How do we Achieve Tolerance for Paganism?

ChicagoPPD1Pagans, as a minority spiritual tradition, often ask the question, how do we achieve tolerance with non-Pagans? One suggestion I’ve seen is, should Pagans offer public roundtable discussions or other seminars to demystify Paganism? How should we go about communicating what Paganism is, and is not, to non-Pagans?

I think that for the right people, for the right group of non-Pagans, there are definitely things that can be done to demystify Paganism. But sometimes it’s a matter of discernment.

The audiences that it wouldn’t be effective to target would be folks who are fundamentalists and zealots. There’s folks who are adamant about their beliefs and aren’t going to change their minds. These folks might show up just to heckle your roundtable discussion, which is of course a good way to get the press there, but they themselves aren’t going to change their minds, so there’s no use wasting your breath with them.

Similarly, the folks who are already pretty tolerant and ecumenical fall into the category of preaching to the choir. he fundamentalists (zealots aren’t going to change their minds) or the people who are already tolerant (preaching to the choir). These are, unfortunately, the most likely folks to come out to a roundtable discussion. These are folks who are already allies of the Pagan community. While it’s good to network with folks like this by joining in interfaith panels and roundtables and other work, these aren’t the folks who are discriminating against Pagans. These aren’t the minds you need to change.

What’s a Pagan?
What I’d offer is that there are a lot of people out there who don’t know what Paganism is. They’ve either never heard of Pagans, or they’ve only heard the hearsay of some kids screwing around in the woods or people doing things as part of a cult, etc.

There are many different ways to approach this part of the population. What I’ve found is that the one-on-one interactions with people have given me the most success in connecting to people and communicating to them what Paganism is in a positive way.

One example is that any time I’m doing business with someone–like renting a space for a Pagan event, or talking to my local alderman or state representative about a political issue, I mention that I’m Pagan. I offer it in a friendly, professional tone of voice and I offer a brief definition of what that is. I try to use words that are approachable for a non-Pagan audience.

I was talking to my state rep in Chicago to voice my support for bill that would allow for urban composting. I said something like, “I’m part of an Earth-centered or Pagan spiritual organization that is similar to a church in that we offer education and spiritual resources for members. Earth-centered spirituality is also known by the names of Pagans, Witches, Wiccans, and Druids, and largely we are similar to Native American or other tribal, shamanic, continuing religions, though in our case we’re largely reconstructing the old religions and adjusting them for a modern context.”

Or something. If I’m looking for a venue for an event, or working with other event vendors or doing other business related to running a Pagan event, I could connect with a dozen people in just a few hours who may never have heard of Pagans before. I usually indicate some of the values my organization is supporting, such as green/sustainable living, as well as our future goals of being able to provide social services to help the people in our community just as any church would do.

I use words that your average person can connect with, like “church.” While their are some Pagan groups that identify as a church, many Pagans balk at calling what they do a church because they still have an ex-Christian chip on their shoulder. The key here is language and connection. People still have a negative perception of words like “coven” and “witch,” and you’re trying to change that. So use a word that they get. They understand that “church” = “positive spiritual community with values I might share.”

Baby steps are ok at this stage.

Tone of Voice, Demeanor, and Coming Out
One reason I’ve been effective when communicating with non-Pagans is that I don’t get excited or defensive in my tone of voice; I speak evenly, clearly, and without an emotional charge. If it’s on the phone, I smile while I’m talking. If I’m in person, I dress professionally without a lot of Pagan bling. I’m not much of a Pentacle girl anyways; my religious jewelry tends toward beaded jewelry that I’ve made myself anyways.

Essentially, I’m going back to Harvey Milk’s advice. Harvey Milk was a gay rights activist who urged gay people to come out of the closet, to show people that gay people are human beings.

And yes, it’s a risk. But I’m an advocate of coming out of the closet. I believe that constant visibility and constant activism will begin to help show the positive aspects of what we do.

I also believe that some public forums such as roundtables could be useful, depending on the circumstances. Booking very public space is essential, as well as advertising the event publicly so that non-Pagans will actually consider attending.  Still, the most likely attendees at an event like that will be people who are already allies.

Workshops at Other Events
What I find can have more impact and get you in front of more people is getting a workshop into an existing program. Places that you could target for this include Green Fests, Earth Day events, Peace events, etc. The idea is to focus on people who could be allies, but who just aren’t really familiar with Paganism at all, or, who have maybe heard a few things but haven’t already rendered a bad opinion.

I wouldn’t necessarily propose a workshop on “debunking myths of Pagans,” as that might not have anything to do with a workshop program. What tends to work better is offering a workshop or panel discussion and mentioning that those are tools/skills you use that come from an Earth-Centered spiritual practice, or, whatever is truthful for your own situation. You’re not trying to convert anyone, just teach a good workshop and then let people know, “By the way, I do this work in the Pagan community and I’m Pagan.” You’re demonstrating that any preconceptions they may have about Pagans being evil isn’t necessarily accurate. You are inviting further conversation.

One By One
I think there’s a lot of potential for how each of us can impact the perception of Paganism every day just by being out, and by showing people that we are good people to. That’s how I won over my (now ex-) Mother in Law. She was a conservative Catholic, hated me, and eventually we became friends.

Actually, she told me, “If you can be such a good Christian and be a Pagan, then certainly God won’t mind if I switch over to being Episcopalian so I can become a minister.”

Last I’d heard she was working on ministerial training.

We can make a difference, and those one-on-one conversations do matter. And, it’s going to take a while. In some areas of the country it’s harder, there’s more of a stigma. There’s more people who are fundamentalists and zealots who believe Pagans are evil. But, each of us can become a representative for Pagans and Paganism. Each of us can demonstrate that Pagans are not evil. We have the same failings and flaws of every other human out there. But we can, with a lot of work and a lot of love, continue to build bridges and help communicate to the non-Pagan majority what we are and what we aren’t.

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2 thoughts on “How do we Achieve Tolerance for Paganism?

  1. Very nice! I think that one of the things that holds us back is the fear that we are prostelyzing. And I guess for some of us there is a fear of being open about our spirituality. In your manner however it’s not intrusive and you put it in a way where people are not going to flip out and shout DEVIL WORSHIPPER! I am going to pass this on to some people i know and maybe encourage that we be more open when we are involved or hold pulic events.

  2. I lived in rural Tenessee for 10 yrs and just moved back to Calif last summer. Several yrs ago, someone tried to burn down our house with us in it because they thought we were devil-worshippers. This was someone who pretended to be our friend and he and his wife were the only 2 who knew we were Pagan. Eventually they told the entire town, and most people wouldn’t talk to us. I found this to be the general attitude of everywhere we went in the south. I never met one Pagan in the south who didn’t have a story of discrimination to tell or their life being endangered.
    If you come out to fundies, especially in the south, be very, very careful. It could be dangerous. They simply WILL NOT hear that we don’t even believe in the devil, they just know we’re in league with that entity. For the last 10 yrs I’ve tried to figure out a way to come out safely in the south, but never did come up with an answer. At this point I doubt it will ever change.

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