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Morgan Ravenwood

Paganism, Atheism and Humanism:
Finding Common Ground

By Morgan Ravenwood


 Having bought a home computer a couple of years ago and subsequently spending a great deal of time communicating on the Internet with many different people from all walks of life, I've found myself becoming quite a Pagan "activist."   I've also learned that this seems to be a road that many other longtime Pagans often take, and with good reason: the more educating we do, and the more we stand up for equal rights for all members of all religions, the more our own faith will continue to gain acceptance.

In my many travels along the "information superhighway," I've encountered people who ranged from mildly curious to downright hostile.  However, the majority of them have been polite, and some have even thanked me for clearing up a few misconceptions that they had held for years about Paganism.

Some of the other Pagan activists I've met were able to offer some really great input and advice.  However, I've also encountered people who, though not Pagan, appeared to share many of the same beliefs and ideas as myself.  Some have claimed to be Atheists, others Humanists or Agnostics, but it didn't matter.  What DID matter, and what has often surprised me, was that we all managed to find a great deal of common ground, especially concerning the never-ending battle on the issue of separation between church and state.

It is this issue that has become very dear to my heart, and in joining the fray concerning it I have followed a tradition begun by my own mother, who was strongly opposed to any attempt to interject religion into our government and the public schools in particular.  She would tell people, "if you want your kids to pray in the classroom, then send 'em to a parochial school!"  While she wasn't strictly Pagan, she wasn't a Christian any more than I am, and her reasons for supporting the separation of religion and government were basically the same as my own.  Chief among these is the fact that due to the diversity of religious beliefs in this country (which is made possible by the fact that we all have the freedom to worship as we choose), there is no ethical way for government to become impartially involved in promoting or teaching religion in any way, shape or form.

Unfortunately, there are many people in this country who do not agree with this view.  In fact, a recent poll conducted by Public Agenda, a non-partisan New York-based policy research agency founded by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and pollster Daniel Yankelovich, revealed that of those polled, 69 percent expressed a desire for more religion in public schools.  I think this is because many people believe that morality cannot exist without religion to reinforce it.   Apparently, they also don't believe that children receive enough religious education from their parents and churches.  I happen to believe quite the opposite; in my opinion, (which owes a great deal of its formation to many years of working in public education), placing the responsibility of religious education into the hands of schoolteachers, some of who are barely qualified to teach the 3 "R's" let alone religious theology, would be disastrous.  Also, the inclusion of yet another required subject into an already full school day would mean even longer hours spent in the classroom for students and teachers.

Another consideration is the fact that the basic dogma of mainstream faiths may clash with the values and beliefs being taught by parents who are not members of those religions.  Some parents may even feel that this dogma can be potentially harmful to impressionable school children.  For example, both Christianity and Islam teach that an evil entity known as "Satan" (or just "the devil") is responsible for all the "sinful" deeds we commit.  Some of them don't even place a great deal of emphasis on individual accountability for one's thoughts or deeds; instead, they teach that you can always excuse your sinful actions by saying, as the late comedian Flip Wilson was wont to do in his guise as "Geraldine," "the devil made me do it!" (Of course, you may have less success with getting a jury to believe that claim in a courtroom...!!)  And how about those poisonous snake-handlers of the Appalachians?  They teach that neither snake venom nor strychnine will harm you if you are pure at heart and if you are a "true" believer.  Not exactly something most of us would want our kids trying at home! 

As the population of the United States increasingly continues to become a mixture of varied ethnicities due to the continued influx of immigrants from all over the world, the stereotype of the average American as a Caucasian Christian simply doesn't hold true in this day and age.  With so many children of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds in our schools, it would be virtually impossible to teach religious studies without causing offence to those whose beliefs would inevitably be omitted.

Pagans as well as members of other minority faiths have a particularly hard row to hoe in attaining religious equality with those of mainstream faiths, and the constant attempts by some (including our new president!) to circumvent the First Amendment and inject (mainstream) religion into government entities and schools make it even more difficult.  However, it's also important to remember that Atheists and Humanists not only share this problem, but in a way, theirs is an even more difficult one: they're striving not for freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.

Another (and probably the most important) vital issue on which Pagans, Atheists and Humanists tend to agree is that of basic human rights.  Whether it's more humane treatment for those who find themselves incarcerated in foreign prisons, the deplorable abuse of female children and women in the Middle East, or the struggle to keep abortion safe and legal, chances are that we all feel the same desire to see such things changed for the better.  There is surely strength in numbers and I think that we are all perhaps scattering our energies fighting these issues as a minority unit rather than as a unified force.  I believe that a dialogue should be opened between Pagans, Atheists and Humanists to find ways to work together against those who continue to attempt to overturn the First Amendment and degrade basic human rights.

Especially given the new administration in Washington D.C., I as well as many other Pagans believe that never will we have had to work harder to maintain the separation of church and state.  From the high school student who decides to make a stand by wearing a pentacle necklace to school to the most fervently crusading Pagan activist, the more we continue to emerge from the "broom closet" and make our voices heard, the more it will become obvious to the rest of the world that we aren't going to simply give up and go away.  We, as well as Humanists, Atheists and other minority religions, must remain vigilant in our campaign against domination and oppression lest our voices be drowned in the sea of religious fervor that consumes those who work tirelessly to downgrade or eradicate our cherished freedoms.