Over the years that I have been writing online, I have been accused many times of retaining some elements of Mormonism, my religion of origin. Some of my meaner critics like to call me “Mormon”, as a way of refusing to recognize my claim to be pagan. Those criticisms never made sense to me, but there is one way that my former faith has continued to influence me: the idea that the world needs to be change and that we human beings have the power to make that change happen. This is one of the ideas which has frequently brought me into conflict with other Pagans.
In 1962, sociologist Bryan Wilson proposed seven categories of religions based on their responses to the world:
- Conversionist: The conversionist sees society as corrupt and seeks to redeem society by transforming human beings. This is done through personal conversion.
- Revolutionary: The revolutionary also sees society as corrupt, but rather than trying to convert others, the revolutionary seeks to destroy the existing social order so a new one can replace it. Revolutionaries see may this revolution as inevitable and may see themselves as the vanguard of the revolution.
- Introversionist: The introversionist sees society as corrupt, but rather attempting to convert others or transform the world, the introversionist withdraws from it. Introversionists focus on personal religious experience and show little interest in converting others.
- Gnostic-Manipulationist: This type, more than any of the others, identifies with the values and goals of society, but they claim to possess special knowledge to achieve those goals. Salvation, then, is a matter of mastering the right techniques.
- Thaumaturgical: “Thaumaturgy” means miracle working. This type resembles the Gnostic-Manipulationist in that they also relate positively to society, but they see supernatural intervention (i.e., miracles) rather than knowledge as the key to achieving one’s goals.
- Reformist: The reformist is a more mellow version of the revolutionary type. As the name suggests, the reformist seek to reform society, rather than transform it. They seek to act in the world, while not being a part of it. They seek to improve society through special insight.
- Utopian: A mixture of the revolutionary and the introversionist, utopians seek to transform society by withdrawing from it together and creating a new social order.
Wilson had Christian sects primarily in mind when he came up with this typology. For example, conversionists would include Evangelical Christians, and revolutionaries would include Christians who focus on the anticipation of Second Coming of Christ. But these types can be applied more broadly to non-Christian religions as well.
The religion I was born into, Mormonism, started out as a Utopian type of religion in the 19th century, but over time, as it integrated with mainstream American society, it evolved into a mixture of the Gnostic-Manipulationist type and the Reformist type. (There are elements of some of the other types in Mormonism, but I think these two predominate.) Mormons seek to create heaven on earth (variously called “Zion” or “Deseret”), and they way they seek to do this is by being in the world, but not of it, specifically by following certain rules of right living.
Contemporary Paganism, on the other hand, is a mixture of the Introversionist type and the Thaumaturgical type. Most Pagans withdraw from the mundane society and focus on inner experience of the gods, etc. (Introversionist) and practical magic (Thaumaturgical). They aren’t interested in converting others or changing the world. Of course, not all Pagans fit this description. There are some notable exceptions, including Reclaiming, for example. But in my experience, most Pagans fall into one or both of these categories.
When I left Mormonism, I rejected almost everything about it, but one of the things I unwittingly carried with me was a desire to change the world. Until recently, I think I would have identified as a Reformist-Conversionist type. Now, I think I am more of a Revolutionary-Conversionist type*, but the desire to change the world is consistent.
This orientation brings me into conflict with Pagans, because Reform, Revolution, and Conversion all are about changing the world, whereas neither the Introversionist type nor the Thaumaturgical type are concerned with changing the world. The first seeks to withdraw from it, while the second seeks supernatural means for succeeding within it.
These distinctions explain a lot of the conflict I’ve experience in my time in the Pagan community. For example, I’ve argued before that Pagan should proselytize, which is a distinctly un-Pagan notion. It’s interesting now to consider how I brought this desire to change the world with me from Mormonism into Paganism, and how it may be part of the reason why I was never going to fit in well with most Pagans.
Which one or more of these categories describes your religious orientation to the world? Does it help explain how you relate (or don’t) to other Pagans.
* I think human society and human consciousness exist in a reciprocal relationship. They must both be changed at the same time, or one will undermine the other. And I think the kind of change we need is radical (from radicalis, meaning of or relating to a root), which means that a progressive reformation of society and consciousness is inadequate. We need a revolution, both collective and personal. (Conversion is a revolution on a personal level.)