Are you afraid of Pagans?

Isle of Lewis - Hebrides

My upcoming novel, Throwing Stones, is a book that might challenge readers on a couple of fronts. First, like all my books, it revolves around a gay teen and, yes, his love interest. Second? Well, although all my books include some aspect of religion or religious practice—either metaphorically or front-and-center—this one will present some readers with a new challenge.

My dentist loves my books (no, he's not gay; he just loves my books), and his staff members know it. Last time I was there, his bookkeeper asked me what I was working on now. I said, "I'm writing a story about a teen who wants to reconcile his family and the people in his town with a group of Pagans who..." I stopped before I could finish my sentence, because her eyes had gone wide. Very wide. But not, I would have said, with interest. It was the kind of surprise that borders on fear. The word "Pagans" shocked her.

I live in eastern Massachusetts, an area known for progressive attitudes and where I would have expected that anyone I spoke to would perhaps be intrigued by the idea of a Pagan community. I did not expect fear.

Paganism is a world religion. Pagan worship and practice can take many different forms, as can Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism—that is, as can any religion. Adherents might practice Wicca or they might not. They might see their central figure as The Goddess or they might not. They might belong to a grove (or parish) or they might not. They might take the eight annual sabbats, or holy days, very seriously, or they might not. In other words, Pagans are people. And Paganism is a belief system—that is, a religion.

What Pagans are not is devil worshippers. In my research for Throwing Stones, I couldn't find any evidence that Pagans even acknowledge (let alone believe in) any concept that equates to the Judeo-Christian devil. What I found was an extremely diverse, autonomous collective of individual people whose credo, "An it harm none, do as ye will," is even more challenging to follow faithfully than the Christian Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have done to you."). The Pagan credo challenges members to understand others (and themselves, for they are not to harm themselves, either) as well as possible before taking action, or they can't know what harm might be done.

Also, modern Pagans (as well as earlier followers) are exceptionally accepting of different sexual identities and orientations. In fact, "accepting" isn't even the right word. It wouldn't occur to them that these differences are problematic. This article in the Sept. 24 issue of Patheos (the Pagan channel) talks about the sexual variations among mythical characters. It also discusses the dangers of viewing anything historical—from culture to religion to sexuality—through contemporary lenses. Said differently, many assumptions about life are not the same from one time period to another. But the bottom line is that Pagans see issues of sex as much more fluid than the Abrahamic traditions see them. 

The holiday non-Pagans refer to as Halloween is a high-holy day for Pagans. They refer to it as Samhain (pronounced like Sowhen). It's the end (death) of one year and the beginning (birth) of the next. As the day draws near, the veil that separates the old and the new, the dead and the living, thins. Some Pagans (and some Christians who are closer to their Pagan roots) understand that the thinner the veil, the closer the living and the dead are to each other. For Pagans, this is not a time of ghouls and goblins. It's a time to reconnect with ancestors and loved ones who have moved on. And experiencing this thinness can be a way for the living to feel more at peace with what we all know about ourselves: One day, we will join those on the other side of the veil.

Throwing Stones throws one metaphorical stone right between the widened eyes of people who fear and condemn the "other," the "different," without making an effort to understand that other. This happens to Pagans. And it happens to gays. It needs to stop.

If you'd like to learn more about Paganism, here are a few links: