Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.


Are Polytheists an Endangered Species?

Some people have suggested that polytheism is endangered by archetypalist, non-theist, monist, and/or non-theist world views (especially those who would claim that somehow it’s all the same really, or that they are actually polytheists). The word polytheist means believing in many gods. If you want to add any more definition to it, I think you need a qualifying adjective.

This is an endangered species. Photo by J Patrick Fischer, CC-BY-SA 3.0

This is an endangered species. Photo by J Patrick Fischer, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Monotheism and Pantheism

I stopped being a monotheist in 1985, when I was 17. The reason for this was that I couldn’t see how an all powerful God could allow suffering and horror on the scale of the Holocaust and other horrors. I reasoned that if God was all-powerful, then “he” would prevent such horrors (free will notwithstanding) and therefore there must be many deities, none of whom were all-powerful.

Later, I discovered pantheism and monism, the idea of an all-pervading immanent deity. For me, this doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it.

An excellent novel by Rebecca Goldstein, 36 arguments for the existence of God, disproves every single one of them except Spinoza’s view that the universe itself is God, which is completely different to the conventional monotheist view. Nothing is said about the existence of many gods, however, and in my view, the idea of many gods is in a completely different category to the idea of a single all-powerful deity.

Personal Deities

Interestingly, some Christians I’ve talked to seemed to assume that I’m a pantheist, as they seemed to assume that the advantage of Christianity was having a personal relationship with Jesus. But I don’t actually like Jesus (and don’t believe the gospel accounts are reliable). So for me, the advantage of polytheism is that you can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. I think this is why the Catholics found they needed to have the idea of patron saints – but I find most saints pretty uninspiring and insipid. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller. To paraphrase some famous French bloke: if the gods didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them.

What is a deity?

There are many different types of deity: personifications of natural phenomena (winds, storms, trees and rocks and water), deified humans, patrons of arts and crafts, city goddesses, river goddesses. In my opinion, they are immanent in, or emergent from, the physical universe, in the same way that human consciousness emerges from the complexity of the human brain. Why shouldn’t other complex systems give rise to consciousness?

There is currently some discussion about what “real” means when we are talking about deities. No one has offered a definition of “real” in this context (or if they have, I missed it). My definition of a deity is a being with consciousness. A deity’s body (if they have one) is the natural phenomenon from which they emerged, if that’s how they came into existence. Or if they are a deified human, then their body is the etheric body (or whatever is divine in us that survives death). It’s also worth pointing out that love is real even though it doesn’t have either a body or consciousness – but that’s why a discussion of what “real” means is a distraction when it comes to deities: because being “real” applies to a lot of other things that aren’t deities. So it doesn’t matter so much what people think deities are, as that they think you can interact with them – that’s the point of relating to them and/or being devoted to them.

Honest doubt

There also has to be room for honest doubt – we do live in a culture where most people deny the existence of multiple deities, so if someone has a wobble or a dry season where they have difficulty relating to deities, or if they have a different view of what deities are, then that is a natural fluctuation in belief that is difficult to avoid. Even when I had doubts that deities were conscious beings, the “many” part was never in doubt. And if you try to restrict access to polytheist ritual on the grounds of belief, then you will never give anyone the opportunity to encounter deities – though of course you might want to develop some sort of initiatory pathways to assist people to develop deeper relationships with deities. Or perhaps there might be open access rituals for everyone, and other rituals specifically for devotees.

Why duotheism is not polytheism

Some Pagans are duotheists (the idea of one Goddess and one God who may or may not be emanations from a single source). I have difficulty with this idea because I don’t see the universe in binary terms, but rather as a multiplicity. The major attraction of polytheism for a genderqueer and/or LGBTQ person is that there are multiple expressions of gender and sexuality among deities. And the idea of duotheism has the same problem for me that monotheism does: how can there be anything that big that perceives existence on the same scale we do?

As to the idea that all deities are emanations from an underlying substrate of energy or consciousness, I can’t see why this is a problem for polytheism as long as the deities are viewed as distinct beings, and humans are also viewed as emanations from that substrate. I can see it could be a problem if the emphasis was more on the divine source than the individual deity – because then we’re back to monism again.

Polytheism is the “default setting”

Interestingly, if you look at Hinduism, you can find monism, polymorphism (the idea that deities are forms of the ultimate divine), and polytheism all co-existing within the Hindu dharma. And if Buddhism is included as part of the same dharma (some Hindus view itthat way), then non-theism also exists alongside these other beliefs. Henotheism (devotion to one deity, acknowledgment that others exist) is also found within Hinduism.

I think it is worth clarifying terminology and describing clearly what we are doing, mostly in order to make the path easier for others to find. But I don’t feel that polytheism is endangered. I think it is pretty much the “default setting”, to which all religion will gravitate in the end. Christianity tried monotheism, but it gradually introduced saints and a goddess (the Virgin Mary is a goddess in all but name). Buddhism moved the focus of religion away from gods towards personal enlightenment, and ended up introducing Bodhisattvas. Even Islam has 99 names of God, and Sufis and Shi’ites have saints. In Judaism, God has aspects (especially in Kabbalah). So even in monotheist and non-theist religions, the multiplicity keeps re-asserting itself. You can’t keep a good deity down.

Even if the archetypalists succeed in convincing everyone that gods are only archetypes, people will still have real experiences of the gods.

It’s not so much that polytheism is under siege from monism or non-theism or monotheism – on the contrary: they are constantly on guard against the emergence of polytheism and animism. Everyone knows there’s a spirit that lives in the photocopier which must be propitiated. That’s why atheists are constantly on guard against “woo”. Everyone needs a personal deity to relate to, which is less than the Great All. If they happen to be a monotheist, they invent a smaller god of their own devising, whether that is saints, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a more manageable version of Yahweh. It’s a very rare person who feels they can relate to a completely impersonal deity.

And the final reason that I don’t think polytheism is under siege is the deities themselves. They survived for centuries with hardly any worshippers, and that didn’t finish them off: so a few people claiming they are just archetypes is pretty small beer. They have the power to communicate with humans and they do use it. I think we and they will be just fine.

Should Public Expressions of Religion Be Allowed?

Many secularists have argued that no public expressions of religion should be allowed – no hijabs, no cross pendants, no Easter processions, presumably no Pagan Pride Day, no street preaching (can’t say I would miss that one), no nothing.

No religious expression in public?

I have come across atheists arguing that the hijab, and the wearing of religious jewellery, should be banned. Given that many people wear religious symbols like the cross without any idea of their meaning, I think that such a ban would be way over the top. A friend overheard a conversation in a jewellery shop between two women contemplating the purchase of a cross pendant: “Do you want the plain one, or the one with the little man on it?” Clearly they had no idea at all what the difference between a cross and a crucifix is, or even what it signifies.

Since a person wearing a hijab headscarf, or a cross or a crucifix, or a Pagan pendant such as a mjollnir, valknut, pentagram, and so on, is not actually doing you any harm, why should you care what they choose to wear? I personally dislike the niqab and the burqa, but forbidding Muslim women to wear such garments is not the way forward. Let them choose what they want to wear, and if they want to wear something that offends your secular or feminist sensibilities, that is their choice. Plenty of Muslim feminists wear hijab. As long as it is not forced on them, and as long as they don’t try to impose their dress code on me, then let them get on with it. I also support those Muslim women who campaign against being forced to wear hijab, of course. I also happen to dislike large life-size (death-size?) crucifixes outside churches, but they are on private property, so again, they have a right to put them there. The point is, it should be a free choice.

As long as no-0ne is being harmed by the expression of religion (and the preaching of extreme racism and anti-LGBT bigotry does constitute harm), then public expression of religion is part of free speech and should be permitted.

If a Muslim or a Jew wants to eat halal or kosher meat (I am not convinced by arguments that halal and kosher methods of slaughter are any less humane than any other kind), and does not want to eat pork or drink alcohol, that is their prerogative. Just as it is the prerogative of a vegetarian to avoid meat altogether, or a vegan to avoid meat and dairy products altogether.

Some Pagan women choose to wear veils and headscarves to honour particular goddesses (such as Hera or Hestia). Again, you may not like it, but it is their choice.

If the local Muslim community wants to build a mosque, or the Hindu community wants to build a mandir, or the Sikh community wants to build a gurdwara, or the Buddhists want to build a temple, that’s great. It makes it all the easier to imagine that one day, we can have Pagan temples in every town.

I would personally prefer it if loud proselytising and evangelism in the street didn’t exist, but the cost of freedom of speech is that people are allowed to say stuff that others don’t agree with (as long as it isn’t hate speech and incitement to violence). As atheists are very fond of pointing out, “there is no right to not be offended“. Though there is a right to defend oneself against slander, libel, and hate speech.

Baroness Onora O’Neill, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, argued that it was possible to legislate against certain speech-acts, but that any ‘right not to be offended’ would be unworkable.

‘There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended.

‘Any supposed right not to be offended would founder on the fact that offensiveness is subjective, and would put others’ freedom of expression wholly at the mercy of the sensibilities of possible audiences, including audiences who may include some who are hypersensitive, paranoid or self-serving—or worse’.

Religious beliefs in the workplace

I have had discussions with atheists and secularists where they have said that people should not bring their religious beliefs to work. I must say that in many ways, I agree, where those beliefs are based in bigotry and prevent someone from doing their job properly (such as registrars who don’t want to marry same-sex couples, for example). However, my religious beliefs include a desire to care for the environment, and a desire to see everyone treated fairly: not because the gods command it, but because it is a natural human impulse. My religious beliefs include the desire for social and environmental justice for all beings on this planet, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, colour, and species.

When I was a trade union activist, there were eight people on the committee: two atheists, a Greek Orthodox Christian, a Catholic, an Anglican, a Baptist, a Druid, and me (a polytheist Wiccan). Considering that this was in a university, where the proportion of atheists is higher than in the general population, I found it significant that it was mostly people of religion who stepped up to volunteer for the trade union. The reason we ended up having that particular conversation was that the atheist guy jokingly said, when the Druid joined, “We seem to have a disproportionate number of Pagans on the committee” so I pointed out how many of the committee were Christians. We were acting on our religious conviction that everyone should be treated fairly. (Please note that I am not saying that it was because we believed that God or the gods command it, though I didn’t ask the Christians what the source of their belief in social justice was, but it was certainly a deep-seated impulse of conscience.)

So I think my conclusion here is that if your religious beliefs prevent you from doing your job properly, get a different job. I wouldn’t work for a company that manufactured weapons of war, because it would go against my conscience, and nor would I work for a company that was responsible for widespread environmental destruction, such as fracking, strip-mining, or cutting down large swathes of forest. So if you are a Christian who disagrees with same-sex marriage, don’t be a registrar of marriages in a country that permits same-sex marriage. Simple.

However, religious beliefs and ethics are not some optional bolt-on extra that can be detached and put away – they are a core part of people’s identity – whether that is a liberal religious identity or a conservative one. That does not mean that we cannot seek to challenge people who justify their homophobia by claiming that the Bible supports their bigotry (it doesn’t). We can and should seek to persuade them of the error of their views – but the corollary of this is, that they get to argue back. That is how free speech works. (I should add that this does not contradict the “no platform” argument, which is that if you host bigoted views in your premises or on your website, you are, in a sense, endorsing those views. Freedom of speech means that they can still get their own building or website where they can express those views.)

Separation of church and state

I agree with the separation of church and state in the United States, and wish that we didn’t have bishops in the House of Lords in the UK, and that the monarch was not head of the Church of England. I do not think it is appropriate for government to be so entwined with religion. I do find it interesting that it is acceptable (even required) for US politicians to state their faith in God, whereas if a UK politician states his or her belief in God, there is a general expression of distaste. Especially if that politician thinks that their illegal wars are justified by their religious faith (I’m looking at you, Tony Blair).

I object to universities having graduation ceremonies in Christian religious buildings, or with Christian prayers, unless other religions are also invited to take part, and that should include Paganism – but of course it usually doesn’t. Either every religion should be included, or no religion should be included.

If local councils and state legislatures have opening prayers and dedications, these should either be offered by all the different faiths, including humanist dedications and Pagan prayers, or not at all. The same goes for public statuary and sculpture, and public religious buildings: either all faiths should be included, or none at all.

I disagree with the requirement in UK schools that assemblies should be broadly Christian in character (except in schools where the majority of the students are of another faith), and so does the School Governors’ Association.

Freedom of expression

I completely agree with the National Secular Society (UK) that freedom of expression for everyone (the religious and non-religious alike) is the way forward, and applaud their efforts to get ‘blasphemy’ removed from the list of crimes in the UK, which it now has been. But freedom of expression for everyone means that there is freedom of expression for atheists and freedom of expression for people of religion.

Some years ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend the closing ceremony of a Buddhist sand mandala at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath. Some Tibetan monks had come and made the sand mandala over several days. It was very beautiful. At the end of this process, as an expression of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, they swept it up and carried it down to the River Avon and offered it to the waters. They placed the multicoloured sand in a special vessel, and carried it under a beautiful silk parasol. The procession, led by the Buddhist monks, and with the rest of us following behind, made its way through the streets of Bath, down to the river. There, another monk blew into a very long trumpet to herald the beginning of the offering to the waters, and they emptied the vessel of sand into the river, and said a prayer (in Tibetan, I assume). It was very beautiful.

Last Easter, as I was leaving my house, I saw the local Christians processing with a donkey and a large and ornate cross, and some priests in all their finery. Very picturesque. And when I was in Italy in 2004, the local church had a big Easter procession. And in Greece, Easter is celebrated with great exuberance. Why ever not, as long as they don’t object to other religions publicly celebrating our festivals, or LGBT Pride parades, or Pagan Pride, or whatever.

Many traditional folk festivals are celebrated all over Europe, which have pagan origins or pagan themes. There is the wonderful revival of the celebration of Beltane on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. There are many folk festivals in Eastern Europe, especially in Bulgaria which has retained much of its pagan folklore and traditions.

By Saturnian - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sânzienele at Cricău Festival, Romania, 2013.
By SaturnianOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Yes, it is annoying when someone tries to convert you to their religion. I really wish they wouldn’t. And sometimes they take it so far that it does become harassment. But that does not mean that all religious expression (even religious expression which does not seek to convert others) should be banned.

If all public religious expression was banned, we would lose many rich and interesting customs and practices, and colourful and exuberant processions. And that would be a sad loss.

The reason that laws banning things exist is because the prohibited things cause actual harm. Dangerous driving, murder, guns, hate speech, and so on, are all illegal or restricted in most countries because they are harmful. Most religious expression does not harm anyone, and so it should not be banned.

Faith and Belief

Many Pagans will tell you that they do not have faith and belief, because they know by experience that the gods exist. Here they are using the words in their modern sense of ‘assent to a creed’. Other Pagans will quite happily use the words faith and belief, because they mean something different by those words. What is going on? What do the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ mean? Has their meaning changed over time? Yes, according to Karen Armstrong:

“Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Jerome translated pistis into the Latin fides (“loyalty”) and credo (which was from cor do, “I give my heart”). The translators of the first King James Bible translated credo into the English “belief,” which came from the Middle English bileven (“to prize; to value; to hold dear”). Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God.

~ Brian McGrath Davis, Religion is not about belief: Karen Armstrong’s THE CASE FOR GOD

Similarly, Alan Watts, a writer who popularised Zen in the West, regarded faith as an attitude of openness to mystery and uncertainty:

“Faith is a state of openness or trust.

To have faith is like when you trust yourself to the water. You don’t grab hold of the water when you swim, because if you do you will become stiff and tight in the water, and sink. You have to relax, and the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging, and holding on.

In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

~ Alan Watts

When we view faith and belief as meaning trust and/or the humility to admit that we don’t have all the answers, or even know what all the questions are yet, then they seem like much more attractive ideas. As Karen Armstrong says, they don’t involve assenting to a set creed, and bending your reason out of shape, or leaving it at the door, in order to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast’ – rather, they are about opening yourself to experience.

Otter in Alaska, photo by S Chucke (public domain).  Pixabay.

Otter in Alaska, photo by S Chucke (public domain). Pixabay.

Everyone knows that being open to experience without trying to come up with a theory to explain it can lead to more experiences of the same kind. Tania Luhrmann referred to this phenomenon as interpretive drift. I would prefer a more neutral term, such as openness, as her terminology (and indeed her study of magic users) was based on the premise that everyone starts out rational and then shifts, or drifts, towards a belief in magic. Whereas I do not think that a belief in magic is irrational, or incompatible with science. Pagans have a variety of ways in which we reconcile our theories of magic with the materialistic world-view of science.

I have always said that I don’t have a fixed belief (in the sense of assenting to a creed); instead, I have working hypotheses to explain my experiences.

Sometimes, we Pagans tie ourselves up in knots trying to avoid the problematic terminology we have experienced in evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christianity that some of us have experienced in the past. But sometimes it is worth trying to find out what these terms originally meant, and reclaim them for our own use. People have similar issues with the terms ‘worship’ and ‘prayer’, but that is a topic for another post.


So, if you have faith in the gods, it means you trust them. What are the implications of that? Well, if you trust your friend, it means you believe they have your best interests at heart; that you can confide in them; that they will not let you down in a crisis. So maybe you don’t have that kind of faith in all the gods, but rather with the ones you have a special devotion to, or a special relationship with. Or maybe you place your faith in Nature, and your relationship with it.

This faith – this relationship – is what sustains you when you feel doubtful, depressed, or otherwise wobbly. It doesn’t mean you never have doubts; it means that you keep on keeping on, even when you have doubts. You lean back into the water, and trust that it will hold you up, even when you don’t know how deep it is.

Let’s face it, even when we have direct experience of the gods, or of magic, we still don’t really know how it works, or what the gods really are. The face of the gods that we see is only one facet of their nature, whatever that may be. The gods are vast ancient cosmic forces, and our personifications of them are their reflections in human culture. As Sam Webster wrote recently:

Let us start with the Gods as we experience them. Much to my surprise, I am no longer convinced that the Beings we experience are the Gods Themselves. What we are experiencing is a projection of Those who are Gods refracted through our souls and the cultures we are a part of. 

We do not really know the full nature of the gods, so we are open and trusting towards them in order to experience more of their nature. We do not cling to our limited ideas about them, but are ready to open ourselves to more experience and insight.


To believe in something in the original sense is to prize it, to value it, to hold it dear. Do you prize your Pagan practice, your relationship with the gods? Do you hold dear the culture and values of Paganism? Then you believe in them.

The distinction between mythos and logos is important here. Mythos is metaphorical truth – something that rings true, that is an accurate symbol for representing something. Logos is literal truth, such as empirical knowledge about how things work. Karen Armstrong explains the difference:

In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos (“reason; science”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.

This is related to the concept of worship, which is about holding something to be worthwhile – a celebration of ultimate worth, as the excellent Abraxan Essay on Worship by Von Ogden Vogt has it. We value something, we trust it, we invest our time and energy in it – we believe in it. We still use this sense of ‘belief’ in everyday speech – “I believe in you” means “I value you and trust you”.

Belief is reinforced by belonging – the more we feel part of something, the more we place our trust in it; and the two are mutually reinforcing: the more we believe and trust in something, the more we feel that we belong. This process is contingent on experience, however; if your community lets you down, it is hard to continue with that same level of trust. Trust and belonging and belief are created by practice, which is why most religions place much more emphasis on practice than they do on assent to creeds. Karen Armstrong explains how religion is about practice:

Religious truth is, therefore, a species of practical knowledge. Like swimming, we cannot learn it in the abstract; we have to plunge into the pool and acquire the knack by dedicated practice. Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

Reclaiming the words

So, let’s reclaim the words faith and belief to mean what they originally meant, and not use them to mean ‘assent to a creed’. They mean far more than that; they are about creating relationship with the gods and/or Nature; reconnecting with the sacred; re-enchanting the world. We believe in the gods and spirits, Nature and the Earth and the  land, because we hold them dear, and value our relationships with them; we have opened our hearts to them. We have faith in them, because we are relaxed in their presence, and have let go of our assumptions, and we trust them.

Religion, spirituality, and the big ball of mud

There is a tendency among the spiritual-but-not-religious  to regard religions as crusty old traditions that are hidebound, not evolving, and to contrast them with the spiritual people, who are free spirits who can pick and mix from the smorgasbord of religious offerings to create their own unique menu of tasty spiritual tidbits. Whereas what they are most likely to create, without some sort of roadmap, is a big ball of mud.

I saw this particularly irritating quote from Deepak Chopra the other day:

Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.

There is plenty of scope for individual spiritual experience in most religions, even in the ones we think of as quite conservative. You can have your own experience in religion – and the difference is that there will be a framework and a context and a mythology to help make sense of it and give it meaning, and a community of others who have had similar experiences to discuss it with, and to reassure you that you are not alone with your experience of the numinous.

It is all too easy to assume that all religions are merely cultural encrustations upon the “pure” mystic insight. There is a discourse that claims that there is a “pure” form of religion that could be identified if only once could scrape off the encrustations and accretions of culture, and get to the flawless diamond underneath. But this is a flawed analogy, because religions are not diamonds.

Religions are organic, they grow with and in culture – and if people rip the ideas out of context, they lose meaning and coherence. Religions are like languages – deeply embedded in culture and history; sometimes they have their own culture. Even religions that claim to be universally applicable arose at a particular time and place because of specific theological, philosophical, and spiritual concerns. Perhaps their parent religion was getting too bogged down in a particular concern, and a visionary group or individual started a new wave of ideas – sometimes this this resulted in a new religion, sometimes it resulted in a reformation of an existing one. Perhaps one day, people will look back at the early 21st century and say, that’s when Polytheism broke away from Paganism. Or perhaps they will refer to it as the Polytheist Reformation… who knows?

Religions are not all saying the same thing – they come from different philosophical and theological and cultural perspectives that cannot be reconciled without doing violence to the ideas and practices and rituals. An excellent analogy is regional cuisines – they have a set of tried and trusted recipes and techniques, using the spices and other ingredients that grow in their local area. Sometimes an exciting new ingredient arrives and transforms the cuisine (as happened when the potato arrived in England, or the chilli arrived in India). Sometimes a new cultural group arrives and brings with it a new recipe, that then gets prepared in the style of the local cuisine – did you know that the idea of fish and chips was brought to England by Sephardic Jews from Portugal? Or, some say, Huguenot refugees from France.  Or that pasta was possibly brought back to Italy by Marco Polo after eating noodles in China?  But the new dish gets brought within the repertoire of the existing cuisine, and altered to suit the tastes of the locals. The same thing happens with spiritual ideas and techniques – they inevitably take on the flavour of the religion into which they have been imported.

Different people have different preferences for ritual styles – that is why there are so many different styles on offer within religious traditions. There are those who prefer ecstatic ritual with dancing, those who prefer formal liturgical ritual, those who prefer spontaneity, and those who prefer their emotions to be engaged. The excellent Bill Darlison, Unitarian minister and astrologer, says that these worship styles correspond to the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. When I heard him give this talk, he suggested that Pagans are “earthy” but I pointed out that there are as many different preferences for ritual style among Pagans as there are among Unitarians, probably more. Different traditions offer different ritual styles – Druidry has a distinctive style, Wicca has another style, Heathenry another, Religio Romana another, African Traditional Religion is different again, and so on. There are variations between groups in the various traditions too. Some people find Wicca too intense; others find it a bit tame. I think it is just right – for me.

Different people have different tastes in music – some like heavy metal, some like Gregorian chant, some like reggae, funk, and soul, others like ambient New Agey electronica. (Fortunately, no-one has yet suggested that all musical styles should be munged together into one.) Different musical styles suit different moods too; and the same applies to ritual. Sometimes I am in the mood for the ritual equivalent of Gregorian chant; other times I want something ecstatic and dancey. If we munge everything together, we lose that diversity.

And if everyone goes off on an entirely individual path, with a mixture of influences from many different traditions, how will we ever create a shared web of meaning for communicating about our experiences? As John Beckett says in an excellent blogpost, 5 Reasons You Can’t Find the Right Spiritual Path, we need a certain depth of engagement and immersion to really understand and fully experience a tradition. As I wrote in a previous post:

[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?”

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…

There is also a dangerous assumption mixed in with the idea that religions are reducible to each other: the assumption that there really is one universal religion that would suit everyone perfectly if only they let go of their adherence to their specific tradition. It is a dangerous idea because its adherents want to erase the boundaries of culture, tradition, and to eliminate diversity. They claim that it’s a very liberal idea, but actually it isn’t because it involves the imposition of ideas, a loss of context, massive cultural appropriation, and a loss of a sense of something to grapple with.

Those who advocate for pick and mix spirituality as opposed to religion fail to appreciate that tradition is organic and evolving. There is plenty of room for experimentation and innovation in most religious traditions. Sometimes the more conservative adherents resist these changes, especially if they involve LGBT people, but nevertheless religions do evolve and change.

Each religious tradition, and its various sub-traditions, has an unique and diverse perspective on the world. They have unique rituals and practices, which add to their interest and significance. These rituals often do not make sense outside of the context of the particular tradition in which they arose. Of course, there are some generic spiritual practices which can be exported from one religion to another, but I would argue they take on different meanings in their new context.

Religions are communities of people with a shared perspective, shared stories, and shared rituals. Sometimes religions can be oppressive and fanatical, but that is not the whole picture. The millions of peaceful, decent religious adherents – who are decent not in spite of their religion, but because that is how they practice their religion – deserve better than to be dismissed as hidebound traditionalists and bigots.

Silence equals complicity: making Pagan groups safe for everyone

The recent arrest of Kenny Klein, Pagan author and musician, on 25 counts of possessing child pornography, although this has not yet resulted in a conviction, has prompted everyone to ask, how can we keep our Pagan communities safe from people like this?

There was a horrific abuse case in the UK in 2012, but those involved were not part of the wider Pagan community, or of the Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccan community; nor it seems, of any recognisable Wiccan or witchcraft community.

Nevertheless, the widespread nature of abuse in society means that sooner or later, it is simply statistically likely that some member of the Pagan community will perpetrate some kind of abuse.

In response to cases which came to light in 2010, Jason Pitzl-Waters called for an ethics statement on abuse. In response, Brendan Myers and a group of others created a community statement and invited people to sign up to it. This is alright as far as it goes, but it is not enough, because it does nothing to challenge the silencing of victims of abuse.

However, this is not just about ensuring zero tolerance of child abuse in our communities; it is also about creating a safe space for everyone.  That means zero tolerance of creepers – people who think it is acceptable to sexually harass others. It also means that we cannot sweep rape, domestic violence, and abuse in our communities under the carpet. If someone is brave enough to say they have been raped and abused, we should believe them. We should also encourage them to go to the police. And for those of you who are thinking that the police don’t take rape allegations seriously, rape convictions are at an all-time high, with the conviction rate in the UK currently at 63%.

I have heard too many stories of people being told off for “rocking the boat” when they have complained of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence. I have been in situations where Pagan men have not understood that no means no. Being in the same bed as someone does not constitute consent to sexual activity. Consent is continuous and explicit, not merely acquiescing to the sexual act because it is easier than arguing.

We are supposed to be a community that values women, that believes women are the embodiment of the Divine just as much as men, if not more so.

We are a community that celebrates all acts of love and pleasure. Well, let me tell you right now, anything less than enthusiastic consent is not an act of love and pleasure. Love and pleasure are sacred. Rape and abuse are the most horrible violations of the sacred integrity of the human body.

What is enthusiastic consent? It is where sexual partners actively describe what they do and don’t desire. It means not just avoiding a No, but actually getting a clear Yes. And not just a yes to sex, but also a yes to all the other activities that surround it. Maybe your partner doesn’t like being touched in a particular way, or in a particular place – so don’t touch them there, and/or don’t touch them like that.

It became clear after the Steubenville rape case that many people thought that an unconscious drunk girl was “asking for it”.  The victim was blamed for “ruining the careers” of the young men who raped her. No, they ruined their careers by raping her. More importantly, they also ruined her life.

Many anti-rape posters are victim-blaming and slut-shaming. The only ones that actually reduce the rates of rape are the ones that make it clear what consent means, and what rape means. The “Don’t be that guy” campaign in Canada, which does make it clear that non-consensual sex is rape, has reduced the rate of rape by 10%.

We live in a rape culture, where a woman who gets raped is blamed for complaining about it, rather than the rapist being blamed.

People assume that rapists are 100% evil and bad, therefore the “nice” people they know can’t possibly be rapists. But a very high percentage of rape and sexual assault is committed by partners or acquaintances of the victims.

Sexual violence is any unwanted sexual act or activity. Rape includes the non-consensual penetration of the vagina or the anus with any object.  That is the legal definition in the UK and in the USA.

We live in a rape culture, where every time someone brings up the subject of rape, someone says, yes but men get raped too. They do, but the numbers are much fewer than the number of women being raped, and it is often done as a form of power-over to ‘feminize’ the man who was raped.

We live in a rape culture, where men’s rights activists are rape apologists, who claim that women were asking for it, or are just frigid, or were to blame for being raped. They claim that feminism is emasculating men, or they blame their mothers for not making them proper men. Or something. So they go down to the woods to hang with the dudes and connect with the “male energies”. And some of these people use Paganism as a cover for these activities.

We live in a rape culture, where rape apologists claim that men “need” sex, or that it is in their nature to be rapists; that’s why women are the ones who have to take all the preventive measures against rape, like not dressing “provocatively”, not walking home late at night, not getting drunk and incapable. This is horrible slut-shaming nonsense, but it is also grossly unfair to the majority of men who are not rapists.

We live in a rape culture, where people derail conversations about rape culture by claiming that women lie about being raped. This represents a tiny minority – and if we did not live in a patriarchal culture of slut-shaming, where women who have sex at all are regarded as sluts, no-one would need to lie about it.

“In the period of the review, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence. During the same period there were 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, 6 for making false allegation of domestic violence and 3 for making false allegations of both rape and domestic violence. ” (from page 2 of the UK Crown Prosecution Service report on false rape allegations, March 2013)

Pagans think that we are immune to the problems of the wider society, including rape culture, because Pagans are ethical, or because high priestesses are very wise and intuitive and supposedly always filter out dodgy people, including rapists and abusers. I am aware of enough cases of sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence among the Pagan community to know that that just is not true. And besides, some of these people are downright manipulative, and can be quite convincingly ‘nice’.

So what can we, the Pagan community, do about it?

I have said it before, and I will say it again: we need a safeguarding policy and committees for Pagan communities, of people trained in safeguarding. I do not care how difficult it would be to set up. We need it, period. Yes, I know covens and other groups are autonomous; I know the Pagan community is more of a network than a gathered community; I know it would cost money, and maybe only have partial coverage – but we need to do it. Which would you rather join – a coven/grove/hearth that is signed up to the safeguarding committee, or a coven that isn’t?

We really need to have consensus: no more creepers, no more rapists. If a woman says she doesn’t like someone’s behaviour – don’t just ignore her, or tell her it’s not that serious, or tell her not to rock the boat, or take the piss out of the perpetrator – bar the perpetrator from the group for a period of time, or permanently, depending on the seriousness of the act.

Do not tolerate creepers (today’s creeper is tomorrow’s rapist). If a woman says she has been assaulted, believe her, and encourage her to report it to the police. If a woman objects to sexist behaviour and/or creepy behaviour (e.g. unwanted touching) don’t silence her. If you hear someone making misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, or racist comments, challenge them and make it clear that their views are not welcome in the Pagan community. Tell the perpetrator of sexual harassment that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. We need to do this to make the community safe for everyone.

Silencing the victims of sexual harassment, rape, and abuse happens over and over again. The parable of the rats on the boat gives a powerful illustration of silencing and victim-blaming.

In the past couple of days I have been feeling very angry. I have been angry about sexual harassment, sexual assault, creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, men exploiting the way in which women are socialised into being polite and non-confrontational for the purposes of the aforementioned creepy douchebaggy harassy behaviour, and also the fucking cover up and culture of silence around the above. Especially the phrase “don’t rock the boat”. As in “don’t say anything to that creepy guy in X society who always hangs around the youngest women possible; that would be rocking the boat”. As in “don’t make a big deal about that one guy who sent you those creepy, sexually harassy emails: don’t rock the boat”. As in “yeah, there’s this guy who’s a creep and we all know about him but we don’t DO anything about him because we don’t want to rock the boat” (oh my god, the amount of times I’ve heard this). This is a stupid fucking metaphor which is used to silence women and values calmness and stability (and the feelings of creepers and sexual harassers)  above the feelings and comfort and happiness of those women.

When someone complains about sexual harassment or abuse or rape, don’t assume that they are just being vindictive against the accused person. Don’t dismiss or make light of their concerns. Encourage them to report it to the police, and to get specialist support.

However, if a victim does not feel able to go to the police, because they do not have physical evidence, or the abuse happened a long time ago, or because the police in their area are not supportive of rape victims, that is their choice, and should be respected. Don’t make them feel ashamed for not going to the police. They may already be feeling shame for a variety of reasons.

Of course we need to be careful about rumours from third parties. There have been some vicious rumours that have gone round the Pagan community, and far too few people checked on both sides of the story – but they are suddenly very keen to say “oh well we don’t know both sides of the story” when it comes to allegations of abuse.

Don’t make excuses for creepers and claim that they are “just socially awkward” – that is no excuse. There are behaviours that are creepy and unacceptable: commenting on the bodily characteristics of others (just because your tradition practices nudity, does not give you the right to comment on the size of other member’s breasts or penises or extra weight); unwanted touching, especially on areas of the body that are considered erotic, is harassment. Everybody knows what makes people uncomfortable, but we are all too polite to challenge these behaviours.

All covens, groves, hearths, moots and groups need to educate their members about consent and enthusiastic consent, and make it clear that violations of same will not be tolerated. Have a regular talk at your local moot, make sure people understand the issues, and that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. If a new person joins your coven, grove or hearth, make sure that they understand about consent.

I can think of a Pagan pub moot that collapsed due to the presence of someone whom everyone considered to be a creeper, and no-one wanted to be in the room with him on their own, and yet no-one asked him to leave, so in the end, the group collapsed, because no-one turned up in case they were alone with the creeper. I can think of a student society where a creeper was asked to leave, and the society flourished.

Quite often, when someone suggests ostracising or banning a creeper or an abuser or a rapist, they are told, “Your feelings, your problem”, or “we don’t really know what happened”, or “That’s just the way that person behaves; they’re a bit weird”, or “It’s wrong to ostracise people”. This phenomenon has been described in “Five Geek Social Fallacies“.

Above all, don’t keep going around the missing stair, and mostly warning others about the missing stair, but occasionally forgetting and then not being surprised when someone is injured by the missing stair.

Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it?  Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it?  “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings.  But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”

We need to make the Pagan movement safe for everyone. Except abusers.

Pagan prayer

There are several different types of prayer:

  • contemplative prayer (communing with a deity, usually in silence);
  • intercessory prayer (praying for help for someone else);
  • petitionary prayer (praying for help for yourself);
  • thanksgiving;
  • adoration, devotion;
  • prayer of approach (preparing to enter a deity’s presence);
  • invocation (asking a deity to be present);
  • bidding prayer (a suggestion to participants to pray for a particular thing);
  • confession and penitence (though I would be surprised if any Pagans do this, as we do not tend to regard wrong acts as injuring a deity, only as injuring the physical person(s) who were harmed by them);
  • words of reassurance (for the benefit of the participants of the ritual);
  • healing prayer;
  • expressing aspiration (e.g. “may we be blessed”);
  • reflection (reflecting on events).

Prayer is not just asking a deity to do things for you. It can be used as a means of creating a sacred context for your activities, by opening proceedings with a prayer. An invocation of a deity is a form of prayer. An evocation of an elemental spirit is a form of prayer.  Many Pagans dismiss prayer as “passive magic” (as opposed to doing spells, which they class as “active magic”). This reduces prayer only to petitionary and intercessory prayer – but there are many other kinds of prayer, as you can see from the list above (which may not be a complete list).

There are also different modes and techniques of prayer: for example, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and body prayer (using dance or other special movements in prayer).

Centering prayer was developed by an interfaith dialogue group of Christians and Buddhists. These Christians admired the technique of Buddhist meditation but didn’t want to cultivate the awareness of the Void recommended by Buddhist tradition; so instead they decided to choose a single concept and focus on it during the meditation, which they called “centering prayer”. So for instance you might choose one of the Nine Noble Virtues of Heathenry, or the Eight Wiccan Virtues, or one of the Roman virtues, to focus on during the prayer. The technique is similar to that of meditation, in that you relax your breathing and focus on the body, but you hold the concept you wish to focus on in your heart for the duration of the prayer, perhaps repeating the chosen word.

Contemplative prayer is an age-old tradition of mystics. It is quite similar to centering prayer, but doesn’t involve a specific concept; it’s more of a wordless communion with a deity. It is usually preceded by more verbal forms of prayer, which lead into contemplation or meditation.

Body prayer is where you involve your whole body in the act of prayer. This might be gardening and praying, or dancing and praying, or walking and praying. Walking a labyrinth can be a prayerful act, as you deliberately focus on the spiritual journey. Another example of body prayer is the Dances of Universal Peace, a dance tradition in their own right, designed to engender peace and love in the participants; another example is the Salute to the Sun found in Yoga (which is a sacred Hindu practice designed to stimulate spiritual growth).

What is the purpose of prayer? I don’t think it is only for the benefit of the deity being prayed to. I think it is for the benefit of the one doing the praying. The practice of mindfulness, of cultivating awareness of the greater life of the universe, and of examining our own conscience, and being aware of the suffering and joy of others – these are beneficial for the soul.

In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente wrote,

“Arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature, who gives life to the Universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.”

To “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite” expresses very well for me what contemplative prayer feels like. (Your mileage may vary.)

Ceisiwr Serith produced A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is an excellent starting point if you are new to this practice. The books suggests a lot of different types of prayer, and to many different deities.

Prayer can be personal and private, or collective. When sharing a prayer with others, it can be difficult to express your theological viewpoint without excluding others.  One proposed solution is to say “this is a prayer from my tradition” and perhaps invite people to “translate in their heads” if it does not quite work for them.

There are prayers in many different Pagan traditions, including devotional polytheism, Feri, Reclaiming, Wicca, Druidry, and many others. The theological stance of these prayers may vary from monism to ‘hard’ polytheism. A prayer does not have to be to a deity; you can also pray to spirits of place, or commune with Nature. I do not think there is anything wrong with adapting prayers to fit your own theology (as long as you state your sources, to avoid plagiarism, if you are praying the prayer in public).

You don’t have to close your eyes or kneel down to pray. Many people (e.g. Eastern Orthodox Christians) pray with their eyes open and their hands extended to indicate that they recognise the divine in the world.  You could experiment with different positions. Some traditions use prayer beads; there are some lovely Pagan prayer beads available.

A prayer can be nothing more than time taken to set an intention for the day, or to contemplate the day’s events before going to sleep. It can be time spent communing with a deity, or holding others that you care about in your awareness and wishing them well. It can take place at your personal altar, or just in your head. It can be spoken or unspoken, formal or informal, and involve stillness or movement. It can involve descending into your own depths to find a connection with all-that-is; or it can be reaching out to a deity or spirit of place; or some other process. Different people experience it differently.

Wiccanate Privilege and Polytheist Wiccans

I was not going to wade into the “Wiccanate Privilege” debate, but having read most of the posts on it, it seemed to me that one angle had been missed, and there was potential for misunderstanding.

Some Wiccans seem to have misread or misheard “Wiccanate” as “Wiccan”. As I understand it, the problem as stated is that the Pagan book market is flooded with “Wicca 101” books, which means that a lot of Pagan discourse is couched in the language of Wicca 101 books, and there’s a set of assumptions out there in the public domain about what Pagans do, based on these books – that all Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wheel of the Year, that all Pagans think the deities are archetypes and expressions of a single underlying divine energy, that all Pagans do magic, and so on. And the complaint is that workshops at events are also based on these assumptions.

Whilst it is true that the market is flooded with these books, and that many people assume that Paganism means Wicca-lite, some of these assumptions are also problematic for Wiccans, especially Wiccans who don’t conform to general expectations and assumptions of what Wicca is about.

These 101 books often contain an assumption that you are a Wiccan if you have read one of these books and you do the rituals in them. If someone wants to identify as a Wiccan, but does not have access to a compatible coven and coven training, then who am I to stop them starting out on their own and doing what they can? That is why, in the UK, we refer to initiatory Wicca to distinguish it from the non-initiatory variety; and in North America, initiatory Wicca is referred to as British Traditional Wicca (this term does not really work in the UK, as various Cochrane-derived traditions are referred to as Traditional Witchcraft). There are also other forms of witchcraft, both initiatory and non-initiatory.

More problematic for me is the fact that books on Wicca often contain an assumption that Wicca is duotheistic; whereas most Wiccans I know are polytheists, pantheists, animists, or non-theists. But because it says in these books that we are duotheist, other polytheists often refuse to believe that a Wiccan can be a polytheist. But many Wiccans regard ‘the Lord and Lady’ as patron deities of the Craft, two among many; and many covens honour a different pair of deities as their coven patrons than the standard two, and honour a multitude of deities alongside them. I would really like never to hear “but you can’t be a polytheist if you’re a Wiccan” again. I have never heard it from a Wiccan, but I have heard it from polytheists.

Another problem is that books on Wicca are often heterocentric, and seem to have forgotten that the ultimate goal of the Wiccan mysteries (and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn before us) used to be seen as spiritual androgyny, or to put it in more Jungian terms, integration. So whilst one may perceive differentiated “male” and female” energies, there are energies of many genders, and (in my opinion) the ultimate divine source, which has no personality, both transcends and includes all genders.

Add to that the fact that these 101 books are often prescriptive about what Wicca involves, and you get the imposition of a set of norms which it is difficult to challenge in our particular culture (“but I saw it in a book so it must be true”) and assumptions from non-Wiccans that that is what Wicca is like. I often get asked by coveners to recommend a book about Wicca. It is really hard, because I disagree with most of the books out there. That is why I am writing one.

So, as a Wiccan and a polytheist, I think we should dismantle Wiccanate privilege as soon as possible. Let diversity flourish. If other Pagan traditions don’t want Wiccans representing them at interfaith events, then show up to interfaith events. Let’s not have Wicca-flavoured ritual at events. Let’s have devotional polytheism, liturgical Paganism, full-on Wiccan ritual, revived Eleusinian mysteries, Heathen blots, Druid rituals etc. And let’s not have assumptions about what Pagans believe – that way lies orthodoxy.

The ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ debate

(sorry if I have omitted your ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ post – please add it in the comments if you want it included)

UPDATE: Several people have asked me to define my terms better. The problem is that Wicca and witchcraft are very multivalent, especially in North America, and the terms used in the UK are a bit different. I am not trying to exclude anyone who wants to use the term Wicca.  I was just trying to make a distinction between different types of Wicca and witchcraft and the terms used for them in the UK and North America, not saying that one is better than another. If it works for you, great.

Also, for those who are new to this debate, I did not coin the term “Wiccanate”. John Halstead explains:

“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.

If you build it, they will come

As Pagans, what do we hope to build?

Much of the current dialogue in the Pagan blogosphere is about carving out ways to explain and justify our personal experiences and beliefs in relation to other traditions, but without a clear vision of the place our own traditions and experiences might have in an ideal world. Will the Pagan movement become one tradition-heavy set of religions with several “fringes”? Will it split apart into competing factions? Or will we find a way to unite using some shared cultural language? What institutions will we build, or will we build institutions at all? What rights or recognition will we have in the larger society?

What does your Paganism look like in 50 years?

~ Christine Hoff Kraemer

John William Waterhouse - The Crystal Ball

John William Waterhouse – The Crystal Ball  (Wikipedia)

I have entitled this post “If you build it, they will come” because the kind of people who will join the Pagan movement of the future will be determined by the kinds of structures and traditions that we build now. If we build traditions and institutions that empower and enable people to develop and grow, then we will attract people who want that; if we build inclusive traditions where diversity is welcome, we will attract a wide range of people.

Unity and diversity

I have written about the issue of unity and diversity before (in The Pagan umbrella is leaking and The varieties of religious experience) and so has Christine (in Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron, or Must Pagans Be Polytheists?)

There are some key themes that unite Pagans and polytheists of various flavours, but we don’t have to agree on absolutely everything – where would be the need for different traditions if we agreed on everything? Not all Pagans agree that the environment is of paramount importance – but many do; those of us who do can work together on that issue. Other issues on which many Pagans agree (but not all) would be LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and freedom of religion. We might come together to work on projects around these issues, or we might participate in secular projects to further these aims; however, I do think it is worth bringing Pagan perspectives to the table on these issues, as we often have a different perspective that might be helpful.

In the future, I think that each of the current traditions might be strong and numerous enough to stand alone and only work with other Pagans and polytheists on selected projects. I don’t think that time has arrived yet. I think we still need “big tent Paganism”.  Those who don’t feel that we need it are of course entitled to their views, and to start building strong independent organisations for their particular path. There is room for more than one approach.

Building institutions

I would like to see visible Pagan temples and sanctuaries (we currently have only one in the UK – I know there are several in the USA). I don’t want to see building committees running these (because committees are the fastest way to kill spirituality), but I hope that they could be administered fairly and for all Pagans to use. I would also hope that all Pagans would use them responsibly. Many people say they don’t need a temple for their spiritual practices; however, practicising ritual as a group requires ritual space, and the weather is not going to be getting any better over the next few decades.

It would be difficult and expensive to get a permanent Pagan temple, and it would be difficult to know where the first one should be situated.  So I had an idea: the Pop-up Pagan Temple. It could be a yurt that is available for hire to Pagan groups around the country or region, to put up in parks (having agreed this with the local council).  Clearly it would need security to protect it, but it would not be up for more than a week in any one place, so the cost of that would not be prohibitive.

I am ambivalent about the notion of professional Pagan ministry. I think that a more educated community is a very good thing, and I very much applaud what Cherry Hill Seminary are doing. I am not sure that I want to see a clergy and congregation model developing. We need to think very hard about the dependencies created by the congregational model, and what gets projected onto ministers and leaders. However, many Pagan leaders put in a lot of unpaid hard work, and it would be good to see that acknowledged and fairly recompensed. It is a tricky issue, and one that the Pagan community needs to start discussing.

One very important institution is the Pagan Newswire Collective, a group of people dedicated to improving news coverage of Pagan issues and events. The Wild Hunt blog is also a very important resource.

Another vital organisation is Cherry Hill Seminary, which educates Pagan clergy in ritual, theology, practice, and ministry. We need a similar project in the UK.

The Centre for Pagan Studies in the UK is doing a great job at getting public recognition for Paganism. They have put up a blue plaque for Doreen Valiente (the first blue plaque to a Pagan, and the first on a council-owned residential building); and they will be putting up a blue plaque for Gerald Gardner on 13 June 2014.

Pagan organisations are also important (and too numerous to mention them all by name). I would like to see more co-operation and dialogue between different Pagan organisations. The main one in the UK is the Pagan Federation. Pagan Federation International is also doing sterling work to help fledgling Pagan movements in other countries.

Rights and recognition

I would like to see Pagan weddings become legally recognised in England and Wales. I would like to be able to practice Pagan rituals in public without fear of harassment. I would like to see public bodies acknowledging Pagan holidays in listings of holidays both secular and religious. (In the UK, many employers send round lists of holidays from various faiths, but Pagan holidays are often not listed.)  I would like to see a Pagan student society in every UK university, and a Pagan temple accessible to every Pagan who wants it. I would like to see Pagan traditions covered in education about religion (not indoctrinating children into it, just teaching them the facts about it). I would like Pagan traditions to be full participants in interfaith councils and bodies.

Paganism in 50 years’ time

I want to see a diverse, vibrant, and non-dogmatic group of polytheistic, pantheistic, and animist religions, firmly grounded and confident in our theology and practice, all having equal space in the ‘big tent’, and even more inclusive of gender and sexual diversity than they are now; a world where Pagan contributions to public debates are valued and respected; a world where it is safe for all Pagans to be open about being a Pagan.

Pagan sacraments

Handfasting by Gordon

Handfasting by Gordon (Wikipedia)

A rite of passage is a ritual designed to make sacred a particular life event or transition from one stage of life to another. We might also call these rituals ‘sacraments’.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sacrament as “a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol”. The word is used in Catholicism to refer to the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony – which are mostly rites of passage; and in Protestant traditions, to baptism and the Eucharist. The etymology of the word is from Latin sacramentum ‘solemn oath’ (from sacrare ‘to hallow’, from sacer ‘sacred’).

An important element of rites of passage and sacraments is that they have a physical component, often linked to one or more of the classical four elements (earth, air, fire, water). Immersion in water is used in both Judaism and Christianity to signify entering into a new phase, being consecrated (baptism) or re-consecrated (mikveh). Fire is used as a purifying medium in the Hindu ritual of aarti, which is both an offering and a purificatory ritual. Water is used for the Sikh baptism ceremony called Amrit Sanskar. The ancient druids are reported to have used sensory deprivation by requiring candidates for initiation to lie in darkness for several days and then thrusting them into the light, according to OBOD. All these rituals signify some sort of symbolic death and rebirth experience.

The sacraments in Pagan traditions

There is no standard list of sacraments for any contemporary Pagan tradition, but we can identify sacraments for most of them.

In Wicca, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, cakes and wine, naming (sometimes called “Wiccaning”), initiation, handfasting, and croning.

In Druidry, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, naming, initiation, and handfasting.

In Heathenry and Ásatrú, the sacraments could be said to be the blot, the sumble (or symbel), and the handfasting.

In Religio Romana, there are many rituals designed to connect the practitioner with the deities and sacralize life. These include libations, a prayer for ablutions (a ritual formula to purify oneself prior to the performance of other rituals), and various daily rituals at the lararium or home shrine.


Most Pagans presume that everything is already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world. Therefore, rituals of consecration are about creating extra sacredness, or reconnecting us with the deities, the community, or the natural world.

Birth and naming. Pagans do not perceive a need to purify either the mother or the child after birth, considering that people are born innocent. The child will typically be welcomed into the community and given a name, but will not be committed to any particular religious tradition, as most Pagans believe that children should be able to choose their religion when they are old enough. Although the naming ceremony in Wicca is sometimes called a Wiccaning, it does not mean that the child is considered to be a Wiccan as a result of the ceremony.

Coming of age. There is a distinct lack of coming of age rituals in Western culture generally, and this is echoed in Pagan traditions, although some groups do celebrate the onset of menstruation, as long as the young woman in question actually wants this.

Initiation. Wicca and Druidry both have initiation rituals, often based on the initiation rituals of occult orders such as Freemasonry. Isaac Bonewits identified three types of initiation ritual:

  1. Initiation as a recognition of a status already gained
  2. Initiation as an ordeal of transformation
  3. Initiation as a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power

I have identified six aspects of initiation, which may be present in a single ritual, or may be a gradual process. There is the inner process of transformation; the initiation by the gods and goddesses (making contact with the numinous); experiencing the Mysteries (that which cannot be spoken, or Arrheton); being given the secrets of the initiating group (that which must not be spoken, or Aporrheton); joining the group mind of the initiating group; and the joining of the lineage or tradition of which the coven is part.

In Heathenry, initiation is replaced by profession, a ceremony where someone professes a desire to become part of the Asatruar (people who are true to the Aesir, the Heathen deities), and then takes an oath.

Handfasting. This is the term for a wedding, mainly in Wicca and eclectic Paganism. The term has been in use since the 1960s, according to Wikipedia. The ceremony generally involves the symbolic crossing of a threshold, such as leaping over a broomstick or a small fire. The use of ribbons to fasten the couple’s hands together has been practised since the 2000s, again according to Wikipedia. Rings and vows are usually exchanged.

In Heathenry, wedding ceremonies are usually hallowed by holding them beneath the hammer of Thor (Mjöllnir), and arm-rings are exchanged. The couple may also hold an oath-ring while exchanging vows.

Croning. A ceremony for a woman who has reached menopause, usually celebrated in Wicca. A croning ceremony usually takes place around the age of fifty, and celebrates the achievement of elder status in the community, and feminine wisdom.

Dying. There is no set ritual for preparing for death, but there are many excellent resources in The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, by M Macha Nightmare (formerly of the Reclaiming tradition) and Starhawk.

Other rituals

Preparing sacred space (the circle). Most Pagan traditions have a preparation for ritual, as rituals are often held in spaces which also have other uses, such as a living room, a garden, or a park. Therefore sacred spaces are temporary and have to be reconsecrated. It is also necessary for the participants in a ritual to be prepared for ritual, in order to help us enter into the right mind-set. Preparation typically includes some form of consecration of both the space and the participants with the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Incense, water, salt, and other symbols of the four elements may be used to create sacred space.

Blot (Heathenry). This ritual has three parts, the hallowing or consecrating of the offering, the sharing of the offering, and the libation. The offering, shared with the deities, is typically mead, beer, or juice.

Sumble / symbel / sumbel (Heathenry).

“The sumbel is actually quite simple. The guests are seated, (traditionally, in some formal fashion), and the host begins the sumbel with a short statement of greeting and intent, and by offering the first toast. The horn is then passed around the table and each person makes their toasts in turn. At the sumbel toasts are drunk to the Gods, as well as to a persons ancestors or personal heroes. Rather than a toast, a person might also offer a brag or some story, song, or poem that has significance. The importance is that at the end of the toast, story, or whatever, the person offering it drinks from the horn, and in doing so ‘drinks in’ what he spoke.” ~ The rituals of Asatru

Cakes and wine (Wicca). In Wicca, cakes and wine are consecrated and shared. This happens at every circle.

Libations. These are offerings of mead or wine poured for the deities and spirits of place. The libation is important in Religio Romana, Heathenry, and Wicca.

What do all these rituals have in common?

They all involve one or more of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water).  Earth may be represented by stone, salt, crystals, or soil. Air may be represented by blades, wands, feathers, or incense. Fire may be represented by a candle flame, a bonfire, incense, or wands. Water is represented by water, chalices, and cauldrons. Each element has a sacred direction, which can vary between different traditions.

Initiation ceremonies all include a section where the candidate is asked whether they wish to be there. In naming ceremonies, where the baby cannot be asked if it wishes to take part, a simple welcome to the wider community of humanity is all that takes place.

There is an assumption that things are already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world, but sometimes we forget our connection with the divine, and need reconnecting.

They generally involve marking the transition from one phase to another – sometimes by actually crossing a threshold: stepping into the sacred space, or leaping across a fire or a broomstick.

They generally involve deities or spirits being asked for their blessing and/or protection.