Neo-Paganism is largely a religion of converts. There are a small number of members who were raised in it and decided to stay, but the vast majority were raised in other faiths (or none) and converted at some point in their adult lives. This means that there is a continual trickle of folks who look into various Neo-Pagan groups to see if they’re right for them. Some will stay; some might move on to other Neo-Pagan traditions; others might leave entirely and become Buddhists or Hindus (or even go back to the faith of their upbringing). This is common, and expected. A spiritual quest may take someone through many paths, each of which rings true in some small way, until they find the one with the truest ring for them. It’s also true that human beings change over time, and the path that was right for us this year may not fit as well a couple of decades later. People aren’t static, and neither is their spirituality.
In some mainstream religious denominations, great efforts are made to convince potential converts to stay, and to prevent them from leaving and seeking out another group. Part of this may be due to a doctrinal dictum that stresses gathering quantity of members at all costs, or that believes in terrible consequences for any human beings who aren’t part of that group and honestly wants to “save” them, but usually it’s due to the entirely human emotional reaction of wanting group validation of one’s beliefs from as many people as possible. In these groups, schisms are seen as entirely negative and unwanted, and it is considered acceptable to attempt to restrict exposure to other religious ideas. (Most Neo-Pagans, being of a more tolerant bent, would tend to consider these groups as “repressive”.)
Since many of these denominations strongly value a generational continuation of their structure – meaning the children of the members will grow up to stay in the group and pass on their beliefs to their members rather than seeking out other truths – it is considered especially effective to restrict the spiritual explorations of children and adolescents. One hears “But what about the children!” often when theologically “threatening” practices are brought up, as in: “The children might hear about this, and be led astray! We must prevent them from ever finding out about it, because of course they’ll value the shiny new dogma over the familiar, because they’re too young to know any better.”
In Neo-Paganism, the subject of children’s religious rights has been a controversial one. Since we’ve generally been suspicious of any group that claims theirs is the Only Way, and the practice that all human beings on the earth should follow, and since we’ve historically embraced the idea that all people should choose their own path, we’ve usually (although not always) been liberal about allowing children to learn about a multiplicity of religious choices. Some groups – generally the initiatory mystery traditions who will not initiate anyone too young to make their own decisions – have erred on the side of teaching children about many different religions and refusing to privilege their own over any other. Others raise their children in their own tradition, but do not prevent them from exploring other options in adolescence, or punish them for doing so.
Second-generation Neo-Pagans, however, are still only a small percentage of our number, so we rarely hear objections on the “…but what about the children!” topic. Ironically, though, we do hear that same language with the word “newbies” inserted to replace “children”. “But what about the newbies! They’ll hear (alternative theology X), and they’ll be confused, and they might stray!” And so forth. One assumes that this is largely coming from people who were raised in the above “repressive” sort of groups, and who have not yet abandoned the concept of quantity-at-all-costs, or who take every defection as a personal invalidation of their beliefs.
The difference, of course, is that newbies are not children. They are, one assumes, mentally competent adults. (If they aren’t mentally competent adults, there will be some sort of legal caretaker to deal with, and one should proceed as if they are someone else’s child. If the state considers them mentally competent and you don’t, letting them into your group is probably going to cause more problems than it’s worth.) To treat a newcomer to your denomination as if they were a child, as if they were not capable of weighing opposing views, asking questions of multiple people, and making the decision that is best for them, is a profound insult. To even speak of newcomers, as a group, in this way is a profound insult.
It’s a rare Pagan who will admit, “Yes, when I first came to Neo-Paganism, I was so stupid and incompetent that I was incapable of reading multiple books, asking questions about anything unclear, and judging opposing viewpoints. I’m so indebted to the group that I joined for raising me to the level of being capable of making decisions when faced with a movie marquee or a restaurant menu. I’m so glad that they’ve prevented me from sullying my delicate mind with alternative concepts that will no doubt turn me into a confused, quivering wreck were I even to contemplate them.” Yet by even suggesting that certain concepts should not be available to newcomers, you are implying that this is the norm among them.
Most “newbies” – and personally I’d rather use the term “seekers” here as it’s less diminutizing – have a strong concept of what they don’t want, even if they’re not sure about what they do want. They know, for example, that wherever they came from is not what they want, or they’d still be there. They came looking for something that resounded in them, and they may leave looking for something that resounds more closely. For a seeker to look elsewhere is not a failure on the part of the group they are currently involved with. For a seeker to leave is also not a failure – in fact, it may be a success, if you count “successful” as “knowing what it is that you are supposed to do, and being willing to risk in order to get it”. It may not be easy to see it as a success when you’re a member of the “abandoned” or “rejected” group, but a good spiritual leader will be objective about the reality of spiritual seeking, and help their group members to understand this as well.
You’ll notice that I deliberately used the words “abandoned” and “rejected”, with all their strongly emotional connotations. It’s not unusual, and not entirely abnormal, for members of a religious group to take someone moving on just that personally, with the same anger that they would have about a jilted lover. It’s also not unusual for them to react to a member looking into alternate paths (especially ones who have values or practices in opposition to those of the current group) the same way that a jealous spouse would react to their partner drooling over an attractive person in a club. This is because we’re all human, and we all have irrational weaknesses, and love of one’s faith can be just as strong in us as love of one’s partner and family. We’re not perfect, and the emotions carry over.
However, it’s long been acknowledged as the case that one’s spiritual and/or religious practices are the best forum for improving one’s self and struggling to overcome such irrational and destructive emotions. A good religious leader is one that is able to gently challenge those emotions, in their members and (ideally publicly where they can lead as an example) in themselves, and prevent them from being acted upon. Indeed, if this is not done, the result is almost always a toxic rise of fear, anger, and repression within the group. For proof of this, we need only scrutinize the history of thousands of years of mainstream groups making those mistakes on a grand and murderous level. In a sense, they have done us a huge favor by giving us these examples, and they paid for that experience in blood and pain. We, as a new religion, should be grateful that they did it for us, and that we have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes … and learn we should.
This brings us to the issue of schisms. When it’s not just a lone seeker but a whole subsection of the group that leaves, fires of insecurity can burn even higher. The usual jilted-lover feelings are often accompanied by a (perhaps justified) fear that the schism will leave the group too structurally unstable to continue. Neo-Paganism has historically had a more phlegmatic view of schisms than other faiths due to its earliest groups being initiatory mystery covens that deliberately limited their numbers for reasons of spiritual intimacy; when there were too many members, people were expected to “hive off” and form their own “sister” groups. The “hiving” policy was often used as a way to head off at the pass potential doctrinal arguments that might split a group – “Well, if you feel that strongly about it, maybe it’s time to form your own group?” This practice – directly in opposition to mainstream “quantity-at-all-costs” values – was touted as the best way to peacefully propagate (mostly Wiccan) groups.
Today Neo-Paganism is an umbrella faith with nearly as many denominations as Christianity, and they differ as drastically in their structures and doctrine as do Unitarians, Mennonites, and Russian Orthodox Christians. Some retain the old values of “splitting a group willingly and with good will is better than breaking it up angrily after attempting to keep people against their will”. On the other hand, some argue that the ease of hiving off means that people leave too soon rather than stay and work out their problems; one Pagan compared it to the concept of the high divorce rate in modern Western countries being due to the comparative ease of acquiring a modern divorce, and the attendant unwillingness to stay and work out conflicts. Since the last few decades of Neo-Pagan history have seen the rise of legal Pagan churches and congregations that exceed 50 people in number, the justification of keeping groups small and intimate seems outdated except in the remaining initiatory mystery traditions. And, of course, people don’t convert without bringing in baggage from their prior faiths.
There’s also the issue of differentiation. When there are only a few obviously different traditions, it’s easy to tell one from the other. When there are a myriad of small groups with only a few subtle variations between them (which, while they might seem superficial to an outsider, were theoretically crucial enough to schism over), it means that it might take seekers a while to differentiate them. This is often one of the areas where the cry of “Keep that information from the newbies!” is most frequent, as groups become offended that a newcomer might mistake them for that other group.
This all means that the question of whether or not to schism is no longer so simple, and will vary in smoothness from tradition to tradition. What does all this have to do with personal gnosis? It’s the single biggest reason for schisms in Neo-Pagan groups today. Ten or twenty years ago when there were fewer variations in Pagan theology, the foremost reason tended to be personal differences between group members. There’s still plenty of that today – certainly enough to run a close second – but in the anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered, someone’s personal gnosis and the divided reactions to it among group members has surpassed simple infighting as the bedrock group-splitter. (It can cause, and be accompanied by, a good deal of personal infighting, though.)
For the seeker, there are a few simple truths. First, any group that suggests, even subtly, that you ought not to read or look into other spiritual viewpoints (especially opposing ones, and most especially ones that depend on the personal gnosis of a non-member) is in essence telling you that you are not a competent adult capable of making spiritual decisions for yourself. Second, they are also telling you that they do not have faith in the truth of their own practices to speak clearly to those who are meant to embrace them. In other words, they don’t trust you, and they don’t trust their gods and spirits, however they conceive of that. Third, while groups are not obligated to never mention other groups or theologies in unflattering ways, a wise seeker will be suspicious of groups where bitching about specific outsiders, or comparing themselves positively to such people, seems to be the most popular topic of conversation. The old adage about people who continually put down others doing it out of low self-esteem applies to groups as well as individuals.
A seeker contacting a particular group, or representatives of that group, is like a stranger coming into someone’s home, and as such, all the rules of hospitality apply. In many Pagan religions, hospitality is a sacred obligation on both parts. The host has an obligation not to make the guest uncomfortable, and the guest has an obligation not to be rude to the host. When it comes to religious group activity, we could lay out the mutual obligations like this:
1. The group has an obligation to be clear about their beliefs and values. Ideally these should be written down where a seeker can read them. If joining the group is going to require specific changes in their behavior outside the group, this needs to be made clear. For example, if a group believes that the outside behavior of members will bring bad energy to (or make a bad example of) the group, and that associating with, marrying, giving money to, or reading about certain individuals or other groups will bring this on, that needs to be laid out up front where a newcomer can find it easily. If they will be expected to become vegetarians, they have to know that rather immediately. It is indicative of a lack of maturity in the group to have clusters of unwritten rules that “everyone” knows about but no one can be held accountable for subtly (or unsubtly) coercing people into following. Seekers should be wary of groups who are uncomfortable with openly “owning” their rules, or putting them in writing. (Certain practices may be secret and open only to initiated members, but basic theological beliefs, values, and rules of living can’t fairly be in this category.)
2. The group has an obligation to be clear about how personal gnosis is handled in their group. How is it judged? By what people? By what standards? What’s an example of how it was done in a way that the group finds acceptable? While a group does have the right to ban all personal gnosis from entering group practice, be suspicious of groups that don’t have a clear process for judging it, or have a history of handling it badly (meaning in ways that create backbiting and disharmony).
3. The group has an obligation to be clear about who their group actually consists of, and who they are speaking for. This requires being honest and up-front about which of their values and beliefs are actually shared by other groups in their tradition, and groups outside of their tradition. Right now in Neo-Paganism, there are almost no traditions who have agreed to a central religious authority that is allowed to define beliefs and practices for all groups within that tradition, and cast them out if they dissent. Therefore, when a group claims that their beliefs and practices are shared comprehensively among all other groups in their tradition, be suspicious. The wise seeker will cross-check that with other groups in that tradition, especially ones that are geographically far away and/or have no connection with the group in front of them.
4. The group has an obligation to make sure that the person who explains the group values and beliefs to newcomers is actually authorized to do so by all members of the group.
5. The group has an obligation to make it clear how belief during ritual events is handled. For example, if a newcomer is not sure that they believe in the group’s theology, can they take part in participatory rituals, or should they refrain out of respect? Can they “act as if” without actually believing, or is that sacrilegious? Does belief make a difference at all, or is the only issue polite and appropriate behavior?
6. The group has an obligation to be clear about the customs and behavior expected during their events, and to designate someone to brief newcomers. This is especially important if the group has a fairly closed structure that has created its own specific internal culture, or a good deal of formal ritual protocol. If a newcomer badly violates a custom, the first person to call is their designated “protocol handler”. If the protocol person didn’t explain that rule properly, the newcomer is blameless. A reasonably decent newcomer will feel embarrassed enough having been set up for possible failure; calling them out for it adds insult to hospitality injury.
7. The group has an obligation to refrain from deciding that they know what is spiritually best for any given newcomer.
The seeker, on the other hand, has the following responsibilities:
1. The seeker is obligated to remember that every group has the right to set their own rules. If you don’t approve of their rules, no one’s stopping you from leaving. (See that part about schisming we mentioned earlier.) You may feel that their rules are stupid, destructive, or sacrilegious, but it is a breach of trust to say that while enjoying that group’s hospitality. If you really have questions about their practices that you’d like more understanding of, speak to the leader or to designated spokespeople in private – not in a roomful of people – and keep your tone respectful and not contemptuous or accusatory. Ask in a way that’s designed to foster good communication, not defensiveness.
2. The seeker has an obligation to wait on asking the group to incorporate any of their personal gnosis until they have been in the group long enough to make a commitment and earn their place as a member. It’s neither fair nor terribly effective to walk in and start telling people how they ought to do things differently.
3. The seeker has an obligation to bring up personal qualities, practices, deeply held beliefs, or existing spiritual commitments that might conflict with the group’s practice and theology. There’s no point in waiting until one is invested to find out if they’re homophobic, or let them know that you want to belong to another religious group at the same time, or that you really believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is your true patron. It’s best to get a rejection out of the way first thing, to the relief of both parties. This may seem to violate the last rule mentioned, but there’s a clear difference between saying, “I believe this, even though it’s just my own thing,” and “I think this is the way that groups in Tradition X ought to believe.” If the group has trouble seeing that difference, and treats a careful statement about personal beliefs as a generalizing reproach, that’s good evidence of a lack of objectivity and reason. Similarly, the seeker has a spiritual obligation not to lie about their actual beliefs in order to please the new group.
4. The seeker has an obligation to respect the customs and protocols of the group as they are explained to them, at every event that they choose to attend. There’s no excuse for acting rudely, or challenging them on their customs, when you have no commitment to their well-being. If the seeker cannot bring themselves to follow one particular custom for personal, ethical, or spiritual reasons, they should privately seek out the leader or an elder in the group with their concerns beforehand, and see if they can participate in the event without taking part in that custom. An example of this might be an abuse survivor who has trouble being touched by strangers facing a ritual that requires embraces as a greeting, or a ritual where participants are requested to make a promise that conflicts with an existing vow. A mature and responsive group leader will try to make a newcomer comfortable if possible, but if the rule cannot be bent for whatever reason, the newcomer has an obligation to step aside and not attend if need be. If the newcomer’s personal practices are such that they cannot attend an event without violating group customs, for the Gods’ sakes don’t inflict yourself on them.
While a seeker who moves on from a group isn’t obligated to tell them why, it is a courtesy. If the reason is just “it wasn’t for me, no harm done”, it might relieve worried members who are afraid that they offended. If there was an actual problem, it can be useful to a group if a recently departed newcomer courteously points out ways in which they were made to feel unsafe or unwelcome, so long as it is done with an attitude of “It might not occur to you folks that someone might be made to feel bad about this, so I’m just giving you useful information for the future,” and not “You bad, horrible people hurt my feelings,” or “You’re doing it all wrong!”
If a seeker acts like a competent adult, they have the right to expect to be treated like one. If a group expects them to act like one, they should come through. One hopes that if such codes of conduct were socially encouraged in our demographic, they might end the problem of infantilizing “newbies” and make welcoming a newcomer a less suspicious activity.