Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Pagan Fundamentalism.

Pagan Fundamentalists are a reality in today's day and age. Just like Christian Fundamentalists they can be argued with, but not reasoned with. The biggest difference between the two is that Pagan Fundamentalists are all over the board, you can be a Pagan Fundamentalist on all sorts of issues. Anyone who shows a refusal to bend, speculate, capitulate, compromise, could be a fundamentalist.

At its essence fundamentalism means a "return to fundamental principles,*" which is something that can always be brought up for debate. Whose fundamental principles are we dealing with? In the case of Christianity does that mean a return to the "blessed are the poor" Jesus or selective reading of Old Testament Law? Does Fundamentalism imply that a religion should only be practiced as it was at the beginning, with no room for improvement, growth, or innovation?

I've always found that fundamentalism usually suffers from an "intolerance of other views**," a hallmark of most fundamentalist groups. Usually this intolerance is indifferent to science, facts, logic, or rational argument. Evolution is a good example of this. Science, facts, logic, and rational argument all support the idea of evolution. The only real argument against it comes from a three thousand year old story that was written pre-science. Fundamentalists generally offer no compromise either, you don't usually hear "well that might be true" from a fundamentalist, the answer is either "yes" or "no," there are no shades of grey.

Pagan Fundamentalists are generally the same. They embrace an idea, and refuse to ever again question or challenge it. I'm on a Pagan Forum where I'm currently arguing about "Traditional Craft" and the initiation of Gerald Gardner.*** Surprisingly the loudest Pagan Fundamentalists in the current debate think that Gardner "made it up" and was not initiated in 1939. I'm fine with that assessment about Gardner. There's not a lot of evidence to support the idea that he was initiated in 1939, but my problem lies with those who would discount the idea completely.

Unless you lived in New Forest England in 1939, I don't think you can make a fair judgment on Gardner's claim of initiation without first reading Ronald Hutton's Triumph of the Moon and Phillip Heselton's Wiccan Roots. While Hutton discounts the idea that Gardner was initiated, Heselton offers up tantalizing evidence that it could have happened. As an anti-fundamentalist I just want people to admit that something is possible and to stop thinking in absolutes.

I am a believer in the reality of Gardner's initiation, but that doesn't mean he was initiated into something that was centuries old. I believe Gardner was initiated into something, I don't know how old it is, but you'd have a hard time convincing me it was ancient. If you want to argue that Gardner "made the whole thing up," that's your right, and there is a lot of evidence to support your claim, but it's not an open and shut case. I just think you'd be better off with an argument that read "I find it unlikely that Gardner was initiated into anything" rather than a blanket statement discounting all other possibilities.

Much of the bad mouthing about Gardner is probably because I'm involved in a debate involving people who claim to be a part of something they term "Traditional Craft." In this debate "Traditional Craft" predates Gardner and from what I'm gleaning it represents a complete religious and and magical system that has been left "unchanged" by the Modern World****. In this argument I might be the fundamentalist because I'm not buying their argument, though I'd love to be proven wrong (which probably saves me from being a fundamentalist).

My biggest argument with these "Traditional Crafters" is that it's hard for me to buy the idea that a religious practice has existed in complete secrecy for hundreds of years untouched by the Modern World. While I'm perfectly willing to concede that magickal systems have never left Europe (or anywhere else), attaching those systems to a religion other than Christianity is difficult, if not impossible.

Take "Cunningcraft" for instance. Cunningcraft is traditional, usually rural, English magick. Cunning Men and Women have existed for hundreds of years. Much of their magick is "homegrown," (charms, spells, and the like), but much of it also comes from the grimoire tradition. It's a hodgepodge of magickal material-astrology, angels, Old Testament Psalms. It's hard to categorize, but one thing is pretty clear throughout, it's not religious necessarily. It's magick, but a magickal system does not mean religion. Many folk customs or magickal traditions will sometimes look like Paganism from a distance, but they don't usually have a religious context. Just because some of these practices are absent of religion doesn't negate their effectiveness or validity, it just means you can't claim them as a part of a religious system.

Witchcraft was a dirty word for a long time. You could practice magick in 19th Century England or the United States with little or no repercussion, often you might be held in high regard for practicing it. The term "witch" though generally reflected negativity, and it's highly unlikely that anyone would go around claiming to practice Witchcraft a hundred years ago. The use of the term "Traditional Crafter" alone screams modern influence.

My problem with the fundamentalists in this argument is not with their beliefs, it's their inability to offer any credible evidence to back up those beliefs. If you want to claim that your version of The Craft predates Gardner then you have to offer up some facts to support your theory. A rational argument contains facts, not just "I did" or "I have been." I rode a dragon yesterday. I can't back it up, but it's true because I'm telling you it was.

When it comes to Modern Paganism I don't like dealing in absolutes. There are many things which I look at as being in the category of "More Likely" but I refuse to rule anything out entirely. I'll tell you why I think you are wrong, but I won't dismiss everything out of hand. Fundamentalism dismisses everything out of hand, and no matter how good the argument, it leaves no wiggle room.

*From the "American Heritage Dictionary"
**The fourth part of the definition, again from the AHD.
***I don't have time for the entire Gerald Gardner story here. Gardner was the first public witch and claims to have been initiated into a coven of existing Witches in 1939.
****Of course I'm unsure if this is the right definition, the people I'm arguing with have been very vague.

1 comment:

  1. "Pagan Fundamentalism" is a value laden term with extreme negative connotations for common people. I have documented in the below linked article how results of existing Pagan scholarship are already being misrepresented on Christian blogs with a distinctively negative agenda towards Paganism. I am very concerned that the present discussions about Pagan Fundamentalism will be used against Pagans in the same manner. See my article on this important issue entitled:
    "Pagan Scholarship and anti-Pagan Propaganda" at