Raising Pagan Children: Battling Modern-Day Views of the Religion
By Neal “the Puck” Jansons
Raising children is always a strange and scary business. Raising children to believe in a religious or spiritual path is difficult and can often raise problems that we, as parents, have no training with which to deal. The key to navigating this situation is to be prepared, and that is what we are going to do today: talk about how to be prepared to deal with the issues that come up when trying to raise pagan kids.
Two Strikes Against Us
Modern paganism exists in a very precarious time. So much of what should be a living, breathing, and vital return of our ancient faiths has been lost in a rather confusing mix of politics, marketing, and teenage rebellion. All too often, when young people explore paganism they end up leaving it soon after, later referring to it as a “phase” they had gone through. My own mother was one of these. She continued her religious exploration long after she left paganism, for a time identifying as a Taoist and finally as a Christian. She, like my father, had access to some of the best teaching available in the late 1970’s, Victor and Cora Anderson, founders of the now well-known Feri Tradition of Witchcraft. Now, the question one must ask, especially as a pagan with children or who is helping raise children, is why did my mother end up a Christian while my father and I stayed pagan? We, as the people who help shape the next generation of modern paganism through our children and apprentices, have a distinct responsibility to consider our approach to our faith and our gods critically when it comes to raising our children. Like a language, a religion, or in our case an entire category of religions, only has a lifespan as long as its youngest living believer. We must approach this issue thoughtfully and with great attention, because in a very real way the future of our faith hangs in the balance.
The Elephant in the Closet
Let’s face it, we live in a world built by monotheism. Christianity took over Europe and the United Kingdom, helped shape the United States, and has profoundly influenced the modern world. Islam and Judaism have had a similar, though lesser, influence on the current world, but that may well be changing. This is a huge issue for someone trying to raise children pagan, because it is almost impossible, short of conditioning every aspect of that child’s experience, to not have their views about religion and spirituality affected by monotheism. When we send them to school, to play over at a friend’s house, and when they read, watch television, and use the Internet, monotheism is going to be the assumption and the norm. They will be asked about their religion, they will be proselytized to by well-meaning schoolmates, and in some cases they will be ridiculed and bullied. This is a fact, and we have to accept it, but we don’t have to take it lying down!
Under some governments in the world, it is actually illegal to be pagan. These are generally theocracies like Saudi Arabia, and the only advice I can give you if you are in one of these countries is to leave, quietly and quickly. Historically speaking, paganism has been the most violently persecuted of religious traditions, and I have no desire to see that type of violence again. The rest of this article assumes that you are in a location that possesses freedom of religion and grants you some sort of legal recourse if your rights, or the rights of your child, get trampled on.
Prepare Your Child
Unlike children from monotheistic families, your child will be under a double pressure, from children of monotheists and children of atheists. A child raised monotheist will feel pressured by atheists, but they will feel tempted into paganism, which is an entirely different experience. A child raised pagan will be receiving pressure from the most likely to proselytize groups, which are usually also the least informed on paganism. Often, all the children who will be interacting with your children have been taught about paganism has come from movies like “The Craft” and from parents whose opinions may range from “evil devil-worshippers” to “hippie throwbacks”. This is not to say that your family might not have a bit of darkness or granola in their midst; to each their own. The point is that this will not generally be a very accepting environment for your child to be open about the religion of their family. You must prepare them for the various things people may say and believe. It is important for your child to be armed with the idea that people believe many different things and not all of them agree, and that some of them may be very mean when they disagree.
Understanding Your Path
As a child of a pagan family, your child will be expected to explain their religion more often than most other people, and as they get older the questions will get tougher. Whether or not this is fair, it will happen. This is because of the overall lack of knowledge about paganism combined with its relative rarity. Some people who ask your child to explain themselves might be genuinely curious, and some might be baiting them into an argument or an attempt to proselytize. In any case, your child must understand not only what their family believes, but why they believe it. In order to know that, you have to help teach it to them, which means you have to understand what you believe and why. This might be a sore subject for you, as you may not have looked critically at your beliefs before. In paganism there is a great tendency to “go with the flow”. However, your child deserves to have a clear idea of what it is they are being raised with, and a clear understanding of your own beliefs is the only way to get there. This means being able to answer certain questions.
Issues to Think About
Do you come from an established tradition, such as Asatru or Stregheria, which has a distinct set of beliefs, set of ethics, and pantheon of gods? If so, much of your work is done for you. These traditions arose from a body of historical lore and myths and have answers for most of the big questions built into their systems of thought. If you are of the eclectic bent, you have a bigger task ahead of you. You have to answer some of the ultimate questions about spirituality all on your lonesome, with nothing but your own researches to guide you. However, as an eclectic, you are used to being in this situation, and should be prepared for the task.
1. Views About the Gods: This is a very important question, as it affects the rest of them. As a pagan, you are by definition a polytheist, which means you believe in many gods. However, there are differing views among polytheists on what exactly the gods are and their ultimate nature. The major divisions are this: “pantheistic polytheism”, “duotheistic polytheism”, and “hard polytheism”. Pantheists believe that all of the gods and goddesses are simply faces or facets of one force or godhead. They may think that this force is reality itself, or the true god, or many other things, but the views always end up with the same thing: all the gods are one. Duotheists believe that this force or ultimate godhead is divided along gender-lines, often using terms like “Lord and Lady” and claiming that all goddesses are THE Goddess and all gods THE God. The last major category is the hard polytheists, who believe that the gods are exactly what they seem to be: diverse beings with diverse natures who establish personal relationships with people. There are other answers that are common as well; you might believe they are just facets of your own subconscious, archetypes in the collective unconscious, advanced aliens or humans from the past who became deified. You must decide how you feel about this question, although it is important to remember that you may occupy some place in-between. In any case, thinking about this issue will encourage you to work out your own beliefs and make you able to communicate them.
2. Ethics: Does your spiritual path inform your ethics or politics? How? Do you believe there is an objective moral code, like the Wiccan Rede or the Asatru Nine Virtues? If so, why? Do you believe there is a moral agency in the universe, such as a force like karma or the Rule of Three? If so, why? Do a little research on philosophical ethics for problems and issues that some very smart people have considered over the years, and see how your beliefs about ethics cope with the problems posed. You might find yourself being a little more ethical after answering these questions of yourself, and you will definitely find yourself with a firmer leg to stand on when trying to explain right and wrong to your child.
3. Death and the Afterlife: As pagans, we generally share a common view on death: that it is a part of the natural order and thus not to be feared, but otherwise we differ greatly. Often, people have few hard beliefs on the subject, but this is a disservice to a child who is being hit with stories of a heaven with streets of gold where they will get to play all day long. Even if you decide the honest answer for the child is “I don’t know”, you should explain why you feel you can’t answer. The reality is that this is a big issue for children who are being pressured by monotheists, because generally monotheism is very concerned with the afterlife, so you owe it to your child to think out these issues. Do you believe in an afterlife? Reincarnation? Oblivion? Do you believe that your actions in life have consequences after death? Why? What about ghosts, ancestor worship, and necromancy?
4. The Nature of Worship: As pagans, we have many forms of activity that could be called “worship”. Many of us keep altars to specific gods and goddesses or to our ancestors, and many of us celebrate seasonal rituals as well. Some of us even engage in special relationships with specific entities who become our “patrons”. Some of us even worship our lovers or our family. This, of course, raises the question of “what is worship?”. There are many different answers to this question, and often it will depend on your answer to question one. Do you believe that you serve your gods as a servant or slave? Do you believe you are their lover, their friend, their family member? Do you wish to emulate them? Please them? This relation will define worship for you, and thus you will be able to define worship for your children.
5. Relationships and Sexuality: pagans generally have very *ahem* unique views on sexuality. We are very frank about sex, our Beltane rituals are well-attended, and we often pursue alternative relationship structures such as polyamory. This puts us in a potentially very uncomfortable situation when our child starts asking questions about sex. You must decide what you believe and why you think it is right, and you must also skate the thin line between too little and too much information. Often, in an attempt to offset sexual taboos in our society, we may be tempted to be overly detailed in our explanations. Realize your child simply might not have the perspective to benefit from all your wisdom about the trials and tribulations of love and lust, and wait for them to ask for more detailed or nuanced advice as they need it. Don’t be afraid to give a simple answer and save some things for a more appropriate age.
6. Origins and Purpose: How do you believe the universe and humanity came to be? Why? Do you believe that humanity has a purpose or destiny? Do you believe that individuals have a destiny? What about free will? Again, this is an issue pagans often throw up their hands at and say “I don’t know”, but if you are one of those you need to be able to explain why you have come to that conclusion. In any case, this issue is a hot subject in many places right now and it will probably come up at some point. It pays to be prepared.
7. Touchy Subjects: On many subjects, pagans have views that may differ from those of the majority of society. Homosexuality, class, race, gender, transgenderism, war, the death penalty, abortion, drugs, teenage sex and pregnancy, and many, many other strange and difficult subjects will arise over your child’s life and you need to be able to talk about the issues and give your reasons for why you believe as you do.
Freedom of Belief
The last issue I want to address is an attitude I have seen among many pagans, and I think this is due to the politicization of paganism by certain individuals and groups. While it is true that there is a strong political tradition in much of modern paganism (as there should be), it is a mistake to define paganism as being specifically tied to any political or philosophical agenda. We have among us both radical feminists and ultra-right National Socialists, and however those two groups may feel about each other (or you may feel about them), they are both pagan. While I do believe it is important to have your spirituality define your politics, I also believe it is absolutely wrong to engage with spirituality simply as a political tool, no matter how noble.
Why this is relevant is that I have been among some pagans who, in an attempt to respect their children’s freedom of belief and avoid the nasty connotations associated with the idea of “indoctrination”, refuse to in any way teach their children about spirituality. These people have instead chosen to avoid the subject, allow their children to be “exposed” to a variety of religious beliefs, and then make their own choice.
I believe this to be wrong, and here is why: either you actually believe what you claim or you do not. If you believe it, then you believe it to be true, a matter of fact. It is your job to teach your children matters of fact, and trust me, if you don’t teach them the facts as you see them either secular materialist culture or monotheism will gladly take your place. Your kids are going to get their ideas about these issues from somewhere, and the first place should not be television or the kids at school. It should be their parents. These things are far too important to refuse to talk to our children about them in some misguided desire to respect their freedom of belief.
There is also a desire to respect other beliefs. While this is understandable, it is another consequence of the politicization of paganism. All religions make claims, including paganism, from the number of gods to the metaphysical framework of the universe. These claims depend for their truth upon reality actually being the way the claims describe, and some claims are mutually exclusive. While it may be that many, if not all, of the traditions of paganism, including eclecticism, may be simultaneously true (at least in a sense) because they agree in certain premises, it is not possible for paganism to be true and Christianity to be true at the same time, and the same goes for several other religions. While there is no “right, true, and only way”, there are wrong ways, and there is nothing wrong with telling your child you believe Christianity to be wrong and why.
And that is really the trick if you want to be responsible about these issues without indoctrinating: actually know why you believe what you believe and be able to answer the “why’s” when they come…and trust me, they will come. This is not indoctrination, this is teaching, and if you understand what you believe and have good reasons, you should be able to communicate those beliefs and reasons. Give them an argument, not a “believe or else” ultimatum, but please, give them something.
At the beginning of this article, I asked why my mother became a Christian while my father and I stayed pagan. The answer to that question, in my mother’s own words, was that paganism was “juvenile” and “too thin”. It “didn’t have any real answers to offer”. The reason for this was because questions like those I have raised here were left unasked by paganism in her time, and thus unanswered. That was thirty years ago, and we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go before modern paganism may consider itself “established”. If we want to ever be more than a “phase” for rebellious teenagers to grow out of and an excuse for a good party, we must begin to actually take ourselves seriously. We need to ask certain questions, we need to come to conclusions, and then we need to pass those conclusions on to our children. Our survival depends upon it.
Raising Witches: Teaching the Wiccan Faith to Children, by Ashleen O’Gaea
Family Wicca: Practical Paganism for Parents And Children, by Ashleen O’Gaea
Living Asatru, by Greg Shetler
Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions, multiple authors
Pagan Children’s Workbook, by Lady Eliana