5 Ways Paganism Needs to Grow Up

Paganism is at a turning point.  It’s been 50 years since contemporary Paganism got its start.  It’s time for Paganism to grow up.

Stages of Faith

Note that I didn’t say that it’s time for Pagans to grow up.  Different people are at different point in their life’s journey.  Childhood and adolescence are important stages of development.  There are stages in a person’s religious or spiritual development as well.  And, as much as most of us would have liked to skip adolescence, it’s not possible to skip stages.  The same is true of spiritual adolescence.

There are various ways these stages can be demarcated.  Psychologist James Fowler divides the spiritual life cycle into six stages.  Pagan Elder, Aidan Kelly, described three stages in his book Crafting the Art of Magic.  Following Carl Jung, psychologist James Hollis and Christian mystic Richard Rohr both use a simple two stage division: “first-half” and “second-half”.  What all of them have in common is the recognition that there is a process of maturation on one’s spiritual life, just as there is in other aspects of one’s life.

I think the same is true about the life of religious communities.  Social movements seem to mature more slowly than the people who constitute them, so though Paganism celebrates its 50th year this year, ours is not yet a middle-aged religion.

Some of us don’t like to think of Paganism as a “new religious movement”, but that’s the category that sociologists of religion out us in–and for good reason. Many contemporary Pagans eschew the prefix “Neo-” (as in “Neo-Paganism”), but technically speaking, that is what we are.  I have heard many Pagans say that the prefix is inappropriate because we are not “new” any longer, but he notion that a religion which is less than 50 years old is anything but new betrays a certain historical myopia.

In any case, it is true that we are not as new as we used to be.  And if contemporary Paganism can’t yet be said to be mature, we might at least make the claim that we are moving out of our adolescence into a young adulthood.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Paganism was in its infancy.  It had only recently been named (by Oberon Zell) and a collective identity was slowly beginning to emerge around the name. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we started to form the rudiments of religious institutions. These were Paganism’s primary school days.  It wasn’t until the 1990s, that Paganism transitioned into adolescence.  Paganism stepped out of the closet and into the world.  With the expansion of access to the World Wide Web came the exponential growth of access to Pagan resources.  We are now, I think, on the verge of entering a collective young adulthood.

Growing Up

Unlike with biologically development, which proceeds whether we will it or not, spiritual development can be retarded.  We can choose, consciously or unconsciously, to remain in an immature spiritual state. The same is true with religious communities.

According to James Hollis and Richard Rohr, what distinguishes the first half of a person’s spiritual journey from the second half is a shift from the work of building one’s ego to the work of building community with others.  According to this model, we spend the first half of our spiritual journey building a stable identity (what Jungians call “individuation”), and the second half is spent on becoming a part of a community. Fans of Joseph Campbell will notice that there is some overlap between this model of spiritual growth and Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

The transition from one stage to another can be gradual and fitful, and there may even be lapses into an earlier stage, but there generally speaking the process is unidirectional.

The notion of “halves” is somewhat misleading. The transition from the first “half” to the second “half” can happen any time really.  Some people do it as early as their 20s, while others are still working on the first half in their 60s.  But the point is, the first half cannot be skipped.  You have to build a “container”, before you can fill it.  That “container” is the ego.  A person needs an ego, before they can set it aside for something larger.

Paganism is at a point where it’s time for us to make this transition, to shift our gaze from an inward focus, to an outward focus.  Of course, it is essential that we still provide space for people to work out the first stage of their spiritual journey, to do the inner work.  But it’s time for Paganism as a whole to grow up.  If we don’t make this transition, if we don’t, as a community, mature beyond the first stage of spiritual development, then we will continue to only attract people who are in the first stage of spiritual development, and we will only keep them for as long as they are in that first stage.  When they make the transition to the second stage, they will leave Paganism.

Here’s five ways our community can take the next step into young adulthood, all of which have to do with moving beyond the ego into community.  Each one starts with a commonly-heard phrase in Pagan circles and challenges us to move beyond an ego-centric mindset.

1. “I’m the genuine article.” — It’s not all about you.

I believe that Paganism’s single greatest weakness is our ego-centrism.  It’s normal and healthy for adolescents to be self-absorbed.  But it’s not normal and healthy to remain in a perpetual adolescence.  Paganism has gone through its formative period when we consolidated our communal identity.  And in 1980s, we went through an existential crisis in the form of the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax.

But, in many ways, we never fully moved beyond this stage as a community.  The result is that we are obsessed with ourselves and what people think of us.  What energy isn’t spent trying to prove “authenticity” and fighting with ourselves over boundary maintenance and identity wars is still devoted to trying to convince outsiders that we deserve the same rights, respect, etc. as other religions.

I certainly have spent my fair share of time on these issues.  And Pagans will continue to do so.  But we need something more.  What has now come to be called the “Ballard Query” (from Byron Ballard) has become a touchstone for me, and I hope to see it become a touchstone for our community:

“Ain’t you people got no gods to worship? No holy days to celebrate? No Ancestors to deal with, er I mean venerate? In short — don’t you people have some sacred work to do? Justice work? Environmental work? Community weaving?”

2. “You do you and I’ll do me.” — Self-expression for self-expression’s sake is immature.

Fritz Muntean has argued that the defining characteristic of Pagans in the early 1960 and 1970s was not pantheism or polytheism, but hedonism.  Fritz identifies the guiding ethical principles of hedonistic Paganism as “impulse” (“follow your feelings”), “self-expression” (“let it all hang out”), “situational appropriateness” (“go with the flow”; “different strokes for different folks”), and “self-awareness” (“be here now”).

There is nothing wrong with hedonism, in and of itself.  But a spirituality which begins and ends with hedonism is ego-centric and therefore immature.  Paganism should be more than a fashion statement.  I believe we have a deeper wisdom to share with the world.  I am Pagan, not because Paganism let’s me do my own thing, but because I believe that, collectively, we Pagans have the power to re-enchant the world.

Rebellion for rebellion’s sake is not virtuous; it’s adolescent.  What’s more, it isolates us.  And isolation does not serve us or the world.  Our power to effect change—our magic—is inversely proportional to our insularity.  Spirituality practiced in isolation is a recipe for a shallow spirituality.  There are times to withdraw from the world, to turn inward, and heal.  But then we need to go forth from the labyrinth of the self and into the world—both because the world challenges us, and also because we have a responsibility to carry our insight into the other communities we belong to.

3. “You can’t make me.” — The fear of institutions is as unhealthy as dependence on them.

There are those in the Pagan movement—both young and old—who don’t want to see Paganism became anything more than a cult of individualism. The reason for this has a lot to do with how people come to Paganism. Many people who are drawn to Paganism come from oppressive religious structures which have made unhealthy demands for self-denial and sacrifice.  Paganism’s focus 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.

I sympathize with the suspicion of institutions, and I would resist any attempt to turn Paganism into anything resembling a “church” (which increasingly appears to be a defunct institution).  But opposition to all organization on principle serves nothing but the egos of certain individuals.  It reduces our community to the lowest common denominator—the heckler and the troll.  These destructive personalities should not be allowed to define our collective agendas, because their only agenda is the destruction of all agendas.

Many Pagans are no strangers to political action.  But the effectiveness of our actions is often diminished by the cacophony of our diverse voices. If we could join our voices in protest as well as we can join our bodies and spirits in ritual, then our actions would be much more powerful. Speaking and acting “in harmony” with each other does not necessitate us all being of one mind or agreeing on every point. We Pagans often speak of attuning ourselves to nature and the cycles of the Earth. Similarly, we need to strive to “attune” with one another, temporarily setting aside our egos and prioritizing our individual disagreements, when a collective voice is urgently needed to effect change.

“There seems to be some confusion between empowerment and narcissism in our culture—as if ‘I can do whatever I want’ is the epitome of the American ideal.  As if the tyranny we seek to empower ourselves against is simply ‘the tyranny of other people’s very existence,’ as opposed to the tyranny of unchecked power that destroys community and society.  The ideology of narcissism—‘I can do whatever I want, it’s a free country’—is an ideology that shrinks us and makes us smaller people, lacking in empathy. Whereas true empowerment comes by joining together in common cause with others and becoming people.”

— Rev. Scott Aaseng

4. “Who are you to judge?” — Avoidance of criticism leads to group-think.

Everyone needs safe spaces where they can talk about their spiritual experiences, and their tentative interpretations of those experiences, without fear of criticism, constructive or otherwise.  But if that’s where we choose to stay, then those “safe spaces” become intellectual ghettos.  We need to get over the desire to insulate ourselves from criticism.  Once we have developed a healthy ego, we can survive some self-reflection and criticism from external sources.

We Pagans need to get comfortable with idea that criticism can be constructive.  So long as we avoid criticism, we are vulnerable to self-deceit and groupthink.  Sometimes that criticism comes come from friends, but sometimes it takes an outsider to challenge us to ask the hardest questions about ourselves and our experiences.  When done in a spirit of openness and humility, critical questioning benefits both sides in the conversation, and the community as a whole.

“I suspect that for many Pagans this iconoclasm has begun to run amok. An example of this could even be our increasing fascination with unverified personal gnosis. Gnosis is used to justify all manner of idiosyncratic beliefs, and then, when those beliefs are questioned, the believer retreats behind gnosis and personal experience as though that is the absolute end of the discussion. This kind of behavior is incredibly dangerous to the work of community building, and I believe leads to an overindulgent, self-obsessed, special snowflake mentality. So many contemporary Pagans seem to have convinced themselves that they are in constant direct communication with their Higher Self/Guardian Angel/Dionysus/Superman that every single thought or desire is automatically given Divine imperative. This is the sort of thing that so many of us find so disturbing about the New Age community, which is almost constantly being critiqued as solipsistic and blinkered.”

— Julia Betkowski, “Looking at Our History: Egocentrism and Our Future”

5.  “Who does it hurt?” — It’s time to move beyond the Rede.

One of the most common responses I get from other Pagans to critical articles like this one is, “Who is it hurting?”  Where is the harm, they ask, when a Pagan insists on wearing plastic horns in their driver’s license photo?  This question assumes an ethic which, consciously or unconsciously, is founded in the Wiccan Rede: So long as it harms no one else, do what you will.

I actually do think there is harm caused by this kind of “self-expression” (which I have written about here), but even assuming there is no harm, I still don’t think it’s an adequate response.  “Who is it hurting?” you ask?  My response is “Who is it helping?”  “Where is the harm?” you ask?  My response is “Where is the help?”  How does this help the world?  Pagan ethics has for too long been governed by a libertarian rule of freedom of expression and avoidance of harm, divorced from corresponding ethic of mutual responsibility and care, which are the hallmarks of relationship and reciprocity.

Phyllis Curott was the guest of honor this year at the Chicago Pagan Pride Day .  The title of her keynote talk was “Beyond the Wiccan Rede: Grounding Pagan Activism in the Sacred”.  Curott argued that the Rede “just not good enough for the challenges mature Pagans, and the world, face.”  I agree.  Like, Curott, I think the source of a mature Pagan ethic is to be found in the concept of interconnectedness.  When we experience everything as interconnected, we are called to a politics of compassion for all living beings and the earth itself.

6 thoughts on “5 Ways Paganism Needs to Grow Up

Add yours

  1. You have this elder HearthKeeper jumping for joy. I said this 15 years ago when I decided to move away from the greater pagan community. Now that I’ve returned…well….the internet has made the problem far more obvious.

  2. I would disagree that Paganism is moving into adulthood, more that it is experiencing the effects of expanded adolescence. Just as we are realizing that humans are taking longer to reach adulthood (I mean, in the past 100 years, we’ve basically added 10 years onto our perceived start of adulthood), I feel that Paganism is feeling these effects as well. And I know my experiences are significantly different, because everything comes to my area of the world about 10 years later than everywhere else, but for me, the pagans I encounter are still well encapsulated in adolescence. So I guess my question would be, when discussing Pagan communities, how do we effectively discuss community when those who benefit from access to more urban locales are further along than those in more rural areas, and what does this say about our movement? For those of us in rural areas, we have little social supports (understandably), but we also do not have an accessible foundation of beliefs and practice to draw from. I would argue that for rural Pagans, we are still navigating industry v. inferiority, placing us firmly in childhood, and how does this reflect back onto the idea that the Pagan movement is somehow reaching adulthood.

    1. I was raised in an extremely rural area….and the few pagans I encountered in the region were far more mature about their path than, say, what I see now. Could it be the result of the internet that we are seeing en masse pagans stuck in childhood? We have access to so much more “good stuff” in literature than we did 15 years ago…but far more child-like behavior and lack of growth on the part of many pagans in the community. At this point in time (Wicca being founded officially a little over 50 years ago) we should be growing up.

      On the plus side..the first large Pagan Pride Day I attended 15 years ago in a city looked more like a large band of Ren Faire escapees. I went to another one in a different state 15 years later (2 weeks later) and was pleased — and shocked — to find “normal looking people” who happened to be pagan.

  3. I need to add a #6: “Like it or leave it.” This is a combination of #3 and #4 above. Any criticism of Paganism is deflected by saying, “If you don’t like it, go somewhere else and start your own religion.” This is a recipe for transient and ineffective community. We need people in our community who are willing to critique it. It’s called loyal opposition. And we need it, if we our community is to grow.

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