If you ask a group of Pagans why they left the religion they were brought up in, I’m willing to bet that a majority of them will cite restrictive rules as at least one of the reasons. And yet, when you get down to it, aren’t rules part of the reason we turn to a religion? Don’t Wiccans have rules just as complex and important as the those of Catholics? Isn’t the Rede really the same thing as the Golden Rule? Pagans, if we are honest, love rules just as much as any other religion.
This past month I’ve been studying two religions at once. The first is Buddhism, but through an agnostic point of view, with the book by Stephen Batchelor. I’ve also been reading about Judaism thanks to Rabbi Ted Falcon and David Blatner and their book Judaism for Dummies. (Don’t knock the Dummies book. This one weighs in at over 400 pages, and is packed full of information.)
Both religions really seem to thrive on lists of rules. Judaism has its list of 613 mitzvot. These are mandatory rules scattered throughout the Jewish bible; the number that can still be followed in the modern world, by Jews not living in Israel, is around 400. In Buddhism there is the Eight-Fold Path, the Five Precepts, and so many other lists, that, when you get down to it, function as rules. Parallels can be drawn to Paganism as well. I’m most familiar with Wicca, and I can think of several traditions off the top of my head who have pages and pages of rules and lists of responsibilities. These rules shape their respective faiths, giving them their unique form and provide followers with touchstones and measuring sticks for their practices. A religion lacking in rules really isn’t much of a religion.
It can be argued that some religions have harmful rules or rules that don’t make sense in today’s world (although, you’ll find in most cases that these so called “rules” aren’t in the holy text, but are rather derived from a religious leader’s interpretation of the text or even fabricated completely). And this is where critical thinking comes into play. We need to be wise enough to decide which rules we have to follow to still be a legitimate member of a religion, but at the same time stay true to what we believe is morally or socially correct. Sometimes, we need to admit to ourselves that we have to leave a faith (or not become a follower in the first place) because the rules don’t make sense to us. There is bending the rules, and then there is breaking them. For example, I could never convert to Judaism no matter how much I respect the teachings because, to me, important dietary and idolatry rules make no sense. On the other hand, I really respect many of the rules dealing with charity, the poor, and business practices.
My biggest take away this month is that when it comes to faith and religion, more is needed than just believing in a deity. To be a member of a faith, you need to also believe in and support the rules that have grown up around the faith. Giving them lip service isn’t enough, because the rules are, in many ways, as important as the deity. After all, that is who they are said to have descended from.