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#mypolytheism: What is a co-religionist?

Spinning off some thoughts from Jack’s Is There Community in #mypolytheism?

I am not sure that there is a robust structural concept of what a co-religionist is in the pagan community. And I’m not just referring to the bit where the Book Wiccan dominant pagan culture sort of talks over everyone else, though yeah, that’s a part of it, and a dominant bit of the “We all believe/do/etc….” in common conversation.

I feel that the overcultural model of “co-religionist” focuses on shared gods and theologies, shared belief, shared ritual structure, and shared name, and there’s an interesting and complex lensing effect involved as well that can tighten or broaden the beam. So in some contexts, I’ve seen people treating all Christians as fundamentally co-religionists, and I’ve seen people treating all Protestants as co-religionists, and I’ve seen people being concerned about finding someone of their specific denomination to marry because they didn’t want to marry someone not a co-religionist, and I keep a weather eye on the United Methodists as they slowly circle the possibility of schism because homophobia is making some of them feel like they are no longer co-religionists. (I have a lingering fondness for the Methodists, so I keep an eye on them.)

And I think that all of these things have problems in a polytheistic and pagan context, if one isn’t clear on what one is looking for in a co-religionist. “We worship the same gods” may be simultaneously true, false, and unimportant: consider a reconstructionist and a cultural-polytheist Wiccan; consider two reconstructionists who have completely different focuses within the pantheon. “We have the same theologies” likewise; it’s possible to reconcile the Heliopolitan, Hermepolitan, and Memphite cosmologies, but it takes effort, and then there’s the Greeks, with their mainline religions differing by city (most Hellenic recons go with Athens in my experience, which is also I think the mythological versions that are most familiar), the different philosophical schools on top of that, and the various mystery cults. Or even just look at how some groups of people in the ‘same religion’ have different theologies around different powers (prime powers to look at for this game are tricksters and antagonists, but that’s not the only ones that skew wildly).

I commented about this before, in ‘Scope of Discourse’ – there, looking at the weird narrowing of people’s perspectives within paganism. One of the core strengths of polytheism is, as far as I can judge, its diversity: that even if there is an underlying one, or an originating one, it became millions, and those millions can provide nuance, adaptability, and personal engagement for a broad and diverse variety of people.

But the price of that is that even people who share a religion name may not have a whole lot in common, even if their core practices are the same, even if, even if. Because a lived polytheistic religion – actually lived, not just marked as a festival practitioner – will depend so much more on which gods one honors above others. Someone whose life is focused on devotions to a domestic power is going to have a practice that is fundamentally different than someone whose life is focused on a warfare power or a psychopomp or…. Even if the same major holidays are marked by both in the same way, the process of doing religion is going to have a different flavor. Is it the flavor that matters, or the name of the thing, or the particular festivals that are common, or what?

And I’m not happy with a form of religion that marks “festival practitioner” as the standard for what it is to be engaged in the same thing; outside, in the rest of the world, the people who basically only show up for holidays are considered one of the less-observant categories, so how is that good enough for commonality? Besides, so many of us are festival practitioners for holidays that aren’t actually our own – because pagan events are so heavily tied to the Wheelyear, if there’s something to be done outside of one’s own home it’s so likely to fall there. That doesn’t make us all Wiccish. It’s an indication that our communities are complicated.

I had a conversation a while back with someone about our respective ‘outsider’ gods. Set as challenger whose actions fold back in and strengthen the whole, and Lilith as the one who says ‘this shit is shit, I’m going to peace out now’ and walks away, as from Omelas. You could get an interesting expansion on that conversation adding a Lokean there, too; Loki makes a lot of things more interesting, it’s kind of his thing.

Sometimes I feel more like a co-religionist to the followers of shit-stirrer gods, even if my own shit-stirrer god is a bit too Establishment for some of the other powers, than I do to most people who are dedicated to my primary pantheon.

And it’s more complicated than that, too. I mean, I am not myself a Shinto-Kemetic syncretist, but at the same time I believe that Shinto’s emphasis on purifications and the nature of the kami is extremely illuminating for Kemetic theologies, and have no theoretical issues with a Shinto-Kemetic syncretist identified as a co-religionist of mine. Even though they’re, by their syncretism, doing something different than what I do pretty much by definition.

I knew at one point, very peripherally, another person who was doing a Baltic/Kemetic crossover thing. But that person’s focus was very different than mine, and notably more involved. I’m still glad they exist.

But when I say “co-religionist” do I mean someone who shares a specific one of my religious things with me, or do I mean someone who shares all of them?

I’m pretty sure the latter doesn’t exist. There’s no theoretical reason one couldn’t, but I’m pretty sure they don’t, especially if one gets into the heavier denominational nuances. There are UU pagans; there are quite likely other UU Kemetics; there are quite likely other UU Kemetics who have a bit of additional veneration here and there on the side; and at that point one gets into ‘also (re)constructing a side spiritual practice based on surviving Inquisition-era folklore’, ‘dealing with ancestral magical and folkloric practices and entities from Poland’, and so on, and that’s not even touching the Craft training, and at some point it is just ‘no, there is nobody else who does Your Thing’.

I’m okay with that. That’s why I have to do My Thing. Otherwise it won’t get done.

It’s a little lonely sometimes.

I have, at times, commented on Kemetics in general as co-religionists, but that is often very unsatisfying, and I cannot do it without having that niggling moment in the back of my head, when I was reading a discussion on a temple’s boards about same-sex marriage rights. Someone there, someone who claimed a Kemetic affiliation, posted the words, “What does it matter what you call it?”

And this was someone who identified themselves as Kemetic, who presumably was aware of the underlying theologies of the power of words to name and create the world, a spiritual context in which there is no circumstance in which words can be used lightly, dismissed, trivialised. A world in which what you call a thing defines the thing, its nature, its place in the cosmos, where what a thing is called is what that thing is, and if the thing is not called “marriage” it obviously cannot be “marriage”, no matter what legal constructions it has. But because the topic was not explicitly religion, I suspect, that person could say “What does it matter what you call it?” and not feel the cutting shame of apostasy.

And I can and will say: that person is not my co-religionist. And would not be even if we were in the same temple, practicing the same rituals, marking the same holidays, the things that people often point at when they say “shared religion” in a broader community largely focused on praxis. (And oh, I was looking for a temple to join back then, something that would let me off the hook for doing the work that I’m doing. I would have been, if I could have been.)

And the thing is, that’s fine. Different communities will build around different norms. And I’ve seen that when watching heathens (it’s sort of like birdwatching only with more mead), the “That’s how your kindred does things, but it’s not how my kindred does things”, and sometimes the difference is something comparatively trivial, and other times it’s about tolerating racism, sexism, or transphobia. And then there’s an argument about whether or not it’s proper to say “That’s not a co-religionist of mine” over the difference, that often seems to collapse “how do you conduct sumbel” and “the Hammer Rite: too Wiccish or no?” with “do you support rigid gender roles” and “do you have to be white to join up” into “People are allowed to have their differences, you know!” pearl-clutching.

But it’s not that terrible to not be a co-religionist. (Unless someone’s got an evangelism problem leftover from past experiences and can’t shake the idea that everyone with some trait in common needs to be doing the same thing – whether that trait is ‘following this pantheon’, or ‘has this demographic background’ or ‘being a polytheist’. And that’s not anyone else’s problem, really, it’s the problem of the person who’s the door-to-door godbotherer at heart.)

But: being a reconstructionist-inclined person focused on the Egyptian pantheon is not enough to make someone a co-religionist to me. Which means the whole process is kind of fucked, isn’t it?

One of the places I’ve felt most in the company of co-religionists lately is my UU congregation, which hits a number of sweet spots. I said years ago, when I first attended there, that it was nice to go somewhere and listen to other people talking about ma’at for a change.

I’m pretty sure my nuanced specific beliefs and practices are not shared with anyone there. And at the same time I can wholeheartedly give the Unison Affirmation, I got a hug from the senior minister when I gave him a copy of my book, and the model of spiritual action there is just fantastic.

And I know, at the same time, that not all UU congregations are like this, and that’s why I’m willing to drive a half hour to attend this one. So I’m not even co-religionists with other members of the same church-based religion.

The whole question, it’s just fucking weird. I have no answers.

3 comments to #mypolytheism: What is a co-religionist?

  • I think you hit on all the things that drive me crazy too. If I can’t have gods and I can’t have theology then I’m gonna go with values, and the UUs get closest for that.

  • Llyne (sometimes + Merytamon)

    Wow, so much this.

    Kemetic remains part of the fabric of my spirituality, but at the dictate of Ma’at as strictly personal background support.

    “My Thing” has evolved into Gallo-Mediterranean mystic reconstructionist polytheism focusing on the cultural melange found on major trade routes of the Greeks and Etruscans through Transalpine Gaul and the cultural assimilation of Celtic peoples into Cisalpine Gaul, preferentially before Roman conquest, but using post-conquest content when it’s clear that some influences other than Roman persisted within it.

    Yes, lonely, but if I don’t do it, it will go undone for who knows how long, as you say.

    Thanks owed to John Beckett for linking here, since I’d lost track of where you were writing these days.

    • wyfwolf

      I’m all over the place! But my other religious stuff syndicates to the sidebar here; this is my home base.