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  • Writer's pictureMichelle

Language and Spiritual Entitlement

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

I have to confess I had multiple motives for yesterday’s blog post. One motive was providing a resource for clarity of meaning when talking about our various approaches to deity.

Another was to create a foundation for today’s post. Because the misuse of language in the pagan community seems to be leading to - or at least CONNECTED to - a larger problem, which is a rampant sense of spiritual entitlement.

Lately it seems some of us have started to feel we’re entitled to EVERY pagan spiritual space.

For example: recently I witnessed a conversation wherein a group of polytheists on social media were talking about their spiritual practices, and about believing in the gods as individual people with agency and influence over human lives. Another self-proclaimed polytheist entered the conversation, stating they agreed with everything … except they didn’t believe in literal gods. Something of a shit-storm ensued.

Another day, a person claiming to be a polytheist posted about a need to remove the word “belief” from the definition of polytheism. Which led to my post yesterday about the importance of using language correctly. Belief IS part of the definition of polytheism. It’s what sets practicing polytheism apart from studying mythology. Studying world religions in school or reading mythology doesn’t make someone a polytheist any more than taking a class on The Bible as Literature makes someone a Christian. Think about it.

Say there is a Christian group who meets weekly for Bible study, with the intention of helping each other create daily habits and spiritual practices that are in line with the teachings of Christ. They believe Christ was a real person, and they believe the Bible is divinely inspired by God. When they meet, they talk about the scriptures and how those passages apply to their worship and their everyday struggles. Their time together nourishes their belief and helps them figure out how best to live their lives.

Now imagine an atheist finds out about this group, and knows they have cookies and coffee and they all really enjoy their time together. This atheist read parts of the Bible in a religion class in college and is looking for community, so she decides to join in their discussion. She shows up one afternoon and starts talking about how she doesn’t believe in God, or in Jesus, but she likes cookies and coffee and she tries to be a good person and she thinks Christian mythology is fascinating so really she is exactly the same as them. The purpose of their gathering completely disrupted, the Christians explain they are here to discuss the Bible and Christ, specifically, and ask her at the very least not to interrupt their conversation. She leaves and complains to everyone how they excluded her.

But here’s the thing. The atheist was not able to contribute in any meaningful way to their conversation. Instead, she entered their spiritual space and told them she didn’t believe what they believe, but was still entitled to that space. By doing so, she turned their safe, sacred space into yet another place where they felt they had to defend their beliefs from someone who didn’t understand them. Instead of being able to create a vibrant practice together, they were forced to justify their beliefs to a skeptic.

Now I appreciate the fact we are very concerned about inclusion in the pagan community. I think it’s a very good thing. We SHOULD be inclusive of people regardless of race or nationality, sexuality, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, level of physical mobility, or anything else that is intrinsic to who they are as a person. As people who have often been ostracized ourselves, we should really understand how important it is to be kind to everyone and support them when they need us. We should make space in the community for all sorts of people.

BUT that doesn’t mean every pagan automatically has a right to every other pagan’s spiritual space. A person who doesn’t believe in the gods is unlikely to contribute meaningfully to a discussion among polytheists about how best to honor Them. A person who doesn’t believe in magic is unlikely to contribute meaningfully to a discussion among witches about effective spellcasting (and YES, I've seen someone enter a discussion about witchcraft and talk about how spells and magic were pretentious nonsense).

I know as well as anyone how lonely and isolated we pagans, polytheists, and witches often feel. But there ARE spaces - either physical or virtual - that are more broadly pagan, where we can find others who are at least sympathetic to our path and can learn about all the varieties of religion outside the Judeo-Christian sphere. Those generally pagan spaces are valuable, and yes, should be available to pagans of every variety.

But we also need more specific spaces where we can delve deeper into our practices and learn how to live them day by day. Spaces where we feel safe to talk about our belief or non-belief in the gods with others who share the same belief or non-belief. Places where we don’t have to redefine ourselves every. single. day. because someone ELSE has popped into the conversation to question our beliefs and practices. Druids have particular philosophies and practices. They need spaces with other Druid’s to nourish their spirituality. Wiccans need spaces with other Wiccans. And polytheists need spaces with other polytheists.

And in order for us to be able to have these spaces, we need to use language properly so we can DEFINE these spaces. I can’t call myself Hindu because I think it sounds cool. If I don’t practice the faith, I don’t get to use the word to describe myself, and I don’t get to demand a place in Hindu dialogue. Words have meaning because they describe things that are meaningful. We need to understand what words mean, and use them as accurately as possible, instead of changing definitions so we can use whatever words we want. If you don’t practice witchcraft, you’re not a witch. If you don’t believe in Christ, you’re not a Christian. And if you don’t believe in or worship multiple gods, you aren’t a polytheist. It isn’t gatekeeping or discrimination to restrict access to religious space to people who practice that religion, just like it isn’t discrimination to restrict membership on a swim team to people who can swim. If we learn what words actually mean, we are more likely to find spaces where we will thrive and feel at home. If we insist on redefining words to support our sense of entitlement to spiritual spaces, we’ll continue to create conflict and misunderstanding everywhere we go.

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Image by Annie Spratt

Michelle Simkins

polytheist . writer . maker . witch

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