Neo-paganism is an invented tradition?
December 28, 2000 4:32 PM   Subscribe

Neo-paganism is an invented tradition? A fairly persuasive Atlantic Monthly article argues that the dogma behind neopaganism is, well, made up. I swear I'm not just posting this to disprove Sean's gripe about which religions are ok to criticize on Mefi.
posted by norm (33 comments total)
All religons contain "invented tradition" some have just been around longer than others.
posted by birgitte at 4:47 PM on December 28, 2000

But not all religions were invented more-or-less out of whole cloth within living memory. If we could reliably point to the original source of, say, Christianity and show that it had nothing to do with what it claimed, well, that might warrant an Atlantic article too. And if we could use that to deprogram credulous people or at least get them to be a little more sophisticated about the basis for their belief, that would be good too.

I know any number of people who just KNOW, without any more evidence than the fact that someone told them so and they wanted to believe it anyway, that there used to be a peaceful, just, matriarchal society that worshipped the Goddess before those mean Indo-Europeans/Christians came and ruined everything, or that there was a peaceful, just society in Britain ruled by Druidic magic("k") before those mean Celts/Romans/Germans/Christians etc. etc. And they're just absolutely unpersuadeable otherwise, and this airtight belief system permeates their entire sense of engagement with modern life--rationality and patriarchy and skepticism become all one big oppressive bundle.

So I like this article because it confirms that the big whiff of ludicrousness I get from Wicca and neo-paganism isn't all in my own head.

Off topic: the article by Eric Schlosser on the "flavor industry" is excellent too. The Atlantic often is kind of a dud, but the new issue has some excellent stuff.
posted by rodii at 5:46 PM on December 28, 2000

I know one religion which was invented "out of whole cloth" within living memory: The Church of Scientology.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:21 PM on December 28, 2000

You always find the kind of evidence you're looking for, IMO. I think its interesting that the author of the article is also the author of a book called "The Search for the Historical Jesus." The problem is that everything, including 'histories' and belief systems change and evolve over time and use and blending. Modern Christians might say that they don't believe in reincarnation and that the bible supports that, while historians might point out that Constantine ordered all references to reincarnation stricken from the bible. Does this mean that modern Christianity is not supported historically? Again, depends on what kind of evidence you're looking for.

I think that the idea of Wicca offers people an option that many of the major religions don't stress, a 'reason' for accepting their own feminine nature (whether male or female) as both valid and powerful. It may seem a bit 'contrived' to others because often its chosen more consciously than other, perhaps more traditionally accepted (and born into) religious belief systems. The Catholic who converts to Judaism and sets up a menorah might also feel that same sense of 'deliberateness' or 'contrivance' in some ways.

I find the author's estimation of there being only 200,000 Pagans or Wiccans (did I get that right? I did skim through the article quickly) to be extremely surprising and my gut reaction is that the number is at least ten times more than that. Unless she was pointing out strict "Wiccans" ("pagan" is just a term for "non-Christian" and the author must have been aware of that?)

Personally, I think all religions are 'created' and 'recreated' as we go; while historical evidence provides fodder for a seemingly well-quoted and researched article, it's essentially unimportant. Especially considering that the 'victors' or those in power usually write the histories.
posted by thunder at 7:57 PM on December 28, 2000

they're just absolutely unpersuadeable otherwise, and this airtight belief system permeates their entire sense of engagement with modern life--rationality and patriarchy and skepticism become all one big oppressive bundle.

Sounds vaguely similar to adherents of a variety of other religions...

But isn't one of the fundamental requirements of a religious movement to have much of its basis in questionable history and false assumptions? What true historical facts are really interesting enough to base religions on?

Just a little Yuletide humor for the kiddies.
posted by daveadams at 8:15 PM on December 28, 2000

Thunder, I agree. I thought there would be many more too.

100 years ago a good share of christians would have gawked at woman priests (or whatever it was the woman weren't allowed to be - probably black folk too). Now priests are allowed to have sex changes, or be gay so long as they do not have sex (they have the desire, they don't act on it). This is allowed because now the members know God's true message! (har! har!). Oprah's unifying 'all religions are the one' guff about 'eternal spirit' and 'the one creator' got right up my Hindu friend's nose, but I see religion going that way.

Religion, ho hum. Give me sunday morning cartoons any day.
posted by holloway at 8:24 PM on December 28, 2000

All belief systems (including science) are simply ways of modeling the world. Given that it's impossible for an organism with a limited consciousness (like a human) to really, fundamentally see the universe or properly understand it we must all find some way to model it that works for us. The question that I would ask is: which belief system (or set of beliefs if you prefer) is the most practical way to model things?
posted by davidgentle at 8:31 PM on December 28, 2000

Davidgentle: The GPL.
posted by holloway at 8:38 PM on December 28, 2000

(off topic):Actually, I am verging on entering into a relationship with the Tao of Stallman. I may well buy a Linux distro today.
posted by davidgentle at 9:35 PM on December 28, 2000

Wicca and Scientology were created at roughly the same time, the late-1940s/1950s, from what I remember of past reading.

Everything I have seen about Wicca indicates that it is a 100% contemporary construct. There is no evidence that pre-agricultural societies are or were matriarchal. There were indigenous European religions that one can describe as "pagan," and there were mystery religions, but there were so many of them and of such variety that pretending Wicca is some approximation has to be silly.
posted by tranquileye at 6:28 AM on December 29, 2000

Is anyone really surprised by this? As a Wiccan priestess told me once, we don't know what the ancients did, but we have access to the same sources they used. If there are gods, they can still speak. If we want to invent things, we're as capable of this as people were a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand years ago.

posted by rosvicl at 7:12 AM on December 29, 2000

The article isn't awful, but it does suffer now and then from the Austen-lesbian problem (I wish to prove X about Y, so I define Y such that X is true about it):

"There is now widespread consensus among historians that Catholicism thoroughly permeated the mental world of medieval Europe, introducing a robust popular culture of saints' shrines, devotions, and even charms and spells. The idea that medieval revels were pagan in origin is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation."

I performed an experiement and read this passage aloud to several professional historians, each of whom had roughly the same reaction: "But that's not Catholicism either!"

posted by grimmelm at 8:12 AM on December 29, 2000

Christianity is an invented tradition? I'd have to guess that all traditions are invented. Soem are just newer than others.
posted by rklawler at 9:35 AM on December 29, 2000

Surely a religion should be judged by its results. Which god/creed better serves humankind, around whom the universe clearly revolves? What have they done for me lately?? By this measure, Christianity and most other religions fall far short, tending only to produce objective good for those fairly high up the institutional hierarchy.

Since Wiccans can derive demonstrable benefit from their religion, it is clearly superior from a utilitarian perspective, and therefore the rational choice would be for us all to adopt it.
posted by rushmc at 12:11 PM on December 29, 2000

"Invented tradition" doesn't mean it's a tradition, and some time someone invented it. It means that the traditional aspect of it is what was invented. Think the Onion's "Our Dumb Century." Or, you know, when God created the world back in 4004 BC and thoughtfully strewed dinosaur fossils and rock strata everywhere so that we'd imagine the earth was billions of years old. Or when Starhawk claims that Wicca is a survival of 35,000-year-old religious practices.

When Elron created Scientology, he didn't claim that it came from Atlantis or Mu, did he? Its modernism was part of the appeal. But when Gerald Gardner created Wicca, he invoked an "ancient" coven of witches as his source, and through them to much older traditions. As far as anyone can tell, it isn't true, and his real sources were more prosaic. The persistence of the hokey "ancient Goddess religion" idea says more about our contemporary need for authenticity--even fake authenticity--than it does about Wicca itself.

(There's an interesting discussion to be had somewhere about the Old Testament, and how it represented an attempt by some late-antiquity Jews to invent a tradition out of earlier, often contradictory, sources--the whole canon-formation thing. But I'm scared of that discussion. :)
posted by rodii at 1:23 PM on December 29, 2000

it is clearly superior from a utilitarian perspective, and therefore the rational choice would be for us all to adopt it.

If utility was the highest level of value we’d all drive Yugos and speak Esperanto.

Bushyhead deserved what he got.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 1:56 PM on December 29, 2000

100 years ago a good share of christians would have gawked at woman priests (or whatever it was the woman weren't allowed to be - probably black folk too)

I'm fairly certain that a good share of christians were Black folk 100 years ago. Women, too. Were Black, that is. And christian.

posted by sudama at 2:17 PM on December 29, 2000

Hey, if it works for you and doesn't hurt anyone else, go nuts. Lots of people think Star Trek is an ideal model for how they should live their lives, and I don't think anyone will claim that it is based on fact (if someone can find a link proving me wrong, I'd love to see it).

I think that with religion, you're either in or you're out. If something compels you to latch on to a certain religion it doesn't matter how much proof to the contrary exists, you're still going to believe.

Personally, I am a blind-faith follower of the Church of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Stories in our religion are passed down from our elders telling us of past glories. We hear about great men and famous quests for the Holy Grail known to us as the "Stanley Cup". And although I've never witnessed the winning of this cup, I still firmly believe that we shall once again rise up as the hockey gods' chosen people.

Happy holidays to one and all, or as they say in my religion, Go Leafs Go.

posted by mzanatta at 4:47 PM on December 29, 2000

(There's an interesting discussion to be had somewhere about the Old Testament, and how it represented an attempt by some late-antiquity Jews to invent a tradition out of earlier, often contradictory, sources--the whole canon-formation thing. But I'm scared of that discussion. :)

Or the view that the story of Jesus Christ is an invention based a concoction of folk stories and traditions (including the legends of Mithra, Tammuz, Krshna and Buddha)...

but maybe we shouldn't go there, either.


posted by lagado at 5:17 PM on December 29, 2000

It's interesting how some religious ideas become twisted by time and translation. I was thinking about this because of something I read about the whole turning the other cheek thing. I remember my mother telling me that if the boys in the playground tried to bully me then I should just ignore them and they would stop, which is a variant of that particular "teaching". The alternate reading of Jesus's teaching found here demonstrates what anyone who has actually tried the "ignoring the bullies/turn the other cheek" strategy knows: it doesn't fucking work.

Also, just because a religion is invented doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile. Here are 8 invented religious teachings that may have some use. And, while I'm here: 8 new religious cults and their beliefs
posted by davidgentle at 8:00 PM on December 29, 2000

David, you scare me.
posted by rodii at 9:57 AM on December 30, 2000

Do I?
I was pitching more towards "amuse" or, at least, "offend". But "scare" is in a whole different league.
posted by davidgentle at 8:17 PM on December 30, 2000

I still love that one headline in Our Dumb Century regarding the discovery of the first dinosaur fossils:


Sorry. Um, ditto on the whole attitude here. And if this guy can show me historical proof that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead after three days and ascend to Heaven, then I'll be the first one to torch a coven in the name of Jay-sus, because that's obviously what Christ would want.

Belief exists beyond proof. Faith does not require a thereom. La la la.
posted by solistrato at 10:19 PM on December 30, 2000

(Your sites are brilliant and disturbing. They make me feel like I'm losing my grip on reality. . . in a good way--and without harmful chemicals!)
posted by rodii at 8:32 AM on December 31, 2000

This isn't a new thing: William Stukeley did the same in the early 1700s with his re-invention of the Druids, modelled in the manner of the 18th-century virtuosi. And the desire to appropriate a self-justifying historical tradition runs through all religions, all cultures. (Just think of the way prophecy works.)
posted by holgate at 11:42 AM on December 31, 2000

I'm curious about Mormons. Does anyone really believe the historical narrative of the Book of Mormon? ("believe" in the sense that Christian fundamentalists believe in the literal truth of the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, etc.) Or is it considered more of an instructive fiction, or what?

Holgate, I agree. I guess at some level I was assuming that nowadays we're more sophisticated about the uses of history than that--but apparently I'm wrong.
posted by rodii at 10:57 AM on January 1, 2001

You mean how the Second Coming will occur in Missouri and all that? They believe it, very literally.
posted by aaron at 10:02 PM on January 1, 2001

mzanatta :
I've recently converted to the church of the Toronto Maple Leafs from the High & Mighty Order of the Ancient Red Wings. The myths of "the Cup" are true, but effects are shortlived.
posted by tj at 2:00 PM on January 2, 2001

Well, that plus: North America settled by refugees from the fall of Babel, resettled by refugee Israelites, American Indians being "Lamanites," golden tablets, magic translation tools, etc. etc. Not to mention the cosmology: God ("Elohim") lives on the planet Kolob, the earth ("Jah-Oh-Eh") goes around the sun ("Einish-Go-On-Dosh")... oh, heck, it's easier if you look at a map.
posted by rodii at 2:55 PM on January 2, 2001

From the referenced map: One place to be avoided if at all possible, is the ominous "Outer Darkness".  This will be the part of the universe where Satan and all his followers, i.e., murderers, adulterers, and Democrats, will be "cast", and where they will remain throughout the eternities, cogitating over their sins.

Mormonism has a doctrine that states Democrats will be cast into outer darkness? Hey, I'm starting to like this religion already! Although expecting Democrats to suddenly develop the ability to cogitate just because they're dead strikes me as optimistic...

(I couldn't resist. I'd have said pretty the same thing if it had said "Republicans" on that page.)
posted by kindall at 4:39 PM on January 2, 2001

Well, some of that they believe. Some of the weirder stuff (and the bigamy) got thrown out not too long after the founders died. Which weirder stuff, though, I don't know. You'll have to ask a Mormon. Shouldn't be hard. Just wait for them to stop by your place. Which they will, eventually.
posted by aaron at 10:40 PM on January 2, 2001

It's all still doctrine as far as I know.
posted by rodii at 10:28 AM on January 3, 2001

But whee are the vestil virgins?
posted by Postroad at 10:42 AM on March 30, 2001

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