Pagans Against Personal Autonomy

I noticed this when Drew Jacob made his (in)famous post proclaiming that he wasn’t pagan. And now I’m dealing with it on a forum I generally respect, and admittedly at a much lower level (cos I guess I’m just not as desirable —or maybe cos this blog just gets less traffic?).

In my quest to see if “pagan” still means anything, and perpetual contemplation over whether it ever meant anything, at all, ever, I’ve stumbled upon this curious phenomenon:

Pagans, as in those who self-identify as pagans, talk a big talk about following one’s bliss and doing as thou wilt, and how everything is cool as long as you aren’t hurting others. Until, of course, somebody who fits the negative definition of pagan espoused by the dictionary puts their foot down and states that they are not pagan. Basically, personal autonomy is all well and good, until one makes the autonomous decision that their religion, and they themselves, are not pagan.

Now, to an extent, I can understand where people might be coming from:

Maybe they assume there’s all kinds of societal pressures to not be pagan, and that simply proclaiming oneself not to be is evidence that one may have been “bullied” into choosing to divorce oneself from the term. That would make sense, if not for the fact that the overwhelming majority of “Not Pagans” on the Intertubes are polytheists —and let me tell you, being a polytheist doesn’t get you any special privileges just for eschewing the self-definition of “pagan”.

Or maybe they think that by proclaiming oneself a “Not Pagan”, it’s cos of some kind of self-closeting. This would make sense if not for the fact that this is often said in response to some-one’s post on a blog, so clearly this person is “out” to at least that much extent. Sometimes the blogger’s real name is even easily accessible. So, OK, that’s not a good hypothesis.

I do often see the claim “well, Abrahamists can’t tell the difference between what you do and what I do”. OK, I’ll play along: Abrahamists also can’t tell the difference between what I do and what Hindus do, and Hindus often get a free pass to be Not Pagan, though likely because the average self-identified pagan is, frankly, rather pale, and probably doesn’t want to come off as Patronising Whitey, trying to save brown people from themselves (except, of course, the pagans who care neither heads nor tails about that, and will outright state that, no matter what the millions of Hindus might say to the contrary, they’re “pagan too”, cos negative definitions trump autonomy). Hell, to certain Evangelical Christians like Jack Chick (and in case you were unaware: He is dead serious, not a parody —though his comics do often get a parody treatment), they can’t tell the difference between what I do and what Catholics do —and all things considered, I’ve met very few pagans who seriously believe insist (remember: pagans can’t believe in things!) that Catholics are “pagan, too!” So, why should I submit to a word I don’t identify with because some people are too stupid to tell the difference between what I do and what, say, Uncle Bucky’s Big Blue Book teaches? That’d be like telling trans women and men that we’re “really drag queens and kings” because some people are too stupid to tell the difference, and therefore we must submit to terms we believe are inaccurate, because it’s more convenient to coddle stupidity than to treat people as if they’re intelligent enough to discern the differences, or at least can understand the differences if they make the effort to learn.

I see the whole “solidarity” and “strength in numbers” thing a lot, too, but here’s the thing: I can stand in solidarity with you without needing to be one of you. Ask any one of my heterosexual and cisgender friends if I’ve expected them to make themselves be gay or trans in order to support me in that. Hell, I’ve been to a TS/TG group where bringing cis friends, relatives, and partners was a common enough thing, because sometimes people are more comfortable with some-one they know —and don’t get me started on how often het women go to gay bars, and without ever a problem (until, of course, they prove to be a nuissance, like holding their bachelorette parties there). The original (real) Black Panther Party had lots of Caucasian supporters, and some of the first nightclubs to play rap and hip-hop music in the late 1970s were punk clubs, which are more often frequented by white kids than any other racial demographic. Socio-political solidarity does not necessitate one be part of an oppressed demographic to support the issues that affect that demographic the most.

OK, so obviously, one doesn’t need to be pagan to stand in solidarity with pagans on socio-political issues of especial interest to the pagan community. After all, all of these issues also affect plenty of other non-pagans in the world, so it would be silly (to put it politely) to say “only pagans can be at the Pagan Issues Table”. Clearly, one need not identify with the word “pagan” to support issues of general interest to the pagan community.

So what reason is there to call oneself a pagan? Well, I can’t think of any, really, but then, I’m not personally attached to the term (and as I’ve said many times before, I’m becoming less enamoured with it, as I age), so I’ll leave the “reasons to call oneself pagan” to those who actually enjoy identifying with the term, cos here’s what my list of reasons would look like:

Reasons to Call Oneself a Pagan:
1) Because one’s spirituality is rural-based.
2) Because one is defined by one’s bookshelf.
3) Because one is happy to let other people tell them what they are.
4) Because one would rather submit to the pressures of a quasi-religious Neo-Hippie social group than think for oneself.
5) Because one doesn’t know what else to call oneself or one’s religion.
6) Because one doesn’t know what else to call oneself or one’s totally-non-religious lifestyle that lacks beliefs.
7) Because one never outgrew the adolescent desire to piss off Christians.
8) Because one doesn’t understand what Folk Christianity is.
9) Because what one isn’t is more important to oneself than what one is.
10) Because personal autonomy is low on one’s priorities.

And none of those apply to me.

My spirituality is urban. Defining myself by my bookshelf makes me a fag into graphic novels, 1960s pop culture, ancient Greece, and a weakness for bad erotica. I’ve never been happy with letting other people tell me what I am. As much as I like a lot Neo-Hippie things, I submit to none of it. I do know what to call my religion. My secular subculture interests even has a name. I got bored with pissing off Christians when I was eighteen. Folk Christianity is irrelevant to my life. What I am is more important to me than what I am not, and I really dig personal autonomy.

If I say I’m not a pagan, don’t tell me I am.

Not even if I mention that I occasionally resign to the word because some people in this world are seriously too stupid to work out what “polytheist” means.

Not even if I go to PPD events, or do tea readings at a pagan bookstore, or save up enough money to go to Pantheacon.

If you respect me at all, you will call me what I call myself. If you don’t, you will call me “pagan”, in spite of knowing I call myself a Hellenic polytheist.


Edited to add:

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8 thoughts on “Pagans Against Personal Autonomy

  1. “the overwhelming majority of “Not Pagans” on the Intertubes are polytheists —and let me tell you, being a polytheist doesn’t get you any special privileges just for eschewing the self-definition of “pagan”.”

    You got that right.

    I will give credit to Neopagans on this issue though. They have always been consistent with me on the “do whatever you want” individualism thing. Yes, many told me they thought it was a poor choice to refuse the label Pagan, but none of them ever told me it was morally wrong for me to do so, or that I shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

    Pro-individualistic people can still think that some individuals make poor choices; and follow-your-bliss enthusiasts can still think that some people’s decisions are leading them in the wrong direction to end up finding their bliss. Just because one accepts that you have the right to live any (nonpsychotic) way you like, doesn’t mean one has to to accept every life choice as equally intelligent. Nor does it mean one can never have intellectual disagreement with others.

    When pagans told me I was making a bad choice, it was on practical grounds – they (wrongly) thought either I was misinformed or would later regret it. None of them ever called into question my right to make such a choice.

    My last name is Jacob, by the way – singular, no “s”, like the prophet.

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    • Maybe I just read all the wrong comments, or read them completely wrong, but I very clearly recall a handful of comments along the lines of “oh, you’re not pagan, now? well, I’ve got news: yes you are!” And don’t get me started on this guy I know on the Internet, whose blog links here, who has actually said “[paraphrased] of course Buddhists are pagan, and Hindus are too, and I don’t care if they say otherwise”. The autonomy of self-identity means absolutely nothing to some people.

      …or maybe you’re giving things a far more charitable reading that I have, for your own reasons.

      And that’s the thing, I wouldn’t really have an issue if people were saying or implying that they’re just presenting personal feelings and opinion; instead, I’ve seen, and been on the receiving end, of pagans very matter-of-factly telling me what I am, what my religion is, and I better get used to it and start liking it, trying to set logic traps in hopes that I’ll snare myself and succumb to their pressures / bullying. Seriously, that whole “but Christians can’t tell the difference” has been a favourite, lately, like it’s supposed to be some big “gotcha!” and I should just throw up my hands and admit defeat, upon reading it, cos supposedly nothing will rub a hole in that new one that I’ve supposedly never seen before.

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  3. I identify as a Pagan, and here’s another reason you can add to your list: my worship is nature-based, rural-based and I feel that the sense of primitiveness that comes from the word “pagan” helps describe what I do. I don’t consider myself Neopagan because it indicates to me an intention of taking Paganism and moving forward, whereas what I do tends to look more like moving backward. I LIKE the word “pagan”. I’m a bit eclectic, but everything I do can be tied to the word “pagan”.

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    • Hey, guess who missed the point, entirely! This isn’t about you, or anybody else who chooses to identify with the word pagan. This is about the utter defensivness that seems to come along with people who identify with the word, that says, “I consider myself a pagan, you and I have x in common, so you are pagan, too! Don’t say that you aren’t, cos I know what you are!”

      Of course, if you took a moment to discern that from my post, rather than try and assume this was just a blanket attack on the word “pagan” and people who choose to identify with it, I wouldn’t need to tell you what’s so painfully obvious. So hey, thanks for proving my point by assuming this was about you.

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  5. How about “I don’t like Pagans, and have a lot of stereotypes about them.” since that’s clearly number one?
    Maybe Pagans are angry at you because you’ve said a lot of insulting things about them? No, that can’t be it, surely we just have a driving need to make you ONE OF US or something.

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    • Dear, I’ve written this post from experience, and yes som pagans clearly have a driving need for others, including myself, to be “one of them”. Did you even read the comments on the Drew Jacob post? Or were you one of the dumbasses who assumed you knew what he meant and responded to that, instead? And do you even know what “stereotype” means? Cos that’s not what I’ve done, here.

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