Facing Forward: Atheopaganism and Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is a concern of people who are (or have historically been) oppressed. It is the use of symbols, religious rites and/or cultural practices by members of the oppressing culture for their own gain or entertainment, without permission, invitation, or inclusion of those of the culture whose symbols or practices are being used.

This is a hot topic right now, and one of particular concern to Pagans who draw on different cultures for their symbologies and rituals. We’ve discussed the subject a lot on the Atheopaganism Facebook group, and I thought I’d write about it here so there was a more permanent capture of thinking about cultural appropriation as it relates to Atheopaganism.

As I’ve written before, Atheopaganism is a forward-looking religious path. We do not claim to be derived from an ancient culture or long-standing lineage; rather, we are developing our own path and culture through usage of ritual technologies which have been used by people all over the world since long before the dawn of history.

And there is where we must make a distinction. Here’s an example:

I use masks in rituals pretty frequently. I have posted, in fact, about making a ritual mask as a useful ritual tool.

I’m also a collector of African and Oceanic art. I have a bunch of amazing masks from various cultures in these regions. And I would never, ever consider using any of them in ritual. They belong to the people who created them, not to me, and I don’t have the knowledge, invitation or standing to use them.

See the difference? The technology is using a mask. Appropriation would be using those masks.

I take cultural appropriation seriously. Yes, human culture is syncretic: we steal stuff from those we encounter, and make it our own. But in the context of millennia of imperial oppression of indigenous cultures, I cannot in good conscience add to the list of all that has been taken or destroyed from indigenous people the very religious symbols and practices that define these people to themselves.

It is wrong for the Chinese to crank out “Navajo” rugs and “Puebloan” pots. It is wrong for self-appointed white “shamans” to charge money for conducting sweat lodge ceremonies invoking the cultures and symbologies of people they have never trained with, and who have never given them the permission or right to conduct these ceremonies.

Now, there are some in indigenous cultures who are (rightfully) angry, and as a result go overboard with claims of cultural appropriation: claiming, for example, that no one but indigenous people may use feathers in their rituals, or drums. This is an overreach: people all over the world have been using pretty objects from Nature and drumming since prehistory. Such practices belong to all of us.

But that raver woman rocking out in a Plains Indian feathered eagle bonnet?

That ain’t cool. At all.

Speaking as a very white guy, I acknowledge that my forebears and their cultures have done what they could to slaughter, crush, and forcibly assimilate indigenous people all over the world. I believe that the very least we can do is to respect the sacred symbols and rites of these peoples, and leave them be unless invited to use them.

In Atheopaganism, we are creating new culture: defining our own symbols, using ancient technologies in new ways to alter our consciousnesses and render our rituals powerful and transformative. We don’t claim to be recreating something from another era or geographical area: we are creating the Pagan spirituality of here, as defined by each of us, with some core principles and shared resources to help us along the way.

So let’s just be considerate out there. I choose to err on the side of caution, not using any indigenous symbologies in my rituals at all. It just feels cleaner that way.

I know there are many opinions on this topic, and the discussion can get heated. Please be considerate and kind in the comments thread–thanks.


Shown: Diné (Navajo) Ganado red blanket

4 thoughts on “Facing Forward: Atheopaganism and Cultural Appropriation

  1. I’m really glad to be seeing and hearing discussions about this topic in the Pagan world, and I’m thrilled you have been writing about it. I didn’t even know that “smudging” was an appropriative term until you mentioned it in the Atheopagan Facebook group.

    However, I want to point out that some cultures see “owning” their artifacts to be appropriation. Our colonialist culture had a habit of collecting (and often stealing) artifacts from other cultures, often under the guise of “preservation,” even as we were actively oppressing and attempting to eradicate them. I don’t know the particulars of how the masks you wrote about were acquired, and I am not trying to imply that they were acquired unfairly, but it is something to think about.
    I also think it’s unfair to oppressed cultures to say that they are going “overboard” or “overreaching” in how they perceive a practice as appropriation. They are dealing with the very real consequences of decades, even centuries, of overreach from a dominating culture. They have every right to feel that our ungranted use of something that is sacred to them is inappropriate.

    I will admit that there is a bit of a gray area, but I also think that the greater context is incredibly important. Are we doing rituals with feathers and drums while on stolen Indian land? Did we attempt to acknowledge that theft? Did the idea to use a feather or drum in this context come to us organically, or did we learn about it from another new age practice that likely stole the idea from Native Americans? I think it is important for us, the members of the dominant culture, to take greater care with our actions and be accommodating.

    Based on what I have read of your blog so far, you seem very excited about the process of creating rituals (and a greater culture) that revolve around progressive ideas. I think it helps to see the challenge of creating this without stealing from other cultures as an opportunity to create something that is truly unique.

    Liked by 1 person

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