It’s not often I reblog someone else’s words, but this open letter from Jonathan Woolley at the Barefoot Anthropology site said just what I wanted to say – but said it so much better than I would have. The other day Ms Odone, a journo writing in the Telegraph, spewed a mighty pile of foetid inaccurate vitriol on the recent decision of Cornwall County Council to put a little focus on pagan paths in their RE curriculum. I was preparing to blog on it, but after Jonathan’s words… I don’t need to. Thanks Jonathan!
More Beatitude than Platitude? An Open Letter to Cristina Odone
Paganism be included in British RE lessons.
Dear Ms Odone.
You recently produced an article condemning the inclusion of Paganism and Druidry as part of the Religious Education syllabus in Cornish schools. You omit, though, that teaching about these faiths is not actually required, merely optional – what is required however, is that 60% of every RE course in this county must be concerned with your own faith of Christianity. It is therefore patently ridiculous for you to claim that our society believes that “one set of belief(sic.) is as good as another.” Christianity still is top dog, being the only faith that it is mandatory for schools to teach our children about.
Of course, the error at the heart of your article – you elide cultural and moral relativism and class this unwarranted merger as a “liberal fear of religious values” – is nothing new. The right wing press (including your erstwhile sparring partners over at The Daily Mail) regularly roll their eyes at any mention of Pagans or other minorities getting greater religious rights; considering such concessions to be the acts of timorous bureaucrats with no discernment when it comes to matters of religious validity.
Such journalists, as you have done, make the allegation that Paganism doesn’t have an ethical compass. Indeed, in reference to your encounter with Emma Restall-Orr on the BBC’s The Big Questions, you said much the same thing – dismissing the ethical teachings she shared on that show as “platitudes” and expressing high dudgeon that such a base occult person as a Druid should be permitted a platform in the high halls of public service broadcasting. Presumably, you believe the BBC’s function is to “edify” (read “indoctrinate”) everybody in true, good religious values. The alternatives are wishy-washy relativism.
To be honest, I think you’ve fallen into the usual trap of Christians faced with people who aren’t, and assumed that just because we don’t have Abrahamic-style morality, we must not have any morality at all. This could not be further from the truth. We Pagans have very clear moral frameworks – they’re just not like yours.
Pagan ethical teaching, was, I felt, very clearly elucidated by Emma (a Druid, like myself) on The Big Questions, and in a very good book she wrote to answer the questions she received there. To use her words, Pagans believe that the good life is founded upon sustainable relationship. We must always, as moral beings, be sensitive to the needs and situation of all others – only in light of that sensitivity can ethics truly shine. Empathy – the same principle that underpins the Christian Golden Rule – is critical here. This is not simply a principle poached from Christian thought though; it has its origins in the work of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, and beyond. Refusing the special pleading of humanism, modern Pagans attempt to apply empathy universally to create a fully heartfelt ecological perspective.
Despite this shared cornerstone of empathy, though, Pagan ethics are quite different from Christian ones. Christian ethics are heavily influenced by the political views of their day – most notably the Bronze-Age notions of sacral kingship it inherited from Judaism, and the Roman concept of Imperium. In both these political systems, the king-emperor is the absolute autocrat, whose word is law – never (in principle) to be questioned. Ultimate moral authority is therefore invested in the judgements of a single personality; one who is assumed to be uniquely elevated above all others.
All the Abrahamic faiths retain this concept – although, unlike the cultures from which they sprang, in them this role ceases to be filled by humans, and instead is filled by a transcendent god. The primary human role becomes that of the Prophet, the one into whose ear the absent Emperor whispers. The Pope still holds this role for Catholics such as yourself, as Christ’s representative on Earth. For Protestants, it is the Bible who holds such authority.
As a non-Abrahamic faith, modern-day Paganism has no such fondness for autocrats. We acknowledge the fact, as the ancient philosophers of Greece and India did, that true certainty is inaccessible for human minds. This doesn’t deny that the truth is out there (as relativism proper does), it just insists that the human capacity to know that truth is always provisional, no matter what title a person may have. In our view, the Pope, for all his learning and influence, has no greater claim to moral (or metaphysical) authority than you, regardless of which chair he might be sitting on at the time. The Bible might have been written mere decades after god himself (or one of them, anyway) walked the Earth – but that doesn’t guarantee its veracity.
This centralizing of doubt (the technical term is “skepticism”) in fact makes Paganism, Buddhism and other non-Abrahamic traditions far more like Western academia than they are like Christianity, Islam or Judaism, which place much greater stock in faith. This is always painted as faith in God, but it is really faith in whoever or whatever told you about God in the first place – be it man or book. It is an attitude that breeds hierarchy and autocracy.
Pagans believe that there is certainly a right and wrong course of action to take, in any situation. We reach, we fight, we strive to discern what is right, but, because we’re flawed beings, very often we fail. History more often than not reveals shortcomings in our own choices that we could never have imagined at the time of their making. Both our traditions accept this – but rather than give up, crying in the dust of our failures, and hope that some surrogate eternal parent will pick us up and make everything better as the Christians do; we pick ourselves up, and struggle on. We don’t do this because we want to, often – we do so because it is right. It is necessary. It is ethical. It is, to point to a growing line of thought within Paganism, the heroic thing to do.
In a positive application of the Nietzschean critique of Christianity as the religion of slavery, we Pagans seek an emancipated morality that doesn’t sugar the pill of a life filled with difficult decisions, but treats us as spiritual adults and calls us to embrace responsibility for our mistakes. It allows for a plurality of views. Although there may be one reality behind the plurality of human experiences of it, it is impossible from our perspective that any one experience could grasp that reality completely. Therefore, it is up to us to come together, and discern the most moral course of action from our many insights. Christians do this too of course, but rather than bow and scrape around the supposed divine authority of Pope or Presbyter, we acknowledge the truth of what we are doing, and honour it for what it is – messy, difficult and ultimately finite.
So what? What do these fine words mean for my daily life?
I recycle. I’m kind to others. I’m seeking a job that doesn’t involve working for an organization that exploits or harms the planet. I don’t have a car, because I feel it’s unsustainable. I support democracy and civil liberties. I respect the autonomy of others. I accept the limitations of my own perspective, and despite my critical view of Christianity, I fully support it being taught in RE lessons. Because I know that I might be wrong.