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Many people crave a spiritual life without wanting to belong to rigid religions with the almost unavoidable power structures and politics that involves. This book explores how to construct your own spiritual path, considering the implications of seeking a spiritual life without wanting organised religion to dominate it. As such it has applications for Pagans, atheists, agnostics, heretics from any mainstream faith, and seekers of all kinds.
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Pagan Portals Spirituality Without Structure
The power of Finding Your Own Path
By Nimue Brown
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Nimue Brown
All rights reserved.
Why Paganism Mostly isn't a Religion
Plenty of people who are not Pagans seem to think it is a single, coherent religion with all the usual trappings: books, temples, founders, leaders, structures, rules and order. This can cause some confusion. Even within Paganism, people seem to think Druids are all organised and like the Church, which is a long way wide of the mark. There are times when Pagans (and for that matter, Druids) find it easier to go along with this. For one thing, not everyone has the time or inclination for a proper explanation.
The most obvious point to make is that Paganism is not 'a religion' but a passably useful way of lumping together a likeminded minority. There are benefits to be derived from speaking with one voice, or being recognised as a group. There are many traditions within Paganism – Witches, Druids, Heathens, Shamans, Hellenics, Dianics, Kemeticists, Religio Romano, to name a few of the more obvious ones. There are a great many eclectics and own-path folk as well. Taken as individual groups, none of the sub-groups within Paganism are big enough to speak productively to government and the like. The grouping under a shared 'Pagan' banner has served us politically and in handling the media, but is better understood as a pressure group than as any kind of organised religion.
Even the above breakdown into major subgroups is misleading. There are plenty of people who identify across those lines, and who also connect with other religions. There are significant numbers of Christian Pagans and Pagan Buddhists, along with pretty much any other cross pollination you can think of. To further complicate things, subgroups can be divided up into sets that can be significantly different from each other. Druids can be animists, polytheists and non-theists. Alternatively you might look at revivalists, reconstructionists and neo-Druids. You could divide along the lines of Irish Druidry, Welsh, French and non-European, or further divide by country. Each has its own view of Druids, and many Druids are not in Orders. Some orders are more demanding of conformity than others. Druidry is not a single, coherent religion any more than Christianity is, once you get beneath the surface. However, in our case, the divisions are frequently arbitrary and tend to depend on your reasons for wanting to clump people into groups in the first place.
We could divide up any of the Pagan subgroups in this way, breaking Paganism down into ever smaller religions. Start dealing with individual Pagans and you'll find exceedingly individual definitions of path: Welsh Druid, Kitchen Witch, Celtic Shaman, Witchidruid, Polytheistic Bardic Druid, Brythonic reconstructionist. There are probably more kinds of Paganism than there are living Pagans to embody it all. There is a lot of commonality between these many labels and ways of practising, just as there is between the many subsets of other religions. When you compare Mormons, Catholics, Methodists and Jehovah's Witnesses, as a small subset of Christian diversity, it's clear that you can squeeze a lot of variety under one religious heading. However, in most defined religions, there's also a defined focus of worship and some core features in common, and we do not have those. Here are some of the key things we might be expected to hold in common were Paganism to be a single religion.
1. A core text that we hold sacred. (Also absent in Shinto, although we do have ancient Pagan texts for some paths.)
2. A named founder like Jesus, Abraham or Mohammed. (Shinto has no named founder and the modern witches have Gerald Gardner and Alex Saunders, arguably. Polytheistic religions tend to put less emphasis on founders than monotheism does.)
3. A set of core rules. (Many paths have their own ethical guidelines, but those do not deliver hard and fast 'thou shalts' that conform to other people's expectation of what ethics should look like.)
4. A single agreed opinion about the nature of deity, life after death or the meaning of life. (There can be more coherence within subgroups, but even here ideas can vary a lot. We may be unique in this.)
5. Some kind of earthly leader of the faithful. (There is no leader of Pagans, nor do any of the major subgroups have a 'Pope' equivalent. Jainism and Shinto have no leadership in this style either.)
6. Financial structures and property. (Any financial arrangements are at a very local level, which is also true of Jainism and Shinto.)
7. Converts. (This tends to be a monotheistic issue. Most traditional religions that relate to culture and heritage have no interest in cultures, so Judaism, Jainism and Shinto do not recruit either.)
8. Physical structures to worship in. (Ancient Pagans had temples, but for the greater part we do not own our spaces and do it outside. Plenty of other groups have managed with less formal meeting spaces at times in their history too.)
This list covers the external trappings and actions that can easily be seen by those considering a religion from the outside. Thus while many may assume Paganism is a lot like everything else, on closer investigation there are plenty who will decide that it isn't a 'proper' religion at all because it lacks these obvious features. The 'not a proper religion' argument is popular with those who wish to denigrate and disempower. However, given that there are two internationally recognised religions – Jainism and Shinto – that also lack a lot of the external trappings, this seems at best a poor excuse for prejudice. There is a lot more to spiritual coherence than structure. Our wider culture's tendency to emphasise superficial structure can make us oblivious to the far more important issues of what a religious group actually does in the world.
It is possible to discard the idea of religions as buildings and sacred books, and to consider them in terms of how they function and what they do. This both sheds an interesting light on more established religion and gives room for Paganism and other less structured faiths, in the process. Much of the time in this book I'm trying to step back and ask what religion does, and what spirituality does, and what the differences mean.
When we consider the activities of Pagans, we can bring to the table the undertaking of ritual, rites of passage, prayer and celebration. These are clear manifestations of spirituality and, arguably, of religion. Paganism has community and service aspects like many religions, there are teaching aspects, and there is an informal priesthood. We have a great deal that is spiritual in nature, and far less of the physical baggage that has attached itself to most standard religions in the past two thousand years or so. It would be tempting to argue that what we do is in fact older and more authentic. It is certainly more real.
Critics on the outside of Paganism will often suggest that a lack of the usual trappings mean a lack of depth. The flip side of this is that those same trappings can make it easy to go through the motions without doing anything remotely spiritual, uplifting or meaningful. The person who has no standard forms to fall back on, is obliged to invent and discover as they go and has no choice but to live their path. Such an approach demands relevance to the world we live in, requires responsibility and necessitates independent thinking.
There are groups within Paganism that choose or have fallen into fixed practice, come up with settled ritual and magical methods, adopted fixed prayers or otherwise landed in a groove. Anyone wanting and finding one of these more structured manifestations can of course treat it exactly like a regular religion. If you want an authority to turn to, a source of direction and the like, there are groups that can give you this. You can find codes, laws and required reading lists, clothing regulations and all of that structure. However, this is a complex and nuanced business, its precise functioning having everything to do with the people involved.
Individuals who want rules and a guru will find them, whether they were offered or not. In Monty Python's 'The Life of Brian', Brian loses a sandal whilst fleeing from a crowd. They take this as a sign that they are also to remove the left sandal. That's a subset of religious people in a nutshell. If you want that from Paganism, you can find or fabricate it. Outside of comedy films, this is a dull and unrewarding way to go. That which is understood is always so much more powerful than that which is merely accepted.
It is possible to enter fairly structured spaces and not be ruled by them. With its three levels of training, ritual designs and graded attire, The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids would seem at a first glance to be a bastion of structure. Those who go there seeking structures seem to find what they need. I'm a chaotic creature by nature, and went simply to learn. I found most of the formal bits were optional, there's no requirement to regurgitate any of it, and that I could learn and use what I found to develop my own practice with the support of my tutors. I found what I wanted to find, and I think we often do.
There's a lot of difference between an enabling structure, and power for the sake of it. People who want authority turn up in all religions and are easy to spot because they go around telling people what to think and how to feel. Authority needs to enforce itself. Sadly there are often desperately fragile egos in the mix, craving the reassurance that comes when no one argues with you. There are others who seek fame, power, status and wealth and simply see religion as a means to those ends. All too often, formal religions are not the enabling structures we might want them to be, but are instead corrupted by individual and corporate desires for power.
As human beings we seem to find strong leadership enticing. We like it when someone else takes the risks, makes the decision, solves the problems and tells us what to do. Religions can be very good at matching those who wish to graze quietly with those who wish to be shepherds. It is also worth remembering that you can just as easily match those who do not want to make much effort with the kind of shepherd who runs a very lucrative abattoir.
It is important to know yourself. Are you looking for comfort, a sense of security, some rules to follow, a nice plan for the afterlife and a routine? If so, then stay with regular religions and structures. If, on the other hand, you want spiritual experiences and to find your own answers, are not afraid to take risks, face setbacks and ask a lot of questions, then doing as you are told is never going to satisfy you.
This book is all about breaking out and doing it for yourself. I'll admit I have an agenda here. I think there is much to be troubled by in people who want power over other people, and over other aspects of the natural world. I believe the desire for power is driven by fear and that it is inherently destructive. I also believe that we do best when we seek harmony, tolerance and collaboration, and when we respect each other as equals. As soon as you try to control another person, you diminish them, and yourself.
The structure of religion is so often about control. There are too many issues around who has the right to make whom do what. The right to punish, to exile, own and to devalue can all be tied up in religious thinking too, and these are destructive influences across the globe. I'm much more interested in the power to control the self, and the self-discipline that is all about what happens inside an individual.
The trouble with having no structure or system – as is so often the case for independent modern Pagans – is ascertaining what you might replace that with. Figuring everything out from scratch is rewarding, and a profound journey in its own right, but you may have to start by working out what to work out in the first place and this can lead to a great deal of wheel re-invention. It is possible to learn a lot from the history and diversity of religion – Pagan and non-Pagan alike. We can learn without subscribing to any one system, drawing inspiration without abdicating personal power. I'm not suggesting a 'pick and mix' attitude to spirituality, but a process of stepping back to examine what religion is and does. We can learn from the areas of overlap and commonality. We can learn from the places of difference and conflict. I've gathered together much of what I've learned from reading about different religions and listening to a great many people. This is not the whole story. It's not even the tip of one. The drive for spirituality in humans and the history of religion are two vast topics that it would probably take lifetimes to understand. However, the attempt is always worth it and I hope this provides a useful jumping off point.
The Limitations of Standard Religion
The UK census of 2011 showed a significant drop since 2001 – 13% – of people identifying as Christians. There are around 30,000 atheists, 30,000 agnostics, and the number of people claiming 'no religion' is on the rise, as are the various forms of Paganism. The move away from traditional religion in this country is growing, and while Christians remain the majority, culturally we can no longer assume Christianity as a natural default. How many people within Christianity are part of a religious system and how many are more independent, is another question, but not all who claim to be Christian are following a system dictated to them by others anymore. Formal religion in this country no longer has the political force behind it to make it mandatory. Any religion that depends on legal force to maintain its membership, is not essentially about anything spiritual. Where religion moves away from force and power, it becomes more meaningful. If spirituality is a matter of soul, it cannot, by any reasonable understanding of what those words mean, be forced upon a person. This is as relevant an issue when considering the Taliban, as it is in the controlling desires of right wing Christian America.
When religious leaders express prejudice against women – who still aren't allowed to be bishops, and still have no status in other religions too, that's half the population potentially alienated. Gay and lesbian people continue to be denigrated by mainstream religion, and it is little wonder if they seek elsewhere for meaningful spiritual engagement. Human and compassionate behaviour does not exclude on these terms, but the traditional systems of religion are often laden with intolerance.
The books and rules of structured religions come from times so distant from our own as to be alien. What made sense in distant lands, thousands of years ago, has no ready application to modern life. Much of it makes no sense. The process of trying to wrap old thinking around new problems causes all kinds of difficulties, and tends to result in a loss of relevance. Either you leave the old behind, in which case you have lost the system, or you reinterpret what you do have and rely on modern human rethinks of what was supposedly divine thinking, or the inspiration of a great leader. Whichever way you go, something vital is bound to be lost. Who has a neighbour with an ass, much less reason to covet it? But, 'Do not envy your neighbour's car,' just doesn't carry the same ring of age and significance.
While for some, the structures supply comfort, stability and a sense of meaning, increasing numbers of people struggle with issues of relevance. Science has reduced our need for supernatural explanations. The power, wealth and inevitable corruption that feature in all huge organisations seem wholly at odds with any notion of spirituality. As that becomes ever more visible through the media, it becomes less tolerated. The way in which the Catholic Church protected paedophile priests is a prime example of the kind of behaviour which compromises structured religion in many people's eyes. The business-like nature of Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists smells more like capitalism than enlightenment. The same could be said of many monstrously expensive New Age interventions.
A glance at history shows us much to be uneasy about, with political power casting a baleful influence over religious practice. Holy wars, religiously endorsed tyrants, suicide bombers and martyrs show an alarmingly inhuman face to religious bodies. While there are many religious individuals who deserve every respect, there's frequently something unhealthy about religious structures. Perhaps it is simply that structures themselves breed hierarchies and tend to accumulate money. This makes religion attractive to people who seek power and money. Religion is often just another excuse to do as you will. It delivers an ideological structure that can carry the people in your power into war, oppression, death and madness. Here I think Shinto is an important example. A land-based, soulful spirituality, Shinto was utilised for politics during the Second World War, leading to Kamikaze pilots. The Kami in Shinto, are benevolent spirits of harmony and peace, Kamikaze is a horrible subversion to serve a brutal agenda. No wonder that for many people, the only answer is to retreat from all such systems. A church of one has little scope for corruption, but it is lonely.
Excerpted from Pagan Portals Spirituality Without Structure by Nimue Brown. Copyright © 2013 Nimue Brown. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Why Paganism Mostly isn't a Religion 7
The Limitations of Standard Religion 15
Spirituality is a Felt Thing 19
Build Your Own Philosophy 27
Spirituality without Certainty 33
Rational Religion 39
Finding Your Own Meaning 43
Intrinsic Paganism 47
Community without Dogma 53
Stories and Texts 59
No Ethical Guidelines 65
More Than Lip Service 73
A Better Life 77