Okay, contentious time.
I recently read an email reporting the failure of a petition to the Number 10 petitions website* asking the Prime Minister to ‘recognise Paganism’.
Following the links, I found a total of eight recent petitions posted on the website under a tag of ‘Paganism’, all requesting some form of official recognition. All were rejected. The scandal. The horror. The conspiracy! The anti-witchcraft laws!
I’m half inclined to take my shiny pentacle and go home.
But seriously: what does this appalling display of discrimination mean for us as pagans?
Well, we probably might want to consider that petitions don’t work all that well. In fact, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that electrical petitions are even less effective than paper ones,because it is after all pretty easy to flood an online petition with legions of fake names and addresses. But let’s assume that the Number 10 site is well run and that measures are in place to prevent large-scale spoofing. Why else might these petitions be getting rejected so often, and with such apparent determination?
Is it purely down to discrimination? Does the government have some vested interest in preventing official recognition of Paganism?
I believe there are several reasons why petitions of this type are doomed to failure, and discrimination isn’t any of them.
First, there’s the phrasing of the petition headings. The ones I’ve read, while no doubt well-intentioned, have suffered from some clear problems. Take this one, submitted in June 2007:
“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Paganism is the traditional and original belief system of Britain, it should be recognised as a religion once more”
This header makes a claim – and thereby rests the legitimacy of the petition on that claim – that can’t be historically or archaeologically verified: Paganism was never “the traditional and original belief system of Britain”.
“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Recognise Paganism / Druidry as an official religion.”
Well, which is it? Do we want them to recognise Druidry or Paganism? We need to make our demands clear if we’re to be taken seriously.
This is likely to net some disagreement from those who follow ancient paths, or paths rooted in ancient traditions, such as Druidry, but I strongly believe that if we’re going to be taken seriously then we have to be willing to present the historical facts openly and with acceptance. Religious and spiritual people as a whole are regularly harangued by anti-religion campaigners because we hold beliefs that can’t be supported with scientific evidence. So be it: there are aspects of life that aren’t subject to scientific scrutiny, and the spiritual element of human existence is one of these. But where the facts are known, it’d be well for us to acknowledge them. Druidry as it’s practised today might well be based on ancient pre-Christian traditions – but to some degree those traditions have had to be reconstructed. This is not to invalidate modern Druidry: it’s just pragmatism. If we’re seen to be making a claim that can be easily invalidated by reference to historical evidence, then we do ourselves no favours.
Likewise, to argue that something called ‘Paganism’ was once the ‘original belief system of Britain’ is to invite rejection: there never was, and indeed isn’t now, a single religion or belief system called ‘Paganism’. The ‘About Paganism’ page on this very site, while light-hearted, is intended to suggest the vast range of religions and beliefs that might rightly be called ‘pagan’. Druidry was a part of ancient British belief. Folk magical practice, what we now call witchcraft, was a part of ancient British belief, as it’s now a part of Wicca and many other pagan traditions. Morris dancing was reportedly a part of ancient British belief. But none of these components of the ancient traditions of these islands was ever, in and of itself, our ‘original belief system’.
If the claims we make can be so easily invalidated, or if our demands aren’t entirely clear, then our petitions are going to keep getting nowhere.
Second, there’s the political will of the pagans themselves. Or rather, the lack of it.
- June 2007: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Paganism is the traditional and original belief system of Britain, it should be recognised as a religion once more.” – 647 signatures.
- March 2010: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to recognise Paganism and Wicca and encourage the teaching of Paganism and Wicca in all schools. (“most religions are taught in schools but Paganism, which is possibly the most important religion in terms of this countrys culture is glossed over.”)” – 280 signatures.(And I’m not at all sure how one judges the relative importance of religions, but again, the trap here is that paganism is not one single faith.)
- March 2008: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Recognise Paganism / Druidry as an official religion.” – 39 signatures.
Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine people, on that occasion, thought that proposal was important enough to put their name forward. Sure, six hundred is a little better, but then you see other, unrelated petitions, like the one in 2008 that netted 502,625 signatures. Do you know what that one was for?
“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Allow the Red Arrows to Fly at the 2012 Olympics.”
Five hundred thousand people thought that was important.
And the thing is, that petition was prompted by a baseless rumour in the first place: the untrue claim that the Government was going to ban the Red Arrows from making an appearance at the Games.
We seem to be submitting a fair few of these petitions, and I’ve no doubt that those creating them believe strongly in what they’re doing. But it doesn’t look as though the rest of us are really all that bothered.
But should we be?
My last point would have to be that all these petitions are based on the idea that paganism – even if we consider it a single belief system – somehow lacks a status afforded to other faiths in Britain.
The truth is that it doesn’t. Britain does not, in fact, have an ‘official’ religion. There is a belief that if a religion is ‘officially recognised’, it’ll be listed on official forms with a tickbox in the ‘religion’ section. This isn’t the case, though. The boxes on statistical and census forms and the like are determined according to which responses are likely to be most common. That’s as close as any religion gets to ‘official recognition’ in the UK. Although it’s true that Christianity is integrated into British law to some extent (an integration long opposed by British disestablishmentarians for several centuries), none of the other major faiths of the UK have any ‘official’ status that paganism – or at least the beliefs of individual pagans – can’t claim.
There have been recent legal moves to recognise certain ‘protected characteristics’, such as race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on, for the purposes of anti-discrimination legislation. Religion is one of these protected characteristics. Under these rules, a religion has to be a coherent and structured belief system. That’s all. I’m willing to bet that while many of you reading will reject the idea of ‘organised religion’, the beliefs you hold would still qualify as a structured belief system. As individuals, your beliefs are coherent and consistent. As a group called ‘pagans’, our beliefs are none of these things. We all believe different things, or the same things in different ways. We all practise differently. There is no ‘metric pagan’; no standard by which to measure someone’s paganism.
So if it comes to it, your religion is already recognised and protected in the UK because you hold it. And there is, in truth, nothing that a Hindu, a Sikh, a Muslim or a Jew can do in Britain that a pagan can’t. We can marry in religious marriage ceremonies; we can name our children and raise families; we can make decisions about how our children are educated. We can consult our elders and regulate our community in matters of religious significance, while still adhering to the national legal system under which we live. Medical establishments and the legal system will record your religion and generally do their best to accommodate all beliefs. We can negotiate time off work for religious obligations just as any other faith group can. We can conduct our religious observances in whatever way we please, subject only to the same restrictions imposed on everyone else by virtue of national law (no human sacrifices, for example). We can preach and proselytise, and convert the infidel – although personally I’d rather not have to. We can buy land and build temples, just as Jews and Muslims can. The only real advantage that ‘mainstream’ Christians enjoy in this last respect is that their temples are generally already there; but there’s nothing to prevent us from raising our own if we can find the funds to do it.
What is it that we want for our ‘religion’ (or complex network of vaguely related beliefs) that we don’t already have? Moreover, what do we want for paganism, whatever we consider that to be, that other non-Christian religions shouldn’t be entitled to? It’s probably fair to say that, if Britain continues in its current direction, the Christian religion is gradually going to disentangle itself from British law. This is still a predominantly Christian country, but people are more cautious now about any link between Church and State. I suspect that what few rights Christianity can claim that aren’t available to other faiths will start to erode away.
So what do we actually want? We’re obviously trying to achieve something with all these petitions – but what is it? Imagine you’re the Prime Minister for a moment: you have petitions being sent quite regularly, all broadly similar but all asking for different things; and they’re all signed by less than a thousand people. If you’ve got petitions on the line supported by hundreds of thousands, or millions, who do you give the priority to? That any of the paganism petitions have been answered at all is pretty good when you think about it. That they’ve been rejected is unsurprising, given that they’re not clear about what this handful of people actually want.
Okay, so. Having risked upsetting many of you, I’d like you to commence with the spleen-venting. If you could get the Prime Minister to recognise paganism as an Official Religion, what do you think that that status should entail? Comments invited!
* Note for non-UK readers: 10 Downing Street, or Number 10, is the office and official residence of the UK Prime Minister.