Centuries of monotheistic domination have left Paganism, polytheism, and other religions with some decidedly unhelpful assumptions about the way religion works in a free society. These assumptions show up whenever someone starts to talk about the boundaries around their religion. It doesn’t take long before someone else chimes in with the passive-aggressive comment “well, there’s no room for me in your religion.”
What makes you think there’s supposed to be room for you in every religion?
Of all the world’s many religions, only the conservative versions of Christianity and Islam claim to have exclusive possession of The Truth. Some others have an outward focus (Buddhism has a particularly strong missionary tradition), but they merely offer their ways to others. Only the conservative monotheists – and more specifically to us, conservative Christians – insist that everyone must adopt their religion or suffer eternal damnation.
Centuries of Christian domination have left us with the idea that any “real” religion is intended for everyone. Of course, as anyone who’s ever spent time in a conservative Christian church knows, they’ll take you “just as I am” but you’d better change right away. You’re expected to change your beliefs, change your language, change your sexual practices, and change how you spend your money. We remember they want everyone and forget they want everyone to be just like them.
In the hyper-individualistic 21st century, though, everyone expects a church to cater to them. And many churches do. Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals can no longer count on each generation to take their parents’ places in the same churches, and they haven’t for 50 years. They’re struggling to “remain relevant” and they’re desperate to attract members no matter what it takes. My Facebook feed includes some Christians searching for “what meets my needs” and other Christians complaining about entertainment replacing worship.
Given these two cultural forces, it’s no surprise many people in our wider society (from which Paganism and polytheism largely draw our members) don’t know what to make of religions that 1) don’t claim to be for everyone, and 2) don’t attempt to cater to everyone.
The only way a religion can be “for everyone” is to insist everyone conform to their way of thinking and living. Daesh claims their version of Islam is for everyone – I doubt anyone reading this wants to live under their rule. But if you go to the other extreme and try to include everyone’s theologies and practices you end up with something so watered down it’s meaningless.
I regularly encourage beginners to dive into a new tradition whole-heartedly. Ask questions and walk away if you get ethically dubious answers, but other than that, do it all even if some of it doesn’t make sense to you. When you’re a beginner you don’t know what you don’t know, particularly in a mystery tradition where wisdom is revealed in stages.
But if you pay attention and practice mindfully, sooner or later you start to develop your own religious identity. You believe the Gods are this and not that. This ritual form is inspiring and that form bores you silly. This social structure is helpful and that one is harmful. Nature has a certain importance, not more and not less. Your Gods demand you take this action, forbid you to take that one, and all these others don’t matter one way or another.
All of a sudden you have boundaries and priorities. Some are rigid and others are flexible, some are critical and others are “nice to have,” but they’re all there.
And guess what? So does every religious group in existence, from the informal coven that meets in your neighbor’s back yard to the UU church across town to international Druid orders to Tibetan Buddhism to the Roman Catholic Church. They all have boundaries and priorities… and probably none of them match up exactly with yours.
So what are you to do when you go looking for a group to practice with and for a community to be a part of? You don’t want to change your identity to satisfy them, and they aren’t going to change their identity to satisfy you. Is there really no room for you in any religion? That can’t be right or we wouldn’t have covens and orders and churches and such. You can’t get 100% of what you want in a group or a tradition. But you can probably get 70%, or 80%, or maybe even 98%.
What’s a polytheist doing in a UU church, where an old joke says “Unitarianism is the belief in one God, at most”? They’re good people doing good work that I support. They support environmental care, religious freedom and diversity, and full acceptance of everyone no matter their gender and orientation. And many of them are my friends.
They don’t affirm my polytheism but they do accept it, and they provide a home for Pagan-oriented UUs and UU-oriented Pagans. When I speak at Sunday services I usually talk on Pagan-oriented themes, but I do so in ways that are accessible to everyone. If I was only a UU I’d feel like something was missing, but I don’t have to limit myself to one religious organization.
My Druidry is religious while most of OBOD is loosely spiritual. Why am I still in OBOD? They have the best distance learning program in the Pagan world… and possibly in the rest of the world as well. They teach spiritual techniques that are helpful in any religious tradition (at least, any open-minded tradition). They present Druidry to thousands of people all over the world. Many of them are my friends. And they hold excellent retreats – I’m leaving tomorrow for this year’s OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering.
OBOD by itself has never been “enough” for me – I was an active member of Denton CUUPS when I started the Bardic grade. But it has been and remains an important and fulfilling part of my spiritual life, and I’m happy to continue supporting it.
What about ADF? They’re Druids, they’re polytheists, and they have a strong public presence – surely I’m a 100% match with them, right? Nope, not even ADF. I have no arguments with ADF’s beliefs and structures. But while their Core Order of Ritual is extremely effective, there are times when I need to do something outside that structure. And I’m rather fond of some of the magical ritual elements that ADF rejects (because they’re not part of indigenous Indo-European religions) but that OBOD includes.
There is room for me in all these organizations, even though none are an exact match with my own beliefs and practices – with my own religious identity. I don’t have to change my identity to be a part of them and they don’t have to water down their identity to accommodate me. When I’m in one of their services or rituals I respect their boundaries and priorities and participate within them. When I hear UUs speak of “God” in monotheistic or even non-theistic language, I remember that in this context, that’s not what’s most important. What’s most important is a group of people coming together to form an open, caring, active religious community.
Of course there are limits. I can’t be a Baptist even if they do good work on disaster relief. I can’t be part of a religious tradition that believes their God is going to condemn the vast majority of people to eternal torment for believing the wrong thing. And someone who believes that can’t be a Unitarian Universalist. I have my limits and so do you. But not every limit is a fixed limit, and not every limit has equal priority.
So no, there’s not room for you in every religion. But there’s probably room for you in any religion you care to be a part of, so long as you don’t expect to find a perfect match.
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