Godless Pagan Ethics

Pretty much everyone who criticises pagans, if they stop doing the ‘it’s just silly’ routine go onto ‘but you have no proper ethics’. This has everything to do with the assumptions that ‘proper’ religions come with a rule book, and not having a rule book obviously means that we don’t have any rules. I could get distracted here down a side track about the precise usefulness of rules that are 2000 years and more out of date. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s decking, his BMW or his mobile phone contract…. You have to do some wriggling to make those old rule books fit. There’s a basic assumption here, that the rule books of ‘proper’ religions were all dictated by God. Never mind that some of them aren’t compatible and it wouldn’t be PC to discuss that. All of them, written by God, therefore, ethically sound.

Now, whether or not you think God was there at the beginning, the rules were written down by people. Translated into new languages, by people. Interpreted, and applied, by people. That, by my reckoning, puts a great many people in the mix. My suspicion is, that people came up with the rules and wrote them down in the first place.

What happens if we accept the idea that all of the great religious books were written by people (maybe inspired by god)? People are flawed and make mistakes. Also, times change, and religious ideas can become less relevant. But if people wrote the rules, then people are individually and collectively responsible for what those rules do. Including killing people for ‘moral’ crimes, starting war, spreading hatred etc etc.

The age of a thing s not even proof that we, as modern humans, reliably think it’s a good idea. The UK traditionally went in for hanging, and now it doesn’t. Laws can change. Understandings of crime, compassion and the value of human life can change, and should. What makes sense in one context can be pure madness in another.

So yes, I’m a pagan, and I don’t have a rule book. I feel personally responsible for all the choices I make and all the things I do, and feel entirely unable to blame any of my actions on supernatural beings. The gods have NEVER made me do anything. I also don’t have a rule book that I can quote to feel morally justified about killing people, depriving them of their land, their dignity, their human rights. I don’t feel the kind of moral superiority that makes me inclined to be hugely judgemental of people I don’t know, but who have apparently messed up. Compassion matters to me more than rules. And when I think about it, all those neighbour loving, shirt giving recommendations in the Bible seem to get overlooked in certain quarters.

To be pagan is not to be without ethics, it is to know that you, and only you are responsible for the ethical choices you make. No hiding behind a book. No waving your bloodstained hands in feigned innocence, saying ‘it is god’s will, we have to’. No neatly doging the requirement to think about what I do, and who I judge, and no assuming that any law is morally, unassailably right and leaving it alone. I care about what is good, what is needful, what makes the world a better place, and  do not think the ‘ethics’ of the market place or the ‘values’ of consumerism serve us very well at all by that measure.

I don’t even think it matters where ideas come from, how old they are, or who came up with them. What matters is what an idea does, what is achieves in the world, who it helps, who it harms. “By their fruit shall ye know them,” yes? Ask what good it is, and if the answer is ‘no good at all’ then consider that it might be derived from human fear and human failing, and not any kind of deity at all. What is human, can be changed by humans, and we owe it to ourselves to really consider the implications of that.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “Godless Pagan Ethics

  • Sionnach

    You’ve done a great job exploring this idea that is so often thrown at Pagans, one that makes it difficult to respond with more than, “You really need a book or a list of rules to tell you how to live ethically?” without still being respectful and compassionate towards those of other views. You’ve managed to inspire a great deal of thought and to offer a challenge to people of all beliefs while still remaining remaining respectful. Thank you! You’ve given me a great deal to chew on and discuss with my certainly-not-Pagan family.

  • helgaleena

    Reblogged this on Helgaleena and commented:
    Oh yes. We have no book to hide behind.

  • Brigid, Goddess of Flame

    Reblogged this on Searching For Brigid and commented:
    I wholeheartedly agree with this.
    “To be pagan is not to be without ethics, it is to know that you, and only you are responsible for the ethical choices you make.” I really wish people would get that.

  • The Pagan Pair

    Really excellent. I love the humour.

    @ your comment about how it’s people who write, translate, interpret and enact the laws written I just thought I’d add that no where in the bible does it actually say that you have to get married (according to my mum who studied theology, I haven’t finished reading it XD). :)

  • Jennifer Tavernier

    How true. And even more interesting, is that those who cite “religious (behavioral) codes/mores” are speaking of Moral codes – not Ethics codes. There is a difference. Moral codes may smooth the way for group living, But an Ethical code, personally made and ascribed to out of integrity, carry for more responsibility and power.

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