Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
First of all, thanks for dropping by! If you have any questions or comments, you are enthusiastically welcome to leave a comment or send me a message!
So – what are Pagan ethics? Where do they come from? How do we decide what’s ethical behavior for Pagans, and what isn’t?
That’s a lot of questions. I promise, I won’t try to answer them all in this post! But just to set the scene, I want to touch on some of the basics that will guide this blog going forward.
What brand of Paganism?
I use the term “Pagan” to refer to a lot of different things. Wiccans can be lumped into the umbrella term “Pagan,” as can Neopagans, Druids, etc. Sometimes Pagan means “non-Christian,” or “actively rejecting Christianity in favor of something else.” Sometimes it means “pre-Christian religion.” Sometimes the term Pagan refers to a reconstruction of a belief system that competed with Christianity a long time ago, or that existed before Christianity.
Complicating things further, sometimes Pagans use the term incorrectly. Heathens – those who follow Norse traditions – don’t always self-identify as Pagan – but I’ve been guilty of calling them Pagan. Or a Christian might label Buddhists as “Pagan,” but the Buddhists might not think of themselves as Pagan.
Sometimes people associate non-traditional sexual practices as Pagan.
So now that I’ve thoroughly confused the issue for you, I’ll just say this – when I use the term “Pagan,” I mean someone who follows the seasons of the Earth and the cycles of the Solar System. Someone who draws spiritual inspiration from Nature. Someone who believes that there’s more to our existence than science can measure.
I promise, I’m not asking these questions to confuse you. I just want to start by acknowledging there are a lot of options out there. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers. Sometimes, all we have is a question! But by asking these questions, and really thinking about them, we can make better and more ethical decisions in our path.
Where do ethics come from?
Or, how do we know it’s wrong to murder someone?
For most of us, our ethics are just automatic. Somehow, we just know that it’s wrong to murder someone. We know it’s right to protect kids from danger.
But when you start to dig a little, it can get pretty complicated. You may want to have sex with a person, and to you it’s ethical to approach them and invite them to do so. But to them, it is not ethical for a random stranger to ask for sex. If you ask that person for sex, they might throw a drink in your face and say no – and now you have a dilemma! Are your ethics right, or are the other person’s ethics right?
In most modern American groups, ethics tend to be a blend of the region you live in and the religion you practice. For example, if you go to a hospital, the doctors and nurses are going to do everything in their power to keep you alive. Part of this comes from the Christian belief that we are only born once, have one life to live, and have only one chance to “do the right things” so that we can go to heaven.
But what if your brand of Paganism believes in reincarnation? Is it still ethical to keep someone on life support, preventing them from incarnating into their next life?
That makes it tricky!
I follow an Earth-based Pagan path. I work with an eclectic mix of spirits and deities. Some are from ancient Greece, like Hekate. Some are just local land spirits, like a river spirit I met near my home town. I believe that Nature tells stories – a coyote hunting a rabbit, or a field mouse fleeing a housecat. I believe the cycles of nature have meaning, from the waxing moon to Mercury (and Venus!) retrograde.
I’ll tell you a secret – one day, when I was a teenager sitting in church with my family, I had a sudden moment of clarity. I remember it was a hot, summer day in the desert, and the church didn’t have air conditioning. The preacher was rambling about a Bible verse or something, and I remember thinking it just didn’t make sense. And I suddenly realized that if I were a god, I wouldn’t put a set of rules and guidelines in some complicated, self-contradictory, hard-to-read book like the Christian Bible. I’d put them somewhere anyone could find them – if they looked. Even if they couldn’t read. Even if they lived in some remote jungle, isolated from modern society.
So that’s the root of my Paganism. (And, if you’re paying attention, my ethics too!) I look to Nature for guidance when I’m struggling – with life, or with a difficult decision, or even for the next step on my path.
But Nature can be kind of a dick…
Remember Hurricane Katrina? The 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean? Tornadoes that tear up trailer parks? Even my own desert community got wrecked this winter with lots of snow, which melted and flooded the area.
Not only that. For every cute and fluffy animal like a bunny or a panda bear, there’s at least one terrifyingly vicious predator. Mountain lion attacks still happen, and humans have died as recently as 2008. Coyotes are becoming more bold, stepping up attacks on pet dogs.
In a time when we use the term “predator” to refer to a person who attacks vulnerable people (think sexual predator), how can we honestly use Nature as a guide for our ethics? Is it ever OK to act like a predator? If we’re not being a predator, are we making ourselves prey for other predators?
There’s a path through this. I’m sure of it. And no, I don’t think it’s helpful to always think in terms of predator-prey relationships. Sometimes shitty things happen, because Nature is pretty indifferent to you and me. Or there are bigger things at play than our little lives.
But we can still look at the stories we wrap around natural events for inspiration. Many cultures write stories, for example, about how the sun chases the moon. Native American stories are different from Filipino stories, which are different from European stories.
In these situations, it’s the story – the meaning we wrap around Nature – that gives us a model for our ethics.
And nature’s lessons aren’t always obvious.
In my experience, you can’t just settle on the first thing that comes to mind when you look at Nature. Sure, the new-fallen snow brings a silent peace and tranquility that you can’t find anywhere else. And there is absolutely some wisdom in that! But if you get caught in the cold, you could just as peacefully fall asleep and never wake up. Or if you try to walk (or drive!) on that snow, you could be injured in an accident. So yes, the new fallen snow is quiet and peaceful, but it can be a seductive and treacherous peace, as well as a calm one. And that peace is best experienced with a safe, warm fire to come back to.
It’s not always wise to romanticize or idealize Nature. We don’t want to pretend it’s something that it’s not. We humans have a terrific capacity to delude ourselves. Sometimes, that’s not necessarily bad. (One more cookie isn’t going to hurt me.) But sometimes it can get in the way of our spiritual growth. (It’s not my fault that I wasn’t prepared for that ritual I agreed to lead!)
So it’s tricky, like a balancing act. Between finding stories that inspire us, but don’t delude us. Between truth that helps us grow, versus truth that just beats us into submission. And we’ll make mistakes, we’ll screw up, we’ll misinterpret the signs. But as long as we keep looking, and we don’t just take Nature for the first thing we think of – we’ll keep growing.
Like that stubborn tree in my back yard that started growing in a crack in the pavement. I keep cutting it out, dumping weed-killer on it. It keeps sprouting new leaves and shoots. When a tree is damaged, it usually just finds a way to grow around the damage. It might not look the same. It might end up twisted, or wonky, or lopsided. But those don’t matter to the tree, as long as it gets clean water to drink, and bright sunshine on its leaves, and good black earth to sink its roots into.
A few final thoughts.
Thanks for dropping by. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve got some ideas for thinking about your own Pagan path. Not just what to do, but why do you do it. Or what you could do differently, if the cycle of the Moon is important to you. Or if Wolf is your totem animal. Or any other aspect of your Pagan practice.
You are enthusiastically invited to leave a comment with your thoughts, ideas, or questions. If you have a question or comment, or an ethical dilemma you want my input on, hit me up at dmkoffer at gmail dot com!