by Robyn Banks
I’m a pagan.
You’re probably thinking of Satan worship or Ouija boards right now, right? Or figuring I must just be really in to Marilyn Manson. What if I told you I was a witch? Would you think of Hogwarts and broomsticks? Are you laughing yet? If you’re a Dawkins loving new atheist, fair enough. But if you’d defend anybody else’s right to their faith, you’re probably a hypocrite.
it’s often assumed to be some kind of rebellion at best, and attention seeking bordering on unhinged at worst
I was actually raised in Wicca. There’s an underlying assumption that people who identify with one of the many strands of pagan faith must have converted, even from those who respect the faith and its oppositional position to the mainstream. It’s often assumed to be some kind of rebellion at best, and attention seeking bordering on unhinged at worst. And in some ways, that’s true- paganism is understood to have had a large boom in popularity in the 1950s and 60s. Many people link it to the hippy movements emphasis on spirituality, but when you consider that the witchcraft act was only repealed in 1951 there remains the possibility that many of these strands of ‘new pagans’ were not converts after all- but I’ll leave that to scholars in the field of pagan studies, who exist, by the way.
So, in 1951 the witchcraft act is repealed, there’s a boom in paganism in the 50s and 60s, and paganism gets a reputation for being ‘new age’ and oppositional. But by now it’s 2016, and there are many, many people like me for whom paganism is not a novelty, a choice or a whim, but the basic way we were taught to see the world from childhood. Just as people raised to believe in God often return to prayer in times of stress, however alienated they may be from their parent faith, a pantheistic and nature-oriented view of the world is the default belief system of many young people raised in pagan families. And the problem is, it’s really funny.
there are many, many people like me for whom paganism is not a novelty, a choice or a whim, but the basic way we were taught to see the world from childhood.
I learned this in primary school, when my dad was invited to do a talk on paganism in an RE class and I was bullied for the rest of my time there. I learned this in high school, where I learned to hide it from my friends and make jokes about it when they saw pentagrams and the like in my house after school. I even learned this at university, where even my closest friends and self-professed social justice enthusiasts would persuade me to open up about my beliefs in the healing properties of certain herbs and practices and secretly record me on SnapChat, and send it to other people with derogatory captions. And as an adult, as I slowly begin to realise how much paganism has shaped my view of the world and how deep my desire is to defend it, I realised this shit was fucked up.
Recently, the word Pagan has become an insult. Grime artists such as Dizzee Rascal have formalised this and the word can be found on online grime dictionaries described as ‘a snake/not a cool person’. As language does, slowly this seems to have filtered in to the language of many of my online friends. Suddenly, Pagan is the new basic. Well, I’m not having it.
I shouldn’t have had to accentuate the fact that this was the faith I was born and raised in to- people should have their beliefs respected however long they have had them- but, bizarrely, it seems that many progressive people require that I validate my faith with reference to history, a rather conservative mode of thought. I posted on to my Facebook page that I felt put out by people using Pagan as an insult and asked how people would feel if I used any other religion as an insult- ‘Jew’, for example. But rather than just respect the fact that it makes some people feel bad, the first responses were from people on the social justice scene or people from other minority faiths asking me to ‘prove’ my oppression somehow. I could sum up the responses as “Yeah but prove that your faith is widespread enough and persecuted enough and serious enough to deserve me caring about it by providing a complete history of your faith which I am sure is made up.” What they didn’t see were the many pagan people who private messaged me, saying that they liked my status but were too scared to ‘out’ themselves as pagan by commenting.
I shouldn’t have to provide evidence to other people who care about equality, as though I’m applying for an equality certificate
Has there been recent oppression of paganism? I think my experiences growing up in Paganism, having to hide it from my friends and being laughed at for it from Primary School all the way to social justice oriented feminism, speak for themselves. So, too, do the people who wrote to me who were scared to identify themselves. It was only legalised in 1951, and although the situation is calmer here in the UK, in the US many pagan families still fear losing their children to social services if their faith is made public. In the south, violent crime against Pagans is a real possibility. Pagans who hide their faith are referred to as being in the ‘broom closet’, and most of us are assumed to worship Satan (the Abrahamic concept which arrived a long time after Paganism was established). It all sounds like garden variety ignorance based oppression to me.
But I shouldn’t have to claim any oppression to be respected, it’s not a race to the bottom. I shouldn’t have to provide evidence to other people who care about equality, as though I’m applying for an equality certificate. My faith is ancient, established and legitimate, and if you haven’t heard much about it before maybe you now have a better understanding of why. For all the people who messaged me in private, too afraid to ‘out’ themselves as pagans, I’m not going to be quiet about this anymore. A new generation of Pagans are growing up in to a socially aware and respectful culture, and it’s time we staked our place in it.