Morality and Modern Paganism

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Morality and Modern Paganism

Written by Apollonius-Mithras of the Isis-Urania Covens. May be reproduced and distributed provided this acknowledgement is included.

It is a topic of concern in the Pagan community that society is reluctant to grant a serious religious status to Pagan beliefs. It is also a contentious issue within the community as to which groups or beliefs are "valid" or "positive".

I feel that some clarification of terms and of thought will be needed if these concerns are going to be resolved, and I hope to contribute to some clarity with the following material.

Perhaps the first question to address is what is meant by the term "religious" in this context. I propose that this term indicates a set of sincerely held beliefs, standards, propositions and practices relating to whatever we conceive of as the "Divine", the "Ultimate", or as the "Meaning" of our existence.

In the comic strip "Peanuts", Linus holds a sincere belief in the Great Pumpkin. While we may well respect his sincerity and intensity of belief, we are not likely to take it seriously as a coherent body of religious thought and experience. Whether we believe in Christianity, Hinduism, Paganism or the Great Pumpkin, we cannot expect respect for our beliefs as beliefs just because we are sincere. So, if we wish to present Paganism as a serious religious current, we have to establish grounds as to why it deserves respect apart from the valid fact that many Pagans sincerely hold their beliefs.

Any coherent religious belief which fulfills the function of expressing our religious nature and bringing us closer to (making us more aware of) the Ultimate is embodied in some form of high ideal, some concept of the Ultimate to grow towards and to measure ourselves against. Since Paganism almost always involves a Magical approach to life, it is certain that we will develop in the direction of our motives and ideals, whatever they may be.

In Traditional Wicca (in which I was trained), for example, the Highest Ideal is embodied in the Nature of the Moon Goddess and of the Horned God; and in the Passwords of Perfect Love and Perfect Trust. Since a Witch is told early in his/her training to strive ever towards their Highest Ideal, it is clearly implied that as he or she grows, their horizons, personal limitations and preconceptions will continuously expand and mature. This person is embarking on the Endless Quest. The Passwords are very appropriate since they indicate unconditional (Perfect) Compassion (Love) and Wisdom (Trust). They also provide a standard against which to measure actions, motivations and growth.

Whatever we believe in, our actions have an important Magical Effect. Our actions ground and concretize our morality (or our lack of morality) in our daily lives. This grounding creates the habits and the environment that fuel and reinforce our future directions. So if we claim to value compassion, personal responsibility and self-knowledge (in other words: to have a conscience), but we enact selfishness, self-indulgence, and constant emotional self-stimulation, it is these latter qualities that we will invoke into manifestation in our minds, and our environment.

Like any invocation, this is governed by two factors: a) what we are invoking (our ideals and conceptions of Divinity) and b) the amount and type of personal energy that we put into it. Both these factors must be strongly present and aligned for any positive Magical Operation to succeed. Otherwise we simply invoke our own negativities and hidden motives which we have clothed in a divine form (with the attendant results in our spiritual and personal lives).

It can be seen from this that positive ("White") Magic can only be based on deep genuine devotion, on day-to-day moral behaviour, and on scrupulous self-examination. In Traditional Wicca we say: "I desire to know in order to Serve".

Any other kind of Magic is based on our personal projections and on our unconscious drives/needs. Any success that we may have will only fuel our misconceptions and make us more needy (we will become sicker, and when our neurotically structured world finally crashes, it will do so with a proportionately bigger crash).

Real Magic and religious maturity, therefore, depend completely upon sincere and practical morality and insight.

Often morality demands that we have the discipline and capacity to overcome our laziness and work at things that we would not otherwise do. While many Pagans are hardworking, I have too often heard people talk about "living off the bounty of the Goddess" when they are in fact living off other people's sweat. In spirituality and in Magic, as in life, most things worth having must be worked for.

It follows that a religious system worthy of its name must have precise transcendent ideals, including a complete knowledge of its Gods. By "transcendent" I mean that these ideals will always force us to go beyond our personal motives, concepts and expectations. Anything else is unworthy of being called a serious religious pursuit. At best it is ritualized ignorance, and ultimately self-destructive. The Book of Shadows tells us that "Evil is ignorance and a shadow of the One Light".

This all sounds very ideal-one could object that if we were capable of living up to these high standards right now, we would be fully realized Mighty Ones ourselves and would not be in need of the benefits of a religious system. It seems clear that a viable system would encourage us and make allowances for us to shed our neurotic motivations and our negativities. Our Gods (if they are worthwhile) will guide us lovingly and with as much gentleness as we allow them to. Therefore, the systems devoted to worshiping Them and the practitioners who represent these systems (ex: High Priestesses and High Priests) should be equally tolerant and supportive.

Nonetheless, a religion and its representatives must be able to recognize and to not encourage certain tendencies. As well, they should actively discourage others. The only approaches to religious or spiritual study which will endure, and which will promote spiritual and psychological Wholeness and health, are the constant and related desires to grow and to identify with and help others. These will inevitably carry a practitioner far beyond his or her own self-limitations and closer to their transpersonal goals.

Of course, students of a Pagan religion (in this example) will approach that religion with a variety of other motivations as well. These may include politics, power, recognition, some personal crisis, the need to have a religious excuse for sex, inability to find a partner, ambition, a "pendulum" reaction to Christianity, spiritual arrogance, etc. etc. The religion and its priesthood must be able to transform and adapt these propensities (not necessarily "evil" or "wrong" in themselves) into truly spiritual motives. Otherwise they will preside over a group of people who are calling on the Gods but who are really worshiping and magically reinforcing their own preconceptions, insecurities and sense of inadequacy (invoking ignorance)! This is a strictly downhill process for the obvious reasons. It would be better for all concerned if such a group did not meet at all.

Needless to say, the positive support that students have right to expect from their spiritual teachers can only be forthcoming if these teachers are constantly watching for, and working to transform their own ignorance, selfishness, insecurities and arrogance. It is not enough for High Priestesses, High Priests and others to claim respect and devotion from their members because their titles their lineage, their powers or their personality. In practices derived from Traditional Wicca, many High Priestesses and High Priests are willing to kneel humbly before a new initiate and welcome them during an Initiation ritual, but are unwilling to mentally and emotionally bow down to that person every single day as a perfect (but perhaps not yet conscious) manifestation of Deity. If we believe in Magic, we know that if we constantly think of someone in a certain way, that is how they will become. What High Priest/ess or other practitioner can justify seeing someone as a slave, source of income or ego-prop instead of as a Deity?

It seems that instead of truly concerning ourselves with spiritual growth, too many leaders of Pagan groups are ignoring our most important obligations of constant morality, self-examination, spiritual aspiration and deep concern for the welfare, development and happiness of others. We are instead using high-sounding words and titles to practice arrogance and self-inflation. As for Paganism being accepted as a valid path, no religion can be judged apart from the actions of its practitioners.

We stand in our capacity as leaders as a kind of parent to a student, or alternately as brothers or sisters of the Art (since every being is ultimately moving towards the same Spiritual Goal over countless lives, they are all sisters and brothers of the Art in some sense). Sometimes the actions of a brother or sister may force us to disagree with them, confront them, or even to cease to associate with them. As responsible family members we do not slander them, curse them, ritually excommunicate them or cease to love them. If we feel this way, chances are that their real sin was to offend our sense of self-importance.

One of the most interesting and ironic manifestations of the kind of poor leadership that we have been discussing is the current preoccupation with titles, status, charters, councils and organizations, political causes, group and individual disputes, etc. As a result, we see declarations, rumours, excommunications and accusatory documents flying around.

Until now, the Catholic Church has been the greatest religious proponent of power-politics, charters, councils, ritual declarations, grand titles, cultural events, elaborate implements, and of course, disputes and excommunications. One of its lowest historical priorities has been to further its version of religious values. Now that the Church has finally curbed some of its more extreme abuses, it appears that Paganism is standing by eagerly, ready to take up the slack. If only in this sense, Paganism may at last be ready to be a mainstream religion!

If Paganism is going to thrive, and to further its spiritual aims (if it doesn't further these aims, why survive? Most well-balanced people can enjoy a party without a religious excuse), perhaps we would be better advised to adopt a high profile only when we are very sure that we have nurtured and developed something worth recognizing.