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Muddy Earth : Integrity and Pagan Ethics

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 26, 2009

I attended NeoPagan festival Magick Earth as an unintended anthropological ‘participant observer’. This is part two of my thoughts, the first being my experience and emotional response. Here’s an incomplete reflection -abandoned rather than finished. Long blog warning, grab a cuppa tea and join me 🙂

Why does doing something ‘religious’ poorly rub us up the wrong way? Somehow it seems worse than doing something else badly, like lacking integrity at work.

A few at Magick Earth were bothered by integrity. To one friend, there appeared to be a lapse in integrity among those leading the Friday night ritual in that the leaders didn’t seem to believe in what they were saying and doing and were merely going through the form of it. Also, the ritual itself seemed meh. It appeared that way to me too. In a separate example, a husband and wife, one of whom I think was a seminar leader, got drunk and had a long, vocal and abusive fight in the wee small hours. I can’t comment as I slept through it, but I’m told they’ve done it before. Several people there seemed to regard them with some degree of ambivalence, even contempt.

My friend commented that these people should be “living what they believe”. I agree. Most people have a sense that those publicly presenting a belief should have a degree of integrity about them. Here I am speaking of ethical integrity, I also briefly consider intellectual integrity below. I think the nature of spiritual belief seems to imply that it is ‘more special’, that some kind of special effort to be reverent and integral is required. (Why we assume that is an interesting question.) I recall that hypocrisy among the then-leaders of his own Jewish religion was despised by Y’shua (Jesus), and got quite a bit of airtime from him. [1]

My first response, and perhaps that of others is: “Oh, they’re hypocrites, I want to distance myself from them.” What makes me hesitate to judge them is twofold: Firstly, I am a hypocrite myself. Secondly, on what basis should I judge them?

1. I am a hypocrite
A hypocrite is someone who doesn’t live by what they actually believe. It doesn’t matter whether that belief is publicly articulated. Every single person on earth is a hypocrite; at least, I haven’t met someone who isn’t. One thing I believe is that I should be kind and loving to everyone. I am often unkind and unloving even to people close to me. Hence I am a hypocrite. This is not fun.

Another thing I believe is “do to others what you would have them do to you.” I don’t want others to reject me for being a hypocrite. I want them to be patient with me, hope that I improve, and perhaps lovingly help me to overcome my faults when I ask for help. Hence i should do the same for other hypocrites. I cannot help someone remove a speck in their eye if I have a log in my own.

2. How should I decide whether someone is practicing integrity?
I think integrity has to be measured firstly from within someone’s own system of belief. Their behaviour as viewed by other ethical systems is also important, but comes second. Spot the nod to relativism or postmodernism here. Integrity is measured against ethics and the dictionary definition of ethics is formed around the concepts of morality, behavior and character. I guess ‘character’ is how ethical one is over a period of time; how one ‘usually’ acts. So if someone was consistently doing a poor job of rituals we could say they had bad character. But only if ‘doing a poor ritual’ is already defined in paganism as unethical. So I had to find out what paganism says about how its people should conduct themselves.

There are Neopagans who have written about their ethical beliefs, here’s a few sites I found discussing them:
The Goddess made me do it! This one in particular i thought was good.
[dammit! most of these articles are gone since I did my research two years back. Can anyone track them down? Might have to use the Way Back Machine]

Some pagan or wiccan principles that might come into play concerning doing rituals could include:
1. The Wiccan Rede

The ethics espoused in a particular Pagan tradition may be different, but there is a general common basis in honouring Nature and all Life. The foundation of Wiccan ethics is the Wiccan Rede – “an ye harm none, do as ye wilt” – simple but far-reaching in its implications (both individually and collectively). … in most Pagan traditions, the individual is responsible for determining how their tradition’s ethic or principles are lived out in any given moment and situation – most traditions do not have ‘commandments’ that direct their personal decisions. from http://www.paganpastoraloutreach.ca/ethics/pagan.htm

“If it harms none, do what you will”. I can’t see how doing a ritual badly harms people. If wasting others’ time is ‘harming’ or if offending the goddess harms someone, then perhaps so. Several pagan writers say that the wiccan rede alone is not a good enough basis for all ethics.

2. What we do affects the deity

After all we generally subscribe to a belief system that supports both immanent and internalized Deity and, to use a theologically technical term, is panentheistic — we and the Deity are mutually dependent on one another. That is, what we do has a direct effect upon the Deity. If our actions are honorable and ethical the Deity is enhanced by us, and likewise, if our actions are dishonorable and unethical the Deity is correspondingly impoverished. from The Goddess made me do it! and see note [2]

Hmmm. Maybe a badly done ritual impoverishes the deity. If a ritual gives paganism a bad name, which perhaps impoverishes the deity, this could be the basis for saying they lack integrity.

3. Codes of Conduct
There are differences within paganism, for example druids can have different ethics to witches. Though different organisations have published their codes (see http://www.paganpastoraloutreach.ca/ethics/pagan.htm ), there’s no universally accepted code of ethics. A code of ethics could be held by one pagan individual or at most a relatively small local group/coven. Although there are national groupings with developed codes, my feeling is that paganism tries to steer away from highly developed organisation structures. Or maybe that’s just my bias against large organisations.

Here is Magdalena Merovingia’s local coven code (I think – she’s not clear in her otherwise fine article where this comes from).

A Coven Code of Ethics

While attending ritual or other coven functions you agree to:

* Relate to others with general politeness, manners, and common courtesy as befitting any gathering of friends.
* Abide by any formal rules, covenants, or guidelines adopted by the coven.
* Enter the circle “in perfect love and perfect trust.” Settle any differences with other participants beforehand or don’t participate. If it is impossible to settle the differences all parties involved must be able to truly set the issue aside and relate to one another “in perfect love and perfect trust” while in sacred space.
* Try to distinguish between having psychological issues come up and truly being in a compromising position regarding beliefs and values. If you feel you are compromising your integrity by further participation quietly ask the maiden to cut a door in the circle and quietly leave. If something comes up for you that has been triggered by the ritual, speak up so those in charge can address the situation in an appropriate manner.
* Commit to thinking for yourself and not just blindly accepting everything said or done.

In general you agree to:

* Follow the Wiccan Rede: An it harm none, do as thou wilt.
* Make a reasonable effort to consider the difference between will and whim and to consider that harm is not always easily pinpointed.
* Commit to opposing patriarchal oppression and strive to counteract it in positive, non-violent ways. Consciously choose to wield “power with” and “power within” and not “power over.”
* Observe the legal code of your cultural location except when by doing so you are violating your personal integrity and morality in such a manner that cannot be overlooked or justified and you have considered the effects of your decision on the coven and the broader community and you consciously choose to take full responsibility for those effects.
* Commit to learning the ways of magick and the Craft that work for you and to apply what you have learned to the best of your ability with intent for the highest good of all according to the free will of all.
* Never work magick or offer prayers on behalf of another without their knowledge and consent.
* Commit to respecting the environment and working towards its recovery.
* Promise to maintain a policy of non-discrimination based on race, age, gender, occupation, physical ability, or sexual orientation.
* Promise to maintain a policy of non-discrimination based on religion as appropriate. Maintain an awareness of Wicca as a religion and the legal and social repercussions of religious discrimination both toward Wiccans and by Wiccans. Be aware of your own biases in this area and walk this line very carefully.
* Commit to remaining open-minded in your contacts with organized religion and seek to “take what you need and leave the rest” realizing that opportunities for encounters with Deity are limited only by yourself.
* Refrain from “Christian bashing” or arbitrarily condemning other religions or religious peoples.
* Refrain from graphic or offensive sexual behavior in public or semi-public situations and maintain an awareness of the changing definitions of graphic and offensive in varied situations.
* Commit to taking responsibility for all aspects of your life, physical, psychological, and spiritual.
* Commit to taking responsibility for your own psychological healing and to overcome the internalized effects of social programming in accordance with Wiccan teachings.
* Commit to the spiritual path and to continued growth and learning.
* Encourage fun, beauty, and play in your personal life and in the lives of others in accordance with Wiccan teachings.

Again, I stress that this is just the code for one group, and that wiccans don’t represent all pagans. Note [4] has the story of a nice druid, for example.

However, if it applies to the group in NZ, “Commit to learning the ways of magick and the Craft that work for you and to apply what you have learned to the best of your ability with intent for the highest good of all according to the free will of all.” would certainly apply to doing a ritual at less than the best of your ability. For example, the male leader in the Friday night ritual acknowledged he made mistakes because he hadn’t read his part before the ritual.

As an aside, I also noticed that “Refrain from ‘Christian bashing’ or arbitrarily condemning other religions or religious peoples.” wasn’t followed by everyone at the fest.

Some other ideas:

* I think it’s crucially important to realise that modern paganism has as it’s background the modern Western world, much of which is arguably based on christian theism, Greek philosophy and classical law. So a lot of ethics are assumed from there, eg those about patriarchy and discrimination against minorities. These assumptions should perhaps be more explicitly acknowledged.

* If paganism comes to hold a set of beliefs that excludes – as the article on the impossibility of Christian Wicca by a fellow Wiccan suggests – then it will become as intolerant as the christianity it despises. I suspect there is much intolerance under the surface already, purely based on my observations of people both pagan and non-pagan. Intolerance seems to be in our human blood.

* However, this should be carefully nuanced. I think it’s perfectly sensible, even essential that a belief be able to set boundaries around what is and is not orthodox. Christians should be able to define their religion so that Cosmic Chicken Worshippers cannot be considered christian. Satanists should be able to exclude nice people who are not selfish enough. Buddhists who believe in no g0d and many reincarnations should not be required to consider g0d-bothering one-stop-and-then-you’re-off Muslims as part of their fold. Of course, those who believe that all is “one” can try to define how all these mutually exclusive concepts can logically be the same. Good luck.

* Based on my workplace experiences and some theory, I currently believe the inherent nature of organisations – including religious organisations – is to become inhumane. By which I mean they come to serve the rules of the organisation itself, rather than the people within the organisation – who, in a young organisation, may even have created the rules in the first place.

Finally, even if I decide they are hypocrites, what does this mean about their beliefs? What does “living what they believe” mean in practice? Someone who is living a religious belief will probably do something like having a ritual. It would possibly be lacking integrity for them NOT to have a ritual. See note [3]

But what happens if they make a crap ritual? And what happens if we know there are other parts of their life where they are unethical? Does that mean their beliefs themselves are invalid?

By analogy, let’s imagine an atheist tries to live their beliefs and does something others don’t like (lying, stealing, abusing their spouse or similar). Does that invalidate the belief system itself? Does an atheist’s hypocrisy mean atheism itself as a religious choice is invalid?

Or perhaps we just say they are a poor example of an atheist.


Here is where I’ll abandon this section. Comment welcome.


[1] Would you like me to write a post about Christian hypocrisy?
[2] “What we do has a direct effect upon the Deity” is not an exhaustive definition of panentheism and I’m not sure how many wiccans would agree with it. I think some definitions of panentheism are compatible with traditional theistic thinking. If g0d is there, a transcendant AND immanent god as per Eastern Orthodox christian theology makes more sense to me than a strict separation of god and nature. This is not saying nature IS god, only that god indwells all nature. I may be muddling things a bit here.

[3] If I understand one friend, she prefers people who don’t talk about their beliefs but just get on and “do it”.

I wonder, What does “do-ing” a spiritual belief involve? There is always a thought-part or theoretical part to doing. Having a ritual is a way of expressing that thought-part. Perhaps it’s possible for a religion to develop which involves no public expression, merely private in-one’s-head stuff.

[4] An example of a warm, inviting pagan story:


Another question: Intellectual Integrity

I have a separate question to that of strictly behavioural ethics around intellectual ethics. Or maybe congruency is a better word.

I want my religion to be reasonable. Note this does not necessarily mean prove-able, but it does mean that if someone asks me for a rational explanation of what it is, how it works and most importantly WHY i believe something, i want to be able to explain that. Among other things it should not have any insurmountable internal logical conflicts.

At present I conceive of intellectual integrity as a subset of ethical integrity. It may be the other way around.

[pretty Venn diagram picture coming]

The main question I want to ask NeoPagans around this is: “If you know that your spirituality was ‘invented’, how does this impact your intellectual integrity?”

I cannot (at present) “believe” or gain satisfaction from something I know to be untrue. I can play it as a game and enjoy it as a fantasy or intellectual exercise. But that is quite different from experiencing something real. If “true for me” is not congruent with “true out there”, then it is not true at all.

Whew. After all that I think next post will be light and humorous. I still want you to tell me what i should write about next. Please comment!

listening to Maslow (Helix) | Fingerpaint, Haujobb | Renegades of Noise, Majai | Phoria, Save The Robot | I Am A Robot
tful [5] Funny, poignant song about love and hope

[5] Today’s Fun Unrelated Link

18 Responses to “Muddy Earth : Integrity and Pagan Ethics”

  1. […] will save that for next time. Come back for Part Two. What’s your experience of modern paganism? Did I get it […]

  2. A really interesting piece…. please also comment on this one:

    • Asalamu-alaikum

      Your blog looks really interesting, thanks. I think we have much in common. I look forward to reading it and commenting. I hope you’ll come back and contribute here too.


  3. Freeman said

    I wouldn’t have chosen “spirituality” as something than can be invented. So as someone whose Pagan tradition has been assembled out of ancient sources, current inspiration, and ravenous eclectic accretion, I’d say it is not a question of intellectual integrity at all. I know where it all came from, and I’m not pretending the new parts are old.

    People who still say “Witchcraft is the Olde Religion” should know better, of course, but I don’t think that delusion was ever intentional; it was drawn from what seemed to be very strong academic sources at the time.

    • Thanks for the response Freeman. “I know where it all came from, and I’m not pretending the new parts are old.” seems to have more integrity to me than, as you say, those who still claim “Witchcraft is the Olde Religion”. Unfortunately, there’s a helluva lot of them.

      Do you think in Wicca/Paganism there are the ill-educated folk adherents, and the well-educated thoughtful adherents? This seems to be the case in, for example, Christianity.

  4. Arias said

    Hi there,

    I don’t think that “spirituality” as it is experienced by individuals can be shared like a book – knowing that a tradition has been invented or reconstructed should not be overlooked, but in my opinion, acknowledged outright and given its due.

    On the question of a leader’s integrity (or lack thereof)… I take it on case by case merit; I know enough Pagan leaders who are drunks in circle (I refuse to associate with them), I also know some incredibly generous and hard-working Pagans (I spend most of my time with them). At this stage it seems very difficult to get Pagans to agree on the most simple of issues let alone a set of parameters that would encourage ethical leadership – trust me I know *grin*.

    Good questions, for which I have no good answers, only a great feeling of contemplation coming up! Thank you for sharing.

    Vuya Pagan News

  5. […] Comments (RSS) « Muddy Earth : Integrity and Pagan Ethics […]

  6. Cristine said

    excellent blog post. I used to be a wiccan (not sure if you knew that) and I always was a bit fuzzy on the “harm no one” because that isn’t really possible, is it? I certainly believe that we should try to not hurt people but to not harm anyone is unrealistic. What about a man that is drawn to me and I do not return his affections? Doesn’t that hurt him? I can give several examples. I hurt someone today. They came into my winery and it hurt them to not be able to get what they wanted at the price they wanted..but for me to do that would put me into serious trouble with the owners and would have hurt the owners..

    • FairyWyrd said

      I agree with you Cristine, I find it hard to wrap my head around that sometimes. We have to do what is best for us and ours, but inevitably (in some situations) this will hurt, or harm, others. I am a Reiki practitioner, and one of our ‘ethics’ for want of a beter word, is to give the healing for the higher good of the higher self. I try to be like that with those I know and interact with, though sometimes it’s hard to do that. Harm none – so if I get screwed over by someone I’m not meant to react because it will harm them on one level? Hmmmm…

  7. Cristine said

    About the being a hyprocrite, you know how I feel about that in the Christian religion but really it is the same in any religion. We are not perfect. We are all flawed. We do not live up to our own expectations. I accept that in people. I do, however, get very upset and use the hypocrite label for people that think they are BETTER then other people because of the religion they are in and/or because they degrade other people for doing the same actions that they struggle with themselves.

    I think being unfaithful is wrong. I have been unfaithful. For me to say being unfaithful is wrong is not being a hyprocrite. I know what I did was wrong. For me to deny that I was unfaithful and say someone else is a bad person for being unfaithful is being hyprocritical…which i must be spelling wrong b/c my spellchecker is going crazy..hehe

  8. FairyWyrd said

    I’ll start by saying thanks for the video link, it was a beautiful piece 🙂 He brought up a lot of interest points, one being and children. In some religions they are perceived as the product of our sin. I’m sorry, but how can anyone who has children look at their kids and not feel blessed? I know my daughter is a blessing, and teaches and reminds me every day how lucky I am. She pushes the boundaries and teaches me tolerance. She loves me unconditionally (heh, at this stage, she’s two years old after all….just wait until the teenage years).

    Paganism does allow us to embrace ourselves as a whole, not as ‘Well these bits of me are okay, but the rest aren’t.’ Being gay is so frowned upon in a lot of religions, yet most of the gay people I know are so much nicer than a lot of straight people (if religion is looked at). they are honest about who they are, and maybe because they have faced the adversity of ‘coming out’ are more accepting of people (except bigots, but that’s across the board with my friends) and their quirks/individuality.

    As for hypocrisy, that’s just a given. I’m aware that as my daughter grows up I will have to face a lot of things I may be hypocritcal about. eg the drug issue. I have tried drugs, I still get stoned occasionally, but I don’t want her falling into a lot of the traps that I did. I can’t do the “Don’t do drugs” speech without being a hypocrit. having an addictive personality, I can only hope that she hasn’t inherited that aspect (is it genetic?).

    • Great reply thanks FairyWyrd.

      I’m not sure about the details of addictions. I *think* there is some genetic predisposition to some things (alcoholism?) but predisposition doesn’t guarantee it will be activated. It’s not my field of expertise. I know there is alcoholism in my family, and I am wary of that. There is a whole spirituality grown up around addictions, AA being the most well-known. Would make an interesting blog post, don’t you think?

      “In some religions [children] are perceived as the product of our sin.” AFAIK this is not taught by any religion. Some people have the erroneous idea that christianity considers sex “sinful” – not helped by all the christians who promulgate this view. It’s a little more complex than that, but I better save that for another blog 😀

      Possibly the only religion I could think of that would regard children as sinful is one that de-values the body in favour of the ‘spirit’, and they would regard all physical things like flowers or the ocean as evil, not just children. I believe some of the ancient gnostic religions taught that, and one could argue that Buddhism – strictly followed – also teaches this “technically”.

      Agree with you about gay people.



  9. […] Muddy Earth : Integrity and Pagan Ethics […]

  10. […] Muddy Earth : Integrity and Pagan Ethics […]

  11. […] You See The Buddha On the Road, Kiss Him. Atheist Sprituality. My Pagan Experience. Annie Lamott Is A Cool Chick. Unloved on Valentine’s. Why Satanists Should Burn […]

  12. Iain said

    I agree with you that integrity is important. I try to live with integrity as much as I can and, for me, that means being the same person within as I present without.

    I’ve run across some problems with that as sometimes I need to moderate myself in order to avoid causing what I perceive to be harm to others. Sometimes it’s better to remain silent, even if that means dulling the edge of my own ego-boosting badge of integrity.

    But integrity in worship / ritual is another matter. I can’t say that I have ever really thought about it other than considering that some religious people seem to be presenting (as e.g. Christian preachers) cynically and for gain. I can’t comment on the leaders of the ritual you speak of because I don’t know enough to determine their level of cynicism… but perhaps if they merely made a mistake (or didn’t “give it 100%”) that might have been stupid mistake, or demonstrated lazy commitment to the task, but perhaps not lacking in integrity. At least, not by my notions of integrity. I think that integrity goes back to the intentions inside the person’s heart. If they feel as embarrassed about their mistakes as you feel annoyed at them then possibly it isn’t a matter of integrity as much as lack of forethought.

    I really like the Wiccan Rede and the coven rules that you outlined. Other than the idea of committing to practising my magic (which is N/A for me) I’d say its a fairly passable reinterpretation of some of my own ethics.

    Also, you mention that some think the Rede isn’t sufficient for ethics. I’m not so sure. It seems awfully similar to the Christian “golden rule” (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and the Buddhist equivalent (Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful (UdanaVarga 5:18)).

    It also sounds close to the Satanic “do what thou wilt” (from the Law of Thélème) but, lets be honest, the Wiccans obviously have the ethical upper hand over that particular version (also, their similarity is historical and not accidental).

    I would argue that with a little bit of work you could tweak the Wiccan Rede and demonstrate that it is a fairly good approximation to the current working foundation for many contemporary ethical systems.

    • “I’ve run across some problems with that as sometimes I need to moderate myself in order to avoid causing what I perceive to be harm to others. Sometimes it’s better to remain silent, even if that means dulling the edge of my own ego-boosting badge of integrity.”

      Knowing when to speak up is a mark of the wise. Knowing HOW to speak up is even wiser. If I am reading you right.

      Those of us (myself included) who major on head-work sometimes find it harder to translate to heart or gut-work. And others don’t get that.

      Agree with your comments on ethics.

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