A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog

Common Practices vs. Common Beliefs

The first open thread is wonderful.  I will try and stay out of these open threads, but occasionally ‘mine’ some themes for my own purposes.  This is one of them.

I want to reverse one of the arguments given by a Christian participant: that Christians have unity because they agree on doctrine.  They are curious as to how we have any coherence as a community when we have so little in the way of common beliefs. Except the story of Christian unity isn’t true.

Even when people agree on the words (and there are different Bibles and different translations of the ‘same’ Bible out there), they never seem to agree on what the words mean.  

What does scripture really say?  The early church was filled with different perspectives until the Roman state crushed groups the dominant group termed ‘heretical.’  But the unity that followed was not one of belief, it was one of power.  Whenever freedom of interpretation raised its head for one reason or another, schisms developed.  Always.  Freedom of at least the Christian religion has been longest established in the US, and far from there being any tendency towards unity, we have more sects than anywhere else on the globe.  


Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has recently published Jesus Interrupted, focusing on the enormous number of quite significant out and out contradictions in the New Testament.  The Old Testament is no better.  Any contradiction can be interpreted in at least two ways, and so the tendency for belief to fragment is inherent in the written word.  Faith or good works?  Or a mix?  People died in droves over a point that basic, let alone others such as the nature of the Eucharist, because most Christian leaders have always insisted its unity must be doctrinally based.


I think this internal differentiation is inherent in any religion.  The difference is that with Pagan religions no one seems to mind very much.  Christians, for all their talk of honoring the individual, seem uniquely threatened when some individuals read their sacred texts differently from others.  

Until I needed to move away for a teaching position, for many years I was a member of a Gardnerian coven.  We had very low turnover and interestingly, a very high rate of people who interpreted what we did in very different ways.  Some were Neoplatonists and saw what they did through that perspective.  Others were influenced by Carl Jung and his theory of archetypes.  Others saw what they did in a more Celtic framework.  Others through a more shamanic perspective.  More than one had been powerfully influenced by ritual magic.


We never had a disagreement that I can remember on the meaning of what we did.  We worked together harmoniously and when problems arose, they were ones rooted in personalities, not disagreements over doctrine.  Our practices were devotional and practical, never theoretical.  This has been the case with Pagan religions world-wide.

When belief matters more than practice, the seeds of oppression and even totalitarianism are sown.  Modern totalitarianisms like Nazism and Communism were secular religions demanding unity of belief while over turning the ‘old order.’  Conformity of practice was not enough.  The roots of this attitude, this making of new men and women by force, were in the erlier demands of the Church for conformity in thought as well as deed.  I think the first revolutionary totalitarian movement of modern times was the Taiping Rebellion in China.  It was Christian, and initially supported by Christian powers.  20 million people died.  


Virtually everywhere it has existed Pagan traditions have been unified by common practices.  The term ‘Pagan” arose when Christians used it to describe those people who practiced the old ways.  Initially Pagans themselves never used that term.  Their religious practices had grown up in the process of people living their lives and dealing with the issues that arose the confront them, 

But the Christians who came up with the term had a point.  ‘Pagans’ were different from themselves, and those differences held together as a way of relating to the sacred that eschewed doctrine and monopoly and coercion to follow a single path.  Once conformity was no longer an issue, religions could arise to address whatever problems and spiritual encounters people experienced. 

The logic of Pagan spirituality is compatible with the logic of a free society.  Unfortunately the logical consequences of Christian claims to monopolize truth is not.  That is why political freedom had to await the expulsion of religion from politics, and is threatened whenever t tries to re-enter as the senior partner.

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posted May 26, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Hi, I was unable to find on your blog a way to contact you. I am interested in Pagan marriage and if a majority of practicing Pagan Priests recognize same sex marriages. Please respond quickly as I am under a deadline.

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posted May 26, 2009 at 2:53 pm

You’ll find Gus on LinkedIn.

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posted May 26, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Sorry, Captcha swallowed the link

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Hecate Demetersdatter

posted May 26, 2009 at 3:25 pm

The Christians used to kill each other over doctrinal differences. And each sect still claims that IT’S brand is the only god-approved one. I’ll take my coven where, as Gus describes his, it really doesn’t matter whether we believe the same thing.

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posted May 26, 2009 at 4:18 pm

thank you! a wonderful read:-)Have a Blessed day!

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Ben Gruagach

posted May 27, 2009 at 8:38 am

Unfortunately we don’t have to look to hard to see these same fights over orthodoxy within the Pagan community. Even if we look just at Wicca, we get really heated arguments over who counts as a “real” practitioner and who doesn’t.
We’ve even come up with a term for these sorts of conflicts: witchwars.
They’re not a new thing in the modern Pagan community. Back in the 1960s there were sometimes rather public disagreements between Alexandrians and Gardnerians over who was the One True Witchcraft (as they didn’t tend to differentiate Witchcraft and Wicca back then.) Today, with the proliferation of Wiccan denominations and self-trained practitioners it’s more common to see Alexandrians and Gardnerians banding together and sniping about everyone else who are OBVIOUSLY pretenders.
Some Pagan religions, like Wicca, don’t have the central authority structures (Popes, or a single Holy Scripture which is supposed to be unchanging) but this hasn’t stopped some from claiming theirs is the One True Wicca/Whatever. There is a tendency in modern Paganism to be more accepting of diversity — but this is not universal though we might wish it were.
I wrote an article a few years ago about this sort of thing, which I called Wiccan Fundamentalism. It’s online at a number of places including at for those who are interested in reading it.

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Morgan Greywolf

posted May 27, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Well, understand that what is in a Book of Shadows is not dogma. Wordnet defines dogma as “a doctrine or code of beliefs accepted as authoritative”.
I don’t know what’s in your BoS, but (and without breaking any oaths, I have to be very general here) in my tradition, the BoS has a bunch of spells and rituals in it. Nowhere contained in the BoS is a description of something that is to be believed: it is simply a set of instructions for how to perform this or that rite, this or that blessing, etc. That is a set of shared practices, which is different from dogma, which is a set of shared beliefs.
Sure, maybe some Gardnerians think Alexandrians or Georgians or ecclectics aren’t “true witches” and maybe some Georgians think the Gardnerians are full of crap, but whatever. That isn’t conflict over belief, it is conflict over differing practices.
Now let’s compare with Christianity: the Protestants believe that faith and faith alone is the only thing that will get you into heaven. The Catholics believe that faith and good works are required. The Mormons do not believe in the divinity of Christ — Christ was just a prophet. A man, not God. The Catholics and the Protestants together believe that the Mormons are going to hell because they don’t believe that Christ is divine. And the Protestants and Catholics disagree as to the extent that Christ is divine.
Those are arguments over shared belief. No witch really believes that any other witch is eternally damned because one group draws a spiral in the air at each quarter and the other draws a pentacle in the air at each quarter. It simply doesn’t matter that much.

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Ben Gruagach

posted May 27, 2009 at 10:17 pm

I’ve seen pretty vicious debates over whether soft polytheists can “really” be Wiccan (because soft polytheists are just monotheists who are pretending to be polytheists, don’tcha know), whether those who do not have a traceable initiatory lineage to Gardner are “real” Wiccans, and whether those who practice as solitaries are “real” Wiccans. And those are just three prominent examples that are easy to find on pretty much any popular Pagan messageboard on the internet.
Does it really matter if the differences of opinion are based on beliefs or practices or somethings else? Gus’ blog post implied that because modern Pagans generally embrace diversity of beliefs, that we are immune to the conflicts over dogma and orthodoxy that plague authoritarian religions like Christianity.
Personally I do believe that Wicca in particular is an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy. Common practices are what make us Wiccan rather than common beliefs. If we can work at identifying what those common practices are and strengthen them rather than look at how we differ we can help our Wiccan and larger Pagan community to strengthen as well. Too often we tend to build a sense of authenticity by rejecting what we see as undesirable — we’re not Wiccan because we’re not Christians and not Satanists, any more than we are serious practitioners by virtue of not being fluffy bunnies or pretend Wiccans.
(Sarah M. Pike’s book “Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves” is a great examination of the modern Wiccan and Pagan community, particular in the US, touching on a lot of these issues of how community identity evolves.)

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posted May 29, 2009 at 3:24 pm

A friend who studies the evolution of religions, subcultures and ‘movements’, sees things progressing this way.
In phase one, a group has a single leader or small defined group of leaders, and who is a legitimate member is determined by the leadership. (Comparable to childhood, when your life is structured by your parents and teachers.)
In phase two, membership explodes, it’s out of the leaders’ hands (if they’re even still alive), people experiment with anything and everything, and membership includes anyone who jumps on the bandwagon (or can at least hang on to the sides). (Comparable to adolescence and early adulthood, when you’re stretching your wings and trying on different self-definitions and lifestyles).
In phase three, as the momentum starts to run down, people look around and start to evaluate where phase two has got them – which experiments worked and which didn’t. After the free-for-all, the pendulum swings the other way and things like definitions and boundaries become hugely important. Arguments break out between people who believe ‘the more the merrier’ and want to include everybody, and people who believe standards have got too lax and that only the most committed really belong. (Comparable to the ‘settling down’ stage of life, when saying ‘yes’ to some possibilities means giving up others.)
Paganism is firmly in stage three, from where I’m sitting. And while I understand the necessity of it, arguments about definitions give me hives. Maturity comes not when you have answers to these questions, but when you’ve stopped asking because you’re busy with more important things than self-analysis. The answers will emerge over time, through experience, rather than being arrived at through debate.
So I expect it will be with Paganism. We’ll eventually get tired of arguing whether we’re a religion, or many religions with something in common, or many religions with nothing in common; if magic is central or peripheral, if the gods are part of a whole or wholly separate, if you have to be initiated or not. And in the course of getting on with business, we will look back and find we’ve been living the answers.

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posted June 8, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Mormons do believe Christ was divine. Also, Don’t confuse the LDS doctrines of salvation vs. exaltation.
Actually, Mormons believe all mankind is SAVED by the GRACE of God, even Hitler will be end up in a degree of glory (for Mormons hell is a lesser glory relative to the higher state where God dwells and family units are eternal). Conversely, Evangelicals believe a person must perform the WORK of physically “accepting Jesus” vocally to be saved. For them, not all will be “saved.”
Therefore, mormons believe in being saved by grace and Evangelicals believe in salvation by works (act of being born again).

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posted June 15, 2009 at 3:00 am

Salvation is by faith in Jesus even to the fundamental Baptist.
Five major tenets of Christianity
Jesus was born of a virgin as the divine in human flesh .
Jesus died for the sins of those who accept they are sinners from birth
Jesus rose from the dead after being crucified
Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and intercedes for those who have faith in Him
Jesus is returning
Some throw in Mary and a few rituals other believe personal prayer languages, ect. . . it is a hodge podge but most Christians believe they are saved by faith in Jesus The works are an expression of that faith but the works do not earn salvation According to some beliefs the works may earn one rewards on top of salvation again that is aside from the basic tenants so it is anther grey area.
As some one who has walked in both spiritual worlds I find people to be amazingly similar in behavior whether that are Christians, atheist or Pagan. Some are going to argue and cause divisions based on mere semantics while other encourage community. People are human and no spiritual belief has been able to change that, not any that I am aware of any way.

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