Archive for May 16, 2015

Culture-Based Religions

Culture-based religions are often otherwise called ethnic, tribal or indigenous religions- all those terms have more limited connotations, hence why I came up with a more general one.  The label of “folk religion” is also sometimes thrown in with these by anthropologists, though that is a little different, so I’ll treat that separately. Individuals or groups who practice culture-based religions may or may not identify with the word Pagan, especially if they belong to a (more or less) continuous living tradition.

A culture-based religion can be contrasted with a universalist religion– which typically has a prophet, or series of prophets and claims to have a moral code & message for all of humanity- such as  Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai’ism. Strictly speaking, we can’t really divide all religions perfectly into either category- for one, universalist religions are of course, influenced by the cultures from which they originate, though they tend to adapt themselves- and often syncretize (combine) with culture-based religions. For example, Shinto in Japan is quite seamlessly syncretized with Buddhism, so much so that Japanese people often don’t label themselves as being Buddhist or Shinto(ist). They just *do* Buddhist and Shinto-related practices.

That there is the clincher. The religion is an inseparable part of the culture- to the point where if there is a word for the religion, it’s often one invented in response to foreign missionaries- frequently with a meaning like “The Kami Way” (in the case of Shinto) or Old Custom (Forn Sidr- Danish) “traditions of our people” and so forth. Just as the word people call themselves in their own language simply means “People”, “People of the Mountain/River” etc.

To join a culture-based religion, one typically needs to be ritually adopted into the culture, if possible, or otherwise immerse themselves as they can into the culture. I have seen some people divide culture-based religions into “closed” and “open” traditions- and while that does help people understand that they can’t join anything they want to, I believe it’s an oversimplification. We’re not talking about joining or converting to any specific religion at this point, we are merely exploring and learning.

When newcomers enter the Pagan community, they often ask for suggestions on which tradition or pantheon they might start out with exploring. In the United States, Canada, Australia and other multicultural colonized countries, people are often told “Start with the traditions of your ancestors”. After a lot of observing of other folks journeys as well as my own, I actually recommend against that advice. Why? Because culture is more important than ancestry. Honoring ones’ ancestral roots is certainly an important part of many traditions, it’s not that I’m discouraging. But we are often very disconnected from the cultures of our ancestors. If it is our calling we can certainly make the effort to re-connect. But to begin with- I would look again at those questions I asked in my previous post- what aspects of culture were you raised with? What other cultures are you familiar with?

For myself- I was raised by college-educated liberal parents, multiple generations removed from my mixed British Isles ancestry- so fairly conventional mainline Protestant American culture, with its various holidays (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Independence Day) I was always interested in learning the origins of holiday customs, and read up on all of them, as well as any fairy tales and mythology books I could get my paws on. I came to identify more with my Irish heritage, and have been studying the language, history and culture, Druidry and Celtic Reconstructionism. However, I have to admit that this has been a somewhat artificial process- all a choice on my part. I wasn’t raised with much in the way of Irish culture, other than with an awareness of being Irish, some knowledge of history of the Potato Famine, “No Irish Need Apply” signs and so forth. Lately, I’ve been pondering more about how to incorporate my mixed cultural influences- I don’t mean so much by ancestry, but more by environment. I talk with Druids from across the pond, in Britain and there are various things that strike me about our cultural differences- a lot them simply being- who the heck would I be, even as a “white” culturally Protestant American, without influences of Eastern European Jewish, African-American and many other cultures? I don’t belong to any those cultures, but I carry pieces of them with me.

What is culture? It’s all the stuff you take for granted. This is the way we do things of course! Any other way would be weird or rude or just “not feel right”! Most of it is less visible than all the things we point to when we’re trying to be multicultural (holidays, food, music).

May 16, 2015 at 8:36 am 6 comments

Unpacking/Repacking Your Baggage

Before we go exploring Paganism(s), we need to be prepared by unpacking and repacking our spiritual and emotional baggage from our philosophical, and/or religious upbringings. We need to make sure we aren’t bringing things along that will drag us down, and make sure we are equipped with the right tools for what we might find!  Even if you have been practicing Paganism for a while- or many years, sometimes it’s good to take a look at what you are carrying around, sort thru it and repack!

Initially I was dividing this up into questions for people who had a religious upbringing vs. a secular one but it felt like a rather artificial division- so just answer whichever questions seem relevant to you!

What religions or philosophies are dominant in your country, region and/or cultural background(s)?

Is there any status, privilege or social advantages that go with belonging to those religions?

If you were brought up with a minority religion or philosophy (this can include a secular/nonreligious one) how did this affect you and your family?

Are there customs and traditions you were brought up with that have religious origins? What personal and family meanings do they have?

What attitudes did you learn about people of different faiths or non-religious people? People in or from other cultures and countries- or even regions of your own country?

What attitudes did you learn about gender and sexuality?

What kind of ethics, morality or value systems were you brought up with? From what sources do these values come?

Views of death and the afterlife- importance or lack of- as compared with the value of this life?

Important for Repacking and Setting Off to Explore:

How have your views on these various issues changed over time, and what influenced them to change? (Education, talking to people with other views, reading/watching/listening to media, your own thoughts, experiences, etc)

Do you have any feelings of anger, guilt, frustration towards your upbringing, family members, clergy or religious communities? What work do you need to do with those feelings so they don’t get in the way of your spiritual explorations?

What positive things did you learn and experience from past religions you’ve participated in? What worked for you or didn’t? What helped you grow spiritually and emotionally?

May 16, 2015 at 12:55 am 3 comments


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