Pagan Morality, Part 1
Last week I spent Thanksgiving weekend with a Christian relative and her husband. Both are very religious and have a weekly practice of turning off secular activities for a day and only watching religious programs on the television during that time. Lucky me! My family bonding time included a couple of hours of Christian programming. My relative knows I’m Pagan, though I think there’s a strong hope that somehow I’ll reconvert to the Christian roots of my childhood (especially if I watch these shows). Sorry, I’ve grown past that and I feel a better person for having done so. Even though I don’t believe the same things, I do try to respect their beliefs while visiting.
It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and watched any kind of Christian programming. Usually I just skip on by these programs. My own experiences with Christianity were very negative for me as a gay person growing up. It took me years to sort through all the negative things I’d been taught about homosexuality and sexuality in general. I’ve also seen all the harm done by those trying to enforce their versions of religion and morality. I even had a friend in college who committed suicide because he couldn’t reconcile his homosexuality with his fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
I’ve since embraced Paganism, because Paganism is generally very accepting of differences among people including different sexual orientations; because I find myself and my experience better reflected in the myriad of Pagan gods, goddesses, and other spirits; and because I respect the individualistic nature of Pagan belief over set dogma.
When I talk about Christian programming, I’m not just talking about television programs. Here are some other dictionary definitions of programming: “to cause to absorb or incorporate automatic responses, attitudes, or the like; condition” and “to set, regulate, or modify so as to produce a specific response or reaction.” To me, this conditioning of beliefs is one of the big problems with religion and dogma in general and why I prefer the individual pursuit of spirituality instead.
As I watched these programs, something became very obvious to me, especially when there were group conversations going on. Everyone nodded and said, “that’s right” or “Amen” at just the right times, even my relative at home watching the show. To me this parroting of words and beliefs looked exactly like the automatic responses and conditioning mentioned in the definitions of “programming” above. Somehow it also looked desperate in some way. It looked to me like they were trying to justify their beliefs to themselves and to others in a world where science and historical evidence has eroded many of the literal interpretations of their holy book, and where fundamentalist beliefs are becoming increasingly unpopular.
Surprisingly, there were some beliefs I found in common with the speakers. Some of these concepts included a belief in a higher power that helps folks out in times of need and a belief that there’s a higher purpose behind both the good and the bad things in our lives. Sometimes the bad things happen and we don’t know why, but we need to have faith that there’s a higher purpose involved. They also mentioned how sometimes the exact thing you need in life comes at exactly the moment you need it most. While they seem to think that this is confirmation that their god and their beliefs are the only true and valid beliefs, my own experiences show that people of all religions experience these moments of divine intervention. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in Jesus, Allah, Ganesha, Thor, Apollo, or a loving universe, there definitely appears to be some force at work behind the scenes that is both beneficent and at other times mysteriously unkind. It doesn’t seem to care what religion you are or what you believe. People of all religions seem to justify the bad times in their life with faith that their suffering somehow leads to a higher purpose beyond their understanding.
One thing that bothered me – and this came out in a couple of the shows that came on that night – was a focus on “righteousness.” The speakers repeatedly reinforced this concept. The dictionary defines “righteousness” as “characterized by uprightness or morality” and “acting in an upright, moral way; virtuous.” The impression I got was that the speakers were talking more about self-righteousness and again trying to justify their beliefs that they and other Christians are somehow better and more special than the godless crowds.
As a Pagan, I see everyone as having unique and different paths and I have no inherent need to set up one god, one system, or one virtue above any other. I have no reason to raise myself up or to put others down if they believe something different than me or if they practice differently – so long as they aren’t hurting other people through their beliefs or actions.
I also feel free to compare and even critique different religious and spiritual systems and come to my own conclusions without fear that I’ll incur the wrath of a jealous and vengeful god. Sure, there are many jealous and vengeful gods in Paganism. I just personally choose not to worship them or give them any power over me.
I prefer well-reasoned ethics over the negative associations of uncontested morals that go hand-in-hand with the concept of self-righteousness. I prefer to self-actualize, to seek out and test my knowledge of the physical and spiritual world, and to do my best to treat others fairly than I do about upholding someone else’s ideas of morality and righteousness. I also think there’s a difference between feeling righteous and moral and actually being righteous and moral.
I personally feel that the concept of righteousness leads to fanaticism and even extremism. At the extreme end of the spectrum you have religious people stepping on the rights of others, committing terrible acts, or even terrorism in the name of their god and because they feel they’re doing the righteous thing. To me that’s a much more dangerous thing to the fabric of society than homosexuality, adultery, people worshipping other gods, and so forth.
All this got me to thinking about what are the Pagan concepts of morality and how might they differ from Christian morality or the morality of mainstream culture. I’ll be exploring this deeper in my next post.