Back in my college days, I squeezed in a module on religious studies. Bits of it I can still remember. One of the points we discussed was why people get involved with religions, and one of the answers the tutor offered was the desire to be part of something.
All religions, so far as I know, have badges of belonging. Signs and symbols identify believers to each other, and may flag them up to others as different. Religious garb both marks folk as part of a group, and highlights them as separate from all others. Paganism has its symbols too, although many of them are also popular with New Agers. You can’t mistake the velvets, silver and pentograms of a female witch. Druids have the Awen symbol /l\ Norse folk wear Thor’s hammer, and so forth. Fifteen odd years ago when it didn’t feel entirely safe to be out, we’d sound each other out by dropping ’blessed be’ into the conversation, amongst other things.
Back in my college days, when I was first coming out as pagan, there was a huge thrill to finding fellow travellers. It didn’t matter who they were or what they believed, but they shared something magical with me – a secret, dangerous sort of truth. Being pagan was exciting. Belonging to something hidden (which is what occult literally means, after all) had an allure to it. Coming out to non-pagans felt like real risk taking. Perhaps it was – I never had any bad experiences, but it was still legal to discriminate against us back then.
Being in a new place, I’ve had all the coming out issues to play with all over again. We’re the first pagan family the school has encountered. They’ve responded with interest, and sensitivity, being relaxed and helpful. I mentioned being a Druid to some folks I went carol singing with. “Ah,” said the one. “We get some Druids at singing camp. I could imagine you there.”
Now I’m part of something that ‘outsiders’ generally have a vague awareness of and are ok about. No doubt there’s prejudice still out there (did I say Daily Wail at all?) but it’s small pockets, not widespread. The word ’pagan’ does not strike fear any more, not into the hearts of sane people, anyway. We aren’t fringe and secret any more. We’re increasingly open and visible. Even policemen can admit to being pagans. It attracts curiosity and the odd questions about naked dancing, and that’s about it.
I wonder if there were people who were attracted to paganism precisely because it represented something outside the mainstream. For teen pagans that air of danger and rebellion was always going to appeal, but its fading. The more comfortable everyone else becomes with us, the easier being a pagan is. How much of the appeal lay in the challenge? How much of the sense of being special came from being socially unaccepted? And how true is that for other, less accepted and more radical faith positions?
Religion. We want to belong somewhere. So many of us get a kick out of transgressing in some way, or having badges of specialness, difference, preference. We all want to be the chosen few, on some level. All of these reasons for seeking faith groups to belong to are very, very human. And at the same time, totally at odds with what all of those faiths are about. Belonging and asserting difference are all about our own individual selves. Spirituality, in all its forms is about reaching out to something bigger than us, external to us, however we conceptualise that.