Pagan with a small “p”


I recently met someone who described himself as “Pagan-adjacent”, which I thought was an interesting self-designation.  He was a (self-described) “angry atheist” who followed atheism to its logical end and was left wanting. He intuited that there was something else–something bigger and/or deeper–but no one seemed to be writing or talking about it. Then he discovered David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous, which he experienced as revolutionary.

He told me that he knows “in his bones” that “the sacred is in the soil and the wind,” but he is turned off by a lot of what he sees in the Pagan community.  By way of example, he told me about an encounter with a Pagan group where he heard one person talking about how great the divination app on her phone was.  I know what he is talking about.  What has a divination app to do with the sacred soil?

I’ve felt pretty much the same way for 15 years, for as long as I have been calling myself “Pagan” in fact.  I came to the Pagan community because I thought here was where I would find that something bigger and deeper.  But almost everywhere I look, I see the small and shallow.  Almost everywhere I look, I see Pagans reproducing the disenchantment of the mainstream culture.

Small-p paganism?

The most “pagan” rituals I have done, haven’t been as part of the Pagan community.   What does that say?  And the most “pagan” experiences I have had had nothing to do with the kinds of things you read about in Pagan books, or the kinds of things you can buy at Pagan shops, or most of the things talked about in workshops at Pagan festivals and conferences.  They aren’t the kinds of things that can be claimed by the Pagan community, or any particular religious community for that matter.  They are “pagan” with a “small-p”, but not really “Pagan” with a capital-P.

I’m talking about standing on a rocky shore of the Pacific ocean, the breakers crashing below me, the wind whipping my hair and caressing my skin, and a great inarticulate shout of joy welling up from somewhere deep in me.  I’m talking the exultation of a demanding hike up the side of a mountain and feeling the inexplicable compulsion to build a rock altar at the top.

I’m also talking about more common experiences, like laying in the grass in the summer and letting the my skin drink in the sun and the air until it it spills out of me in a semi-articulate prayer of thanksgiving.  I’m talking about the sacrament of eating a ripe mango and letting the juice drip unself-consciously down my face.  I’m talking about experiencing sweaty, passionate sex in the candlelit dark as an act of worship, worship both of my partner and of the Holy Body that we are all a part of.

And I’m also talking about rituals which arise without effort, naturally, as a result of contact with the Holy Body of the earth.  I’m talking about pouring libations and feeling my sense of sensual connection with the world restored, the stream of liquid becoming a living connection between myself and the earth.  I’m talking about the simplest of gestures, like raising my hands toward the sun, as instinctual, and yet powerful, rituals for re-enchanting the world.

What I am describing is, in Michael York’s words, “worship at this nonreflective and almost spontaneous stage…stripped of its theological overlay or baggage and expressive of the root level of religion.”  This is what York identifies as “pagan” (with a small-p), what he describes as “reflexive”, “natural”, and springing from the “fundamental human need to worship or express veneration.”  This is “paganism” with a lower-case “p”, not the capital-P Paganism of Pagan bookstores, shops, and conferences.

From Archetype to Anima Mundi

I recently re-read a post I wrote almost six years ago about the disconnect I was feeling from the Pagan community at the time.  I was a self-described Neo-Pagan in an increasingly Reconstructionist community.  I was a Jungian archetypalist in an increasingly hard polytheist community.  And I was a Naturalistic Pagan in a community with deep cultural ties to the metaphysical and the occult.  The disconnect has, if anything, grown stronger.

Over the last several years, my own paganism has evolved.  Like my new acquaintance, I experienced David Abram’s writing about depth ecology as revolutionary, and partially as a result of Abram’s influence, my own paganism has drifted away from archetypal polytheism toward a naturalistic animism.  I resonate with the author of “To Rust Metallic Gods: An Anarcho-Primitivist Critique of Paganism”, who invites pagans to…

“deepen their bonds to wildness and vitality, to hone sensation more than honor symbols, to root into place. Rather than treating the elements as mystical and external, find your strand in life’s web of relations. Go back to the source. Toward wildness directly. Toward animism.”

Right now, I am striving to follow the author’s advice to “approach a landbase with child-like wonder, to approach the world openly” and to be “open to anomaly, not bounded to archetype.”  Or as Comrade Black has puts it so directly: Climb a fucking tree!:

“The reality is that before there was polytheistic religions that worshiped symbolic gods of the harvest, war, fertility, or death, there was an older non-theistic religion based in place. If you want to worship nature, you don’t need a sunwheel, pentacle, or a godess to do so–go out and climb a fucking tree, sit in it’s branches, learn ecology, listen to the wind rustling the leaves through the branches, watch the squirrels, strip naked and swim in the river as the sun sets. Then do whatever it takes to stop those fuckers who wanna cut that tree cause all they see is dollar signs.”

The New Pagan Orthodoxy

Unfortunately, my shift from archetypalism to animism has only heightened the tension I feel with the rest of the Pagan community.  It’s not just that most Pagans believe in literal gods and/or the efficacy of practical magic while I don’t.  It’s that those beliefs manifest as distractions from the very things that I identify as “pagan”.

In the meantime, I have had dozens of antagonists within the Pagan community tell me in no uncertain terms that they don’t consider me “Pagan”, because I don’t follow the new Pagan orthodoxy.  The following is just a sample of some of the more caustic comments I have received over the years:

“It isn’t simply my objective to express personal disapproval of atheist ‘pagans.’ My objective is to remove them, to the best of my ability, from the pagan sphere.”

“Many of us are really striving to do away with the outmoded idea that being a dirty hippie is enough to be ‘pagan.’ Fucking in the woods and running around a maypole does not a pagan make.”

These choice bits came from a moderator of a nominally inclusive Pagan online discussion forum.  You can imagine the effect this has on the rest of that community when a person charged with fostering civil discussion is so antagonistic to difference.

I’ve argued with these people ad nauseam.  I’ve defended “fucking in the woods and running around a maypole” as quintessentially pagan.  I’ve made my case for a “Big Tent” Paganism which includes Neo-Pagans and Recons, soft and hard polytheists, and naturalistic and occultist Pagans.  If anything, I think my efforts have only encouraged deeper entrenchment on the other side.


Along the way, I have met a lot of great people who feel the same way as I do.  We’ve even built a small, mostly online community of like-minded people.  But a lot of these folks either do not call themselves “Pagan” or tend to avoid other Pagans.  Unfortunately, this just reinforces the perception that the Pagan community belongs exclusively to the Recons, hard polytheists, and occultists.

A friend of mine, Glen Gordon, is representative.  Several years ago he wrote the following description of what he called “Post-Paganism” (and later started calling “Post-Paganry”):

“Post-paganism doesn’t belong to anybody and it belongs to everybody.

Post-paganism is the moment when you are the most alive and aware of the world around you.

Post-paganism is when that moment sweeps you away in to spontaneous ceremony and celebration of life within and all around you.

Post-paganism is the place where you feel the most at home, where you connect to the natural living-world in deep and intimate ways.

A Post-pagan is someone who looks for the sacred everywhere they go.

A Post-pagan takes breath as sacrament.

A Post-pagan can be anybody at any time.

A Post-pagan is someone who feels with their whole being, and that scares them and elates them at the same time.”

The fact that Glen felt the need to add the prefix “post-” before “Pagan” is telling, as is the awkwardness of the resulting term.  It reflects well the awkwardness that I (and I suspect Glen also) feels in the Pagan community.  I have previously reproduced Glen’s description of “Post-Paganism”, while omitting the “Post-” prefix, but in doing so, I felt it was more aspirational than descriptive.  It was what I hoped Paganism will be for me, but Paganism has never really lived up to that in reality.  For every gem of genuine ecological wisdom I have found in the Pagan community, there is a deluge of crystals and correspondences, divinities and divination apps, wizards and wishful thinking.

I have started to ask myself why I keep trying so hard to fit this square peg in a round hole (or is it the other way around?).  The truth is, I’ve always found small-p pagans like Shelley, Thoreau, Rupert Brooke, and Dion Byngham more compelling than capital-P Pagans like Gerald Gardner, Oberon Zell, or Phelan MoonSong.  Maybe it’s time to face up to the fact that, while I am spiritually and religiously “pagan” with a small-p, culturally I am not a capital-P “Pagan”.

22 thoughts on “Pagan with a small “p”

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  1. John, I, for one, hope that you will remain a part of the broader community and continue to offer your sane, Earth-centered voice here. There is a lot of bullshit in the Pagan community, but I suspect that is true of every community, everywhere. It is up to those of us who have our eye on the literal ball–the planet–to continue to articulate a vision of pagan/Pagan BEING that is about connection, integration, awareness, and ecstasy in experiencing the myriad wonders of this very Sacred world.

    1. I’m not going anywhere. I’m still the allergic pagan. And I’m still going to be a gadfly for Pagans. But I need to psychologically distance myself from the broader Pagan community. For too long I have held out hope that contemporary Paganism would become a great reforming power. But I can no longer lie to myself about that. Most of the Pagan community is dead weight at best. Paganism is a refuge for those who want to stick their heads in the metaphysical sand. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

      1. Sadly, I agree. But we can still cultivate our row, as it were, and see about fostering and encouraging activism and service even if much of the Pagan community isn’t going to be interested in them.

  2. This is why I use “Naturalist” and more specifically “Saegoah” instead of Pagan when describing my worldview and practices. It arose independently from Atheopaganism and Humanistic Paganism, and suspect for the same reasons as well. Hence us founders of these off-shoots establishing a “Naturalistic Pagan” sphere where we find common ground and community. So those who claim that we are not Pagan can expect to hear that we are just not their kind of Pagan. We are simply a sprig on the Branch of Paganism on the World Tree of Belief.

  3. Perhaps you are simply a British Pagan.* We have Graham Harvey and Emma Restall-Orr, and there is a noticeable trend towards Animism within Druidry, Heathenry, and, I think, small-w witchcraft (especially with the rise of Hedgewitchery). I began as a Pantheist in the 1970s in America, until I found the word/possibility of Paganism. (Post-Pagan hah! Many of my generation have a deep and genuine relationship with the Land, as have some notable British Wiccans such as Doreen Valiente. It seems largely the younger ones, more brainwashed by consumerism and incapable of uncoupling from monotheistic rigidity, who behave as you say. And the author of the “dirty hippy” comment just needs a slap. Sorry, but there it is.)

    In the 1980s I felt I had to move to the UK, where indeed I found my spiritual home. Though a ritual magician and polytheist, I still find love of the Land central for me; it increasingly dominates my “practice” – and although I work alone, the same is true of most I would call colleagues.

    I’m not suggesting you could, should or would come here, but just reminding you that it really is a very big tent, and the number of likeminded people should not be underestimated. Things are not the same everywhere. Yes, we have the same types you mention (although I think fewer of the dogmatic fundamentalists, it’s not really a British thing), and like you I avoid spending too much time with other Pagans – or anyone else, because I am easily disheartened by human behaviour in general.

    But I feel it’s not quite as dark as you paint it. There are a lot of Animists (including a lot of “Pagan-adjacents”, because agnosticism and atheism are very big here), and it is very much a zeitgeist.

    And anyway, I refuse to let other people determine which words I can claim or not, especially after forty years.

    * I keep the capital P as per Hutton’s usage for modern Paganism, with small p representing the broad pre-Christian world which, however much we try, we cannot claim.

    (If you would like a PDF of the book my partner and I have written about how folk/rural animism relates to Paganism, incorporating his experiences in British and Italian traditions, let me know how to send it to you.)

  4. Sir,
    I just came across this article, and I must say that it does a lot to clarify in my mind who I think I am want what I believe. I have been investigating many different paths of “paganism” and have never found anything that I was comfortable committing to. I’m not interested in magic or divination or crystals, but rather just want to acknowledge the passage of time as the Wheel of the Year rolls along, and maybe try to live a more natural life. I appreciate this article in that it helps me realize I’m not alone in this. Thank you.

  5. Sir,
    I just came across this article, and I must say that it does a lot to clarify in my mind who I think I am want what I believe. I have been investigating many different paths of “paganism” and have never found anything that I was comfortable committing to. I’m not interested in magic or divination or crystals, but rather just want to acknowledge the passage of time as the Wheel of the Year rolls along, and maybe try to live a more natural life. I appreciate this article in that it helps me realize I’m not alone in this. Thank you.

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