Accessibility, Technical Jargon, and Anti-Intellectualism Within Contemporary Paganism
Posted on June 13, 2015
Of late there have been a few topics of concern within online Paganism, namely: concepts of religious accessibility, the use of technical jargon, and the prevalence of a claims of anti-intellectualism or academic elitism. I’m quite obviously part of a very small slice of the Pagan blogosphere, and what I experience is limited. However, it is enough to make me wonder whether or not there are some issues which will come to a greater head in future years.
The various expressions of contemporary polytheist practice, whether we are dealing with reconstructionist polytheisms or revivalist polytheisms, invariably place an important emphasis on historical authenticity, and on connections with the past. This post was preempted by a dialogue which arose within one of the Roman groups that I am a part of, regarding the use of technical terms within a community-specific blog post. An individual had returned to blogging, featuring community-specific terminology without necessarily including a “lexicon”. A second writer had an issue with this, because the words themselves, and their use, was very “technical”. The two of them, with the addition of myself, got in to a discussion about the appropriate use of terminology within specific environs. Effectively, it revolved around writing to an audience.
Among Pagan religions, Roman religion is somewhat of an insular minority religion, which is amusing given how much history exists on the Roman period in general. It is a very self-contained practice, with a great deal of history, understanding, and knowledge associated with it – largely from non-religious academics (or academics co-opted by practitioners to expand on their practice). Much of the religion has been written about, either in primary or secondary source material, which means that there are forms of practice that are far more well known.
At the same time, there are not many organizations which promote the practice and study of Roman religion, it is a sparsely populated religious identity, and other mitigating factors that make it difficult to break in to. Roman religion also does not have an introductory handbook at this point in time (although Nova Roma provides significant content for free to peruse). Many ‘neophytes’, for a lack of a better term, are expected to do independent work and research on the religio, simply because that is one of the ways in which the religion is explored beyond introductory material.
In short, a well-defined history, with a well established history of religious expression documented through primary source material, leads to a greater technical awareness of the mechanics of that religion. Mechanics and terminology required for a fuller understanding of the religion.
I was struck, while reading this, that many of the above issues are also issues for other Mediterranean polytheisms. In a private message, I was relating this discussion to Conor because I had a hunch that both Hellenism and Religio Romana fall on the higher end of technical jargon and accessibility issues. He agreed with me. Both practices have a higher emphasis on educational requirements than some of the bigger Pagan religions, both Wicca and other cultural polytheisms. There is more study expected, both initial and expanded. Many of the same concerns (low population, fewer organizations, more academic-oriented reading) that fill Roman studies also makes it difficult for Hellenic polytheism to grow. I would bet money that this is the same case for Kemetic and Ancient Near Eastern religious traditions, too .
We should not be surprised that this is the case. More extant texts produce more scholarship, and higher levels of scholarship require a greater familiarity with advanced works. Longer periods of “organized” religious history establish things like temple culture, proscribed and prescribed rites and rituals, established hierarchies of priesthoods, etc. Further, all of this recorded in a tongue that we do not have popularly understood, but which is suffused with sometimes important, inseparable contexts that are lost in translation to a vernacular, local, language. It is not hyperbolic to say that, in comparison to Heathenry, one practically needs a Latin primer to read through the terminology that gets bandied about by Roman practitioners . Accessibility and technical jargon are potential obstacles to the growth of any religious tradition.
The discussion tends to fall between two camps of Pagans: inclusive and exclusive camps. And it is a discussion that will be had for a long time yet, mostly due to the sheer number of opinions about the subject and any lack of codified authority.
Accessibility is important, and you will never hear me not say this. Paganism has largely grown in the past thirty years due to an increase in accessibility. More people are able to get more information about the different religions that constitute “Paganism”.
Take Wicca for example, although the history I give here is a brief, truncated and insufficient account. While it is not the end-all, be-all of Paganism, I maintain that Wicca’s growth and popularity have been primarily driven by two people and events which presented Wicca as a viable alternative religion for mass consumption by the general population: Buckland’s publication of his Book of Shadows, and Cunningham’s creation of a self-initiating solitary practice. These events laid the foundation for the proliferation for the ‘Barnes & Nobel Pagan’ which, despite all of the academic and procedural issues it can cause, has only helped to swell the ranks of interested parties. Even cultural polytheisms are indebted to these acts, inexorably linked to the generation of interest and acceptance of ‘other spiritualities’ in the wider cultural population.
Compare a bibliography of Roman religion to what it takes to get started in Heathenry, or Wicca. Or even compare that same bibliography to intermediate and advanced studies. Even if you pare it down to “Five essential books”, you’re still looking at a situation where you have to read five books for every one of another popular tradition. Many of those books, moreover, involve language for many people to process. Does this have to do with Wicca, and the lesser-sourced polytheisms, lacking the in-depth religious and philosophical theoretics of the more well-documented religions? Is it because these more popular and accessible religions, by necessity, rely on more experience to generate a foundation than the others? I believe these factors are at play, but that does not mean that either is “better” than the other.
Finding a happy middle ground is difficult, but possible.
Much of consumerist Paganism is oriented to a low threshold to entry. Many practices are synthesized to the point where one or two books are sufficient to expose, to a beginner, an acceptable and workable world view. While the minutiae of a practice or concept may take a long time, with extra study, to come to sufficiently understand and apply, much of it is accessible to beginners. This has made it possible for a phenomenal level of work to be produced which can introduce someone to the material and get them started. In some cases, this is all that is available to practitioners, who lack a stable group or network.
The trade off is, I believe, a weakening of intermediate and advanced literature which can explore beyond that level. Very few books, those treating the more popular Pagan, meaningfully explore greater concepts, much less their practical applications. In the few instances that they do, they are almost always niche products, which cannot be found easily. This leaves those who are very willing to continue on floundering, looking for material.
These terms do not go away, nor do these concepts get watered down, rather, the deeper one enters into a specialized study, the more frequently specialized language occurs. It should be expected for new practitioners to eventually come to these terms and learn them, of their own accord, through dedicated study or exposure to them. There is a significant amount of work to be done in realigning from one religio-cultural mindset to another, and this is what happens whenever anyone willingly steps away from the Protestant (in my case) dominated Christian overculture of the West. The ‘conversion’ to Wicca, or Heathenry, or Hellenism, or Roman religion, or all the others that fall under the Pagan umbrella necessitates education, necessitates new terminology, and requires a competency in these concepts for a full engagement within the wider religion.
I view it as an expectation that new practitioners become versed in these terms, either through formalized study or of their own accord and labor whenever possible . We are speaking of the realignment to another cultural and religious mindset. This is exactly what happens when someone steps away from the dominant religious overculture of the West (in my case, American Protestant overculture) and moves to Wicca, or Heathenry, or Hellenism, or Roman religion, or any other non-Christian religion. There is an expected level of technical engagement that must be achieved to foster and facilitate interaction within that religious community – technical engagement which, arguably, serves no other purpose outside the system it is designed to be used in.
I hold this true despite the statement that accessibility is important. When we speak of religio, and pietas, and superstitio, it should be known what is meant without the aid of consistently holding one’s hand. When we speak of frið, and grið, and wyrd, we are specifying significant and important aspects of a religious worldview that form an integral part of the religious understanding, in the context of that religious expression. While the nuances of frið might be debated within a Heathen context, the general understanding should be well known to everyone. And all of these terms are retained in their original language because they carry a specific contextual connotation that is entirely lost in translation.
There is no excuse, here. Frankly, there is a time for generalizations, and there is a time for specifics, for so-called “technicalities”.
I am speaking of progressing beyond entry-level works and moving on to reading and engaging in intermediate-to-advanced material and ideas. I would classify many blogs as being somewhere in the intermediate stage of information – my own included. However, what I am doing is also assuming that the individual possesses the necessary drive and critical thinking apparatus in order to independently search these terms out if they are not readily apparent in their blog. This could be overly optimistic on my part.
This is frustrating, because many Pagans are educated individuals with a varying degree of knowledge. Or, at the least, they have shown the capacity and bravery to think beyond that which they had known, and embraced something potentially new and challenging. An entire new religious paradigm! What could be more challenging than directly upending one’s spiritual worldview? To be constrained to the idea that a subject matter is too difficult, or too esoteric, and needs to be reduced down to a generalist term, is detrimental on the understanding of the religion as a whole .
The result of this is that, among those of us who use academic methodology and apply similarly exacting standards in our explorations and understandings of the religions we have chosen to become vested in, we are viewed as cultural and academic elitists. We are viewed as such because we have standards of relating information to individuals in ways which do not subordinate that information to the cultural terms and understandings we had been previously exposed to. We – and I’ll paraphrase the individual mentioned in the situation above, here – erect (or reinforce) academic barriers, with the connotation that we are doing this purposely to keep some measure of power and authority over others.
Are there people who have an issue with lording their intellectual prowess over others? Most assuredly. There are self-serving members in this community, just as any other. Snakes, charlatans, and ne’er-do-wells. But they are fleeting individuals. Most people tend to realize when they’re regarded as less than intelligent, and do not long stay in a situation where they are denigrated. Their control lasts only as long as the illusion they craft around them. It all comes down, in time.
Do the people who have gone to school or have independently researched (often extensively) these topics treat them with the fullest extent of their training? Yes. Is that intimidating to some people? Yes. Is it purposeful elitism, designed to erect barriers? No.
I am involved in many different facets of interests. From religious expressions to hobbies that require skill. A reenactor will not be allowed on the field of battle prior to showing proficiency in a basic manual of arms, safety, and common marching maneuvers. A hockey player will not be allowed to play a game without training and understanding the sport. A motorist requires practice prior to licensing to operate a motor vehicle. The list goes on and on. Though anecdotal, I will say it: It seems that only within generalist, Contemporary Paganism are the goalposts moved in favor of a reduction of understanding and skill in favor of less mastery and adept handling of technical qualities.
There is baggage with the idea of Pagan religious education. Baggage with the concept of doing the work and instilling correct information (not doctrine). It’s time to let that go.
It is possible to create a religious expression within Contemporary Paganism that is accessible to new practitioners, without consistently relying on moving the goal posts of expectations and knowledge backwards. But we have to remember that might not necessarily be the goal of every blogger and writer about Paganism. As specializations exist within academic education, so too do they exist within a religious education. That is what Paganism is: education in a new mindset and mentality that can potentially, and drastically, break itself free from many beliefs and habits that have been created and indoctrinated.
Education, technical jargon, and accessibility do not need to be mutually exclusive, or at odds with each other, at all. Nor are all of us who engage in a higher-than-basic level of interaction with the framework of religion seeking to buttress academic barriers and reinforce a cultural and educated elite.
Thanks for reading.
 It should be noted that Kemetic practice does have a fairly well accessible body of introductory material that does not require academic interest to foster. However, for Ancient Near Eastern religions, there is a lack of available material to anyone but those in academic circles, with non-academic lay people being at a disadvantage in studies.
 I will, however, say that there is an issue within Paganism of people who attempt to explain advanced concepts only to fail miserably. Whether this is because they have an inexact understanding of those terms, or because they do not teach well, they only add to the confusion. That individual has failed in the role of the educator. These terms can be made relatable, without being made overly general. There appears to be a conflation between generalization and relatability. Another subject, for another time.
 Thanks to Conor and Sard for their feedback, critiquing, and revisions on this piece.