Innovation Versus Tradition in Paganism

The mainstream current of modern Paganism has made much of celebrating “Ancient Ways” and “Old Gods”. This creates an inherent tension between old (or putatively old) practices and beliefs and the innovations and achievements of modernity.

Elements of the broad Pagan umbrella range widely across this expanse. At one pole, you have Reconstructionists, for whom ancient ideas and practices are pretty much everything, and those of other paths who choose to continue to believe (despite much scholarship to the contrary) that today’s Paganism derives from an unbroken lineage of tradition stemming from medieval times or earlier.

At the other, there is Atheopaganism, which draws forward some traditional activities, but contextualizes them in new framings of cosmology, holidays and ritual observances, in an explicitly forward-looking orientation to religious creation, values and practice.

We humans like our traditions. We like to remember how our families did things when we were children, and to feel that our ritual activities are rooted in long histories that reach back into our imagined impressions of olden times.

The danger, however, is that we begin to see the way “things have always been done” or as they “were done long ago” as inherently of virtue…as if antiquity itself conducts value, or legitimacy.

This is particularly true of Abrahamic religions, which view their age as credentialing: as conducting of authority. The Old Texts, the Old Words, the Old Practices are viewed as somehow more important than new words, new practices. “Old” is equated with “genuine”.

When you think about it, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Humans are learning beings. Our understanding evolves.

We don’t insist on using vacuum tubes in our computers because that’s the way Marconi did it. We don’t refuse to listen to music that isn’t centuries old, or demand that our doctors perform bloodletting and trepanning, or dress in animal skins and woven grass because that’s the way Dear Old Homo Erectus did it.

We learned. Innovation brought us to new and better ways of doing things, and ideas that better reflected the discernible facts about our world. And that can be true of religious ideas and ritual practices, as well.

Now, I’m a sucker for the idea of Olde Traditions, too. I love the antiquity of the decorated Yule tree, the dance about the Maypole, the quaff of John Barleycorn, the old recipes and songs. When I’m dancing around a fire in the woods, I feel primal, and I love it. It’s one of the things that drew me to Paganism in the first place; that, and a deep connection to the cycles, pleasures and wonders of the living Earth.

But I don’t particularly want to strangle a Year King, nor burn an ox sacrifice, or cling to xenophobic tribal values that promote racism and expectations of conformity, either.

I believe that Paganism, like everything else human, benefits by what we have learned since olden days. We have had the Enlightenment, we have learned reason and developed the scientific method, we have learned tremendous amounts about our Universe and world, we have come to entertain, at least, the principle that humans are equal and beautiful in their diversities of gender, color, preferences and creed.

And this is why I call Atheopaganism a forward-looking religion. Obsessing about the ancient and believing in a supernatural “Otherworld” is in my opinion a lingering remnant of old stuff that we no longer need nor benefit from. As it contributes to superstition and susceptibility to credulity in pseudoscience and fringe belief, it undermines our societies’ and communities’ capacities to deal rationally and effectively with their problems. At worst, it dovetails with conspiracy theories and beliefs which fly in the face of both evidence and reason.

Moreover, it’s unnecessary. We can have the benefits of ritual, of traditions, of meaningful values and community without it. We can be filled with awe and reverence and joy and purpose without it. We can draw forward those traditions which still speak to us without the dross of those which no longer make sense in our modern context. And we can do it all within the framework of tested models of reality provided by science.

Now, do credulous beliefs work for many Pagans at a personal level? Yes, indeed they do. Those folks find deep meaning in their beliefs and practices, and I have no interest in denying them those benefits.

So where’s the harm?

Well, in a broader context, we are seeing our world tilt more and more to belief-in-the-face-of-expertise. To ideology trumping (hah) reason, fact, and knowledge. And credulity such as I describe is a part of that problem. To the degree large numbers of people are believing that the whims and wishes of invisible powers are influencing world events, they are taking their eyes off of the ball of what is actually going on. And that means that when we need all hands on deck to avert some of the worst crises humanity has ever faced, instead we have many who are simply spinning their wheels.

Can you do both? Yes, you can do both: you can believe in all that invisible stuff, and also act in material reality to achieve social and political change. And more power to those who do!

But honestly, I don’t see a lot of people in the Pagan community doing that. Because if you believe your ritual for world peace is actually accomplishing something, you probably won’t also take tangible actions that help to advance that goal.

Moving into the modern is good. It empowers us with tools and knowledge, and focuses us on the real. And while traditions can be charming and heartwarming and edifying and life-enhancing, there is a real baby-and-bathwater problem with overemphasis on the old relative to the current.

Ours is a 21st-century religion built on a foundation of all that has gone before: all the trial and error, all the false starts, all the discoveries, all the effort. What the 18th-20th centuries have to teach us has no less pertinence to us than what Greeks or Romans or Celts or Egyptians thought centuries prior.

We start from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humanity, and build from there. Why should our approach to religion be different than that toward any other human discipline?

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