PBP12: L is for Labels
(Ho shit I am caught up!)
I have a really love-hate relationship with religious labels.
On the one hand, they are really useful in conversation- when applied properly, at least. They can reveal world-view, bias, approach, belief… They make complex and detailed conversations possible.
On the other hand, they are so frequently misapplied, and some people (especially newbies) seem to think that having all the right labels is what’s important. Both of these things make me want to tear my hair out.
So let’s go over some really common ones, shall we?
“Pagan”, for example, is a religious label. It’s one I use, though I don’t like it. It is so broad that it is essentially meaningless- “not JCI and self-identifies as pagan.” There is a lot of wiggle room under that umbrella. Telling someone I’m pagan is worthless; I might as well just say “I’m not Christian or Jewish” because that involves a lot less explaining. (I live in New England, USA- Christian is the default assumption. Based on my coloring and my nose, people sometimes assume that I am Jewish, the other “acceptable” American religion. I have never had someone assume that I was Muslim, after explaining I was neither Jewish or Christian.)
“Nature-worshipper” is a religious label that gets tossed around a lot. It has an amazing ability to make Cauldronites foam at the mouth, because it has been misapplied so consistently in our history. If you believe that all pagans are nature-worshippers, let me give you a hint: you have been misinformed. Nature-worship is certainly something that some pagans do; I might even go so far as to say many pagans are nature-worshippers. But it is not universal, and I can tell you from experience that it is really, really annoying and frustrating and generally unpleasant to be told you’re something when you’re not, particularly by people who don’t freaking know you.
“Devil-worshipper” is a religious label that also gets misapplied a lot, usually by poorly informed non-pagans. It is often used interchangeably with “Satanist” but that’s not always correct. Devil can be generic, though it is generally used to refer to the Christian Devil, Lucifer, widely known as Satan. Satan was originally a job-title, though, and not a name; likewise, the ha-Satan of Jewish myth was not an evil entity, as the Christian Satan is. At any rate, I’ve only come across a few Satanists- none in real life- so it’s certainly not a universal label for the pagan world.
“Witch” is a fun one. It can be a religious label, but it doesn’t have to be, because witchcraft is not inherently a religious practice. Sometimes it is culturally derived; sometimes it’s practiced by atheists, or agnostics. Men sometimes don’t like to call themselves witches- it is, historically, a generally feminine word- but the alternative that I see pop up, “warlock”, is actually not a good choice. (It means ‘oath-breaker’.) There are a lot of assumptions surrounding the label witch- from modern stereotypes of green faced hags, or tv actresses throwing fireballs from their fingers- to faux-historical crap about the “Burning Times” and “ancient matriarchal witch cult”- to the idiocy of “genetic witches”, and more. It’s not a bad label, but it’s easily misused, and because of the disparity in definitions the reality may not be what you think.
“Wiccan” is another one that gets slapped on anything that breathes (er, so to speak) with little regard for the truth. Fun fact: pagan does not equal Wiccan. Wicca is a very specific pagan religion- or rather, at this point, group of somewhat related religions. There’s Traditional Wicca, or British Traditional Wicca (BTW) which may or may not predate Gerald Gardner and the 1950′s, which is lineaged, initiatory and oath-bound. It involves a specific god and specific goddess, whose names are oathbound and are referred to as the Lord and the Lady. Then there’s Neo-Wicca, which derived from the non-oath-bound BTW material that got published and photocopied and spread; it may be initiatory or not, it may be oath-bound or not, but it can’t trace its lineage back to Gardner. It may be coven-oriented, as BTW is, or may not; it may be hard- or soft-polytheistic. Both ways are legitimate but they are not the same thing, and they are definitely not the only pagan religion(s) out there.
“Polytheistic” is a pretty straight-forward one- it means ‘many gods’, so a polytheist is one who believes in more than one god. It is frequently used with the qualifiers “hard” and “soft”, which is less obvious in meaning. Soft polytheists believe in many gods, but generally see them as facets or archetypes of each other- all sun gods are the same, all water goddesses are the same, etc, just with different cultural names and conceptions. This might boil all the way down to all gods are one god, all goddesses are one goddess- or even further into all deities are a manifestation of a single entity. Hard polytheists believe that all deities are unique, individual entities, who cannot be mixed and matched. In reality, hard- and soft-polytheism are just two ends on a spectrum, and many people fall somewhere in between.
“Animism” can be boiled down into one phrase (which I have swiped from TC, and I believe Sunflower originally coined): Everything is alive! Animists believe that everything in the universe is alive and has a spirit, even inanimate objects. Animism isn’t a religion, but a world-view that crops up in a lot of religions.
“Pantheism” is another term like animism; it is a world-view that pops up in religions but is not a religious system in and of itself. Pantheists believe that God (or the divine, or however you want to phrase it) is synonymous with the Universe and existence. They are one in the same, with no distinction. the Divine = the Universe.
“Panentheists” is similar but not the same as panetheism- I used to get these two mixed up a lot. (And I still do if I’m tired.) Panentheists believe that everything in the universe is divine- like pantheists- but also believe that the divine exists beyond it. the Divine = the Universe +.
“Reconstructionist” is a label used by some pagans; it is not a religion itself but rather an approach to religion. Recons look at a religion that has ceased to be practiced and try to rebuild it in the modern day, generally incorporating aspects of the culture at the time, because before the Romans the two were inseparable. Recons have a reputation for being bookish and academic, and sometimes elitist and quarrelsome. Reconstructionism is difficult to do well, honestly, though many people give it a good effort.
“Eclectic” is also an approach, and many reconstructionists consider eclecticism to be their antithesis. Instead of focusing on a single religioculture, eclectics pick from multiple sources and make something new. Eclectics have a reputation of being flighty, superficial, and ignorant; like reconstructionism, making a sound and coherent eclectic practice is not easily done, but it’s a very common approach.
Did I miss any big ones? What religious labels do you use? (I’m a hard-polytheistic, animistic, panentheistic, eclectic witch, myself! (What a mouthful! ))