The Pitfall of Consumer Paganism

I don’t buy “pagan stuff”.

No crystals (mined destructively from the Earth), no chalices or blades or wands or new Tarot decks.

Sometimes I’m tempted, but I don’t do it.

Well, other than candles. I already have enough incense to last the rest of my life, stored carefully so as to remain fresh and pungent.

I don’t take great pride in this, because the fact is that 25-30 years ago, I DID accumulate some of that stuff. I have enough “things” to dress a Focus (altar) and to symbolize all the various qualities and attributes I might wish to include in a ritual. I’m a bit short on ritual clothing, but it’s quite rare that I might need it, and I make do (I have plenty of other costuming, some of which can be adapted in a pinch).

But mostly, now, I simply work with what I have. Or I make stuff from found materials.

And I’m a little torn about this, because I have friends who make their livings selling “pagan stuff”: masks and headdresses and ritual tools and costuming…yes, and candles and incense and statuettes and all that witchy occult stuff that the ritualist may desire.

But I have become a radically minimalist consumer. I have more than enough “stuff”, and feeding the machine that grinds the Sacred natural world into money is not consistent with my values.

The machine named capitalism.

Talking about capitalism and its impacts is complex. None of us alive has even handed-down memories of a time when we did not live under some variant of this system*, so it is hard to imagine how things would work under any other. But as income inequality continues to rise and it becomes clear that all of us but the very rich are to some degree in harness to serve those very rich, it is past time for us as activists, as Pagans, to talk about what it is, how it affects ourselves and our world, and what possible alternatives there could be to this terribly destructive, imminently environmentally catastrophic system.

There are things we need to think about. Like the ideology of constant growth on a planet with finite resources. While the world does create energy and biomass and so forth every year, we strip more than twice as much out of it than it generates annually.

This cannot continue. Whatever you think about the merits of capitalism, it is a fact that it cannot continue indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the desire to consume more by humans across the globe drives spiking energy production and atmospheric carbon emissions, and brings the day that the Greenland ice shelf slides into the ocean and sea levels rise by dozens of feet that much closer.

My point in writing about this is probably already in practice by many Atheopagans, but I’ll spell it out anyway: consume less.

Buy less. Drive less. Travel less.

I know it’s a sacrifice. We are indoctrinated to believe that we “deserve” the “rewards” we can afford with our money.

But it’s not about what you can afford. It’s about what we, collectively, can afford.

As to creating new ways of relating to the Earth and economics, my approach has been to support new models, such as cooperatives and employee-owned enterprises and shareholder rebellions against destructive corporate actions. ALWAYS to support the small local enterprise instead of the corporate monster (no Starbucks for me, thank you). And, as an activist, to fight the destruction locally. Trump has proposed reopening the entire West Coast of the United States to offshore oil drilling, for example, and any implementation of that idea will take place over my literal dead body.

Unlike many in the Pagan community, I am not an anarchist. I do not believe that anarchy squares with fundamental, biological human nature, which is to look up to leaders and create hierarchies. That’s lizard-brain stuff: it’s wired in. All primates do it, and we are primates.

Short term, I am a democratic socialist: I believe that policies and programs should be put in place which ensure that people have access to health care, food, shelter and education, no matter what their economic circumstances. And that funding should flow from those who are most affluent to pay for these services. But I understand that whatever supports we implement for the common people, the MACHINE will keep gnawing away at the Earth for so long as endless growth and profit are the core ideologies of our economic system.

Maybe that’s wired in, too. Maybe the desire for more is just an animal thing, too.

I don’t know whether there is anything that can break the hold that capitalism has on the world. Honestly, it may have to grow until it collapses under its own weight.

But we should do what we can. We should refuse to participate to as great an extent as we are able.

We should resist.

ADDENDUM: I should be clear that I am calling for less consumption generally, not singling out Pagan businesses for not being patronized. I think it is good to support our community with commerce when we can, and with a few questions (“Where was this made? By whom? How were the materials sourced?”) we can identify true local-community artisans’ products, made sustainably, and can avoid mass-produced, imported products which feed the corporate machine. 

It isn’t that I don’t want Pagan businesses to make money. It’s that I avoid playing the consumption game as much as I can, period.

 

*Except for those who have lived under authoritarian state economies such as the former Soviet Union, which were in competition with capitalism and therefore reflected most of its destructive impacts, as well as oppressing their citizens.

 

 

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“I Don’t Get It.”

“I don’t get it.” A comment I’ve seen and heard several times in relation to Atheopaganism: “I just don’t get what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. Why would you do rituals if there is no magic and there are no gods?” (or, “what’s up with these rituals and holidays? Why do you do that?”)

Well, let me explain…

For joy. For wonder. For wisdom. For depth. For laughter. For self-discovery. For connection. For friendship. For solace. For clarity.

For calm. For delight.

For forbearance. For kindness. For fun. For sharing. For passion. For flight. For belonging. For discovery. For pleasure. For creativity. For curiosity. For community.

For surprise. For remembrance.

For, frankly, pretty much all the reasons that people follow any religious path (save promises of an afterlife or magical powers).

That’s why.

All the above are deeply human motivations. We all have them, whether or not we believe in gods.

We are Atheopagans because it adds depth and meaning to our lives.

It feels good. It feels right.

That’s why.

Does Truth Matter?

Eppur si muove.
—Galileo Galilei

 

Recently. a friend posted to the Atheopaganism Facebook group, describing a conversation she was having elsewhere in which accusations of “classism” and “colonialism” were being leveled at those who express what is almost certainly the truth: that gods and magic do not exist, except as ideas.

And you know? That accusation may have a point…if that message is directed at indigenous practitioners of native spiritualities. For those people, cultural preservation is important—and threatened—no matter how out of step with objective reality their beliefs might be. They have reasons to steward and preserve their cultures which have nothing to do with how factually accurate their cosmologies and mythologies may be. And except for the most conservative, many indigenous people are happy to incorporate new knowledge, to integrate their traditions with modernity.

But for Pagans? Overwhelmingly white, middle class PAGANS? No, sorry, expressing the truth that, based on the available evidence, gods and magic do not appear to be real to today’s Neo-Pagans is not “colonialism”. Those folks aren’t preserving a tenuous and endangered cultural tradition of centuries; they’re in the process of inventing their own paths, individually. That means that they have the ability to embrace the truth if they want to. If they choose not to, that choice is fair game for challenge.

As for “classism”, let’s be clear: yes, education and scientific literacy are rarer among the poor and downtrodden. But the solution to that is not to celebrate ignorance as a “valid perspective”. It is to provide the means to be less ignorant to those who are, and particularly to fight for opportunities in STEM education and employment for the poor, women and people of color. It is a scandal and a shame that scientific literacy is an indicator of privilege in our society; the proper response is to fight for opportunities for those who are scientifically illiterate to become scientifically literate, not simply to rubber-stamp ignorance as “okay”.

It is not appropriate to shame those who are less educated, particularly if they are open to learning. THAT is classist. But doubling down on beliefs rooted in lack of education out of a sense of identity does not make their lack of education a virtue. And it certainly does not make advocacy for critical thinking a vice.

The alternative to these approaches is for spiritual beliefs to become the magical get-out-of-scrutiny-free card*. Say a person believes that you must sacrifice dachshunds to a magical pink puppy that confers wishes and glitter? Oh, no, we can’t ask any tough questions about that: it’s spiritual!

Now, I generally no longer engage in the your-gods-aren’t-real conversation out of etiquette. It’s rude to tell people that such dearly held beliefs don’t stand up to critical inquiry (even though it’s true). So unless someone tells me that something is true “because god/dess X told me so”, or that some unethical behavior is “a god’s will”, I avoid asking the hard questions that so offend the credulous, not because it is somehow “immoral” to ask them, but simply out of politeness.

There are those who go so far as to claim that science and critical analysis themselves are inherently colonialist, racist, sexist, name-your-ist. They point to times when racist, sexist and culturally chauvinistic “science” has been used to justify appalling actions by colonialist and patriarchal powers. And they argue that the very spirit of critical inquiry itself is a violation of “other ways of knowing”.

First of all, let’s be clear: the egregious scientific rationalizations of oppressive and colonizing behavior happened a long time ago. 50+ years, at least, and for the worst offenses you have to go back to the 19th century.

Today’s scientific consensus does not support racist theory. Nor sexist gender bias. Nor heteronormativity. And although those problems still exist within the scientific community, the process itself has weeded it out from what science tells us today, which is that we are all of equal potential and value. The solution to bad science is more and better science, not abandonment of reason for whatever we might make up.

As it just so happens, the Culture of Oppression—the Euro-derived Western patriarchy—codified the best way we have of determining what is factually true: the scientific method. But the one is not the other. And conflating the two is a rhetorical tactic, not an analysis. Indigenous cultures and non-Western cultures have been using experimentation and evidence to determine factual truth for practical uses for millennia; arguing that it is only “Western colonization” that has done so is simply erroneous and defamatory.

As for science as an inherently colonizing force, that only works as a theory if you equally value “knowledge” that is invented and knowledge that is factually true. And while I can respect the value of culture, I do not extend that respect so far as to think it should trump reality.

I think it matters what the nature of the Universe is. And in order to understand that, we have to differentiate between that and what the Universe is not. In order to treat a headache, you need to understand that trepanning to let out evil spirits is not the right way to do it.

The dismissal of science as an “oppressor” and a “colonialist” is in my opinion a rhetorical dodge, designed to put advocates of critical inquiry on the defensive and to divert the conversation from the fundamental question of truth and falsehood. The use of the very term “colonization” in this context is in itself unreasonable, conflating as it does literal slavery and genocide with criticism of a given culture’s ideas. Those things are not the same, to even the slightest extent.

Science is a gift to humanity. It is penicillin, and electric light, and world travel, and telecommunications. And the revelation of so many wonders.

Are there downsides to all of those things? Certainly. Science is also nuclear weapons.

But there are far greater downsides to ignorance (and let’s face it–people have been using whatever technical advances they made to devise weaponry since LONG before the advent of the scientific method). When we do have knowledge, it makes absolutely no sense to defend erroneous understanding as somehow valid, unless there are other considerations (such as cultural preservation).

Consider the alternatives to challenging cultural norms based in fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Cosmos: human sacrifice to bring the Sun up? Murder of albinos for “witch powder”? Slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses for erectile dysfunction “medicine”? Each of these practices is based in beliefs which are “true” for a culturally specific value of “true”.

Shall we celebrate climate change denial and flat-Earthism as valid and legitimate because the less educated are more likely to embrace them? The suggestion is ridiculous and dangerous. So why shall we not critique the even bigger lie of the credulous, the God Lie, which leads so many to disdain our planet in the hope of an imaginary afterlife?

I say the truth matters, and lack of education is a problem to be addressed, not a condition to be defended or celebrated. The Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. Evolution is real. Anthropogenic climate change is real. Humans first evolved in Africa, and migrated elsewhere. The germ theory of infectious diseases is true.

And there isn’t any phenomenon in the Universe that is best explained by the existence of gods.

These things are true for every human, whether they know or believe them or not.

And that matters. It is no moral crime to dare to say it.

Not in Galileo’s time, and not in ours.

 

 


*Not coincidentally, I believe: I think that putting spiritual beliefs off-limits to critical analysis is exactly the goal of those who throw epithets like “classism” and “colonialism” at those who dare to ask the questions that make them uncomfortable.