When I think of Paganism, I have to sometimes stop and wonder if we have any morals. People automatically assume that Christians and folks practicing other major religions have some system of morals. Pagans tend to be very individualistic and spell craft might be seen as a self-serving to bring about what we want in our lives (though the same thing might be said of prayer). Many of us are sexually free, a number of us drink mead and other alcohol, and some of us experiment with altered states of consciousness. We practice witchcraft or other forms of magick, divine the future, worship myriad gods and goddesses, and commune with spirits – all big no no’s for Christians.
In spite of these things, I think we as a collective actually have a pretty sound set of ethics and honorable principles that we live by. I’d really like to get out of calling these things morals and focus more on the idea of ethics and principles because to me morality has connotations of self-righteousness (see Part 1 of this post) and the morality police. As with all groups of people, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think the concepts listed here are fairly consistent Pagan values.
I think one of our biggest values as Pagans is tolerance. Given that Pagan spiritual practice is highly individualistic and that Paganism is an umbrella for many distinct paths from many diverse cultures, how could we not be. We accept Witches, Wiccan’s, Druids, Shamans, and Heathens. We accept women and men; straight, gay, and in-between. We accept all colors, paths, and cultures. We honor and respect a diversity of gods, goddesses, and nature spirits, and I think this leads us to honor and respect the diversity of humans too.
We don’t judge. We live and let live, so long as others aren’t harming us or those we care about. We recognize that everyone has their own distinct paths and their own distinct lessons to learn in this lifetime. We realize that not everyone takes the direct path and that we are all seeking, learning, and experimenting to find out what works best in our lives.
We don’t evangelize. It all comes back to accepting that it’s okay for others to have beliefs different from our own and that everyone has their own path. We don’t have wars in the names of our deities. We don’t convert native cultures. If anything, we’re more interested in learning what they have to offer than imposing our religious and spiritual views on anyone. When we do charity work, it’s because we support the cause and want to do good. We don’t have any ulterior motives for using charity as a springboard for proselytizing and missionary work.
We don’t feel we have to evangelize to save other people’s souls. We know most people’s souls are just fine. A number of us believe in reincarnation and that one’s soul will go through a series of lifetimes to learn the lessons it needs to before joining with the divine. We believe everyone will get there eventually – not just the (self) righteous, not just a chosen people or a special people, not just those who believe a certain way, but everyone. Our beliefs don’t condemn the majority of humanity to eternal death or unending torture for not measuring up. We believe the divine embraces us all with loving arms and gives everyone as many chances as needed to get there.
We believe in karma. We believe that whatever harm we do and whatever negativity we sow comes back to bite us. While some see this as a direct and equal action, Wiccans and others believe in a Three-fold Law where whatever you put out there comes back with three times the force. Many also believe in adding a statement to their spells and magick specifying that their workings don’t harm anyone. Trying to harm anyone or to force something on someone else that isn’t in their best interests is seen as black magick. We usually don’t work magick for someone without their consent either. If only folks of other religions would use these ethics when they pray. Instead of praying what they want for someone else to do, be, or believe, they should be praying for what’s in the person’s best interests and leave the rest to the divine. Anything else, even if it’s masked as sincere prayer, might qualify in Pagan terms as a form of black magick.
We believe in finding balance between the light and the dark. We celebrate the light and the dark times of the year. We know that you can’t have one without the other. It’s all part of the natural cycles of life. We celebrate the solar light in the solstices and equinoxes, the lunar light of the full moon, and possibly even the light of stars. We also recognize the dark of winter, the longest night of the year, and the dark new moon. We don’t see the dark as evil, but a part of the ebb and flow of the natural world.
We also recognize the light and dark within ourselves. We have no illusions about being righteous or better than the next person. We know that all humans have potential for good or bad, even ourselves. We accept the duality of our nature rather than trying to repress it. We know that to every extreme is its opposite trying to get out. We recognize that we have a shadow and that repressing it rather than honoring it leads to hypocrisy and scandal. Look at all the leaders in other religions railing against sexuality only to be caught in sexual scandals. Look at all those professing the sin of greed only to be caught abusing the funds entrusted to them. Look at all those claiming to be righteous only to fall into disgrace for its opposite coming to light. As Pagans we know the best way to deal with our flaws is to acknowledge and work through them, not to pretend that they don’t exist or that we are somehow above them.
We derive our ethics from reasoning and from observing the world around us. We look to the natural world, delve into human psychology, and seek the wisdom of our deities and familiar spirits to help us find what’s right in general and what’s right for us specifically. We don’t quote or follow any one holy book or any sets of commandments written down millennia ago. We do look at ancient texts, practices, and myths to guide us, but we don’t let those blind us to the realities of the here and now. We look at myths and stories as metaphors, archetypes, and fables rather than taking them at literal face value.
We believe everything is sacred and magickal and that every day is sacred and magickal. We believe that everyone and everything has some sort of soul and a purpose – trees, plants, rocks, animals, the earth, the moon, the planets, and the stars. We honor their spirits, commune with them, and learn from them. Because we believe in the spirits of the Earth and all that calls the Earth its home, many of us do our part to protect the environment. We don’t set just one day aside as sacred. We know that every day is sacred to some deity. We add a little bit of sacred time and magick to every day.
We believe in hospitality to all because we recognize the divine in all and not just a special few. We know that everyone has a divine spark and we also know that sometimes the gods and goddesses walk among us in disguise. We treat others with friendliness and generosity, but we don’t let others walk all over us or take undue advantage of us either. We know that the friendliness and generosity we put out to others comes back to us.
We know that we have choices. Sometimes we choose our deities and spiritual path, but other times they choose us. We know that if a religion, path, deity, or religious / spiritual group doesn’t work for us that there are many more to choose from. We know that if a religious leader asks us for more than we are willing or able to give that we can question them and move on if needed. We know that if a god or goddess sends us plagues or trials, asks us to kill our children to prove our obedience (I’m thinking the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac here) , or asks us to convert, snub, or kill others in their name, that this probably isn’t the deity we should be worshipping anyway. We know that our soul isn’t in jeopardy for not following the crowd.
The major religions don’t have any kind of monopoly on teaching good values. In fact, they may even be able to learn something from us Pagans.
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.