Thursday, 8 January 2009

Moving Away from Paganism

This topic has arisen - again - in several forms over the last few days.

Today, I read a blog about pagan atheists, and then these two blogs, "Outgrowing Paganism?" and one of the responses, "Pagans are not a Community nor a Tribe -- Not Yet" on another blog. These linked to the article by pagan author, Carl McColman, [read his list of book titles here] on his converting to Catholicism from paganism, "After the Magic". Yesterday, I read the Rambling Corkgirls blog entry "Afraid of Gods?", which talked about the rise of atheist paganism and the attendant reader's comments.

I am curious as to other pagans might consider the reason people are turning away from paganism.

Personally, I don't buy the argument is because we are not a community or tribe, nor am I sure that people are "afraid of the gods" (though this was a tongue-in-cheek title). It seems strange to me, having come from a Catholic background, and having researched the tenets of several religions before realising my beliefs fell under the umbrella of pagan, that people could outgrow paganism and become atheists - just because the gods were silent. I have never believed the gods should always speak to us.

Similarly, I cannot understand Mr McColman's reasoning for Catholicism: the magic left, meditation didn't work anymore. As someone else recently said:

'The magic left?' So what about the catholic priest who claims to magically transform a wafer and a few drops of vino into the body of his God, by way of some mumbled mystical mutterings? Meditation didn't work anymore? So what about the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits, compliments of 'Saint' Ignacius De Loyola? Or the mind numbingly boring constant repetitious prayers of the rosary before a plaster catholic idol of your choice?
Source: An Fianna.

It like giving up a diet because you've hit a plateau, isn't it? Or, am I completely missing the point?

I should point out that I do not equate being pagan with a lifestyle choice, i.e. a countryside dweller and/or undertaking "green, crafty, farming, gardening, knitting or whatever activities" (to paraphrase a comment made at this blog).

Any thoughts, ideas welcome.


Carl said...

It's not so much about giving up a diet because you've hit a plateau, as considering that it may be time to try a different diet. As I've already said, I respect Pagans who go through a crisis of faith like mine and come out the other side with a stronger sense of their identity (or "faith") as Pagans. But that was not the path that I took (or was called down).

Anyone who equates the Eucharist with magic has a pretty poor understanding of both. In saying that, I do not mean to demean anyone's belief or practice. But lumping Christian sacraments and Pagan magic together makes about as much sense as lumping Wicca and Asatru together.

Cygnus MacLlyr said...

Looks like you hit the point on the proverbial head, not missed it.

Whom among us has never plateaued?
I must admit to facing the same "crisis", when i peaked (mystically, about 3 yrs into 'the journey'). Instead of claiming Atheism, though, or "reconverting", I examined whence the change. In honesty, it was from 'expectance', in thinking something was owed me for my years of dedication.
When I listened to the Voice Within, i realized this was a mere part of the journey. It was then that a deeper understanding dawned; i was not like unto other [read: trendish] Pagans. In the Natural there was enough "magic" and wonder to "convince" me that the path I had always trod, even before I could give it collective label as pagan, was the Way I Am Becoming.

The Gods owe me nothing, yet a perceptive glance shows them still at work even when I slacked in my ritual reverence.

Thus I bow...


Bo said...

The poster you quote who was wittering about Catholic 'magic' is staggeringly ignorant. Whatever one critiques Catholic Christianity for - and there are many possible approaches here, from an over-reliance on ultimately Aristotelian concepts of natural law, an at times awkward relationship with modern biblical text-criticism, and an all-too-frequent collusion with and imitation of worldly political power - the actual traditions of Christian thought are vast, complex, subtle, and often extremely beautiful and profound. I'd far rather read Augustine, with whom I disagree on just about everything, or indeed the Bible, than most neo-Pagan drivel.

Further, I find it hilarious to find a Pagan repeating (in the bit you quoted, AC) the once-standard hard Protestant line against Catholics - i.e. that the words of consecration are merely 'magic words', mystical mumbo-jumbo, and the absurdity of the idea of transubstantiation. Ditto the snide quote-marks around ''saint''. Some Pagans really need a good hard slap some times and to be told not to be so bloody far up their own arses.

Anonymous said...

my reply became epic in length so I've posted it here at, because your question is really interesting

hen said...

I second what Bo says... Rather lazily.

Just popped in to say that I've had you in my thoughts today.

hen (a farming, crafting, 'green' countryside dweller! ;o) you're right, that doesn't make me Pagan, Pagan made me that.)

Ancestral Gael said...

Hello Carl,

That analogy makes more sense to me and, having read Beirn's thoughts on the matter, I think I have a better understanding of what you were trying to say; at least I hope so.

I think it was similar to the process I underwent in searching for a faith that aligned with my personal beliefs. I researched many different religions, including other forms of Christianity (including the charismatics), Zen Buddhism, and a myriad of new age philosophies, until I finally found a home under the pagan label. Though, at no time, did I refer to myself as a Christian, buddhist or whatever, I was merely exploring.

Perhaps that's where my confusion lies: people may refer to themselves as pagan, but its not a perfect fit, meaning they never really were pagan in the first place?

Its certainly interesting reading the comments and, thank you Carl for your article, and taking the time to reply to my post.


Ancestral Gael said...

To be fair to the writer of the quote in my blog to which you refer, Bo: in its original form, it was accompanied by cheeky emoticons, which this blog is unable to replicate, so the words (as I quote them) may appear harsher than intended.

Cygnus MacLlyr said...

Uh, Bo.
we pagans "need a good hard slap sometimes"...

So (and the thought came before i read your comment on transubstantiation) thinking of a piece of bread or cracker or wafer...or anything,LITERALLY becoming some other substance (in this case, a dead body; I won't even touch on the cannibalistic aspects of that ritual here) is absurd, and indicates an anus-buried melon?
OOOOHHHH, it was a MIRACLE, not 'magic'.
UUHHHH.... what is the diff, in your eyes?

Bo said...

Quite a lot. The idea may be, as you see it, absurd. And that's fine. But it's not *incoherent* from the point of view of Catholic (and Orthodox, and Lutheran) theology - it's not a vulgar superstition. And there is a vast difference between 'miracle' and 'magic' - a miracle is the chosen action/intervention of a God seen as transcendent and omnipotent within the natural order. You might not see the divine that way, but you can't dispute that if one *chooses* to see God in that guise, then he - whose freedom is by definition unlimited - would be quite at liberty to act in such a 'miraculous' fashion. In contrast, 'magic' normally refers to the manipulation of physical objects, accompanied by words etc, *by a human being* to achieve a supernatural end. With the Eucharist, the consecration (and with it, the act of transubstatiation according to orthodox belief) is overtly NOT magic - rather it is the direct intervention of God. Now, I don't believe it, Cygnus, and you don't believe it - fine. But don't this ritual out to be comething that believers explicitly affirm that it is NOT, i.e. NOT an act of magic. One doesn't need to *believe* it - one simply needs to extend the basic politeness of making an effort to comprehend a religious ritual on its own terms. Anything else displays an astounding crudity of imagination.

Carl said...

Perhaps that's where my confusion lies: people may refer to themselves as pagan, but its not a perfect fit, meaning they never really were pagan in the first place?

That probably depends a lot on how you define "perfect." I don't believe in the perfect lover (although my wife comes close!), or the perfect job, or the perfect orgasm (God knows I keep trying), or the perfect religion. And since there's no perfect religion, logically no one religion will be a perfect fit. I think a person can be authentically Pagan (or Catholic, or Buddhist, or whatever) and still be conscious of how their religion is not perfect for them. I think those people who insist their religion is perfect are basically fundamentalists.

I think a religious commitment, like marriage, probably requires a willingness to accept the imperfections in order to "work." What's tricky is learning to acknowledge the imperfections of our "chosen" path, without allowing those imperfections to drive you away from the path. People who are very happy with their path oftentimes either are immature, and typically insist that there are no imperfections (e.g., "The Catholic Church is always correct," something a fundamentalist Catholic told a good friend of mine just the other day), or are more mature and grounded in their spirituality and can list those imperfections but also can talk about how they've learned to accept them/work with them. On the other hand, someone who is keenly aware of the imperfections of their faith and who is bothered by them is probably headed toward a spiritual crisis (if not already in the midst of one). Incidentally, I would argue that, following "one person's meat is another's poison," that the imperfections of a faith might well vary from person to person. A religion's imperfections are, basically, what it is about that religion that gets under your skin. I'd be very suspicious of Pagans who insist that Paganism is the "perfect" faith: that sounds like an immature understanding of Paganism to me. On the other hand, I would never question the authenticity of a Pagan who freely admitted that Paganism wasn't perfect: as long as they had figured out a way to live with the imperfections, I'd consider them as authentically Pagan as can be.

Thank you for your kind words and willingness to have a positive and intelligent dialogue. As you can imagine, I've taken my lumps for being an "ex-Pagan," but contrary to what some people may think, I still have great interest in and affection for Paganism (I'd like to think that my relationship with Paganism is like a relationship with an ex-lover where the two of us have managed to remain good friends). Thanks for making me feel welcome here. Bright blessings to you!

Anonymous said...

I would just like to thank AC for a very interesting debate here and elsewhere XX Sara (saramacha)

Can i also just say as an ex catholic (i had a longer reply typed and the whole thing went titsup)
Magic, for a start, is not "pagan". But fwiw the difference between transubstantiation and magic resides solely in the inbuilt conviction each believer has that their way is "true" and everyone else's can't be compared to it! My faith in my offerings to my gods, or my ability in witchcraft is just as sincere and deep as any catholics' in transubstantiation. I accept that a Catholic believes as sincerely as I do. But their belief is not more sanctified than mine.

Ancestral Gael said...

Hello Carl,

Many thanks for your comments. Perhaps "perfect" was not the best word, but I can say that paganism is a near perfect fit. What isn't a perfect fit is the tradition in which I find myself - I have to refer to my chosen path as celtic/brythonic polytheism to cover the bases, but its still not a perfect fit - yet. Then again, I'm still learning.

The advantage of being pagan, for me, is that it is rather encompassing, taking in many traditions, faiths, practices, beliefs and religions, and it does allow for eclecticism. The disadvantage is that it is so broad; finding your niche can be difficult.

I'm not saying I have found a religion/tradition to perfectly fit my beliefs, but that the fit is better than any other I've tried over the last 30 years or so. I still have a lot of reading and experience to undertake, but I don't imagine I will wander far from my current path.

My, what interesting discussions this post had generated. Thanks to all for taking the time to comment.

And, Sara, I had exactly the same problem: wrote a long, detailed reply and the whole thing was lost on an error. Very frustrating.


Carl said...

AC, you're welcome. And hooray for the "almost perfect" fit, and good luck on finding your best "home" tradition. I bounced around several aspects of the Celtic world before I finally realized, at first somewhat to my chagrin, that I needed to hang out with the saints. Ah, the irony of life.

Bright blessings to you,