, , , , , ,

Its inevitable…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 a devil worshiper.  Either way (and everything in between) you are now responsible (by default) for disseminating good information (as in factual and complete) in a way that is conversationally appropriate (short, sweet, clear, and positive).  In this moment you have become a spokesperson for Paganism–you never know, you might be the *only* person this person has ever known to be Pagan, and now their entire opinion will be based upon their interaction with you and the information you provide them.  A bit daunting, yeah?

So, there are some things you need to keep in mind before you finish reading this post.  Homework, if you will…

Go, read…

Welcome back!  With all that floating around in your brain, lets get to the real issue:  What the heck do you say and how do you say it when someone puts you on the spot and inquires about “that Pagan thing”…in 30 seconds (or less)?

You may have heard the same sort of thing entitled an “elevator speech”, or the “30-second commercial”…its a common 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 our 30-second Pagan infomercial (other than the fact that you aren’t trying to get a job) is that we should be seeking to appropriately inform while ‘selling’ the idea that we are just everyday people with a different religious opinion.

Why, you might ask, would you care about that? Well…since many of us live rather conventional lives–some of us are in the military, or are police officers, nurses, bankers, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, we might have kids or be on the PTA or live in a conservative neighborhood.  Being seen as a person first (and not some out-there, wacky religion, or worse) makes it easier to get custody of your kids in a divorce, to get a day off of work to attend a ritual, for a sailor on duty to trade watch in order to go to a circle (or to make it easier for him or her to organize a circle in the first place), or for your 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.

The Mormons have been doing pretty well with this–its taken them less than 200 years to go from being kicked out into their own territory to having a candidate with a shot at the White House.  It wouldn’t hurt to consider the appeal of commercials like the one below in promoting a message of something like… “We are nice people.  We are like you.  We just believe in something else.  And we will tell you about it if you want us to.”

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.
  • Practice–Practice what you would say, in your head and in person.  Find someone to test it out on.  When you end up giving your infomercial in real life, reflect on how it went afterwards…how could it be better?
  • 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.
*This won’t necessarily change what information you are providing so much as how you deliver it or what you emphasize (or what analogies you might be inclined to use).  You also may not know these things, unless you already know something about the person.  My philosophy in these situations is “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
What you actually decide to say is 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:

(at the high school reunion)

Bill: Sally, that’s a neat necklace.
Sally: Oh, that’s my pentacle.
Bill: Pentacle?  Isn’t that some teenager religion from Buffy*?
Sally: Not exactly.  Its a symbol common to Paganism.
Bill: Oh… What’s…Paganism?
Sally: Its 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 recently had over the phone 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…

(let me just say that this school is on my short list…I was very impressed)

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 (which goes back to the first two links I posted on framing, and I especially recommend reading the bit about how to deal with negative accusations).  In the 18 years that I have been 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 in the past 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 something like the following, at least speak up when the opportunity presents itself…even if its just with family or trusted friends or the blessedly anonymous internet.

A group of us have gotten together and want to do something about it.  We are putting together a video of us dressed in street clothes, or work clothes, getting in our cars, or cooking breakfast for our kids.  Anything showing the public we are NORMAL PEOPLE leading NORMAL lives, raising our children going to soccer, baseball, basketball practice.  Whatever, the point is to look in the camera and say, “I’m a mother, I have a real job (or say what your profession is), and I’m a Witch, (I’m Pagan, I practice Wicca).”   I am not saying give out your name or address, the point is showing us as real people with real faces.   It makes it kind of hard to be afraid of something once you put a REAL face to it.   We need to be SEEN, and to be HEARD.  We are here and none of us are going away.  Please stand with us, stand for our future and that of our children and grandchildren.  We plan on putting it together and making it public, so if you fear of losing your job, or that your family won’t understand, use your own judgment, but if you feel like a lot of us that the time has come, and are ready to take the risk then send me your spot!
from Stirring the Cauldron with Judas

This is an awesome idea. Honestly, the best PR we can have is to be seen as a person first–a person that lives our beliefs with pride and with respect.  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.