Tag Archives: Christian perspectives on Paganism

Why Some Christians Focus on Atheists and Agnostics

I posted this over at Writers on the Loose. I decided to cross-post it here to see what some of my friends think about my theories.

On a previous column, Zjabs left me the following comment:

Ingvi- Quite often you and I are on the same side of the issue. I find nothing in your column to disagree with. What I do find interesting is that your belief in the “wrong” thing (in the eyes of the Christians) is okay. No one has tried to convert you or tried to open your eyes to Christ, etc. But when I post a column about my lack of belief, I’ve been given the third degree. Which begs the question- have the people on this site mellowed, or is it more understandable to have one believe in something, even if it doesn’t match our own beliefs, then to have someone proclaim they don’t believe at all? Now there’s a column idea for you!

I thought it would be appropriate to take a moment to respond to his question. However, before I can do that, I think it important to examine the full context of the situations he’s referring to.

I think that first, it’s important to keep in mind that Zjab’s column about his lack of belief was in response to another column by Jen. In Jen’s column, she specifically asked people why others weren’t Christian. It only seems that Jen and others would respond to Zjab’s own response with further dialogue. In contrast, my columns have been mostly independent — or respond to other people’s columns in an almost tangential way. So there’s not quite the same flow of dialogue. In effect, I haven’t left quite the same opening for such “conversion attempts” (though to be honest, I think that labeling the comments left for Zjabs as such might be a bit of a stretch). So in essence, we’re probably comparing apples and oranges here.

However, if we step beyond these two scenarios involving Zjabs, myself, and the other members of WOTL, I am inclined to agree that the way many Christians approach people who don’t believe in any religion often differs from the way they approach those who follow a different religion. In fact, while there are small groups and individuals within Christianity that are focused on “reaching out” to people of other religions (one example of this in regards to the Pagan religions is Exwitch Ministries), it seems to me that most Christians are focused on convincing the atheists and the agnostics that they should become Christian. And I think that there are a number of closely related reasons for this.

I think that the most central reason for this is that in our country’s history, Christianity has had the luxury of being the only religion (or at least the only noticeable one) around. As such, Christians got used to thinking they’re the “only game in town,” the only religion, if you will. (And in fairness, I’ve run into several agnostics and atheists who seem to hold a similar view on some level.) Even the Jewish religion was seen as not being all that different, and trying to evangelize Jews just focused around convincing them that Jesus really was the Messiah. As such, Christian apologetics has only had to focus on convincing the unbeliever or skeptic of the validity of Christian doctrine. And to this day, the average Christian has access to plenty of material designed to woo the atheist, the agnostic, and any other kind of “unbeliever.”

However, now that Christians are finding themselves once again living in a pluralistic society, they are discovering that they are not as prepared to respond to someone who doesn’t just disbelieve, but actually believes something else. The same arguments that woo an atheist or agnostic are not as effective — assuming they’re effective at all — on a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Pagan. And I think that because of this, a lot of Christians choose to focus on evangelizing those they already have the “tools” to evangelize.

As an aside, I will note that many who do try and convert people who follow a different religion tend to try to do so in a sort of “two-phase” process. In this process, they start by trying to demonstrate why the individual’s religion is wrong, doesn’t make sense, or is otherwise inferior. Once this first “phase” is done, they then resort to the same material they would use to evangelize someone who was an agnostic. To be honest, I haven’t found this approach all that impressive, and I suspect it’s only effective with “tentative believers” in other religions, anyway.

Another result of this history of Christianity being “the only game in town” for so long is that a natural friction or rivalry between the Christians and the atheists and agnostics has developed over time. I have watched several discussions between these two groups, and it has been the rare case where the discussion didn’t devolve into both sides trying to prove themselves to be right and other to be wrong. It also seems to me that far too many people on “both sides of the fence” prefer this conflict, and take efforts to keep the trend alive. The end result is that both Christians and atheists and agnostics seem to be conditioned to expect this rivalry to pop up, prepare for it, and as a result, generate a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. In the rare cases where the old rivalry doesn’t rear its ugly head, I’ve noted that it’s usually due to the fact that key people on both sides of the discussion make concerted efforts to avoid it.

And finally, I do think that Zjabs is right in that people find any belief to be more comprehensible than a complete lack of beliefs. Christians may disagree with my polytheistic and magical views, but at least they can intellectually understand it. Trying to understand how someone can not believe in anything. To be perfectly honest, I have a bit of trouble in grasping that, myself. I can certainly understand not believing in any specific religion because of the lack of a compelling (to them, at least) reason to believe in them. I can even understand someone not believing in God or not being skeptical about the nature of such a God if God exists. But I do have trouble grasping the more hardcore atheists who are absolutely convinced there is no God.

Book Review continues with Chapter Two

It’s been a while since I started my book book review of Wicca’s Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality by Catherine Edwards Sanders. As such, I decided to take the time to read through and review chapter two of the book, which the author gave the title, “Tired of Sitting in Pews.” In this chapter, Sanders attempts to look at the reasons that so many people are looking to find spirituality in Paganism rather than seeking it through Christianity. The four reasons that she compiles are as follows:

  1. Concern for the earth
  2. Empowerment for women
  3. Frustration with consumer culture
  4. The draw of the supernatural

What interests me here is that Sanders does not try to dismiss these reasons. In fact, she shows a certain amount of sensitivity towards these sentiments. She even goes so far as to admit that many Christians and churches do seem to ignore these matters, and can even be antagonistic towards them.

Once acknowledging these differences, she speaks of the complaint of hypocricy within “the Church” that many Pagans complain about. Again, she does not shy away from this and does not deny that these things happen. However, she does rightfully point out that not all Christians play the part of the hypocrite. She also rightfully points out that there are some less-than-perfect people within Paganism.

As she discusses the tensions between Christians and Pagans alike, as well as the preconceived notions each side has about the other, Sanders makes what is both one of the simplest and one of the most important observations about the whole affair:

Sadly, many Christians don’t take the time to get to know people like Ginny [one of the witches the author interviewed for this chapter]; instead, they judge her from afar. And, like Ginny, many Pagans judge Christians from afar. This only alienates neo-Pagans from Christians. It would be better if Christians defied the stereotypes by getting to know neo-Pagans, as the apostle Paul did.

I would add to Sanders’s thoughts that it would also be helpful if more Pagans took the time to temporarily “forget” the stereotypes when meeting a Christian for the first time and got to know that individual as a real person. Until we’re willing to stop filtering every experience through the stereotypes and our past experiences, no sincere attempt by Christians to get to know us better is likely to be all that successful.

One of the specific incidents that Sanders mentions where Christians have generated some “bad blood” involves an incident that happened three and a half years ago. (Incidentally, this is another area where Sanders demonstrates a need to be a bit more exacting in her research. The incident that she is describing did not occur at Midsummer, but during a ritual honoring the Spring equinox.) A small group of overly-zealous Christians attempted to interrupt a rite being performed outside a Craft store in Lancaster California and generally harassed those in attendance. This is one of those cases where Sanders certainly shows her willingness to look critically at some of the things adherents of her own faith have done.

Overall, I felt this chapter was a bit short and more than a little superficial. The author certainy did not cover the widh and breadth of reasons why people might leave Christianity, or what theological issues individual Pagans might have with Christianity. For example, she did not consider the fact that many Pagans question the need for “salvation,” or the fact that many find Christianity’s all too common focus on the afterlife to be rather life-negating in nature. It’s not clear to me whether Sanders just picked the “top four” reasons she ran across and chose to focus on them, or whether she really believes those four reasons actually “cover all the bases.”

Wicca’s Charm: Chapter 1 Review, Part 2

In a previous post, I began reviewing chapter one of Catherine Sanders’s book, Wicca’s Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunge Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality. In this entry, I hope to complete this review.

After discussing “Wiccans'” disbelief in Satan and the fact that they are not horrible devil worshippers, Sanders turns her attention to trying to explain the belief in magic and spellwork. This is no easy task for most Pagans and witches, let alone a Christian journalist, and I admire Sanders’s care and effort in writing about this topic. She begins this discussion by offering Starhawk’s definition of magic (personally, I prefer Crowley’s definition), as well as an example Starhawk has used to clarify and further explain her definition and how magic works.

One of the things that disappoints me is that Sanders does not discuss any Pagan beliefs concerning the source or nature of that power (hopefully, she will cover it in a later chapter). I believe this to be a fairly serious oversight, as I believe that the understanding of the source of the witch’s power — that the witch generates that power with her own body — is an essential key to grasping many profound truths within the Craft. Of course, not all Pagans and “Wiccans” agree with me on the importance of this understanding, and this may explain Sanders’s ommission of that particular point.

Sanders then goes into some of the common themse that most “Wiccans” will agree on, such as the perception of the Goddess as the Mother Goddess and the God as her Horned Consort. I do get the impression that her sources all tend to believe that “all gods are one and all goddesses are one,” and this shines through in her descriptions of the God and Goddess. She also mentions the eight Sabbats and thirteen esbats.

She also mentions the commonly accepted symbol of the pentagram. Unfortunately, she does propagate an incorrect belief that runs rampant in the Pagan community — another sure sign that all of her sources come from a closely related subgroup of the greater Pagan community. This is the belief that “Wiccans” and Pagans eschew the inverted (“one point down”) pentagram, indicating that it is a symbol of Satanists. While it is true that Satanists have often made use of the inverted pentagram, they do not have a monopoly on that form of the symbol. There are indeed magical and religious traditions outside of Satanism that make use of the inverted Paganism. Unfortunately, by propagating this particular falsehood, Sanders is unintentionally encouraging her Christian readers to jump to incorrect conclusions if they happen to run across a practitioner of one of those traditions who do make use of an inverted pentagram.

Sanders then goes into a discussion about the Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law. This is of particular concern to me. Unfortunately, far too many people in the Pagan community think that these two items make up the sum total of Pagan ethics. This is completely untrue, as some Pagan groups don’t subscribe to either the Rede or the Threefold Law. Even among those who do subscribe to them, the way they are interpreted can vary greatly and widely. And many groups have further gudelines and factors to consider in their ethics. (Personally, I’ve always felt that the line in the Charge of the Goddess that calls for reverence, humility, compassion, and similar values was far more helpful in making ethical decisions than either the Rede or the Law of Returns.)

As an aside, Sanders paraphrases the thoughts of a Salem witch named Marisa concerning Osama bin Laden during this discussion of ethics. I found Marisa’s views on that particular topic dubious at best, and it concerns me that these views were presented as universal to all “Wiccans” — or even Pagans in general. While I may disagree with how our government officials are currently handling the “war on terror” to some degree, I do not endorse a course of action of “sending the terrorist positive energy and letting them be eventually punished by the Threefold Law.” I find such a suggestion downright preposterous, and I doubt I’m the only witch who does!

Sanders then describes some time she spent observing and talking with Laurie Cabot. I will not spend any time coveing that, but will merely point out that I’m not sure what Ms. Cabot practices, but it seems to bear little resemblance to the forms of witchcraft I or those I have come to know and personally respect happen to practice. And while I respect Ms. Cabot’s right to practice as she wishes, I wish she didn’t make such an effort in presuming to “represent” all of us.

Sanders closes the chapter with a brief description of a Samhain ritual on she observed on “Gallows Hill.” This ritual seems like the standard “open rite” performed for a general public: A bit showy, but very little depth. However, it’s vibrant colors and themes does provide a pleasant closing to Sanders’s first chapter.

One thing I will note on this chapter is that Sanders refers to “Gallows Hill” as the place where the witches of the Salem witch trials were hanged. I realize that she is merely repeating what tourists are told every year. However, I do find the fact that she didn’t look into the truth of this matter as a journalist a bit disappointing. Truth be told, there are no records that indicate where the historical Gallows Hill was. Danvers’s (formerly known as Salem Village — where the trials actually took place) best efforts to uncover this information has still born no fruit.

Reviewing Wicca’s Charm: The Inevitable Salem Stop

During this past Halloween season, I ran across an article by a woman named Catherine Edwards Sanders. In this article, she wrote a few comments on the growing interest in “Wicca” (she uses the term in a broader context than I do) and Paganism, as well as explaining how this growing interest represents a failure on the part of “the Church” as a whole. As part of her by-line on the article, she mentions that she also wrote a book on the same subject, whose title is Wicca’s Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality. Being the curious sort, I decided to order a copy. It came today, and so far I have torn through the preface and first chapter.

So far, I think the book deserves a fair amount of praise. This is not to say that I agree with everything the author says, mind you. Indeed, I think there are some points that need to be criticized. But so far, I think that the woman deserves a great deal of credit for setting her personal and religious views aside as much as possible and trying to understand the practices of those she observed and interviewed. As such, I feel it only appropriate to take a close look at her book and investigate both those areas where she made some excellent observations and those areas where her information, presentation of that information, or both are weak or faulty. It is my intention to do this in this blog — both this entry an future ones — as I read through the book.

The first thing I notice in chapter one is that it seems to me that the majority of her “sources” are from the “eclectic Wiccan” camp. (Even the one interviewee in this chapter that identifies as having become a Gardnerian says some thign I’d consider uncharcteristic of most Garderians, and I’ve met more than a few) I’m not sure if this is just the nature of this chapter — after all, it focuses mostly on her encounter with and investigation of the “Pagan” side of Salem around Halloween — or will continue through the book, but it does raise a bit of concern to me. After all, it raises a strong risk of painting all Pagans with the same broad brush. And even among the “Wiccans,” the image she’s portraying will not remain accurate for long.

Sanders actually opens chapter one by describing a “spell performed for spectators” that she witnessed. I must say that I admire Sanders for her even tone in the description of this rite. She neither tries to make it sound more sensationalistic than it is nor tries to deride it as a bunch of “nonsense.” Instead, she gives a matter-of-fact, clearly descriptive account. This account immediately demonstrates her sincerity in wanting to represent the subject of her books fairly and kindly. Truth be told, I felt she gave a much kinder description of the rite than i would have been inclined to offer, myself. After all, I’m inclined to call into question the very idea of doing a spell “so that spectators can watch” (and charging them for the privelege, no less!), whereas Sanders is willing to let such a dubious activity pass without challenge.

She then gives a brief “history” of Wicca, repeating the commonly held — if not entirely accurate in my opinion — view that Gardner and his colleagues cobbled the religion out of a number of sources. While she doesn’t come right out and say that she disbelieves the stories of Gardner’s involvement with New Forest Coven (or NFC’s very existence), she does seem to hint that she’s of that mindset. Of course, given her sources, that’s mostly understandable.

Sanders then offers four basic points that she considers to be common threads in the various practices of “Wicca.” I think that these four points deserve special consideration and examination, as they again demonstrate the kinds of “Wiccans” she was observing and interviewing. As such I shall take each point as she writes them. The first point, she summarizes as follows:

All is one — Wiccans hold the monistic and pantheistic beliefs that all living things are of equal value. Humans have no special place, nor are they made in God’s image. They have, for example, the same value as flowers, trees, or grass. The cosmos is undifferentiated universal engergy, and everything is one vast, interconnected process.

Based on the Wicca I know, I find it difficult to comment on how accurately it reflects their practice. It is neither entirely accurate, nor entirely inaccurate. Furthermore, it is rather difficult to point out to specific points within this statement and say “this is true, but that isn’t.” While it is true that the Wicca tend to believe that many people in our society tend to over-emphasize the value of human beings in comparison to the value of non-human life (or even those things that we don’t generally view as alive), I would not say go so far as to say that they see everything as being “the same” or “undifferentiated.” In fact, I’d argue that it’s quite the opposite. They see the individual and unique beauty of both humans and all other parts of the world around us, and they appreciate each one for its own greatness. In this sense, there is this idea of thigns being “valued differently,” which must be honored in it’s own right. Contrast this with the idea of being “less valued” or “more valued,” and you get a more clear idea.

Point two reads as follows:

You are divine — Wiccans believe they possess divine power within themselves and that they are gods or goddesses.

To be honest, I wonder how much of this point comes from Sanders’ communications with “public witches” like Laurie Cabot and those who follow them. Most of the Wicca I know — as well as most other witches and Pagans — hold no such belief. While it is true that the Wicca believe that each individual is a reflection and representative of the gods and that the gods can be seen within each individual, this is a far cry from actually believing one is a fully fledged god. It seems to me that Sanders has either met some rather unusual witches in her studies or she is misunderstanding what is actually believed by most.

The third point is as follows:

Personal power is unlimited — Wiccans believe that their power is not limited by a deity, as in Christianity.

This is the first point I think the Wicca I know might actually agree with her on. But to be honest, I’m surprised most of the “Wiccans” she spoke with also believe this. In my experience many people still have this idea that magic is still “asking” or “getting” the gods to do something for them, much as Christians see prayers of petition.

The fourth and final point reads as follows:

Consciousness can and should be altered through the pracice of rite and ritual — Wiccans believe in the supernatural realm and the practice of altered consciousness through rite, ritual, and spell-casting in which they tap into the power and energy of the unseens spirit world.

This is fairly accurate, though I might personally eschew the use of the word “supernatural.” Personally, I’m inclined to view the “spirit world” as natural as the “physical world,” just of a nature we can’t quite understand in the same way at this time. Indeed, I think that this constant tendency to separate the “physical” and “spiritual” or “supernatural” into two neat packages that have nothing to do with one another to be an area of concern. And unfortunately, it’s a tendency found in various forms of both Christianity and Paganism.

I think that Sanders next hits upon a goldmine, but then glosses over it too quickly. She mentions that “Wicca” seems to delight in having no orthodoxy (quoting what is probably one of the few actually useful things Aidan Kelly has ever said on the topic of Wicca in his entire life). She points out that rather than focusing on doctrine, direct experience seems to be important. This is something I personally do not believe that can be emphasized enough, as the proper performance of certain rites and the internalization of the resulting experiences is the heart and soul of Wicca. Unfortunately, this heart and soul is too often lacking in eclectic circles. In her own way, Sanders points this out as she goes on to say that “Wicca” is instead defined “in opposition to issues such as environmental degradation, the perceived patriarchy within Christianity, or monotheism in general.” If this is truly how the “Wiccans” Sanders interviewed see Wicca, then I am inclined to suggest that they “missed the boat” in that regards. Unfortunately, Sanders seems to be equally unaware of that state of affairs.

Sanders next tackles the question of Satan. In this area, Sanders deserves more praise. She again states clearly and almost emphatically that “Wiccans” do not believe they worship Satan. Moreover, she presses the issue by stating that she considers it inappropriate for Christians to accuse them of being Satan worshippers. In this, she does draw the fine line that there is a difference between believing that Pagans are “unwittingly” worshipping Satan in disguise (a position she implies that she holds herself) and believing they knowingly and explicitly worship him. It is the latter she is decrying in this part, and she makes a strong case for her views.

One thing that I do note about this part of her discussion is that she brings up that “Wiccans” don’t believe in Satan and the fact that they don’t believe in “absolute evil” in the same paragraph, suggesting the two are somehow linked. I find this curious, as it again suggests a belief on her part that Satan is the absolute source of evil (for more thoughts on this topic, I refer the curious reader back to an earlier entry I posted that touched on that line of thinking.

This chapter review has grown long. I think I will leave my remaining thoughts for another entry on another day. In the meantime, I hope my readers will find this review informative.