Paganism: The Little Religion That Could Have Been

We’re going to lose the fight against climate change

and we’re probably going to lose badly.

(The fact that we think about it as a “fight” probably has something to do with why we’re going to lose.)

If you look at the numbers and you consider the realities of human nature and the intertia of late capitalism, the conclusion seems inevitable:

Human civilization will collapse and the human species will be lucky to survive.

In 1988, James Hansen testified before Congress that climate change was real and was caused by humans.  At that point, we were already at 350 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the atmosphere.  According to scientists, 350 ppm is the safe upper limit, which will keep us below 2°C (3.6°F) warming, which is what we need to do if we want to keep living here.

Since that time, we have done basically nothing.  Actually, we’ve made it a lot worse.  In fact, more carbon has been released into the atmosphere since Hansen’s 1988 testimony than was released in the entire history of civilization before that!  We are now on track for more than 4°C of warmingThat’s the temperature difference between the last Ice Age and the world now!  We are looking a future planet which may be uninhabitable to human beings in the not so distant future.  It’s likely that we’re already past a critical climate tipping point, even if we had the means and the will to turn things around.

In the near future, we can expect rising oceans, more frequent super storms, wild fires, and droughts, mass migrations, food and water shortages, economic collapse, a return to subsistence farming, the spread of epidemics, expanding ethnic conflict, the collapse of government institutions, the rise of authoritarian leaders, and a drastically declining human population–anywhere from a 70% reduction from 7.5 billion to 2 billion (which would bring the population to a sustainable level) to complete human extinction.

Not to mention that, somewhere along the way, some asshole is likely to try to “geoengineer” the plant by sending sulfur into the atmosphere (Matrix-like) to block the sun’s rays.  This isn’t science fiction.  This is what our best minds are telling us.  When they’re not practicing professional reticence, our scientists admit that they’re really scared.

In short … we’re doomed.

What would it take to turn things around?

Well, I think Roy Scranton summed it up pretty well in his essay, “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World”:

“Politically, realistically, making human life sustainable at this point would demand a world socialist revolution, since only a unified world government committed to radical economic redistribution and ecological justice would be able to initiate and manage transitioning the global economy off fossil fuels. Socially, spiritually, we’d need a world religion that worshipped Mother Earth and put harmony with nature over all other values. We’d need to throw away our bedazzling hi-tech toys and turn our gaze back to the land, the air, the water, the rhythms of the natural world and the other beings who live there. While we’re at it, we should probably also put women in charge, get rid of nuclear weapons, and outlaw racial and ethnic discrimination.

“I could spin out the fantasy further, and maybe that’s a fine way to pass the time until we die. But I doubt we’ll see anything like it come to fruition. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep fumbling along toward our doom, just like we’ve fumbled our way into breaking the planet.”

It’s the part about needing a world religion that worships Mother Earth and prioritizes harmony with nature that I want to talk about here.

As I see it, religion is a critical part of climate activism.  I don’t think facts and figures have ever motivated any real change.  It’s just not how human beings are built.  What motivates humans to radical change is much more like religious conversion than rational conversation.  While you can’t manufacture epiphanies, you can create the conditions which make epiphanies more likely.  And religion, at its best, is good at creating those conditions.

Climate activists sometimes say that climate change seems too abstract and too remote to motivate people to take action.  Seriously?!  Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, billions of Muslims, Jews, and Christians gather to pray to an abstraction, give their money, alter their behavior, and make personal sacrifices in the hope of a remote future.  The problem isn’t with climate change.  It’s with the climate change movement.

Unfortunately, the climate movement to date has been largely secular.  While some of the climate activists I know are religious, none of them really bring their religion into their activism in a visible way.  Occasionally, activist organizers will makes space for indigenous people to invoke the sacred, but most activists avoid religious references like the plague–either because of a personal animus toward religion or a fear of alienating others or being seen as irrational.

But I agree with Scranton that what we really needed was a world religion that worships Mother Earth.

Paganism could have been that religion.

Paganism came on the scene at the right time.  Professor of Religious Studies, Sarah Pike, dates the origins of American Paganism to 1967.  That year, Fred Adams founded Feraferia and the Church of All Worlds (CAW) filed for incorporation to became the first state-recognized Pagan church. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the same year that Lynn White’s published, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, in which he traced our environmental crisis back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism.   A few years later, in 1973, White described the problem as one of finding “a viable equivalent to animism”.

Paganism might have been just that.  Both Feraferia and the CAW styled themselves as nature religions.  Fred Adams described Feraferia as “a fellowship for the religion of nature and the commonwealth of wilderness.”  And the Church of All Worlds membership application required dedicants to commit to a way of life that is “ecologically sane,” and to pledge themselves to “a harmonious eco-psychic awareness with the total biosphere of holy Mother Earth.”

Just a few years after the founding of Feraferia and CAW, the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and brought out 20 million people.  That same year Oberon Zell had a vision of Mother Earth as a living organism:

“[I]t is a biological fact that all life on Earth comprises one single living organism! Literally, we are all One. The blue whale and the redwood tree are not the largest living organisms on Earth; the entire planetary biosphere is.”

(This was several years before James Lovelock came up with the Gaia Hypothesis.)

In the 1970s, Paganism intersected with the eco-feminism movement by way of feminist witchcraft.  Eco-feminists drew the connection between the oppression of women and the exploitation of the earth, and Paganism became even more earth-centered.  Morgan McFarland, the founder of a gender-inclusive form of Dianic Witchcraft, todl Margot Adler in 1979:

“A Pagan world view is one that says the Earth is the Great Mother and has been raped, pillaged, and plundered and must once again be celebrated if we are to survive. Paganism means a return to those values which see an ecologically balanced situation so that life continues and the Great Mother is venerated again. Both ecology and Paganism seek a restoration of the balance of nature. If you’re not into ecology, you really can’t be into Paganism.”

In short, there was tremendous potential in the Pagan movement in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Paganism was primed to step into the role of the religion of the ecological future.

What happened to Paganism?

There’s probably a lot of reasons Paganism failed.  We spent a lot of time hiding the proverbial broom closet.  A lot of energy was spent on fighting for equality with Christianity.  And a lot of energy was wasted arguing with ourselves, playing identity politics, fighting witch wars, and other bullshit.

Pagans got distracted by occultism (infecting Paganism via British Traditional Wicca), which drew attention away from the real and present earth to an esoteric or symbolic “nature”, and away from the work of re-enchanting the world to the illusion of magical control over the world. In addition, those Pagan reconstructionisms and polytheisms which explicitly contrasted themselves with earth-centered Paganism became another distraction.

The fear of institutions and the aversion to authority have been millstones around the neck of Paganism since its beginnings.  Pagans don’t want to be led anywhere, so predictably we’re not going anywhere.  And those ego-Pagans who use Paganism primarily as a vehicle for selfexpression, rather than connecting with something bigger than themselves, have been additional dead weight for the movement.

In the end, Paganism just never lived up to its potential as the earth religion for the new millennium.

I long held out the hope that Paganism would rise to the potential of being a significant social force for good, helping to shift human consciousness and transform our relationship to the earth.  But Paganism has failed–not just me, but the world.  The truth is, Paganism probably missed its opportunity back in the 1980s, long before I became Pagan.  It just took me this long to realize it.

Well, shit.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not blaming Paganism for the end of the world as we know it. Well, not entirely.  But we definitely missed our opportunity.

Maybe the next time around.  (If there is one.)

34 thoughts on “Paganism: The Little Religion That Could Have Been

Add yours

  1. So many points on which we disagree, where do I begin?

    I think the climate change movement has to be secular. That’s the only way we are ever going to get the vast majority of people on board. If climate change and environmenalism was inextricably linked to Pagan religion, not only would we have the enmity of anti-Pagan conservative Christians but the majority of secular/agnostic/nominally religious people would simply ignore it, like they do any other Pagan thing. As it stands, even in the US, the majority of people believe in anthropogenic climate change and we are moving in the right direction (I honestly believe this, the current right-wing nonsense is a death spasm of an old order). This could not have happened unless the climate change movement (which is based on scientific facts, not religious belief) remained secular.

    Wicca did not “infect” Paganism with the occult. Magical and occult philosophy and practice was and is part of both ancient and modern Paganism. Wicca has been profoundly successful and influential at making modern Paganism what it is today (no doubt you see that as a negative, I think it’s a good thing overall) and most Wiccans I know are also environmental activists. You seem to say on the one hand that the climate change movement needs a religious dimension, but also scoff at the most popular Pagan religions. I’m honestly confused as to whether you think people can’t both campaign for nature and practice “occult” Paganisms.

    I cannot believe that Paganism has failed the world. It’s still (in its modern form) a young set of loosely related religious and spiritual movements. Give it time. From where I’m standing, I see Pagans involved in environmental activism at all levels, both as individuals and as groups. What more do you want Pagans to do? If Paganism has failed by not leading us into some golden age, then by that reckoning so has every religious or atheist philosophy ever created.

    I’m not willing to sit back and accept that we’re doomed. I have more faith in human creativity than that. Yes, things will no doubt get worse before they get better, and society will change beyond recognition, but there will still be people, and there will still be the Earth. No, we can’t stop climate change now, but we can prepare for it and work to mitigate the damage to humans and nature, and that’s what a lot of people are trying to do.

    Even if we are doomed, is it not still worth trying? Is the Earth not still sacred and worthy of reverence? What would you recommend we do?

    I will still do what I can even if I can’t “win”, because what else is there to do?

    And I will still practice my Paganism, because for me it hasn’t failed.

    1. >”I think the climate change movement has to be secular.”

      I think that cuts us off from (at least) half of human motivation.

      >”That’s the only way we are ever going to get the vast majority of people on board.”

      I think some form of religion, whether explicitly “Pagan” or not, is far more likely to mobilize a majority of people than any movement which is purely secular.

      >”Wicca did not “infect” Paganism with the occult.”

      To be clear, I am referring to British Traditional Wicca, not the feminist-inspired Neo-Wicca which became popular. I believe a form of Paganism would still have emerged in the U.S. during the 60s and 70s, even if there had been no Gerald Gardner or British witchcraft revival. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2015/06/16/where-would-we-be-without-wicca-part-2/) Wicca came to be conflated with Paganism through a historical accident.

      >”most Wiccans I know are also environmental activists.”

      Maybe is a difference of geography, but I don’t see that. Many may claim to care about the environment, but few live it. And from what I’ve seen of public Wiccanate Paganism, the “earth” is invoked really a symbolic earth with little to no connection to the actual dirt under our feet.

      >”I’m honestly confused as to whether you think people can’t both campaign for nature and practice “occult” Paganisms.”

      People can be evangelical Christians and campaign for nature. But they’re the exception that proves the rule. I so not an environmentalist or earth-centered trend in contemporary occultism or those forms of Paganism most influenced by occultism.

      >”Give it time.”

      I don’t think we have it.

      >”What more do you want Pagans to do?”

      in brief, to act together rather than individually.

      >”No, we can’t stop climate change now, but we can prepare for it and work to mitigate the damage to humans and nature …”

      I agree, that’s what we should do. See part 2 of my G&R essay: ““Die Early and Often”: Being Attis in the Anthropocene” (https://godsandradicals.org/2018/08/29/die-early-and-often-being-attis-in-the-anthropocene-in-progress/comment-page-1/#comment-17343)

      1. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree, John.

        “Secular” in this case, as I’m sure you know, does not mean “anti-religion”, it just means no one religion can dominate so that it’s open to all people, of all faiths and none. A secular climate change movement is open to Christians, atheists, Pagans and more. A Pagan climate change movement is open to…Pagans. That alienates supporters, which in my opinion is not worth whatever motivational benefits you think would be gained from linking it to religion.

        It may be a UK/US difference, but I don’t see that religion motivates people more than secular movements. Thinking of social movements over here, the ones that are successful, like for instance LGBT+ rights, tend to be secular. Religious movements don’t really get off the ground here. Your experience in the USA may be different.

        Leaving aside your quibbling over the difference between “British Traditional Wicca” and feminist “Neo-Wicca”, the fact remains that magic and the occult were part of Pagan traditions both ancient and modern for a long time; you can’t lay the blame on Wicca for “infecting” Paganism – and the more I think of it, the more your language of infection comes off as divisive at best and bigoted at worst.

        Honestly, I can’t speak to your experience, but most or all of the Pagans I know are also environmentalists and activists in some way. They may not do so as part of Pagan groups, or make a loud noise about their religion while they do it, but they still do the work.

        Thanks for the link to your other essay, I’ll give it a read.

        1. >’“Secular” in this case, as I’m sure you know, does not mean “anti-religion”, it just means no one religion can dominate so that it’s open to all people, of all faiths and none.’

          Thanks for clarifying. I’ve seen the word secular used in both ways. At least here in the U.S., most environmental activism is secular in the sense of actively excluding religiosity (except occasional concessions to indigenous peoples). Religious people are welcome, so long as they don’t embarass the secularists by being openly religious. In my experience, secularists usually feel that any expression fo religion is exclusionary, so it’s fine to be religious, as long as you keep it to yourself. What I’m talking about is an openly religious climate movement.

          >”That alienates supporters, which in my opinion is not worth whatever motivational benefits you think would be gained from linking it to religion.”

          I think there is a way to invoke the sacred without alienating people. I think there is a way to be openly religious which is inclusive, rather than exclusive.

          >”It may be a UK/US difference”

          That may be. I wonder if the gap might close if we spoke of “spirituality”, not religion.

          >”but I don’t see that religion motivates people more than secular movements.”

          I know most progressive movements are secular. I’m just thinking they would be stronger (and more inclusive), if they made space for the sacred.

          >”the fact remains that magic and the occult were part of Pagan traditions both ancient and modern for a long time”

          You could also say that dogmatism has been a part of Christianity since the beginning, but that doesn’t mean people can’t imagine a Chirstianity without it, or separate out the threads of dogmatic and non-dogmatic Christianity.

          >”your language of infection comes off as divisive at best and bigoted at worst.”

          It’s interesting that you’re defeniding WIcca’s place in Paganism, considering the loudest advocates for separating the two have been British: Jo Pearson and James Pengelly of the Pagan Federation.

          1. Well, we’re obviously coming at the secular/religious aspect of activism from different experiences and different perspectives, so I don’t really have anything to add to that conversation.

            On the other point, yes I am defending Wicca’s place within Paganism. Wicca is part of Pagan history and part of the Pagan community today, whether you approve of it or not. It doesn’t matter to me that you can name-check two vocal separatists (also, why should I care that they’re British? Not all British Pagans are going to think alike, you know, and the Pagan Federation of which I am a member is not the Pagan Vatican), the vast majority of Wiccans consider themselves Pagan, and the vast majority of Pagan groups and organisations are inclusive of Wiccans. So, yeah, I’m defending people’s rights to identify as Wiccan and be accepted as part of the Pagan community.

            Your prejudice is showing.

            1. I’m not advocating exclusion of Wiccans (or anyone else for that matter), but I am in favor of drawing a conceptual line between occultism and nature religion. And if that is a prejudice, I’m fine with it.

              1. Saying that a religion has “infected” Paganism is a prejudice, and quite an unpleasant one. If you want to draw dividing lines, then fine, but you can’t do that and advocate for larger Pagan community activism while looking down your nose at the practices and religions of many Pagans.

                1. On the contrary, if certain parts of Paganism distract Pagans from connecting with real and present nature and engaging in ecological activism, then I think we must criticize those parts.

                  Your “looking down your nose” comment echoes John Beckett’s criticism of me. And I have the response: “In our desire to harm none we have become harmless.” (Peter Grey)

                  “The taboo in Paganism against criticizing other Pagans’ beliefs has rendered us theologically “harmless”. Sometimes, it is more important to be rigorous in our thinking than it is to make everyone feel good. Sometimes it is only the most loyal of patriots who criticize their country. I think it is possible to be a good Athenian and a gadfly, just as it is possible to be a good Pagan and a critic of Paganism.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2015/08/06/you-can-be-a-good-athenian-and-a-gadfly/

                  Also, one more point of clarification. You may consider it more quibbling, but for me it’s an important distinction. I follow Ellwood and Partin in seeking Wicca existing on the boundary between esotericism and Pagan nature religion, overlapping both. Feminist forms of Wicca tend to overlap with Paganism more, while British Traditional Wicca tends to overlap with esotericism more.

                2. The choice of phrasing was coincidental, but I do remember that article and your response. Some good points made by both you and John Beckett there.

                  I think people should be able to critique bad ideas, but I am wary of that sliding into blanket condemnation of an entire religion.

                  My own path of Druidry is definitely more on the side of Pagan nature religion, but I still value the contributions of Wicca and other Paganisms that have a more traditionally esoteric core.

                  As always, John, thank you for a thought-provoking conversation; I find that even when we disagree, you always give me plenty to mull over.

    2. You really must connect us (me and John) to these networks of pagan activists. I know a few and lemme tell ya, it requires the iron will of a High Priest/ess to lead such an effort. They’re so few and far between, and they do not work beyond their immediate city/region.

      1. Sure!

        Off the top of my head, here in the UK at least, there’s The Warrior’s Call: Pagans United Against Fracking, who are leading protests and campaigns to prevent fracking in Britian; there’s Pagan Aid, who are a fundraising charity for ecological and relief efforts; and there’s projects like the Sacred Grove Planting Programme from the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which has planted thousands of trees in areas that need rewilding.

        And that’s not to mention the many hundreds of Pagans who quietly do their own activism, either by supporting secular groups like Mission Lifeforce, who are working to change the law around ecocide (and with whom I am a trustee), or simply by lobbying their MP, reducing their carbon footprint, adopting local roads and parks to keep clean etc.

        Also, there’s nothing wrong with working at the local level, that’s often where meaningful changes can be made. Think global, act local.

          1. Depends how you define “significant”. If you mean membership in the millions, blanket media representation, political influence, then no, I guess they’re not significant.

            But the work they and others like them do is significant in that it is meaningful work towards real change, even at a small-scale or local level.

            1. No, I meant “significant” within the Pagan community, i.e., are they examples of a common patern or more exceptions to the rule of non-engagement (which would be the case here in the US).

              1. Thanks for clarifying. I think they’re significant within the Pagan community here, most people I know have at least heard of them and they have a lot of support from Pagan folk. There may well be a lot of non-engagement here (it’s hard to tell precisely because you don’t get to meet the non-engagers), but I think that a decent amount of Pagans are involved in activism of one form or other.

  2. Most pagans today claim to honor and respect Nature and then turn around and reject Nature’s inherent diversity.

    In the 80’s and 90’s the pagan movement was inspired by many avenues of thought, but about the middle 90’s started losing momentum for a variety of reasons (mostly internal witch wars and major disagreements about stupid stuff) and now paganism is fighting gender wars within the movement.

  3. John, there is so much I agree with here. I do think that the very concept of Earth-revering Paganism as a valid religious path came along so late that it may simply have been too late to save our bacon.

    But paradigmatically, it would have taken a wholesale shift in the society towards that kind of religiosity for it to have been appropriate for the movement against climate change to be non-secular. The primary challenge to that movement has not been that it was secular; it’s that both the right and the left have turned against authorities, experts and critical thinking in favor of belief in unsubstantiated nonsense.

    We talk in Atheopagan circles about the power of “acting as if”–of suspending disbelief so we can access the metaphorical and mythopoetic power of stories and wisdom in ritual. I choose to act as if humanity is going to survive. We may lose a huge portion of our population, and there will be much chaos associated with that, but humans are highly adaptable and will probably survive. So I’m about developing culture, values and practices which can help to build a better world after the crisis subsides.

    Yes, Paganism could have been so much more. Maybe if the ecological crisis had become publicly visible in the 19th century, before we really went crazy with carbon emissions. But I give it credit for what it tries to be, despite side-tracking, witch wars, and other human bullshit.

    1. I think we’re in for a huge shift from secularism to religiosity, but unfortunately I’m afraid its going to be in the direction of dogmatic conservativism, a la The Handmaid’s Tale.

  4. Reject the basic premise of this piece bc my paganism still works. It heals and transforms and connects me to other people and to the more-than-human world.

    I can’t understand the dismissal and defeatism you’re blasting out here, which is harmful to the engagement you claim to hope for, alongside the piece that went up on G&R today. What’s your intention?

    1. In short, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We Pagans have yet to learn from our history.

      Anna, your response highlights why I think Paganism as a movement has failed and will never succeed. Whenever I raise a criticism of Paganism as a social movement, individual Pagans inevitably respond with a disclaimer that their own personal brand of Paganism is the exception. We are living in a time which desperately calls for collective action, but Pagans are constitutionally incapable of it. Despite all the talk about interconnectedness, Pagans have drunk too deeply from the Western individualist paradigm.

      1. So, in summary, not only has Paganism failed to save the world, but also I’m personally an example of why it has failed? That’s rich. You judge my faith, my practice, my capabilities, the impact I have on my communities, without ever having met me.

        1. Of course not Anna. I didn’t intend to criticize your Paganism. As I think you know, I have long held you out as an example of the kind of Pagan I want to emulate.

          I was merely referencing your response to my post as an example of the kind of individualistic focus which is endemic to Paganism.

  5. John, I agree with you in so many ways. You know I have worked on this problem as I know you have, and we’ve both come to the same conclusions. As it currently stands, paganism has failed and the world we know is doomed. But remember that our history (if not our mythic and spiritual beliefs) holds within it Creators and Destroyers, the Dead and the Living, and everything in between. In fact, these are reflections of Nature. Remember that. I don’t know if it helps, but I have come to take umbrage in that fact and sit with the Death God/dess to learn their wisdom in our passing.

    I am passive for now, observing, learning. Death Rites might follow. And then, we’ll get on with life and whatever new crap it brings.

  6. “In the near future, we can expect rising oceans, more frequent super storms, wild fires, and droughts, mass migrations, food and water shortages, economic collapse, a return to subsistence farming, the spread of epidemics, expanding ethnic conflict, the collapse of government institutions, the rise of authoritarian leaders, and a drastically declining human population–anywhere from a 70% reduction from 7.5 billion to 2 billion (which would bring the population to a sustainable level) to complete human extinction.”

    I respectfully submit that many of these things are, in fact, happening right now. Not that I should need to lecture a thinking American on the collapse of government institutions and the rise of authoritarianism, to say nothing of super storms, wild fires, or droughts.

    And this, of course, is with one degree of warming so far – which (afaik) humanity locked into Earth’s systems back in the 1960s and 70s. What is to come, with what we have locked into Earth’s systems since then, will look like science fiction. It is sobering to reflect that our descendants will have just cause to curse us, their ancestors.

    I agree that whatever contemporary western paganism is, it can’t now offer much to affect the outcome.

    One point of slight disagreement: I don’t think British Traditional Wicca ‘infected’ the modern pagan movement in the USA with occultism in the way you are suggesting. The practice of magic within modern paganism can’t be isolated so simply. I think what BTW did do was offer a theology, the syncretism of which dovetailed nicely with colonialism – all goddesses are one goddess, all gods are one god etc. It also offered a praxis that is entirely portable, with minimal interaction required with spirits or powers present in local landscapes. And so, the neo-pagan traditions that have borrowed to a greater or lesser extent from BTW have tended in my view to be a fairly suburban phenomenon – the post WW2 suburban sprawl being one of the most visible, biosphere-damaging, carbon-emitting legacies of the colonial mindset.

    1. >”I respectfully submit that many of these things are, in fact, happening right now.”

      Agreed.

      >”what BTW did do was offer a theology, the syncretism of which dovetailed nicely with colonialism – all goddesses are one goddess, all gods are one god etc. It also offered a praxis that is entirely portable, with minimal interaction required with spirits or powers present in local landscapes. And so, the neo-pagan traditions that have borrowed to a greater or lesser extent from BTW have tended in my view to be a fairly suburban phenomenon – the post WW2 suburban sprawl being one of the most visible, biosphere-damaging, carbon-emitting legacies of the colonial mindset.”

      Excellent points!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: