Paganism and Transgression: Some Questions

From Gardner’s nudism and enthusiasm for sadomasochism, which he folded into the foundation of Wicca…

…to taking and embracing the label “witch” (and, to a lesser degree, “pagan”)…

…to taking unusual names and adopting radical environmental and social politics…

…to everything about Aleister Crowley…

…the roots and modern realities of modern Paganism are heavily sown with trangression: with deliberate contravention of societal norm.

It’s not a surprise. In the US, the modern Pagan movement arose simultaneously with and within the context of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, which was, well…counter-cultural.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. But it could be an inherent impediment to Paganism ever becoming a widespread movement.

And it raises serious questions:

How much of this differentiation is legitimate throwing-off of repressive shackles, and how much just contrarianism?

And is it intrinsic to  Paganism that it be transgressive, norm-violating …weird?

Would it ever be possible for Paganism to be as widespread as, say, Catholicism? To be a major driver in our societies? How viable are we, as a social movement, for significant adoption?

Or are we—by definition and by necessity—minority outliers who must remain so?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think they’re important to ponder.

Because it’s a big set of questions indeed.

29 thoughts on “Paganism and Transgression: Some Questions

  1. Weirdness did not prevent Catholicism from becoming widespread. I’m thinking about the Cardinals’ enormous red hats, bits and pieces of martyrs’ bodies performing miracles, the buying and selling of tickets to heaven, the lifelong imprisonment of dowerless girls in convents, the carrying of XXXL instruments of torture in parades, burial of the dead inside fancy buildings where people would congregate daily, I’m sure there’s more but that’s what springs immediately to mind.

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    • If the Christian values being transgressed are the anti-sex & anti-life aspects of Christianity, then I disagree. On the other hand, if we throw the baby out with bath water and reject compassionate values (which is, by the way, a human value, not exclusively Christian), then I agree with you on that.

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      • I have yet to understand why paganism and shamanism deny the importance of a spiritual practice that incorporates emotional and sexual continence and allows us biophiliacs to love life without harming others. Consider community as a trampoline with many different viewpoints holding the circle. Either/or good/bad view points collapse into conflict and chaos.
        Reacting against Christian repression simply perpetuates the status quo. Seeking a genuinely holistic humanistic approach takes

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      • There’s nothing wrong with voluntary celibacy, or asexuality, or any other version of not having sex.

        Nor is there a right to sexual activity (contrary to what “incels” apparently think).

        The issue I was talking about is Christianity’s view that being LGBTQ2S is immoral and that sex is “dirty”.

        Most of the mystics described their mystical experiences in highly erotic ways.

        There is an argument that refraining from actual physical sex enhances mystical experience, and if that’s your preference, there is nothing wrong with it. But it’s not for everyone.

        Where in my comment did I imply that sexual activity was compulsory in Paganism?

        Different strokes for different folks.

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  2. This is an area of debate of great interest to me as a Pagan.

    “And is it intrinsic to Paganism that it be transgressive, norm-violating …weird?”

    It is to my Paganism, and to those branches of the path rooted in witchcraft. I think it may be generally true for the larger movement as well, but there are a lot of pieces to this.

    In the witchcraft or witchcraft inspired traditions, the practitioner is by some measure inherently transgressive because they live and work at and beyond the edges – of settlements, of the spiritual world, of society and respectability and sometimes of sanity itself. We work beyond these boundaries because that’s where truly transformative work is done. The work on our own shadows, work with the spirit world for those who believe in such things. The transformative death and rebirth work with hallucinogens we’ve discussed before. Real change does not happen in comfort zones or (very often), within the bounds of thought and action that least common denominator mainstream society is comfortable with.

    The question of creative transgression vs transgression for its own sake or attention seeking turns on the reasons and context for the transgression. Our movement did break a lot of shackles which needed breaking to free our bodies and spirits from 15 centuries or so of Christian oppression. How we transgress and the value of the transgression evolves with time and circumstances. What was truly transgressive as regards sexuality in Gardners day, or the late 70s or even the early 2000s is different than today. What we did then to break barriers might today be done for the simple thrill of shock value or titillation.

    Or not. I’m a nudist, and polyamorous and unapologetic about all of it. Did all that once hold some value to me for the power to scandalize polite society? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. But that’s not why I keep doing it at age 50. I transgress in those ways because it is who and what I really am. I value the power of radical and uncompromising authenticity more than transgression itself. Transgression is simply a tool we must be willing to wield, and not an end in itself.

    We tend to think of transgression in narrow and inflexible ways. So we often think of it in terms of alternative forms of sexual expression, but its much more than that. I don’t even know that the things I mentioned can be considered as subversive and transgressive as they once were. I mean not a day goes by now when I don’t read something about how polyamory is the new LGBT. Just a week or two ago a good sized city in Massachusetts added multi partner households to its domestic partnership law.

    But let’s look at what else is truly transgressive today. Science and data driven decision making of any kind is considered deeply transgressive to large segments of our population, with the result that many hundreds of thousands of Americans stand to die of a disease which former Third World nations have all but vanquished. Nearly half of this country actually celebrates ignorance as a virtue. Facts and engagement with reality is a big transgression in many circles. Racial justice, hell, just basic human rights is seen as a transgression.

    The willingness to engage with nuance and contradiction is a transgression in the age of social media extremism. Centrism is a transgression. If you call for any reckoning with our racist legacy in this country as a white person, enormous numbers of people call you a race traitor and a Marxist and all sorts of loony things. On the other hand if you so much as question the wisdom of burning down cities and pulling down every single monument, you’re labeled a racist and colonizer. We have a lot of sick and dysfunctional norms, and if we’re not willing to commit some transgression, we’re not going to be of much use to anyone as a movement.

    Personally I don’t care if transgression hurts our mass marketing appeal. I have no desire to see us become like Catholicism in any way, and I’m not even talking theology. Catholicism became what it is by force and by merging spirituality with politics and by making membership little more than an accident of birth and cultural inertia. That kind of religion has nothing I want or want to be a part of. While I think Paganism (a very broad concept) has some things of value to offer the world, I don’t see that we’re the only door or even the best one for most people to access or transmit those values. The things we need to do a species – environmental and social and economic sustainability etc. need to be seen on their own merits whether a person is Christian, Buddhist, Pagan or atheist (or both).

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  3. The only way to move the Overton Window is to transgress boundaries and norms.

    A hundred years ago, vegetarianism was considered weird and wacky. Now it’s known to be good for the health of the planet.

    https://dowsingfordivinity.com/2018/12/07/the-overton-window/

    I think we should just keep doing what we do. Instead of worrying about being normal, worry about whether your actions are contributing to climate change. Most of my views (which I consider to be very sensible) are regarded as absolutely outrageous by huge swathes of the population of the USA. I literally do not care a jot.

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      • Oh good. Yeah I think that as Paganism gets more widespread and more people join who are more conforming, society will incorporate some norms from Paganism, and vice versa. You can see this happening in the interaction between the wider array of countercultural movements and the rest of society.

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      • Professed pagans strike me as a varied bunch not necessarily looking to recreate a bureaucratically top heavy monotheistic structure to dictate others beliefs and behavior. And numerically the white Christian extremists are the minority… why give them the position of the social norm. Why make it a conflict between Christian and pagan. Multi-racial multicultural is the normal. As is a rainbow of gender preferences and roles. Over the long term (thousands of years/generations) the nuclear family giving over their autonomy to a monotheistic dictatorship is the non-adaptive short term cultural aberration.

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      • I disagree with several of your assumptions. For one, the core values of Christianity ARE the baseline of our culture, even among those who don’t follow that family of religions. And no one said anything about a “bureaucratically top heavy monotheistic structure”. I’m talking about societal values, and whether or not Paganism will ever have significant impact on them.

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      • Dictionary definition of pagan is polytheistic peoples who revere nature and experience the divine thru their physical senses. Christians would define me as pagan/heathen…. but I do not know and so could not follow your set of rituals/system of beliefs.
        Since you would exclude me from your definition of paganism on that account how are your beliefs fundamentally different from the Christian matrix you were raised in? Where do indigenous peoples beliefs/practices stand in your view? Where do visionary states of mind fit in?
        How do oriental, hoo-doo/voo-doo, East Indian etc beliefs fit into your system? How do you classify the Native American Church? Mescalito is definitely a nature spirit but Jesus is deeply integrated into the ritual.

        As you have pointed out questions are more important than the answers. But I do find how you react to my transgressing your norms most illuminating. From my point of view it is all to easy for paganism to become a insular bastion of white privilege.
        And as Eric Hoffer’s book ‘The True Believer’ argues, it is much easier to switch allegiance from one repressive belief system to another than it is to think for oneself. So I hope that considering your own sense of transgression is also illuminating to you and yours.

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      • The dictionary definition of paganism is not the actual, real-world definition of those who belong in that category. For example, Atheopaganism is an atheistic Pagan path, rather than a polytheistic one.

        It is not “repressive” to reject regressive value systems, nor does it have anything to do with a “bastion of white privilege”, which is pretty much name-calling and I will thank you to knock that off.

        Atheopaganism’s very first Principle is critical thinking and skepticism, so “thinking for yourself” is enshrined in the path from the get-go.

        I don’t know what your practice is, so I don’t “exclude you from my definition of paganism”, and oriental, hoodoo, vodou (not the same thing), East Indian, etc. paths have nothing to do with me. Most of them don’t consider themselves Pagan, and many of them RESENT being called “pagan”.

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      • I am all for redefining pagan and paganism and include critical and skeptical thinking in my beliefs. Skeptical thinking demands that I ask why your personal definition of paganism is ‘real-world’ and the mainstream dictionary definition is not? In the real world non-Christian practices resent being called pagan because the term is used by Christians past and present to justify horrendous behavior towards them. Could you allow the possibility that your definition could appear as an insular viewpoint in that context?

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      • Answers to your Q: Because the dictionary definition does not reflect the definition used either by religious scholars or by members of the Pagan community themselves.

        “My” definition isn’t my definition. It’s in widespread use.

        Many other religions dislike being called “pagan” or claimed by the Pagan community because they don’t want to be lumped in with us. This generally includes the religions of South Asia and indigenous religions EVERYWHERE. They aren’t Pagans, even though Christians might call them that.

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      • I think we agree on the desired outcome but differ somewhat on the means to get there.

        I’m not anti-Christian, but we do need to examine our Pagan beliefs for hangovers from certain strands of Christian thinking.

        Also what’s with the lowercase p for Pagan?

        Liked by 1 person

      • 🤩You have more patience than I do. My e-mag issues mean my phone tends to erase/replace everything I type when try to correct it..SOOO frustrating …

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      • Yes, this–because there are many aspects of the value set of the Abrahamic monotheisms that are frankly just awful. They are misogynistic, homophobic, anti-body, anti-sex, anti-pleasure generally, authoritarian and grimfaced.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yep, there is even a belief that deforesting the planet is necessary for the second coming of Christ…and my first reaction is to write those people of. Unfortunately, that makes me too much like them. Quite the dilemma!

        Liked by 1 person

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