“Harm None” Ain’t Good Enough: A Call to Action

There has always been something about the Wiccan Rede that has bothered me, and I’ve finally figured out what it is.

The Wiccan Rede, for those new to the community or coming into Atheopaganism from atheist/skeptic circles, is the only widely (though far from universally) adopted moral precept in the Pagan community. It reads: “An (if) it harm none, do what thou wilt.”

To start with, the Ye-Olde-Tyme-Englande language rubs me the wrong way, using “an” for “if”, and calling it a “rede” instead of a “rule”. The Wiccan Rede is a 20th century creation, not bloody Shakespeare.

But that’s a small point.

The primary bone I have to pick with the Rede is that unlike many of the world’s religions, the only widely embraced ethic of Paganism doesn’t contain any expectation that its followers should be promulgators of good. Only that we shouldn’t do harm.

If you’re not hurting anyone, do what you like, says the Wiccan Rede. Echoes Crowley’s famous Thelemite creed, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Hate to say it, folks, but that’s pretty weak tea. It’s selfish and it contains not a whisper of a suggestion that we should be responsible to any but ourselves. It is a teenager’s libertarian fantasy, not a formula for a respectful and healthy community nor a better, healthier world.

People sometimes wonder why Pagans don’t have charities to support the environment or the disadvantaged. I would suggest that this is at least a contributing factor: because of an excessive emphasis on individual liberty to the exclusion of social responsibility.

Now, Paganism is a broad spectrum of practices and paths. Many do not adopt the Rede as a guideline for their own behavior. But I have not yet heard of a major flavor of Paganism that formally expects its adherents to, say, feed the hungry or house the homeless or even actively work to resist and reverse humanity’s degradation of the biosphere. Those who choose to act thus do so not because they are following their religion’s principles, but in spite of the lack of them.

The Abrahamic and Buddhist traditions have one up on us in this vein; particularly, traditions like Quakerism and Sufism and Unitarian Universalism and reform Judaism. Say what you like about them, every day many charities associated with Abrahamic traditions do a great deal of good in relation to some of the ills that confront humanity. (Others do harm, such as to LGBTQ folks, because their values are bigoted. But that’s really beside the point).

Of course, many self-described followers of those religions don’t lift a finger to do what their religions tell them to do for the disadvantaged. But at least they are told that they should. The key takeaway is that despite broad adoption of liberal and tolerant and environmentalist values within the Pagan community, our paths don’t demand anything of us but to try not to hurt anything. Not the faintest whisper of a suggestion that being a good Pagan necessarily means an expectation that we will try to make things better for our fellow humans and our fellow creatures.

Compounding this, I believe, is the propensity on the part of some Pagans to view non-Pagans with condescension. Why would we feel the need to care for “Muggles”, for squares and straights and…worst of all…Christians?

I understand that minorities sometimes compensate for feeling like outsiders and subject to discrimination by expressing similar sentiments about the majority. It’s human, and probably to some degree inevitable.

But we are all here on this Sacred Earth together. As humans, we have responsibility for one another. And our moral precepts should tell us so.

I wrote awhile back on why I believe Atheopaganism is inherently political.  I believe that the times we live in and our values as naturalistic Earth-reverers naturally and inevitably obligate us to do what we can to make our world a better place. To promulgate kindness and environmental responsibility, and to practice it ourselves.

Pagans tend not to want to be told what to do. Even more so than most folks. In fact, many of them are so vehemently opposed to it that the very idea of a community ethic of good works would be viewed as authoritarian and “oppressive”.

To that I say: please look around you, and then step up.

Everyone on this planet has both a social and an environmental impact. If ours is truly a better way, it is not unreasonable that we expect ourselves pro-actively to see our values made manifest in the world, whether that be sexual, racial, ethnic and gender egalitarianism or care for and uplifting of the downtrodden or biological diversity and reduction of pollution.

Let us make the world as we wish for it to be, not merely try to minimize the damage we cause. Let us be seen for how we conduct ourselves in the world, with how we treat the most vulnerable among us. The Abrahamic obsession with what adherents believe is not ours; let us rather assess ourselves on the basis of what we do.

And let us do much, more more than simply try to avoid causing harm. Because in days like these, that is not nearly enough.

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3 thoughts on ““Harm None” Ain’t Good Enough: A Call to Action

  1. I like a synthesis of non-harming with a secular version of Augustine’s framing of the law of love, his “love god and do as you will.” For myself I shorten it to “love and do as you will”, the premise being that love motivates me to both harm avoidance and positive action. The important thing, IMO, is to always keep the spirit of the law first, not the letter. Every single rule-based system has holes and inherent contradictions, which I attribute mostly to the incompleteness of language. Words will never include everything they are about, nor will they ever be fully free of what they weren’t meant to be about.

    One of my favorite stories is a conversation my husband overheard in our college library. A librarian told another student he shouldn’t be eating at the study table, because crumbs would get in the books, and the student responded that there wasn’t a sign. The librarian shot back “what do you want, a sign that says be Buddha-like?” Lol!

    If a basic intention to love is not present already, making a rule will not help put it there, which is why some think all such rules are useless. On the other hand, it can be useful to have an agreement about primary goals, and reminders to encourage us to persevere in trying circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love it and completely agree! It isn’t enough to say “harm none,” if you even follow the Rede (I don’t). We have to do more than just sit around helping ourselves because “it doesn’t harm” another, which is complete BS in the first place. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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