Piety gets a bum rap these days.
When someone is described as “pious” the intention is usually derogatory. It is taken to mean that they have a holier-than-thou attitude or are hypocritical – faithful in action, but not in spirit. Also, because it is usually used to refer to members of the majority faith (Christianity in the US), members of the pagan minority who have had bad experiences with that faith or it’s members can sometimes react negatively to the word, even when it is intended to be complimentary.
Yet in pagan religions that place a large emphasis on practice, piety again becomes a real virtue.
To use the ADF definiton, piety in a pagan sense is “correct observance of ritual and social traditions; the maintenance of the agreements, (both personal and societal), we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty.”
I like this definition, though I would prefer one that also addressed intent, (though not belief.) Because most neopagans come from cultures heavily influenced by the monotheistic faiths, we often bring with us their idea of pious intentions in addition to pious action. This may not be historical, but I believe it is a good addition. A proper relationship with the gods begins in the mind and heart of the individual.
As for societal traditions and agreements, that’s complicated.
In ancient times, piety was an important civil obligation, not just a religious one. The success or failure of the society as a whole depended on every member maintaining their proper relationship with the gods.
Today it is different. Worshippers of the old gods are a tiny minority in their communities. In the west, our societies are either purely secular or are under allegiance to the god of Abraham. If I believed that I was responsible for maintaining the agreements that my society has made with the divine, I’d be obligated to be Christian and to follow the rituals and traditions of that faith.
So how to be properly pious in a social sense? A few ideas come to mind. We can define our society more narrowly – taking on the obligations of our family, coven, or other group. We can, in the course of honoring our ancestors, try to make good on obligations that they weren’t able to fulfill. We can also partake in the religious festivals of the community in which we live, as much as outsiders are welcome to. Because of the pluralist nature of much polytheism, many pagans have no issue attending rituals for deities that they do not personally worship. For those of us comfortable with the idea, this courtesy could be extended to the God of Abraham – for example, by attending mass on Christmas and Easter without participating in communion.
I think the most important aspect of piety for modern pagans is the reminder that we should be actually practicing our religion. It is easy for so many pagans, myself included, to get wrapped in study, in learning what the ancients did (and then blogging about it). But it cannot end there.
A religion that exists only in the mind of the believer is not a religion.
And, to borrow a Christian aphorism, the road to Hel is paved with good intentions.