Neopaganism and the three phases of ethical systems;
Classifying neopagan traditions according to their implicit or explicit
Before we get into the meat of the presentation, a brief explanation is in order. The
scheme is a hypothesis concerning the nature of human societies and how they organise
themselves. I think it's solid, but a lot of work still needs to happen before it can graduate
to the status of a theory. I have confidence that this will eventually occur, but can't claim
theory status yet.
The concept arose in the context of a discussion held in 2012 on the PAN facebook page.
The discussion was about the definition of paganism, with many views expressed on that
contentious subject. Reading through the discussion, I noticed certain themes kept
repeating. The slippery definition of paganism was a great help as people tried to
shoehorn almost every spiritual path past and present into it, compelling me to consider all
of them. It was a blessing in disguise as it forced me to really look at the characteristics of
spiritual paths, their basis, practices and ambitions, in an attempt to discern what made
one path 'pagan', and another, not. What I came up with was a threefold classification
scheme for spiritual paths which also operate as ethical systems. On the question of
defining paganism, I'm afraid it is not particularly useful, as all three classifications contain
spiritual paths which we currently consider to be pagan.
It's always good to know with some precision what it is we're talking about, so some
definitions are in order. The key terms, of course, are 'ethical system' and 'phase'.
I use the term 'ethical system' to mean an interconnected set of beliefs mandating a
particular set of behaviours for members of a human society and thus in turn dictating how
that society functions. As such, it is more about the survival and well-being of human
groups than enlightenment of, or advice to, individual humans. This is an unusual
approach to the subject of ethics, but it is a view we must take to understand where I'm
I have deliberately chosen the term 'phase' to describe the meta-families of ethical
systems to evoke the idea of the three commonly understood phases-states of matter,
solid, liquid and gaseous. This is a useful analogy for the scheme. H2O takes the form of
ice, water and steam, and although it is the same material in each case, it possesses
highly varied properties and behaviours depending on the phase. Looking at it another
way, although CO2, H2O, iron, mercury, silicon, ammonia and so on have very different
properties to each other, they will all nonetheless display certain commonalities in their
behaviour when they are in the same phase. The basic principles of fluid dynamics apply
equally to liquid CO2, molten steel, water and liquid nitrogen, however different they might
I have not described the phases as 'stages', because they are not. Phase I ethical systems
are not juvenile or incomplete systems evolving along a pre-set path to Phase II and then
on to Phase III. Phase I and Phase II ethical systems are complete in themselves and
should be regarded as fully developed within the context of their circumstances.
The organising principle of the scheme is the object of highest loyalty and allegiance of a
given ethical system. I have only been able to discern three such objects, hence the three
phases of the scheme. I'll now reveal the root definitions of the phases and try to illustrate
something of their nature by providing an archetypal hero appropriate to them.
A Phase I ethical system is one that holds the society it is part of to be the highest object of
loyalty. The figure which most embodies the ideals of Phase I systems is the victorious
A Phase II ethical system holds itself to be the highest object of loyalty, even above the
loyalty owed to society. The highest ideals of Phase II are embodied by the redeemed
Phase III ethical systems are a bit more complex. They developed out of the need to
establish a deeper understanding of reality, and thus incorporate features which are
developed to verify or dismiss ideas depending on how closely they matched observable
reality. The archetypal figure for Phase III is the scientist searching for truth.
We'll now look at each phase in turn, from Phase I to phase III.
I'd like to start on Phase I with a quote illustrating the worldview of such societies.
“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods."
Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lays Of Ancient Rome.
A Phase I ethical system is one which holds the collective human group using it to be the
highest object of loyalty. Phase I is the original, naturally-evolved state of human groups,
and it held complete sway over the planet, as far as we know, until the earliest Phase II
system appeared some time in the early-mid first millennium BCE.
They come in many different varieties. While all humans have broadly similar needs,
specifics of environment, technology level, resource base and paths of historical
development lead to idiosyncratic cultural mores and modes of interaction. A set of
customs and lore specify how to act under various circumstances. The customs of one
human group concerning a particular situation may vary greatly to those of another in the
same circumstances. The ancients understood this very well, as the following quote from
“...For if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as
seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring
their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others.
Unless, therefore, a man was mad, it is not likely that he would make sport of such
matters. That people have this feeling about their laws may be seen by very many proofs:
among others, by the following. Darius, after he had got the kingdom, called into his
presence certain Greeks who were at hand, and asked - "What he should pay them to eat
the bodies of their fathers when they died?" To which they answered, that there was no
sum that would tempt them to do such a thing. He then sent for certain Indians, of the race
called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by,
and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said - "What he should give them to
burn the bodies of their fathers at their decease?" The Indians exclaimed aloud, and bade
him forbear such language. Such is men's wont herein;...”
Herodotus, Book 3.38.
Ethics are most often seen in terms of duty to the family, clan or tribe. Consideration of
humans outside the group is very often non-existent, and interactions with them don't fall
under the field of ethics at all. When outsiders are dealt with fairly or honourably, it's
usually due to a pragmatic calculation rather than a perceived ethical obligation.
Phase I ethical systems are shaped by the need to preserve the culture as an ongoing
entity. As with most other biological entities, the main competition for human groups comes
from others such as themselves. This often leads to a strong emphasis on martial
capability. The virtues of the warrior are a perennial favourite for Phase I systems. Another
quote, this time from the philosopher Heraclitus, shows the recognition of the importance
of the warrior code in the Phase I worldview:
“War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men,
who made some slaves and some freemen.”
Phase I systems are not necessarily primitive. The Hellenic culture of ancient Greece, the
Roman Empire at its height, the great civilisations of Asia, ancient Egypt and the great
civilisations of the middle-east prior to the Median/Persian Empire were all Phase I.
It can be disputed that some of the more advanced cultures mentioned were strictly Phase
I, with the complexity of classical Greek thought being an indicator of a greater level of
ethical evolution and development, but the overriding priorities of the culture shine through
even in intricate philosophical texts. For instance:
“Well then, I will speak, although I really know not how to look you
in the face, or in what words to utter the audacious fiction, which
I propose to communicate gradually, first to the rulers, then to the
soldiers, and lastly to the people. They are to be told that their
youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received
from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they
were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth, where they themselves
and their arms and appurtenances were manufactured; when they were
completed, the earth, their mother, sent them up; and so, their country
being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise
for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and her citizens
they are to regard as children of the earth and their own brothers.”
Plato, The Republic.
Phase I ethical systems have not been absent from modern times. Nazi Germany, Imperial
Japan before the close of WWII, Fascist Italy, and various fascist states around the world
then and now were and are all explicitly phase I entities. In a sense, WWII was a decisive
battle between the modern Phase I powers and a coalition of Phase III powers in alliance
with a Phase II power.
There are characteristic problems which have arisen as a result of the inability of Phase III
administrators to properly understand the way Phase I cultures see the world. An example
of this would be the corruption allegations which undid ATSIC in 2004. Indigenous
Australian cultures are fairly typical Phase I tribal cultures, and as such see their particular
tribe as the highest object of loyalty, not 'indigenous Australians of all tribes'. As such, they
don't automatically think in terms of any kind of indigenous solidarity. Their racial
characteristics are European concepts. An indigenous person will recognise anyone who
has a claim to kinship, by blood or by being otherwise accepted by their tribe (no matter
their race), as a fellow of theirs worthy of all the consideration typically bestowed upon
people who are part of their 'in' group. Someone who is not recognised as such is an
outsider no matter the colour of their skin or their claim to indigenous status. In Australia,
the damage was limited to some misallocations of funding, which always went to the
relatives of the officials within ATSIC, as per standard operating instructions for Phase I
ethical systems. In some Commonwealth countries in Africa, nations established along
Phase III lines swiftly stratified according to the Phase I divisions within them, with violence
In the realm of modern paganism, Phase I systems are currently enjoying a great surge in
popularity, especially in Scandinavia and Central and Eastern Europe. National and
regional identities are often the core around which new cultural identities are being
established for individuals and communities in the post-communist world of the east and
the post-Christian world of the west, and the pre-Christian traditions of various ethnic
groups have been extensively tapped for this purpose.
Asatru is possibly the best known of these in the west. Others include Sami
neoshamanism, the maausulised movement in Estonia, Yotengrit in Hungary, and
numerous others. Some neopagans have also endeavoured to claim various traditional
indigenous Phase I spiritualities, such as Indigenous Australian and Indigenous American
tribal belief systems, Hinduism, and virtually anything not directly traceable to Abrahamic
traditions for modern paganism.
Well-known Phase I ethical systems:
Pre-Christian classical religions (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, Judaism).
Eastern spiritual traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Confucianism etc.).
A Phase II ethical system is one which holds itself to be the highest object of loyalty. The
first great phase transition in human ethical systems came when enough people in a
society were convinced that what you thought counted more than who your parents were.
As far as I have been able to tell, this probably first occurred sometime in the early part of
the millennium which preceded the rise of Christianity, and the first Phase II Great Prophet
was Zarathustra, known in the west as Zoroaster. He probably lived some time in the 8th or
7th century BCE.
Phase II ethical systems are characterised by the abstraction of the positive and negative
facets of experience into archetypal concepts of good and evil, usually personified in
particular mythological characters. Survival of the cultural unit continues to be an important
theme, but it is now relegated to a subordinate role in the spreading of the ethical system
itself. Adherents are expected to govern themselves according to the precepts of the
system. One major effect of this change (and probably the main reason it became so
successful) is that the details on how to behave in a given situation are delegated out to
the individuals at the scene of the action rather than being micromanaged by an extensive
body of customary prescriptions. Imposing a smaller set of generalised rules of conduct
across extensive regions means that people are able to interact more confidently, knowing
more or less what they can reasonably expect from nearly anyone they encounter.
The role of phase II systems in simplifying relations between smaller cultural units to
facilitate trade and economic development is most likely responsible for the expansionist
nature of most such systems. Phase I cultures might or might not be particularly
expansionist, but Phase II cultures almost always are. To a Phase I adherent you are
either a member of their cultural unit with a well-defined nature, or you are an outsider to
be ignored, disposed of, or exploited. To a Phase II adherent you are a potential member
of the system and must be either taken into the fold, or taken right out of the equation.
They're the original Borg. If you remain outside the system, you are a component that
doesn't fit, a potential source of dissension and trouble. Phase II is ultra-inclusive, and it
sees nothing as falling outside the purview of its dogma.
Phase II ethics contain certain flaws which have become only too obvious over time.
They're usually founded on the myth of a supremely powerful creator god who is all good
and who is opposed by a separate powerful being of evil who has somehow corrupted the
world, or humanity, or both. History is seen as a battle between these two spirits, with
humans playing an important role. They are historical rather than cyclical, with a narrative
including the creation of the universe, the subsequent unfolding of world history according
to a pre-ordained plan, and an end in which judgement takes place, the good are rewarded
and the evil are punished, the spirit of evil is defeated, and the universe is made perfect.
Messianic saviour figures are often included as well.
One problem with all these variants of the Zoroastrian pattern is that only one of them at
most can be literally true, so there is a certain element of mutual exclusivity to these
systems. This directly contradicts the main function and virtue of them, which is the
unification of different cultures under one universally applicable 'operating system'. This
has led to a Highlander-style “There can only be one!” ideological battle between the
feuding children of Zoroastrianism down through the centuries, familiar to all students of
history. Another major problem has been the misconception of the nature of evil, and its
personification as a personal adversary. This has led to a huge focus on 'Evil', and many a
cultural obsession with its extirpation, usually by identifying some hapless person or group
with that enemy, and doing many horrible things to them. So while Phase II has certainly
had its successes, it has also had its failings, and the further a society develops under
phase II tutelage, the more counter-productive those failings become.
Phase II systems are not necessarily supernaturalistic, and there are secular examples in
modern times. Marxist-Leninism is one of the more obvious examples, but Ayn Rand's
Objectivism also falls into the category. In those cases, Marxism replaces God with 'The
Historical Process', and Rand replaces God with 'Reason', as she defines it, which
appears to be Rand's own particular set of opinions derived before the age of forty,
codified and rationalised and not to be doubted in any serious way.
There are a few traditions within Neopaganism which fall into Phase II. Perhaps the most
well-known of these is the Dianic Wicca of Z. Budapest. Some aspects of the reclaiming
traditions might also be seen as falling within Phase II.
Well-known Phase II ethical systems:
Strong sense of justice and propriety
Messianic/ apocalyptic complex
Prone to schism
We have looked briefly at Phase I and II ethical systems and got a handle on them through
some fairly short and easily understood definitions. Our present society is clearly in neither
of these phases. Our ethics are different, and most of us consider them superior to what I
have described earlier. Is there a similarly short, concise definition for Phase III?
If we are asked what the defining characteristics of ethics in the modern world are, we
might come up with a list of the features we consider desirable, such as scientific enquiry,
personal freedom, high levels of tolerance for different customs and people, inclusiveness
in the political process, high material living standards, good access to education and
information, and many other desirable characteristics of modern life. In any extended list
we come up with, are there any virtues or features which are more fundamental than the
rest, closer to the cause of such desirable effects?
As far as I can currently see, the heart, foundation and anchor of Phase III is the elevation
of freely contending ongoing discourse, with conclusions always tested against reality and
always subject to change if new results warrant it, to the pinnacle of regard as the method
by which both individuals and groups should govern themselves.
This development has consequences right across the board. When you apply it to 'natural
philosophy', you get the scientific method. Applied to politics, inclusive democratic and
parliamentary systems result, which have critical discourse at the heart of their operations.
Applied to economics and material production, various forms of competitive capitalism
result. All these systems have critical discourse resulting in a self-correcting mental model
of reality which is continually checked against external reality at the very core of their
Phase III ethical systems emerged in Europe over the last 400 or so years in response to
the problems caused by or insoluble with Phase II Christianity. The precepts of phase III
systems largely consist of maintaining a stripped-down Phase II framework for ensuring a
workable civil society (maintaining prohibitions on such antisocial activities as murder and
robbery) while eliminating culture-specific commandments and sanctions on which gods to
worship and which cultural institutions to compel adherence to. This evolutionary process
is currently ongoing in our society, and the final shape of a mature Phase III ethical system
is still a matter of some debate.
In some ways, specific ideologies or formal systems of thought are less important in Phase
III than Phase I or II. Phase III is in some sense a victory for proceduralism. If there is a set
of procedures which can be followed to attain a desirable result, there isn't so much need
to package it in mythological justification. Nonetheless, there are a few ethical systems
around which we might be justified in labelling as Phase III.
“Secular humanism posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral
without religion or a god. It does not, however, assume that humans are either inherently
evil or innately good, nor does it present humans as being superior to nature. Rather, the
humanist life stance emphasises the unique responsibility facing humanity and the ethical
consequences of human decisions. Fundamental to the concept of secular humanism is
the strongly held viewpoint that ideology — be it religious or political — must be thoroughly
examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith. Along with this,
an essential part of secular humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily
through science and philosophy. Many Humanists derive their moral codes from a
philosophy of utilitarianism, ethical naturalism, or evolutionary ethics, and some, such as
Sam Harris, advocate a science of morality.”
Bahá'í teachings on science have been pointed out as evidence that it is a Phase III
ethical system. My current opinion is that it is a Phase II ethical system which developed
recently enough to be able to incorporate some Phase III attributes within its dogma. Other
parts of Bahá'í doctrine assert the supremacy of justice, a typical Phase II outlook.
“The harmony of science and religion is a central tenet of the Bahá'í teachings. The
principle states that truth is one, and therefore true science and true religion must be in
harmony, thus rejecting the view that science and religion are in conflict. `Abdu'l-Bahá, the
son of the founder of the religion, asserted that science and religion cannot be opposed
because they are aspects of the same truth; he also affirmed that reasoning powers are
required to understand the truths of religion. Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Bahá'í Faith in
the first half of the 20th century, described science and religion as "the two most potent
forces in human life".
The teachings state that whenever conflict arises between religion and science it is due to
human error; either through misinterpretation of religious scriptures or the lack of a more
complete understanding of science. `Abdu'l-Bahá explained that religious teachings which
are at variance with science should not be accepted; he explained that religion has to be
reasonable since God endowed humankind with reason so that they can discover truth.
Science and religion, in the Bahá'í writings, are compared to the two wings of a bird upon
which a person's intelligence can increase, and upon which a person's soul can progress.
Furthermore, the Bahá'í writings state that science without religion would lead to a person
becoming totally materialistic, and religion without science would lead to a person falling
into superstitious practices. `Abdu'l-Bahá in one of his public talks said:
"If religion were contrary to logical reason then it would cease to be a religion
and be merely a tradition. Religion and science are the two wings upon which
man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can
progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly
with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of
superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would
also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism. All
religions of the present day have fallen into superstitious practices, out of
harmony alike with the true principles of the teaching they represent and with
the scientific discoveries of the time."
The Bahá'í writings state that religion must always stand the analysis of reason, and agree
with scientific statements of fact. Another teaching of the Bahá'í Faith, Independent
investigation of truth, also uses the harmony of science and religion by stating that each
individual should free themselves from all prejudices from learned belief, and then
individually search for the truth.”
British Traditional Wicca:
The usually accepted ethical tenet of BTW is the Rede, which states “An it harm none, do
what ye will'. There is no universally accepted interpretation for the Rede, but there are two
main contending interpretations people commonly use to justify their particular position.
The first is “Do whatever you want as long as no harm is caused to anyone or anything as
a result of what you do.” This interpretation is seen as specifically forbidding harmful
outcomes, and tends to be common among Gardnerian lines in the US. The other main
interpretation is “If an action harms nothing, then it is absolutely permissible.”. This
interpretation is a statement about actions which cause no harm. It does not say anythin g
about actions which do cause harm. This is usually interpreted to imply that actions which
might cause harm are not forbidden, but that it would be wise to consider consequences
and conduct yourself appropriately.
The first interpretation has a Phase II air about it, while the second is more in keeping with
Phase III. But the most significant evidence of the Phase III nature of BTW may come from
the protocols governing differences of opinion within the priesthood. Without giving too
much away, they boil down to schism being an acceptable method of resolving differences.
In other words, if someone has a different opinion on how things should be done, they
should go off and do it. Schism is embraced rather than despised. This is a powerful
evolutionary adaptation, ensuring a rich and growing set of groups exploring different ways
of doing things, like a giant experimental ethical laboratory.
The Church Of Satan:
Many have observed that the practical upshot of The COS system is very similar to secular
humanism (LaVey himself claimed similarity with Ayn Rand's ideas, but it's clear LaVey
wasn't as invested in absolutist dogma as Rand).
The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth
by Anton Szandor LaVey
1. Do not give opinions or advice unless you are asked.
2. Do not tell your troubles to others unless you are sure they want to hear them.
3. When in another’s lair, show him respect or else do not go there.
4. If a guest in your lair annoys you, treat him cruelly and without mercy.
5. Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal.
6. Do not take that which does not belong to you unless it is a burden to the other
person and he cries out to be relieved.
7. Acknowledge the power of magic if you have employed it successfully to obtain your
desires. If you deny the power of magic after having called upon it with success, you
will lose all you have obtained.
8. Do not complain about anything to which you need not subject yourself.
9. Do not harm little children.
10.Do not kill non-human animals unless you are attacked or for your food.
11.When walking in open territory, bother no one. If someone bothers you, ask him to
stop. If he does not stop, destroy him.
The Nine Satanic Statements
by Anton Szandor LaVey
The Nine Satanic Statements originally appeared in The Satanic Bible, © 1969
1. Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence!
2. Satan represents vital existence instead of spiritual pipe dreams!
3. Satan represents undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit!
4. Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on
5. Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek!
6. Satan represents responsibility to the responsible instead of concern for psychic
7. Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse
than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his “divine spiritual and
intellectual development,” has become the most vicious animal of all!
8. Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or
9. Satan has been the best friend the Church has ever had, as He has kept it in
business all these years!
BTW and the COS are often seen as antagonistic, with LaVey and his disciples often
attacking BTW for pandering to Christian ideas in declaring themselves to be 'white
witches' and attempting to sanitise witchcraft for the sake of appeasing conventional
critics. There is some truth to this. All through the 50s, 60s and 70s, high-profile Wiccans
were forever assuring the press that they were white witches who would never harm a fly,
and that they were good, sane, healthy folk, not at all like the stereotype of the evil
Satanist. This may have been a reasonable policy at a certain point in the development of
BTW, but members of COS can be forgiven for thinking that Wiccans were constantly
traducing them in the media. Later on, not just BTW initiates, but the general neopagan
community as well, often defended their paths by denying that they worshipped Satan,
saying that Satan was a Christian concept and Satanists were therefore a subset of the
Christian religion. Even the briefest examination of COS literature would have revealed
this as nonsense in their case, but that propaganda point is still circulated by neopagans
(especially newbies) even today.
The interesting thing about this antagonism is that when either tradition attacks the other,
its always the perceived Phase II characteristics of the other which are attacked. This
strongly implies that they are both implicit Phase III systems with a keen instinct for
detecting dissonant 'out-of-phase' elements in the other.
Known or proposed Phase III ethical systems:
British Traditional Wicca
Anton Szandor LaVey's Church Of Satan
High information flow.