For starters, I am not a Christian. I am and have been Pagan (Wiccan in particular) for several years now. So why am I writing this? Because I understand that believing Christians feel they have an obligation to share their religion with others (I was Christian once and participated actively in missionary work at that time). I have also observed over a number of years that believing Christians tend, however unintentionally, to ignore their own strengths, and to consistently put their worst face forward when dealing with those who do not share their faith. This is especially obvious when they are dealing with Wiccans, Druids, or other “pagan” religions. I have thus written this outline in the hope that it will help Christians understand better who and what Pagans really are, and, in the process become more effective in sharing their beliefs.
First and foremost, never, and I repeat, never attack. I make a point of reading every Christian tract on Paganism I encounter on the Internet or elsewhere, and the overwhelming majority of them are based on attacking Pagan religions, and those who practice them as “evil, ” “devil-worshippers” and “calling them to repentance before they are doomed to hell forever.” I have written to the authors of these tracts, asking exactly what they meant to accomplish by writing what they did. The two purposes that are always mentioned are…
1. to protect Christians from being “lured away” from the true faith.
2. to persuade Pagans to return to Christ.
Unfortunately, attacks such as these usually fail totally on both counts.
To begin with, I have never yet seen anyone converted back to Christianity by threats and attacks on them . I say “back” for a good reason. Unlike the majority of Christians in this country who are raised in their faith and accept it almost as a matter of course, most Pagans have made a conscious decision to become what they are – usually after a long period of study, reflection, and practice. They thus have a strong personal and spiritual commitment to their religion. Remember also that the great majority of Pagans in the U.S. come from Judeo-Christian family and cultural backgrounds, and a scripture-filled attack usually does little more than confirm that they made the right decision in the first place.
Another important point to remember is that, to most Pagans, the need to attack others is viewed as a sign of fear and lack of self-confidence on the part of the attacker. There is an common expression in the Pagan community which runs -“Fear conquers understanding. Understanding conquers fear.” It is generally felt that if a person has a strong grounding and foundation in their own religion, they will not feel any need to fear – or attack – others. While a fiery assault on Paganism makes many Christians feel better about their faith, and themselves as a “defender of the truth”, the Pagan sees it as a kind of spiritual immaturity on the part of the attacker, and as a result will take neither the person, nor the message, very seriously.
Finally, attacks frequently have an odd way of backfiring. No matter what the pamphlets may say to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of Pagans are fundamentally good and decent people, who live their religion to the best of their ability, and raise their children to become mature, responsible members of their communities. They usually have numerous friends and relatives who recognize them as such, and who often don’t appreciate strangers’ attacks any more than the Pagans themselves do.
Last year during the holiday season, a young woman in her early twenties and her young son came into the Hope Mission, a local charity organization which provides food and shelter to the homeless. She definitely looked a little different, she had a nose ring on and was wearing a pentagram necklace. A man working at the mission suddenly confronted her and demanded to know why she was there. Before she could answer he saw the pentagram and shouted, “You’re one of those witches that was in the park back on Halloween!” He knew because he had participated in a church-organized demonstration against the “open circle” the local Pagan group had held there. He then became very hostile, calling her an evil devil-worshipper in front of everyone present and shouting that “her kind” had no business coming into a Christian center and that she would receive nothing from them. To her credit, she stood her ground, and a moment later several of the other volunteers came to her defense. It turned out that the woman and her son had come to the mission to donate food for the holidays, and after doing so left without a word to the man who had berated her so publicly. The workers who had stood by the woman, however, had plenty to say – mostly about her generosity in donating the food despite his rudeness and how he had had no right to talk to her like that, even if she did belong to a group that the church did not approve of. They seemed to feel his conduct to be “un-Christian” at the very least, and hardly the kind of example that would make the young woman he’d insulted want to come back to church. In the end, he had little choice but to turn away looking like the perfect fool he had been.
Get your facts straight
If you are going to have any chance at all in sharing your message, it is critical that you understand clearly what Pagans actually believe. You don’t have to agree with these beliefs, but it is important that you see Pagans as they see themselves. The tracts I have read are usually filled with a fascinating assortment of pseudo-information regarding Pagan beliefs, usually accompanied by numerous Biblical scriptures, often used completely out of context. They are a poor way to learn about Pagan beliefs, as they are almost always written by hostile outsiders who have little or no personal experience with Pagans.
To start with, Pagans do not worship the devil. The simple fact is that to the great majority of Pagans, the Christian devil has no more meaning than the Christian god does. This may be even more disturbing to many Christians, but to understand Paganism this first point must be clear. I don’t doubt for one minute that there are some people in this world who actually participate in “devil-worship” as Christians see it, and that those people may do some very sick, disgusting things, but you might be surprised to find that Pagans are as offended by such people as Christians are.
Pagans do not renounce Christ. There seems to be a common belief the writers of these tracts that when Pagans are initiated into their religion they renounce Christianity. This usually accompanies claims that Pagans are devil-worshippers. Again, while there may be people that worship the Christian devil and such people may renounce Christ, Pagans do not. Neither Christ nor the devil ever appear in Pagan initiations, or in any other Pagan rituals for that matter.
Pagans do not hold “grotesque Satanic rituals” on Halloween. Actually Pagans seldom, if ever, refer to this day as Halloween. To us, it is called Samhain (pronounced sow-en), a word which means “summer’s end” To the ancient Celtic people it was New Years day, and many Pagans celebrate the new year at this time. Others celebrate the new year at Yule. To most Pagans Samhain is a sacred day – a time when the last harvests are gathered in before winter’s arrival, and the time when family members who have passed away are remembered and honored. It is also considered a time of reflection, a time to look back on the year’s accomplishments and make plans for the future. Finally, it is the time when Pagans reflect on their own mortality, and the time when the focus of life turns from physical concerns to spiritual ones. Samhain is only one of eight times of the year that Pagans celebrate – all of them focusing on a particular season or phase of life.
Pagans do not sacrifice children, animals, or anything else on their altars. Tract writers seem fascinated with the idea of animal and human sacrifice and this is always included in lurid descriptions of alleged Pagan rituals. Do modern Pagans sacrifice animals or people? No. Did they do so in the ancient past? Possibly. Sacrifices were part of nearly all ancient religions, the Biblical Hebrews being no exception. There are detailed descriptions in the Old Testament as to exactly what to sacrifice, and how it was to be done in order to be accepted. The idea of sacrificing was and still is that you must give up something valuable to you in order to gain something even more valuable or important. As many people in ancient times took this in a literal, rather than in a spiritual sense, and since they were primarily farmers and shepherds, the logical sacrifices were some of their crops or their animals. In many cultures human life was considered the ultimate value, and a human sacrifice was seen as the ultimate offering to god. According to the Bible Abraham was told by no less than Jehovah himself to take his only son and sacrifice him as a sign of his faith. While this turned out to be only a “test, ” and Abraham ultimately did not have to do it – it was clear that the idea of human sacrifice and its meaning was not unknown to him – he did as he felt he had been commanded to do. As the concept of personal sacrifice moved from the physical to the spiritual realm, actual physical sacrifices ceased, and is now no more approved of in Paganism than it is in Christianity. Are there individuals and groups who still do it? No doubt. Is it a part of Paganism as a whole? No.
Pagans have no interest in luring your children out of the church. There are two very simple reasons for this. First, Pagans do not proselytize. They have no missionary program. In fact, it is not very easy to become a Pagan. Pagans generally don’t teach their religion unless asked to do so by someone who has specifically sought them out. They also tend to carefully screen those who come to them, and many are rejected if they turn out to be seeking instruction for the wrong reasons – rebelling against parents and their parents’ faith, desire for power, to be “cool” or “different.” Religion is viewed by most Pagans to be a very personal and sacred matter, something never to be imposed on another against their wishes.
The second reason is that Pagans do not generally believe that Paganism is the “only true way.” This doesn’t mean that they believe that “anything is okay if you are a good person.” What it does mean is that Pagans are less concerned with which particular religion a person follows, and more concerned with what kind of person their religion helps them to become. They tend to see religion as a road leading to the summit of a mountain (the summit being the ultimate goal of religion). People tend to start at different points of the mountain’s base and work their way up, and there are many roads that lead to the summit. Christianity and Paganism are only two of them. There are many others. The closer to the summit one gets, the closer the roads become to each other, until they all meet at the top. Now, if you are preparing to share the gospel with Pagans, you clearly don’t agree with this view, but you need to understand it, as promoters of a “one true way” are often seen through Pagan eyes as “taking the road to be the destination.”
A final note. Don’t attempt to tell Pagans what they “really” believe in, especially if your information is based on the tracts I’ve encountered. Imagine being told by a Buddhist that the Last Supper is clear evidence that Christians practice a form of ritual cannibalism each Sunday. When you attempt to explain to them the actual meaning of the Last Supper, they interrupt you to say, “It says right in the Bible that Jesus himself said ‘Eat, this is my body’ and ‘Drink, this is my blood.’ Eating a man’s body or drinking their blood to take on their attributes is a common idea among savage peoples that practice cannibalism!” They then tell you that you may think that the Last Supper has a deep spiritual meaning, but that it’s actually a barbaric rite and quote teachings from the Buddha that “prove” it.. When you press them to tell you exactly how they could possibly “know” such a thing – obviously you, as a practicing, believing Christian, should know far more about the subject than they possibly could – they reply that they read it in a pamphlet called “How to respond to the Christian missionaries” by a well-known Buddhist proselytizing organization (yes, this is a real example from a real tract).
Accept the Fact that there is a Dark Side to Christian history – and then Focus on the Positive.
When you begin to talk about Christ to Pagans, you are likely to be presented with a number of negative comments about the Christian church (yes, many Pagans are touchy about the attacks levelled on them in the media and, being human, may very well do some attacking of their own – it’s not right, but you may well come out understanding why attacks on others just don’t work). Some of these comments will include the destruction of many cultures by missionaries – and the armies that always accompanied them, intolerance of other faiths, denigration of women by the church. These negative comments tend to bring out what I call the “defender of the faith” syndrome. They immediately rise to the church’s defense, saying that these statements are simply not true, and denying that “real Christians” could ever do such a thing. Every negative allegation is either denied or explained away (there are evil people who used the Lord’s name for their purpose, but that doesn’t make Christianity evil).
The point here is that when people look at another faith, they are quick to see the negative side and slow to see the positive. The Inquisition (usually called “the burning times” by Pagans) did exist, and many innocent people -Christians as well as Pagans- were burned, tortured, and maimed in the name of “destroying the body to save the soul.” Women were denigrated through much of Christian history (there was in fact a major church conference, attended by Thomas Aquinas among others which debated seriously whether women even had souls) and in some sects still are today. The massacre of cultures (and peoples) by missionaries and their armies did happen many times in history (although hardly by Christians alone), and the hate-tracts on Paganism I almost daily encounter on the Internet are clear enough example of the degree to which intolerance exists. I would love to be able to say that Paganism doesn’t have it’s dark side, but the Celts were not all “loving souls who hug trees, drink herb tea and wouldn’t hurt a fly, ” by any means. There were, and are today, many people who call themselves Pagan and then do some very unsavory and unpleasant things. The Roman emperors who declared themselves gods existed, as well as many other cruel and barbaric customs among different Pagan peoples. There are many unpleasant, negative facts about almost any religious group that does or has ever existed on the earth. But to focus on them is to miss the point.
Rather than becoming a “defender of the faith, ” focus instead on the transforming power that the Christ can have on individual lives, and the positive factors of the faith. Does it surprise you that a Pagan writer can respect and even revere Jesus? It shouldn’t. You will find out rapidly in working with Pagans that very few of them have any hostility to Christ whatsoever. The hostility you will encounter will be towards those who claim to be his representatives, and their unwillingness to let others claim the same right to worship in peace that they demand for themselves. Clearly you will not find this easy to accept, but, again it is crucial to understand Pagans as they understand themselves if you are to have any success sharing your message. There is a powerful and very positive side to Christ’s teaching. Pagans are fully aware of both sides. It will be your task to emphasize the positive.
Treat Pagans as People First
In James Michener’s book Hawaii, there is a incident where two missionaries, who had been working with the Hawaiians for many years clashed over the impending marriage of one of them to a Hawaiian woman. Despite the fact that the woman was a baptized, believing Christian, the marriage was fiercely condemned. Reverend Hale quoted Biblical scripture on how the marriage constituted “being yoked with unbelievers” and condemned his former friend for “consorting with the heathen.” The response to this attack was a strong rebuke to what I have found to be the greatest mistake would-be teachers of the Gospel can make. He stated that “our work here is based upon a profound contradiction. You love the Hawaiians as souls to be saved, but you despise them as people.”
Think carefully about this statement. On many occasions Christians have approached me in, what was at first, a friendly manner. Sometimes I was invited to their homes for dinner, sometimes to church social activities or services. There was a conspicuous effort to “get close” to me, and the topic of religion came up very often. This continued until it became clear that I wasn’t going to jump into the baptismal pool right away, and that I was firmly committed to my religion. Then the “friendship” cooled off rapidly, phone calls ceased, and many times I was later treated with open hostility by the very people who had taken it upon themselves to approach me.
This is perhaps the most disturbing tendency Pagans encounter in Christians who would share the Gospel with them, and also one of the chief reasons Christians are often bluntly considered to be hypocrites in Pagan eyes. Pagans generally do not approach people solely for the purpose of sharing their religion, and if they become friends with someone it is real friendship, with the person. This is not to say that Christians don’t do the same – I have also met many Christians who value friendship, and who accept me, even if they don’t like my religions views. But a crucial question that any would-be missionary must ask themselves before they begin is whether they can be a genuine friend to those they would teach – a stay a friend even if those people don’t accept their message. After all, one can never be sure where you’re going to run into each other. Some of my Christian acquaintances are astonished that, as a Pagan, I support the right of students to meet together for prayer in a public school classroom if they wish to. I then ask them, “why not?” That right applies to all, and I would like to think that if a group of Pagan children wished to have a drumming circle in a classroom after school (much safer than many places I could think of) they would have the right to do so. If Muslim students wanted to meet and discuss their religion in a classroom after school, they should also have this right. And for those who don’t have any religious belief – they have the same right NOT to participate.
Accept that You Can’t Win Them All
Realize before you begin that you will not convert everyone you meet, and know when to stop. Many missionaries I have met seem to regard it as a personal failure if someone they are teaching decides not to join their church – or as a deliberate rejection of them. In most cases, neither is true. If a Pagan finally tells you that they have found their path, and wishes you well on yours, that simply means that you need to let go, and as one Mennonite pastor I heard put it, ‘remember that I cannot see all things, and leave it to the Lord to judge.” You don’t have to accept their beliefs, or agree with them, but since you never know what the future may hold, suspend judgment. That is the spirit of religious tolerance (which never did mean you have to accept another religion – merely that everyone has a basic right to believe according to their conscience.
In closing, remember the Golden Rule – which in one form or another runs in all religions. Treat Pagans you would teach with the same respect, as people, that you would want for yourself. You may very well find yourself dealing with missionaries of other faiths one day (it happens – evangelical movements are growing rapidly among Muslims, Buddhists, for example). These guidelines should serve you just as well when you stand on the other side of the discussion – as the person they would convert.
(a Pagan closing often used in writing)