(Image courtesy of Mike Mason, Pagan Pride UK, Nottingham, 2012.)
Happy Birthday Paganism!
Contemporary Paganism, as it exists today, began with the Counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Religious studies scholar, Sarah Pike dates the origins of contemporary Paganism to 1967, the year that Frederick Adams incorporated Feraferia and the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn was founded. That same year, the Church of All Worlds filed for incorporation as a the first Pagan “church”.
Which means that this year, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of contemporary Paganism! So let’s look back at what we have accomplished over the past five decades.
1. One million strong?
To begin with, our numbers have grown. By some guestimates, there are 1 million Pagans in the U.S. More reliable estimates can be gotten from the rest of the English-speaking world, which asks citizens to identify their religious affiliation in their censuses: 85,000 Pagans in the U.K., 27,000 in Australia, and 25,000 in Canada.
I think the 1 million number is inflated. If you look at the proportional representation of Pagans in the rest of the English-speaking world, the percentage is about 0.1%. Which would mean that there would be about 300,000 Pagans in the U.S.
You might argue that Americans are more religious than other English-speakers. If we look at the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey conducted in 2008, 0.4% of Americans identified as New Age, Wiccan, and Pagan. However, that figure did not distinguish Wiccans and Pagans from other New Agers. If we guestimate that half of that 0.4% is Pagan/Wiccan, then the number of U.S. Pagans would be closer to 600,000.
To give you a frame of reference, that’s about the number of Rastafarians. So, we’re growing, but we’re still really small.
2. We’ve been through a lot of growing pains.
It’s to be expected that an new religious movement will experience a lot of centrifugal force. There will schisms and splinters.
Conflict between traditionalists and eclectics has been a common theme over the last 50 years. One of the earliest schisms was over the validity of “self-initiation”. More recently, there was the “fluffy-bunny” controversy and then the pop-culture Paganism debate.
Much of the internal conflict in Paganism has had to do with issues of gender and sexual orientation. There was the wimmin-only controversy brought on by the growth of feminist Dianic witchcraft in the 1970s. More recently, that debate was revived by the exclusion of trans-women from Dianic rituals.
We have gone from Wicca being the sine qua non of Paganism to questioning the “Wiccanate” or Wicca-centric focus of much of public Paganism. There has even been an anti-Wiccan backlash in some corners of the Pagan community.
Paganism has now been around long enough to witness the appearance of charismatic and pietist forms of Paganism. The growth of devotional polytheism was in reaction to the perceived “dumbing down” of Paganism which inevitably accompanied its popularization. This brought theistic Pagans into conflict with non-theistic Pagans, especially atheistic Pagans.
We have a tendency to bemoan all kind of conflict, as if it should all be roses and rainbows, but it’s actually quite normal in the growth of a new religion. What matters is not that we avoid controversy, but that we survive it.
3. What We’ve Built
In spite of our iconoclastic and ideosyncratic tendencies, we have managed to build some lasting Pagan institutions. Some Pagan organizations are established as legally-recognized churches with tax-exempt status. And there are some larger umbrella Pagan organizations, like the Covenant of the Goddess, the Pagan Federation, and the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans.
Pagans serve in the leadership of various ecumenical and inter-faith groups, like the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the American Academy of Religion. Pagan studies is a recognized academic discipline, and there is an academic journal of Pagan Studies called Pomegranate. We even have a Pagan seminary, Cherry Hill Seminary, though its survival has recently been in question.
The Wild Hunt is a daily online news journal which gathers news and commentary of interest to Pagans. And there are many online forums where Pagans can share ideas and organize. There are also Pagan publications like Witches & Pagans and the Green Egg.
Annual Pagan Pride events are held around the country in the fall of every year, and outdoor Pagan festivals, which draw thousands of people, take place throughout the summer. CUUPS boasts almost 70 chapters, which hold open Wheel of the Year rituals.
Still, it seems that we Pagans struggle to create lasting institutions. For all their limitations and baggage, I think Pagan institutions are necessary if we want to be a force for positive change in the world. But Pagan groups tend to either self-destruct or quietly fizzle out after just a little while.
Part of the problem is that there are still some Pagans who don’t want to see Paganism became anything more than a cult of the individual. I sympathize with the suspicion of institutions, but opposition to all organization on principle serves nothing but the egos of certain individuals. And it reduces our community to the lowest common denominator — the heckler and the troll, whose only agenda is the destruction of all agendas.
If we really want to be a force for good in the world, then we need to work together, we need to build some solidarity, some community integrity. As much as we Pagans talk about attuning ourselves to nature and the cycles of the Earth, we also need to learn to “attune” ourselves with one another. And that means temporarily setting aside our egos and reevaluating our priorities, so that we can speak with a collective voice when it is urgently needed, as it is now.
New religious movements like Paganism must face two different threats. The first is a centrifugal force which comes from inward pressure to schism, which I talked about above. The second is a centripetal force which threatens to crush new religious movements from the outside. For Paganism, this outward pressure probably reached its height during the Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare of the 1980s. Today, being “out of the broom closet” is much less risky for many people.
Since then, Pagan advocacy groups, like the Lady Liberty League and others, have worked to educate the public and to protect the rights of Pagans in the workplace, in prisons, and in the community in general. Significant Pagan legal victories of the past include the recognition of Wicca as a religion in the federal prisoner’s rights case of Dettmer v. Landon, the defeat of the Helms Amendment, which would have denied tax-exempt status to many Pagan churches, and the approval of Pagan symbols on headstones by the Veteran’s Administration. The fact that I can write online using my real name is due to the bravery and sacrifices made by those Pagans who came before me.
But we still have a long way to go, both culturally and politically. It seems to me that Pagans gone from being perceived as a threat, to being perceived as a joke. Consider the quip Jon Stewart made on The Daily Show in 2004. Talking about an open letter by the Bob Jones University president referring to “the agenda of paganism”, Stewart responded, “Dude, pagans don’t have an agenda. They’re pagans. Organizational skills, not their strong suit.” The fact that Stewart thought the joke would connect with a mainstream audience says a lot.
This derisive attitude toward Pagans is reinforced by Pagans who equate Paganism with dressing up in silly costumes. Paganism is more than a fashion statement. We have a deeper wisdom to share with the world. And we need to ask ourselves whether the costumes and antics are helping or hurting that deeper purpose.
Poorly planned and poorly executed public rituals are another problem. In my opinion, intentional ritual creation is kind of our thing. And after 50 years, we should be really good at it. And there are some people in our community who are really good at it. But every great ritual I have attended, there have been a lot more which were purely awful. We need to step up our game.
“Respectability” is a bad word to many Pagans. I’m not suggesting that Paganism surrender its counter-cultural critique of mainstream society or that we avoid making the stiffs uncomfortable. But I am suggesting that Paganism will only realize its potential to transform the world we can communicate our vision with that world.
Respectability means means being able to share our beliefs with our friends and neighbors openly — not just on the Internet. Respectability means being a greater part of the interfaith movement. Respectability means having greater influence on critical social and political issues that concern us, including the environment, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and so on. Respectability means power … power to bring about change according to our collective will. And that is a kind of magic that all Pagans should be interested in.
What do you think?
What has the Pagan community has accomplished in the last 50 years? What are you proud of? What are you embarrassed by? What would you like to see in the next 50 years?