but if it’s just talk, let them talk.
Things far less dangerous than that kind of talk are not being accepted by some folks these days, and the people holding those “wrong” viewpoints are being disrespected in ways that indicate those who are treating them thus consider them to have no rights because of their error. This isn’t good polytheism, it’s bad hegemonic creedal monotheism. Let’s not do that, shall we?
There’s something else that is related to this, I think, that has often become confused in many of the matters in question. Let’s say a particular group has certain requirements, restrictions, or other factors that allow some people to participate in them but prevent others from doing so. Maybe a group is gender-restricted, or age-restricted, or even race-restricted. Now, I am not in favor of any of those things as restrictions for membership in a group, but if the people in those groups really want to construct them as such, they can have a field day with it for all I care. I might speak against them, or question why they would feel the need to create such restrictions, but they’re still free to do that. I might decide not to attend an event they are putting on (even if it did allow me to enter, which it probably wouldn’t), or to buy the books that their members or leaders write, or to take classes from them; and even if I weren’t specifically excluded from joining for one of the reasons they indicate, I still wouldn’t join them because of their exclusivity and discriminatory practices. But, they still have a right to exist. I won’t protest their events, or try to get their venues to not rent to them, or try to shut down the group or do harm to those within it just because I think they’re wrong. Lots of people are “wrong” but aren’t directly hurting anyone (even if they are hurting their own members’ abilities to relate to others or think critically in many cases…but, people also decide to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, and those can do the same, but they’re also legal!). If they’re not inciting lynch mobs, assaulting others, or carrying out comprehensive strategies to disenfranchise and oppress others actively, let them think whatever small-minded nonsense they want.
If a group, an activity, a tradition, or a teacher has requirements of their students that I don’t agree with, it isn’t any of my business, and I don’t have to take a class from them or join them, etc. But likewise, they have the right to construct their activities as they see fit, and to impose whatever requirements they might prefer on those who self-select to be a part of those groups, those teachings, and so forth. You might disagree, and thus might find that you never want to associate with that person or that group, and that’s fine. But, don’t assume others will, or may not willingly assent to such limitations or requirements if it suits their own purposes to do so. Just because someone doesn’t like something doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t ever exist.
As polytheists, we know what happens to Deities and other divine beings who are rejected, and what They can become…and it doesn’t take too many encounters with Set or Loki to realize how very bad an idea it might be to wholesale condemn someone or something one doesn’t particularly like.
I am reminded in this of a lesson I learned early, in the first few weeks of my senior year of high school. During my senior year, I was on the senior class cabinet because the president was a friend of mine who respected my thoughtful opinions (even though I wasn’t one of the “popular crowd” and so forth), and I was also the editor of our high school yearbook, so it was important to have the inside line from me on certain matters pertaining to the privileges of the senior class in the annual. We had our first senior class meeting that year, probably in September of 1993, and I was given the podium to make a few announcements. One of the things I announced was that we would be selling page sponsorships in the senior class pictures section to pay for the color pages we had therein, and thus I distributed a form detailing how to do that. There were a few questions on whether one could sponsor more than one page, if one could specify which page one wanted to sponsor, if more than one parent or person could sponsor one page, and so forth…the usual logistical questions. Then, one semi-professional shit-stirrer decided that he’d just throw a fit over the whole thing, stood up and began a rant saying “If I took this bullshit home to my parents, they’d laugh in my face to think that they should pay to sponsor pages in our yearbook!” He then went on for a few more minutes along those lines, and a few people were getting annoyed with it, and at last I said into the microphone, “Look, if they don’t want to sponsor a page, they don’t have to–problem solved.” I got a standing ovation from my class (the first one I ever had!), and it amazed me not just that I was being applauded for saying that–though it was more that I had irrefutably shut up someone that many people found annoying who was complaining for no reason–but that I had to point out that this was an opt-in matter and not in any way a requirement, and thus no one absolutely had to do it, or was being made to feel bad or excluded for not doing it (or would necessarily be better off for having done it!).
I think the entire notion of “If you don’t like something, and you don’t have to do it, then there shouldn’t be a problem” is a rather simple one, and an easy one to actualize in one’s life in order to save one’s blood pressure, a great deal of worry, and a lot of hassle. However, as the years are going on, I’m finding more and more that this simple notion is one that far too many people, especially on the internet in this imprecise and impersonal form of communication (if it can indeed be called that!), is entirely unknown, or perhaps more simply unheeded. We could all probably be accomplishing a great deal more if we spent less time critiquing things we don’t like, and especially expending our efforts to make sure that those who hold viewpoints to which we object are no longer able to exist because we don’t like their views, and more actually doing what we think would be useful, and offering alternatives to those things we don’t like that are worthy and exemplary of what we think is a better viewpoint and a better approach.
But, I also realize that in spending this much time writing about this, I could probably have spent the time better on one of my many devotional projects. Oh well…
I am writing this, though, to ask those who have ideas along the lines of “error has no rights” to reconsider that viewpoint, and how damaging it is, and how it has been one of the most destructive and negative consequences of a hegemonic creedal monotheistic viewpoint. Perhaps we don’t need to be “tolerant of intolerance” (I’d say we don’t!), nor do we need to be entirely permissive and relativistic in our approach to religious and other matters; but, as soon as I think my disapproval of another’s views gives me some right to undermine any of their rights–first and foremost their right to exist, but others as well–then I know I am falling into an egregious error, and one that should be easily avoided, critiqued, and rejected for the bullshit that it has always been.