A couple years ago (5 or 6 to be precise), I wrote a blog post* about how to explain Paganism in the course of a conversation where it might need to come up…I don’t think I’m the person John Halstead was thinking of here, but he reminded me of my post!
Several years ago, I heard what I think was best advice ever about improving the image of Paganism. Unfortunately I can’t remember who said it, but the gist of it was this:) Rather than coming out as Pagans and then trying to convince people we deserve to be on the school board or city council or whatever, we should join the school board or city council, show them we are good citizens and good people, and then come out as Pagans. It’s not about hiding our Paganism, so much as taking our focus off of ourselves and refocus it on doing something positive in the world (other than making the world more comfortable for Pagans). Changing the image people have of Pagans will then happen naturally, without us trying.
~~John Halstead @ The Allergic Pagan, “Why Contemporary Paganism Deserves to Die”
I’ve been saying this for well over a decade (even before I started my little blog).
Honestly, the best PR Pagans can have as a group is to be seen as a person first–a person that lives our beliefs with pride and with respect, like any other person. We are never going to have a more equal footing if we can’t stop being defensive about our beliefs and go on the offense–-and we can do that without being pushy or proselytizing. Whether I was in the military or mom out with the kids or as government scientist (applied, not research) or at the grocery store or the doctors office, I identify as a person who happens to be Pagan (and a veteran and a mom and a scientist, etc.) People don’t look at me and think of a Pagan…if anything, I look like a overworked, under-slept slightly bohemian but outdoorsy soccer mom with a substantial collection of sarcastic t-shirts.
I do wear a lot of black, but that’s because its slenderizing and can get dirty without looking dirty (very important where I work).
My husband and I have been mostly openly Pagan for years, without any major incidents, living mostly in the South (with 2 years in the Midwest Bible Belt), and the past year and a half in the rural South. And there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: If you are at all publicly Pagan, there will be some point in time where you will be called upon to explain what Paganism is in general and perhaps even what you believe specifically.
It might be from someone that is honestly curious or it might be from someone that is already convinced that you are the devil incarnate. It might be from a well-meaning co-worker at a new job in a new state asking you if you need help finding a local church and inviting you to theirs. It might be from your child’s teacher, wanting clarification, to make sure that the class’s holiday party plans wouldn’t be offensive. It might be from someone that knows vaguely what Paganism is from some so-called pentacle-the-side-of-a-hubcap “seventh level dragon master faerie priest of Tantric energy manipulation” (I kid you not) and can’t believe someone so normal looking can be part of what think is a religion for people that should never be taken seriously. Either way (and everything in between) you have somehow been nominated (by default) as the Pagan Ambassador to this person and are responsible for disseminating good information in a way that is conversationally appropriate.
In this moment that you have become a spokesperson for Paganism–-and you never know, you might be the *only* person this person has ever known to be Pagan, and now their entire opinion of Pagans will be based upon their interaction with you and the information you provide them. Or worse, you are the lone Pagan that can reverse their opinion of Pagans as a bunch of Charmed fangirls/fanboys.
A bit daunting, yeah?
How the heck are you gonna manage that?!?
I advocate co-opting the elevator speech (sometimes called the 30 second commercial), a term generally mentioned in the context of job hunting, where it is designed to act as a way for you to sell yourself to prospective employers. The main difference between the personal 30-second commercial and the conversational 30-second Pagan infomercial (other than the fact that you aren’t trying to get a job) is that we aren’t selling Paganism (that would be proselytization), we are ‘selling’ the idea that we are just everyday people with a different religious opinion.
Because that’s all we are. Everyday people with a different flavor of religion.
Why, you might ask, would you care about that? Mostly because many of us live rather conventional lives (or unconventional lives within a conventional system)–-some of us are in the military, or are police officers, nurses, bankers, teachers, lawyers, stay-at-home moms. We might have kids or be on the PTA or coach the swim team or baseball.
Being seen as a person first (and not just some out-there wacky religion or worse) makes it easier for one of us to get custody of our kids in a divorce, for a sailor on duty to trade watch in order to go to ritual, or for our kids to make friends on the playground. Being seen as a person first means that people take you more seriously than if they only see you as a stereotype.**
So when it comes to constructing your own 30-second Pagan infomercial, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Consider your audience–Do you know their frame of reference in terms of religion? Are they a conservative Christian that has attended the same church their entire life or are they someone that has done a fair amount of seeking?* Are you comfortable speaking to this person in the first place?
Consider your purpose–What are you hoping to accomplish? Does this person seem hostile or are they just curious? Do you have the feeling that this may escalate into something unpleasant?
Consider your environment–There are places where you may feel that religion is not an appropriate topic, don’t be afraid to say something like “I don’t talk about religion at work” or “Hey, remind me about this while we are at lunch if you are still curious, right now I need to change a diaper.” And yes, if you were wondering, I have actually said both of these things.
No jargon–Believe it or not, but not everyone knows what polytheism is (and some of them don’t know what monotheism is either), keep information and terminology simple unless specifically asked.
Memorable, not outrageous–Keep it simple. Most people don’t care about the differences between Recon or eclectic, nor do they care that half the time the Pagan community can’t get their act together enough to agree to disagree in order to act together, or that Wiccans disagree over the the necessity for initiation. All most people want to know is that you aren’t in a cult and which winter holiday you celebrate so they can send you the right kind of card. But if they do use as an excuse to proselytize, you can have a response ready for that too.
Practice–Practice what you would say, in your head and in person. Find someone to test it out on. Do it in front of the mirror. When you end up giving your infomercial in real life, reflect on how it went afterwards…how could it be better? Remember, when time comes to use it, it shouldn’t be some memorized sales-pitch, it does need to fit the conversation. But practicing it will make your delivery smoother, which will make you sound more confident, which most people will take more seriously.
Don’t be afraid to let the moment go without acting–Don’t *not* speak up because you are afraid, but don’t think you have to say something at every single opportunity. Don’t say more than you feel comfortable talking about.
What you actually decide to say is completely up to you. I would recommend keeping it general and emphasizing a few key points. In keeping with the idea of “no jargon”, I try to gauge my audience–if i know or suspect that they have limited exposure to religions outside of Christianity, I use the Christian equivalent term if I feel it can be used appropriately(tradition sometimes become denomination, ritual might become worship service, etc).
The concepts that I feel are essential to highlight include:
1. Paganism is group of religious traditions and spiritual paths, rather than one unified religious tradition.
2. Pagans often believe in multiple gods and/or view the earth or universe as divine.
3. Many Pagans get their inspirational from ancient religions such as those practiced by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Norse, etc. Some Pagans try to recreate those religions as they were practiced.
4. Pagans may practice alone or in a group, and may belong to a specific tradition such as Wicca, Druidry, etc.
5. Pagan practices include worship services, holiday celebrations, prayer and ceremonies for weddings, birth, death, etc.
In a conversation, when called upon to bust out the “30-second infomercial” these points might come out something like this:
Bill: Well, if you don’t celebrate Christmas, what do you celebrate?
Sally: We celebrate Yule.
Bill: What’s that?
Sally: Its one of the holidays of Paganism.
Bill: What’s that?
Sally: It’s just another family of religions sort of like Christianity with all its denominations. Pagans are a pretty diverse group, some worship more than one god, or others, like me, see god as part of the whole universe. Some of us get inspiration from ancient religions, like those myths we had to read in lit class, but others belong to more modern groups like Wicca. I don’t belong to any specific “denomination” but I do participate in public celebrations for our holidays.
Bill: Hey cool, I didn’t realize that it was a “real” religion*.
*this conversation might be fake, but the comments are both things that have been said to me directly in the context of similar conversations
Or like this conversation that I had over the phone years ago about a preK-3rd program at a church school:
Me: Do you have non-Christian families attending there?
School Rep: Yes, we do have a few. Most of our families are members of our church, but we have a lot of diversity from the neighborhood and because our school program is well knows for its awards.
Me: So…does your school incorporate a specific religious education into their pre-k program?
School Rep: What do you mean?
Me: Like, how religious is it really? Our family isn’t Christian.
School Rep: Well, its not like bible school, but we do include Bible stories with story time at least once a week and particularly around the holidays. Sometimes crafts and things that go along with them. If you don’t mind my asking, what religion is your family and maybe I can better address your concerns?
Me: Well, we are Pagan.
School Rep: Oh, is that like Wicca? Because we had a Wiccan family a few years ago bring their kids here, but they’ve all graduated from here…
Me: Well, Wiccans are a type of Pagan…sort of like your denomination is a type of Christian. Paganism is a lot more diverse in beliefs though. Our family basically believes in a universal Divine and that individual gods are all equal parts of that Divine, but that’s just one point of view among many. We celebrate some of the same holidays as you do, just for different reasons.
School Rep: Like Yule, right? And Halloween, and some holiday a bit like Easter?
Me: Yup, those are some of them.
School Rep: Ah, gotcha. Well, here is how we can handle that sort of thing to work with you…
(that school went on the short list…I was very impressed, but ultimately it was too far out of the way and too expensive)
Notice that the conversations are framed in the context of the ongoing conversation, rather than something that is memorized–you are talking to a person, not giving a lecture. They are short, sweet, as general as possible but still giving useful information, and they are positive–what we DO and what we ARE. Pagans need to stop defining ourselves by what we are not and what we don’t do because it just reinforces negative stereotypes.
In the 20+ years that I have been a Pagan of one form or another, I have had to give some variation of this explanation (of what I believe and how it relates to a bigger picture) probably hundreds of times. It sort of makes me cringe, because I only got “good” at it after the first decade 7 or 8. I have had to explain Paganism (or more specifically, how Paganism fits into the military) to some pretty conservative crowds, and I will tell you now, that even when someone needs to know, they don’t always want to hear it. Particularly when it messes with their preconceived ideas.
With that in mind, the thing to remember is that not every conversation will go well. Your goal should not be to prove a point, or to be “right” or to have the last word (which is where my list of etiquette guidelines for interfaith discussions come in). Know when to back off, and how to do it gracefully (if possible) if things *do* go badly. But, at the same time, don’t be afraid to share your beliefs–-you deserve the same respect for having them that the next person does for having theirs, whether they are mainstream or not. If you can’t consider the conversation at work or school or at home, at least speak up when the opportunity presents itself…even if its just with trusted friends (or family that are also friends)or the blessedly anonymous internet.
*this post is essentially that same post from 5 years ago, heavily revised in places
**Here, I originally had some comments about the PR genius of the Mormons, which really only worked in the context of being able to see the commercials in question, but it isn’t available any longer. Also, while I still think the commercials were excellent from a PR standpoint, there’s some manipulation there, when it comes to proselytization, that isn’t really necessary here.