Nine Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Became Pagan

1. It’s not like in the books.

Like a lot of other Pagans, I read a lot of books about Pagans before I ever actually met another Pagan in the flesh.  My first sources for my image of the contemporary Pagan came from Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon (1999), Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (1979, 1986, 1996, 2006), and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1979, 1989, 1999).  The first was academic, the second journalistic, and the third rhapsodic.  As a result, my pre-formed image of Pagans was somewhat idealized.   (I once heard Margot Adler admit in an interview that the Paganism she and Starthawk described in their respective books as more of an ideal than a reality.)  I have since learned that the best way to learn about a religion is not by reading a book about it, but by going and seeing the real thing.

2. Most Paganism is not an earth-centered religion.

Paganism can only be called an earth-centered religion if “earth” is put in quotes. In Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca And Paganism in America (2006), Chas Clifton, distinguishes what he calls “Cosmic Nature” from the “Gaian Nature.”  The former is a symbolic “nature”, the value of which lies in the esoteric truths it holds for humanity, whereas the latter is an “embodied” nature, which has its own intrinsic value, apart from its usefulness to humans.  Most Pagans’ conception of nature is located more on the Cosmic end of this spectrum, with only a tenuous connection to Gaian Nature. In other words, “nature” for many Pagans is more of a social construct than a direct experience, a romanticized or idealized “nature” which serves as little more than a backdrop to esoteric rituals.

(For more on this, see “The Greening of Paganism”Part 1 and Part 2.)

3. Most Paganism is ego-centered.

Eco-Paganism is focused on connection or relationship with the natural world.  In contrast, ego-Paganism is focused on individual freedom and self-expression.  Ego-centered Pagans may be tangentially concerned with ecology or polytheism or magic, but in practice, they are concerned only with expression of their unique individuality and defending their freedom to do so against all authoritarian threats, real or imagined.

Whether earth-centered or deity-centered, non-egocentric forms of Paganism have one thing in common: they all recognize something greater themselves.  Whether that “something” is the expansive earth (or nature or the web of life) or a numinous deity or deities or a transcendent “Self”, all these forms of Paganism honor something which is greater than the individual.  In contrast, the ego-Pagan may protest ecological devastation, or worship the gods, or talk about a higher Self, but all these concerns bow to the holy personhood of the individual ego-centered Pagan.

(For more on this, see “Ego-Paganism and the Tyranny of Structurelessness”.)

4. Most Pagans care more about cosplay than politics.

For every Pagan engaged in political action, there is a mob of cosplayers who just want to be free to wear fun costumes.  They call themselves “Pagan”, not because Paganism challenges them or because they believe Paganism can change the world.  They are Pagan because Paganism lets them “do their own thing.”  Paganism, for them, is little more than a fashion statement.  And though they believe they are being counter-cultural, in fact, their rebellion for rebellion’s sake just helps perpetuate the status quo.

(For more on this, see “Pagans, Stop Being So Silly!”)

5. Most Pagans are anti-organization.

Most Pagans have an unhealthy aversion to any form of organization.  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 the individual. Paganism’s focus on individual expression can be healing, especially when coming from an authoritarian religion, but it is not a healthy place to remain, neither for individuals nor for communities.

This aversion to organization isolates us.  It’s no coincidence that solitary Pagans are now the norm.  But spirituality practiced in isolation is a recipe for a shallow spirituality.  We need to engage the world, for our sake, because the world challenges us.  I also believe we Pagans have a responsibility to the world to share the wisdom that Paganism has taught us.  But our lack of organization makes this difficult.  Our power to effect positive change in the world–our magic–is inversely proportional to our insularity.

For more on this, see “5 Ways Paganism Needs to Grow Up”.

6. Most Pagans are anti-critical.

Because my introduction to Paganism came mostly by way of a academics and journalists, I expected most Pagans to be critical-minded.  That turned out to be wrong.  Not only are most Pagans not critical-minded, they are anti-critical.  “You can’t judge me!” should be the Second Law of Paganism, right after “You can’t tell me what to do!”  Much of contemporary Paganism has become an intellectual ghetto, where Pagans insulate themselves from criticism.  Sometimes even questions about someone’s beliefs are perceived as a personal attack.  As a result, Pagans are more very prone to self-deception and groupthink.

For more on this, see “5 Ways Paganism Needs to Grow Up”.

7. Most Pagans can’t put together a decent ritual.

For every good ritual I’ve attended, there have been countless (because I’ve tried to forget them) rituals which were just painful to be a part of.  Tell me if this sounds familiar: A circle is cast and the quarters are called, but the space just does not feel sacred.  There is no attempt to connect with the immediate natural environment.  People wander in late to the ritual and participants engage in distracting chitchat and casual joking. The central ritual act is burning a piece of paper with a wish on it.  During the ritual, people are bumping into each other or are waiting in a line to do something.  And at the end, you receive some piece of disposable ritual swag.  Come on people!  Creative ritual is supposed to be our thing!  We’re supposed to be good at this!

(For more about this, see “10 Signs You’re Half-Assing Your Pagan Ritual”.)

8. Some forms of Paganism perpetuate the mistakes of Abrahamic religions.

Everything I read about Paganism in the beginning led me to believe that belief in literal gods was not part of contemporary Paganism.  But belief has become a big deal in Paganism in recent years.  Along with an emphasis on belief, has come dogmatism, intolerance, and an anti-critical mindset.  It disturbing how attitudes in certain parts of the Pagan community have replicated those of evangelical Christians.

Due largely to the influence of Protestant Christianity, the notion of personal communion with the gods is central to the modern conception of religion.  But this was not the case for pagans in the ancient world, for whom religion was primarily about communal performance.  Viewed from this perspective, the cultivation of personal relationships with gods by contemporary polytheistic Pagans is anachronistic.

(For more on this, see “The Forgotten History of Atheist Paganism” and “American Gods: the Growth of Devotional Polytheism”.)

9. Paganism will never be a significant social movement.

For years, I have held out the hope that Paganism would rise to its potential of being a significant transforming social force, helping to shift consciousness and re-enchant the world.  I no longer have that faith.

I’m still a small-p Pagan (and probably would be even if I stop using that term), but I am done waiting around for Paganism to grow up.

(For more on this, see “Why I Am Still a Pagan: The Problem and the Promise”“Why Contemporary Paganism Deserves to Die”, and “Escaping the Otherworld: The Reenchantment of Paganism”.

 

19 thoughts on “Nine Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Became Pagan

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  1. I wish that we would get over this idea that Paganism is a specific thing. As we ‘denominationalize” and explore different spiritual options and different groupings, and stop trying to be everything to everyone, we’ll get more done. I don’t disagree with any of your points except with the caveat that a lot of the things I do and people I do them with are not like the larger amorphous neo-Pagan ‘community’ but are much more grounded.

    1. Yes, we need to stop thinking that we can build community over the internet or Facebook, and build it face-to-face, and locally. Which I know is what you are doing, because someone was singing your praises on that very subject recently 🙂

      1. You’re not wrong. It’s only when I started making connections to real Pagan people in the real world that I began to feel like part of an actual community and not an internet shouting match.

    2. There are some small groups within the Pagan umbrella that are doing awesome work. I’m just at the point where I’m wondering why I (or those small groups) want to be associated with other Pagans.

  2. John, I agree that there’s an awful lot of what you describe out there, but I think this is the problem with anything that becomes a larger movement – you will inevitably get people committed to the core values and those who are just along for the ride. Same applies to Christianity, or any other large movement.

    I still think it’s worthwhile to keep drawing attention to these issues, whilst trying to build something that is politically engaged, committed to social and environmental justice, and that can best be done in local, face-to-face communities.

  3. I don’t disagree, but your points do feel a bit mean-spirited, and I’d love to see evidence for your claims that *most* Pagans are ego-centred anti-organisation cosplayers who can’t do decent rituals. Some, sure. But most? That just seems like quite a sweeping generalisation, and I know you can do better than that.

    I’d also like to venture that asserting one’s individuality whether through visible displays of alternative spirituality, being openly critical of organisations or other means is no bad thing for Pagans or anyone else to do in a society that encourages stifling and soul-less conformity to institutional religion one one hand and late capitalism on the other. Is it really a problem if Pagans like to dress up a bit?

    The anti-individuality, anti-“cosplay”, stop-looking-so-weird argument is one I’ve also seen trotted out in opposition to drag, LGBT pride parades, the “pussy” hats at the Women’s March and a host of other actually quite important markers of civil rights. Deliberately wearing “unusual” clothing as a social marker of other-ness can be a powerful affirmation of the existence of, and importance of, marginalised voices in opposition to cultural hegemony.

    I agree that Paganism as a loosely affiliated group of religions and spiritualities will never be a significant social movement, but Pagans are already parts of significant social movements, by virtue of being human beings who care about stuff. There are Pagans who do envrionmental activism, Pagans who campaign for human rights, Pagans running for office. The fact that they don’t slap a big ol’ pentacle on everything they do so as to brand it as Pagan doesn’t detract from their work.

    1. My frustration and resentment are seeping through (maybe flowing freely through) and it is reflected in the tone and content of this post.

      My admitted over-generalizations are based solely on anecdote drawn from my own experience of public Pagan communities from the Midwest to the West Coast, online and offline, small and large, over the past 15 years, and confirmed by similar experiences of friends and associates.

      I’m beginning to believe that conformity is not the problem in our culture today, but the lack of community. Capitalism fosters a hyper-individualism, as does so much of contemporary Paganism. But while this give us the feeling of personal power, at least at first, it is untimately disempowering.

      Dressing up is not the issue. I actually have an exhibitionist streak in me. I love the freedom of being able to dress the way I like at Pagan gatherings. I lean toward goth. My concern is when “Paganism” doesn’t seem to go any deeper than that.

      I totally love the Chicago Pride march and my wife and daughter’s pussy hats. But it seems to me that many Pagans make themselves objects of derision and ostracism through their dress, rather than using their dress to highlight their condition of being objects of derision and ostracism, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The myth of victimhood is at the core of contemporary Paganism, and I think many Pagans actually court ostracism because it perpetuates their personal myth of victimization. One of the commenters to an earlier post called it an “aesthetic of victimhood”.

  4. I’m not sure my experiences reflect yours. I have found a lot of sacred ritual spaces created, even by those not good at it. and never have i seen ritual chit chatted through. that being said, you’ve have given me things to think about and ponder, and that i like.

      1. I’ve been in rituals with plenty of irreverence, humour and laughter though, which never took away from the sacredness of the experience. We don’t need to be dour puritans to connect with the sacred!

        1. I agree, dour Puritanism is not the ideal either. Revelry and reverence are both important, and both have their time and place. But, in my experience, the irreverence of many Pagans is just an excuse for them to draw the attention to themselves.

  5. I don’t have any idea what her problem is . Everyone has met jerks and everyone has met awesome people in Paganism, Wicca , Druidry, Heathernry etc etc you need to get involved to see the great work being done and a huge majority can put a good ritual together. Coming into it because you feel it will give you something is not the way, seeking out others because you already have something inside which resonates towards the Gods and the Universe, nature and likeminded people is better. It may take time to find a set up that you feel comfortable with in the community but isn’t that the same with everything in life?

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