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.
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, Pagans 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.