7 Types of Religions (or Why I Was Never Going Make a Good Pagan)

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:

  1. Conversionist: The conversionist sees society as corrupt and seeks to redeem society by transforming human beings. This is done through personal conversion.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)


13 thoughts on “7 Types of Religions (or Why I Was Never Going Make a Good Pagan)

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  1. An interesting post. I suppose I’m an Introversionist Reformer type. As an Independent Catholic priest, I bless in the name of God Father/Mother, believe that only through integration can we arrive at parity, and as a writer, I’m somewhat of an Introvert. The concept of the Holy, by whatever name we call it, as a combined masculine/feminine energy, as is all of nature, seems logical to me. And yet, that’s a pretty hard sell all in all.

    Perhaps suffice to say, any religious ideas which do not fit into a prescribed form are threatening to a general population. .

  2. I think Atheopaganism is Conversionist-Reformist, with some extension into Conversionist-Revolutionary. Very clear that just working on the individual is not going to make the changes we need as a society, but they can help us to be wiser, kinder, happier, and stronger as we work for a better world.

  3. I often describe myself as an “evangelical Wiccan”. I definitely am interested in proselytizing, because I am convinced that Wicca has some really good ideas and want to see them spread more widely. I don’t think we have a monopoly on good ideas, or that our set of good ideas works for everyone but, really, wouldn’t a culture that was feminist, ecologically sensible, sex-positive, body-positive and egalitarian be a good place? And also I am revolutionary (partly because I became a Marxist when I was in my teens) and see transforming society as more important than only transforming myself or a few other individuals.

    So, I started a public church, which now has temples in three Canadian provinces, and have a substantial scrapbook of press clippings, and I am not the only one. I agree that my approach, and yours, are minority tendencies. But the New Age will die away completely eventually, and communities that work will remain. And the ones I have built will be among them.

  4. Not familiar with Wilson’s work; I don’t clearly relate to any of the types as you describe them, since they include words like “salvation” and “miracle working,” which don’t have anything to do with my response to the world/spirituality. But if I had to pick, I’d grab 2, 3, and 6, I guess. Thaumaturgy in a pagan context would be physical change effected at a distance via magical workings, right? I think very few if any of the pagan I’ve circled with, even supernaturalists, actually subscribe to that.

    In defense of spiritual introversion, which I think is oversimplified and distorted here: can’t lead others without a solid foundation of personal religious experiences and a framework for interpreting them. The goal of my personal practice, although often (but not always) solitary, is to make myself ever more aware of the world as it is and to develop my sense of interbeing, not to withdraw from the world. And simple modeling, without judgement or directly pressuring others to convert or change, is one of the most effective ways to encourage their growth and development.

    Thanks for an interesting post. I’m tempted to encourage you to join or at least try Reclaiming. Dandelion is here in the lovely Tx Hill Country in October, and my family has a tent that yours could borrow! But I’m really a poor conversionist.

  5. I think of these 7 attitudes more like gears on a car than like exclusive life options. I switch between them as appropriate.

    I shy away from any claim that society is corrupt because that path leads toward the myth of pure evil. If you want to avoid falling into the myth of pure evil, then accept Gaia into your heart. (There, a little first gear).

    I like to talk about the Old Story being replaced by the New Story in a revolutionary way but that is more of an aspirational vision than a realistic path forward. (Switching through second gear)

    When faced with the reality of my own limited power and the mega-bulldozer-like inertia of human civilization, I turn to the hope for Lifekind that can be found in the vasteness and relative youth of the universe. Contemplation of that hope is comforting. (Resting a moment in 3rd gear)

    Then I look to Elon Musk and see civilization moving in the direction that I hope for and I say, if only more people had studied the Great Story in the detail that I have and gained the same insights from it that I have, then they would be motivated to contribute to the missions. (Accelerating into gear 4)

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The mission which I feel motivated to contribute to is unfarming; using robotics to find new ways to participate in the wilderness. (Thinking of AI robots as magic, I shift into 5th)

    As Pippin says to the Ents, “you are a part of this world.” My reformist gear doesn’t include any attempt to not be part of the world. But if my unfarming products can spread the New Story to more minds, I might gradually change the world. (Gear 6 achieved)

    I don’t believe in normal Utopian visions. Perfection is achieving a stable orbit around an ever drifting point in possibility space where conflicting needs are in approximate balance. But perhaps, when I start building my unfarm, I can create an example of a way of life which is closer to perfection. (7th gear!)

  6. I suppose introverted and reformist. I hung up on introverted because of the ‘seeing society as corrupt’ bit, and I try to cultivate more optimism than that. I retreat and emerge at different times. Retreat to learn about myself and deal with stress/anxiety/depression depending what is hitting hardest, but then when I’m doing okay I have all this burgeoning skill and desire to make the world better in whatever capacity I can do. I don’t want to fully shift to one or the other because both aspects push me forward.

  7. The taxonomy you recount is really only about western religions, which is strange, given the date.

    Buddhists have the idea of “eternal recurrance.” Every time the universe is recreated it is exactly same. (Every time the moon rises, it is exactly the same.) What has to change is the individual, but even that isn’t what the West usually interprets it to be. The reincarnating monad is not the individual. The individual is transitory. Everyone you know will be in the next iteration of universe, and they will have exactly the same lives. But the reincarnating monads will have moved to a different place.

    When Hercules went to the underworld (western idea of the afterlife) all the people he met were individuals whose personalities survived death. That isn’t how the universe was view east of Suez. (in ancient times at least.)

    Changing the world is pointless. It will change as it always has. As it is ordained to change (if you like), The goal is to change yourself.

  8. If you go all the way over to China, you run into “The Mandate of Heaven.” Unless there are clear signs that change has been ordained. (And the only one that counts is blood shed in China), the society, and the current .go have the Mandate of Heaven and you should not work to change it.

    That outlook also isn’t in the taxonomy.

  9. Then I get into deeper waters – where I know less. But my limited understanding of the religion of the Navajo is also that you don’t try to change the world, but change yourself to fit into the world.

    I read somewhere that if there is a drought, the Christians will pray for rain. The Navajo will conduct a ceremony to bring themselves into accord with the drought.

  10. John, when you suggest you have always believed in ‘conversion’ I think you are basically saying ‘we need people to get with a political program which has environmentalist concerns as paramount and adopt a ‘green lifestyle’. I agree, and this involves an enhancement or change consciousness. I don’t think you are suggesting anyone adopt particular metaphysical beliefs (though you might be suggesting the world would be better if people abandoned certain metaphysical beliefs, see below).

    I first met pagans when I was teenager, long before I became a card carrying pagan. I met them through an environmentalist group (Friends of the Earth). Maybe it is because we still have a strong socialist tradition in the UK and Europe*, but (until relatively recently) all the paganism I’ve been acquainted with has been strongly intertwined with a particular political outlook. In the UK pagans have been the Green Party at prayer. I for one have been active politically alongside people who are also pagans (albeit many of the fluffy bunny eclectic variety, strangely). They see that their spiritual earth centred beliefs have political and ethical consequences. In the UK I know many pagans who push political and green life style values. I know pagan vegans and animal welfare supporters for instance who are as least as preachy as some evangelical sects. And that’s okay. If people really believe something is true and will help the world, it is surely self consistent that they will want to encourage others to believe the same. A political or spiritual group that does not want to proselytise in some sense seems to lack confidence in its own beliefs and values.

    Nevertheless we are both confronting a change in the basic nature of neo-paganism, that is true of the UK too. The predominance/fad of ‘devotional polytheism’ over earth centred paganism during the last few years does appear to lead its practitioners to political apathy if not actual nihilism. They are in effect ‘too otherworldly to be of earthly use’. Any ‘deity-centred’ approach seems to be only tangentially, at best, concerned with the earth. And that stands to reason: if you are concentrating on personal relationship with intangible, anthropomorphic entities you are not concentrating on tangible, non-human kind entities or indeed relationships with real creatures, things and people. Okay I exaggerate a little – I know it is not entirely a zero-sum game in practice – but to my mind whenever Athena, Ceridwen, Yahweh or any other ancient deity demands our attention earth and nature take a back seat. Strikingly there is no attention given to a pagan ‘Great Goddess’ anymore seen as a personification of the living earth. Of course the equation Nature = Goddess not fit with polytheistic theology (Gods are not universal all encompassing entities, Gods are literal persons not vague forces etc).

    You can see where I’m going with this perhaps. In the UK at least Environmentalist Earth Centred Paganism – the kind you read about in books yes – WAS normative until the last decade. You’ve kind of come on board at the wrong time! What happened? A religious mini revolution, a hijack by devotional polytheists that are not interested in political activism. It is apparent that we need to be ‘earth centred’ if we are to ‘save the earth’. This conclusion is necessary I think: ‘Earth centred’ paganism far from being simply another ‘type’ or ‘variety’ of paganism cannot in practice co-exist happily with ‘deity centred’ beliefs.

    And as my thought for the day or coda to the above, I’m going to be really controversial!


    *John, I wonder if your experiences of pagan political apathy also reflect the current state of American political discourse (which from a British perspective is skewed strongly to the right) . I note pagans are also influenced by their culture as well as being influencers. No doubt you’ve noticed the incongruity that you live in a society that could elect Donald Trump as commander in chief. It seems that in your country liberalism itself is under attack and this has taken some of the steam out of the Green/Activist movements of the Civil Rights Generation. My knowledge of U.S. politics is second hand however, so I’m happy for you to call me out on this point!

    1. Phil, regarding “conversion”, I don’t just mean people supporting green political policies or adopting a green lifestyle. I mean a more fundamental conversion from ego-centeredness to eco-centeredness–which I think gives rise to the politics and the lifestyle. No, it’s not about adopting (or abandoning) certain metaphysical beliefs, but rather a paradigm shift, a shift in the lens through which the world is viewed–which is what I think real religious conversion is.

      I think right about American politics. After 9/11 we Americans lost our (collective) mind. That, and the financial meltdown of 2008, with the corresponding loss of faith in the “American Dream”, has left our country psychically unmoored. (The 2008 housing crisis and the Great Recession that followed was only the latest blow in a process which started, I think, with the Enron debacle in 2001 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, when many Americans lost their life savings.)

      With the loss of the sense of security (both financial and existential), many people seem to have sought refuge in various fundamentalism: religious, racial, etc. Add I think that partially explains the explosion of interest in deity-centered Paganism/devotional polytheism which started around 2001 (as well as the growth of the alt-right–and there’s a little overlap there).

      That being said, I think in order to really understand devotional polytheism, we need to understand that it was a reaction to something, namely what much of contemporary Paganism had become: a watered-down, fluffy-bunny, feel-good, new-agey potpourri which was neither religiously profound nor culturally radical. It’s no wonder many Pagans were looking for something else.

      In general, I agree with your correlation of theism, otherworldliness, and environmental disengagement (the White thesis, in short). But there are notable exceptions. Many of the people who write at Gods & Radicals, for example, are theists and environmentally-conscious radicals.

      Here’s the thing. I don’t think it does any good to tell people to lose their gods. We have to offer them something equally profound (experientially, not intellectually) to replace it. As Carl Jung said: “Religion can only be replaced by religion. …

      “An ethical fraternity [and that’s what I think most religious naturalist groups boil down to], with its mythical Nothing, not infused by any archaic-infantile driving force, is a pure vacuum and can never evoke in man the slightest trace of that age-old animal power which drives the migrating bird across the sea and without which no irresistible mass movement can come into being.”

      We need to tap into that “age-old animal power” or we will never inspire a mass movement. The question is how (or even if) it can be done without resorting to literal theism or something like it.

  11. I do kind of think the world would be better if more people left fundamentalist religions and became pagans!

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