Sunday, February 11, 2007

Authority To Validate

In the beginning of the book, Pagan Theology, I noticed this line: “If religions are to be seen as unfolding maps of greater degrees of complexity, they can still be only as valid as the authority that is invested in them,” (pg. 3 ). It got me wondering about who has the ability or the authority to "validate" a religion, either from within the religion or from those on the sidelines.

Within Paganism, who has the authority to help it be viewed as being “valid?” A few people that came to mind at first included authors, professors, and reporters/journalists. But why is it that these people have authority? Just looking at the list, I would guess that their level of education has something to do with their ability to influence the public as an “authority.”

Another thing is that most people in these types of careers is that they are in the public eye. As they are well-known, they are able influence public opinion regarding Paganism. That they are in the public eye also opens up the possibility for new opportunities. One example of this is Margot Adler's career as a journalist with NPR opened up the opportunity to research and write her book “Drawing Down the Moon.”

But what about being validated from outside of Paganism? I know that many people say that there is no need to have validation from others because it is what they believe. While I would agree, I also think that there are some event that wouldn't be happening if there was that sense of validation. Events like the denial of Patrick Stewart's headstone and the various court cases that have been brought to public attention are some things that come to mind. How these events play out will have an effect on how the general public views Paganism and to what extent they view it as a valid religious expression.

On the other hand, there is much that can invalidate religions as well. Those in positions of authority have the ability to, sometimes with only a few sentences, do damage to the reputation of someone else's belief. And it doesn't help when people within the religion question their own religious scholarship as Brandy William pointed out at the Seattle Pagan Scholars Position of Studies Tea in 1997.

So, how do we bring about religious validation within both the Pagan community and the larger society? Is this even important given the argument that the only person that needs to valid your beliefs is yourself? Or is there more to this issue?


Hrafnkell said...

That's an odd quote...validation, eh? Validation seems to me to be a sort of external thing. Obviously any religion is valid to its devotees, else they would not be practicing it. A religion like Wicca, as in any form of Paganism, is going to lack a spiritual "authority" since our religions are not hierarchical.

Validity is about perception and we are not perceived as valid religions because twenty centuries of propaganda have convinced people we cannot be. A world conditioned to monotheism has as difficult a time accepting polytheism as polytheism had accepting the absurd idea of just one God.

But time is on our side. More and more people are showing dissatisfaction with "traditional" forms of religion. I think that authority is best expressed in that old saw, (and I'm not certain of the numbers here) that one believer equals insanity, one thousand is a cult, ten thousand is a sect and a hundred thousand is a religion. Numbers seem to have a certain validity of their own.

Another sort of validity comes by way of duration. The longer you are around, the more valid you seem. Paganism is a new thing today. A hundred years from now it will have achieved a certain validity simply by way of its age. Interestingly, this was one of the things the Romans had against Christianity - that it was new.

Bernulf said...

I'm inclined to agree with Hrafnkell, about how numbers and duration can lend to the impression of validity. At the same time, there are religions today that have been around for a few thousand years, have plenty of numbers, yet seem to be losing some of their validity - and a few thousand years ago, it was the same for European Paganism.

With that in mind, I tend to agree more with the notion that we don't need validation, except for within our communities and within our own selves. Our gods will continue to be there, regardless what authorities determine as valid or invalid; and those who feel the calling will eventually answer it.

As the article you linked to from Religious Tolerance demonstrates, it's often people like George Bush, or some other politician with an agenda that gets to 'decide' on validity, or present his or herself as authority enough to influence the validity of religious perspectives ... I find this to be all-the-more reason to focus more internally (as in within the Pagan community) on our own sense of validity.

This brings us to the Pagan scholars you mentioned (really good article you linked to, by the way, thank you :-) ). I disagree with the idea that questioning our scholarship doesn't help us - I believe quite the opposite. I think questioning and outright challenging scholarship encourages more people to take an active edge in researching history. If I were going to challenge one of the authors mentioned in this article, Diana Paxson, I would need to review her work, review her sources, review my own sources, and formulate my own criticisms - that process would increase my knowledge of Heathen lore and history, along with anyone else who got involved in the process. To not challenge our own scholarship implies that we we should simply sit back and allow ourselves to be spoon-fed our own beliefs and practices ... I can imagine only a few other things that would harm our validity more than this. At the same time, I don't think it's right to simply criticize our scholars out-of-hand: if there is a reason to criticize, be clear about the reason, support it with some relevant information and engage the matter constructively as a chance to further our own knowledge of our beliefs and practices.

ColoradoCelt said...

Excellent post.

I believe that what validates a religious or spiritual tradition comes down to three basic things:

1. Speaking powerfully to peoples real needs.

2. Evoking a sense of the sacred.

3. Action

1. Speaking powerfully to peoples real needs.
This is what makes any religious tradition grow. The oration and presentation of it's values in an inspirational and uplifting manner gives it the ability to attract new followers, and keep the ones that is has.

The Druids (indeed Celtic society in general) placed a great emphasis on it's leaders ability to speak with passion, intensity, and clarity. In short, they taught that words have power. When a religious leader through oration, storytelling, and personal interaction, are able to create a sense of respect and trust, validation arises naturally and spontaneously.

2. Evoking a sense of the sacred.
This is also central to how a cultural or religious tradition gives and receives validity. It's ability to craft deep and meaningful ritual or ceremonial atmospheres that inspire a deeper commitment to it's teachings.

It takes many years of time to create ritual that pulls together all the elements of language, beauty, and community participation that makes it a truly engaging experience.

3. Action
When people evaluate a tradition they ask questions of it:

To what extent to they practice what they preach?

How are they involved in their communities?

Can they interact in a meaningful and respectful way with those of different or even opposite opinions and/or convictions?

Can they handle financial and real world obligations with a sense of fairness and ease?


In Celtic Paganism for example the overriding question is often "Is the harmony between the tribe and the land being maintained?" The answer is the signpost to validity.

Hrafnkell said...

I absolutely agree with Bernulf that we must question; always question, and then question again and continue to question. We must never cease asking and we should never simply accept what we are told without examining critically. Even professional scholars make mistakes, mistranslations and draw improper conclusions.

Sojourner said...

Hrafnkell said: Validation seems to me to be a sort of external thing.

Agreed. That’s one of the reasons why I focused on other people as the point of validation. We humans seem to need other people to support our ideas. I know that I do this myself. Within this context, it is almost as if people are waiting for someone else to make Paganism “respectable.”

But there is that flip side that you pointed out – if it is not considered “valid” by that individual, why are they practicing it? There seems to be almost a type of discrepancy there. On one hand, people say that it doesn’t matter what others say, yet they are quick to point out that their views are authentic once someone with a little clout says the same thing.

I have also thought of validity in terms of adherents and the amount of time a particular view point has been around. I guess that this is similar to a new hypothesis/theory that a scientist tries to get support for. The longer it’s been around and the more visibility the theory gets, the more scientists that jump on board. At some point, the new theory becomes the main theory that is talked about.

I, too, have seen many similarities between the early history of Christianity and the Romans with what is happening now between Pagans and Christians.

Sojourner said...

Bernulf said: and a few thousand years ago, it was the same for European Paganism.

I understood the transition to be more of a take over rather than a loss of validity among early pagans. (Of course, that is a very much simplified statement regarding the whole history of the Romans in Europe. Please don't take it as "Those evil Romans/Christian killed early pagan beliefs.")'s often people like George Bush, or some other politician with an agenda that gets to 'decide' on validity, or present his or herself as authority...

Because of this, I see those in the Pagan community as have to do public damage control, so to speak. In this regard, we need people with an equal status to counter act that negative agenda that these people in high positions have promoted.

I disagree with the idea that questioning our scholarship doesn't help us - I believe quite the opposite.

I agree. We should be aware of what is being written within the Pagan community and think critically about what we are reading. It is unfortunate that we have been taught that our leaders (be they teachers, politicians, CEO’s, clergy, etc) shouldn’t be questioned. But you are right, don’t criticize to criticize. There has to be a reason and respectful discussion.

Sojourner said...

Colorado Celt, you mentioned Speaking powerfully to peoples real needs as one of your basics of validation.

I think you have hit something here when you combined this with what Hrafnkell said regarding peoples’ dissatisfaction of traditional religions. Currently Paganism is hitting the right cord with many people and that is probably why it is the fastest growing religion in many countries.

I love that you bring action into your idea of what validity should be. The whole “actions speak louder than words” saying comes to mind.

Bernulf said...

"I understood the transition to be more of a take over rather than a loss of validity among early pagans."

But where did the strength to take over come from? Peter and Paul certainly didn't march into Rome and throw down Paganism ... the process that allowed the cult of Christianity to gain enough support and strength took time, and required that at least the elites of Rome consider the religion behind the cult as valid, along with the converted masses among the other classes of people living in Rome.

Bernulf said...

By the way, I wanted to let you know that I linked to this post, hoping to encourage more people to take part in this commentary :-)

A question that occurred to me while writing about this post is in which sense of the word 'validity' are we speaking in? The word can be defined either having legal efficacy, or as being relevant and meaningful (source: Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary).

Hrafnkell said...

It was definitely more takeover than loss of validity. The thing is, Paganism never ceased being valid. It was and remained valid even as Pagans were finding their beliefs and practices outlawed, even as they were being coerced and tortured into submission to Christianity. That Paganism was moribund by the time Christianity arrived is now known to be a myth and as historian Ramsay MacMullen has noted, conversion was accomplished through brute force rather than through Pagans flocking to be change religions.

Even if Christianity suffers the eclipse (in my opinion) it so richly deserves, this will not mean it is invalid. It will merely reflect our perceptions of validity. I believe its lack of validity is something inherent in the religion itself, in the same way that Paganism's validity is inherent within it, perceptions aside. One is natural, the other goes against nature. Pagans embrace life, and though this may be a bit of a generalization, historically, Christians have feared life.

I definitely think we have to talk in terms of relevant and meaningful as opposed to legal efficacy. As history has amply demonstrated, the two are definitely not the same.

Bernulf said...

"It was definitely more takeover than loss of validity."

That depends on the sense in which you use the word, validity - this is why I thought to try to clarify this before the discussion went further. From a legal perspective, when Christianity became the law of the land, the legal validity of Paganism was broken. Also, to the people who actually did willingly convert (for whatever reason), Paganism lost its validity. At that point, Christianity had something to offer those people that they weren't getting from Paganism.

Today, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction - people who are returning to their Pagan roots are doing so because Paganism offers what Christianity can't. For those who remain Christian, Paganism will not have validity in the sense of personal relevance and meaningfulness, and I'm not convinced that we need to expend great effort to counter this. Their religion is fine for them, so what we should focus on is making our religion even finer for us; hence my earlier comment about keeping our focus on our own sense of validity.

"That Paganism was moribund by the time Christianity arrived is now known to be a myth ..."

I would never argue with this sentiment; however to say that the validity of Paganism was lost on the converted Romans, or that the legal validity was broken once Christianity became law, is not the same as saying that Paganism was in any way obsolete.

Sojourner said...

Bernulf said: the process that allowed the cult of Christianity to gain enough support and strength took time

The time that the Romans started taking over in Europe was a time when Christianity was starting to see the support and strength it needed to rise and that support came from the "validation" of their leadership when Christianity became the state sponsered religion.

Everything always takes time. When we look back at things in a historical sense, it is sometimes difficult to remember that this didn't happen in a flash because we can see what eventually happened and there is way more to it than just "Group A attacked Group B."

Because this "take over" happened in Europe, I think people sometimes forget to look at what was happening in Rome and Greece. There had to have been some dissatisfaction with the Roman and Greek churches at the time because of what they were being spoon fed.

I'm talking about how the Roman and Greek temples using advanced technology to continue inspiring the awe and shock factor in their adherents. Things like talking statues and thunder machines and automatic doors. All promoted as the work of the Gods. Think of how they must have felt as they realized they had been duped. At the time, I'm sure Christianity seemed like a much better option.

However once Christianity grew in power, they started the same shock and awe tactic - but with fear. Fear for you soul, fear of God, etc.

Sojourner said...

Thanks for the link, Bernulf!

You said:

which sense of the word 'validity' are we speaking in? The word can be defined either having legal efficacy, or as being relevant and meaningful

I guess I was starting with the legal efficacy side (with my examples of people as bringing forth validity). I have another post that will be put up in the next few days regarding some other aspects of validity, including relevance and meaning.

Sojourner said...

Hrafnkell said: historically, Christians have feared life

While that may have been true, I think that is changing with some of the new movements that are popping up. There no long seems to be the neccessity of needing to use the fear factor to get people to participate.

You're right, as perceptions change, our views change. We seem to be in another history period of perceptual change when it comes to religion.

I definitely think we have to talk in terms of relevant and meaningful as opposed to legal efficacy.

Unless I'm not totally getting your meaning of legal efficacy, I think that we need both. It is so easy for us to disregard this concept as we do have the legal right (at least here in the US) to the freedom of relgion. Yet, we still have to fight for our rights such as in the case of the parents in Illinois who weren't allowed to teach their child their family's religious tradition or with the current headstone issue. In this case, we still need to think in terms of legal efficacy.

Hrafnkell said...

Bernulf said: Also, to the people who actually did willingly convert (for whatever reason), Paganism lost its validity. At that point, Christianity had something to offer those people that they weren't getting from Paganism.

Yes, there are always those willing to convert who want something they're not getting. But the vast majority of the Roman Empire was still Pagan when Constantine began his anti-Pagan enactions, some 90%. At the end of the century, despite being made illegal, scholars believe over half the empire was still Pagan. Obviously, most people were not converting because they wanted something more (unless it was freedom from persecution).

The Christian authors themselves, including Augustine, make clear that most of the "converts" were in fact still Pagans, celebrating Pagan festivals and sneaking off to temples, etc., which brings up the all important question of what exactly constitutes "conversion."

Certainly Paganism lost its legal validity rather quickly after Constantine's conversion, but the long battle of Christianity against a Paganism that refused to die shows that it never lost the other type until the last Pagan had been killed, forced to convert, or driven underground.

Bernulf said...

Sojourner, I think you made a pretty good point about the 'shock and awe' tactics, and how they can have unintended results. It's also something I think we should remember, as we go into the future - an emphasis to keep things real, so to speak, to avoid pretense - which returns us to the importance of constructively challenging our own scholars and leaders.

Hrafnkell, the figure of 90% that you wrote in your last comment - is this taking into consideration the percentage of urban versus rural citizens of the Roman empire at the time of Constantine I?

Sojourner said...

Hrafnkell said: Even if Christianity suffers the eclipse (in my opinion) it so richly deserves

So are you saying that all of Christianity needs to suffer because of what the few have done? You seem to exclude the fact that there are individual differences and that the individual can't be totally responsible for the whole.

Christianity has some flaws, yes. But so do other religions, and yes, I'm including Pagan and Heathen religions in the mix.

I think it is unfair to blame everything on Christianity, when there is a two way street. I think it is unfair and ungracious to say that they "so richly deserve" a fall.

Please, people, keep your comments to constructive criticism of other faiths. Slamming of other faiths is not something that I want on my blog.

dc universe said...

I think high, demanding ethical standards, intolerance for crooks and fakes, and squeaky clean scholarly credibility matter.

They are not decisive. Numbers, time, money and the ability to intimidate people into not criticizing you unfortunately matter more, and a con man who spawns a prosperous religion may be perceived as a more valid teacher than someone who revives a tradition that remains modest.

But genuine standards do count for something.

If nobody knows where the money goes and the lifestyle of the senior clergy is open to questions, there is less validity in the teachings of the house.

If teachers are inadequately qualified, or very much worse if they claim, or imply claims to, questionable qualifications, there is less validity in the teachings of the house than would exist if its leaders were clearly validated authorities.

If people who claim oracular standing or have other positions of trust use sock puppets on the Internet or in other ways show that they are fond of pretending and not to be trusted, there is less validity in the teachings of the house. If "Irene" is a sock puppet (and I'm just making up names here to illustrate the concept), then why not "Isis" when you claim she speaks through you?

If you are a reliable, authenticated source of information for anyone, and when you pass beyond archaeological information that anyone can check to your own opinions and your house traditions you say so, that is good.

If you are evasive and tricky and admit error, if at all, mostly when you get caught lying, that's bad.

If the unstated practical standards of a religion are such that the devious are tolerated in positions of leadership, then I don't think that religion - in its modern and corrupted expression, as a modern collective project - can have much validity until there is serious house-cleaning.

The ancient religion is still valid. Modern solitaries may be OK. There may be good books to read and so on. But that's as far as it goes.

dc universe said...

I like Brandy Williams' paper very much, but I do not entirely agree with it. It's inspiring in parts, but I think she is needlessly taking on science at its strongest point, from a position of weakness.

The real problem with Pagan scholarship is not that it does not meet the unreasonable standards that are put on it but that too often it would not meet reasonable standards either.


Balefire is talking pointedly about stuff I have experienced too.

But still, you can't afford to buy every book, even if you had the time to read them all and learn ancient languages too. And I do not think sharing usefully across different traditions is all that easy, unless there are specific bridges like two or more religions having a god in common.

And once you acknowledge that it is nice to help and to be helped, but that credibility is an issue, and religious bridges are limited, you run into all sorts of validation issues. Who is to be trusted on this stuff, whose translations are good, who is in and out of these two or more religions and why, and is this really the same god or goddess? Who says so now, and what do they count for, and what authority do they appeal to? Who said so then, and when was the relevant "then", and who had authority to speak back then? On what basis do we decide that? Because the consequences of such a decision are likely to be radical, going to the root of the religion.


I recently had it called gently and politely to my attention that George W. Bush's position on Wicca is worse than I thought, since he says a lot of off note things once, but when he says something twice or more it means the Decider has decided, and alas he has decided wrongly and in ignorance on Wicca.

But, I don't think that's a terrible blow to anyone's validity. I don't think it's too costly to say: "George W. Bush is wrong on that one." If you say that as a conservative among conservatives, the response is likely to be along the lines: "Oh Lord, what's George done this time?" It's not going to be: "You must be in league with the Devil: George W. Bush is infallible!" Not after the nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court of the United States of America, among other missteps.


It's not the ignorant politicians we have to impress. Or prejudiced scholars. (Actually the only real scholar I've corresponded to, Edward Karl Werner, I found to be wonderful in every way.) It's us, each other, when we are making reasonable demands on the basis of real scholarship and hard, inflexible, but basically down to earth ethical demands for sound conduct, good character and openness.