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Is neo-Paganism a Religion?

by Lewis Stead

Isaac Bonewits' ADF ritual format includes a section where energy is sent to the Gods. Recently, I attended a Norse-based ritual where offerings of mead, bread and nuts were made to the Nature Spirits, to ensure their cooperation in an abundant year. It recently struck me that these events in concept were quite radical to the neo-Pagan worship system. Although we claim to be a religion and are certainly fond of invoking Gods, it is very rare indeed that we do anything for them. In fact, they are usually little else than observers in our circles.

Part of almost every Deity-oriented religious system involves making some kind of offering to the Gods. In most paleo-Pagan systems this was a blood sacrifice of some kind. In the monotheist traditions, one surrenders will and power to the Deity, who then does with it what He desires. In folk magic, from Euro-Pagan to Santeria, there are offerings of food, etc., left in a sacred grove or by a special stream. This type of offering is rarely seen in a Neo-Pagan context. When we wish something, we cast what is largely a secular spell.

One can say that ours is simply a different tradition, but in many ways this is just an excuse. For example, another major facet of worship is offering thanks to the Gods. This is again almost entirely absent from Neo- Paganism. We comment that a God or a Goddess is responsible for this or that natural function, but we rarely act in any way thankful. This is not to say that we are not thankful to our Gods, but to say so in an overt manner seems almost taboo in most situations.

What this really amounts to is a religious system which functions almost entirely independent of the Gods. However, as any of us will attest, we do believe in Gods and very strongly defend our practices as a religion and not simply as magick.

There are various reasons for this phenomenon. First and probably most important is a structural explanation. Wiccan ritual is derived not from a religious system, but from Ritual Magick. Much of which was codified by people who thought of the Pagan Gods as powers and not as their primary Deities.

The concept of immanent Divinity, the Deity within, has also taken its toll on overt worship. The concept of awakening inner Divinity or invoking it into a person's physical body has taken precedence over the concept of an external and independent Divinity. While the immanent concept is certainly primary in our religion, we do hold to some claim of external Divinity, but structurally we ignore this facet. Secular Pagans, believing in the nods as some sort of Jungian psychological construct, have also been a strong influence on the Craft in the recent past. This has made it difficult to "worship' the Gods as they are often dealt with solely internally.

The sociology of neo-Pagan culture, and for that matter all of America, is also a strong force. The same strain of self-reliance and anarchism, which has made our movement so strong, has made notions of overt worship unpalatable. We don't like to think that we have to rely on the Gods. There is also the issue of our religious upbringing. Anything, which brings back memories of Christianity, or whatever, is likely to be rejected. Also, the Monotheist tradition holds that you must thank God because He is the only one Who is really able to help.

Modern rationalist scientific society is also a strong force. Neo-Pagans are among the most educated and intelligent people in America. We find it difficult and even a bit silly to leave offerings for Gods. Offerings are often left to the "wee ones" or to the four-leggeds. While we may rationally know that a cake left by a sacred oak is most likely going to be squirrel- bait, the action is psychologically and religiously important, nonetheless. It's difficult to maintain an attitude of the sacred when one places the offerings, supposedly left for the Gods, into Fido's food bowl.

Just the word "worship" leaves a bad taste in our mouth. It preys on our feelings towards mainstream religion. To worship holds a connotation of Deity as withdrawn; of supplication and groveling. This is one feature of overt worship which we certainly do not want to emulate! Offering thanks is strongly connected with our concepts of a Deity Who is omnipotent and the only source for getting something done. To draw an analogy, if we were building a house the Christian way might be to hire a construction company and the Pagan way might be to build it yourself. However, in a Pagan sense we have access to a master carpenter (the Gods) but don't utilize that source. What of a partnership? Offerings and thanks don't necessarily mean a master/servant relationship. There are positive features of traditional worship which we should try to incorporate into our ceremonies

The double-edged sword of the Craft is that humanity is ultimately responsible for what occurs in the world. While we believe n Gods we don't assign much responsibility to them for the state of the world, nor do we seem to hold much hope for them to better things. While this has given Paganism one of the most stringent moral systems -- we cannot blame a Deity or a Devil for our problems -- it can have drawbacks. Being able to ask for help and receive it from the Divine is one of the primary reasons for having a religion. A good example is the 12-step program, one of the most popular religious groups in America today, which asks God to intervene in addiction problems. There is a problem with that: They rest the entire load on the Deity's shoulders, and resign themselves to the belief that they cannot do anything about it themselves. Regarding the question, "What would we do if the Gods failed us?" if, for example, there were some type of disaster. In a large sense the question is irrelevant because at the core of our ritual we, and only we, are responsible. This is a very heavy thing to lay on people. We are also the only ones who would be able to effect a change for the better. We don't call on the Gods to help us, we merely cast our own spells. Now, I am not saying that personal responsibility is a bad thing. I am merely pointing out a drawback to our religious philosophy as it stands now. When we have reached an end and feel (and perhaps are) powerless, calling on the Gods is an obvious reaction, but it is also taboo in the Pagan community.

So what am I advocating? Simply that we can take a more pious (for lack of a better word) attitude towards our Gods. We can give them more respect and allow them to help us when we need help, we can leave offerings of food or drink, perhaps making an offering a main focus of a ceremony rather than an afterthought or a way of disposing of the dregs of the chalice. We can offer thanks more often for what we receive from the Gods tending an altar, not only as a place for us, but also as a place for the Gods (and NOT as a place simply to store things) would be a good step. Perhaps, when lighting a stick of incense, it could be done for the Gods rather than just as a method of casting the right atmosphere. Often, the only difference would be in intent. Take a chance and be a little superstitious -Do something for the Gods, and when they do something for you don't ignore them as if it were expected.

Reprinted from Moonrise, Lammas 1989.



"Celtic Knot" illustration, Copyright 1991by Tapestry.

Copyright 1991, 1999 by Dawnblaze. All rights reserved.
Revised: 04 Jan 2002 06:13:28 -0500

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