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Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political

By Ginger Drekisdottir

A common refrain I hear in many Pagan spaces, both online and off, is “this is a non-political space”. In light of the recent toing and froing around this issue in the Pagan blogosphere, this has been on my mind again.

On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Paganism is religion, and politics is politics. Paganism should be about bringing people together in honour of our gods and spirits, while politics just divides people and distracts from the reason why we get together as Pagans in the first place.

But, and this is a big “but”, there is a problem with declaring any space, including Pagan ones, as being “non-political”, and that problem is that there are some issues in our society on which it is impossible to be non-political. I’m not talking about the party politics of Labour vs Tory, Democrat vs Republican etc, but if you think that this is all that “politics” is then that is a very privileged position, which does not reflect the day-to- day lives of many people, including many Pagans.

Let me explain. There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are not only oppressed through the very structures which make up our society, but there are also people who actively try to keep us oppressed, bigots who actively try to keep us down at best and wipe us out of existence at worst.

For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.

You might have heard the phrase “the personal is political”, well, for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.

Our daily fight for existence carries on inside the circle just as much as it does outside of it. And for those of you lucky enough who don’t have to fight daily for your right to exist, I’m sorry to tell you that there is no “non-political” neutral position on these issues. There is a saying which goes “all that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”. Now aside from the noticeable sexism in this quote (see how politics gets in everywhere?), this makes a very good point. Claiming a neutral position in the face of injustice only ends up reinforcing the status-quo and therefore reinforcing these oppressions. When you are in charge of a space, whether this is a circle, a Pagan Pride parade, or a blog, this can express itself in many ways, some of which might not be obvious at first glance: Who are you inviting to your event? Remember those bigots I mentioned earlier who want to keep people oppressed or worse? Well if you have them at your event then their very presence makes it unsafe to attend for the groups they oppress. If there is an active transphobe in your circle, then their presence makes that circle unsafe for trans people to attend, regardless of the opinions or wishes of the organiser, and so trans people won’t attend. Not out of protest, but out of a need to survive.

Who attends your event goes beyond the safety of oppressed people, it can also greatly affect how the wider public view Pagans and Paganism. When anti-fascists point out the risks of the far-right to Paganism, we are criticised for making associations between Nazi’s and Paganism, but if you have Neo-Nazis accepted at your “non-political” Pagan Pride parade, that will definitely create the association in the general public’s mind between Paganism and Neo-Nazis. This is dangerous for all Pagans. And if you scoff and think “well of course we wouldn’t want Neo-Nazis on our Pagan Pride parade” then you are already bringing politics into Paganism, the very thing anti-fascist Pagans are criticised for doing. Beyond issues around attendance, does your ritual recognise and include same-gender couples? Then that’s political. Does your ritual not include recognition of same-gender couples, maybe only using a God-and- Goddess structure? Then this is just as political. Western society has spent years if not centuries saying that same-gender relationships are lesser than man-woman relationships, it has erased those relationships while oppressing the people in them. Unfortunately your ritual cannot be separated out from this cultural context, and by not including same-gender relationships alongside man-woman relationships, you are excluding by omission, contributing to and continuing this history of erasure. This is true regardless of the opinions or even the sexualities of the organisers.

Have you gone to extra lengths to make sure trans women are safe using the toilets at your event? In light of the current campaign against us being able to, this is a political act. Do you not know or you haven’t tried to ensure that trans women are safe using your toilets? This is just as political. Regardless of your opinion on Laverne Cox, if we cannot do something as simple as peeing, then how are we going to be able to engage in the rest of your event? Trans women have far higher rates of UTIs and bladder cancer than equivalent cis women due to us retaining urine too long due to not being able to use toilets. It’s hard to think of a more personal issue which has been politicised by oppression than trying to use the bathroom. Similarly, do you have gender-neutral toilets? Political. Do you not have gender-neutral toilets? Just as political. If non-binary people also cannot pee at your event without risking personal upset at best and violence at worst for using the wrong toilet, then they also won’t be able to engage in your event, making this decision just as political.

If you have icons of your deities on the altar at your public ritual then what do they look like? Have you chosen a diverse range of ethnicities and body types to represent? Political. Are they all white, thin and appear to be able bodied? Just as political. If the appearance of the very deities you have gathered to worship end up reflecting the exact same body types and appearances which are placed at the top of the pyramid by our society, then what message does that send to people whose bodies don’t and never will look like that? If you are told every day, in every advert you see, that your body is wrong and these bodies are right, then you turn up to a ritual in the evening and you only see those exact same bodies being held up as being the gods, how might that make you feel about your body and your relationship to the gods?

This sort of politics goes even beyond the events themselves to the behind the scenes. Who is doing the work of organising the circle? Who has the time and energy to put into doing this? Can everyone who wants to get involved in the organisation? If not, why not? Who is doing the small but essential bits around the edge which makes sure everything runs smoothly? Who gets the credit for the event? Who is doing the emotional labour, soothing arguments and comforting people when they get stressed out?runes

Unfortunately the answers to these questions have a tendency to follow existing social structures, and these structures are oppressive. One of the (many) really nasty aspects of oppression is how insidious it is, and how much we all reinforce oppressions on a day-to- day basis without realising it or meaning to, and this even includes oppressions against ourselves. So if women end up organising the food and childcare aspects of your event, while the men plan the main activities of the ritual and receive all the credit, then this doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. But it does show you just how politics and these political issues permeate every aspect of our lives and everything we do.

Finally, I find this whole argument about a “non-political” Paganism to miss a very important point: being Pagan is ALREADY being political. In the UK we have an official state religion, which is Christianity; in the rest of the Anglophone West, Christianity is the dominant religion if not the official one. By stepping outside of this dominant social paradigm, all Pagans are being political. Even if we do so under calls for secularism being accepted, that is still a political stance. As Yvonne Aburrow points out in this excellent piece, all religions are in fact fundamentally political in nature, because they want to cause change, both in society and in people. As I write this, there is currently an online funding campaign for an anthology of radical feminist essays called “Female Erasure”. This is being led by Ruth Barrett, an American Dianic priestess, and is purely an ideological attack on the transgender community, our right to exist, and those who support us. As Susan Harper so wonderfully said over on Witches & Pagans:

“This is not a matter of disagreement over personal spiritual practice. This is not a difference of opinion. This is not a question of different views of how the world works and is. This is violence. It is hate speech.”

Criticisms of this, including criticisms coming from other Pagans, have been met with threats of doxxing (where people’s person information including home addresses are released publicly onto the internet). This as a practice is highly dangerous to those targeted, and is being done, at least in part, in the name of the Goddess Movement and Goddess Spirituality. If you don’t stand up and publicly say “not in my name” then you are tacitly endorsing it, as this hate speech is being done in your name. Standing up for other Pagans, especially some of the most marginalised of our community, is a vital act for people to do. It is also a deeply political one. You might not have asked to be a part of this fight, but other people are making you a part of it by attacking incredibly vulnerable people, at least partly, in your name. This is what I mean when I said that there is no neutral position on these issue, even just trying to opt out of attacks made in your name is a political act. If you don’t want to confront some of the oppressions and privileges which I have discussed here, then that’s up to you; but don’t claim refusing to confront them isn’t just as political as trying to challenge them. And if you do want to challenge them, then you can do so all the stronger by embracing the political nature of that struggle.


Ginger Drekisdottir is a Heathen and follower of Frey and Freya. She is a trans lesbian living in London and active in feminist and queer liberation politics. She is interested in the overlap between liberation and environmental justice, and spends her free time climbing and taking photos.

13 Comments »

  1. Excellent article – articulated much better than I did what I was trying to say in my “Pagans and Politics” article.

    Thanks for the link to my other article “With our thoughts we make the world”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pagans who claim to be non political have an old established name. FASCISTS. there are a lot of them, smug and ready to threaten bully and culturally appropriate at will and openly discriminate against any minority.

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    • Pagans or not,I don’t know,but currently in America the smug thugs you describe are called Trump supporters.

      Like

  3. You’re a radical and the worst oppression that you can think of is not having gender neutral toilets? What about the drug war? I have been in prison and most of the Pagans there were there because of the drug war. End the drug war now as many of our sacraments are now considered by many states to be evil drugs

    Liked by 1 person

    • Leaving aside Pagans,Pagan Sacraments for a bit,I too was in jail,briefly,and as All of the other inmates in all of our illegally overcrowded holding cells were Drug Dealers:The Alleged “War on Drugs” is a Sick,Costly Joke.The Dealers saw their temporary incarceration as an annoying,but Norma,but Very Temporary Interruption,a cost of business. Meanwhile ,Prison Personnel work 15hour days,6 days a week,and Cities are being bankrupted by the Costs of Mass Incarceration.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I absolutely agree that yes, being Pagan is absolutely being political. I really appreciate you putting this into words.

    I started writing a long bit about not assuming that everyone is able to “stand up and publicly say ‘not in my name'”; in rereading, I think this piece is pointed toward the people who ARE able to stand up but don’t.

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  5. When I observe someone saying “This is not a political space” what I hear is “I have never had to think about whether or not my sort of person is welcome to show up.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. “Claiming a neutral position in the face of injustice only ends up reinforcing the status-quo and therefore reinforcing these oppressions.” This looks like the central message here, which does make sense; it means we all need to be willing to see past our positions of privilege to how the standard operating procedure doesn’t address the realities and needs of non-privileged parties. As these elements are invisible to the privileged, it takes listening to the voices of the oppressed to reveal them to the rest of us. Thanks for this voice here.

    “As Yvonne Aburrow points out in this excellent piece, all religions are in fact fundamentally political in nature, because they want to cause change, both in society and in people.”

    I would respectfully point out that in fact many of the world’s religions seek to preserve a worldview and way of life rather than cause change.

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  7. PAGANS: oppressed peoples DO NOT WANT you to have an altar with ANY of our “deities,” saints, spirits, orisha, LWA, folk saints, angels, bodhisattvas, indigenous (folk) heros or ANY of the shit that doesn’t belong to you. if you want to make the pagan political a VERY SERIOUS AND HONEST discussion MUST be had. Our “gods” don’t choose you. that’s a fucking cop out. You’re a bunch of eurocentric thieves and people with a grasp on tradition, post-colonialism, and actual history- want NOTHING to do with you. if you want to be “allies” or whatever feel good label wiypeople want these days, FIRST THINGS FIRST: deal with YOUR shit, and don’t steal OURS.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I had to read this post a couple times to really fully process what you are saying here as your writing style is somewhat overwhelming which I suspect is part of my issue with what you have said. First up a disclaimer: I’m not in anyway trying in invalidate anyones struggle, or ignore the fact that groups of people have been discriminated against this is patently false. So in principal I agree with many things you have said…

    However:

    Nowhere do you define what oppression is, and then go on to make a rather sweeping generalisation about all women being oppressed, all homosexual’s and transgender peoples etc…

    How are they oppressed? What is your definition of oppression? Who deputed you to be the person who decided what is oppression and what isn’t? if a system is oppressive for one person or two people is it outright oppressive as a discrete absolute statement? or is it safer and more logical to say ‘it discriminates against X and Y’?

    I don’t buy that a society is outright oppressive. Also what is ‘our’ society? You live in England, I live in the Netherlands – ergo we both do not live in the same society not the least of which looking at society in a segmentary way in that its layered.
    Any decently grounded academic of social science will tell you to talk of society as a totality is absurd – society is far more fragmented. In fact your argument really seems to be aimed at the general concept of an assumed homogenous ‘western society’ which within the theoretical grounds of arguing based on archetypes may be valid, but when contextualised among the world becomes problematic because ‘societies’ are messy and do not exist as homogeneous and contiguous wholes.

    If you were to speak in terms of institutional discrimination and structural violence then yes you would be correct – but thats not a society, thats part of a society. Yes a judicial system can be slow moving and fail to cater for all circumstances, but does that mean its oppressive? not necessarily. Can a judicial have blind sides which lead to structural discrimination, yes absolutely, is that the same as oppression, no. Do these points mean that there aren’t some people out there with a motive to oppress others or people who may want to oppress others – also no.

    The point is, the situation is a lot more complex and nuanced than you present here.

    Frankly for someone who sounds as educated as yourself, I think you have let yourself down by taring the world with the same brush in this post. You have created the ideal left wing conspiracy of a highly integrated evil empire that is all horribly organised, but thats a convenient scapegoat for dealing with the reality that maybe, just maybe (likely I’d say) the world is a lot more messy and poorly organised than we’d like to admit.

    I think you have done an exceptional job of politicising your own paganism which has lead you
    frame the whole concept of paganism politically – and therefore make the assumption that others should also. Its lead you to see the minutest act as a political protest – thats not because thats what paganism is, thats because thats what your paganism is.

    But my paganism isn’t your paganism. And yours is not mine. So while I respect your absolute right to politicise your paganism, and feel strongly convicted within that – I don’t respect your attitude of telling me what my paganism is and isn’t, last time I checked that actually was oppressive.

    Finally regarding your comments against other members of the pagan community, respectfully I have to state ‘you are a fascist’ you may be on the left of the political spectrum or whatever – but you are talking like a fascist. The right to share your opinions is enshrined in the same judicial and ideological construct as their right to spread their opinions no matter how much we might disagree. If you want freedom of speech then I’m afraid you’re just going to need to deal with the fact that if you get your turn, then someone with contrasting opinions gets theirs. You don’t have to agree, but if you start saying ‘freedom of speech provided you agree with us.’ which it sounds an awful lot like you’re saying, then thats not freedom at all. Thats left wing fascism, which is fascism from another direction.

    Im not thrilled at what everyone has to say either – I’m not thrilled at what you’ve had to say, but I do respect your right to say it. I for one don’t like getting stopped by christians in the street and having them tell me I’m going to hell and then having to go through the whole awkward conversation that is sometimes difficult to avoid – but I’d rather live in a country where someone has as much right as anyone else to do that, than to live in a world we have no of that or only one way of being.

    In closing I implore you as a thinker and someone who clearly aspires to be part of a political and intellectual tradition – don’t commit the exact same errors you accuse others of doing. You would be a far more credible figure if you made less emotive and poorly reasoned arguments – nay even stepped outside of your own perspective for a breather. You’d win more support and allies that way – unless you like the mystique of being the lone revolutionary.

    I wish you well.

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