Chaos, Authority, and Pagan Organizations

By Bullenwächter (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

At one time, I was a serious, believing Neo-Pagan.  One of the things peculiar to paganism in the modern world is a prevalence of orthopraxy, which is, a set of strictures or ritual that are practiced in a certain way without specific belief attached to them. Belief is left up to the individual. We are so used to the Christian framework that this can seem pretty alien.

This is especially clear when you socialize in large groups in the “pagan community”. In truth, I doubt the group has enough in common to really be called that, but they are more alike than they are with other believers, so…. there it is.  They associate together because of certain words that have a malleable set of meanings, so it creates a semblance of solidarity where none exists. They stand behind concepts so vague that just about anything can be let in.

The thing about orthopraxy is that it only works if the cultural mores are powerful enough to instill a consistent set of morals and social conventions. The trouble is, most of these people were fleeing other religions because of moral systems, to they are hesitant to put together their own.  Granted, it has happens anyway,  because people are people. But it’s not conscious, and isn’t enforceable. In other words, there is no way to deal with people who don’t agree with consensus– whatever that might happen to be. So this means there is no way to deal with  manipulators, disruptors, and predators of various stripes.

I was just as guilty of this kind of thinking as anyone else. I wanted to believe in the best of people all the time– and even rely on it being true.  It only became clear over time that questions of authority and morality is vital to the survival of any religious organization. If you don’t have at least a consensus, groups collate and tumble a part within a matter of years– or months.  After all, many pagan groups refuse to find even a rude consensus on belief– or even moral standards.  “Harm none” is so vague to be almost meaningless. Most discussions on what this means devolve into semantic warfare– which escalates to personal vendetta. When you can’t answer “what’s acceptable behavior”, it becomes obvious why the ancients vilified chaos.

This pathology leads to a whole host of problems in the “community”. Furthermore, the person willing to do the work to be an authority has a more than remote chance of being unhealthy for leadership– for a host of reasons. You can’t really reform your ranks or stop abuses if you have no agreed upon set of moral standards– and this perpetuated some terrible situations. Generally speaking if some moral issue came up as a problem, the group would rather fracture into warring factions than tolerate consensus.

I will admit, while I did study systematic, religious paganism, those were fairly few and far between. The Gardenarians (-ish) I knew were fully aware they were practicing a fertility religion, so they were against abortion and even suspicious about contraception.  Granted, those I talked to would not say they were opposed, but they did say they did not recommend it. Then they would bring up some fairly typical pro-life arguments, gently.  I will say that they showed more backbone in the matter than I’ve seen in some Catholic churches.  They also have a fairly coherent sense of order, and a strict hierarchy. By some standards within the community, they aren’t *real* neopagans at all. I suspect they will last longer than all the others combined, at least as a coherent organization.

But even they seemed to have intractable social fractures that led to periodic fragmenting– though this happened on a slower time frame, and was more shavings and splinters than shatterings.  Even the organized coherent groups besides those that had shared *morality*– even if they shared beliefs– would fragment and disintegrate.  I suppose it’s a part of being human, but everyone always seemed to be blindsided– and betrayed.

Witnessing this problem repeat itself over and over and over again, I asked myself– “well, how to the Christians deal with this problem?”  I looked at the protestants, and felt like I was jumping from the fire into the frying pan. A dear friend of mine is/was Catholic, and we started dating. Two years later we got married, and I converted into the Catholic faith. The rest is history.  Granted, there is a lot more to my story than this, but the chaos factor, and “Deity would not be giving everybody different answers and still love us and want peace, etc…” was a big issue.  I suddenly saw why a lot of people accused pagan deities of being demons in disguise.  From having witnessed the social dynamics of most groups alone, one got a sense that whatever spiritual benefits we received only managed a temporary peace.

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