Christian fundamentalists haven’t gotten over Paganism after 2000 years. It is true that often when the word “Pagan” is uttered it is used in the sense “Gentile” is used by Jews, to refer to anyone who is not a Jew. We are being barraged with complaints and fear mongering about a return to “pagan culture” and a “paganization” of America, Pagan plots to wipe out Christianity, and Newt Gingrich’s claim that same-sex marriage is “pagan behavior” and you can understand these however you like.
But all too many stabs at Paganism are specifically directed at modern Paganism, which includes many various religions, including Wicca (the most recognized) but also Heathenism (also known as Ásatrú), Druidism, Hellenism (ancient Greek religion) and many others. The Air Force Academy earned special consideration from the Christian Right for creating a worship space for these modern Pagans, a simple circle of rocks, appropriate yet far less expensive than the Christians’ own chapel.
Fundamentalist Christians, like most Christians really, know little or nothing of modern Paganism but with a difference: they’re not receptive to knowing; fundamentalists are determined to not understand these modern forms of the world’s most ancient belief systems, but more than eager to condemn them in all their willful ignorance. For example, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club on February 1 featured an interesting little exchange between Pat Robertson (who you remember blamed 9/11 on Paganism) and his co-host, Kristi Watts. As reported by Right Wing Watch, it went something like this:
Robertson ”commended the National Park Service for keeping a statue of Jesus in a Montana park, despite a challenge from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.” His “insight” into the situation was this:
“Isn’t it a strange thing that we would allow somebody who doesn’t believe in anything to restrict the freedom of those who do.”
Never mind, of course, that Robertson is more than eager to restrict the freedom of belief if it is anything other than his own fundamentalist Christian strain of belief. Depriving others of their First Amendment rights seems to be the whole raison d’être of the Christian Right, after all.
Kristi Watts, described on her bio as being “upbeat and quick with a smile” but apparently none too bright, and who never to let slip an opportunity to demonstrate this, later chimed in with by saying that since Wicca “believes in the environment and believes that trees are there God,” then “why are these atheists not saying we should cut down every tree because it’s offensive?”
Watch the clip from Right Wing Watch:
The obvious answer to this is that Wiccans don’t worship trees. This is more of the ever-popular Old Testament dumb idol meme, the hatred of the Yahwists for trees as representative of goddesses, and repeated all through early Christian history (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:2), where Pagans become people who worship rocks and trees rather than seeing in nature the divine all around us. On a whole, this is roughly analogous to and about as accurate as saying Christians worship a cross.
Although, it wouldn’t surprise me if even militant atheists aren’t too worked up about Wicca, which like other Pagan religions, eschews proselytization and preaching to “non-believers” like Kristi Watts’ own religion. Pagans also aren’t known to be busy either trying to deprive atheists of their right to not believe. But then, comprehension of causation is not a strong suit for those who believe their god’s will decides everything, including who is born to whom and when.
You do occasionally see a short “primer” on Modern Paganism come your way, usually about as valueless as you might imagine. An example is something the Christian Post published a two part series on December 30 and 31, 2011. The first part is “A Peek at Modern Paganism: What Paganism Is and Isn’t” and the second, more disturbingly, is “A Peek at Modern Paganism: How to Preach to Pagans.”
While it’s always interesting to get an outsider’s perspective of Paganism does not qualify as an objective analysis. Taken as a whole, the first part designed to set up the second, establishing a basis and a method for the conversion of modern Pagans to fundamentalist Christianity – and it is a light weight attempt at that.
The author attempts to draw on modern Pagan sources to describe the patchwork of belief that is modern Paganism. Not grounded, apparently, in historical Paganism (what fundamentalist is?), he fails to note that ancient Paganism was equally a patchwork of beliefs. If the author would have stuck with Pagan sources to describe Paganism for a Christian audience, the piece might have had some value, but that, of course, was not why it was written. It was not written to fill a gap so hands can be shaken but to fill a moat so an attack can be launched.
The problem inevitably comes in when the Christian observers begin to speak, in this case, James Beverly, who is identified as a professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto, Canada, and the associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion. His title alone should warn the reader off: what follows is not about what Paganism is but about what fundamentalist Christianity insists it must be.
What Beverly has to say in his book, “Nelson’s Illustrated Guide to Religions” is about what you’d expect:
“Witchcraft ultimately fails in the mythic and legendary nature of its gods and goddesses,” Beverley writes in the book’s chapter on Wicca. “The Roman, Celtic, Nordic and Greek deities dwell only in the followers’ imaginations. The lack of historical trustworthiness concerning Artemis or Zeus or Diana or Isis is in direct contrast the historical nature of the Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ.”
One could as easily say that the Christian God dwells only in his followers’ imaginations. Laughably, Beverly compares historical trustworthiness with regard to Artemis or Zeus with the myths contained in the New Testament, apparently believing the four contradictory gospel accounts are somehow all at the same time accurate, an impossibility, or that the book of Acts somehow endorses Paul’s epistles rather than contradicting them.
The Christians brought into the discussion, Beverly and author John Ramirez, identified as a “former Santeria-high-priest-turned-evangelical-Christian” agree that “only compassion will help Christians understand pagans when they disagree.” Without it, Christians and Pagans can’t even co-exist, let alone build closer relationships.
It all sounds so very fair until you consider that witches should be open to self-criticism, apparently of their beliefs, while Christians should only admit to past blunders, a passing nod, apparently, to witch burnings, inquisitions and crusades, but not of belief. Obviously, no Christian should be criticized for his or her beliefs, let alone examine them in an objective light, which leaves an uneven table over which to conduct those discussions and relationships. Privilege seldom inspires friendship.
In part two we are told that Paganism is a “blanket term covering practices ranging from witchcraft to nature worship” which makes it “difficult to identify a focus when finding common ground with pagans.” Of course, this common ground is only a means to an end, not an end in itself, which makes the whole process something less than honest, doesn’t it? “With this in mind,” the author continues, “how can Christians effectively share the Good News with their pagan brothers and sisters.”
Never a thought given, of course, to the possibility of leaving those pagan brothers and sisters the hell alone. No, they don’t deserve any respect; they’re pagans, after all. They’re there to be converted like peanuts are there to be eaten.
Here we run into Beverly again, who sounds like Pope Benedict XVI (writing as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) and his rants in 2004’s Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions:
“Christians focus on Jesus as lord and savior while pagans look to the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and northern Europe,” Beverley said. “Like all other religions, paganism misses biblical truth about the one God who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Christians should help pagans see the beauty of Jesus, his historical reality and his magnificent grace.”
Yes, I guess we’re just like the Jews, aren’t we? Missed the damn boat. And “truth” as always trumps tolerance.
What’s laughable again is this privileging of Christian belief. It’s not really “historical reality” Beverly is appealing to, since history doesn’t vouch even for the existence of Jesus, or even the early church, which went unnoticed by the many first century authors who do, however, mention the Essenes, who do not even appear in the New Testament.
The problem is this belief that Pagans live in some wasteland that deprives them of spiritual nourishment. Pagans are hardly deprived of spiritual nourishment and the vast majority of them are no doubt familiar with the “Good News” the author is so excited to share. Been there, done that, describes the feelings of most Pagans I know or have communicated with. Most Pagans, like atheists, are probably better familiar with the Bible that the Christians who want to convert them, who often believe the Bible says what they want it to say.
The condescending attitude of preachy Christians (it can’t be anything but condescending when the claim is made that only their God and their truth is real) gets tiresome. You can’t really say it gets “old” because it is old, older than any of us, and we are unlikely ever to see the end of it. It’s difficult to say which is worse, a bitchy ignoramus like Kristi Watts who at least tells you how she feels, or the used car salesman-type who is only buttering you up for conversion.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.