That being the case, we would surely expect to see quite a variety of different spiritual ideas of ethics, morality and good conduct. But is that really what we see?
The place of morality, as it interplays between religion and society, is often more complex than it appears. The morals of a society inform a religion’s moral position and a religion’s moral position informs the morals of society. What is deemed to be “good” by a society is, if not immediately then eventually, deemed to be “good” also by the religions within that society – at least with regards to broad concepts of morality. There are, of course, exceptions to this, such as groups are informed by an external culture or society, or groups who are themselves so insular as to be in some way removed from the greater society in which they live. When these exceptions arise, we label them as extremists or fundamentalists – particularly if they not only depart from the moral position of greater society, but also actively work against it.
Modern Paganism (for the majority) may be regarded as being counter-culture (or at least, it has been), but it is not antisocial. Despite it’s great variety of paths and practices, it still embraces the broad cultural norms of morality, that western society holds. In this way, it is not particularly different from any other religion, as it reflects the standards of morality and ethics that are the norm for its geographical region. But therein lies the question: for 2000 years western society has been dominated by and shaped by Christianity and in that time the standards of basic morality have likewise come to reflect those held by the essential Christian paradigm. So, is there really such a thing as Pagan morality? Or is the morality of Paganism, just a mirror of a Christian morality that has infiltrated western culture.
Things like murder and theft have been consistently condemned by Christianity. But of course, these things are universally viewed as bad and can’t be held as examples morality that are particular to Christianity. In fact, views on these things have been pretty consistent across time and cultures. It has always been considered wrong to do these things – at least, within one’s own society – the exception may be when at war and committing these deeds upon the enemy, in which case, they may still be seen as not the morally best option, but still that would be morally excusable. However, today, we even have codes of ethics for wartime, which we endeavor to maintain (in theory).
Other, more specific acts of morality or immorality, could be said to be more particular to Christianity, even if they are not unique to it. Adultery, lying, sexual impropriety, envy, greed, pride, to name a few, still hold a place in our society as being generally bad, while things like charity, honesty, forgiveness, humility, temperance, are all deemed to be generally good.
Certainly, Christianity does not hold a monopoly on these things. Charity is not the unique province of Christianity, neither today nor historically and temperance, likewise, is a respected quality in many cultures, for example. Similarly, adultery is also taken as being bad in non-Christian cultures, as is lying. But the ethical zeitgeist of Christianity, is as distinct as any religion, but in the case of Christianity its ethical zeitgeist is also the cultural morality of the west.
I think it’s fair to say that there are certain parts of Christian morality that we can all agree with. E.g. murder is bad. But there are other elements of traditional Christian morality that we might no longer see as inherently bad, such as sex outside of marriage and which the larger part of society also no longer regard as being inherently bad. If we were to talk about non-traditional Christian morality, then there are a good number of Christians who also have no problem with sex outside of marriage (and other things), but then, the morality of non-traditional Christianity is a morality that has been adopted from greater society, rather than it being a part of a traditional moral view that has shaped the west.
While much of the ethical and moral dimension of western society has been inherited from it’s Christian past, western society is now moving ahead of religion, partly determining ethics on it’s own and partly through a complex dynamic of other agencies and movements, like the civil rights movement, feminism, science, the media and Hollywood.
Paganism could be said to be just one more social body that is absorbing the current moral atmosphere. But Paganism doesn’t just look to the future. Indeed, Paganism is a religious movement that inherently looks to the past for inspiration.
But what about those ingrained ideas of morality and ethics that are typically held over from the Christian way of thinking, but that are perhaps more or a grey area?
Envy, greed, pride, wrath, lust, lying.
Do Pagans consider these things morally bad? Unethical? Unenlightened?
Many would say that in Paganism the onus is upon oneself to make their own moral decisions, But how often does that mean falling in line an ethos that has been inherited from Christianity and how often does it mean giving true, deep consideration to the concepts of morality and ethics?
On the other side of the coin, are “Christian virtues” absorbed into the mindset of modern Pagans and taken to be “good” more as a matter of ingrained traditional concepts (inherited from the Christian past) or do we give deep, contemplative attention to what is good?
Humility. Faith. Charity. Forgiveness. Hope.
Are these things truly good? Truly ethical and moral? Are these the behaviours of an enlightened individual?
How separate are we from the Christian package of ethics and morals?
And what about pride? For the ancient Greeks, hubris was definitely bad, but is that the same as pride? Is it false pride? Is there such a thing as good pride, like taking pride in ones work or appearance? Many on the Heathen path enjoy the practice of Boasting and celebrating the great things you have done. Is this pride? And if so, is it a good or bad thing?
Even if we depart from the idea that there is a base moral zeitgeist in western culture that is rooted in millennia old Christian influence, and instead say that modern western morality and ethics are nothing to do with Christianity – if that were your conclusion, what would it mean for the idea of Pagan morality? Would it simply be whatever the greater society adheres to or would it perhaps be personal and distinct for each Pagan, with no influences other than the self.
Or is there, perhaps, a Pagan morality (or moralities) that can be distinguished as unique and separate – different from Christianity and anything else? And if there is, what makes it different? Is there some code of thought or conduct – written or unwritten – to which Pagans adhere.
Are there concepts which we would find virtuous or unethical, which are not addressed by other belief systems, particularly Christianity?
There are ancient pagan codes of ethics, but is anybody using them or at least informed by them? And if you are, how do they stack up against the moral and ethical perspectives of today (at least, in your opinion)? Can they fit into the modern world?
Then, what if someone is seen to be virtuous. What does it get them? Are they then an enlightened individual? Are they an example of how Paganism should work?
To what moral standards or guidelines do we hold ourselves accountable? And what, if anything, makes them Pagan?
And finally, what is the relationship between morality and being Pagan? Does morality bring one closer to the Gods? Is ethical thought and conduct linked to enlightenment? Is being good rewarded some how? What, as Pagans, is our morality and why do we adhere to it?
I look forward to hearing your views.