Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster

Harry Potter, Adam, and the Speghetti Monster
"Sorry guys...you haven't seen a small metal ball with wings flapping around by chance, have you?""

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Labels, labels everywhere, but not a drop to drink: The price for defining one's own spirituality?

I've talked a great deal about the advantages in defining one's own spirituality and one's own stance on matters.  For me, the advantages have overwhelmingly outweighed the disadvantages, but that doesn't mean that the disadvantages don't exist.

A disadvantage that I find in defining your own spirituality, is that even if you have a fairly consistent internal system that works for you, it's very difficult to talk about it with other people. Don't get me wrong.  I've always been very independent, a march-to-the-beat-of-his-own-drum type.  It's a quality I like in myself. But the truth is, I also love human companionship.  It's hard to find or maintain that if almost everyone is convinced that you're completely crazy.

Some people hate labels, but labels wouldn't exist if they didn't have some use.  Labels can be simplistic, or unnecessarily reductive, but they also have the advantage of communicating a lot of information in a short period of time.  With one label, one can express their allegiance to a community, adherence to a set of values, or likely patterns of behavior.  If I call myself a Catholic, when I meet another person who calls him or herself a Catholic, I can assume to know a lot about him or her.  I can immediately tap in to a bunch of shared experiences. Shared experiences are at the foundation of human relationships, and labels facilitate the identification of shared experiences.  (Hence why people have a tendency to be so clannish and tribalistic, in my opinion).  So labels do have a purpose, and will probably not disappear anytime soon.

If the purpose of labels is to communicate information quickly and effectively, I fear that I've lost any satisfactory label when it comes to my spirituality. I'll give you some examples.

Atheist Witch: To most people, that label sounds like pure and utter non-sense.  On the atheist side, an atheist is seen as someone who rejects anything supernatural and most people could not conceive of a definition of "witch" that excludes the supernatural.  Among the Pagans and Neo-Pagans, witchcraft traditions that are associated with no beliefs in spirits or at least "energy" are relatively rare and many do not know what that means.  More generally, "witch" has historical (and present) bad connotations, one of the most damaging of which is that of a fictional creature.  "Witches" are also, more often than not, seen to be female (which I am not).  So saying that one is an Atheist Witch, without explanation, is a great way to convince a lot of people that you're ready for the psych ward.  Beyond that, in the Neo-pagan world the word "witchcraft", without modification,  is often seen to be purely the practice of magic, without any connotation of spiritual or religious beliefs or practice.  Whereas there are parts of my practice which could be seen as religious.  So again, Pagans wouldn't necessarily understand it either.

Atheist Wiccan: This is an even more controversial label.  Among the general public, it's much more effective than the first one.  There at least is growing consciousness of Wicca as a legitimate, nice religion which deserves the same respect as any other.  Indeed, the fourth definition of "witch" in the  Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which is "a practitioner of Wicca", is arguably the most positive of them all. All except the most hardline atheists, with some explanation, would probably accept that label as well.  The problem would be the Wiccans.  Wicca has become a huge fad in the past decades, and its label has been attached to all manner of things.  Those who consider themselves legitimate Wiccans have felt the need to engage in identity policing, by rejecting those considered "fake Wiccans" whom they frequently attack as "fluffy bunnies".  Saying you're an Atheist Wiccan to them, probably sounds very much like a 15-year-old who wears black and sacrifices chickens while drinking some beer he stole from his parents calling himself and those practices "Wiccan".  Undeserving of respect, frivolous, and something which should be rejected for the overall coherence and reputation of their religion.  I also have a lot of interest in non-Wiccan traditions of witchcraft, and so in that sense, I would also be describing myself inaccurately.

Naturalistic PaganThis label has some advantages.  Paganism, at least in Britain and Australia, does not always have  the same negative connotation that it used to. It's becoming known as a legitimate religion.  You might get a couple of jokes about dancing naked under the moon, but that's the extent of the trouble.  More often than not, you'll also be accepted into Pagan communities as such.  The problem, however, is that "naturalistic" is an ambiguous term for the general public.  It could mean anything from being ecological to being a nudist. And given that people associate those things with paganism anyway, people will just understand "paganism".  Furthermore, there is the problem of it not being entirely accurate in describing my practice.  I've only accepted Gods or Goddesses as metaphors ambivalently. I was able to accept the God and Goddess in Wicca as metaphorical, and I researched my favorite Pantheons (i.e. Greek, Yoruba) and selected my favorite Gods or Goddesses. But the different Gods and Goddesses, their personalities, etc. was of limited interest to me.  I eventually stopped using them all together. In my rituals, now, I typically refer to the moon and the sun, and even then, it is more of a recognition of their presence than worshiping their existence.  To some people, Godless Paganism is an oxymoron.  
It's very difficult. I like the first and the last two more than the second one.  Anyway, I'll have to give an outline on my basic beliefs and spiritual/magical practices in an upcoming post.  Perhaps trying defining what I am, as opposed to what I am not, will lead me towards an answer to that dilemma.  That's exactly what I'll do in my next post.

Do you have trouble with labels? Which labels do you use and why?


  1. Labels serve different purposes in different contexts. If your purpose is to start an interesting conversation, I think you can't beat "atheist witch." It's provocative and intriguing and requires plenty of explanation. It's precisely because it sounds to crazy that it works so well. In my opinion.

  2. You've got a point. I do want to start an interesting conversation, so it does work. Thanks. ;-)