Thursday, July 5, 2012

Religion, Faith, and Worship...Oh My!

Add dogma and doctrine to the list of words that seem to be taboo in some Neopagan communities. Many have come from Judeo-Christian households or areas and have deemed these words to be negative, restricting, or down right offensive. What confuses me is how some pagans can have a full conversation about why magic is neither bad or good. How black and white, in regards to magic, hold no purpose because magic itself is neutral and yet, place meanings on words that are just as neutral.

It seems almost alien for someone to be able to embrace the idea of magic in the first place, let alone discuss it in such depth as to explain that such an abstract concept is neither good or bad, negative or positive, but can't seem to fathom the same for concepts that are extremely easy for anyone to grasp. The social implications of terms like religion, faith, worship, dogma and doctrine far reach any one particular religion. The words themselves are benign and harmless, and yet can invoke such rage in some people.

I have heard, "I had 'religion' shoved down my throat" or "my family hates me because I don't follow their religion." Terms like dogma, faith, and worship ride the same horse when it comes to the offense some take at the implication that they take part in such things. Let's look at these terms individually and objectively.


Earliest etymology comes from the Latin religionem/religio meaning "respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods." Yes, you read that right, the term is actually as old as polytheism itself. Even the Roman Neopagans call their beliefs the Religio Romani. Even in simplest terms, religion is defined as "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

I can't speak for all Neopagans of course, but I find that if I simply stated the definition without telling them it is for the word "religion," most would certainly agree that definition is part of what they, as Neopagans, contemplate and take part in. Many honor the eight sabbats, some honor the four fire festivals, some honor days specific to their deities that can be way more than eight festivals (the Roman and Kemetic calendars come to mind). As most pagans take some inspiration from the polytheistic communities that once existed, the above listed are all things they believe and take part in.

The belief in one or more deities and honoring that belief by taking part in "devotional or ritual observations" are common place in most Neopagan communities. Many also honor a specific moral code because of these beliefs and practices. Some follow a list of nine virtues, some follow three, some follow the Wiccan Rede, while others look to karma for their moral code. Regardless, these are all things that most Neopagans would agree are part of what makes them who they are.


For the purpose of this discussion, I'll utilize the definition that has the closest context to the discussion. Because of that, the definition of faith, could be defined as "a belief that is not based on proof." As Neopagans, we tend to believe in the idea of deity in some way shape or form. Some believe in a grand deity that is beyond comprehension and some believe in a divine masculine and divine feminine. Some believe in a version of soft polytheism where there are a multitude of names for the same set of Gods and then there are those who are hard polytheists that believe that each God is distinct and real regardless of the similarities they may have with deities of other cultures.

All of these beliefs have one thing in common, a lack of proof. No matter how far deep down in our gut we truly believe that these deities exist, there is no proof. That is what makes it faith. We know our deities exist. We have nothing other than this confidence in how much we believe, but it is still belief. Because we have faith in a different idea of deity than the mainstream, doesn't make it less about faith. The old "I don't believe, I know" argument doesn't really work, when the next statement is "prove it." There is nothing there to prove. It is simply faith.


The term worship, when discussing with some in the community, tends to conjure the image of bowing down to a grandiose fear-mongering deity. Getting on one's knees to "worship before the almighty." Many Neopagans will tell you, they don't "worship" their Gods, they "honor" them. I hate to break it to those Neopagans, the definition of worship is "reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred."

Worship simply means to honor and respect that which is sacred. The term doesn't define how to do so. That is what the Gods define or perhaps, man defines. What is it that we do at our devotional and ritual observances? When we light our candles or sacred fire, give our offerings, and thank the Gods, what are we doing? Are we not honoring them for what they have done for us or what we hope they will do for us? Are we not showing them their due respect for providing for us and our families? Whether I bow down at an altar or stand at it, I am still using it to revere them. I can word it whatever way I choose, but honoring them or respecting them, I'm still worshiping them.

<b>Dogma and Doctrine</b>

As these two words, in regards to this topic, are essentially synonymous, I'll focus on dogma. The term comes from Latin describing a "philosophical tenet" and from the Greek dokein meaning "to seem good, think." By one definition it means an, "official system of principles or tenets concerning faith, morals, behavior, etc., as of a church."

In the simplest terms, the "dos" and "don'ts" of your chosen religious belief. The first tenet to come to mind? "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." You don't subscribe to that? Fine, "live with honor," "always treat others with hospitality," "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction," or simply "karma." These are all moral doctrines as dictated by our faith. We know what is "right" and what is "wrong" and most of us utilize our belief system as our guide to what we should and shouldn't do. Perhaps we feel we will anger the Gods if we do or don't do these specific things. Maybe we feel that we need to be role models for others. Or perhaps, we just "know" that it's the right thing to do. It truly is no different than the idea of the "Golden Rule." These are the ideals we live by and part of how we put our beliefs into action. We "live right," by honoring our Gods and "do right" because we believe those actions to be right as dictated by our Gods or the cultures we emulate.

We, as Neopagans, shun terms that actually give us common ground to stand on with other religious traditions. To ignore that we too have faith, dogma and religion, is to give the naysayers more ammunition to say, "they don't even consider what they practice a religion, how does the 1st Amendment apply to them?" How can we expect equal understanding, when we reject what makes us equal? Embracing the terms that all religions share is the way to bridge the gap and get the mainstream religious traditions to finally accept that we actually aren't that different, after all. If we start embracing our similarities, maybe they will stop focusing on our differences.

Author's Note: All definitions and etymologies came from

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