Friday, February 22, 2008

seminar on Paganism

I delivered a seminar today as part of Celebrating Diversity Month 2008 at the University of Bath. I think it went quite well, though I managed to confuse people on some issues. It's difficult to do justice to the topic in about 40 minutes.

Coming out of the broom closet: an introduction to contemporary Paganism

presented by Yvonne Aburrow

Paganism is a group of non-proselytising, non-creedal religions which celebrate the sacredness of all life. This talk will explore and explain the various Pagan traditions in the contemporary world, and look at where there is still discrimination against Pagans.

Monday, February 18, 2008

fundamentalist Pagans?

You might be a fundamentalist Pagan if you believe that
  • only the Pagan worldview is true
  • all Christians are the enemy (and OMG/WTF/BBQ the Burning Times are coming back soon)
  • nothing less than belief in many discrete gods counts as "proper" Paganism
  • the "proper" way to do Paganism is to devote yourself to a specific deity
    Pagans on a devotional path commit themselves to one deity or to one god and one goddess. (apparently)
  • all fluff-bunnies should be de-fluffed immediately and sent to bed without any supper
  • Paganism is a fertility religion, and "The God" and "The Goddess" are heterosexual
  • all ancient human remains whatsoever should be reburied
Of course, I sincerely hope that fundamentalist Pagans are a product of my fevered imagination, but I have come across some pretty mad stuff on mailing lists... or maybe that is because of the weird group dynamics on mailing lists.

Monday, February 11, 2008

what he actually said

As usual, what was actually said has been misreported and over-simplified - in this case the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments on Sharia law.
In his lecture, the Archbishop sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural (including religiously plural) society and to see how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims. Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences.
I still disagree with what he said - in my opinion, the law should be single, unified and not make special exemptions for anyone (whether they be Christian homophobes seeking to discriminate against LGBT people, or Pagans who want to rebury ancient human remains, or the implementation of sharia for Muslims - most of whom have very sensibly asked, which sharia law are you going to implement? and in fact the Archbishop acknowledged the multiple forms of sharia) . It is OK to allow people to do stuff which doesn't hurt anyone else (e.g. there are special arrangements in place for Muslims to have mortgages without borrowing money at interest, which is usury and forbidden in Islam), and if Christian doctors don't want to do abortions they can refer women to clinics, and there are compromise options available in the ancient human remains situation. But discrimination in the provision of goods and services to LGBT people is just bang out of order.

Concomitant, however, to this unity of the law is the fact that every citizen has a right to contribute to the debate around law and the making of laws (and to bring in their unique perspective and experience, both secular and religious). For example, I am strongly opposed to ID cards and consider that introducing them is a form of oppression that I would strongly resist - and I think all people of conscience (religious or secular) have the right to resist such tyranny. But my ideas on this come from my political identity as a free citizen, not my religious identity as a Wiccan Unitarian animist (both my political and spiritual identity come from my personal values, and not the other way around). Similarly, if homosexuality was suddenly made illegal (fortunately very unlikely), I would do everything in my power to resist this, and to help my LGBT friends to hide or escape. So individual conscience should trump the law, but the law should not make special exemptions for it. Which seems like a paradox, but can be resolved by the fact that unjust laws can be campaigned against and resisted, and if the consensus is that they are unjust, they will be repealed (e.g. the death penalty, slavery, etc.)

I personally have a problem with the fact that the legal system in this country is more concerned about (and has more severe penalties for) violations of property than violations of the person; but I think this imbalance is being addressed by the introduction of human rights legislation. I also worry that many categories of difference, like being left-handed or having ginger hair, will fall between the gaps of the "six strands" of diversity (ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age).

I also wish that journalists would report these things properly.

Update: An excellent article by Simon Barrow, 'A Multifaith Muddle' in The Guardian

Friday, February 01, 2008

Pagans and Christians

Lately there have been a number of posts on the Pagan blogosphere about the relationship between Christianity and Paganism. Is it possible to be a ChristoPagan? Can a Pagan espouse "Christian" values? This has also attracted comment from my Orthodox friend, Methodius.

As results from the Belief-O-Matic indicate, there is considerable overlap between the beliefs of religious liberals from many different traditions. Some values, beliefs and practices are expressed in various ways in all the traditions - though they may receive varying emphasis from the different traditions. After all, we all occupy the same planet, have similar hopes and fears, and experience similar joys and sorrows.

The differences within Christianity are almost as great as the differences between Christianity and Paganism. It's a large set of traditions, and even the meaning of some key concepts, like salvation, is disputed. The Orthodox see salvation as a process which can continue beyond death; some of them believe in apokatastasis, the eventual reconciliation of everyone with God (even though this doctrine was declared anathema in the 4th century). The goal of Orthodoxy is theosis - the process of becoming divine. Contrast this with the judgmental doctrine of Calvinism, in which only the predestined elect are saved, and you can imagine the effect this might have on the rest of their doctrines. Also the Orthodox do not believe that human nature is totally corrupted.

The Unitarians are a fascinating case. They began as people who didn't believe in the Trinity (in other words, Arians), but soon expanded to include deists, humanists, universalists, the early druid revival (Iolo Morgannwg was a Unitarian), and the modern Unitarian movement still contains all these groups, including a vibrant Earth Spirit Network and many atheists who value spirituality. Their values are broadly similar to Pagan values - they celebrate Nature as full of the divine presence, they believe that human nature is ultimately good, that transformation will happen in this world; they are non-creedal; and they have mostly embraced a pantheist or monist view of the divine. Whether Unitarians count as Christians depends on what you mean by "Christian".

The other question is, would Jesus recognise Christianity as being what he intended to found? It has been suggested that he wanted to infuse a bit of Goddess spirituality into Judaism, and didn't intend to found a new religion at all. Certainly he seems to have had a very positive attitude towards women (Mary Magdalene, for example) and nature ("The Kingdom of heaven is all around you, but you do not see it"; "Consider the lilies of the field; they toil not...")

Many of the concepts in Christianity come from classical pagan Greek philosophy (Platonic forms, for instance) or the mystery cults of late antiquity (the concept of a saviour; the virgin birth; even sin).

Where Pagans disagree vehemently with Christians is on three main headings:
  • the notion of exclusivism - the idea that only Christianity is true;
  • the notion that this world is not really important because the Divine reality is better, and anyway it'll all be swept away at the Rapture;
  • the idea that sex is not holy.
Of course, many Christians would agree that these ideas are wrong - the idea that the world is entirely corrupt was the main source of dispute between the Orthodox and the Gnostics (the Orthodox held that physical reality is good, because it was created by God and still retains his goodness, his energies; the Gnostics said it was entirely fallen and was created by the demiurge to separate us from the Divine).

The view of most Unitarians is that values are more important than beliefs. So let's celebrate where we share values, and leave the beliefs up to individuals. I personally do not want Paganism to become a creedal religion, where you have to believe in a particular concept of the Divine (either polytheism, monism, pantheism, animism, duotheism, or monotheism), or you have to follow a particular pattern in your spiritual life (such as devotion to a specific deity). I am much more interested in shared values, which is why I am prepared to make common cause with anyone - Christian, Unitarian, Jew, Buddhist, atheist, humanist or anyone else who espouses the values of freedom (in the original sense, not the neo-conservative version), diversity, tolerance, and reason. They who are not against us are with us, as a certain rabbi once said...

So, is it possible to be a Christo-Pagan? Depends what you mean by Christian and Pagan. (If you are a Christo-Pagan, your best bet is to hang out with the Unitarians or the Liberal Quakers - they won't mind.)

Can Pagans embrace "Christian" values? It depends if the values are really Christian, or whether they are actually universal values. Of course we should read things from a Christian context with our critical faculties engaged - but we should read stuff from any context with our critical faculties engaged. With any text, one needs to ask where the ideas come from, what their connotations are, and so on.