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IJBM: Neo-Paganism

edited 2013-02-01 10:40:39 in Philosophy
"you duck spawn, refined creature, you try to be cynical, yokel, but all that comes out of it is that you're a dunce!!!!! you duck plug!"

And what about you? I haven't seen you in church recently.

It's because I'm a neopagan, Father.

So after this amusing introduction, which is friend-of-a-friend story that I've heard from my buddy who had lots of such stories, I'll say some thoughts on the issue of neo-Paganism. Part of it comes from observations I made at TVT's Pagan Thread, I hope you don't mind, but if you tell me I'm wrong you know where my problem came from.

So. Neo-Pagans. There's a couple of problems I got with them. In general, they can be divided into two categories: reconstructionists - who they are is self-evident - and the group formed by Wiccans and other who don't fit the first category. So, these are my problems:

a) Loonies. Here I'd like to mention the weird ideas that surface among the second group. I mean, I expect a religion to be kinda, you know, serious. Most that can't fall upon several centuries of history, at least have the modesty to claim divine inspiration. These are religions that can't even honestly claim they weren't made up. I'm fine if one sees it as a "way of life" or some other guiding philosophy, but religion implies some kind of revealed truth about the supernatural. 

There's also the issue of politics. Some - I think feminists are the most known for that - have taken to this sort of religions as some kind of counterpart of established religions they see as patriarchal, opressive, or whateverelse. Again, if your religion is engineered with some political or cultural objective in mind, then I can't really think of it as the real deal. I could cut some slack if it was an off-shoot of already-existing religion like how the Imperial Cult was added to Roman religion, but it's not the case here. And it's even worse when they get into bad history, which I'll come to later.


b) Loonies again. I mean, most religious people have the modesty not to claim they have actual, literal two-way conversations with their deities, plus a passing deity from a friendly pantheon throwing in two cents of their own. Recons seem to be more at fault here. Just think of it, what would you think of a Christian who came along and told you he had a conversation with an angel this morning? Yeah. Not to mention the fact that, for all their claims that gods from one pantheon can pay a visit to a worshipper of another, I haven't heard of anyone who was visited by a deity from some less-known pantheon, like Scythian. It's always the cool ones, like Celtic and Nordic, stealing the spotlight.


c) Bad history. The first group is on-off about this issue. Most Wiccans, for example, have no problem admitting their religion actually isn't miraculously surviving beliefs of Neolithic Europe. But others, they aren't that nice. I think some of that feminist sort I spoke above are guilty here, forming romantic constructs of peaceful matriarchal societies conquered by the evil Indo-Europeans. (which I guess is some weird sort of "white guilt"? I dunno.) Now, scientists have differing views, but the problem is to not mix history with romantic ideas and politics. 

Recons are the other sort. By definition, they're supposed to be reconstructing old Pagan traditions of Europe/wherever. But the problem is, it does not mix well with belief. A religion like Christianity can always fall upon the line of defense that they just "got some details wrong", but still believe in the same eternal God. Recons, they cannot. They worship the reconstructed deity from a given point in time, it'd be like a historical reenactor claiming he's reconstructing the entire Middle Ages when he's obviously doing the War of the Roses. Pantheons evolved all the time, mixed with each other, and splitted. Are Odin, Wotan and Woden the same, or three? How about Tiwaz, is he Tyr, some deity that evolved into Tyr over several centuries, or something else?

Not to mention what I've already said, that there's always new research. Take Slavic recons. Is the god Rod the real ruler of the gods, if he's now held to have never existed in the form they worship him as? Or should Svantevith still be worshipped, if he was a regional deity of the Rani tribe wrongly assumed to be a major Slavic god? And then, there come even further theories: if Thor, Perun, Zeus and a couple of others are all descendants of proto-Indo-European Perkwunos, does it mean they're all the same, that the old god split into a couple newer ones, or that the original is real while others were made up? And in that case, does it mean a hypothetical PIE recon should diss the others for inventing new ones when the real deal's still there? Or how about that: there's a theory that initially, religion was just about vague worship of the Sun or sky, deities coming later along with cultural development. What of it, should a recon go back to sky or opt for something else.  Stuff like that.  


In short, there's a whole can of worms in there. 




(I put it in Philosophy, am I doing it right?)


    Here, There, Everywhere

    Mostly, I agree with you, but I have two big issues with your assertion:

    1. The idea of multiple pantheons being venerated is called henotheism, and it's completely legitimate as a form of religious expression. The Romans, for instance, would make sacrifices to Ahura Mazda in Persia and Lugh in Hibernia and not think twice about the matter; it was a matter of respect, with the understanding that certain gods held sway in certain places.

    2. "Worshipping from a given point in time" is something that many sects of Christianity, Judaism and Islam already do, just in a different way. Is God one entity or three? Is he three and one at once? Is each person an aspect or an individual being? Was Jesus man, divine, both or neither? What about Muhammad? John the Baptist? What are angels? Who is Satan? Is Satan the same as Lucifer or Iblis? What about Semyaza and Asmodai? How about the caliphs and the imams? The list goes on.

    Religion evolves, yet different sects choose to view their faith in different ways, usually disregarding any further developments in the spiritual aspect of the faith beyond a certain point while accepting external changes pragmatically. Tiwaz is Tyr just as Yahweh is Allah and Yochanan is John. It seems complicated, but it's really quite simple.

  • Creature - Florida Dragon Turtle Human

    Most likely.


    Anyway, I think that one really has to ask what religion itself is.  Must it include belief in the supernatural, or is simply following some sort of set of teachings enough?  Does it have to include postulates regarding spirituality, creation myths, or eschatology?  What about meaning of life and teleology?  Can religion exist without rituals?  Can it exist without accompanying moral guidelines/rules?  Does it have to have historical basis, and if so, how much?

  • One foot in front of the other, every day.

    I think religion is essentially codified faith in the unobservable. 

    edited 2013-02-01 11:37:44
    Here, There, Everywhere

    ^^ I would argue that it must have an element of ritual and a strong philosophical foundation, but the supernatural is a more complicated issue. For example, while Confucianism is considered a religion, it is really more a set of ethical precepts than anything else.

    ^ That works. The unobservable need not be supernatural by definition, after all.

  • Creature - Florida Dragon Turtle Human

    Yeah, that's basically what I meant by the supernatural.

  • edited 2013-02-01 12:15:24

    How about the caliphs and the imams?

    Are there people who consider the caliphs divine? From my experience at least, Islamic teachings tend to avoid claiming any person as divine (this includes Jesus, Muhammad, and so on), althoug I'm not familiar with much beyond Sunnisim. But still, weren't the Caliphs basically just political/religious leaders?

    Here, There, Everywhere

    That is not what I meant. That particular example was more about the principle of evolving faith, canon and dogma than another example of deity. To a Sunni Muslim, the caliphs were the divinely ordained successors of Muhammad; to a Shi'a Muslim, it would be the imams, although which particular imams will vary subtly between sects.

    Do you get what I mean now?

  • edited 2013-02-01 12:24:37

    ^ I've been raised Sunni, more or less and I'm preeeetty there was nothing about the Sunnis being "divinely ordained". They (well, the Rashidun Caliphates) were just dudes who knew Muhammad when he was alive, and were placed in a ruling position afterwards. And I think the Shia belief is more that Muhammad wanted rulers to come from his family, although I could be wrong.

    edit: Wikipedia says "Shi'a Muslims believe that Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, should have replaced Muhammad as Caliph and that Caliphs were to assume authority through appointment by God rather than being chosen by the people." No citation, though. Still, I'm pretty sure Sunnis don't consider Caliphs to have received anything divine.

    Here, There, Everywhere

    Hmm... you have a point there. Setting aside the definite mystical tone of Twelver Shi'a traditions (especially the occultation concept), the whole debate about whether Abu Bakr or 'Ali should have succeeded Muhammad boils down to an argument of procedure and tradition.

    But by the same token, whether the right of such a leader is considered sanctified by the divine in the eyes of the believer is a different matter. A good number of Isma'ili traditions, in particular, seem very big on visionary religious leaders rather than explicitly political ones, while most mainstream Sunni traditions seem a bit more pragmatic in that way. I guess you could compare it to the different interpretations of the function of the Pope over the years, given how wildly those vacillated over the course of a millennium.

    But really: Aside from that potential theological gaffe, do you take issue with my basic point?

  • edited 2013-02-01 12:56:06

    I honestly don't know anymore. My head is weird right now...

    Here, There, Everywhere

    I can understand that.

  • OOOooooOoOoOOoo, I'm a ghoOooOooOOOost!
    > the modesty to claim divine inspiration.

    I love this phrase.
  • "you duck spawn, refined creature, you try to be cynical, yokel, but all that comes out of it is that you're a dunce!!!!! you duck plug!"

    Think of it as "at least I bothered myself to legitimize it".

    I have some sort of opinion on this issue of denominations, but can't quite find words for that, so perhaps I should keep it for later. But there's another thing, that I've forgotten to mention before. I don't think of it as that bad (to each his own I guess), but can't quite wrap my head around this idea. I mean, I think of reconstructionist neo-Paganism as a way of connecting with your past, as the gods whose worship they strive to bring back were pretty much national pantheons. If I was a neo-Pagan, I wouldn't be, for example, Norse as I am not of Scandinavian descent myself. In other words, I have completely no connection to their own pantheon, so I see no reason why should I pick it. And yet, there are people whose family trees were never within a gunshot of an Egyptian, but who still worship ancient Egyptian gods. Not to mention that, again, it's always the well-known ones, but perhaps I am unjust here (the poorly-known are rarely worshipped for that very reason).

    edited 2013-02-02 02:49:12
    Here, There, Everywhere

    Well, they are the best preserved pantheons, for the most part. The last major European pagan canon to see significant worship was that of the Lithuanians, but the dearth of native Lithuanian texts until the last century or so of polytheism in the area means that our knowledge is relatively limited. The same goes for most of the religions whose literary traditions coincided with the introduction of Christianity.

    Of course, this is not to say that there are not strong signposts to what was once there. Russian folktales, for instance, are often heavily syncretic in nature, incorporating ancient rain gods, Judaeo-Christian prophets and elemental spirits into the same stories. Where one begins and the other ends is never so cut and dry.

    This is not to excuse the seeming pick-and-choose quality to a lot of modern Neo-Pagans, merely to explain why it might be the case.

    Also, might I add that while Hinduism; Shinto; and any number of Southeast Asian, Southern African, Australian, South American and Pacific Islander polytheistic/animistic religious traditions are in full swing to this day, they seem to get very little love from the these crowds?

  • yea i make potions if ya know what i mean

    All I know is that my grandmother, who is what I can best describe as an eclectic neopagan, makes a point of only worshipping gods she believes our ancestors worshipped. Due to our pretty wide lineage this includes quite a lot.

    I respect her right to believe what she will. I'm not sure I follow your arguments to be honest? They seem sort of....irrelevant? I'm not trying to be rude I just don't see why historical accuracy should come before faith here, unless one demands that from all religions.

  • "you duck spawn, refined creature, you try to be cynical, yokel, but all that comes out of it is that you're a dunce!!!!! you duck plug!"

    I'm not trying to be rude [...]

    It's fine, I started the mess.

    I'm fine with it when it's faith (although I won't hold every single belief on the same level of respect *cough*Scientology*cough*), but if you also make a point about believing in the same thing as the "original worshippers", then it sounds like you should care about history. If you allow for some liberties, then it's not the same thing. It can be justified to an extent, for example by arguing religions evolve naturally and it's the modern extrapolation, or that people didn't get every detail right (that one is common in Christianity, heh heh).

    We can, as a thought experiment, think what would happen if some ancient document was unearthed in Palestine, and was both unquestionably authentic and containing some faith-breaking details for the Christians. Like, an autobiography of St. Paul that differs considerably from the official version. This would be not some difference in doctrine, but a reveal that shakes the very assumption the religion is built upon. There would, by all means, be a faction that'd go "lalala, I don't see it!" - basically, denying that historical accuracy comes before faith. In the case of neo-Paganism, however, this kind of thing comes quite naturally with research, like in the example I gave on Slavic neo-Paganism.

    BTW - I'm generally fine about demanding accuracy from all religions. Perhaps good Christian example would be the issue of the circumstances of the Christ's birth? That's a bit of a mess. Sounds like it'd be a good thing to research it for a comparison.

    Well, they are the best preserved pantheons, for the most part.

    Yeah, that's why I wrote I may be unjust here. However, the bad part is that soon after I realised that some of these folks claim it's the gods who picked them, not the other way 'round (that's one of my TVT observations, but we better avoid details). In this case, I see no reason why these well-researched would be more in need of believers than the less-known.

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