Posted by: aediculaantinoi | September 8, 2013

Religions of Practice–Someone Now Has A Problem With Them…

I am getting on a roll with some of the work I’m doing, so I can’t spend too much time writing up a big and complex post today…but we’ll see how this one goes…

Modern paganism and polytheism, I’m not the only one to have observed (and those who have include many, from Margot Adler to Jason Pitzl-Waters of THe Wild Hunt Blog–and it is purely chance that both of them are more in the “journalist” category than they are theologians or religious studies scholars…but, let’s just go with this here!), are religions of experience and of practice far more so than they are of belief or creed. We’ve often observed how this can be a good thing, and how it tends to alleviate problems of people between groups or within groups persecuting their fellow members for differences in belief (although there have been some problems with that over the last number of months, too). I still think it’s far better to emphasize that modern paganism and polytheism tends to be more focused on practice and experience than anything else. And, pagans who say they don’t like or “don’t get” ritual are often not pagans for very long…

But now, apparently, someone says that practice itself is the problem, in the following article from, which you can read here. The study quoted in this article, of course, makes generalizations about all religions based on observations of mostly Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, which is not surprising, and then the mostly atheist viewpoint of the article’s author carries that argument further in an anti-religious direction.

If atheists now begin targeting practice as the problematic element in religion generally speaking, rather than belief and the insistence upon it and intolerance of variations within it, then we are really going to get into an “uh oh” situation for pagans, as well as people of many other religions (e.g. Shinto, Hinduism) very quickly. We’ve been able to fly under the radar for a while because we are a minority religion. The U.S. is probably one of the great bastions of atheism, apart from perhaps the U.K., Australia, Canada, and perhaps France and a few Northern European countries, despite what some atheists in those countries complain about in terms of being an oppressed or suppressed minority. Paganism and these other religions have generally not been as much in the spotlight in popular culture in the U.S., and thus are not taken as “seriously” even as religions at all in comparison to the “big three” monotheistic religions. Does increased visibility for our religions also run the risk of therefore increased critique? (Of course it does, that’s obvious…but, this particular variety of critique is a relatively new thing, to my knowledge.)

So, what do you think? Is this something to legitimately worry about and be cautious of, or do you think that due to the tendency of all religion–by the non-religious, atheists, and religious people alike in the U.S.–to be understood strictly as creedal in basis and being discussed and phrased in those terms most often, will end up deflecting and downplaying this particular study’s impact and the opinions drawn from it? Will the context of Middle Eastern monotheistic religions make it less likely that people will then generalize those findings to other non-creedal religions? Will the nature of paganism and polytheism as decentralized religions, where “preaching” and such do not play a role in most public rituals and communal gatherings, give us a rare exception in which some other religions of practice may still find difficulties?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.


  1. Eh, I wasn’t impressed by the piece to be honest. It seemed a bit flimsy, and I wonder more about all the factors that were considered, why they decided that prayer is not a practice, and I thought that the bit at the end where the author said that universalism erases tribes and tribal violence but the only catch is alienation from other people was ignorant – universalism eradicates and destroys anything that can’t, won’t, or doesn’t fit in with the larger accepted ‘norm’.

    • Very much agreed…

      There are many problems with the study; but, it’s the conclusions I’m worried about (no matter how flawed or poorly contextualized, interpreted, and inferred they might be), and whether or not this might catch on as a meme amongst atheists, as well as humanist and archetypalist (and even monist) pagans who are fine with people meditating on their own, but start becoming even more resentful of that thing they hate and fear the most–worship!!!–and of communal ritual and such altogether.

      Or, maybe it will never do that…but anyway…

      And, yes, the things mentioned about universalism also apply to monism, I think. Eek.

      • Sadly I wouldn’t be surprised if humanist pagans picked this up as a reason to be even more dismissive and hostile to worship and group organization… Though I do hope it doesn’t catch on among most atheists.

        One would think that atheists and especially New Atheists who are so painfully science-centric (to the point of holding up science as The Unfaltering Truth) would be able to understand why this study is problematic and also why its conclusions could be applied to any group, but…I suspect if this study does catch on, the use of critical thinking toward this issue will fly out the window. So I’ll just keep hoping it slides slightly into the mess of the internet…

      • Agreed on all points…

  2. The piece is rather flimsily put together. I was having a recent discussion this morning in which a rather rabid anti-theist acquaintance of mine tried to explain away Christianity based on the recent debacle with the Church of England and arms sales. When I tried to explain to him that was not the Christianity I know or recognize, I was quickly labeled arrogant (untrue) and elitist (very true, but with qualifications) for my stance. As a qualified monist, though one with strong pluralistic values, trying to explain to him that just because I believe one thing doesn’t mean I expect others to believe what I believe or have come to understand as true for myself was mind-boggling and away he went again on religion and such being “mumbo jumbo mumbo jumbo”.

    • It is sad how poorly so many people understand all of these concepts, and are so quick to dismiss anything that they don’t understand or haven’t encountered before.

      I think anti-theists are some of the most uncreative people around, personally.

  3. I actually did not have much of a problem with the conclusions the author came to. Rituals bring people together and bond them as a community – this is not news. And yes, that can lead to othering those who are not in your community – this is also not news. I’m glad the author recognizes the Durkheimian dilemma that comes from not participating in religious, or at least communal, ritual, but his notion that skeptics, atheists, and scientists are somehow cultivating a “culture-free, objective picture of reality” is among the most preposterous things I’ve ever read. They’re creating culture and participating in ritual, it just might not be religious. He notes that you’re not likely to see scientists participating in the cultic activities of the sports arena, but I imagine they do other things together, i.e. conferences (academic, geek, etc.), sharing food and drink at the local pub, etc. Rituals come in all shapes and sizes and do the work of bringing people together, so-called universalists are not immune. They just might not be the most meanigful of cultures.

    As for the problem which the author seeks to find an answer, namely, how to stop interreligious violence caused by people participating in community building rituals, I think the solution lies in doing ritual together. If ritual brings people together and bonds them then let’s do it. It would be interfaith, but the likes of which I’m not sure we’ve ever seen. I participated in my first real interfaith service this weekend (a prayer service for peace in Syria) and despite the beautiful environs, playing with fire and pipe organs and such, I was really disappointed, not only because there were no non-Abrahamic traditions represented, but what was present was really watered down ritual that tried to break down all the differences that distinguish the faiths from one another and bring things to their lowest common denominator. They used language that suggested that the three faiths represented were representative of their traditions, i.e. prayers from “the” Christian tradition, “the” Hebrew tradition, “the” Muslim tradition, which glosses over the many variations and denominations that part of them, at least to my mind. No, I think real interfaith work should involve participating in a diversity of ritual from various faith traditions. By allowing the full, True Bloom of our many traditions and seeing the veritable bouquet of faiths in all of their marvelous and beautiful forms, by transgressing our boundaries and doing ritual together, only then can we really be said to be doing “interfaith” work.

    • Yes, that was a very problematic part of the piece: that somehow there is such a thing as an objective picture of reality or a culture-free one is a privileged and ignorant view of the world.

      I wish that interfaith ritual was something that didn’t suck more often than it is good. Not only is there that notion of each person representing their ENTIRE range of traditions (as encapsulated in that definite article you so effectively used!), but also the watering-down of those traditions in order to find something that they perceive to work and be the least offensive to everyone. (It’s not unlike the Hindu prayer done in Congress a few years back, which was almost unrecognizably Hindu, but nonetheless people objected because it was a Hindu giving it.)

      There was an interfaith ritual in Ballard in November of ’07 that I attended with Erynn, and it was a cavalcade of everything that is wrong with such things. Some of the music groups representing different religions were just plain bad, while others chose songs that I felt were very inappropriate, and they took the time to explain “When it says ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’ in this song, you don’t really have to take it to mean those things”–so, in other words, nothing you’re saying really means anything because WE’RE ALL INTERFAITH AND ISN’T THAT SWELL?!? Then, the only groups that got any kind of floor to talk further about their positions were Jews, Christians, and Muslims (and limited representation of each of those, as you said). Finally, the actual “blessing” bit–as the whole ritual was to bless hats, scarves, and coats that had been collected or made to distribute to homeless people–was a total mess. There were something like 55 groups represented, and they all went up to do their blessings at once, which means that everyone was trying to speak louder than the next person of faith near them, and it was unintelligible hogwash one-upmanship in the end…except for the Mevlevi Sufi guy who just did a couple of spins. We all got what he meant and what he was doing, because he didn’t actually use words, he used action and movement. But, the big three monotheisms tend not to get the value of such “ritualistic” things (with exceptions, e.g. Mevlevi Sufis, some Catholics, Hasidic Jews, etc.).

      These things need to be done so much better than they have been if they’re to be effective or useful for anyone, particularly for us non-monotheists and non-Abrahamics.

  4. […] than normal–and higher than they have been for a few weeks–due to the listing of my post from yesterday on today’s The Wild Hunt Blog’s “Unleash the Hounds!” segment. So, thank […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s