All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.
For Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means and how to experience it first hand involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this autistic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
Pagans, Politics, and Values
How might our Paganism influence our politics? A post I wrote before the election, was recently rebuked because I supposedly had no respect for nearly half the American people. Supposedly my views were alien to the Wiccan rede. I disagree as will be obvious, but my basic issue is not with the author, who I assume was sincere, but with a style of thought and the confusions it breeds. While this post begins with a political question to answer it I will take a journey through some theology and some philosophy.
How big a tent?
Two points argue for an immense political tent among Pagans and I agree with them both. First anyone can be a Pagan who claims to be one because there is no set of authorities to say you or I are or are not Pagans. That lack of authorities is a good thing in my view.
Second, historically Pagans have included those who cut the hearts from sacrificial victims as offerings to their deities as well as those who lived lives of principled peace. Some Pagans have been cannibals and others vegetarians. That’s a roomy set of practices. It is easy to be comfortable somewhere within those bounds.
Another set of arguments shrinks the tent. I also support them.
A little theology
Like Christianity and Islam, “Pagan” refers to a semi-coherent set of qualities. Its meaning is neither exact nor without semi-exceptions. Given that both Christianity and Islam often define themselves as being against Paganism, their own chosen contrasts between us and them gives us a start.
Pagans are not monotheists. I have argued monotheism itself is an incoherent notion, but whether it is or not, Pagans recognize the existence of multiple spiritual powers that are regarded as worthy of worship/devotion/respect or some mixture thereof. A small minority of Pagans, such as the Epicureans, believed the Gods were unconcerned in every way with humanity, but still referred to them in the plural. Otherwise most all believed we wisely entered into appropriate relationships with these powers.
We can safely say that Pagans, whatever else we might be and however else we may differ, acknowledge the reality of multiple spiritual powers and the wisdom of cultivating good relationships with them.
A second characteristic of Pagan spirituality grows from this. All Pagans of which I have any knowledge believed that some of these powers, wherever else they might be, were in the world and not simply transcendent to it. The world is not fallen nor is it simply a backdrop for the human drama. Nature to some degree always reflected or embodied these powers. Some monotheists such as Orthodox Christians and Quakers, claim a similar insight, believing God is in the world as well as transcendent to it.
A logical extension of this belief, one also applying to Quakers and the Orthodox, is that the world is more than a storehouse of resources for human use. It has value on its own. In an important sense it is sacred.
If a person does not accept the reality of spiritual powers with whom one can enter into some beneficial relationship, and that at least some those powers exist within the world, if they want to present themselves as Pagans the burden is on them to demonstrate they merit the term. Until they do so there is no good reason for anyone to give their views much weight as Pagans.
A little philosophy
Having a incoherent set of beliefs does not entitle anyone to having those beliefs respected if they impinge on others. This is not a religious principle; it is embedded within the nature of human life. It is however in complete harmony with the Wiccan rede: An it harm none, do as ye will.
More generally, we can believe whatever we want so long as we keep it to ourselves. But as soon as we claim something we believe applies to others as well, we necessarily make one of two claims.
The first is that I am so certain I am right no one can legitimately demand I justify my beliefs beyond the fact that it is I who has them. We normally regard such people as insane or at least mentally unwell. Unless they are small children.
Alternatively, insofar as I expect others to accept my beliefs I am called to be able to give reasons for them, reasons able to respond rationally to criticism. Otherwise they are not reasons, they are simply assertions, and we are back to our first category.
Of course most of the time we do not have to defend our beliefs this way. We live in societies where we share much in common, and so do not need to defend those views. In America I do not have to defend the view that to shake hands in many contexts is being “polite.” But when we want others to adopt new views or do something different from what they have done, or allow us to impinge on them in a new way, we need to be able to explain to them why and equally legitimate for them to question our reasoning and challenge our logic. We then need to respond to their arguments in as logical and factual a way as we can, or we are aggressors.
This obligation flows from living with and communicating with equals.
Back to politics
Pagans who treat the earth as a storehouse of resources for our use and nothing more remind me of Christians who practice their beliefs on Sundays and ignore them whenever inconvenient the rest of the week. Their practice as Pagans during rituals might be personally satisfying but their understanding of their practice is flawed.
The earth is a direct expression of the sacred in some sense and the sacred is not simply stuff for our use. This is not a matter of personal opinion. It flows from what Pagan religion is, from its most basic insights. If you reject this you might still be a Pagan, but you are one with incoherent beliefs unless you can make a powerful case otherwise.
If a Pagan believes a pro-corporate policy towards our “natural resources” is the best for us, he or she cannot rationally argue that this is simply one view among many in the big Pagan tent and that I am being intolerant to attack such a view. It certainly has no obvious connection to the Wiccan rede because harm is caused both to other humans and to other beings in general. To justify their claims they need to change what key terms have long meant or put them in a larger context, and to do that they need to give reasons rather than assertions.
They have to argue with reasons flowing from the basic tenets of Paganism I have outlined above that their view is justified. Or they have to argue that I am in error in describing the basic tenets of Paganism. Or they leave the world of people learning from one another through reason and dialogue. I can think of no other alternative.
If my argument is justified no rational Pagan can support the environmental policies of the Republican Party and should they support that party they are called upon to make a careful and reasoned argument why, an argument acknowledging the failure of their preferred party on a basic issue of Pagan spirituality. I do not say this cannot be done, I say this has not been done. And in all honesty I doubt that it can. What I just wrote does not mean the Democrats have a vastly better approach, they do not, only that theirs is better in terms of Pagan values.
And with this comment I turn to the ‘sins’ I was accused of committing.
A note on conservatism
Like Paganism, conservatism has a meaning that is not simply a matter of personal preference. Like Paganism, its meaning is not airtight, but neither is it arbitrary. Historically conservatism grew out of and served as a counter-weight to liberalism. Liberalism argued in different ways that individuals were the fundamental ethical unit in society and so should be equal morally and under the law. From this insight grew all the many ways in which liberals have sought to increase actual equality because in practice concrete inequalities tend to undermine abstract legal and moral equality, as any honest American with a brain knows.
Conservatism provided a counter insight. All individuals are who they are because of their immersion in culture and history. We are not completely separate and will never be. Cultural traditions that have survived the test of time often embody more wisdom that any single individual has, even when those reasons are unknown. For example, we inherit our language, live and think within it, and at most might change it on the edges, as when Robert Heinlein gave us the word “grok” or Joseph Heller the term “Catch-22.” Therefore conservatives say we should be cautious about making changes in social life because important linkages we do not see might be destroyed, linkages more important than the reforms we seek. It is an argument having much in common with treating ecosystems with care and respect.
I believe liberalism and conservatism are both compatible with Pagan spirituality. They are not opposites. They have different perspectives on a complex reality. That is why Barry Goldwater could legitimately be called both a conservative and a (classical) liberal. In practice most of us grant some truth to conservatism and liberalism, and seek a balance between them.
What I call right wing nihilism currently dominates the Republican Party. It calls itself conservative but is not. Such people attack the value of basic social institutions such as public education, Social Security, and science. They treat other institutions simply as means to win power at whatever cost to other people or to these institution themselves, as with the filibuster and now the electoral college. They admire war and force whenever given the opportunity, so long as they have the upper hand, which is why when they complain about deficits they want to increase a military budget already dwarfing that of the rest of the world. They are neither liberal nor conservative and our habit of thinking in dichotomies strengthens them, which is why they encourage it. Meanwhile they hide behind terms like morality, religion, patriotism, free markets, and yes, conservatism, while seeking to destroy their substance and establish a society based on power and domination alone in their place.
Many Americans are fooled by their use of these terms. I do not disrespect those Americans when I point out they are wrong. To confuse correcting destructive errors with disrespect is to read and listen badly.
I do disrespect right wing nihilism and deny the moral and intellectual integrity of those espousing it until they prove capable of entering into rational discussion, which they almost universally reject in favor of sound bites, bald assertions, and attacks on others. Right wing nihilism is parasitic on liberalism and conservatism and all forms of legitimate spirituality and religion, including ours.
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