All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.

For aware 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 world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.

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Open Letter to Pagan Libertarians, Part II

continued from part I.

What is wrong with libertarianism as a philosophy for Pagans?

While my chapter demolishing libertarianism treats every aspect of its ideology as failing its core ethical principles, I think its basic heartlessness should give any person pause if they adhere to any tradition holding values like love, compassion, harmony, and kindness.  For Pagans who see that our world as a whole is more than just a pile of goodies for the powerful to use, the lack of fit is even more fundamental.

The libertarian ideological conception of an individual is a fascinating mix of a deeply Protestant, and even Calvinist ethic united in strange cohabitation with European nihilism. Transcendental monotheism separates us from the world, which was supposedly created just for us.  We are superior to it even if we are inferior to God. This strain becomes even stronger in the Protestant, and especially Calvinist, emphasis on each person’s isolated soul which wins or loses salvation on its own. This view separates each person still farther from others.  The result, particularly in secular form, is a kind of a-social individualism, a caricature of real human beings.

Libertarianism’s connection to European nihilism is largely through the influence of Ayn Rand, who was powerfully influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche.  Her philosophy provides not so much a doctrine of rights as a doctrine of the superiority of the super man over the inferior.  They should not “mooch” because that makes them dependent on the weak, but they can legitimately run roughshod over those who stand in the way of their plans, as the Indians did. Indians had no rights. This is NOT a doctrine of rights, it is a justification of domination if you have the right qualities.

Libertarianism swings uneasily between Rand’s nihilism and secularized Protestantism, the precise mix varying with the libertarian. Many are fundamentally good people, but their intellectual understanding has become divorced from their humanity. People attracted to libertarianism because they favor legalizing pot and are anti-war assume the larger context for their thinking as a whole is OK. It is not.

Religion by definition situates us in a more-than-human context. It might be purely transcendental, separating us from the earth and ultimately from others because all important relations are hierarchical.  But any religion like ours which includes the world in the more-than-human cannot coherently conceive of individuals as libertarians do. From a perspective friendly to a Pagan outlook individualism grows out of our relations with others and with the world, as captured in Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem. 

In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.
There are left books and bridges
and painted canvas and machinery.
Whose fate is to survive.
But what has gone is also not nothing:
by the rule of the game something has gone.
Not people die but worlds die in them.

I think universally the Pagan ideal is harmony rather than salvation or enlightenement. Harmony involves relationships whereas we are saved or enlightened in isolation.

Pagan religions focus on our relationships with our deities, and with their manifesting within and through the world. Modern NeoPagans such as Wiccans see our world and its cycles as sacred and not simply resources to be used as we wish without regard for anything else.  The only exceptions of which I am aware are some moderns from Christian cultures trying to reconstruct older traditions without thinking about the cultural and spiritual contexts in which those traditions existed.  In other words, they are focusing on the icing and ignoring the cake.  (I do not include all reconstructionists in this statement, but some to my mind fit it very well.)

So is there anything right about libertarianism?

There is, a lot, and this is why I was once attracted, why so many others are, and why I still have happy relationships with some. The part that is in genuine harmony with the nonaggression principle is praiseworthy. The part of libertarianism that is in genuine harmony with the Wiccan rede is praiseworthy.  Work by contemporary libertarians such as Radley Balko  defending civil liberties and openness in government is valuable to us all. Others such as Kevin Carson   are trenchant critics of the corporate military political alliance that is destroying American freedom. Libertarianism in the 60s, when its Pagan connections were forged, was in many cases allied with broad humanistic movements against the Vietnam War, properly suspicious of arrogant bureaucracies, and interested in the expansions of consciousness drugs were making possible. Libertarians in those days did not have to think seriously about environmental issues, which are especially hard to make sense of within a libertarian framework. Those problems mostly arose later. But libertarianism’s valid insights are now deeply enmeshed with subtle misunderstandings and distortions that over time have led a philosophy of liberty to justifying voluntary slavery and allowing children to die out of convenience.

The heart was expelled.  Once the heart was expelled from uniting with the mind, it was only a matter of time until the libertarian Koch brothers were allying themselves with the most vicious forces on the Republican right and finding no significant violation of liberty in government’s minute regulation of women and their bodies. Indeed, North Dakota, which takes those violations farther than about anywhere in the country, is described by libertarians as America’s freest state

Once libertarians decide to really comprehend their ultimate moral principle, they will have much in common with a Pagan outlook.  Until they do when push comes to shove, with few exceptions they are no friends of either Pagan religion or individual freedom.

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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Saturday, 06 April 2013

    Even the most cursory reading of the history of political parties shows that they often travel far from their roots. Going by your argument here, you, yourself should have been a Republican because they began as the party against slavery and the plantation system, while the early Democrats favored expelling the native peoples from their land.

    The Pagan Libertarians that I know care a great deal about others and don't need someone to tell them how they should be interpreting ideology. What they (and I) think is that government cannot dictate the caring and awareness of connection that typifies Paganism.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 07 April 2013

    Selina- Why do you ignore every actual argument I give? I do not quite know how to answer your first observation since it is ludicrous- and as a matter of fact both parties supported pushing Indians off their land as you should know if you had actually studied the issue. I am dealing with libertarian reasoning- contemporary libertarians who are nationally known not someone from 150 years ago. There is a difference you know.

    Of course many Pagan libertarians care. I explicitly said so in case you ever take the time to read what I actually wrote. They are better people than their ideology. Most people are.

    Whether you like it or not, reasoning matters, facts matter, history matters. WHY we support one measure says a great deal about where we will stand on another.

    I notice that lots of Pagans afraid to actually engage in rational discussion say they do not like these columns without actually engaging me on the issues I raise. Perhaps because they cannot.

    It really gets tiresome engaging with people who pretend injury when criticized while never ever hesitating to make charges about almost all Pagans (as you did recently- remember your little "lock step' bit?), and never ever engage on actual issues that can be judged on rationality and evidence. Pathetic, really.

  • Diotima
    Diotima Monday, 08 April 2013

    I've looked into libertarianism at various times in my life and found the discussions of individual rights interesting and pertinent. I rejected the ideologies (at least, the ones I read -- they are certainly many and varied, and my knowledge of them is casual) because I did not find any that addressed the reality of a natural world that is fully and inextricably interconnected. This is also why I cannot take most economic theories seriously -- they are not based in an understanding of the health of the natural world as the necessary foundation of any economic system.

    I'm all in favor of carefully considering where the rights of the collective and the rights of the individual are in conflict, and granting individual freedom whenever possible . But as someone who has studied environmental science in some depth, and has a deep spiritual connection to the land, I know that we cannot have a discussion of individual vs. collective rights without bringing the inescapable fact of our interconnectedness with the web of life on this planet to the front and center of our discussion. That fact changes everything, if only because our own health and survival hinges on the health of the natural world. Land is not simply a commodity -- land ownership must also be seen as a responsibility to the ecosystem -- to the collective. We can't escape the need to cooperate to survive, much less thrive.

    What I find particularly repugnant about the far-right-wing types who call themselves libertarians is the hypocrisy. They seem perfectly willing to control every aspect of other people's lives -- particularly female people -- as long as their own actions are unfettered. I suspect their familiarity with libertarian philosophy does not extend much farther than "Atlas Shrugged", and their hypocrisy, as well as their lack of empathy, highlight the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of their political positions.

    Thanks for an interesting article, Gus.

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