Pagan Studies

Steel is tested and shaped on the anvil. Here, we try every Pagan idea on the anvil of history, hammered by insight and intellect, to forge a Pagan Future.

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Religion. . .& Spirituality

First, I want to thank all the folks who have posted kind words about my starting this blog. It is deeply encouraging to be so warmly received. Thank you!

Before turn to my topic for this post, I wish to reflect on the interesting conversation about the use of the term ‘pagan’ in this, its uncapitalized form. I’ve given my opinion already, in that I feel it has no referent, and that it represents a distortion of the past, but for that please see the original post and its comments. What is interesting to me is that folks would defend its use. It was and is an insult, as common in use as the ’n-word’ was at a time. By naming ourselves ‘Pagan’ we proudly turn that opprobrium into an honorable name for a new and defiant religion, ours. . . . . .

So, then, what is ‘religion’? I’ll start by citing a not-bad version of the dictionary definition for religion: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” (

You will no doubt notice the primacy of ‘belief’ in this definition. Ritual also gets a mention, as does morality, but only as a optional quality.

Trained as I am by the Unitarian Universalists, who have Christians, Buddhists, Pagans and Atheists in their congregations, this would in no sense be an adequate definition. It would simply not address the real people in the congregation who don’t do belief. Oh, it is easy to ask a person what they believe and they could perhaps tell you, but most folks today don’t realize that the very asking of the question is Christian. We who live in a Christian milieu, in a culture dominated by a hegemonic Christian Church and then Churches, are even taught to regard other religions as ‘faiths’. We’ll be taking a look at this core notion, ‘belief’, in a future post, but for now we will stay with ‘religion’.

So, to be able to recognize and to be able to point to human activities that fit in the space we call ‘religion’, without rooting it in the bias our culture imposes on the idea, a definition was hit upon that is rooted in the phenomenon of religiosity. But first we have to start with a understanding of ‘spirituality’.

The impulse behind this notion is to provide a working definition of this thing we call ‘spirituality’ that applies to all human activities that might fit in the box, but does not make the spirituality of the dominant religion of our culture normative. (In a future post we’ll discuss how un-normative that religion is, but today. . .)

What a study of all the World’s spiritualities shows that they have in common is their wrestling with the big questions of life. The ones we never really answer but desperately want answered like, What is the meaning or purpose of Life? What happens when we Die? Why do we have to kill to Eat? Where am I? And my personal favorite: What am I supposed to do? Every spirituality or religion (we’ll cover the difference presently) attempts to answer these questions, or dismiss them, or otherwise relieve the anxiety we feel about them.

As Socrates said (in the Apology), “the unexamined life is not worth living.” These kinds of questions are how humans have examined their lives by challenging themselves in their insight, or in their despair, to answer them. Or fail to. Here are the deep dark waters of the human experience. The record of humanity, especially the religious record, is the record of all the many ways we have attempted to answer them, as far back as writing goes, and arguably even farther. Long have we plumbed those depth and weighed those answers.

But it is not the answers that constitute spirituality, nor even the questions. It is in the asking and the pondering that spirituality is made. It is the process of engagement with these issues and questions. Spiritual maturity comes from long engagement and the slow rejection of the facile answers. Time teaches comfort or at least the acceptance of ambiguity and distrust of harsh, ‘black and white’ answers. A lived life destroys the neat categories our naive youth erected and exposes us to the awe-filled depths of the the real world. Here we find spirituality.

The virtue of this approach is that it speaks to the Christian, who sees the depth dimension as the God Jahweh, and to the Humanist or Atheist who sees the depth in the human plight and glory, and to the Pagan who (as just one example), sees that depth in Nature. Depth is a metaphor here. Like the depth of the sea or the deep of the night sky, the depths of the human experience will never be plumbed, its questions never be fully answered, yet in those depths is see the source and ground of our life and being.

So, from contemplation arises a practical, general idea of spirituality:
Spirituality is the human engagement with the depth dimension of the human experience.

The practicality of this idea may not be obvious but it is of immediate use to some one like myself in the ‘religion business’. The job of any minister or priestess is to facilitate that engagement, that thought or questioning. Any sermon, or for that matter any activity that wrestles with these questions is unavoidably spiritual. They can’t really be answered, or rather, over time as we change, our answers to the questions change and they are never trivial.

When in seminary where I was taught this idea, it was paralleled with the explanatory and useful notion of the Seven Topics for Sermons that, being spiritual, are always fair. In other words, since they address seven ineluctable subjects and questions that can never be fully answered but are always asked, a sermon on them is inherently spiritual.

The subjects are:
Life, Death, Birth, Sex, Eating, Ethics and Cosmology.

Or, framed as questions:
What is [the meaning/purpose of] Life?
What happens when we Die?
What was before Birth? (Or where do babes come from?)
[I’m going skip the Sex question since there are so many variations, e.g: progeny, love, etc.]
Why do we have to kill to Eat?
What am I supposed to do? (Ethics)
Where am I? What is the World? (Cosmology)

From time to time we will return to these questions directly or obliquely in this blog, unavoidably, as I want to approach these, and many other issues, in a Pagan manner. This idea of spirituality will under gird our discussion.

But so far we have been discussing ‘spirituality’, not ‘religion’. We hear these days the statement “I am a spiritual person, not religious” and so we know that at least for the speaker there is an important difference between them.

If you consider the questions and ideas above it may occur to you that you could deal with them on your own. You hardly need anyone else to be kept up late at night wrestling with the existential angst these questions represent. From your own intelligence and experience you can explore those deep waters and form your own opinions and watch how, over time, your answers change. This is real spirituality. No Gods, nor anyone else, need apply.

Nonetheless, you don’t have to go it alone. There are many in this world who would discuss these matters and share their opinions with you gently, or at times, forcefully. But, as soon as you involve others, everything changes. The good is that we have companions on the way. The bad is that we find ourselves having to conform to those companions. Humans often find the tradeoff worthwhile. I do. But there is a fundamental change that comes to spirituality when we form groups that makes it something else. The name of this new thing is ‘Religion.’ Spirituality can be done alone. When you get into a group things are different. Religion is spirituality done in a group.

I have found this approach to spirituality and religion very useful down the years. Not only when I had to come up with content for a ritual or the occasional sermon I’m called upon to give. Far more importantly it helps me recognize the spirituality of those very different from me in approach or symbolism or language. As a Pagan priest, I have to be able to speak the language and serve the needs of any Pagan who comes to me, whether mage, witch, heathen, eclectic, left-hander, white-lighter or whatever. At times I am called to serve the Christian, the Jew, or the Buddhist. In that moment they are a human in need, but I can’t help them unless I can both understand them and speak their language. I am grateful for my seminary training that I can do this.

In summary:
Spirituality is the engagement with the depth dimension of our experience.
Religion is doing that in a group.

Please note: none of this has anything to do with ‘belief.’
Next time I will discuss this pernicious idea foisted upon us by Paul of Tarsus.

The project of this blog is to think through and challenge our fundamental Pagan ideas, disposing of the bad and unworthy, improving the weak, and refining the good and strong. For the moment, I ask your patience as we step though the foundations of what is technically called ‘systematic theology’, because without this base we won’t be able to communicate about these vital matters. We won’t have a shared language and the tools to examine our Pagan religion.

My goal is to develop our ‘theology’, problematic as that term is for Pagans. In this process I hope to develop our self-understanding in an authentically Pagan way.

I will use tools I learned in Christian seminaries, but disentangling them from Christian theology, and hopefully restoring those tools to what they were when our ancient forbears forged them long ago.

Until next time, May All the Gods Bless You and Keep You.

Last modified on
Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Gareth Storm
    Gareth Storm Thursday, 09 August 2012

    Another fascinating thought experiment captured in little "black" pixels surrounded by "white" ones, showing us just how much gray there is between them ;)

    I enjoyed reading this and look forward to future explorations. While going through it there were a few points where I felt that I could argue the terms or suppositions used... but never because I disagreed with the point, only in the specific phrase or idea used or juxtaposed with another. Overall I agree with the thrust of the article, although since I am not 100% clear on my own ability to remove my own bias I must admit that this must in no small part be because it aligns so clearly with my own thoughts on what spirituality and religion are.

    An interesting branch-off discussion topic would be about what seems to me to be an easy inference from the article: religion is compromise. Some might argue it is inherently agreement, but I can't help but think that any time you come together with others - and more so the more others there are - you must almost always at least somewhat compromise on your answers to The Questions, even if only because it's so tricky to find common terms and language to describe the adventure of seeking The Answers to them.

    I think trying to find those areas of commonality, those terms and places where compromise is possible, was the original purpose for PantheaCon and similar gatherings. After all, if we can find enough agreement to support each other's seekings then we are also furthering our own by unlocking our inherent personal bias by adding other perspectives. At least, that's the ideal. The danger, of course, is in suddenly feeling that you and others have found the Right Way, and that others have it Wrong. This is something I struggle to not just avoid but actively discourage, and I hope that what you, Sam, continue to share here will help improve the commonality of language and purpose and make it more possible for us all to realize we're all on the same path: trying to answer The Questions.

    And now I've babbled on long enough. Thanks again for posting, and do please keep them coming!

    Light and laughter,
    Gareth Storm

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Thursday, 09 August 2012

    Good thinking, Sam; in this day-and-age the words "religion" and "spirituality" have become so entangled that reasoned discourse sometimes seems almost impossible. "Religion = spirituality done in a group" is a concept I'll be pondering.

    Speaking of pondering, I woke up this morning with a brain storm: what if the oversized influence of Paul of Tarsus and the doctrine of the atonement are purely historical accidents based on theological crisis endured by the Judaism of the late First Century C.E. after the razing of the Second Temple in C.E. 70.? After all, Christianity is the first major Western religion (of which I'm aware) to have made a leap to a faith-based (rather than praxis-based) theology. Paul's party denigrated ritual cleanliness and promoted "Jesus as sole sacrifice" theology just as Judaism was being forced to jettison all temple-based worship. Coincidence? Just an idea for us M.Div's to throw around, I guess.

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