Not That Kind of Pagan
Isaac Bonewits, founder of three different attempts at reformed or re-created druidry and one of the early enthusiastic contributors to this project has long had a standing bet that it is impossible to complete the sentence "Pagans all believe ..." with anything and have it be true. I will never forget the first time I heard him say this, at a workshop at the 1985 or '86 (I forget) Pagan Spirit Gathering in Wisconsin. Some tiny little college student jumped up and said, "That's not TRUE! For example, we're all opposed to nuclear power!" She would have been hard pressed to pick a worse example; within seconds the whole workshop was on their feet, divided up into warring camps, literally screaming at each other for several minutes. Two equally divided camps. That being said, when it comes to theology, there is if not an actual agreement then certainly a very widely held attitude about the divine, and it goes approximately like this (with, of course, ample wiggle room for people to differ on the finer points at almost Talmudic length): the entire universe is alive, and divine. That divinity expresses itself first through two generic divinities; the horned hunter God of the sun and the maiden-mother-crone triple Goddess of the moon; all other Gods and Goddesses are special cases of or avatars of or misunderstood aspects of those two facets of the divine universe.
It's also fundamental to Neopaganism, at least where I live and as I see it in my Neopagan friends, that you don't have to believe any of that to be literally true. Some large percentage, probably approaching half, are for all practical purposes secular humanist agnostics or atheists to whom the god(s) and goddess(es) of Neopaganism are merely convenient spiritual or artistic symbols. In fact, if you count in the further large percentage of Neopagans who believe that The God and The Goddess exist because they're projections of our own human collective spirit, collective unconscious, and that what we're really worshipping are things that we made up ourselves? Then the percentage of Neopagans who believe that the gods aren't "really real" probably approaches the high 90% range. And they're okay with that. And frankly, as someone of a very scientific bent, when I left Christian fundamentalism so was I.
And of course, where Neopaganism takes the very specific form of Neopagan Witchcraft (which it pretty much does everywhere in this man's town), where the borrowings from Gardner and Starhawk are the thickest, you get that idea married to a pseudo-history that is, frankly, sillier than the Operating Thetan material from Scientology's claim that all human souls are reincarnated alien criminals, no, worse than that, even sillier than the Book of Mormon's claim that the Olmecs were Jewish: the belief that for all of human history there have been Goddess-worshipping, nature-worshipping herbalists and conjurers who called themselves "witches." You know what? When Margaret Murray and J.G. Frazer were publishing their separate but similar hypotheses to this effect a hundred years ago, this was vaguely plausible, just as a hundred years ago it would have been hard to disprove the Book of Mormon's claim that the Olmecs were the lost twelfth tribe of the Jews. Sorry, in both cases history and archeology continued to progress. And this leaves Neopagan Witches in an awkward position. While they keep insisting that their religion is, in some way, older than the late 19th century, if you compare what we know now about medieval (let alone pre-Christian) Europe with the parts of The Golden Bough that have since been discredited scientifically, the Wiccans are 100% on Frazer's side.
In its earliest forms, the old English word "witch" (however you spell it) doesn't mean any kind of a human, let alone a member of some religion. It's used synonymously with "pixie." In particular, a "witch" is a creature it is too small to see with the naked eye, that travels on the wind, and causes fevers, sickness, crop blight, and miscarriage. Historically speaking, witch is their word for "germ." Until Renaissance times and the sick inquisitorial fantasy that there were Satan-worshipping home churches like the secret Jewish reconverso synagogues that they were used to rooting out and slaughtering, and until they in their misunderstanding picked up the old English word for "disease-causing organism" and applied it to those fictional devil-worshippers, you cannot find any historical reference to any person being called a witch. At most, what you find is some kind of specialist in curing people of diseases caused by witches ... not witches, but witch doctors.
Now, when I thought that there were no true religions, that all human religions were human-made creations, I was perfectly comfortable with the idea that a fiction that was invented in the 1890s or the 1950s or the 1960s or even day before yesterday was just as spiritually valid as one that was made up in the 1500s or the 300s or before. But I'm afflicted with a curse: I am, at least in some situations, an Authenticity Cop. Once I get interested in something, I want to wallow in not merely tertiary but secondary sources, and primary sources if I can read the language they're in. And in the process of expanding my Neopagan spirituality, and studying as many pre-Christian pagan sources as possible, something really weird and inexplicable happened to me: piety.
Scattered among all of the ancients' (and even moderns') writings about the gods there are several historical periods where it is widely attested by multiple sober and generally reliable sources that beings who looked much like us, but had abilities far beyond those of mortal humans, walked among us. Whether we're talking about the djinn living in the Arabian and Sahara deserts, the faerie folk living in northern Europe, the angels seen by members of various Mesopotamian tribes, or the gods seen everywhere throughout the Peloponnese and Ionia, they are described with clarity and a degree of precision, and with an inescapable consistency. They claimed to have been here before, but to only have mingled openly with us in the aftermath of civilization-threatening disasters. At such times, they taught the survivors of various disasters like the fall of Bronze Age civilization or the fall of the Roman Empire various useful arts, married into and/or generally left children with various families, and handed out rewards and punishments for various virtues and vices among those who were organizing the reconstruction efforts in an attempt to make sure that viable societies arose. It's popular now to insist that these beings were fictions made up by people long after the fact who were embellishing the oral historical record for their own purposes. Maybe that's what you believe. It's not what I believe.
I don't know who or what those beings, those people, were, or where they came from. I don't know if they're in any way still here, watching us, although for a couple of generations after they withdrew from common contact they kept showing up to give nasty surprises to those who thought they could get away with stuff because the gods were no longer watching. But I honor them, now, not made-up gods of philosophers or hallucinated gods of mystics and other schizophrenics. And in particular, I honor the gods of one particular place and time, the gods who helped the Greek-speaking survivors of the end of the Bronze Age, for having hammered out a unique compromise way of life that was even better than the aristocratic monarchies the gods left behind everywhere else: freedom and democracy and entrepreneurial capitalism. All ideas that came from men, and that were sold grudgingly to the gods, but causes that a particular set of gods took up as their own after seeing just how much prosperity and (just as importantly) how much justice that way of life could create.
I don't think it's an accident that America became the shining beacon of those same values after they were rediscovered at the end of the Renaissance in the surviving writings of those particular worshippers of those particular gods. And I worry how much longer we can keep them in a world where, the gods help us, people are suddenly noticing the conflicts between the values of Hellenic pagan democracy and Christian monotheistic dictatorship and consciously choosing the latter. And I sure as all holy gods don't think it helps when even the vast majority of the Pagans believe, or act as if, the gods who co-created and endorsed that way of life that we've so benefited from in this country over the last couple of hundred years were just a convenient fiction, any more than I think that it's a coincidence that the generation of Athenians who were taught by the (wealthy-elite-funded) "philosophers" to call the historical reality of the gods "the lies of the poets" were the generation who fell into slavery to the Spartans, then their own wealthy aristocrats, then the Macedonians, then the Romans, and then the Church, and then the Caliphate, never actually gaining even a semblance of freedom for thousands of years.
So whenever I contemplate going to a Pagan gathering, I find myself confronting two awkward propositions. First of all, I feel like the only non-atheist in the room, practically the only guy in the whole gathering who actually believes that the gods have an external verifiable reality that extends beyond wishful thinking. And secondly, I find myself in the company of hundreds of people who are just as wrong about the provable facts of other history as the Flat Earthers and the Lamarckians and the young-earth Creationists are. And when they start nattering on about these things, and expecting me to agree with them because I'm some kind of a Pagan too, it puts me in a very uncomfortable situation.
(That, sad to say, is probably why I found it so easy to make excuses not to go to St. Louis Pagan Picnic this year.)