Thursday, November 19, 2015

Subverting Paganism

subvert
transitive verb
 - to secretly try to ruin or destroy a government, political system, etc.
 - to make (something) weaker or less effective 
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
To be honest, I was done with the whole atheistic paganism thing, because at the time it seemed like nothing was left to be said. But then something new came up that's relevant, and I think it deserves some attention and discussion.

Over at Reddit last week, John Halstead, chief voice of the "atheistic Pagans", agreed with a commenter that atheistic paganism was "subversive". A couple of days later at Patheos, he expanded on what exactly that subversiveness meant:

"Atheistic Paganism is subversive to the dominant paradigm which teaches us that our only choices are a supernaturalistic worldview or a despiritualized materialism, or between a literalistic theism or a desacralized universe. This paradigm pervades American culture and, disappointingly, has made its way into contemporary Paganism as well. I see it every time someone assumes that, because I am an atheist, that I don't believe in anything larger than myself. I see it when people [say] one cannot be a Pagan without believing in magic, or gods, or other supernaturalism. There is a third option; reverence for a re-sacralized material universe."
Now, the other week I caught a bit of flak for suggesting that Heathens and Pagans could still be valued members of the Heathen and Pagan communities, even if they did not believe in the literal existence of the Gods and the supernatural. I stand by that assessment, based as it is in both history and a sense of confidence in the strength, endurance, and vitality of Heathen society in general (I'll let the Pagans speak to the state of their own society and community).

But, and this is a vital point, that assessment rests on the assumption that the non-believers in question are not going out of their way to publicly mock and undermine belief in the Gods. That they are "going along to get along", and enjoying the benefits of belonging to the Heathen or Pagan community, as they perceive those benefits, without abusing the hospitality of their host communities (or sub-cultures).

But when John Halstead says, publicly and seemingly proudly, that he sees atheistic Paganism as being "subversive" (although he quibbles about why that is the case), that tells me he is in no way behaving in accordance with the demands of hospitality. Guests have responsibilities, and not going out of your way to insult or subvert your hosts in their own hall is one of the larger ones.

And when Halstead says he's being "subversive", he's even going beyond merely being insulting, because the very definition of "subvert" includes the connotation that the thing being subverted is going to be destroyed and harmed. He might see it as a beneficial transformation, but any fundamental transformation requires by definition the destruction of the thing being destroyed.

Halstead is fundamentally wrong when he says that "this [supernaturalistic vs. materialistic] paradigm... has made its way into contemporary Paganism". The fundamental opposition of Paganism to the materialist world-view didn't "make its way" into anything. It was there from the beginning, whether you place that beginning in the Medieval era, the Romantic era, Aleister Crowley in the 1920's and 1930's, Gerald Gardner in the 1930's and 40's, or the explosion of neo-Paganism in the 1960's and 70's. With the exception of the Medieval era, those expressions of Paganism (and Heathenry) were reactions against the lack of supernaturalism and spirituality that the "modern age" (whatever age that might have been) was imposing on society.

If we are to believe Halstead's own words, then it is he who is trying to get his materialistic ideology to "make its way" into modern Paganism. Not content with simply enjoying the benefits of the Pagan aesthetic ("I call myself a (Neo-)Pagan, because the image of the maypole-dancing, idol-worshiping, and fornicating-in-the-forest non-Christian calls to me."), he must change... dare I say subvert... the dominant world-view within the Pagan community to suit his own.

I think a large part of that attitude is borne of the fact that he honestly, in his heart of hearts, can't believe that anyone really does believe in the literal existence of the Gods, or the efficacy of magic. He really just can't conceive that someone can really, sincerely, believe that rubbish. So to him, his is a noble mission; to just give the rest of us the push we need to knock the scales from our eyes and admit that he was right all along, and of course nobody really believed that Odin was talking to them.

So I stand by my assessment. Orthodoxy (correct thinking) is not a requirement for membership in the Pagan or Heathen communities; only orthopraxy (correct action), within the bounds of the reciprocal rules of hospitality. But when someone is deliberately, and self-admittedly, trying to subvert the dominant culture (or in this case, sub-culture), to ruin and destroy it secretly from within (as the dictionary definition of the term reveals), then that person should not be welcome within our halls.

Does this mean that societies never change? Of course not! But their change occurs naturally, within the boundaries of the fundamental ideas that define that society. Once those fundamental boundaries are erased, the society ceases to be, because its defining elements are gone.

Good guests don't try to destroy or insult the things that their hosts hold sacred. Don't be a bad guest.

2 comments:

  1. To be clear, the "subversion" I was referring to was not a subversion of Paganism, but a subversion of the dominant paradigm of the overculture. In fact, I see Paganism as subversive in that way. Which is a big part of the reason why I am Pagan.

    And as for materialism, I have the impression that that word triggers a host of associations for you that I did not intend. The materialism I'm talking about is not a reductionistic disenchanted materialism, but the reenchanted materialism of Starhawk:

    "People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply, ‘Do you believe in rocks?’ …The phrase ‘believe in’ itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that she is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks—we may see them, touch them, dig them out of our gardens, or stop small children from throwing them at each other. We know them, we connect with them. In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess—we connect with her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all."

    ReplyDelete
  2. I can only go by what you said. And in your words, your intention is to subvert "literalistic theism" in the Pagan community. You may regret having come out so plainly in stating your goal, but there it is.

    You just don't seem to get it - the issue is not with your liking your "re-enchanted materialism", but in your intent to convert everyone else away from "literalistic theism" in favor of it. As you put it, yours is a subversive point of view - you're out to destroy the theistic view in favor of your own.

    And you just don't see why those of us who are (hard) polytheists might find that offensive.

    ReplyDelete