When the subject of Pagan Puritanism came up in a conversation recently with Robin Herne, I initially thought of it as a bit of a joke. As a bunch of people we’re far too fond of dancing, shagging and drinking to fit with any of the images in my head of Puritans. But of course those images I carry are innately Christian. Robin suggested that Pagan Puritanism is about obsessively low impact lifestyles and diet. That pulled me up, because if that’s the measure, I may well be one.
Generally as a culture, we fear extremism. We understand ‘extremist’ to be other – foreign, worshipping other gods, or worshipping familiar ones in unfamiliar ways, or irrationally fanatical about some other thing to the point of being willing to blow people up over it. I think it’s worth noticing that you can pollute the air, poison the rivers, destroy irreplaceable landscapes and slaughter people in droves with all of the above and not be considered any kind of extremist at all if you do it all in the name of profit and personal greed.
We don’t tend to generate much in the way of fundamentalism – having such a wealth of histories, cultures, pantheons and belief structures to draw on, it’s hard to get all ‘one true way’ as a Pagan. Not having any formal financial structures, the hassle of recruitment in the face of no material gain means we’ve not developed a conversion culture either. Or, being a touch less cynical, I might suggest we’re just respectful of other people’s beliefs. So apart from the odd over-zealous soul, we don’t really do fundamentalism, and if we did, we’re just not organised enough to agree enough for it to have much impact. I like this about us. Generally speaking, fundamentalism is a group activity where belonging to the group is key to its functioning. Again, these are things we are not so good at.
Puritanism can be viable as a much more personal project. In other religions it means a move to try and get back to the true meaning of the core text. As religious bodies get affluent, decadent and self important, counter movements evolve to go back to the imagined simpler, more authentic vision – except these probably never do take us back, and are just as capable of becoming decadent over time. I give you North America…
We don’t have a core book, and the stock Pagan answer is to say ‘nature is my book’. Arguably a Pagan Puritan who is going back to the book… is going back to nature in a really determined way. Zero waste, recycled knickers and no flying, bean sprouts (organic and home grown) for breakfast. Pagan Puritanism suggests fanatical devotion to trying to live in harmony with the planet. I can happily give fundamentalism a miss, not least because it tends to be so tedious, predictable and destructive, if other religions are anything to go by. I may be more inclined towards Pagan Puritanism than I might have previously assumed.
I’m a long way from being really hardcore though – I do still have my computer, I can’t spin, I don’t have the means to heat and cook directly from a fire – although I have done that in the past. I aim to reduce my impact all the time, it is a bit of an obsession. Fortunately, the dancing, singing and shagging are entirely compatible with this agenda, so as Puritanism goes, it should be fairly cheerful.