Why Contemporary Paganism Deserves to Die

Does Paganism Deserve to Survive?

I don’t know whether contemporary Paganism is dying or not.  But it’s definitely changing.

Contemporary Paganism is being squeezed by the same social, economic, and technological pressures that all other contemporary religions are struggling with.  Generational differences with Millennials.  Economic inequality. The internet.

Which got me thinking, why are we bothering to struggle?  Why not just let entropy take its course?

Recently, during a congregational forum at my Unitarian church, the perennial question of how we can get more members came up.  There were lots of ideas for bringing in and retaining new people.  But no one seemed to be asking what I think is the most important question:

Why do we think we deserve more members?

Institutions have a way of taking on a life of their own, so that people start asking how to save the institution, and forget to ask whether it should be saved.  I was impressed recently by an NPR story about a congregation in Chicago.  The church resembled my own, in that it’s congregation is small (and getting smaller), liberal, and owns a historic building.  The congregation had decided that what matters to them is not “saving the life” of their church, but using what life they have to “do the next right thing.”  For them, that meant becoming a sanctuary congregation.

Why is Paganism Dying?

Contemporary Paganism isn’t an institution, but we do have institutions, and many of them are  struggling to survive.  Cherry Hill Seminary announced last year that it might not be able to continue its programming.  CUUPS is hardly thriving.  The Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which is quite possibly the single largest expression of Pagan voices ever, has not yet collected a mere 10,000 signatures in the two years since it was published.  And, as far as I can tell, none of the organizers of Pagan festivals and conferences have reported significant growth in recent years. These are just a few examples of Pagan institutions that I have been involved with to one degree or another over the years.

The number of people who identify to some degree as “Pagan” may be increasing — it’s hard to say.  But, in the absence of institutions, we Pagans are more — not less — vulnerable to centrifugal social forces which dissipate our solidarity and dilute our collective power.  Even while the number of people on the periphery of the Pagan community grows, the number of leaders in the center (or centers) is shrinking.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

— W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

This is what Jonathan Woolley describes in his article “British Paganism is Dying”.  Woolley blames capitalist forces which have destroyed the market for small Pagan businesses, while also sapping the free time which people previously devoted to voluntary Pagan associations.

The commenters to Woolley’s post have other theories about the death of British Paganism.  One commenter blames video games.  Another blames Ronald Hutton.  Another one blames naked dancing.  Yet another commenter blames the infiltration of Christians into Paganism.  (Seriously! As good as Woolley’s article is, the comments are worth the price of admission.)

I don’t disagree with Woolley’s analysis, but I think there is another factor at work here, one which Woolley himself touches on in his article: Pagans’ self-absorption.

“… we’ve become vulnerable to a sort of Religious Hipsterism—treating our religion less as a vision of a better world, and more as a mode of personal distinction that lifts us upward in the unending churn of the class system.

“In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.

Pagan Self-Absorption

Whether we are earth-centered or deity-centered, in general, Pagans tend to be a ego-centered bunch (myself included).  There are both individual idiosyncratic and broader historical reasons for this.  To begin with, something about the way most people come to Paganism — usually by leaving their religion of origin — which tends to make us obsessed with questions of religious identity. As a result, so much of our energy is spent arguing among ourselves over who is and isn’t a “real Pagan”.

In addition, contemporary Paganism as a whole never seems to have grown out of its cultural adolescence.  Whether we date its beginnings to the witchcraft revival started by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s or to the American Neo-Pagan revival of the 1970s, Paganism had to go through a formative period, during which time communal identity and institutions became consolidated.  Then, in the 1980s, we went through an existential crisis in the form of the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax.  But it seems we never fully moved beyond this as a community.  As a result, what energy isn’t spent fighting with ourselves in identity wars, is still devoted to trying to convince outsiders that we deserve the same rights, respect, etc. as other religions.

The overall result is that we are obsessed with ourselves and what people think of us.  Now, a certain amount of self-reflection is healthy. Many people are drawn to Paganism from oppressive religious structures which have made unhealthy demands for self-sacrifice.  Paganism’s focus on on individual expression can be healing.  But it is not a healthy place to remain, neither for individuals nor for communities.  What can begin as a salutary response to religious authoritarianism can end up crippling the community as a whole and reducing Paganism to a cult of the individual.

Several years ago, I heard what I think was best advice ever about improving the image of Paganism. Unfortunately I can’t remember who said it, but the gist of it was this:) Rather than coming out as Pagans and then trying to convince people we deserve to be on the school board or city council or whatever, we should join the school board or city council, show them we are good citizens and good people, and then come out as Pagans. It’s not about hiding our Paganism, so much as taking our focus off of ourselves and refocus it on doing something positive in the world (other than making the world more comfortable for Pagans).  Changing the image people have of Pagans will then happen naturally, without us trying.

Why Paganism Deserves to Survive

Which brings me around to my original question: What makes us think Paganism deserves to survive? What good does Paganism do in the world other than perpetuate itself (and with limited success at that)?

As Jonathan Woolley points out, if Paganism dies, it won’t be with a bang, but with a whimper.  It will be through a continuation of the slow process of dissolution that has already begun.  I don’t know if Paganism deserves to die, but I have to admit that the reasons why it deserves to survive don’t jump readily to mind.

When I asked this question at my UU church, only one person really articulated an answer.  She said that she believes that UUism has a saving vision for the world and it needs to be shared.  I  agree with her. The world needs UUs’ vision of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Unfortunately, UU’s don’t proselytize, so very few people ever hear about that saving vision. If they do learn about it, it likely is by getting to know UUs as they are engaged in fighting for social justice in the world in myriad ways.

Similarly, I believe that contemporary Paganism also has a saving vision that needs to be shared with the world: a vision of the inherent divinity and interconnectedness of all living beings, our physical bodies, and the earth itself.  Like UUs, Pagan’s have an aversion to proselytizing, which means that, if other people are ever to learn about our saving vision, then it will have to be through other forms of positive engagement with the non-Pagan world. Ryan C frames the question this way in his comment to Woolley’s article:

“[D]o we want more Pagans (increased numbers) or do we want Pagan ideas to be a broader part of social discourse and be accepted by non-Pagans as well?”

I think it’s time — past time, in fact — to pull our collective heads out of the self-created broom closet.  We need to set forth from our Pagan safe spaces, which have become intellectual ghettos, and move into the world.  We start working together — with each other and with non-Pagans — for a better world.  Then, if we survive, we can say we earned it.

70 thoughts on “Why Contemporary Paganism Deserves to Die

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  1. Another option might be to cheerfully step up and embrace our mission in the word to include telling people about our perspectives on things, establishing institutions and working through them, and all that kind of grown up stuff. I’m a Wiccan chaplain at University of Alberta, teaching a three credit course there on Wiccan Theology this fall, and founder of Edmonton Wiccan Seminary and Sacred Oak Wiccan Temple.

    I liked Woolley’s article and I think we need to stop being a fandom and get on with being a religion.

    Blessed Be

  2. “Several years ago, I heard what I think was best advice ever about improving the image of Paganism. Unfortunately I can’t remember who said it, but the gist of it was this:) Rather than coming out as Pagans and then trying to convince people we deserve to be on the school board or city council or whatever, we should join the school board or city council, show them we are good citizens and good people, and then come out as Pagans.”
    heh, well it may have been me, but I disengaged from “Modern Paganism” years ago. That has been my point of view for the myriad of years I’ve been a witch.

  3. Well written piece, and thanks for your perspective. I have found as a Pagan chaplain doing interfaith work, that the real benefit comes from being in relationship with the other. In essence, it is what you are saying about going out and just being who we are without screaming it from the hilltops.

  4. the wife and i are both ministers, and we have been specifically doing the “be a good person, THEN come out as pagan” for a while now. and our home has become a safe space for people to learn to understand… Literally anything we can help with form Alt gender, sexuality, and role in society, to PTSD, abusive parents and siblings , and getting away from the heroin addicted ex. ( i am also a recovering addict and alcoholic of 30 yrs). we often give our selves and other the simple advice that you cannot be the one who says ” take my advice , i’m not using it”

  5. Four other reasons Pagamism has not gone beyond adolescence (or perhaps reverted to infantilization). First, Pagans do not know what leadership is. So when leaders rise up who make worthwhile things happen, e.g. build an institution, Pagans undermine those leaders, the leaders move on, and without any leader, the institution fails. Then everyone involved wonders why. Second, Pagan are out there doing work in the world from the perspective of Paganism. But they are pilloried In social media and in their communities for doing so. Again, our leaders are undermined. Third, Pagans confuse leadership with being well known — for example for being a frequent writer on social media, rather than for being one who is doing the real on the ground hard work to make contributions in the world from a Pagan perspective. Fourth, Pagans do not know how to have a conversation across differences without tearing each other apart. In other words, they don’t converse from the perspective of their own stated beliefs in the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things — that we need to rely on one another and think through things together to make that better world — so stated principles are just lip service and not a real commitment to respectful dialogue for greater understanding.

    1. “First, Pagans do not know what leadership is. So when leaders rise up who make worthwhile things happen, e.g. build an institution, Pagans undermine those leaders, the leaders move on, and without any leader, the institution fails. Then everyone involved wonders why.”…… well said (and this article is also well said and thoughtful). As a 35 year member of the pagan community, I’ve quite a while ago stopped taking leadership roles because of what I call the “mediocrity imperative”.

      Paganism draws many people who rightfully need healing. Many are traumatized by conventional fundamentalist religion, and a large percentage of Pagans also suffer from sexual and emotional abuse, and come to Paganism seeking healing and family because here is a community that will not silence them. But the down side of this is a kind of “aesthetic of victimhood” or what Carolyn Myss called “woundology”. That community mindset can decimate someone who demonstrates exceptional talent or leadership in no time flat, scapegoating them into non-existance, and continually bringing the circle back to a nice comfortable realm of non-threatening, self-absorbed mediocrity.

      I do wish people would talk about this, because from my perspective, the real mission of Paganism, diverse as the term is, is to renew our experience of the sanctity of the Earth. Right now nothing could be more important.

    2. I think you have hit the nail on the head. We devour our leaders. The turnover rate for those with leadership skills and the ability and drive to build something fantastic for the community get burned out from doing it all alone or kicked out for what essentially boils down to jealousy. The talented leaders and teachers hole up and hermit themselves from community because they just can’t handle it anymore. It is brutal to be a leader in this community and moving beyond that is something I wish I had an answer for.

      1. For me it comes back to establishing institutions. Leaders are not leaders in a vacuum, but through organizations that pull together the energy of many people toward common goals. There is only so much a single person can do, but enormously more that a determined small group can do.

  6. Neo-Paganism, is a term we should be using, much as it has fallen out of favour, because we are The New Pagans. The reality is, we are a very young religion…much as we would like to trace our roots to Atlantiian Grandmothers… :-), or to previous movements that have inspired us. Our first real step in becoming a religion (or family of religions) was when Oberon Zell registered the Church of All Worlds as a church in 1967 with the US government. Before that, we had no official standing anywhere on this planet.

    Although it has been fifty years since that event, we are still struggling to define what we are, and how we do things. We are making things up as we go along, driven as much by the things that inspire us – Nature, The God & Goddesses, Humanity – as by our need to create community and find fellowship among people of like minds.

    As such, we need to realize that it is far too early to judge us as to our success or lack of it. In fact, we can’t even decide what constitutes success! Until we sit down and decide who we are, and what do we want, we will be spending energy that could be used to better purposes on asking if we are succeeding.

    1. I think arguing over labels is part of the problem. Let’s get on with doing that work in the world. That’s what matters.

  7. Reblogged this on Evil in Pink: and commented:
    This is a very good read. I was pagan for about five or six years and I am no longer for…a lot of reasons. Besides my disconnection with deity, I found my issues with the various pagan communities was irreconcilable. This article hits some points that I’ve made in private over the years.

    1. deearem, you’ve piqued my curiosity on what you had mentioned, “Besides my disconnection with deity, I found my issues with the various pagan communities was irreconcilable.” Would you be willing to elaborate on what you found was irreconcilable?

      What has been described in the comment section about leadership may very well explain my strong disinterest in ever picking up that role, even though I ended up founding a philosophy and practice that people have described as a Pagan Tradition. I personally hope for more of a collaborative role, but the vast majority of interactions on the subject of my practice is people asking for instruction and direction. Every time I try to encourage browsing and self direction. Each time I hope to find someone who feels confident enough to engage with me as an equal. Just because I ended up founding something and invented things, doesn’t mean I know everything there is to know that relates. Perhaps this is out of a desire for community from someone who is a solitary. And because there is so much demand from others who found an interest in the Path I founded for a more solid group structure, I have begun in earnest to make that a reality. I hope to go about it in a way that creates a firm foundation that helps build people and communities up, and that it takes a life of its own. I have a number of things to iron out before publishing it, but it has kindled an excitement in me because it is ultimately the next step in creating a community and I may end up getting what I have been looking for since founding my Path. I have come to accept that you cannot have community without taking those fundamental steps of taking the lead.

      1. I think this blog post sums it up nicely without me having to reiterate much, but the attitudes of the people, lack of organization, constant Christianity bashing in many circles, etc were things that I said, “Yeah this is a really toxic environment for me so I’m going to leave.” And now I’m just a Satanist and am much happier. Hope that answered your question, I guess?

  8. I think the situation in terms of numbers and growth is not as dire as some might suggest, less people are joining organisations and/or taking formal training, but I don’t think that means less people are being Pagan in their own lives and their own ways. Institutional religion across the board is falling, but I think small-p “pagan” ideas are having something of a renaissance.

    But otherwise, you’re not wrong. We need to move to looking outward, not inward, and we need to move beyond the same conversations about who is/is not Pagan-ish enough to be Pagan, roll up our sleeves and get out into the world.

  9. Modern Paganism has been over run with social justice warriors. It’s moved away from its core and heart. Earth Centered Spirituality. Get out of the freaking cities and get the mud between your toes, the soil under your fingernails. An plant something that lives within the Earth. You simply can not be a Pagan if you never leave the boundaries of your cage.. The City. Paganism will survive. But first it must purge itself from SJW that have NEVER experienced the heart beat of the Earth.

    1. We live in the country, we have for several years – we commute 50 plus miles to work. There are more Pagans here per capita than anywhere else we have lived. We own our property. HOWEVER, we are on the hard Left and we will, thank you, stay on the hard Left. SJW are what this country needs MORE OF not less, and it is a proud part of the particular Pagan tradition we joined. A group that, itself, actually is healthy with a pastor who actually is accepted into interfaith groups.

      Blessed be

  10. If contemporary Paganism insists on a continuation of 1) Isolation from the mainstream of society and 2) failure to adopt and embrace the Rede, then it will continue to fade slowly into that dark and silent night!
    We have found it comfortable and safe to exist on the edges of society by hiding in plain sight, while making it difficult for new seekers to find, much less join our Circles, Covens and groups! There should be Pagan Picnics and Pagan Pride Events in every major city in the nation. Finally, there is no logical rationale or excuse for discrimination or schism between Neo-Pagan Contemporary Witches and Wiccans.

    1. I can see how we are sometimes isolated from mainstream society, though far less so than we used to be, I do not see how adoption or not of the Rede has anything to do with whether or not paganism survives. The Rede comes from Wicca and not all pagans are Wiccan, and not even all Wiccans have the same interpretation of the Rede. I really think that has nothing at all to do with the survival of Paganism as a religious group.

      I will also say that yes, it is not always easy to find a circle or coven to join, small practicing groups tend to be picky about who they let in for good reason. However, when you start with events for public groups you may be able to get into a circle or coven as you get to know people. The public groups are much easier to find as well. We are all over facebook, meetup, local pagan stores (there are 7 in my city), massive amounts of blogs, if you start looking you can probably find a public group in most major cities. Small towns, yes that is an issue but just about anything outside the mainstream in a small town is tough to find. That is a part of small town life. I can tell you I know there are at least 4 cities in my state with Pagan Pride Day events and the two biggest cities have some pretty large Pagan communities. In fact, the one I live in has a very large festival every Memorial day that has been going on for over 20 years now. Finding community in a major city shouldn’t take much to do, but expecting to get into a coven or circle first thing seems a bit unreasonable to me.

  11. Why do you think that the absence of significant growth in numbers is equivalent to death? That is the same viewpoint that is destroying our world.

    1. Actually, I wrote above that I didn’t know if our numbers were increasing or decreasing and they very well could be increasing. The “death” I am talking about is the collapse of what few institutions we have and the dissipation of the bonds that connect our community. The number of people identifying as Pagan can increase and Paganism can still die.

  12. Just my personal thoughts here, I don’t intend to speak for anyone else. I’m speaking from my personal experience. I do identify as pagan or neo-pagan. This article really hit home with my feelings in some ways though. I was involved in a pagan group (still dues paying, but inactive actually, since I still want to support it) but stepped out of it for a number of reasons.

    I think part of the “failing” is with intolerance. People are SO judgmental. Being a non-theistic pagan is difficult (even though I’m big into Norse myths). Being a libertarian or republican pagan is difficult (even though my political opinions are quite moderate). People are so quick to say how terrible a person you are because you have a different political perspective, without giving you any chance to voice your reasoning. Paganism is full with liberal ideas and people, and even thought this may be naturally occurring because of its nature loving/diversity welcoming aspects, I personally know several people who are completely turned off of joining groups because of this. (I was deleted on Facebook by some pagan acquaintances because I defended my -family member’s- choice to vote for Trump.) I find it ironic too, because paganism general self identifies as loving diversity, as a safe space for the non-ordinary, but will slam the door in the face of differing ideologies. A deeper irony perhaps is that many folks who come to paganism, come to it looking for a place that is more open-minded, having left dogmatic religion like Christianity, but then become intolerant in their own way, and are accepting of their own brand of intolerance.

    Also, the immaturity I see in it is also a factor, I think. I started training for clergy, started getting a group together, but it’s because I want to perpetuate a religion, and give people a space to practice their religion, not deal with anyone else’s psychology. But the calibre/type of person paganism attracts are, quite frankly, weird, too weird for me to want to deal with. Why the pagan label brings the need to be a freak along with it, I have no idea, but it smacks of adolescence and the refusal to grow up and grow out of that phase. I’m not necessarily advocating “normalcy,” but there are social norms and socially acceptable ways to behave, dress, or speak to others, etc, and I think those things are too readily thrown out in the quest for individualism. The “I can do whatever I want, and you HAVE to accept me for it” type of thinking is unsustainable in group dynamics.

    I would love to go to more pagan events and talk to others about pagan/occult ideas, get a group started with others, but I’m not willing to put myself out there and risk the emotional pain of not being accepted because of my differences. I’ll probably get raked over the coals for this post. To me it’s sad that I feel like I may as well be talking about Christianity or going to church. And I’m not about to join a group that makes me feel the same way as the one I left.

    1. Mandalynne,

      Your story is tragic, but not surprising. I’ve been thinking lately about the hypocrisy of liberal intolerance for Republicans. I’ve been guilty of it myself, and I need to take a deeper look at it. I know it happens at my UU church too. There’s a long-time Republican couple there who constantly feel pushed to the margin.

      I totally get what you mean about Paganism attracting the “weird”. I think part of it is that Paganism attracts those who don’t fit into white/hetero/patriarchal/etc culture and have been wounded to one degree or another by that culture. I think it’s a good thing that Paganism offers outsiders a safe place to heal and find community. And their diversity can be an asset to the community in turn. And yet, they need to be challenged too — we all do. “Just be you” is hardly a robust ethic for a religion, but in some cases that’s what Paganism has devolved into. In some ways, far from being countercultural, the Pagan worship of individualism is actually just the culmination of Western culture’s worship of individualism.

      1. I do think that individualism taken to an extreme may be part of why paganism seems to be leveling out/stagnating in numbers. (I feel bad for using the work “freak” after having wrote my original comment, even though it fit the point I was trying to make.) A core family, traditional or otherwise, is where culture get passed on. Churches and groups can and do facilitate the passing on of traditions, but family is definitely where it “sticks,” in my opinion. The safe space created for outsiders, becomes not “unsafe” necessarily, but… Talking about Roman orgies in front of three generations, ages 5 to 65, who’ve invited you into their farm land/house to celebrate Ostara when they don’t even know you yet (yes, this is part of what happened in one of the groups I tried to organize) – is definitely not appropriate for children. It single handedly destroyed the group I had built up to that point since the land nor the house was mine. A little tact goes along way, and yes that involves conforming to socially acceptable behavior. Again, a lot of this is my experience talking. By no means do I think this has happened to everyone, and I know many have had a lot of positive experiences.

    2. I think the intolerance of differing political ideas is as much an issue in the larger culture as it is within the Pagan community and I think the larger culture is a part of why it is an issue in the Pagan community. We do certainly tend to lean left though.

      I think your comments on the immaturity in the community are exactly true. I have seen a lot of that, as well as the extreme weird, which I think we attract for a lot of reasons. It can be entertaining at times, but it can be a bit frightening as well.

      1. I agree that the political climate generally, has become a lot more aggressive over the last decade.

        I really don’t mind that we attract the weird. I love the weird, honestly. I wish I could be more expressive and weird myself a lot sometimes. I just don’t like that the pagan label has come to mean that you can let it all hang out, whenever, where ever, so to speak. I’m not sure if it was this article or another in the same vein that speaks to the idea of letting out that side, -after- you’ve proven yourself. I feel like that standard holds across the board, in any group or situation, pagan groups included.

        There is a girl I work with, who I think is 23 or so. She is all about dressing eccentrically, acting as much, and pushing the idea that she can do whatever she wants and that it’s ok. The reality is it isn’t at all, and her professional career is suffering because of it. She’s missing out on more challenging work, because others don’t trust her to stick to their vision, because she thinks her own is better. All it would take is for her to present herself and her ideas a little differently, and she could have just as much respect as anyone else.

        We don’t have to like that these societal pressures exist, but they do, and that is the reality of life. I think if paganism wants to grow and thrive it’s going to have to find a way to conform to that.

    3. Mandalynne – while I agree with some of what you say, I feel your own comment is flourished with a touch of hypocrisy. You speak of intolerance, yet judge the “freaks” not sticking to societal norms (some of which are out of date). You want to be accepted for who you are and what you believe, but seem unwilling to do the same.

      People, no matter their religious affiliation, are still people. We all have things we can tolerate more easily than others. I think the world would be a better place if we all realized that we don’t have to like everyone, but we do have to live around them. I think this is where John’s whole point of getting out there and DOING something good, doing what your religious beliefs call upon you to do (no matter what that is), and then coming out as a Pagan – could actually save the mantel of Paganism.

      As an aside, Mandalynne, you may feel feel nervous about putting yourself out there – and honestly I can’t blame you (I’m a total introvert w/ emotional baggage about finding and keeping friends) but there’s a tribe out there for you and you’ll find them.

      1. I appreciate your observation. I am very aware that my post seemed hypocritical (having anxiously read over it a hundred times. =D)

        It’s not that I’m unwilling to accept people. I am quite far from that really. I just think that there is an appropriate way to present oneself to others, and that certain situations and groups call for certain proprieties to be followed. Let it out in small doses, let people get comfortable with you first, test the waters of a group before letting it all hang out. That seems more like common social sense to me than anything, and that’s really all I’m trying to say. My ideas on this seem to connect with the ideas of Reciprocity.

        I would argue about societal norms being out of date. We can all live the way we choose, as long as we are not infringing on the rights of others to do the same. I don’t mind being called old-fashioned, as I don’t see anything wrong with being so. I am old fashioned in some ways, and very much not in others. But I am careful about what I pick and choose to reveal about myself, to whom, and to which social group. I find it has been wise over the years to behave this way. I have never felt that society should change to suit me. Granted some things are worth fighting for, but generally speaking, you have to conform to the group you want to be a part of, not the other way around.

        “I think the world would be a better place if we all realized that we don’t have to like everyone, but we do have to live around them..” is exactly what I am trying to say. The idea goes both ways.

    4. There is something to be said about being more tolerant about those with differing political views. But at the same time, from my POV there are many Republicans who hold some rather abhorrent beliefs. I also believe that communities have the right to set their own values and to let those who don’t hold those value know that they don’t have a place in the community. For a long time now the Big Tent of Paganism has embraced acceptance of sexual, gender and racial minorities, the respect for women’s rights and stewardship of the Earth as key values. (Although we do at times fail in our actions to uphold these values, to be fair). There are many in the Republican party who actively work against these values. I do know that people are conservative for many reason, some for social reason, and some for fiscal reason, and some because of both.

      If you’re a fiscal conservative. If you’re the type of conservative who believes small government and the free market are the cure for what ails America. Well, I disagree, but lets not talk politics and welcome to the Big tent. But if you’re the kind of conservative that believes that black people deserve to be assaulted by the cops for being mouthy, that queer people are perverts, that women who fight for affordable birth control must be sluts, that climate charge is a hoax, then I think it’s fair to say that you’re not a good fit in this community. Because you are opposed to the values that our community holds dear. And why would anyone want to be a part of a community that’s a terrible fit value-wise?

      I can relate to your concern about weirdness. A lot of pagans are members of counter culture subcultures. Not that I have a problem with counter culturalists, it’s just that I’m not a counter culturalist, and I find it kinda annoying that many pagans seems to assume that counter culture ideals matter to all pagans. Maybe it’s because I am a POC and that by default makes me an other in this country. I don’t really feel the need to make myself any more of an other, or to exist on the fringe of society any more than I already do. And I also agree that rebellion purely for the sake of rebellion, or bucking social norms just to be different and edgy is kinda adolescence. Maturity is being able to differ between which cultural norms are outdated and harmful and should be rebelled against, and those that have a legit place.

      As a parent of small children I can also relate to your discomfort of the “Roman Orgy” conversion that happened at (I’m assuming) your multi-generation event. I think we can be sex positive while at the same time understand that children are not developed mentally enough to handle certain topic, or to witness certain events. And personally I would love to see more family friendly pagan events. My advice is if you decide to hold another event like that in the future, is to make it clear that it is a family friendly event. No nudity, no alcohol or drugs, no overly sexual conversation, and have some sort of process set up to boot out those unwilling to follow those guidelines. I think that would be perfectly fair.


    i have contacted many wiccan and pagan group FB cites to see how many people can religiously support marijuana even in legal states so counties that do not allow nurses, teachers and truck drivers to use can use on weekends religiously and all of the groups were very conservative and unsupportive. i even presented history regarding a flying potion and hemp use even though that should not matter. shamanism has taken up this crucial part of humanity that many conservatives want to ignore.


  14. Four thoughts:

    1) We’ve nearly exhausted the pool of people who already had a predisposition for Paganism. Now it’s time to talk to everyone else, telling them why YOU should be Pagan. How do Paganisms address the problem of YOUR suffering? How will Paganisms help YOU reach YOUR potential? You You You!

    2) We need to move from a paradigm of defending ourselves against Abrahamic religion to a paradigm of telling the world that Abrahamic religion *is wrong.*

    3) Atheist Pagans, do what you do – I recommend more magnesium in your diet.; your pineal gland is a touch calcified – but Theist Pagans need to start telling the world that Atheism is wrong, that the Gods are alive. Modernity, by its nature, inclines toward Atheism. Whosoever slayeth that dragon begins the next Age. It’s time for a thorough critique of Atheism. We love you, but you are in error – and that should be our position. This of course brings up the issue of our attitude toward Atheist Pagans. I recommend pity and gentle condescension.

    4) It’s time to “Theurgicize” our rituals and make them less about honoring the Gods and more about participating in the Gods.

  15. This is a fantastic article John, and I agree with it entirely. I thank you, too, for giving me the idea to write my article to which you are responding here – it was after reading your retrospective on the past 50 years of Paganism that moved me to put down some of my thoughts on the future!

    I’m in the process of producing an academic paper on this process, where individualism is definitely going to be the focus. What I find interesting is that the individual plays a pivotal role in many forms of Paganism – as you say – structuring our life histories, our cosmology, and the community structures that have grown up organically over the years.

    I absolutely *adore* the question you ask here “Why does Paganism deserve to survive?” I think that is the single most vitally important question we must ask as a community, and – like you – I believe we have something incredibly important to say at this moment in history. It’s now widely acknowledged by leading climate scientists and activists that our present environmental duress is a spiritual – rather than simply economic, political, or technical – crisis, and that it is fundamentally linked to human misery. Paganism speaks directly to this effort. If we cannot be its champions, then what are we for?

  16. You dont mention one thing that the Aquarian Tabernacle Church is doing, which makes sense, because it doesn’t fit the narrative of deterioration. The Woolston-Steen Theological Seminary is not only open for business, but thriving. It is Monday, and we have 6 new students this week. Spiral Scouts is strong. The church at large is growing fast. Every year see’s a blevy of new dedicants, with old dedicants growing up and reaching second and third degree. New membership isn’t only up, but is further growing multi-nationally. (ATC Italy, anyone?) Our festivals are strong, we are expanding into new church owned land, and further connecting with the still vibrant community at large. We are connected, loud, proud, and moving forward.

    You said “The Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which is quite possibly the single largest expression of Pagan voices ever, has not yet collected a mere 10,000 signatures in the two years since it was published.” We have a saying in Paganism “Getting us to do anything is like herding cats” So, it does not surprise me that it hasnt garnered the signatures it is looking for, but more importantly your statement of “which is quite possibly the single largest expression of Pagan voices ever,” glosses over what is probably the actual most important expression of Pagan voices ever: The 1978 American Witches Council. I feel like the author has a narrow scope of the Pagan community at large, and is speaking on their personal view around them, and not the Pagan community outside of their purview.

    There are indeed leaders in Paganism that are not doing well, but that is because their focus has remained on the self, and not the community. This is evident in this post. It’s all about what you can see, and not about what is actually going on. The communities at large are strong and ready for leadership and groups that speak to the new Common Person. The old guard desired privacy and secrecy. New Pagans aren’t afraid to be loud and proud of their faith. They are looking for public spaces, outspoken leaders, and events that bring them closer to deity. Pagan leaders of the past had striven to concretize the standing of their own works and services. Very few people worked together. It was about making sure their house was in order, not the world that house existed in. But just look at the outspoken groups: Circle Sanctuary: Strong. The Correlian Natiavist Tradition: Strong. The Aquarian Tabernacle Church: Strong. These groups are out in the public eye, working on community issues, and growing. Each of these groups has a long history of working for the public good. Colleges, festivals, political matters, multi-media. Paganism grows when it is a community effort. A *gasp* church with clergy that minister to the dying, build housing for the poor, beautify their communities, serve hand-fastings, bless babies, and generally make an impact on the world around them. What people are not looking for anymore, are private covens who are insular and dont push out into their world. Today’s Pagans are looking for communities, not clubs.

    We have enough authors. We have enough speakers and teachers and musicians. Not to say that we wont always need our people to express themselves with their arts, but it is to say that we also need those that are willing to get down in the trenches and do the work of clergymen. Hold someones hand while they are dying, and see if the community that loved that person doesnt support your work.

    If you have never been to the Pagan communities in the Mid-South, then you dont have a full picture of what growing Paganism looks like, today. It isnt about the Celebrity Pagans. It’s about the home grown, get down and do the work, Pagans. It’s the churches who are rebuilding their communities in the same manner that Christian churches used to. Paganism is strong and growing, it just got back into the mud and started doing the work. Sure, those of the old guard who spent most of their time creating magic and putting on a show for the public are sacred and they helped normalize the craft. But that isnt where we are now. People know us. They know we dont worship the devil. They know we love the Earth and we stand for her rights.

    But if your local Pagan groups are failing, it is because they are not changing with the times. And the times they are a changin’. You want respect and a loud voice for your Pagan community? Adopt a highway. Join the Chamber of Commerce. Buy a booth at the local fair. Spoon some soup for the homeless. We are no longer in the age of “Look at me” Paganism. You want to be a part of the Pagan community that is alive and kicking today? Get in line and get to work.

    An easy reference guide to getting involved, and remaining relevant:

    1: Take care of the world outside of our groups
    2: Participate in community building with our Christian communities
    3: Offer a product of substance that stands for something outside of your personal beliefs
    4: Work as hard as you can
    5: Dont be a boss. Be a leader. Bosses bark orders. Leaders get out front, haul on the rope, and yell “PULL!”
    6: Make a difference in the life of children.

    1. >”… Aquarian Tabernacle Church …”

      That’s awesome to hear. I didn’t realize ATC was doing so well, though the ads I’ve seen for the Rites of Spring at Witches & Pagans made me think it was. Is ATC more of a regional presence? I haven’t actually met anyone at Pantheacon or in the Midwest who is connected with ATC yet.

      >”… probably the actual most important expression of Pagan voices ever: The 1978 American Witches Council. …”

      I’m glad you brought up the ACOW. (I have it as 1973, though, not 1978.) It only lasted a year, which kind of illustrates my point. As does the fact that two recent attempts to revive it died on impact. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2015/03/06/witch-is-worse-why-we-need-an-american-council-of-witches-or-something/

      The original ACOW did manage in that year to produce a document entitled the “Thirteen Principles of Wiccan Belief” which was later incorporated into the Army’s Military Chaplain’s Handbook. So, yes, it had an important impact. But I suspect you will find that most Pagans today disagree with at least one of the “13 Principles”, often vehemently so.

      Also, I would point out that calling the Pagan environmental statement “the single largest expression of Pagan voices ever” is not making any claim about its “importance”, though I do think the Pagan environmental statement is more salient today than the 13 Principles.

      Can you provide me some links to what ATC and the Correlian tradition are doing “in the public eye, working on community issues”? I would love to lift them up as examples of what we need to be doing.

      I love your list, so I’m copying it here:

      “1: Take care of the world outside of our groups
      2: Participate in community building with our Christian communities
      3: Offer a product of substance that stands for something outside of your personal beliefs
      4: Work as hard as you can
      5: Dont be a boss. Be a leader. Bosses bark orders. Leaders get out front, haul on the rope, and yell “PULL!”
      6: Make a difference in the life of children.”

      1. > That’s awesome to hear. I didn’t realize ATC was doing so well, though the ads I’ve seen for the Rites of Spring at Witches & Pagans made me think it was. Is ATC more of a regional presence? I haven’t actually met anyone at Pantheacon or in the Midwest who is connected with ATC yet.

        You saw our beautiful ad? We have been enjoying a large amount of love from the community recently. Spring Mysteries Festival has indeed been very successful and is a good example of the ATC’s forward momentum. The ATC is multi-national. Though we have a strong Washington Presence (as the Mother Church is here) we are multi-national. As I posted earlier, ATC Italy (Circolo de Trevi) is modeling their rise after the ATC’s battles in the 80’s and 90’s. On the topic of PantheaCon, if you missed Drunken Divination in our Suite the last two years, then you missed a good time! We also have read to children, and taught classes on the rigors of a group surviving their leader dying and using invocation as a form of worship. Look us up next year 🙂

        In the east coast you can find a good many ATC churches and events. Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, and Arkansas for example, all have ATC churches and events with members spanning all 50 states.

        >I’m glad you brought up the ACOW. (I have it as 1973, though, not 1978.) It only lasted a year, which kind of illustrates my point. As does the fact that two recent attempts to revive it died on impact.

        What I have been told by all of the Elders I have talked to about this, is that it was never meant to be a long term gig. The whole point was to come together, work out some rules, and then part ways, so the disbanding after a year was, as far as I have heard from multiple sources, deliberate. And on the topic of “The Witchy Council of Super Friends” or as you may have heard it called “The US American Council of Witches”, started once by Kay Berri, and the second time by a ‘tribunal’ declaring that Goddess had given them the right to govern (Sara Amis wrote an article about them) were spin-offs of an original concept. Much the way the local state run RFRA’s are an affront to the bill signed into law by Bill Clinton that allowed Native Americans the right to use ceremonial herbs. The two really aren’t connected.

        >The original ACOW did manage in that year to produce a document entitled the “Thirteen Principles of Wiccan Belief” which was later incorporated into the Army’s Military Chaplain’s Handbook. So, yes, it had an important impact. But I suspect you will find that most Pagans today disagree with at least one of the “13 Principles”, often vehemently so.

        The same can be said for our constitution, but it remains an important document.

        > Can you provide me some links to what ATC and the Correlian tradition are doing “in the public eye, working on community issues”? I would love to lift them up as examples of what we need to be doing.

        I cant speak for many of the inner workings of the Correlians, but they run Witch School, The Correlian Family Hour Podcast, and YouTube’s MagickTV. All of which yield them a VERY impressive community and fellowship that spans thousands of people world wide.

        The ATC has a myriad things it has worked on and is working on. We worked on the Tombstone Pentacle. We signed your Environmental Call to Action, We helped sue the USS Chandler which opened the door for worship circles in the military. (The man who called me after Pete’s death told me that though it ruined his military career, that it was the single most important thing to ever happen in the fight for Pagan rights in the military) We also work hard and heavy in the Prison Systems, with our affiliate church “The Alexandrian Church of Universal Metaphysics” being the only prison chaplains in the state of Colorado with carte blanch ability to go to every state run prison in CO. In our own prison system in WA I have been told by the head chaplains that when the prisons have a trained Wiccan Clergy-person visiting with them, that they have the least issues of re-offense. We also have the Church of Ildanach in Massachusetts who work solely with Prison Ministries.

        Our affiliates in Lake City Arkansas are helping rehabilitate an entire community that has fallen on such hard times that you can buy the bank, it’s land, and all of the things inside of the building for $5000. Our people are normalizing the craft in the face of bullets and hate crimes in the Mid-South. Church of the Apple Oak had their Yule shot up by a pickup truck full of people. No one was hurt, thankfully. When they ask new dedicants if they are willing to die for the craft, they mean it. The ATC, with it’s place within the government Rolodex, has the ability to bring legitimacy to these churches. I dont know if you know about Arkansas, but without a laundry list of puppy papers, they will not recognize a church as legal. The ATC uniquely carries such a list of puppy papers including a Corporate Sole, an Umbrella Tax Exemption (we can literally make unique tax exempt entities without them having to go through the IRS. Exactly the same as the Vatican and Salt Lake City), and a legally recognized Seminary.

        Our state recognized school, The Woolston-Steen Theological Seminary hosts a .edu website (WiccanSeminary.edu) and has been given degree granting ability from Associates to Doctorate by the state of Washington. A school cannot get a .edu without being legitimate in the eyes of the state. We also started and help maintain SprialScouts.

        The ATC works tirelessly to fight political decisions that would harm the community. Historically it was prayer in school, most recently it was fighting Georgia’s SB 129 “Anti-Gay Bill” and the local RFRA’s. We have even reached out and helped small community Christian Churches that have not known their rights. A North Carolina church was just having this issue because their services were too loud and the police kept shutting them down. I called them and coached them on how to keep the doors open and stay legal.

        Historically, The ATC has worked tirelessly and quietly in the background; making sure that all Pagans could worship without having to dirty their own hands in governmental political detritus. Pete has passed, though, and his way of muscling through problems without saying anything about it is over. The new management is focused on love and community building, Our institutions are growing while bringing together groups worldwide.

        I really appreciate you giving me an opportunity to share some of what we do with you.

  17. You are super welcome. I wouldn’t say that the 13 Principles speak for all of Paganism in the way the American Constitution and Bill of Rights do. I DO think they are important concerning how society saw us before the ACOW, vs how they currently see us. That being said, I think they are important guide-stones that outline a very basic idea of who we are, generally.

  18. Thank you for writing this, John. I am in comolete agreement that the pervasive self-absorption is causing our communities and institutio s to fail. We need to be discussing the realities you acknowledge here across all our groups and consider what parts of the modern Pagan movement are worthy of continuing. Evolution is a process of mostly dying off.

  19. A few thoughts. I’ve long felt that religion in general is a human construct designed to provide an expanded substitute for family and tribal structure, something that developed in the ancient world along with the first true cities, which in turn forced different tribes to live together interdependently. If you look at all of the major religions, they are closely intertwined with the social order. That includes ancient Paganism. There isn’t a single ancient city that I’m aware of that didn’t have its own patron deity, and the so-called pantheons are merely global collections of these individual deities of place.

    Roman Catholicism strictly ordered the Western Medieval life in the chaos left by the fall of the Western Empire of Rome. The Protestant Reformation developed at the same time capitalism, European imperialism, and slave trade were rising, marking the end of the old (static) social order of hereditary estates and fixed classes.

    We are now moving into a post-capitalist period of world history, after a five-century run of extreme individualism and rapacious profit by extraction and exploitation, with the largest and densest human population that has ever been — or at least, that has ever been in any known historical period: no one knows what the Denisovans were doing two ice ages ago. It’s hard to even guess what is going to bind us together as a global community — if, indeed, anything can.

    I think the neo-Pagan approach grasps one of the essential features of whatever might unite us all, which is that we have to incorporate the non-human world into our “family.” It is no longer sufficient to merely bind different tribes; we must bind all tribes to the earth. This is by no means unprecedented: every isolated culture, e.g. the island cultures, has faced exactly this same problem. Some went extinct. Some thrived for millennia.

    What Pagans have not grasped is that whatever comes has to be a structure that shapes and supports the new social order. Which doesn’t yet exist. The social response to cutting the wrong tree at the wrong time, or fishing the waters out of season, will eventually be every bit as severe as cutting down a human life at the wrong time (i.e., murder). This has been the case at various points in the past, e.g. in Shogunate Japan, where forestry was strictly regulated and infractions punished by death. Most neo-Pagans have never considered such things, and when they do, they are called “ecoterrorists” and are violently suppressed by the current order.

    I’m not convinced that humans can make this leap: we also have the alternative of extinction, or — because the world is so large — periodic “cullings” that reduce the population to levels that leave us in smaller, isolated groups. Of course, I’m sure that pessimists in pre-dynastic Egypt could not see how they could get beyond their tribal conflicts and form the Egyptian empire.

    If we do adopt an earth-consciousness and a global social order, it will take generations, if not centuries, for it to form, and it will be driven by necessity and opportunity, not conscious choice. That is not now. We are still living in the old order, where a prosperity-gospel church can easily draw a steady congregation of 5000 people.

    I think the important thing is exactly what neo-Pagans are doing. They are collecting and collaborating on ideas, and memes, and then leaving the neo-Pagan fringe and drifting into other environments, carrying those memes with them.

    My $0.02.

  20. In my personal opinion, a lot of converted pagans still have a lot of hangups. Not necessarily beliefs, but regarding religion – how to structure groups, how to define terms, etc.

    I’ve done the leadership thing and it’s exhausting. When a few people try to do everything, the burnout is too high.

    I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that mass Pagan events or groups aren’t really necessary or desirable to me. I like going to pagan festivals with a few hundred people. I like autonomous living-room or backyard covens. I like the loose association rather than widespread (read: exclusive) mission statements.

    I do think the world benefits by having pagan ideas – fertility, seasonal awareness, interconnectedness, etc. I don’t think that people need to be pagan to respect the Earth, though. We can live our values and show them to others without either proselytizing or trying to do everything and be everything.

  21. This is a really neat post. I wasn’t sure what to make of your stance at first, judging by the title, so it caught my attention immediately. I really had no idea that pagans had issues with self-absorption, but in my opinion, paganism is not the only religion guilty of that. I do agree, though, that moving on with your spiritual development is far more important than how others perceive your spiritual development. I like the idea presented in your post that pagans should “come out” after having already entered valued public positions, not as a way of hiding their faith, but to prove that they’re just regular people like anyone else. That’s classy!

  22. I love this. Thank you for writing it. So many of us fled structured religions because they felt trite but the habits were so strong we brought them right along into Paganism. Labels do not matter. Deity does. Connection does. Love, Love.

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