Religious literacy (and the modern Pagan)

Several recent questions in my job as a librarian have me thinking about the many kinds of literacy out there. Literacy literacy, as it were (reading and writing). Digital literacy. Math literacy. Science literacy. Emotional literacy.

But there’s a kind that doesn’t get talked about very much, which is religious literacy.

The school I went to for the last two years of high school (which was a non-sectarian boarding school) had a requirement for students who were there three or four years of taking a philosophy or religion class, so there were a wide range to select from.

I took one about the philosophy of religion, that talked about what goes into a religion, what kinds of religious practices there are in their many varieties, and some different ways various religions look at similar issues. While many of the details of that conversation are long lost in the depths of my memory (it was approaching 25 years ago, after all), the core questions have stuck with me through my own religious changes.

More than that, it’s made me very aware that my religion is not the only option out there, and what that actually means in practice, about including people, talking about it, and what I want out of community-level interactions (or might be able to expect.) That was true when I was an active Catholic (up through the end of college) and it’s true now that I’m a priestess and witch.

It also made me very aware that a useful religion (speaking in terms of the individual, rather than societally, here) should provide both comfort and challenge. If you have too much of one or the other, weird things can happen, that probably are neither good nor useful long-term.

As an adult, I’ve taken to phrasing this as celebrating the good parts and supporting the hard parts of our lives, while making us think about how we’re living and what we’re doing on a regular basis.

There’s two places where I think religious literacy is especially critical. One of them is the easier one to solve, in many ways.

Inclusion and welcome:

The organisation I work for does a fair amount of international work, including bringing people in our field to our campus. Last week, I had a conversation with my boss about our current visitors where we both realised not everyone thinks about some of the issues of people of different religions or cultural backgrounds the same way. (There’d been a solveable snafu about housing options.)

This is in fact a kind of thing that can be solved (at least on an organizational scale) by some improvements in policies, education for relevant staff, and some thoughtfulness about food options at larger events. We’ve already got that last one covered pretty well for other reasons.

There are all sorts of applications here – going to funerals for people outside the religions we’re familiar with. Accommodating religious needs in the workplace, like fast days or foods people don’t eat without making a big fuss about it. Asking what people need, and seeing if you can help make that happen. Paying attention to notes on files or reservations.

A lot of times, we’re part of larger groups – communities – where the thing that brings us together is something other than our religion or our particular cultural preferences. If we’re going to do that, we should make space for other options, especially the ones that aren’t actually a big deal to include.

Seeking something different

The more complex one is about people who are seeking for new religious options. I spend a lot of my online time in the Pagan communities talking to people who are looking for something, but who aren’t sure what it is they’re looking for.

Some people figure it out on their own pretty fast – the people who come into it already aware of what works for them, and some of why. People who like research usually figure it out too, because they go looking for information.

But the ones who worry me are the ones who come into it trusting to what feels right, or wanting the thing they’ve heard about, rather than looking for less well known options that might work better for them.

Paying attention to our emotional reactions is a hugely important thing – but it’s not the only important thing out there, especially in major religious changes. Sometimes we find a thing that feels good because it’s like the thing we want to leave behind, and it’s familiar. That can lead us into a circle of the same patterns and choices in a slightly different setting.

Sometimes not engaging our self-awareness means that we echo patterns that we’re not used to questioning. People coming from many forms of Christianity to many forms of Paganism are often sort of baffled by structural issues or assumptions.

What do I mean by that?

Groups don’t seek out new members and actively encourage them to join.

There aren’t full-time religious structures (in most places) where people can meet up. (There are stores and events, but those work a bit differently.)

People may not understand confidentiality issues, or the fact that a lower density of people who are Pagan compared to Christianity means you may have to go further or compromise a bit on what you’re interested in to find people to do it with. Maybe not. But the chance that a coven or teacher of the tradition you’ve heard about and decided you’re interested in is down the street or even in your town is probably not a great assumption.

People often don’t understand how the exchange of time and energy works. As an elder on a mailing list said, when asked about this, “You can’t pay me for this, but I do have to like you enough to spend a lot of time with you.” That’s stuck with me, because she was right: it’s a totally different paradigm about what matters in the interaction.

Even in places where there are shared costs or dues or fees, those often work rather differently than in churches, and the things that matter to keep events and activities going on are different.

The challenges

There’s a lot of potential risks out there: investing a lot of time in something that turns out not to be good for you as an individual, for one.

Taking up with people who talk things up well, but don’t have the skills to back it up (some of whom go in for practices that have non-trivial risks).

Actual abusive, predatory, or otherwise bad behavior that’s hard to spot if you don’t know how to look for some things.

If we had more education, more understanding, more discussion about what feeds that drive to religious practice, to religious belief, to religious and spiritual community, then we’d be better prepared to talk about these things, and also to help people find the religious communities that work for them.

(We want different things, many of us, so the same community or kind of community probably won’t work for us all.)

Building religious literacy

Fortunately, there are some things we can do to build religious literacy. I’ll talk more about those in my next post, because they’re also an interesting model for building up skills for ongoing research and learning success in other areas.

About the Author

Jenett is a librarian and priestess in a small initiatory religious witchcraft tradition fascinated by the intersection of how we find information and how we can use it to make our lives (and other people's lives) better. She lives in the Boston metropolitan area with a cat and a fair number of books. Along with other online projects, she maintains a site, Seeking, with introductory material about religious witchcraft, research, and other useful tools, and offers research consulting on esoteric and eclectic topics through her business Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

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