The varieties of religious experience

Rainbow At Maraetai Beach New Zealand, by Haley Sulcer

Rainbow At Maraetai Beach New Zealand, by Haley Sulcer (Wikipedia)

There has been much talk (in the Pagan blogosphere, and on forums and mailing lists) about the problem of an overall Pagan identity erasing and subsuming particular traditions within it, which have their own distinct identities, mythologies, values, and theologies.There is a way in which these groups can come together without those distinct identities being erased, however. If you look at campaigning coalitions (such as the American Civil Liberties Union in the USA, the Accord Coalition in the UK, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and so on), they have coalesced to campaign on a specific issue on which they all agree, and set aside their differences only for the purposes of the campaign.

Andrew J Brown explores four different levels of organisation at his blog, Caute, using a model formulated by Arne Naess, one of the proponents of deep ecology.

Level 1, the base of the scheme, consists of the many different religious and philosophical traditions available in the world. They may overlap, but they are not reducible to each other. We could call this level “irreducible diversity” (I like to give different aspects of a model names, because numbers don’t mean much to me). In the space we label “Paganism”, irreducible diversity consists of the different traditions, such as Druidry, eclectics, Feri, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Reclaiming, Religio Romana, Wicca, etc.

At level 2, these groups can form alliances, or common platforms. These can be for a specific campaign purpose, or for forming a bigger grouping for the purposes of interfaith dialogue. These alliances can only be formed on the basis of what the irreducibly diverse groups have in common. The member groups set aside the differences temporarily in order to work together, but they do not sweep the differences under the carpet, attempt to form a synthesis, or otherwise erase the differences.

Problems occur when a level 1 group (such as Wicca) is mistaken for a level 2 group, or when the distinctive identity of a level 1 group is misapplied to another group in the level 2 alliance or common platform. Paganism is a common platform; it is not a level 1 group.

At level 3 of the model, the groups which have formed an alliance have to actually agree to act. We could call this level “planning”. At this point, plans are informed by the beliefs, values, and mythology of each group. Let’s say for example that a group of polytheists and a group of pantheists decide to do a ritual together, perhaps to strengthen the local Pagan community. The polytheists will want to emphasise the distinct identity of any deities that are mentioned. The pantheists will probably be less interested in distinct deities, and more interested in emphasising the immanence of the Divine. At this level, there is lots of disagreement on how to proceed.

At level 4, the action is carried out (so we could call this level “work” or “action”). In our example, a ritual is performed. It very probably won’t be entirely satisfying for either the polytheists or the pantheists, but whatever the purpose of the ritual was, it should be judged by whether that purpose was achieved (in this case, was understanding increased between the two groups?). Afterwards the two groups can return happily to their own style of ritual. They will also evaluate the action in terms of their own values, beliefs, mythology and tradition – to ascertain whether it was helpful, and whether they want to co-operate with the other group on some other project.

The point of this model, as Andrew Brown makes clear, is that

when this process is working at its best it does not result in the reduction of one set of fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs to another. Rather, firstly, it helps those different groups better to work together at the level of common platforms. Secondly, this better, practical working relationship … has the beneficial side-effect of helping these very different groups sit better with their basic differences and disagreements

It also means that diversity can be maintained, which is important because different groups provide different forms of nourishment to their members, and we don’t all want to be munged together into some sort of eclectic soup; and it means we can respect each other’s differences while working together on any aims we have in common (such as, perhaps, respect for the environment).

I posted a link to my previous blogpost “The Pagan umbrella is leaking” on Facebook, and someone commented ‘Why does it matter what you are called, as long as you are a good person?’

It matters because a group name expresses a distinctive identity, philosophy, tradition, set of values, mythology, and community identity. These traditions are ways of being in the world. They are collective projects which explore the question of “How shall we live a good life?” (and what do we mean by ‘a good life’) in very different ways. They each have their own rich collection of source texts and rituals which try to answer that basic question, along with many of the other great existential questions, such as “Why are we here?”

Given the endless variety of religious experience, and the multifarious ways that humans like to connect with the numinous, we simply cannot splurge all the distinct traditions together into an eclectic mix, because that necessary diversity would be lost.

When I was a little kid, I once mixed a lot of different colours of Plasticine (similar to Play-Doh) together. At first, they made a pleasing rainbow of colour – but the more they were mixed together, the more they merged into a rather disappointing olive-brown colour, until eventually there were no distinct colours, only the drab uniform olive-brown.

People often think that if you mix religious traditions together, you will get the pure white light of the original ur-religion (if that ever existed). But quite often, you get brown putty instead. Of course, if you carefully mix two colours, you might get a lovely new colour. But the more colours you mix, the more likely you are to get drab olive-brown…


8 thoughts on “The varieties of religious experience

  1. Dear Yewtree,

    I’m delighted for you to use it he idea – it’s really Arne Naess’ idea anyway! I have long been impressed with the thought that “there is no end to what we can achieved when we don’t mind who takes the credit” and that wisdom should be wholly open source – especially the kind of wisdom that helps us both meaningfully to work together and retain our distinctive identities. I’m very pleased (even honoured) to be working in a way that may help the wider pagan community in its own thinking.

    I enjoyed your post. However, although “planning” does occur at level three I’m not sure this word really does the job (though I take your point about preferring to use a word rather than a number). Because it involves the playing through of deeply held norms and values rooted in level 1 (your “irreducible diversity”) it’s more than just planning and more like an existential wrestle with other realities showing up around you. Planning makes it sound a wholly rational activity and, though a good deal of emphasis should be placed upon the use of reason at this level, it’s also about our embodied feelings concerning the universe and the world. Does that makes sense?


  2. Another useful analogy might be the LGBT movement, where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people sometimes come together as a level 2 common platform in order to achieve some strategic objectives, but also have separate campaign organisations to achieve objectives for the bisexual community, the gay community, the lesbian community, or the transgender community. Each of these communities has its own distinct identity and history, as well as some history of interaction and co-operation. Sometimes, when a member of the gay community speaks for everyone (such as when Stonewall UK declared that marriage equality was the last piece of the equalities jigsaw to fall into place), the other identities under the umbrella shake their heads sadly and wonder if the dominant discourse has even noticed their concerns – and roll up their sleeves and get on with the work of campaigning for full equality.


    • Although, in that movement, each community within it is identified as its own by the letters in the acronym. “Paganism” does not allow for any such distinctions to be made evident, inaccurately inferring a single tradition, unless we instead write “Paganisms,” making it clear that the term is a plurality, not a singularity, of worldviews and identities, making up several and various discrete traditions.


      • I agree, and I very rarely write “Paganism”, preferring instead to write “Pagan traditions”.

        Hmm, how about an acronym… H for Heathenry, A for Asatru, A for Antinoii, D for Druidry, W for Wicca, P for polytheists, RR for Religio Romana, K for Kemeticism… er, PHARRKWAD….? Not sure if it’ll catch on…


  3. I very much appreciate your assertion that each tradition is its own entity and way of being in the world and deserves its distinction as such. I also appreciate your statement that various traditions can choose to come together for a shared objective; of course. But I disagree that collective ritual would be that likely objective. I also disagree with applying the term Paganism to step 2 of creating a shared platform. Paganism is a (primarily and initially a Christian) label, not a platform. To properly reflect on step 1, we would at least need to say, Paganisms, to infer its containing several traditions, not a singular one. A shared platform sounds like an objective, and Paganism is not an objective- that might rather be supporting a piece of legislation, performing a community service, or raising awareness on a given issue. It also doesn’t reflect accurately back on step 1 to say in step 3 that a “planning” strategy might be to hold a ritual to strengthen the local Pagan -community-; more accurately, this would have to be stated as local Pagan -communities-, and that only if those communities actually self-identity with that label (the polytheists often do not). And, if all of these are their own distinct communities, then what is this collective that needs strengthening? Maybe bring them all out for a picnic for socializing, but there isn’t really any collective community to strengthen if we take our initial assumption from step 1 that these are several communities that function within themselves. I don’t see any reason why they should hold a collective ritual anyway, being distinct traditions; what would be the point? Maybe more interesting would be an event in which all communities could gather and perform their own rituals while inviting others to watch, to see what different traditions look like, to share. In this way each tradition is honored, and all of the various pagan/polytheist communities can be welcome to come together to learn from one another, appreciate the variety of traditions, and perhaps find some common platforms on which some groups might want to join forces to pursue shared agendas. This, to my mind, looks much more like preserving the integrity of the colors of the rainbow of the various pagan traditions/communities.

    And I have to say, you answered well the silly question posed, what does it matter so long as one is a good person? Being a good person is religion-neutral; good people are found within all the world’s religious traditions, and in no way identifies a person’s chosen tradition or asserts that tradition’s special affinities. And the concept of an ur-religion is just as silly, as silly as asserting an ur-tree or an ur-planet, or an ur-language. From earliest times nature had manifested in plurality, not singularity, and there will always be a multitude within a given sphere. The notion of singularity looks most like the unnatural monocropping of big agriculture, not a good example to be following.

    Again, another very interesting topic to explore! Thanks for that.


    • Hi Éireann, thanks for the excellent comment.

      Yes, a shared ritual was probably a bad example, and the critique you offer is very valid. A better example might be the one offered by Andrew Brown in his blogpost, which was that of saving a forest from developers. I recommend reading his post.

      With regard to Paganism(s) being a common platform (level 2), my point was that the Pagan movement should be seen as a level 2 body, never as a level 1 body, if it is seen as anything at all.

      I think a lot of the problem is calling it an “ism”, as that implies some ideological unity which does not exist. That’s why I very rarely use the term Paganism, preferring instead to refer to Pagan traditions (I find “Paganisms” a bit clunky). That’s also why I put the term in quotes, to indicate that it is problematic.


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