I’m a little bit behind on the Pagans Down Under blog-o-awesome prompts for the year. About a month behind. It makes sense to me that I got caught on “Ethics” as a post prompt.
Pagan ethics. What even are they? And does it even make any sense for us to write about them? Is a pagan any more equipt to understand the complex relationship and subtle difference between morality and ethics any more than any other random person on the street? I adore philosophy and spend a lot of time considering both morality and ethics in terms of Australian Politics, and my own unique brand of cray cray paganism. But I am not sure this qualifies me as eloquent and articulate in terms of writing about ethics. Indeed, this answers the question whether or not we should even bother because the answer is certainly yes.
What is the risk involved in doing so? As I have said, the pagan community is no less and no more than the Christian community, the Islamic community, or the community as a whole, peopled by a diversity of ethical concerns, political and religious ideas. The primary difference, however, is that both the Christian and Islamic communities vary around a single codified morality and a written, institutionalised ethical code, making the difference one of interpretation. The same can be said of community and society writ large, where the codified morality and a written, institutionalised ethical code is found in our legislation, laws, rules and treaties, and governments, where the process of altering said code is itself prescribed inside those institutions. Pagans, as a whole, and as individual groups centred around divergent cultural and religious practices, do not. The very moment we claim a pagan ethic, we make an assumption and prescribe a code derived from a single cultural and religious practice that is simply not universal within the community.
This diversity is at once what relegates “pagan ethics” to little more than opinion pieces that describe “what I do and what I believe”, and underpins the one thing we as contemporary pagans under the amorphous umbrella of “paganism” have in common. On this score, it is occasionally helpful to step outside the square.
Writing in 2013 for The Guardian Liz Williams published a series of articles titled ‘Paganism’. Importantly, the articles are written for a secular audience, and in that way make useful points regarding paganism whole, digestible and understandable for a wider, non-pagan readership. Particularly of interest here is ‘Paganism, part 5: politics, ethics and cults – and their absence‘. Writes Williams, “Because contemporary paganism is essentially so new, its underlying ethical structure is not particularly sophisticated.”
That sounds almost like a slur, and yet, of Paganism “The Whole Shabang” is absolutely true. She goes on directly following that to sum up three of the most commonly understood ethical/moral based practices and beliefs:
One exception might be heathenism, the set of practices based on Norse/Anglo-Saxon spirituality, which formulates its ethics on the Havamal, a 13th-century text that provides a surprisingly useful conduct guide. Although these days I wouldn’t rely on the section, in stanzas 80-100, about seducing women: “Let him speak soft words and offer wealth \ who longs for a woman’s love, \ praise the shape of the shining maid – \ he wins who thus doth woo.”
Otherwise, pagan ethical principles tend to be somewhat rudimentary: the oft-repeated “An [as long as] Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will” derives from St Augustine (Dilige, et quod vis fac) via Rabelais and thence Crowley, and is obviously open to a wide variety of philosophical interpretations. Early (1950s and 60s) paganism ran on the ethical engine of the Threefold Law, based on a very simple karmic principle: do a bad thing and it will come back to you three times. A quick glance at the life of the average merchant banker will provide instant empirical disproof of this, and its main virtue was that enough people believed in it to put a halt to a certain amount of interpersonal disagreement and hold back from cursing each other.
Williams is right. It also becomes pretty clear that “pagan ethics” are sometimes a thing that are not pagan at all, but sourced entirely from Christian philosophy, or appropriated from the Dharmic religions.
This is not the whole story. Pagan ethics are often couched in terms, much like Williams’ article, such as “tend towards”, “mostly”. Pagan ethics is less a single entity or one ethical and moral code and much more a statistical study. In this way, pagan ethics is practically nonexistent, ethical and moral codes are pagan by virtue of them being held by pagans. And they are regarded as more pagan by virtue of the majority.
Some of these trends can be found in adaptation and adherence to ethical and philosophical movements and ideas like environmentalism, humanism, and feminism. These ideas are no more pagan than traditionalism, Marxism, and capitalism, and all influence many pagans, and underpin their ethics. There are also pagans influenced by anarchism, racism, and atheism. And a great many more who never really move to anything particularly different from the all pervasive Christian morality that permeates our Western society.
Pagan ethics may be vastly rudimentary, but pagans’ ethics are increasingly sophisticated as we contextualise the above mentioned, and others, through the experience of pagan alternative lifestyles and practices and vice versa. Those ideas and ethical and moral codes that are historically pagan, and for which we have a great deal of sources and evidence for, like Greek and Roman, and even the Norse that Williams mentions in her article, did not exist inside the contemporary democratic, capitalist system, and so it is necessary even then to understand and contextualise these codes anew from inside the facticity of the contemporary capitalist world, and very often also, from the perspective of capitalist critiques like Marxism, environmentalism and feminism. Within the community itself, pagans are critiquing other pagans’ practices and ethics from inside the perspective through which they critique and form their own. We see growing contradictions in the various writings and blogs of pagans, the feminist Goddess movement contrasted to traditionalist Heathenry, the Chaote engaging with the zeitgeist and pop-culture contrasted to the Left-wing, Marxist, anti-Capitalist Druid. Of course, these are examples, and I don’t at all mean to suggest any actual manifest schisms because I don’t believe there are any so obvious. They are much more nuanced and discussions and disagreements happen within localised and various internet communities all the time. And mostly it doesn’t result in anyone baying for blood. Fundamentally, I am no different, and I engage with other people’s paganisms from the perspective of a Marxist, environmentalist, feminist perspective.
Most importantly, the very fact I can write such a paragraph as the one above, and then casually point out “not that there’s anything wrong with that” demonstrates probably the single most important ethical standpoint for, I would suggest, the majority of pagans. The very best of pagan writers and thinkers are at constant pains to be explicit in regards to their underlying ethical codes, their cultural influences and the philosophical and religious ideas that inform their practices. More importantly, the vast majority actively maintain the right of others to disagree with them, practice alternative things, and inform those practices with other philosophical ideas. This aligns us as an amorphous group most closely to secular humanism and pluralism in a variety of manifestations, philosophical, political, religious and cultural.
Pagans understand not only that pagans are a minority, but that they themselves, as individuals and individual groups, groves, covens, traditions, etc., are a minority within the minority. If paganism as a movement moves constantly towards a single ethical consideration it is the legitimisation of the non-institutionalised. Western society is marked by the legitimisation of power through organised institutions; the Church, the Unions, political parties, and an acronym alone can signal authority, like UNHCR, U.S., AMA. it is little wonder then that feminism, environmentalism and Marxism are so regularly embraced by the pagan community when so much of these political and philosophical ideas is aimed at legitimising hitherto non-institutionalised groups, women, the natural world, the worker and the impoverished.
It is perhaps strange that paganism should be most closely aligned in both form and function to secular humanism, that field of thought being generally very much against supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition. Pagans can be supernaturalists, engaged in pseudosciences and very superstitious. The difference perhaps is that, as individuals, we are aware that our own beliefs do not, and should not necessarily inform the whole. The very best example of this is the term “wiccinate privilege” which exemplifies a backlash against what might be called a majority within the pagan community, and which is in places institutionalised (particularly in the U.S. and U.K.) Wiccan Traditions (and Wiccan-esque practices), and the idea that a single group has/had power to speak for the whole, and influence and dominate community practices.
This brings me back to the dangers of writing of a singular pagan ethic, and it is clear that the pagan movement is knee-jerk in its response to any attempt to solidify, codify and legitimise one. Williams’ makes the point in her article:
One advantage of this resistance to formalisation and structure is the relative lack of pagan cults. Although in the early days of Wicca it was known as the “witch cult”, there’s little that’s cult-like about pagan practice. It’s too diverse, and lacks central figureheads.
Every once in a while one can come across a blog post or article that laments this apparent lack. It is true, there’s something to be said for legitimised power within a broader community and being able to draw on the power of that institution, which in the western world is always more than the sum of its parts. There’s something nice and cosy and easy about not having to think about it too long and hard. (Which is not to say others in other religions do not.) Pagans, each and every one of us, know that at the end of the day our behaviours and opinions are ours and ours alone. We don’t have the luxury of deferring questions about our morality and ethics to a larger entity, the buck stops with the individual, and that is precisely how our societies as a whole will view us and judge us, and the pagan community. This also results in a movement that is generally empathetic to the plights of other smaller, minority and unorganised (not disorganised) groups in society.
The largest “real life” pagan groups pagans will engage with, that are also organised institutions, will often be not-for-profit community organisations, alliances, networks &et., particularly here in Australia. Designed explicitly to be pluralistic, advocates for, and places of meeting between divergent traditions and beliefs within a local area. Specifically structured to always reflect those most involved, public and shared rituals, information days, events and meetings shift, evolve and change regularly as those who engage with them do. Resulting in probably a rather authentic reflection of the pagan community, as within that, groups grow and change, new young people emerge, people move away and interests and trends shift in the global online community.
In the age of the internet, the evolution of beliefs, new knowledge on which we draw (scholarly, scientific, archeological &et.), is ever changing. The internet’s very nature is deeply progressive, pluralistic and democratic, and many social institutions and movements are similarly manifest as they engage with the globally connected technology. This brings with it no fewer new ethical questions and challenges for the pagan community as it does for any other. What we teach, share, make available, is now out there for anyone to use and see, and questions as to the merits of such information available outside of smaller, structured groups, covens, and groves, teachers, guidance and context are readily posed.
Pagans, like everyone else, are ethical and moral people. It is in light of these considerations, though, that “pagan ethics” can be a hugely irritating topic, because it suggests a thing that is perhaps not a thing at all. What is more interesting is the question “how do you manifest a practice, spiritual system, religious observance and magic that resonates with your underlying ethical and moral code, where you are not dependent upon institutionalised and dogmatic codes?” How a practice, community and spiritual experience has shifted, augmented and change previously held ethical and moral codes is also very interesting.
That is how it has been for me. I was not born into a pagan world, I was born and baptised into a Christian one. From the beginning my upbringing emphasised Marxist understandings and critiques of the world, I can’t recall when I was not staunchly democratic. I came to paganism later in life. And other things changed as well. The older I’ve gotten the greater the emphasis on feminism I have, but that was not a result of my paganism, rather of the political discourse I was increasingly being exposed to. I moved away from hierarchical traditions because I am staunchly democratic, not because of any spiritual epiphany brought about by my pagan path. Conversely, my spiritual practices have deepened and augmented my environmentalism. Most importantly, it has been my engagement with the pagan world that has deepened my pluralism. I find that the pagan community’s ability to come together around a myriad of practices and beliefs, the coming together of the many ways of being expressed by individuals is its most beautiful gift. In usual pagan fashion, it is void a fixed rule, and there is nothing strictly pagan about the celebration of diversity or the cultivation of pluralistic communities. The ability to exemplify a practice of, manifest and demonstrate a lived ethic, is something pagans have the potential to do best.
Wiliams’ ends her article with this: “Might we draw comparisons with other, decentralised religions such as western Buddhism? I think we can, and in this light paganism is appearing increasingly progressive.” I agree.