Why You Don’t Have to be Ashamed of Paganism

Do not judge and you will never be mistaken. ~Jean Jacques Rousseau

If you are insecure about what you believe, much less what you practice, chances are you are losing your religion. Or perhaps the faith was not yours to keep to begin with? If you become embarrassed by the way your fellows worship, could it be a sign that you are simply prejudiced against your own kind, or that you really don’t belong? If you cannot join them, why are you there? Why complain and judge and spend so much time debating how they should change, when perhaps it is you who needs to make the change? If you are not dancing with your friends, the joy gets knocked out of you, and you cannot experience the joy the others are sharing. The only way to find your true way is to take a cue from your heart, step back, do not judge, and move towards that different beat calling you away…

If you find yourself ashamed of what you once loved, take it as yet another “ordinary” omen; you are growing into and beyond faith, moving past the surface you clung to, and soon you’ll prove to yourself what it is you truly believe. At some point we have to separate ourselves from the community we once identified with, and it is very healthy to become disillusioned with the behavior of our peers, especially when we decide it is time for us to create our own practices.  But it is also just as important to remember our roots, to honor where we have come from, and thank the people who fostered us during those early days when we first set foot on our path.

There are a great many young Pagans today who are ashamed of being associated with other Pagans and who are embarrassed by public performances of Pagan communities at Pagan Pride celebrations. This used to anger and upset me to tears. I took this as a terrible rejection, especially when close friends decided to no longer worship with me, or after many years apart I would find out they were not Pagan any more.  We would get into arguments over whose way of thinking and believing was more correct, or needed improvement, and we’d compare religious thought like who has more money in the bank.  I would tell myself that this is how we were showing each other we cared, yet we did was hurt each other and waste our time, time we could have spent building each other up instead of putting each other down.  With time, I’ve come to accept my friends’ choices to quit Paganism, not as a rejection, but as part of the personal spiritual journey they are going through. Who am I to judge them? And why should I care when they judge Paganism an embarrassment?  For I am certainly proud of it.

It reminds me of a time when some lesbians and gays would get embarrassed by all the flamboyant drag kings and queens on the floats at Gay Pride parades. “I don’t want people thinking that’s what we’re all about,” they would say, worried about the images of gays presented to mainstream America in the media.  It still pervades today among different subcultures across the world — we all get our panties in a bundle over stereotypes! So worried other people will lump us all in with the louder, weirder, crazier, fluffier, campy members of our little tribes that it keeps us from truly enjoying who we are and what we do.

The problem with letting this embarrassment get to you is the shame of it all. At the heart of being ashamed is humiliation and guilt: both are tell-tale signs that we make ourselves feel inferior to the point where we remain restrained by the anticipation of shame brought upon us by another culture we deem more powerful, all because we are guilty of belonging to a group we believe is without power. When we believe our community does not have power, we in turn believe we have no power when we stand with them, and we cease to believe our religion has no validity compared to other religions with less embarrassing behavior and practices.  When we are ashamed, we support powerlessness.  We cave in.

I am an invisible man…. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. ~Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, 1952

The other danger of letting embarrassment rule your judgment is the way in which you come to treat other people — will you let yourself fall into the Hall of Assholedom?  Or love, respect, and wisdom?  The people we are embarrassed of, are people we make invisible.  We stop validating their feelings, experiences, thoughts, and rights.  We start to judge them, not for the friends they are, but as strangers you deem them to be.  Even if you know them, you stop seeing them.  You don’t know what level they are standing at, or what they’re going through, and they have no more importance.  Even if you claim to live by a code of honor and be the best human being you can be; if you hold any prejudice against a group for being different (that includes flaky), you best check yourself.  It is not righteous or heroic to bully a group’s right to worship as they see fit, and they will worship and behave as they will, with or without your approval because it makes them happy.  The same goes for any individual who is different than you, too.  Let them be different.

When in a group, it is good etiquette to practice as the group does, improvise when the time is right, share ideas, and speak up! If you do not like working with a group, don’t work with a group. To get along with others it is essential to let people be who they are. Let them tell you what they are all about. Don’t assume you know all about them just based on how they look or even what they say. They might be deeper individuals than you think. People always surprise me once I get past that first impression. Judge a book by the cover? Covers lie, my friend. Ask any best-selling pop fiction author, they usually never get to pick what art will grace the cover of their books, but the content may blow your mind every time.

If you judge people you have no time to love them. ~Mother Teresa

I tend to fall in love with people no matter who they are, regardless of age or sex, and want to adopt them all as my family. Perhaps I am unique in that sense. I have never really been ashamed of the silly, fringe, New Age-y members of our community, however at one point I was greatly annoyed to the point of irritation. I was in my mid-twenties then, found myself surrounded by adults older than myself who talked about Witchcraft like teenagers giggling about boys, as if it all were the latest fashion, and I immediately assumed these women were definitely not going to stick with “the program”. Then I realized what a waste of time it was that I spent complaining about them. As I whiled away the time groaning over their girlish behavior, anxiety ate at my gut and I could not relax. They were really having fun and I was rotting like a big poop.

Focusing instead on being more productive, plus cutting loose and letting my (to *gulp!* quote one of those New Age phrases!) “inner child” out to play, was so much better. I often liken our rituals to getting outside to play! When you feel ashamed, you won’t dance or laugh, you can’t do anything but stand there feeling the fool. When you are free from shame, you’ll not feel like a fool, in fact you will be far from caring whether or not someone else thinks you are one. This is when being part of a group helps loosen the inhibitions. You’re not alone at play! You’re among your own kind and we will not judge you… at least that is the way it is supposed to be.

Why else do you think we swear perfect love and perfect trust? That was not made up to procure fantasy.

You do not have to change an entire religion in order for one person, or a new generation, to feel comfortable and respected by the rest of the world. There are reasons why neo-Paganism is the way it is and why it will remain so. There are no rules other than:

  • Everyone has the right to follow their own Path
  • We believe in a Higher Power(s) — God/desses
  • Nature is to be venerated

So why worry about what other people think? When confronted with co-workers, family, strangers on the bus, or other silly persons who snicker at the religion I identify with, I adopt an attitude of being Un-Spookable, because ultimately my religion is a personal issue that is left out of their business (they can say whatever they want, but they can’t take it away from me and I shall not be bothered!). When I’m at a job, I’m there as an employee. I leave my private life at home. If someone brings up my beliefs, or anything else that is private, I do not discuss those things at a job. It’s not professional to get friendly like that. If a boss Googles me, they are sticking their nose in my personal business. It does not matter if I have made my blog public and that I call myself Valentina the Witch, that is my persona separate from any other job I’m hired to do. Yet. I have it easy. I’m freelance, it does not matter if I advertise myself as a Witch or not, it goes along with my illustration.

It’s weird that nowadays folks find it easy to make fun of Pagans and Witches then be afraid of them! There are still some parts of the world where announcing your religion of choice could get you killed, yet at least here we can express our spirituality as we see fit. In the late 1980′s/early 90’s when I first discovered Witchcraft, I saw a few Goddess-centered public rituals that were pretty damn intense that included nudity, fire, mud, and large statuary representing giant genitalia. Back then more people were spooked by Paganism not scoffing at it!  A lot of people liked the tenets of belief and practice, yet weren’t as brave or wild to invent such crazy performances, so even then there were people embarrassed by that. Thus began movements to tame down ritual into simple, child-like, easy-to-swallow forms for personal and public use.

Pagan religion, movements, traditions… they are always evolving, changing, rituals get rewritten, no one way is supposed to be the only way, you make your way of worship your own way.  This is not disorganization.  This is individualization.  It is the way all of religion is flowing into the future.

Most Pagans today find an introduction to our religion by books, or by websites, much of which filled with half-truths and myths written mainly to lead an individual to further study.  In our age with the instant gratification of information and popular spirituality, we have a multitude of authors (some posers, some true authorities) out there to test young minds.  Yet I find that part of being Pagan is discovering the truth behind the fictions we are given.

I once had a teacher who was a terrible drug addict and dealer! I did not know it at the time, but there was something about him that did not feel right to me, some of the things he said and did were off, and after finding out how messed up he was, I still walked away with mighty lessons. He taught me what NOT to do, but even though he was delusional, he was a powerful magician with years of herbal medicine experience and introduced me to other Witches who weren’t addicts who taught me more than he could. His behavior was appalling, and perhaps someone else may have walked away in disgust, never again to dabble in the Craft, but not me.  Even the worst guide can still be a guide.

Our thoughts are unseen hands shaping the people we meet. Whatever we truly think them to be, that’s what they’ll become for us. ~Richard Cowper

I find that often Paganism is a gateway religion for many seeking another path that is out there for them to discover and experience. Yet I would advise you all not to abandon Paganism for a passing fad, or continue to treat Pagans with harsh criticism because you have come to the conclusion that it does not work for you, or you find you do not fit in with the crowd. If any of you grew up in a strict religious family, or have ever been confronted with ultra-right-wing religious conservative people,  you would do well to remember how having their doctrine forced upon you felt. And the more someone argued with you, attempted numerous times to convince you how wrong you are, and policed your behavior with phrases like “you ought to be ashamed of yourself!” while you were simply just being different, the less you stayed within the church of your upbringing, and the less their words had any effect on you. Pagans are against that practice. Why?  Because we are not a religion that hates or inhibits anyone’s freedom.  We do not force people to stay in a religion that they are embarrassed of, or have out grown. If you must move on, please go in peace. We will not try to change you.  We ask nothing from you.  Just be yourself.

So, please, with all due respect, do not try to change us. Because we’re happy with ourselves. We’re not ashamed like you are. Don’t shape us into what you think we are. You might someday discover we never fit that mold to begin with. But we’ll forgive you just the same.

As for me, this Witch always has room in her heart for you, who ever and where ever you are, no matter what religion or subculture you belong to, and even if you think me silly and want nothing to do with me, I’ll miss you while I dance with the whole wide world under the pale moonlight!

7 comments on “Why You Don’t Have to be Ashamed of Paganism

  1. “If you are insecure about what you believe, much less what you practice, chances are you are losing your religion.”
    Or perhaps you are just going through the natural and healthy process of growing your religion, individually and collectively.

    “do not judge …”
    The injunction to not judge deprives us of the gift of discrimination and makes no more sense in the Pagan context than it does in the Christian one.

    “It reminds me of a time when some lesbians and gays would get embarrassed by all the flamboyant drag kings and queens on the floats at Gay Pride parades. ‘I don’t want people thinking that’s what we’re all about,’ they would say, worried about the images of gays presented to mainstream America in the media.”
    I think this is a good analogy, and I think in both cases it is a legitimate concern.

    “I tend to fall in love with people no matter who they are […] and want to adopt them all as my family.”
    That seems pathological and potentially dangerous.

    “So why worry about what other people think?”
    Because no one is an island.

    “I saw a few Goddess-centered public rituals that were pretty damn intense that included nudity, fire, mud, and large statuary representing giant genitalia. Back then more people were spooked by Paganism not scoffing at it! […] Thus began movements to tame down ritual into simple, child-like, easy-to-swallow forms for personal and public use.”
    Yes, this is exactly what I was talking about in my post. I’m not suggesting we starting scaring people, but given the choice, I’d rather be scary than silly.

    “We do not force people to stay in a religion that they are embarrassed of, or have out grown.”
    Much of your post assumes that embarrassment is a sign that it is time for you to leave the religion. There is another option. Staying, and working *constructively* to change it from within. Community is something we create together, and I don’t think think telling everyone to do their own thing and not judge anyone else is a good way to foster real community.

    “So, please, with all due respect, do not try to change us. Because we’re happy with ourselves. We’re not ashamed like you are.”
    You assume that being ashamed of others is the same as being ashamed of oneself. That is a non-sequitur. Also, in my experience, people who are not ashamed of who they are can take criticism well. A community that discourages constructive criticism of itself is setting itself up for failure.

    • Valentina says:

      “The injunction to not judge deprives us of the gift of discrimination and makes no more sense in the Pagan context than it does in the Christian one.”

      It is only healthy to make distinctions for one’s self in regards to choosing what to believe and deciding the truth in any context, based on personal experience and spiritual study. Yet to stand in judgement as in “I am better than *this culture over mine* because I believe my way is best” is a kind of harsh discrimination akin to racism that we all should guard against. We need to make sure we are not acting out of arrogance when we interact with people who align with us in our own religion. Better to just nod and smile and carry on with what we do, let them have their experiences and encourage them on their path, because for all we know they will eventually get to where we are, or move on to something else. It’s not for us to “judge” or even be ashamed of them. We can only be ashamed of ourselves if we do something stupid!

      Better also to set an example than complain. I’m all for that instead of writing down ways to improve the lot. It’s the way I learned. Pull, not push.

      Presenting a good example will also help us in regards to interacting with people of other faiths and the rest of humanity, yet we are so diverse (just like the whole world) and we need to appreciate each other for who we are, not for what we want each other to be. Taking the time to learn more about each other will help break the stereotypes and barriers, especially within our own communities. We also have to relax more and have fun. I think of how much drag is now so mainstream it is celebrated as an art form not only in the LGBT community — coming a long way from just 20 years ago when it was only a gay club thing — to a legitimate career in the entertainment business.

      “I tend to fall in love with people no matter who they are […] and want to adopt them all as my family.”
      That seems pathological and potentially dangerous.

      Oh, I did not mean to make that sound so extreme! I may have exaggerated that a bit too much. My love is not pathological and I’m not dangerous. 😉 I’m just a great friend.

      “So why worry about what other people think?”
      ‘Because no one is an island.’

      Well… I try not to let it get me down. Often times we have to turn a deaf ear to criticism and listen to our own hearts, because we cannot be everything others want us to be.

      “Much of your post assumes that embarrassment is a sign that it is time for you to leave the religion. There is another option. Staying, and working *constructively* to change it from within. Community is something we create together, and I don’t think think telling everyone to do their own thing and not judge anyone else is a good way to foster real community.”

      Very true! I should have pointed that out and thank you for bringing that up. I focused too much on how this issue has been the cause for people abandoning our communities. However, not every Witch and Pagan can always stay within a group for long, and the religion we have respects freedom and individuality. It has been that way from the beginning. When fostering and nurturing a Pagan community, the best way to encourage people to leave is to try to push them to stay, at least that I learned from experience. The best groups I’ve been a part of were ones where authority was communal and the members were all from different traditions. I know that sounds weird and totally non-conductive of cohesion, but we would vote each week who would lead ritual and what kind of rite it would be, that way we’d learn directly from each other’s ways. It was a great way to get to know people and I really learned a lot about other Pagans that way. I think more Pagans should gain experiences like that.

      “You assume that being ashamed of others is the same as being ashamed of oneself. That is a non-sequitur. Also, in my experience, people who are not ashamed of who they are can take criticism well. A community that discourages constructive criticism of itself is setting itself up for failure.”

      If someone is ashamed of others within one’s own community, or one’s own family, there is something wrong with how that person is identifying with their group and where they come from. They cannot associate themselves with others and prefer to stand outside of that group. There is nothing wrong with that, but to continue to complain about it ad nauseam where nothing is truly done to change one’s position or attitude to encourage a positive change within their community, does not serve a genuine purpose. It is one thing to criticize, it’s quite another to act. It’s easier to criticize. Just criticizing constructs nothing.

      That is why some criticism goes ignored because it does not serve a purpose, it’s just bitching. The people who complain have no real investment in the community and are not actively involved in the groups they are ashamed of. They sit outside of these people, mocking and ridiculing them instead of giving them a helping hand, or volunteering their wisdom. This keeps these “young souls” (for lack of a better term to call them) who only know how to perform New Age-influenced spells and rites “fluffy” and ignorant. If you see a need, get involved! Get to know those people, don’t stand by and be embarrassed, because maybe they need you.

      Nearly all Pagans and Witches I know are taught to be prepared for any kind of criticism, because to be part of this religion is still a little outside the mainstream. If you cannot withstand standing up to it, many who choose to be a part of this community quickly find it’s not for them. Those that stay remain steadfast and proud. That is why I find it strange that anyone would be ashamed or embarrassed of their fellows. This is something very new to this generation and I am trying to understand why.

      I am all for hearing anyone’s opinion, but when at some point, when all it is is nothing but the same bitching and no volunteering, I let it go. There is nothing I can do to help people who don’t help themselves or others, or who do not want my help. I have 22 years of experience and am perfectly willing to give of my time, yet many young people prefer to not give respect, just more criticism.

      There are a lot of new Pagans who are more arrogant than kind, who think they know new ways of how to make things better, who want to start new traditions, even altogether new religions, but there is value to old ways. Sure, we should allow our voices to be heard and speak our minds, yet we need to listen as well. There is not enough listening going on. A community full of talking and no doing will never get anything constructed.

      We can get a little embarrassed over the folks who, like crazy cousins act goofy at family get-togethers, but their behavior is a petty issue when we are faced with the real work we really need to get done in this world. Don’t you agree?

      • Valentina, thanks for your thoughtful and measured response. I think some of our differences may boil down to a difference of personality type: me being a little more Type-A, and you seeming to be more of a peace-keeper. But more fundamentally, I think we may be talking about two different experiences. Let me give an admittedly extreme example to demonstrate what I mean: I like the analogy to the embarrassing relatives at the family reunion: The question is, are we talking about the silly uncle who always insists on telling off-color jokes or are we talking about the uncle that sexually abuses the nieces? Or are we talking about something in the middle? You wrote “If someone is ashamed of others within one’s own community, or one’s own family, there is something wrong with how that person is identifying with their group and where they come from.” I think you would agree that there is good reason to be ashamed in the case of the abusive uncle. Now, I admit that I am not talking about behavior that is abusive, but neither do I see shallow public rituals at Pagan Pride Day to be a case of mere silliness. Or rather, it is is silly, and that is why it is a serious problem. I think there is a role for constructive criticism, and I think sometimes the love-and-let-live attitude can be as problematic as destructive criticism. I appreciate that there is a difference between constructive criticism and “bitching”. In the blogosphere, I think the difference is that constructive criticism is characterized by openness and vulnerability and backed up by personal experience. I strive to be an example of the former, but I don’t always succeed.

      • Valentina says:

        Very awesome points to consider! Thank you for bringing that up. This reminds me of a situation where a coven of mine and I took action against a pedophile who was molesting underage girls, claiming it was normal Wiccan practice and that his arrest was an infringement on his freedom of religion. It created an uproar in my community, yet no one else was willing to stand up to the media. That marked the first time I really stood up and “came out of the broom closet” on television. I did it not for fame, but for education, and it got a lot of people talking. Now in my humble little city when people mention Paganism, they aren’t afraid of it, yet over the years I’ve noticed they don’t necessarily respect it.

        Those that don’t respect it, I cannot help them. The number of people who do respect me and my fellows, however, out number the ones who ridicule. I do not pay them as much mind.

        Don’t forget I really appreciate what you’ve written! My blog post wasn’t totally in response to yours, but mostly in response to the number of friends I’ve had who have quit Paganism due to the religion simply not meeting what they are looking for anymore, or because of complaints about other Pagans, something I think is questionable on their parts.

  2. […] the Witch responded to my post with “Why You Don’t Have to Be Ashamed of Paganism.”  Valentina suggests that I may be on my way out of the Pagan community because I have violated […]

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