Pagans in society- an Interfaith perspective

1951 saw the repeal of the Witchcraft act in UK law. Prior to that, not only would Pagans experience prejudice and ill-informed myths and accompanying hostility, but we were effectively considered to be criminals. So, it was difficult and potentially dangerous to be openly Pagan in society. One’s Pagan beliefs and practices needed to be conducted away from society, as something that couldn’t be seen as part of how we interacted with society.

In the UK today, not only are our beliefs and practices not illegal, but religion and belief are a protected category in law, so it is illegal to discriminate against Pagans because of their beliefs. Of course, making anything illegal, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. But discrimination will often be hidden in any number of ways that outwardly make no reference to the prejudice that is really motivating the discriminatory acts.
So how do people overcome discrimination and prejudice? It’s a challenge that is faced by many and not just Pagans. We can learn from the strategies of others who experience the challenges of discrimination. But first, it is helpful to understand some of the things that underly prejudice and discrimination.

One primary thing that enables discrimination is lack of accurate knowledge and experience. This is why I have been known to say that every time a Pagan meets with a non-Pagan, that Pagan is likely to be thrust into the role of an advocate for Pagans and Pagan traditions. The nature of those meetings has the potential to reinforce ill-informed prejudices, or lead people to question those prejudices or even reject them. If the meeting involves hostility and aggressive defensiveness, that will create an uncomfortable environment that will be remembered and associated with Pagans. If the meeting involves kindness, understanding of possible fears and a gentle education to counter misinformation, that is likely to create a sense of safety and kindness that will be remembered and associated with Pagans- more than anything else, people remember how others made them feel above anything they may have said. We have some control over the environment in which our encounters with non-Pagans take place. A concern that many might have might well be about their knowledge of Paganisms in all their varied traditions. After nearly 40 years of following a number of Pagan traditions, I can safely say that I certainly don’t know anywhere near everything. But I know ways to find answers to questions I may not be able to answer, and feel comfortable letting people know I don’t know the answer to their question, but can either find out for them, or point them to someone who can answer their question. The Pagan Federation is one place you can find answers. There are other Pagan and Heathen organisations who can also help. You don’t need to know everything.

Another underlying cause of discrimination has little to do with those being discriminated against.  Sometimes people may feel a sense of unfairness in the world, or struggle for important resources with a need to identify someone who is to blame. It’s a known and observed pattern in the world, that in times of struggle and hardship, a rise in bigotry and prejudice is seen. People who are part of a community that is unknown to them personally, can often become a target for scapegoating discrimination. But again, a key way to counter that is to become better known.

We live in a shared society of many worldviews and beliefs. But those varied worldviews and beliefs are connected by a shared human experience of living on the Earth, and a shared experience of living as part of a diverse society. The same human needs affect us all. The same basic wishes- safety for ourselves and our families and friends, enough good food to eat, shelter, a sense of belonging, the freedom to express ourselves and our beliefs providing that doesn’t impose on or attack the same freedoms of others. All can serve as good points of connection with people of other faiths and worldviews as well as people within our own community of beliefs and worldviews, and can also form the basis of multi-faith/interfaith activities in the local community. Communities connected by religion or worldview often engage in activities that benefit wider society. These can be great opportunities to get to know people from other communities, and to work alongside them to improve all our lives. Every year, in November, Interfaith groups around the country take part in Interfaith week activities. This is a prime opportunity to become better known and to get to know others better. You can find out about planned activities by visiting the Interfaith Week website and searching for activities and events in your area. Some work places have faith representatives who support members of faith communities within the workplace. Engaging with them and supporting them in overcoming some of the challenges people of different faiths and beliefs encounter in the workplace can be a good way to connect, too. Interfaith might also take place in education settings and in connection with local government. All can be great opportunities to introduce Pagan traditions as part of the wider range of religions and worldviews found in our society, and championing inclusion and overcoming discrimination.

Mike Stygal
Interfaith Manager