So, if you read through the archive, you can probably tell I wasn’t emotionally in the best place I could have been while writing most of those pieces. Thankfully, since then, I’ve had time to reflect, my living situation has improved, and I can finally start focusing on more important things like my career - ahahaha, just kidding. I’m still working in retail and still very much on my bullshit. I am in a bit of a better place emotionally, though, for multiple reasons, which is nice.
With that said, let’s recap, and I’ll try to cover briefly the gist of the project I’ve been getting at in earlier posts.
I’m obviously not the first to run into problems with religious meaning in the modern world. There are a lot (a lot.) of different ways of approaching this. I was raised in a Christian sect well-known for its eccentricities, and while I have made an effort to study other Christian traditions, I feel as though the elements which really impacted my life for the worse were not necessarily the strange elements, but the elements that were largely shared to one degree or another with other Christian sects and institutions. I know there’s more to it, there’s more to everything, but the degree to which I see other people in my life struggle to get even a little truth, a tiny bit of justice, out of church institutions does not leave me eager for more.
So for the last decade ish, I’ve been operating doctrinally more or less as a pagan, with all the vagueness that implies, and functionally as a nonbeliever who will, every once in a while, celebrate a strange holiday or ceremonially curse a politician. Wiccans and so forth, in my experience, tend not to go in for literal religious institutions so much as clustering around webpages, forums, and of course shops for various magical doodads. Covens still exist, but the solitary witch is the norm. It’s important to affirm one’s individuality, particularly in the face of Christian traumas which bring so many people to look for answers in pagan traditions, but while reading through texts and trying out spells I found myself missing the ties of an actual physical community who can meet and hash out questions, as dysfunctional as it could frequently be. I also suspect that, whereas an excess of dogma can often weigh down Christian practice into rote memorization, the lack of ideological structure and, worse, social norms in witch-adjacent spaces can sometimes become a barrier to communication and collective action. Your path can be as specific and structured as you want, of course, and many people have set up patterns that work perfectly for them, but it’s difficult to find people with enough shared premises about how their practices work and what their goals are to actually do anything more than coordinate a few group rituals, best-case.
There are, like any religious tradition, subcommunities on subcommunities that do make such commitments and share values, but when it comes down to brass tacks, most people will choose to cluster around people they already know and trust rather than people who share a particular method. This isn’t a bad approach, but I think it’s one reason why pagan communities, to the extent they physically exist, can seem cliqueish, especially to newcomers. Not that churches don’t have cliques, of course, but for better or worse, Christian congregations tend to have built-in incentives to welcome people they may not immediately know or trust.
I’ve also considered searching out major non-Christian religions with physical presences where I live, and I have friends in similar circumstances who have found some level of peace this way. The primary reason I haven’t done this is that I haven’t felt any particular call toward the ultimate truth of any particular tradition I’ve come across, though of course I try to learn from everything I can (and not all religions, of course, necessarily make Ultimate Truth their business.) Secondly, whether a religion is more orthodoxic or more orthopraxic, most require at least some level of setting one’s own judgement aside in order to learn, either from a teacher or from a technique. This seems like a small thing to ask, but what little pride and confidence I have in my own judgement is hard-won. I’m very reluctant to give it up for anything except a pretty sure thing. “Leap of faith” is one of those things that sounds great until you’ve crashed once or twice. It’s not that I’m not willing to put aside my skepticism to learn something new, but it’s going to require some trust building before that point, and as a newcomer, I would not expect anyone to feel any particular obligation to get me to trust them. This is distinct from my earlier complaint about cliqueishness - members of a congregation are most likely, on average, happy to see a new face, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll hold your hand through growing pains. This is completely fine and probably healthier than the traveling-salesman ethos of your average Christian evangelist, but at the same time I’m not going to go off and join a religion solely on the basis of FOMO, nor would most members want me to, I expect.
Thirdly, there is, of course, a wide variety of political opinions in any sufficiently broad religious movement, including those I would find incompatible with my daily life (bigotry regarding LGBT+ people, to give an example.) This is a potential disadvantage of the congregational approach compared to the more informal approaches discussed above. If, as sometimes happens, a pagan meetup is full of people with reductive ideas about gender and sex, I can often just leave and, sooner or later, find some other group with better guidelines. In a congregational setting, political allegiances are deliberately more obscure for the sake of group cohesion, and even if I were to know who can be trusted, there’s no way I, the newcomer, am going to demand the congregation adapt their culture to me specifically. Especially in a religion where meetinghouses may be more scattered, and where group religious observances may be more strictly required, it’s not going to be simply a matter of finding a new group. Even overt declarations of allegiance (to extend the previous example, a rainbow-flag pamphlet notably present in the entryway) is not any kind of guarantee of safety if behaviors to the contrary are also tolerated. In my case, this isn’t just a statement that pursuing a religious path may be difficult because of my personal identity, but since many of my religious goals are tied explicitly into political goals (bread, beauty, justice for all people in this life, and so forth) joining an existing tradition could make these goals more difficult to pursue.
Note that this is not a criticism of “organized religion” per se - like I said above, I think religious practice often benefits from group organization. But I think, as a rule, methods of organization that many religions use are designed, and shaped gradually through aeons of history, for different goals or at least different methods than mine.
So my takeaway from all this is that my best option is to, as they say, roll my own. I’m aware that traditionally, these kinds of projects tend to have mixed success at best. Wikipedia’s “list of new religious movements” is an interesting read, but not necessarily a pleasant one. Guidelines like Steven Hassan’s BITE model and the late Isaac Bonewits’ ABCDEF give some guidelines into how abusive religious movements work, and this gives us some insight into how a religious movement that actually interested itself in human flourishing might structure itself, and what kinds of precautions it might build in.
We can take it as a given I’m not any kind of religious authority, nor do I intend to be. I am, however, a huge dork, and I like clearly defined instructions. So, as stated in the archived posts linked above, I would like any principles I lay out to take the form of a spec sheet or template, to be potentially adopted as needed by any future religious organization that shares my social priorities. I feel that, by separating authorship from actual implementation of the spec, there’s less risk of me (or anyone else) using general principles as an excuse to claim some sort of special authority. As the saying goes, trust nobody, not even yourself.
For now, let’s use my previous reasons why a particular religious structure didn’t work for me as a way to figure out what might.
Partial goal list for a religious spec:
- Provide a short, non-exhaustive list of end goals and fitting procedural guidelines for shared ritual and material work, with a focus on human liberation and flourishing.
- Provide a minimal list of shared metaphysical and/or doctrinal principles necessary to
- Distinguish spec-compliant religious groups from other groups with similar doctrine.
- Distinguish spec-compliant religious groups from other groups with similar moral and social concerns.
- Allow for inter-organizational cooperation among spec-compliant groups whose doctrines differ from each other.
- Prevent acts of cultural disrespect toward oppressed religious traditions by spec-compliant groups, including inappropriate and decontextualized cultural borrowing1.
- Outline multiple organizational types compatible with the above goals and principles.
- Outline detailed use cases for the above organizational types, including questions of scale, group self-definition, inclusion, exclusion, secrecy, conflict resolution, communication, decision-making, doctrinal interpretation, delegation, handling of abuse, and so forth. Describe in detail how each feature maintains compatibility with the above goals and principles. Give examples.
- Outline organizational types and features incompatible with the above goals. Give examples.
- Anticipate potential weaknesses in various organizational forms, problems they might introduce, and give examples as to how these might be mitigated.
This is all pretty dry stuff, but for me, this is a step in the right direction, and one I’ve been trying to take for a long time. I will of course be more than happy to get outside help on this if anyone is so inclined. Check the About page for my email, and I hope to re-implement a comment system soon. Until then, take care.
the above is not intended to unnecessarily divide or wall off spec-compliant religious groups from other religions. Interfaith cooperation should be a priority regardless, though I would suggest priority be given to oppressed and non-majority religious groups. The above is intended as a safeguard to prevent absorption and cooption by other religious groups, and to prevent destructive behavior toward other religious groups.