Pagans and Politics

"Pnyx-berg2". Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - "Pnyx-berg2". Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What is the relationship between Paganism(s) and politics? Some have argued that Paganism is not political. Some have criticised the political style and presentation of the emerging polytheist movement. Some are uncomfortable with the politics around consent culture, racism, gender, and sexuality in Paganism and polytheism. Some are uncomfortable with the critique of capitalism offered by Gods and Radicals.

I don’t really understand the arguments that Paganism isn’t political, so I won’t attempt to present them here, because I will only end up presenting a caricature. Yes, this is an unashamedly one-sided piece about why I think Paganism is political. You do not have to agree with me. I write to encourage people to think; I am aware that plenty of people disagree with me.

I do agree with those who say that being Pagan doesn’t automatically predispose people to a particular political stance. There are Pagans of many different political persuasions, for reasons which may or may not relate to their particular way of being a Pagan. Not being expected to sign up to a particular political stance or party is an important aspect of Pagan religious freedom. As Thorn Mooney writes about Gardnerian Wicca:

Gardnerian Wicca doesn’t have a set of commandments or an orthodoxy. We adhere to a body of rites and a set of practices, as opposed to a body of beliefs. Our tradition lies in doing. My Wicca doesn’t tell me how to vote, where to spend my money, or how to fight injustice. It doesn’t tell us how to educate our kids, what it means to be a “good” or “bad” person, or how to deal with jerk coworkers. We don’t have social programs (except for what happens during cocktails after circle). We don’t have a central authority representing us or mandating some standardized belief system. We don’t tackle the problem of evil in any coherent, shared way. We aren’t refuting evolution en masse (or at all, but I didn’t actually take a poll) or trying to justify any particular political position.

Certainly, no Pagan religion is going to tell you how to vote, how to fight injustice, or try to justify any particular political position: but that doesn’t mean, when you do take up a political position, that it is completely unconnected to your religious views (and of course, Thorn was not suggesting that).

"Pnyx-berg2". Licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
The Pnyx, where the Athenian parliament met. “Pnyx-berg2“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Many people have disengaged from traditional party politics, perhaps because political parties are too broad-brush and don’t always accurately reflect a person’s stance on a range of issues. Politics has become a matter of campaigning and lobbying on specific issues, such as the environment, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and so on. As Tony Benn once said, “I’m leaving Parliament to spend more time in politics”.

What is political?

I guess it depends what you think “political” means. For me, the personal, the interpersonal, the social, and the cultural, are all political. Politics is much broader than what happens in Parliament or Congress. Even there, a lot of the real work, where politicians get to grips with issues, happens in committees rather than in the main chamber.

Part of the reason I am a Pagan is because I believe that the world needs to change. For example: We need to use less resources per person in order to maintain biodiversity and if we want humanity to survive. We need to stop ignoring the negative consequences of colonialism and slavery. We need to stop the persecution of LGBT people around the world. One of the things that will assist with making these changes is raising consciousness through the practice of mindfulness and compassion. But beyond that, we need to be politically engaged, turning up to demonstrations, writing to our democratic representatives, signing petitions, organising, and so on.

The key to caring about the oppression of others is empathy with their situation and full recognition of their humanity. These are ways of relating to others that many religious and spiritual traditions have tried to foster.

As Tara Brach, a Buddhist, says:

“The first step in responding to strong emotions–our own or others’–is to seek to understand. What is the suffering giving rise to this anger? If we can pause, and instead of reacting or judging, look to see the suffering, our heart’s response will be compassionate and wise.”

It matters what you believe about reality, and humanity’s relationship with the Divine / deities, because what you believe influences how you act.

As I wrote in my post, Things we care about, environmentalism and feminism are key concerns for most Pagans.

We care about the environment because most of us believe that the Earth is sacred (and/or the land, and/or Nature). Whilst magic to protect the Earth is one tool in the Pagan toolbox, we need more than magic if we are going to help prevent ecological disaster. We need to be mindful of our own carbon footprint and usage of resources. We need to be lobbying politicians to bring in environmental legislation. We need to be resisting the destructive activities of corporations. And we need to be researching and experimenting with alternative modes of living.

Many of us care about feminism because women are still not regarded or treated as equals, and there is an obvious link between feminism and Goddess-worship.

Both of these things are political.

How you relate to LGBT people, disabled people, and people of other cultures, religions, and colours: those are political too.

Part of the reason I am a feminist, and support LGBT rights, and disabled rights, and Black Lives Matter, and the rights of indigenous peoples, is because I believe that all humans are equal. I also believe that all acts of love and pleasure are sacred, because they are life-enhancing. That is a religious belief.

Trying to get equal rights for everyone is one part of the process of moving towards full equality, but getting everyone to stop being homophobic, racist, ablist, sexist, and so on, is a process of changing hearts and minds, and that is often part of a spiritual or religious experience. As your consciousness is expanded by spiritual experiences, you may experience feelings of interconnectedness with others.

I believe that the Pagan worldview has the potential to transform the world. Many Pagans believe that Nature is in harmony with itself, and is a self-balancing system, so if we want humanity to survive and flourish, getting back into balance with Nature is the key to survival and flourishing.

Then there are discussions to be had as to how to ensure that everyone is flourishing, and what system of governance would achieve that, maintain and increase biodiversity, and create a just society where Black, Latino, Asian, indigenous, and LGBT lives matter to everyone, and where there isn’t a huge gap between rich and poor. (Some of the happiest societies on Earth are those where there isn’t a small wealthy ‘elite’ and a large impoverished ‘underclass’.)

A Pagan view of reality

Pagans generally believe that the physical world is real, not illusory, and that the spirit world is immanent in, intertwined with, the physical. This is because we treasure physical existence and the pleasures of the flesh. Paganism is an embodied spirituality, and as such, physical existence matters.

My Pagan views and my political views both stem from the same place: the desire to create a better world, with biodiversity, human flourishing, beautiful landscapes, and equality. I don’t see how those goals can be achieved without politics and religion working together.

I define religion as “reconnecting” (from the Latin, religare, to reconnect) – connecting up things that tend to be viewed separately; connecting events that are perceived to be separate; reconnecting with Nature and deities; and connecting with other people. That is both religion and politics.

Actually, I find it hard to figure out where my religion ends and my politics begins. There is quite a big overlap between the two. The way I practice Wicca is informed by a belief that magic is a means of transformation, and that a coven is a place where we practice interpersonal relationships. It is not therapy and not an encounter group, but nevertheless there are similarities. As an egalitarian, I believe that the High Priestess is “first among equals” and that her role is to facilitate and empower the members, not to rule them with a rod of iron. As a bisexual genderqueer person, I believe that gender is fluid, and that polarity can be created by many different types of opposites, not only by a biologically male body and a biologically female body. I also believe that fertility is about human creativity, not just about biological reproduction.

I have been a polytheist since before I became a Wiccan, and have remained a polytheist – with occasional forays into atheism – throughout the 24 years since I became a Wiccan. Part of the reason that I am a polytheist is because I value diversity and distinctiveness and non-hierarchical structures, and that is also true for my politics.

Both my religion and my politics stem from the desire to make the world a better place for everyone – a place where Black, indigenous, Latino/a, Asian, LGBTQIA, and women’s lives matter equally to everyone; a place with biodiversity and a flourishing ecosystem, where war has ceased, where people don’t kill and torture and persecute those who are different from them, and where there isn’t a massive wealth gap between rich and poor. (Countries where there isn’t a huge wealth gap have been shown to be much happier than ones where there is a small massively wealthy ‘elite’ and a huge impoverished ‘under lass’).

Just as I regard matter and spirit as intimately intertwined, so I regard religion and politics as inherently connected. The personal, the interpersonal, the social, the communal, the cultural, the regional, the national, the international – perhaps one day the interplanetary – are all within the purview of art, theatre, social science, religion, the physical sciences, and politics.

I see all these areas as a giant three-dimensional Venn diagram of overlapping and nested spheres. They are all interconnected, and the different discourses of religion, politics, art, theatre, science, and so on, all have different perspectives and different tools and skillsets for solving problems and promoting the flourishing of the planet.

Multi-coloured representation of the Plasmodium falciparum 80S ribosome bound to emetine (in cyan spheres)  (c) 2014, Wong et al, subject to a CC-BY 4.0 license ( Free to use and re-use, provided proper attribution is included.
Cyan spheres, by Wong et al [ CC-BY 4.0 license ]