Who’s that knocking on my door:
Should Pagans proselytize?
The Road to Hel in a Handcart.
In answer to the question of whether Pagans should “witness” to non-Pagans, I offer an example of just what Pagan proselytizing might actually look like in real life …
Lady Lorien Mistopheles the Charitable and Lord Ariel Storm-watcher the Grey of the Rosarian Tradition are knocking at the door of the Kingdom Hall down the street from their home. A Witness answers the door.
“Uh … we’re … uh … like, here to witness to you,” stammers Lord Ariel.
“And I am likewise a Witness. Are you a member of our fellowship?”
“Uh, no. I’m, like, we’re members of the Coven of the Green Bank and Rushing River.”
“The Russian River? Are you visiting from California? That’s a state much in need of Witnessing. I applaud your work, young fellow.”
“Oh, no,” says Lady Lorien. “We’re from right here, you know. Totally. We’re your neighbors. We’re here to talk to you about — ”
“Now, young lady,” says the Witness, drawing himself up to his full height. “Why don’t you just let the man speak for you?” He whips out his Authorized Version and raises it above his head. “A foolish woman is clamorous,” he recites. “She is simple, and knoweth nothing. Proverbs, Chapter 9, verse 13.” He nods majestically, lowers the book, and glowers at the girl.
Lady Lorien gives him her most dazzling smile. “That’s not, you know, our holy book,” she says politely.
“Indeed? Then what book do you take as the Inerrant Word of God? You’re not A-rabs, are you? You don’t believe in that Ko-ran, do you?”
“No, sir. Well, yes, like, we believe the Holy Quran is the word of god to that god’s people, but, uh … no, we’re Americans. Just like —”
The Witness squints down at the young Pagans. “Just what kind of ‘witnesses’ are you two?” He steps out the door and closes it behind him.
“Sir. We’re here to tell you about Astarte and Inanna. And — ”
“Because of their wickedness,” the Witness begins, not even referring to the Bible in his hand, “which they have committed to provoke me to anger, in that they went to burn incense, and to serve other gods.” He takes a step closer to the young Pagans. “I take it you’re referring to the queen of heaven that is a demon and a — ”
“Yes. I mean, NO, I mean, well, yes, the Goddess is totally the Queen of Heaven, but…”
“What church do you attend?” Lady Lorien responds, “Sir, we do not attend any church. We’re Pagans. Neopagans. We, like, we belong to the Old Religion. We —”
Lord Ariel jumps in again. “We’re here to talk to you about the Elder Pantheons,” he says. “You know — like, Jupiter. Odin and Thor. You know, the Old Religion.”
The Witness raises his Bible, then lowers it again. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. There is nothing older than that. That is what is written. That is what all right-thinking men believe.”
“Uh … we … we don’t believe in that, in what you, in what you believe.” Lady Lorien’s words have come out in an unintended squeak.
“Then you worship demons.”
“No! No, we don’t. We worship gods and goddesses. The Goddess.
“I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Lord Ariel takes a deep breath.
“Sir, if you would just stop quoting for a minute? From your book?”
The Witness opens his mouth, then closes it again. He squints at the young man. “Well, then,” he says, his voice as reasonable as he can make it, “what is your holy book? Where do you find the inerrant words of God?”
We don’t have just one holy book. Like, there’s The Spiral Dance. Everybody’s totally read that.” Lord Ariel does not notice that the Witness has no idea what he’s talking about. “And To Ride a Silver Broomstick. And Animalspeak. And Faery Wicca…”
“And we have traditions that go back, well, thousands of years,” says Lady Lorien. “Famtrads and covens. And, like, you know, we want to tell you about the Burning Times? When nine million witches were burned?”
The Witness shakes his head.
“Nine million? If they were witches, then burning was too good for them. Because ye have burned incense, and because ye have sinned against the LORD; therefore this evil is happened unto you.” He takes a step forward. All the two young Pagans can do is step back to avoid being stepped on. “Young man, I am not the fool you apparently take me for. What is your theology? What is your eschatology? From what sources do you draw your heuristics?”
“We … uh … we cast circles on the Sabbats, that’s, like, the six holy days of the Wheel of the Year, and we invoke ….”
But the Witness, who has some experience in knocking on doors himself, has heard enough from these two. He opens the door to the Kingdom Hall and steps back inside. “God bless you,” he says as he shuts the door.
“Which one?” responds Lord Ariel plaintively, as he and his partner gather up the shreds of their Neopagan dignity and walk way.
Why on Earth should Pagans proselytize? Let the witnesses who have experience do it. If we want other religions to leave us alone, we should return the favor. Let us all live in peace together.
— Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D., is the author of numerous books including her newest book, Pagan Everyday (2006, Weiser). Her day job is free-lance editing for people who don’t want to embarrass themselves in print.
Why would we bother?
In my view, the question is not, “Should Pagans Proselytize?” The question for me is “Why would we bother?” Two major world religions encourage their members to proselytize: Christianity and Islam. We Pagans lack the three theological elements that drive proselytizing: namely monotheism, linear time, and a view of the world as evil.
For most Christians and Muslims, (and certainly for the most fervent evangelizers among them) this world is primarily seen as a stage for warfare between forces of Good and Evil; furthermore, their religions teach that all history leads from Creation to an inevitable Judgment Day. So, for them, the whole point of existence is to get as many people as possible into heaven; little else matters.
Most Pagan religions couldn’t be more different. We commonly see time as a circle or a spiral. In this view we travel through the seasons of the year and the seasons of life in an endless cycle; cycles that open the way for learning and wisdom. While the Wheel of the Year is not a universal Pagan concept, most Pagan groups are free of the concept of some terminal Judgment Day.
Polytheistic Pagans, like their polytheistic predecessors, have a “live and let live” approach toward the deities of other religions. Not only do we have multiple gods and goddesses, we often see Deity as emerging from our local landscape. For those of us who see divinity as rooted in the land, it makes perfect sense that folks miles away may experience other deities and spirits than the ones we honor. We have no need to try and convert others to worshipping the same divinities we honor.
Pagans certainly should feel open to talking about their beliefs to those who want to hear about them and to share our views with the world. Proselytizing is another matter entirely. We have no need of this practice in Pagan culture.
— Jon Harwood is a founding member of the Circle of Ouroboros, a coven in Southern California and a student at Cherry Hill seminary.
Bullying for the Goddess?
Imagine walking down the street and hearing a street-corner preacher shouting, “Have you heard the TRUTH about the GODDESS?” while wearing a sandwich board proclaiming “She is LIFE” and handing out a pamphlet titled “God has Horns.”
Okay, I admit, I don’t want to imagine that. I don’t like proselytizing by anyone, but I think that Pagan paths are especially unsuited to it.
One of the biggest potential problems with singing the praises of the Pagan lifestyle to the uninitiated masses is, which flavor of Paganism does one promote? Interview thirteen of us about the meaning of the word “Pagan,” and you’ll get thirteen different answers. If we can’t even agree on a definition, how can we try to convert anyone?
In the Pagan community, there is a great emphasis placed on individual spirituality. Even among members of a single coven, there is often a diversity of ideas regarding what is sacred and what is profane. Only the most naïve (or conceited) coven leader would expect everyone to be walking an identical path, or to be able to convert anyone else to it.
I believe there are many spiritual paths eventually leading to a common truth. None are more or less valid than any other. No single path is right for everyone, so why would I try to force anyone else to fit my mold?
The very definition of the word “proselytize” implies coercion; not only is the proselytizer telling me about his or her religion, s/he is actively trying to convert me. I won’t coerce — or induce — anyone to walk the same path that I do. It’s the right path for me, and only me. What I will do is share some of what I’ve learned along the way, with the goal of helping others find the path that’s right for them. Education provides an opportunity to dispel ignorance and help others find their own paths. Proselytizing is little more than religious bullying.
— Kurt Hohmann avoids preaching to his friends and neighbors in central New York, and hopes they do the same for him.
Proselytizing is degrading.
Regarding the question of “Should Pagans proselytize?” I say, “absolutely not.” All people, regardless of their faith, should seek out and take their own path, without coercion and pressure.
As a child I was allowed to find their my own path. My mother was raised Church of England; my father was Lutheran. As a result of bad experiences in their individual faiths, they became what my father’s family in Germany calls “Free Thinkers.” When you’re allowed to think, feel, and seek for yourself and you finally reach that “aha” moment then it is truly beautiful.
Yes, it is great when you find people of like mind whom you can commune with, become friends with, whom you may want to worship with. But when you do, stop and absorb the moment. Really see how each individual enriches the group simply by the fact that you all followed your own paths to this point. Consider that you are all sharing knowledge and experiences learned along the way, which enhances the experiences you share as a group.
I think a person’s spiritual life is theirs and theirs alone to discover.
If they wish to have a teacher they should be allowed to seek that person out for themselves, not be pursued and preached at and told if they don’t believe a certain way then they will never be spiritually whole. That is the worst sort of hubris and does not belong in Pagan or Mystery Traditions of any kind.
By all means, if someone questions you about your faith, discuss it with them so they understand as much as they can from where they are coming from. Open communication can be very helpful in keeping your belief system from being misunderstood.
However, in my experience, proselytizing has always come from a person who believed their way was the only true way. Such people believed that they were saving me from damnation, and if I would allow their faith to program me into their way of thinking — because only
they think rightly — then I would be saved. That is where oppression begins. Proselytizing doesn’t belong in traditions that respect community as well as the individual. People have every right to be proud of their faith and what it means to them, but have no right to impose their views on anyone else. Discuss them within a give-and-take conversation — yes, teach if asked — of course, but I’ve found proselytizing to be insulting and degrading when I’ve experienced it. I believe it has no place in Paganism.
— Renee Mayer lives in Florida.
True Pagans will find their own way to the Pagan path.
Gentlepeople, To answer the question, “Should Pagans proselytize” is a no-brainer from my Wiccan viewpoint. The answer is, “No!” Why would anyone want to recruit people who have not, of their own accord, felt drawn to Pagan beliefs? By the very fact of being raised and living in a predominately Judeo-Christian society, most people are psychologically indoctrinated to be averse to Paganism.
Paganism requires discipline and sacrifice: in our post-modern high-tech world, everyone talks about living in a more natural time, but how many urbanized techno-freaks would give up their Blackberry, cell phone or iPod? How many would change their lifestyle to be more earth-friendly in any real way? How many would sacrifice any part of their soft lifestyle for the gods?
Admittedly, there are a few people like this, but I don’t believe that you can dictate a movement of the Spirit. If a system of beliefs does not come from the heart, no words of logic or persuasion will make it so.
Let those who would live the Pagan path come to it of their own accord, and in their own way and time. That will keep out the posers and the uninspired. Should Pagans waste time and energy selling religion to the masses? No!
— Ron Almond writes and lives in Canon City, Colorado.
Good Ideas Should be Shared
Good ideas should be shared, and very important good ideas, such as kindness or practicing safe sex, should be encouraged. The good and important parts of Paganism should also be encouraged, and one name for that is proselytizing.
Now, no Wiccan I know of would try to convince anyone else to, for example, worship the God only in the shape of an antlered man with a flute, because these kinds of symbolic details are beside the point. Indeed, actually being Wiccan is beside the point, because there are many ways to honor the Divine and live well. Which method someone else uses is between them and the Sacred Folk, and I have no reason to stick my nose in that. But if I meet someone who is pretty clearly living poorly, or causing unnecessary harm, then I might say something, if I think they’ll listen to me.
For a monotheist, of course, which way you honor the divine may be very much the point, because monotheists tend to assume that God is singular to the extent of being definable: either you are worshipping the One True God, or you’re not, and if you’re not you are not living well, and need help. The result is a misunderstanding where Pagans tend to perceive monotheistic proselytizing as intrusive and controlling, while the monotheists themselves believe that they are just trying to help. Pagan proselytizing would be akin to what monotheists try to do, not what Pagans perceive them as doing.
It doesn’t make sense for a NeoPagan to try to convert another to an exclusively Pagan cosmology and symbol set, although one might make a point of making Paganism available to any truly interested seeker. What does make sense is to encourage others to trust their intuition, respect others, and respect the planet. There is no reason, from the Pagan perspective, that Pagan ideas can’t be used to deepen and expand other faiths. We aren’t exclusive.
We also aren’t above the temptation of arrogance. Probably much of the time it is better to keep quiet, or simply ask questions when encountering someone of another faith no matter how off-base they may seem. Part of being a pantheistic religious movement means that as individuals we usually won’t know when someone else has made a religious mistake, and even if it is obvious they need something, we might not have what they need. But even if the “humble course” ends up limiting our proselytizing to being good examples and answering occasional questions, it doesn’t make sense to reject proselytizing categorically and by definition.
We Pagans are an ambivalent lot. On the one hand, we tend to take offense to any serious questioning of our faith, as though being Pagan makes us somehow above deluding ourselves; yet we are curiously reti-cent about admitting that we think we are right. Some questions have an infinite number of right answers, but that doesn’t mean that all answers to all questions, even all religious questions, are right. Logically, any Neopagan who is not a masochist thinks that the hellfire threats of some forms of Christianity are just plain inaccurate, and may wish to try to convince others of that — in effect, convert others to religious tolerance.
If religion is more than fantasy, then religious questions have a strong effect on the quality of life for individuals and the strength and moral fiber of our communities, even in communities of multiple faiths. As Pagans, we need to develop ways of discussing religious questions that admit the possibility that we are wrong and need help, and also the possibility that others are wrong and need our help. If we as Pagans don’t like the way we have been proselytized to by others, then perhaps we should not proselytize others in that way. But if we have a good thing going, we should share it, and if we don’t then we should listen when others suggest we change.
— Caroline Ailanthus is pretty nomadic these days, and doesn’t know where she’ll be or what she’ll be doing when this goes to press, but it will probably involve being outside, learning, teaching, and trying to serve the world. Home base is Delaware, with her family and cat.
Why Pagans need Pride in their religion
When I saw this topic, I sat down and thought, Wow! There is just so much to say, where do I start? So I guess I will start hundreds of years ago, back to the time when Paganism was the dominate form of religion. (Yes, I know they didn’t call themselves Pagans, but it’s how they are referred to, and it’s how most people know them.)
So, back in the day, we had all these Pagans going about their business and then (short, short version here), the Christian Church came along, and our Pagan ancestors were told that they had to stop performing magic, stop divination, and stop talking to their gods or they would suffer the gruesome consequences.
This was a major turning point, obviously. Were these people all previously hiding the facts that they were Pagan? Did the ancient Egyptians hide that they were Pagan?
Did the Celts? The Norse? Heck no. There is a great deal of history documented — by the Catholic church, no less — on how this “Paganism” was rampant.
Pagans used to be very open with their beliefs, with huge gatherings and festivals. Elders from tribes and villages, visited other tribes and villages to teach, and to find apprentices. It was the Catholic church that forced Pagans into hiding. (Constantine making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire didn’t help either.) Why didn’t they just fight back? Well for hundreds of years they did, but eventually they were outnumbered and lost. Why? Because Christians went around and told everyone that Paganism was wrong, and that the ignorant Pagans were doomed to an internal hell for their false worship. Pagans were outnumbered because Christians were willing to go into every Pagan village and proselytize.
Fast-forward to today: these days some Pagan leaders tell us we should live in secrecy like the Pagans before us did. Okay, but what about the ones who lived before the ones who had to live in secrecy? Why can’t we live like them and be proud of who we are? As times change, so do religions and religious practices. Paganism is experiencing a huge surge. Let me ask you: How did you first hear about it? Was it from your parents? Was it from a book you read? Was it from a friend? Was it from an Internet search?
Every day Pagan people are already proselytizing. Every time a Pagan author writes a book or an article. Every Pagan magazine, including this one, is an attempt to reach out — not only to our fellow Pagans but to people who might just be interested in our faith. Every Pagan website, Pagan email list, open Pagan event is a form of evangelizing. Years ago people wouldn’t have thought such these things were possible, but not only are they possible, they are here! Yet people still want to hide for fear of being seen as different.
Guess what? Our ancestors were faced with a lot worse, and many thousands of them were willing to
stand up for what they believed in. There really is strength in numbers. This has been shown countless times over throughout history. The more people talk about their beliefs, the more “acceptable” we become. To not stand up and be heard, is to do a disservice not only to your fellow Pagans, but to yourself as well.
The more we stand together, the more we show our numbers, the better off we will be. We need to show people that yes, Pagans are people too. We need intelligent Pagans to run for elected offices to help make the laws, we need Pagans on the police forces to enforce the laws. We need more Pagan lawyers, we need more Pagan judges. We need Pagan teachers, we need Pagan schools. We need Pagan stores, we need Pagan newspapers. We need Pagan TV shows and Pagan TV networks. More and more we are getting some of these things. We need more places where Pagans can go and feel safe, whether it’s a place to worship, or a place to live.
What about Pagan missionaries? For me, I admit it’s a nice dream. It hits me deep that even today we have Christian missionaries going to third word countries and virtually stealing the spirituality of tribal peoples and telling them they will be doomed if they don’t change their ways. For me, a Pagan missionary would be some one who tells these people, “Yes I come from a (so-called) civilized world, and I’d like to hear about your gods.”
Do we need to do what was done to our ancestors and say to people, “Hey, you’re an idiot for believing in (insert religion of your choice here)”? No. That isn’t the Pagan way. But we do need to tell people what we believe though, how our beliefs have affected and changed our lives. We don’t need to cram it down their throats, but we do need to tell what it has done for us. We need to let people who are interested in our religion know how to find us. Being open about our faith is just about Pagan pride, and we can always use more of that.
— Kerri Connor lives and writes in Illinois.
» Originally appeared in PanGaia #45 - Religious Freedom
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