Lupa recently penned a post on Pagan Fundamentalism (Pagamentalism?) and the dangers thereof. Unfortunately, some readers seem to have assumed she was not simply cautioning as to why we should monitor for and resist signs of fundamentalism within paganism and thought she was accusing them of fundamentalism. Chaos ensued. Many Bothans died.
But Lupa’s on to something. The thought of “Pagan Fundamentalism” is not a pleasant one, especially given that many Pagans have had some negative experiences with the Christian variety. But I’m honestly not too worried about it too much, because I don’t think such a movement would emerge or survive very easily in the Pagan community. But I have my own reasons for thinking that way, which I’ll get to.
I recommend you read the whole post, but Lupa’s essay can be summarized by a few basic points:
I. Not all pagans are theistic, and paganism is not just about the gods.
Lupa is not implying at all that this is the form pagan fundamentalism is taking among paganism, but simply using some tendencies in the very lively debate that is ongoing about the definition of paganism and the place of polytheism in it to illustrate some characteristics that could develop into something fundamentalist in nature. How we define “pagans” is problematic, but Lupa is correct that paganism cannot be reduced to polytheism (and in fact this post made me reconsider my earlier tirade against Wicca in which I made that conflation.)
II. Saying that everyone MUST believe or practice in a particular way is at its heart fundamentalism.
I think there’s a bit of confusion here over what we mean by “Fundamentalism.” Fundamentalist Christianity is a very specific movement, with a certain time, region, and textual body forming it. I would even argue that most of what we commonly thing of as “Fundamentalist Christianity” is actually Evangelical Christianity, or some combination of the two. But there is a point to be made in this. Saying that everyone must believe in a certain way is at the heart of Christianity. Christian doctrine says you must put your faith in Jesus for salvation or you spend eternity in Hell. End. Of. Story. All the rest is quibbling over details (which Christians still do in abundance). And the Fundamentals were a series of books that outlines a certain set of details for Protestant to believe in.
In the common parlance, though, fundamentalism has come to mean dictating a series of beliefs that must be adhered to. Which some pagans already do. And which is already strongly resisted by other pagans. (You MUST follow the Rede! Karma will get you! Follow the Sabbats and Esbats! Real Pagans vote Democrat!)
People like to be right. I know I love it myself. And it is a very easy thing to see what works for you as the only practical way to do something. I don’t think that’s inherently a fundamentalist thing; I think it’s a people thing. But it is still annoying, and still needs to be checked from time to time.
III. Fundamentalism has a tendency to breed ignorance.
I think I can go along with this pretty well. If you think that you know all the answers already, you’re not going to look for more.
IV. Ignorance is dangerous.
When we’re talking about how people live their lives, and expect others to lead theirs, then definitely yes.
V. Fundamentalism is contagious.
I’m not sure on this one. I can see how people who think they’re all right and agree on enough to work together can form groups of annoying people who thing they’re right. And I can see how if you are looking for answers, and you are told “here is the answer, and it is the only one” that you might not consider other answers. But as Lupa says, the cure for ignorance is curiosity, and seeking answers implies curiosity. It’s easy to cling to the first answer you get or the first technique that works, but one thing I’ve learned very early on in my occult career is that if something doesn’t work for you, someone else will probably make it work for them. It’s pretty hard to maintain a fundamentalist attitude when that keeps slapping you in the face. (Unless you’re isolated enough from other pagans that you don’t see this, and only yell your Truths from the heights of the internet. Or unless you’re an asshole.)
VI. We do not need fundamentalism to be legitimate.
Absolutely. Because we’re not fundamentalist, and we are legitimate.
So Lupa has excellent points. But I’m still not worried too much about pagamentalism in general. Why not?
1) We are too damned diverse.
Find me a Wiccan insisting that curses are illegal and the Rede rules all, and I’ll show you a Kemetic with an ancient curse tablet on her altar, just waiting for a reason. Fine me a pagan who insists that the Great Right must be a hetero coupling, and I’ll show you an all-gay coven. Find me an environmentalist vegan feminist lesbian separatist coven, and I’ll show you boisterous Heathens feasting upon pork. You cannot attempt to squish all of these groups into one rigid template. It’s hard enough to tell where the umbrella ends.
Now, I can see specific groups getting fundamentalist trends going in them. Nova Roma pretty much dominate the religio romana scene. And there may well be Gardenerian covens, or Heathen groups, or other groups that proudly pronounce “This is the only way!” And they compete with thousands of other groups that say “try us out too!” and people leave and join them all the time.
2) We are not a text or faith based group.
I cringe when I see pagans using “religion” and “faith” interchangeably. Pagans are not orthodox. There is not much to support any emphasis on belief among ancient paganism, or modern paganisms that have not been absorbed by Christianity, like Hinduism (okay, there’s been a lot of Christian influence in Hinduism, like the creation of the category “Hinduism,” but that’s another issue). If anything, practice has been far more important than belief — you can believe what you want, as long as the ritual is done right. And the next village over might do it differently.
And we don’t have holy books to drive orthodox interpretations. We all read and draw inspiration from different places. Even strict reconstructionist groups develop widely diverse interpretations and practices.
So while you may have specific traditions, lineages, or covens that adhere to a specific set of myths or ritual practice, there’s not much precedent for a pan-pagan orthodoxy to even take root, let along grow monolithic and fundamentalist. Even if the pagan community institutionalizes a bit.
3) We’re too sensitive to it.
Most pagans are former Christians, and many of those hold a significant resentment against Christianity. To the point where there is resistance to anything that is similar to anything Christians do, even if there is precedence for pagans doing it. (Temples? Who cares if the Greeks and Romans had them! Too much like Churches!) I think it will be some time before that has faded enough that pagans will start to relax about that. And I think fundamentalism is one of those fears that pagans harbor, and one that pagans will be on the lookout for. Like Lupa is, and like Lupa cautions about. And I don’t think it’s wrong for Lupa to be worried about it — I just think that the threat is a bit farther off and less serious than Lupa does. Because I think that if any pagan group gets too fundamentalist, or starts to go batshit insane about other people offending the god, especially to the point of violence, that pagans will be the first ones to jump in and put a stop to it. Because of the very reasons that Lupa is concerned, and because of the very fact that she is.