I’ve had several conversations recently with a peculiar manifestation of Christian baggage, both in a total newcomer to Paganism and from someone who has been tentatively engaging in it for years. Most people, as I talked about last week, come to paganism with an adversarial view of Christianity, but what I didn’t spend time on is the fact that others arrive because some fundamental aspect of their former religion simply didn’t work for them.
This can actually be more difficult to deal with because rather than simply overlooking aspects of holdover baggage, or dismissing pagan ideas because they associate them with Christianity, some people may in fact cling to elements of Christianity and attempt to force a cross-shaped object into an Ankh-shaped hole, as it were, because they *don’t* hate their background. The issue with this is that it can still result in a critical stagnation in someone’s growth because they default to the easy road, rather than the productive one.
One of these individuals expressed interest in a new pagan tradition but has some noted affinity for their former tradition. What resulted is a pretty classic situation that many long-time pagans who have tried to guide newcomers have probably dealt with: what started as a prospective convert voicing their ignorance and asking for advice and guidance quickly devolved into the same admittedly ignorant person obstinately claiming that they know their spiritual path best, and other pagans coming to their defense, shouting about how there is no wrong way to do anything.
If there is no wrong way to do things, then paganism may as well not exist. If there is no wrong way to do things, then no identity can ever be built, and we are all just as well off to cease trying.
Dialogue ended up being shut down, as is often the case. My hope is that this person will continue to grow in their religious tradition, but my concern is that they will be met with communities that continue to foster the assertion that there is no wrong way of doing things, and that anything you come up with is the best way to do things for you. I’ll spend more time on that in another post, because I think it’s one of the most insidiously pervasive notions in pagan communities and that it’s a significant part of their stagnation.
The other incident was an individual who has been shifting between paganism and other religious traditions for a while, never fully committing to any one path. In particular, they voiced yet another familiar concern that long-time pagans will have heard: “Paganism is lacking a richness of living traditions that I find in Catholicism.” This is a bit of a mixed bag, as far as critiques go. In some ways, it’s absolutely true; in others, it is often more a case of being unfamiliar with what actually exists in various pagan religions.
Paganism is absolutely lacking in terms of the broader infrastructure that more dominant faiths enjoy; we do not typically have public temples, weekly services, or established priesthoods (though there are a few exceptions to this). But other criticisms, that we lack rituals or living traditions, or methods of direct interaction with the divine such as prayer, fall rather flat. I don’t think this is necessarily a failing of those investigating Paganism for the first time, but rather a failing of our established communities (or in some cases, the lack thereof) to make information readily available. This is something that’s being fixed; there are certainly more resources now than there were even five years ago. But the primacy of inclusivity often thwarts our directing people towards these resources, or developing our own practices or familiarizing ourselves with our traditions enough to be able to explain things to newcomers.
I believe that the more we can develop and promote our own living traditions—because we do have them; everything we do and engage in is the building and perpetuating of living traditions—the more we help make paganism accessible to newcomers. More importantly, I believe that the more we develop these things, the more that accessibility can be framed in terms of welcoming religious paths that provide a rich spectrum of fulfilling traditions, engaging practice and meaningful interface with the multitude of divinities that we worship.
Most people come to paganism because they feel something is missing, and to be welcoming because our paths truly have something to offer, rather than solely because we provide an environment where anything goes, will do much more to fill that void. It may require more work, it may require more learning and more unlearning than they initially think, but we have to do more than give people a reason to come to paganism. We must give them reasons to stay.