Pagans and heathens and goats! Oh my!

Hi John:

What's your take on the legitimacy of pagan practices and rituals: devil worship, praying to pagan gods, etc.? Do those have real effects, or has that been exaggerated by fundamental Christians? I recently stumbled upon a few pagan blogs via a friend of mine, and the stuff there greatly freaked me out (people hearing voices telling them to do things, having strange accidents occur, levitating stuff, and so on). Is this stuff real, and something I should stay far away from, or is this just an issue of how other people have different religious views and should be accepted too rather than avoided? Because I realize that some parts of Christianity probably come across as just as crazy to non-Christians. I'm a bit scared (okay, that's a lie; very scared, to the extent that I'm having trouble with capitalization, which somehow happens when I'm terrified) at the stuff I've just read. So I thought I'd contact you, since most people I know are either skeptics who would dismiss it outright, or fundies who would freak out and claim there are demons involved. Thanks.

Got that in yesterday. So, to answer it sentence by sentence:

What's your take on the legitimacy of pagan practices and rituals: devil worship, praying to pagan gods, etc.? If you're asking whether or not I think it's a good idea to worship the devil, I would say that it depends on what you mean by "the devil." If you're equating "the devil" with evil, then, no, I don't think anyone should worship evil. But duh.

"Pagan gods" is too broad a term to, in and of itself, have any meaning. Paganism is a Big Category word that refers to indigenous, ancient, polytheistic spiritual beliefs and practices. That covers a lot of history. Ancient Greeks and Romans, for instance, practiced what Christians later decided to pejoratively label "paganism." But no one (sane) would say they were into worshiping evil.

But cutting to the chase: ancient or modern, "pagans" and "heathens" can be every bit as morally sound and spiritually healthy as anyone else. There's a lot of wisdom in the old ways. (Speaking of all this, pastor Mark Townsend's just released "Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ" promises to be a great read. You can read a review of it here.)

Do those have real effects, or has that been exaggerated by fundamental Christians? Don't know what you mean by "real effects." Spiritual practices always have an effect on those doing them, of course. And yes, fundamentalist Christians have not just exaggerated the harmful effects of ancient, pre-Christian faith practices, they've distorted them beyond just about anything having to do with reality. Christians avidly labeled Native Americans, for instance, "pagans" and "heathens." But many Indian spiritual beliefs are supremely sublime; if universally adopted, Native American religion would, if nothing else, save the planet.

I recently stumbled upon a few pagan blogs via a friend of mine, and the stuff there greatly freaked me out (people hearing voices telling them to do things, having strange accidents occur, levitating stuff, and so on). Rest assured: no one gets to make gravity their bitch. And hearing voices that tell you to do things remains the exclusive domain of the insanely delusional.

Is this stuff real, and something I should stay far away from, or is this just an issue of how other people have different religious views and should be accepted too rather than avoided? You should definitely stay away from anything that's cruel/evil/malevolent/stupid/victimizes any people or animals. Also, I think a good rule of thumb is to avoid any religious ceremony that involves wearing a hooded robe. Because it's always wise to avoid looking like once the sun comes up you'll go right back to living in your mother's basement and playing Fable II all day.*

Because I realize that some parts of Christianity probably come across as just as crazy to non-Christians. It is pretty hard to beat virgin births and a God who encourages people to eat his flesh and bones. (Um ... new readers: I'm a Christian. Promise.)

I'm a bit scared (okay, that's a lie; very scared, to the extent that I'm having trouble with capitalization, which somehow happens when I'm terrified) at the stuff I've just read. Wait. What? When you're maximally frightened you lose your ability to properly capitalize? That's ... different. How often does that even come up? When in the grips of terror, do you tend to write stuff? Do you find it hard to write while running? Anyway, best response to fear ever. Especially, I guess, if you happen to find yourself running alongside a proofreader.

Anyway, why so afraid? Cuz of something you read on the Internet? Seriously?

Here, I've got something scary for you to read on the Internet: TeaParty.org. By some horrific twist of fate, I'm on the TeaParty.org's mailing list. I'll subscribe you if you want. Talk about an excellent reason to start hoarding canned goods.

Listen: Don't be afraid. No one's going to come reaching out of your computer monitor and force you to start worshiping cats. You're safe. You've got a mind. You get to decide what's real and good, and what's a bunch of poseur geeks pretending to be "dark" and "magikal" in a last-ditch attempt to seem interesting to members of the opposite sex.

Relax. The world is yours to punctuate just as calmly and correctly as you please.

So I thought I'd contact you, since most people I know are either skeptics who would dismiss it outright, or fundies who would freak out and claim there are demons involved. Really? Those are the kinds of people you mostly know? So, you need to meet more people.

Thanks. You're totally welcome. Thanks for writing.

* This is a joke. I'm not anti-hooded robes. Some of my best friends wear hooded robes.