A (long) while back, I started reading a book called Shaman, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion by Brian Hayden. I never got to finish it because it was a library book, and it was when we were in transition between Virginia to Illinois and back again, but it interestingly divided religions into two basic types–the so-called “book” religions and traditional religions. This is by no means the actual point of the book…it was just a few pages from the introductory chapter before progressing to a discussion of the different ways to study the development of religions, but I think there were a number of ideas that the author expresses that I think are useful to consider as a contemporary Pagan
Hayden asserts that religions can (at their very most general and basic level) be divided into two main types–traditional (usually indigenous) religions (experiential and usually passed on orally) and formal “book” religions (religions that have texts or scripture describing the nature of divinity, the supernatural, and morality). He states that traditional indigenous religions have been shaped by two main factors–ecology and (what I would describe as) “the something that makes us human” which is (specifically, according to the author) “an innate emotional foundation”. The latter allows for us to have “the ability to enter into ecstatic states via a number of techniques and to create strong, emotionally binding relationships with other people (or institutions or ideals) associated with those states”. The former “modifies the context of this innate emotional factors in terms of economic conditions or small group political relationships”. And he goes on to distinguish and differentiate traditional religions from “book religions” in eight main differences (to which there will, of course, be exceptions):
- World view—In most book religions, sacredness/divinity is something that is separate and often distant from material existence. In most traditional religions sacredness/divinity is imminent (though possible dormant) and can be accessed through the technology of religion (rituals, special items, etc). And if you notice, the differences in the following seven points pretty much all stem from this one thing.
- Sacredness of food and dance–I would describe this one more as “sacredness of the physical”, though the author is specifically talking about how food and drink, and music and dance are used as a link between man and gods/spirits in traditional religions, vs book religions that considered these actions and experiences to be profane indulgences.
- Ecstatic experiences–As the author puts it, “In most traditional religions, entering into ecstatic states is the religious experience. It is a direct connection with the sacred forces of the universe and is therefore promoted as desirable.” In book religions, not so much; if they aren’t outright shunned, they are kept as something separate and/or limited.
- Participation–Traditional religions are generally speaking more inclusive and allow for the participation of most aspects of the religion for a “broad segment of the community” (through altered states of consciousness). In book religions, accessing the divine is generally a more spectator sport (if it happens at all) during rituals (usually performed entirely by clergy on behalf of followers).
- Life Attitude–In book religions, existence is generally seen as bad/evil/suffering/etc that can only be escaped (generally not until the afterlife), vs traditional religions which generally tend towards celebratory ritual that fosters connections between individuals and their environment (or aspect of the environment).
- Goals and morality–Traditional religions tend not to be moral systems while book religions tend to proclaim a moral system geared towards ensuring a lack of sin or state of purity.
- Central Mysteries–According to the author, central mysteries in book religions generally “revolve around the actions of deities” and/or “moral aspects of the universe”vs. the central tendency of traditional religions’ central mysteries to be centered around life and living: “where it comes from, where it goes, what affects it, and how it is transformed and continuous from year to year and generation to generation”
- Exclusivity–“Because book religions are ethical systems, usually based on the teachings of key historical figures such as Mohammed, Christ, or Buddha, book religions tend to consider other belief systems as not fully ethical and valid. Generally they are intolerant of other belief systems even when they do not actively campaign to eliminate them. Therefore, book religions transcend ethnic groups and tend to become imperialistic. In contrast, traditional religions easily accept other religions as being equally valid and are tolerance of beliefs in other deities.”
I’m not mentioning these differences to criticize the so-called book religions, but to point out that (while there is still variability) some of the commonalities between many contemporary Pagan traditions, which tend to resemble traditional religions more than they resemble the “book religions” (I’m not terribly fond of this term, but it works I suppose). While arguing over defining Paganism is a popular (though thankfully seasonal and seemingly out of season at the moment) spectator sport in the Pagan blogosphere, the predominant theme between most contemporary Pagan religions (as far as I can tell) echo these above-listed differences from book religions between. When I’ve taken a wide-angled, multi-faith look at Pagan traditions, for the most part, these commonalities of traditional religions (and of contemporary Paganisms) can be summed up or distilled as 1) Practice is Experiential, 2) Divinity is Plural, and 3) the Material is Sacred (for full disclosure, I staunchly favor a polythetic definition of Paganism). Which brings me to where our differences (at their most basic level can be found…
And I think the best summation of these differences, if one uses that same wide-angled, multi-faith look, can be found in the idea of there being multiple “centers” of Paganism (AFAK, John Halstead at The Allergic Pagan is one of the first people to write about this idea in this way, followed up by John Beckett at Under the Ancient Oaks, both of which are Patheos blogs). The first, Nature/Earth Centered Paganism, which is “concerned primarily with ecology, those more local forms of Paganism that I would call “backyard Paganism” or are sometimes called “dirt worship”, and many forms of (neo-)animism which view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of beings” (per John Halstead). The second, Deity Centered Paganism, which “is mainly concerned with forming and maintaining relationships with the Gods, ancestors, and spirits” (per John Beckett). The third, Self Centered Paganism isn’t actually self-centered (I’ve taken to calling it Self-centric), but rather centered around the development of the self and “defined by spiritual practices which aim at development of the individual, spiritually or psychologically” (per John Halstead). The fourth, Community Centered Paganism is “about maintaining harmonious relationships” where we are “secondary to the family, and immortality is in the continuation of the family, not in the continuation of the individual” (per John Beckett).
Practically speaking, most Pagans that I have encountered seem to identify with more than just one of these centers (and religion, IMO, is about the relationships we find in those centers, whether it is between one another or ourselves and the gods or ourselves and our ancestors or our relationship with the world around us). Some of us identify with all of them through out our path, either at different times on our journey or in different aspects of our path. Some traditions do this as well–ADF specifically recognizes and addresses the spirits of the land, the ancestors, and deities and leaves decision of which center to focus on up to the practitioner. Another book I’m fond of, by an ADF Saxon Pagan (To Walk a Pagan Path by Alaric Albertsson, which I’ve been blogging about) talkabout connecting with spirit in reference to these three things (he leaves out the Self), whereas I find that connection with spirit occurs in all four centers as well (or maybe where they all intersect, if we think of them in terms of being a Venn diagram), and I think this is an important distinction when talking about how we individually and collectively connect with spirit (a topic for another day), rather than dismissing one another as being *not my Paganism*.