Defining Paganism I: Word Wrangling

During the Festival of Lights that Ali and I attended this February, one of the big issues discussed during many of the presentations and workshops was the very definition of paganism. Pretty much everyone there, if you asked them, would agree that they were pagan, and not a cabbage or something. But it turns out it that if it had been a Festival of Cabbages, things might have been simpler.

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Six Arguments Against Religion V: Regulating Virtue and Selling Salvation

When people lose their sense of awe, they turn to organized religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they turn to authority. — Tao Te Ching 72 (Stephen Mitchell’s modern Zen-influenced translation)

God’s Cops

Like any laws, the rules of religion tell you how to behave, and specify punishment for lawbreakers.

Sir, we caught you red-handedly not loving your neighbor as yourself. Uh-oh! You’re headed downtown, buddy. The sentence: eternal damnation. No bail.

But regulating virtue is nonsense. If I tell you to be virtuous — not just act virtuously, but be virtuous — and threaten you with punishment if you fail, and then you act virtuously, have you magically become virtuous? Even Jesus said that adultery committed in the heart is still adultery. The whole point of virtue is that it’s something you choose to be, of your own free will. Otherwise you’re play-acting. And omniscient Gods can tell the difference.

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Six Arguments Against Religion IV: We’re Not Like Those ‘People’

Suppose you belong to a religion that says you’re either in or you’re out — like (to pick an example at random on Easter Sunday) Christianity. Suppose you believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Personal Savior (TM), you’re going to hell. And you’ve got your badge, so you’re all set. And then you walk around town, and you see someone wearing a different badge.


This may well bother you. It might be something like seeing someone with a horrible disease — one which you happen to be carrying the antidote to. Or — if this person is proud of their badge — like seeing someone carrying a Nazi flag or something.

I’ve never been in this situation (except as someone not wearing such a badge), so I’m not sure how it feels; and obviously it will bother some people more than others.

But the point is that it can be socially awkward. Being around people who don’t share your fundamental belief system can be stressful. It is difficult to be reminded again and again that your friends don’t share your religion. (Alternatively, maybe it wouldn’t bother you at all — but in that case, how strong is your own personal belief, really?)

When I was growing up Zen in the Bible belt, some people would react with disbelief when they found out I wasn’t Christian. Don’t you go to church? They seemed to think I was literally insane. And you can pity an insane person, but you can’t build a strong personal connection with them.

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