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Pagans and Politics

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 - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pnyx-berg2.png#/media/File:Pnyx-berg2.png

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.

17 Comments »

  1. Great article. Truth is, religion and politics have been intertwined somehow for most of human history (from Egypt being ruled by messianic priest-kings to American Presidential candidates needing to “out-church” each other during elections). I’m often confused as to why so many Pagans treat “politics” as a bad word, especially when many of the things we do and say are inherently political (supporting feminism, LGBTQ rights, secularism, etc.).

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  2. When I’m reading ‘The Charge of the Goddess’, which is a statement of Love for me, I think that my path may not be political itself but it certainly indicates where I can find the Love. It is in diversity, in the Nature, in the relationships based on truth and freedom and equality. Is it political, then? Yes, because there are different fractions within the political world, not all of them being connected to those ideals I mentioned. If I were Wiccan and fascist, for example, how could I be a Nature-oriented spiritual being?

    So, no, our Gods don’t tell us what political party we should be in, just as they don’t tell us what’s ‘good’ or ‘wrong’, because I think they believe in our intelligence and our insight to decide ourselves. Well, it’s even not so much about the political party. It’s more about the humanity. If I see people hurt by the politics, I go away from that kind of politics. My spirituality shouldn’t stay for intolerance, racism or inequality in any matter.

    And, while we’re Pagan, we all should remember that in ancient times, religions and politics were interconnected. The pharaoh was the king and the God (and no role would exist, if the other one wouldn’t; enemies of the country were fought with magic; in ancient Rome, there were national Gods and Goddesses, etc., etc.). Paganism is just a very natural religion, so obviously it takes its role in all the parts of our lives. As long as the awareness comes with the spiritual practice, all is well.

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  3. It is amazing how you and I can agree and disagree on the same topic. Got to love paganism. I believe the Universe (who I see as the Star Goddess in the Charge) has a consciousness, therefore she has a plan. I believe all things evolve: from the universe to our culture to one-celled plants, to plate tectonics. I believe this evolution is part of the universal evolution. I believe in Jung’s collective unconsciousness, and in Adolf Bastian’s concept of elementary ideas.

    But I also believe in synchronicity as defined by Jung: the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner. The awakening of our environmental consciousness in the early 70s was one such time. I believe the collapse of the Soviet Unions represented another. The recognition of LGBT rights was another. I believe all of these came about because the interconnected web; a web that extends beyond the boundaries of our ordinary perceptions and includes us, Deities and everything, was ready for it to happen. I believe if you are one with the web, to the extent that you are able to be, you should be able to know where your efforts will serve the greatest good. I think this ties rather well into the last two verses of The Charge.

    The Universe has a plan. The Universe will succeed, for it is the greatest power in, well, the Universe. If your plan is not in accord, yours will fail. So to me, I reserve my political action to that which I believe the Universe, or the Web is ready to have happen. King Canute I am not. The problem is, I can’t tell you why I think I know what I know about that timing. Intuition is like that.

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  4. What you have said about polarity and about fertility is very much in line with the NROOGD tradition, and our coven in particular. We have two lesbian couples, you see, and most of us have no Gardnerian training.

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    • It is interesting how things can vary. We take our symbolic great great from a Hollywood coven called the Rainbow Warriors. It is very dualistic and they are mostly gay men.

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  5. I think there are (at least) two comrehensible and honourable reasons why Pagans might hesitate to use ‘the P-word’:

    1. As early as the sixties people began to feel uncomfortable with the term ‘politics’ (see e.g. http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/1.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_criticism, but also – more recently – certain representatives of Radical Ecophilosophy and bioregionalism).

    2. The Pagan ‘political’ community seems to be vaguely left(ish), ‘politically correct’.

    Don’t get me wrong: Personally I can subscibe to most of your views (more or less…), but I also think there is more than one possible view on some of the controversial issues and I fully understand that Pagans of a more ‘conservative persuasion’ (e.g. on sex and gender) don’t feel exactly encouraged (‘included’…) to express their opinions.

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    • Regarding your second point, I disagree. I think it depends on your location. For example pagans on the west side of Washington are rather leftish, while on the east side of the state, they are not. As a group, we are all generally socially liberal (a term I dislike because it has been co-opted by politics) but many on the east side are not leftish on other matters. In fact, there is a rather large percentage of ex-military in the east side pagan community. Also, I’m not sure why you would think pagans are politically correct. If anything I think the opposite.

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      • Hi Woods,

        Perhaps I should have said that I’m German, so I can’t say much about the west or or east side of Washington.

        You say: ‘ Also, I’m not sure why you would think pagans are politically correct. If anything I think the opposite.’

        I’m an anarchist myself, but do we hear something about Richard Hunt (I’m sure Rhyd knows him). Do we hear something about the critique of Green Anarchism ‘beyond Bookchin’ (Watson)?

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      • *I* would have known you were German–in college, there were two Borg brothers (yeah, later they were probably teased a lot) who might have been twins (what memory? 40 yrs ago), one of whom was Axel.

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      • I don’t think I was thinking I was replying to Rhyd, but the point still stands. Being a Pagan of a more conservative persuasion, I still have more “leftish” views on equal protection, but more “rightish” views on what will replace capitalism, when and how. (A long dissertation that I am not afraid to discuss – just too busy to write the dissertation. I have, however, found most anti-capitalists long on ideals and short on how capitalism will be replaced and by what. We do have a trigger point coming in the next 50-150 years, depending on how the fossil fuel “peak production” scenario plays out.

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  6. ” Not being expected to sign up to a particular political stance or party is an important aspect of Pagan religious freedom.”

    That’s an interesting statement – considering that in other places you (or other authors at this blog) have said basically the exact opposite. (a quote from the 1st post of this blog follows…)

    “We Pagans are trying to re-enchant the world,
    to bring back the magic of the forests and the mountains.
    We are trying to hear and revere the wild places
    the sacred forgotten places, the spirits of ocean and rivers and lakes.
    And yet Capitalism is always poisoning these places
    because it considers nothing sacred except profit,
    nothing holy except wealth.
    To Re-enchant the world.
    we must destroy Capitalism”

    So in order to be a good pagan, you must also be a good communist. Or so says whoever wrote the first post.

    You are entitled to your beliefs, but they do not seem to contain much room for freedom of thought.

    If you take a look at the ecology of the old East Germany – right after reunification – and you compare it to the ecology of West Germany at the same time, it isn’t clear to me why you say that Capitalism is always poisoning these places. Unless you think that East Germany was a bastion of the Free Markets. Or you just aren’t paying attention. Or you can’t be bothered with facts.

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    • Hi! I’m the author of the quote to which you’re referring. Well met! 🙂

      Also, I’m not a communist; rather, a anarchist druid worshiper of Welsh gods and friend of land spirits. And hoping to re-enchant the world–supermarkets and malls and the stock market aren’t very enchanting, y’know. And where do those come from? Capital.

      Thus, I’m against Capital(ism). Also against industrialisation, which Capitalism started and Communism borrowed. Pretty simple logic, I guess, but that’s what the forest teaches me. And I’m really glad you’re here, and hope you keep reading! 🙂

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      • Different strokes – anyway Rhyd, capitalism will evolve into something else when the Universe decides the time is right. I am rather convinced it won’t be Marxism or any derivative thereof, because that goes against man’s basic nature.

        Guessing at what that system might be is a lot of fun. Would like to discuss it with you more sometime. Unfortunately, I can’t make it to MGW this year (and you’ll be busier than an elk in the rut and not having nearly as much fun) – was hoping to meet you. Maybe next year, or if you’re ever in Spokane. Who knows?

        When will the time be right? I am guessing sometime in the next 150 years – that gives us 150 years to breed lots of horses! You should have been a character (other than Hari Seldon) in one of Asimov’s Foundation series books, Rhyd (not that I agree with the ending BTW).

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    • I am also not a communist (and as Rhyd has already pointed out, he is the author of the first post on Gods and Radicals, which is a multi-author site). I am an anarchist. And communism is not the only alternative to capitalism – much as both capitalists and communists would like you to think so. There is a mixed economy; co-operatives; feudalism (perhaps not a viable alternative, but it existed); post-capitalism. Currently capitalism is eating itself and will destroy itself without much intervention from us. What we have to do is prevent it taking the world and us with it.

      I write as I do because it is the truth as I see it. I accept that others have different truths. There is nothing to stop you writing your own truths. If what I write helps people to articulate their own views, whether similar or different from mine, then I am content. I think people having an opinion about stuff is good – though I prefer opinions that are backed up by evidence.

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