The Shame of Being a “Non-Practicing Pagan”

I remember when I left the Mormon church, I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I had been a less than perfect Mormon.  You see, when you leave the LDS Church, the people who stay start looking for all kinds of reasons why you left, reasons which have to do with your own moral failings.  They can’t admit that anything might be wrong with the Church, so something has to be wrong with you.

But I was a less than ideal Mormon.  I didn’t obey all the rules, I didn’t pray as often as I was supposed to, and so on.  Now I have the perspective and wisdom to recognize that nobody obeyed all the rules or prayed as much as they were supposed to.  Well, maybe somebody did.  But those people are scary.  And they’re also a very small minority.

The same is true of Pagans, I think.  I suspect that very few of us are practicing with as much consistency as we claim to.  And that’s okay.

I don’t admitting how imperfect my personal practice is.  Spiritual discipline has never been my strong suit.  But over the years, I’ve read several honest accounts which helped me to come to terms with it.  A comment on a blog I read 4 years ago helped to to appreciate that it’s normal that spiritual practice waxes and wanes and to take advantage of the waning periods to reevaluate my practice.  A post by Star Foster humorously titled “Slacker Paganism” helped me appreciate the value of at least going through some of the motions every day, no matter how half-assed.  And a recent post by Bekah Evie Bel titled “I’m an Armchair Pagan” reminded me not to judge myself when life gets too hectic and practice is just infeasible.

Nevertheless, I’m still a little sensitive to accusations of being “non-practicing”.  First, for the reasons I explained above.  But second, because there is a confusion among many people about what it means to be a non-theistic or naturalistic Pagan.  Many polytheists, for example, can’t seem to imagine what a spiritual practice would look like without gods.  And so they wrongly assume that non-theistic Pagans don’t have a spiritual practice.

There are, of course, Pagans of all theological varieties who do not practice at all.  I’ve seen them referred to as “cultural Pagans” or “secular Pagans.”  But I am neither of these things.  And it is a mistake to confuse secular Pagans with non-theistic Pagans.  “Non-theistic” does not mean “secular.”  The one has to do with religious belief, while the other has to do with religious practice.  (See the chart to the right.)

While I am reluctant to respond to suggestions that I prove my Paganism to anyone, I do think it is important to educate people about what a non-theistic Pagan practice might look like.  My practice is very idiosyncratic.  It evolved over years in an intuitive fashion.  It includes morning and evening devotionals at my altar.  My morning devotion is more outward-oriented and involves invocations of the air, sun, water, and earth, while my evening devotion is more inward-oriented and involves invocations to personal archetypes.  I say a prayer over meals (when I remember) and, at the eight stations of the Wheel of the Year, I pour different libations over the headstone of an ancestor which sits in my backyard garden.  I also have written Wheel of the Year rituals for my family, which usually involve song, story, a dramatic reenactment, and a fun activity.  I’ve written about all of this many times before on my blog.

I am unabashedly eclectic.  Unlike many non-theistic Pagans, my altar does contain images of deities and some of my invocations use theistic language.  Some polytheists may find this to be appropriative, but for me these images and language are sacred, and I treat them as such.  I also use language and imagery borrowed from popular media and classic literature, anything which I experience as numinous, as evoking that larger dimension of life, may be incorporated into my rituals.

I can’t say, though, that my practice is representative of that of other non-theistic Pagans.  If you’re interested in the non-theistic practice of others, I suggest you check out book Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans, which includes essays from non-theistic Pagans describing their practice.  Some of the essays have bee published elsewhere.  B. T. Newberg has written about why he, a humanistic Pagan, prays to Isis.  NaturalPantheist has offered these three reasons why he does ritual.  Anna Walther has offered “Four Devotional Practices for Naturalistic Pagans”.  Shauna Aura Knight has written a 3-part essay explaining how she works with archetypes in her rituals.  I explain here why I pour ritual libations.  And Mark Green has written a beautiful “Atheopagan Prayer” here.

Many non-theistic Pagans observe some form of the Neopagan Wheel of the YearJon Cleland Host brings science and Paganism together in his unique family celebrations.  And some Humanistic Pagans turn seemingly mundane activities–like making stock, crafting or composting–into religious practices.

Through these rituals, we seek to connect to something greater than ourselves, whether that be the cosmos, the earth, the web of life, the human community, or our deeper selves.  We also use ritual express our sense of wonder and reverence at the universe. The ritual enactment of Pagan myths can help to transform our rational understanding of the natural world into a religious experience.  Ritual also enables us to cultivate subjective states of mind which are personally healing and socially and environmentally integrative. This is especially important in our time of widespread spiritual alienation. Ritual can give rise to experiences which help motivate socially and environmentally responsible action.

So before you call someone a “non-practicing Pagan,” consider some other possibilities.  Consider that their practice may just look different from yours.  Or consider that, even though you have very different beliefs, their practice may actually look quite a bit like yours.

9 thoughts on “The Shame of Being a “Non-Practicing Pagan”

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  1. I put my hand up and admit that I am a slacker. I have tried many times over the years to develop a daily spiritual practice, and failed massively. Nothing sticks. I love doing ritual – but I love doing ritual in a group. Solitary practice just isn’t my thing.

    So yeah! Slackers unite.

    1. I also love the picture that you have chosen to illustrate this blog post. I’m the one with my head on the pillows in the foreground. Mmmm, sleep is good.

  2. Great post, John, and thanks for the shout-out. I’m quite certain my practice doesn’t look like anyone else’s, but I certainly have one. And it grates when it is suggested that I don’t.

  3. I appreciate this post greatly. My practice has shifted and, I imagine, will continue to evolve and change as I do. There are times when my practice is what sustains me through each and every day. Other times it’s that thing I do on occasion.

    As long as I’m breathing, I’m practicing something…

  4. Even if someone is “non-practicing” so what? As long as they identify as pagan, they are pagan as far as I can see. My own practice is sporadic and ever-shifting, it comes and it goes. I have zero time any more for anyone who tries to enforce a religious test for who can be “allowed” to call themselves pagan. Ignore the trolls, John, and don’t let the fundamentalists define your paganism for you. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

  5. Glad you posted this. The thing that gets me about “practicing pagan;” the idea feels like it comes out of the traditions of practicing magic as if being part of a magical lodge and as if one was training for a priesthood. Neither condition is appropriate to me or my ‘brand’ of paganism so the idea doesn’t apply to me at all. And to judge me by that measuring stick misses out entirely what my ‘brand’ of paganism is.

    What level of devotion were we called to and how can anyone justify judging that based on their own biases? Eh, the whole idea of calling someone a non-practicing anything is creating an otherness, to ostracize, to shun, to ridicule them and to shame them back into ‘the fold.’ Classic us vs. them mentality and quite troublesome when dealing with diversity that exists in the Pagan community.

    I don’t hold that practice and rituals is what makes a Pagan a Pagan. I’m just not that kind of Pagan. *wink*

  6. I love the way you describe individual practices of ritual, in that:
    “Through these rituals, we seek to connect to something greater than ourselves, whether that be the cosmos, the earth, the web of life, the human community, or our deeper selves.”

    This makes me think about how attractive to think (or believe) that others approach, or should approach, them in the same ways we do for ourselves. Nothing like generalizing from our individual experiences!

  7. I guess it is important to know what actually is and isn’t a Pagan. I am a Deist. I believe in “God”, but not religion. I believe that God and the Universe are one thing. I believe that living a spiritual and moral life is important, and I strive to do this… I am not 100% successful, mostly because i am Human. I believe that doing is more important than praying. If I pray it is to thank God for the Universe in which I live and for being allowed to be part of it – good or bad. I understand that if things were all good we would learn nothing, we need the bad to contrast the good, we need to make mistakes so we know how to do it right. I believe that each atomic particle within this Universe is part og God, as am I, the dog down the street, it’s owner, the grass growing in my lawn, etc. S.. am I a Pagan? Well I am not a member of any main stream Religion. Am I practicing it? I try, but not by following rituals, or praying, or reading Religious Dogma of any kind. So I leave it to you … are you a Pagan, or do you just call yourself one? Is your actions of worship real or part of a ritual that you know how to do but do not know the origins of? I submit, though people may call me Pagan and then wonder why I don’t worship a God of Antiquity, or why I don’t go to any religious rituals, or read any religious texts I am a Man who believes in God. Not the God of the Major Religions, nor those of most minor ones. I believe in a Natural God who both created and is the Universe. I don’t need to understand that. I don’t need the threat that God will send me to hell in order to try my best to live a Spiritual and/or Moral life. Why can’t we drop this division that Religion does to us? We are the HUMAN Race, not the Christian,/Muslim/fill in the blank race. We are Human despite our colors, nationalities, sexualities, religions. I wish we could just say that, instead of worrying about things like Religion and are we doing it right. sorry about the rant. I’m just an old guy who gets tired of all the divisions of non-acceptance.

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