When I was growing up in a Roman Catholic/Santeria/New Age-filled home, I remember hearing the word “fundamentalist.” It was being used by my parents to describe the people who my older adopted sister Melinda were seeing. She had just converted to an African-American Holiness Pentecostal Church. I was about 11 or 12. My parents warned me about her and “those people.” They also used another word in tandem: fanatics.
“They’re very fanatical. Stay away from her.”
Well, I did then what I do now when someone warns me about something; I approached it. I’m was a curious young lad after all, and I didn’t think curiosity was a harmful thing.
When I was 13 I became Pentecostal. I became “one of those people.” I was a fundamentalist and a fanatic.
Many years later I left the Church. I didn’t want to be a fundamentalist or a fanatic. I saw what that mentality did to people and I had my fill of it. As I researched Paganism, I found a faith that was speaking to me and was fulfilling a void that I had come to encounter. I joined a local Pagan Circle, and here I encountered a new word: Eclectic. (For those not in the know, a Pagan Circle is an informal group that can openly welcome members and participants, whereas a coven might be more closed with a screening process and have more formal etiquette and rules; both have their advantages and disadvantages). An Eclectic, I was told, was a person who read books, took what they wanted, dispensed with what they didn’t, and didn’t treat their spirituality with any brutal seriousness. It’s a do-it-yourself approach. On the other side I also learned another new word: Traditionalists. The way these people were defined to me, they were Pagans who had a spirituality that was passed down to them and taught in “secret covens” with rules and hierarchy. The way they were talked about, you would think they were part of government conspiracies. But any Pagans who were perceived as overzealous about rules and the Gods were deemed – wait for it – fundamentalist.
Wait – what???
That’s right – fundamentalist. For a religion that didn’t have any sacred texts, I was confused as to how “fundamentalist” and “fanatic” fit in with Paganism. It was explained to me in no uncertain terms that in modern Paganism it was taboo to tell anyone how to worship their Gods. That smacked too much of the pulpit. I was told that there were people running around who claimed to be a High Priest or High Priestess and had the audacity of telling others that they were doing things “wrong.” And in modern Paganism, with no central authority, how could anything be “wrong?” Who are they to tell me that I am incorrect in how I perceive or honor the Gods? Seriously?
Let’s backpedal a moment. In my last post I explained about archetypes. The reason I wrote that was because of the huge amount of back and forth arguing going on in the blogosphere about polytheism, archetypes, and the Gods. Lines have been drawn and attacks are being made. But the problem is that words are being tossed about without any clue as to what means what, and perception clashes rooted in ignorance are the primary causes of conflicts without resolution. Hence why I felt the need to share my personal experiences and define just what the word “archetype” means, and that viewing the Gods as such does not conflict with polytheism.
Back to fundamentalism…
Over the years I joined several forums and groups as I was interested in expanding my spiritual horizons, something my father always taught me to do. He always said, “Learn to look through the eyes of another person. Try and understand why they do what they do or believe how they believe. Immerse yourself in their world. If someone says to you ‘Oh stay away from them, they’re bad,’ research it. And always try to come out with a positive experience to tell. If you have nothing but a negative experience, you’re no better than the people ostracizing them.” Taking that advice to heart, I wanted to find out why the “elitist, fundamentalist Pagans” believed what they believed. Why did they feel that “Eclectics” were wrong?
What I came to discover in many years of sitting back and listening was that contrary to what I was being told, in reality Traditionalists didn’t really have issues with Eclectics. Not really. I mean, you have assholes here and there, but on the whole no one really gives a shit how you worship the Gods or create your circles. The main problem came from Eclectics who think they know what Traditionalists are like, and wage cyber-attacks of their own.
Two freakin’ F-words that have have done a lot of damage in conversation. Now, I can sit here and plead “Be nice to one another. Can’t we all just get along?” But I know it won’t work; we’re human, we fight, and we disagree. That’s part of our nature. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because fighting and lively debates acts as a checks and balance system in our faith. But when words are used as a way to “one-up” another group in a derogatory sense, we risk losing people on the other side of the fence who could possibly find their calling. I’ll admit that my personal practice prior to now might have belonged in the fluffy-bunny camp, but the vitriolic dialogue spewing from some people nearly turned me off to seeking anything further than what I had. It was their attitude that made me think of the fundamentalist fanatics back in the Church. That and the word “Traditional.” But I’ll address the “Eclectic vs. Tradition” fight in another blog post.
Fast forward a few years, and now we have another ugly fight starting between polytheists and archetypalists (wrong so-called). I should rather use the term Deists (or even Pandeists), because I think this more or less reflects the variety of beliefs among many Pagans. Burnt by years of being abused by the Church due to the excuse of divine revelation and failed prayers, I don’t think many Pagans view themselves as being disrespectful to the Gods when they confess they are not sure whether or not to believe in Them. They know they love rituals and the connection they have with other people. They know they have experienced trance work and psychic phenomena. But beyond that lies a nagging doubt that restrains them from becoming too involved. In this sense, I call them Pandeists. And do you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. They would rather approach their faith through the lens of psychotherapy and reason then be let down. They are one step away from atheism, but again who can blame them? It takes a lot for people to come to Paganism and realize that our Gods are not omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, or omnipresent (traits ascribed to the Abrahamic God). But that’s what they want. People want to know that if they worship or venerate a Divine Being, that Divine = all of these things and more. Basically, the equivalent of a genie. It takes a lot to face one’s fears that Divine Beings are not all that. There is also the fear that to believe in a Divine Being = letting go of Reason and Science. Once more, nothing could be further from the truth.
Paganism is a Nature-based faith. That means that rather than reading Wicca 101 books on the shelf, you should pick up books on ecology, biology, anatomy, physiology, astronomy, and geology. Immerse yourself in Earth Science, because when you watch the lioness running to catch her kill and eat a young calf, there are the Gods. When you watch a natural disaster overtake an island or a tsunami wipe out most of the population along a coastline, those are the Gods. This is the reason why many of the Myths portray the Gods as unbending, uncaring, and cruel. But these are traits from a human perspective and how we describe Nature. It also shows our hubris, thinking that we are better than what we are. We’re not. We’re exactly what we are: primates. Our tools may be more advanced than our ancestors, but that doesn’t make us better. Our societies and taboos have changed, and perhaps in many ways we are better than ancient societies with slaves and the subjugation of women. But we are still frail mortals, and in that respect some things have not changed. (And don’t get me wrong: my examples above have little to do with the notion that Gods are simply “personifications of Nature,” but I’ll address Pagan polytheist thealogy in another blog post as well).
So why worship and venerate the Gods?
Honestly, that question is for everyone to answer themselves. In my journey I have gone from fundamentalist and fanatic to atheist, Deist, and now polytheist. But I base that journey on my knowledge at the time as well as my personal experiences. Polytheism, for me, is a sense of duty and obligation to the Ones I serve. It isn’t a matter of philosophical debate. I have learned that philosophical debate often distracts me from the greater path of honoring the Gods and Working with Them as well as for Them. But because I have experienced Them, and because I honor Them, means I also respect Them. I respect Their desires, Their boundaries, and Their appropriate rites. This is the break between polytheists and (Pan)Deist Pagans. Unfortunately, just like the “Eclectic vs. Traditional” fight, there is also the “(Pan)Deist vs. the Polytheist” fight, and it’s the latter that are being called – wait for it – fundamentalists. Fanatics. Once again, seriously??
We aren’t. I understand, though, why someone like me is viewed that way by other Pagans. However, that’s no excuse to throw the “F-bomb” my way. Fundamentalist. Fanatic. Those blasted F-words! Drop them. Drop them from the conversation. They don’t help, and automatically these words create and perpetuate a false dichotomy of “us vs. them.” Once that perceived clash comes up, it is hard to break anything else. It’s hard to engage someone in dialogue who is automatically on the defensive and perceives me as a threat. Perception is Reality; it may be a false reality, but it’s reality nonetheless. And you’ll never learn, never grow, and never come to understand why I worship and venerate my Gods the way I do. You’re too busy listening to me waiting to counterattack, rather than listening at all. That frustration is why I can understand why many polytheists are separating themselves from Pagans. Personally, I think it’s a mistake. But who am I to dictate to another human being what to label themselves? (Except for archetypalists; I still think that’s a wrong label and is highly inaccurate).
Earlier I mentioned that in the “Eclectic vs. Traditional” fight that I discovered most of the attacks were coming from Pagans who called themselves Eclectics. They accused Traditionalists of being elitist and holier-than-thou. Now, it’s the (Pan)Deists who are attacking the polytheists for being fundamentalists. Polytheists are being accused of pushing their religious beliefs. You know what? I am pushing respect. Respect for my Gods, the Ones with whom I actively participate, venerate, and honor. When I see a ritual calling on Dionysus as an excuse to get drunk, or I hear Hekate being called a Crone, yes I am going to get pedantic. Dionysus isn’t just a party animal, and Hekate is not a wizened old hag. The Morrighan is not a Goddess who holds unconditional love; She is War and Sex. She will pick out your eyeballs and play marbles with them as soon as she is done sleeping with you. She’s a scavenger, always hungry for blood. So when I see rituals with people having fairy wings, bubble wands, and calling on “Gaia and the Morrighan,” and you expect me not to say anything, think again. That isn’t me being a fundamentalist. It’s me giving my Gods respect.
It’s funny that many Pagans spew venom at Christians for “killing our ancestors and stealing our holidays.” But when it comes to our Gods, they’re not as serious. They are more serious about wanting to roleplay than they are venerating the Gods that they are proud to make memes about on Facebook. It may be a taboo in Paganism to tell others how they do things is wrong, because it’s true that we have no central authority. But if you call yourself “Pagan” and admit to believing in the Gods in some form, then at least do the Gods a favor: research and respect what you claim to believe in. If not, find something else. Seriously. Find something else. Have the balls to come forth about your intentions in belonging to our faith. Are you here because you are angry at the Church? Or are you here because you truly seek to reclaim what your ancestors lost? If the former, get a therapist and sort out your issues. Too many Pagan groups implode due to power struggles as a result of bitterness and mistrust of authority brought in from the Church. If the latter, examine your faith constantly. I mean constantly. Always question, and seek out new experiences. The Gods aren’t your genie. I learned that mistake long ago. There are numerous ways to approach our faith and show respect, even if you relegate yourself to a (Pan)Deist. But at the very least, let’s drop the F-words, and then we can sit down and actually have a fruitful dialogue as opposed to F-bombs that lead nowhere.
Eirene kai Hugieia!
(Peace and Health!)
Luis A. Valadez