Last month’s post here on The Well of Galabes, which examined a recent outburst of demagogy in the contemporary Neopagan scene, could also be considered a case study of a phenomenon that has a much broader presence in today’s Neopaganism. It’s a phenomenon that’s seen some discussion here already from a historical perspective, but it deserves a broader exploration in its own right, as it’s likely to have a considerable impact on the way the alternative spirituality scene shapes up over the next few decades. The trend I have in mind? The abandonment of spirituality in favor of politics across a tolerably wide section of the Neopagan community.
Now of course the process in question isn’t described in these terms by those who engage in it. Indeed, my experience is that those most committed to that act of replacement are most likely to deny that this is what they’re doing. Thus I’d like to start with a thought experiment that may clarify things a bit.
Let’s imagine, dear reader, that you’re involved in an organization that has a political goal—let’s say, engaging in lobbying and protest to better the lot of the homeless. After your organization has been established for a while, it gets an influx of new members, who seem to be very enthusiastic about the organization and its mission. In a discussion about strategy not long thereafter, though, the new members all say, “I think that what we ought to do to help the homeless is to praise Jesus.”
When one of the other members points out that praising Jesus is a spiritual activity rather than a political one, one of the newcomers says, “But praising Jesus is my politics.” When another member suggests that maybe the newcomers could practice their spirituality on their own time, another newcomer says angrily, “I’m not going to let you stop me from praising Jesus.” A third newcomer insists, “If you won’t let this organization praise Jesus, you’re giving up on helping the homeless.” Around and around it goes; the newcomers insist at the top of their lungs that they’re committed to helping the homeless, but what they want to do always works out to replacing the political activities for which the organization was founded with the spiritual activity of praising Jesus.
Reverse the signs and you’ve got a good first approximation of what’s been happening in a great many Neopagan organizations in recent years. Most of those organizations were founded explicitly to engage in such spiritual activities as invoking deities and practicing magic. Of late, though, a significant number of newcomers have begun to insist that the organizations should reorient themselves toward political activities, and downplay or even discard their spiritual activities, all the while insisting that they aren’t actually changing anything.
That’s taken place in parallel with an influx of atheists, agnostics, and secularists who want to think of themselves as Pagans even though they don’t happen to believe in, and often are unwilling to tolerate, invoking deities and practicing magic—the things, as already noted, that most Neopagan groups were established to do. Some of the loudest voices among these have insisted that the Neopagan community had to be “inclusive,” and what “inclusive” meant in practice, of course, was that the Neopagan community was supposed to stop doing those things that atheists, agnostics, and secularists don’t like, such as invoking deities and practicing magic. (For some reason “inclusivity” never seems to mean that atheists, agnostics, and secularists should become more inclusive themselves, and tolerate practices that aren’t their cup of tea. Funny how that works...)
Those of my readers who know their way around the radical politics of an earlier era may recall the term “entryism.” That was the tactic, much practiced by Marxists back in the day, of joining some other group under false pretenses, and then using all available means to turn the group into a front for the entryists’ political ambitions. It’s at least possible that some degree of deliberate entryism is involved in these efforts to transform Neopagan spiritual organizations into political cadres. It’s equally possible that it’s a matter of sheer opportunism—it’s hardly surprising, after all, that would-be demagogues who aren’t willing or able to take on the hard work of building a political cadre themselves might jump at the chance to hijack an existing group for their purposes.
All this presupposes, of course, that there’s a meaningful difference between political and spiritual activity, and it’s become fashionable in some circles—not all of them committed to the sort of entryism just described—to insist either that there is no such difference, or there shouldn’t be. On a common-sense level, of course, there’s an obvious difference between praising Jesus and lobbying the city council for funding for homeless shelters—or, for that matter, between invoking Pagan deities in a group ritual and posting screeds on the internet denouncing capitalism as the source of all evil. Still, let’s go deeper. Is there, and should there be, a difference between spirituality and politics? Is there a point to the separation of coven and state?
Two arguments routinely get brought up in Neopagan circles to defend the fusion of spirituality and politics. The first is that the civil rights movement in 1950s and 1960s America was spearheaded and organized by African-American churches. While this is quite true, there are at least two points to that historical example that generally get neglected in this context.
First, the reason civil rights organizers in the African-American community used churches as their organizing basis was that in the 1950s and 1960s, in large parts of the United States, a church was one of the very few places where large numbers of black Americans could gather without risking harrassment or worse from the authorities. For them, it was a counsel of necessity. For today’s Neopagans, that’s simply not the case—they have plenty of options, up to and including founding brand new radical political parties, which African-Americans in the South at the time of the civil rights movement didn’t have at all. It’s thus unnecessary for them to encroach on organizations founded for a completely different set of purposes.
Second, when African-American churches provided space for civil rights organizing in the 1950s and 1960s, they didn’t give up their religious activities. Quite the contrary, the same churches where CORE and NAACP members helped put together civil rights protests were also having church services every Sunday morning and Bible study sessions every Wednesday night. The civil rights organizers weren’t trying to supplant spiritual activities with political ones, as so many of today’s political Pagans are. A great many of them, in fact, were devout Christians for whom church services and Bible study sessions were at least as important as political activities. Their example thus can’t be used to justify a forced replacement of spirituality with politics in Neopagan traditions.
So much for the first argument. The second is considerably subtler. It argues that the separation of spirituality and politics was an invention of the Enlightenment—the great secularizing movement of eighteenth-century Europe and the European diaspora—and therefore has no conceivable relevance to Neopagan traditions, which hearken back to an era before the Enlightenment.
The difficulty with this claim is that the separation of spirituality and politics isn’t unique to Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment societies at all. The Enlightenment thinkers who argued for the separation of church and state, in point of fact, were inspired by an earlier example of the same separation—the grand tradition of religious tolerance in the Roman world, which gave citizens the freedom to practice any religion and worship any deity they wished, and distinguished these spiritual commitments from their political allegiance.
My Christian readers might object to this characterization, but theirs is the exception that proves the rule. What brought down occasional bursts of persecution on the early Christians was their refusal to burn incense to the genius (i.e., guardian spirit) of the emperor, an act that had the same role in the Roman world that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance has in modern America. Jews were exempt from this requirement, but that was because they were a familiar presence in the Mediterranean world—they had a social status rather like the Amish and Mennonites in today’s America. As a strange cult founded by a man who was executed by a provincial governor for crimes against Rome, Christianity was politically suspect from the start, and the refusal of Christians to burn incense to the emperor’s genius proved, in the eyes of most Romans, that they must be involved in political conspiracy.
The tolerance Rome extended to other spiritual traditions, and the functional division between religious and political affairs, have been commonplace in many other places and times, when a single political structure has united people of many religious beliefs. In China from the T’ang dynasty onwards, for example, a policy of religious liberty allowed religious Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, various strands of folk religion, and imported faiths such as Christianity and Islam to function side by side, while the government itself stood comfortably aloof from theology and practiced a set of archaic rituals that were old before Rome was founded.
In Japan, Buddhism and Shinto worked out a similar modus vivendi under the impartial patronage of the government; in India, immense religious diversity has been the order of the day for more than two millennia, and even the arrival of militant Islam was able to bring religion and politics back together only for a short while. Even in so intolerant a society as medieval Europe, there were times and places—the great age of the Hohenstaufens in Germany and Italy among them—where religious diversity was a viable option because politics and religion were kept separate. These are just the obvious high points in a long history of cosmopolitan societies in which religion was a matter of personal choice, unconnected to issues of political allegiance and political identity.
All but the last of these societies count as Pagan by the usual modern definition of the term—and a strong case could be made for assigning that term to Frederick II, the greatest of the Hohenstaufens! Thus it’s hardly accurate to claim that there’s something fundamentally un-Pagan in drawing a line between the spiritual and the political. As already noted, examples from the Pagan past were a massive influence on the Enlightenment thinkers who spearheaded the separation of church and state in the modern world, and shaped their activities in ways that can still be traced in our collective life today.
Ever wonder, for example, why American political architecture from the Revolutionary War on down borrowed so heavily from Roman public architecture of the late Republic—why fluted Corinthian pillars, triangular pediments covered in sculpture, domes like that of the Pantheon, and all the other bric-a-brac of Rome can be found all over Washington DC and most state capitals, wherever government buildings are supposed to symbolize the American political order? It’s because the founders of the United States, scions of the Enlightenment to a man, saw themselves as creating an equivalent of the Roman Republic: an equivalent in which toleration of personal religious choices, and the separation of church and state this required, was an essential part.
The Enlightenment, mind you, was a complex phenomenon, and it contained many different themes and currents. Some of those rejected the ideas of tolerance, diversity, and individual choice in favor of a supposedly ecstatic unity of all in some idyllic common vision of truth, and we’ll talk in a bit about where this sort of thinking led. In the currents that played a primary role in shaping American political philosophy in its early period, though, a critical, skeptical, and humanistic perspective led to the emergence of a set of ideas we can call the doctrine of separate spheres.
The core idea here is that there are many different spheres of human life, which are incommensurable to one another—that is to say, each one can’t be collapsed into any of the others without erasing its essential nature. Politics forms one of these spheres. Spirituality is another. The arts are another separate sphere; the sciences are another; the private life of the individual is yet another. There are others—as many others as there are distinctive commitments in human individual and social life.
One of the things that makes these spheres distinct from one another is that expertise in one does not transfer to others. A saintly religious leader can be utterly clueless when it comes to science—the fulminations of conservative Christians about issues such as evolution and the age of the Earth are good examples here. Equally, a capable scientist can babble nonsense whenever he opens his mouth about religion—Richard Dawkins has spent much of his career proving this point. Each of the other spheres is subject to the same rule. Occasionally you do find someone who turns out to be gifted in two or more spheres, but he or she will have had to develop competence in each sphere separately.
One valuable result of differentiating these spheres was precisely that this made it easier to tell experts in one sphere to mind their own business when they started laying down the law in a sphere about which they hadn’t a clue. One obvious example at the time of the Enlightenment, of course, was the repeated attempts by religious authorities to tell scientists what they were and weren’t allowed to discover. Another was the equally persistent attempts by political authorities to tell religious people what they were and weren’t allowed to believe. Since that time, there have been plenty of other examples—the attempts by political and religious authorities alike to tell consenting adults what they are and aren’t allowed to do in their own bedrooms may occur to some of my readers.
The one place where these spheres intersect, according to this way of thinking, is in the individual. Each of us has the freedom to choose how we relate to each of the spheres of human life. We can pick and choose as we wish—this set of political opinions, that religious belief, these tastes in music and literature, those involvements in the sciences, and so on. If we wish to, we can make one of these spheres primary and place the others in a subordinate role—for example, by taking up a set of religious commitments that imply corresponding political, esthetic, scientific, and personal commitments—but no outside authority can force us to do this. We choose to do that, or choose something else instead. That’s the meaning of the much-abused word “liberty.”
This is the doctrine of separate spheres, one of the core concepts of what I’ve called the critical, skeptical, and humanistic currents in Enlightenment thought. There were other currents, as already mentioned, that approached the same issue—the fraught relationship of the individual to the many aspects of human society—from a very different angle. To these latter thinkers, the cosmopolitan realities of a complex culture were a nightmare from which they wished to awaken. Their goal was to find some way to restore a simpler way of life in which everyone naturally thought and felt the same way, and shared the same religious, political, artistic, scientific, and personal impulses.
There are at least two ways to pursue this. One of them is traditionalism—the belief that returning to some clearly defined set of beliefs and ways of life anchored in the past is the way out of the perplexities of modernity. That’s the vision underlying the continental European tradition of conservatism: the craving for a golden age in the past, redefined freely though covertly in the image of the unfulfilled desires of the present. That project is almost always awash in ironies; it’s common, for example, for people on the extreme racist right these days to glorify the Ghibelline ideal, when that was exactly the ideal of the cosmopolitan, religiously and ethnically diverse society headed by the tolerant Hohenstaufen monarchs I mentioned earlier.
The other end of the same pursuit of social uniformity projects the golden age into the future. This is the converse of traditionalism, which Karl Popper usefully called historicism. The core of historicism is the claim that history naturally marches toward the predetermined end of a perfect society. There have been plenty of ideologies that have pursued the historicist dream down through the centuries, but most of them have long since vanished into the history books. The one that remains a living presence these days is Marxism, with its messianic fantasies of the perfect Communist utopia of the future.
The problem with both traditionalism and historicism is simple: neither one works as advertised. The golden age, whether handed down from the past or hanging luminously in the future, never manages to arrive, because in a cosmopolitan society, there’s no way to get everyone to “naturally” think, feel, and act in unison. When you try to force that to happen, what you get is totalitarianism.
That’s a word that gets bandied about far too often with little sense of its meaning. What it means is the abolition of the separate spheres in favor of one, which is then supposed to contain the sum total of human society. Some totalitarians—the jihadi zealots of Daesh are one example; their precise Christian equivalents in the Dominionist movement are another—collapse everything into the religious sphere, erasing the independent existence of any of the others. Other totalitarian systems—Marxism is the classic example here—collapse everything into the political sphere, and erase the others in that way. Thus you get the Marxist rejection of religion, and a cascade of other intrusions from the political sphere into the rest of life. All of these are inevitable expressions of the totalitarian impulse that’s inseparable from Marxism in practice.
It’s been objected frequently by devout Marxists that there has never actually been a truly Marxist society, and so criticism of Marxism based on the hideous results of previous Marxist regimes—Stalin’s, Mao’s, Pol Pot’s—is unfair. While the first point is correct, the second is not. There has never been a truly Marxist society, in the sense of a society that functions the way Marx said it should; what’s more, there never will be, because Marxist theories inevitably flop when applied to the real world. That’s why every Marxist revolution in history either promptly dissolved in anarchy and counterrevolution, or just as promptly installed a grim bureaucratic dictatorship that enforced its decrees by prison camps, mass murder, or both.
Other totalitarian schemes have their own histories of failure and slaughter. Once a society has become complex enough that there’s more than one religious option, more than one political option, and so on down the list of separate spheres, an approach centered on tolerance and individual choice is the one choice that doesn’t reliably end in brutality and despotism. This implies, in turn, that attempts to collapse the various separate spheres into one another are worth opposing, even when they appear far out on the cultural fringes—for example, the fringe where today’s Neopaganism is found.
With this in mind, I’d like to suggest that those of my readers who are involved in Neopagan traditions of any kind might consider turning their backs on any attempt to enforce political conformity or to substitute politics for spirituality in Neopagan settings. I’d also like to encourage those who are in leadership positions in Neopagan groups to consider adopting a formal declaration that their members have the right to whatever political affiliation they choose, and defending that right from zealots and entryists who try to infringe on it. From the acorn grows the mighty oak—and from the sloe, the clawed and twisted blackthorn. Let us be careful what seeds we choose to plant.