So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

09 March, 2012

E is for Exclusivity

Touchy, touchy subject, especially in the wake of things like the PantheaCon Trans Inclusion Debacle (Mark 2). But I'm not just thinking about that, I'm thinking about huge chunks of things.

Most people reading this likely grew up in a culture that was dominated by Christianity. And the thing about that is that there's a whole bunch of subtle stuff that comes with it, a lot of assumptions that don't actually get questioned and checked - even among people who have actively chosen to reject Christianity, often with the "my awful ex sucks" attitude that a lot of pagans have.

For example: Christianity is a universalist religion. It claims to be there for everyone, available to everyone, and in fact it wants everyone. Different bits of it manage different quantities of genuine welcome, but even the parts that are least friendly to us deviant types will say "We want you to join us, give up your deviancy and get our divine cookie when you die!" (Why that's appealing is still unclear to me, but that's neither here nor there.) In the two most common (in my experience) framings of Christian universalism, people are either divided up into Good People (heaven-bound) and Sub-Human Scum (hell-bound) or categorised in some flavor of "You can just get to heaven if you do it right, let me show you what I know about how to do it right." (I know plenty of Christians who do not proselytise at me or consider me hell-bound, mind, but I suspect that their basic approach is something like that from C. S. Lewis's Narnia, in which 'doing it right' is by axiom recognised by the Power(s) that would appreciate such action.)

The assumptions of universality are much more persistent than the actual belief in Christian religion, though. (If you need an example of this, go into any atheist vs. theist flamewar and see how often "religion" is equated with a coercive force intended to convert or compel those people who are not adherents to it. I have stalled out several ranting atheists by pointing out that I really could not give less of a fuck whether or not they "believe" in any of my gods. They generally paused briefly, and then went back to arguing as if I did not exist.) The fact that it was an innovation, and that most religions historically have not been down with that kind of nonsense, is completely lost in the hegemonial status of A Religion Is For Everyone (Except Maybe The Sub-Human Hellbound Scum).

Ancient peoples, for example, were not generally universalists (though some philosophical branches within them might have been: vide Atenism). Oh, each tribe and culture likely thought that their gods were the best gods - and one act in war was stealing icons from the enemy to deprive the enemy of their power - but it was an axiomatic given that those people over there had different gods. After all, they were different people, a different culture, with different customs. If they had the same gods and practices, why, they'd be us, not them.

Obviously, this attitude has its ups and downs - Christianity has had an effect in making it more plausible to see widely varied people as part of "us", after all - but it does mean that the whole "impose on you the one true religion" thing is kind of a no-starter. I think the closest we get are things like the Romans, who tended to do things like conquer places, study the local Powers, and say, "Oh, your gods? Those are other names for our gods. Update your statues accordingly and pay your taxes and we won't smite you a second time." (Some times their accuracy in parallelism was better than others.) And even with the equation of "proper attention to the Roman cultus" with "decent citizen not in need of smiting", there were periods when Jewish people were given exceptions from those laws, despite being, in Roman terms, atheists (without statues to update).

But modern paganism has a largely-unrecognised tension between universalist tendencies and exclusive ones. I have - more than once, probably more than a hundred times - seen the basic argument between the person who expects religion to be universal, and thus to be coddled, persuaded, and handed membership for the asking, and a person who expects religion to be something affiliated with a specific community or even family, who therefore asks the universalists why they should get special treatment as a total stranger.

And of course this always blows up, because, at some level, the would-be pagan coming from a universalist standpoint takes that as "you are Sub-Human Hellbound Scum". Because if they weren't Sub-Human Hellbound Scum, obviously they'd be welcomed as a member! There is no other reason to say no! Religion is for everyone! And information wants to be free! (Has the information climbed into your personal ear yet? No? That's why you're asking for it? Clearly it doesn't want to be as free as all that.)

There's also the thread that the universalist probably thinks 'pagan' is a religion, rather than the none-of-the-above category box for leftover religions, and thus expects a well, more universalist approach to things. Sure, anyone can be pagan by saying so. That doesn't mean jack shit about anything specific....

The critical thing about modern paganism as a mishmash is that while some of the founding influences were fairly open (for example, most reconstructions being fairly open to those who are willing to do the work and adopt the appropriate attitudes), others - including the best-known things - are organised around mysteries. And mysteries, by their nature, are not general-access things.

A mystery is, at root, an experience that can only be understood by going through it. One can learn all kinds of theory about many mysteries, but that doesn't actually provide functional knowledge. (Much like reading and learning about sex is not the same thing as having sex: sex is a mystery.) A mystery may be an experiential aspect to a comparatively open religion (technically speaking, Communion in Christianity is such a thing, not that this is commonly presented) or it may be more limited - only those people who make the correct sacrifices may enter, only those people who have the correct devotions, the correct background, or whatever else.

If the entire religion is structured around a mystery, then it is the responsibility of those people who are in possession of the mystery to only bring it to appropriate dedicants. Simply wanting the mystery does not make it happen, any more than wanting a pony pays the rent of a stall at the stable.

The tricky parts come in with trying to talk about how and why these communities are limited-access.

A while back I had a few go-arounds in a conversation about a particular religious witchcraft tradition. Unlike Wicca, it has not yet spawned a more universalist derivative (using the same name or otherwise), and the teachers are still heavily localised. And, for one reason or another, the conversation degenerated to, "Well, if your tradition is so great, why aren't you sharing it more? Don't you want to share your shiny thing?" And a lot of the responses got read as "Well, I sacrificed to get to a place where I could get training, so if you don't do that, you just don't want it bad enough" or "Something will magically happen to make it possible if it is your destiny, otherwise fuck off" or "Only the special people get in."

And, y'know, some people think that way. It's not a useful way to think, especially, but it's out there.

I'm suspecting people wanted to convey was something more like, "Look. Training in a mystery religion is hard work. It's very rewarding for the people who pursue it, yes, but it will also quite likely turn your life upside down, force you through all kinds of complicated and painful situations, and honestly, if you're not a person who really, genuinely, truly needs to do this particular thing, you will not succeed, because it's not worth it unless you need it." (Doing outer-court training in a mystery tradition led directly to the end of a five-year relationship for me, by the way.) I'm also suspecting that there was something to be said along the lines of, "Look, just because you think something is shiny doesn't obligate someone to invest their personal time to give it to you; if you really, truly want it - if you think you're one of the people for whom it's worth that level of effort - you have to evaluate what you're willing to do to get it."

And also, I don't think that this was actually a part of that conversation, but it needed to be said anyway: mysteries are a dime a dozen. You can trip over one walking out your door. Your life is full of them. If the access to this specific mystery isn't compatible with your life, find another. The thing that makes this mystery all that for me is that it's the one that I choose and the one that I need and the one that blends with my experience.

Mysteries are by definition hard to talk about, but I think people need to start being clear about them. "This is the mystery for the people who need this specific mystery" is something that only makes sense when one has a little knowledge, after all.

"This ritual is for those people who wish to celebrate their menstruation experiences" is a much better phrasing than "this is for women's mysteries" (which suggests that it's for women in general, including those who have never menstruated for whatever reason or those like me who find that 'menstrual spirituality' is much of a muchness with stuff like 'tasty, tasty shit pancakes in delicious oil-spill sauce') or "this is for blood mysteries" (which gives me a vastly kinkier impression than I think was intended).

"This ritual is for those people who are seeking to develop an intimate devotional relationship with this specific Power" is a pretty specific way of dividing the wheat from the chaff of potential attendees, though obviously traditions where the nature of the Power in question is among the information held privately it is harder to judge whether or not one wants to seek to develop such intimate relationship.

It's even possible to put things in the negative, though I think it's harder to do so without potentially creating issues. "This ritual is for survivors of sexual violence", for example, would include male survivors and trans survivors of all sorts, while a ritual structured in a way where there is concern that someone might be triggered by an encounter with a penis perhaps due to a lack of trousers, and where avoiding those triggers is important to the organisers, would not in fact be open to all people dealing with an experience of rape, and should not bill itself as such.

"This ritual is for adult Greek-speakers who have never committed murder, who make the appropriate piglet sacrifice, and who perform the appropriate ritual bath in the river Illisos", meanwhile, is all that and a bag of pomegranates.


Tana said...


Darker said...

Nicely put.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I noticed that an awful lot of that anti-trans kerfuffle could have been avoided if the rituals had been more accurately described: "this ritual is for all women" is not remotely the same thing as "this ritual is for celebrating the menstrual experience".

I wonder if it helps to give lots of "mundane" examples of mysteries? If I understand correctly, riding a bicycle is a mystery, as is being able to knit - not to say some people can't pick it up from reading about it, but until they've actually manipulated the sticks and string successfully, I'm not going to consider them knitters.

It's not passing judgment against someone who decides they don't care enough for the sport to invest the time and money to become a proficient ballroom dancer, and martial artists can be quite proud of their black belts without the need to go door-knocking to spread the word.


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Daisy Deadhead said...

Very nice, will link at some point...

Now that I have left Christianity, which I blabbered about for years (since you are SUPPOSED to, as you correctly point out!), I have migrated to a tradition that... doesn't blab. Its been kind of weird to get so ensconced in something and not talk about it, but... I don't wanna talk about it either. Because, you know, blabbing and witnessing and testifying just isn't part of it. (LOL--I hope this makes sense!) You have helped me immeasurably today by explaining it: I have stopped being a universalist. Wow, and I didn't even realize it! :)

It was nothing I intended, is the simply the fallout of different practice.

By gum, I think you've got it.

Again, wonderful piece. Brilliant, in fact.