The Promise and the Peril of Paganism

Note: The following comes from the Afterword of the newly-released book, Neo-Paganism: Historical Inspiration and Contemporary Creativity, by John Halstead. (If you’ve followed my previous criticisms of contemporary Paganism, you will have heard most of this before.)

The Promise and the Peril of Paganism

In The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Morris Berman de­scribes the history of the modern epoch as one of progressive disenchantment, a loss of our sense of our essential participation in the world. To facilitate a scientific understanding and control of the natural world, humankind has sought to separate our­selves from nature, to step “outside” and become observers of the world, to see the world as an object.

This has given us unprecedented control over nature, but as philosophers, Adorno and Horkheimer, state, “[Humans] pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power.”[1] This alienated perspective has become not just a scientific method, but our ordinary, every­day consciousness. The result has been individual neurosis, so­cial alienation, and environmental degradation.

More than any other contemporary religious movement I have encountered, I believe Paganism has the potential to re-en­chant the world, to expand our consciousness of the radically interconnected nature of our relationship to the world. A re-en­chanted consciousness runs counter to the social and spiritual alienation that is the inheritance of positivistic science and con­sumer capitalism, which reduce all of nature, including human beings, to mechanisms, resources, and commodities.

These two forces—positivistic science and consumer capital­ism—level life down to only those things that can be measured and bought and sold. Nothing else is recognized as real or meaningful. These two forces have such power over our minds, so deep rooted are their assumptions, that it has become nearly impossible for us to imagine any other way of being. In the place of our original relation to nature, our culture manufac­tures treacherous parodies of freedom and joy, and the only name we can give to our gnawing sense of unfulfillment is “men­tal illness”—and for such “illness,” copious amounts of pills are sold to us.

Paganism holds out the promise of restoring our awareness of the dimension of reality that eludes the grasp of the scientist and the salesman. This is the dimension of human experience that includes what might be called “magic”—not the disen­chanted magic of the occultists, for whom magic is just another technology, another means of controlling nature, but magic as an expression of wonder and connection. This dimension also includes the sacred, that which we recognize as having value beyond its instrumental usefulness to us, and which can neither be measured nor bought or sold.

“Magic” and the “sacred”—the first is a byword to the scien­tist, the second is meaningless to the capitalist, but they are two of the most human of experiences. There is noth­ing otherworldly about this dimension of experience. To para­phrase the surrealist, Paul Eluard, there is another world, but it is this one.[2] This is what I seek in Pagan ritual—not fantasies or wishful thinking—but a more genuine, more true experience of this world.

I believe that Paganism, especially Neo-Paganism, has real potential to foster this experience and to transform our relation­ship with the Earth, with each other, and with our deeper selves. But Paganism is not without its problems.

Though Paganism is often described, both internally and exter­nally, as a nature religion, in practice Pagans often seem to be more concerned with the freedom of self-expression than with responsibility to the Earth. This is probably a function of Paganism’s origins in the Counterculture. Pagan elder, Fritz Mun­tean, recollects:

“the people who rallied, with me, around the ribbon-be­decked May Pole of modern Pagan Witchcraft in the early 1960s were primarily hedonists. Many of us, it’s true were interested in ecology and environmentalism. But all were there, I believe, to fuel the fires of a religios­ity that claimed ‘all acts of love and pleasure’ as its sacra­ments.”[3]

Muntean describes a Pagan “ethic of impulse (‘follow your feel­ings’), self-expression (‘let it all hang out’), and situational appropri­ateness (‘go with the flow’; ‘different strokes for differ­ent folks’).”[4]

Margot Adler documented a worrying lack of political will among Neo-Pagans in the 1970s and 1980s. She records Isaac Bone­wits, the founder of the Neo-Druidic tradition (ADF) say­ing that, while many Neo-Pagans were very concerned about environ­mental matters, “Most Neo-Pagans are too loose and lib­eral to be fanatic about anything, including their own sur­vival.”[5]

What’s more, the relationship between Neo-Pagan practice and the natural world is not as straightforward as the “nature religion” appellation suggests. Neo-Pagans have inherited ritual forms from British Traditional Wicca, which did not itself begin as a nature religion, but as a form of esotericism or occultism.[6] The resulting ritual and symbolic forms sometimes bear an ambigu­ous relationship to nature. Consider how Pagans living in myriad climatic zones may follow a universalist Wheel of the Year derived from the climate of Great Britain, which may or may not correspond with local environmental conditions. As Joanne Pearson has observed, sometimes the Pagan Wheel of the Year turns the seasons, rather than the other way around.[7]

Similarly, when Pagans invoke the “elements,” often in in­door settings, these may take the form of abstract Neo-Platonic essences, rather than the actual earth beneath our feet and the air and water flowing around us. For example, Pagans may invoke the element of water in the traditional westerly cardinal direc­tion, while a large river flows by to the east. And as the center­piece of such a ritual, Pagans might undertake an imaginal “jour­ney” to a grove or other sacred natural site to converse with spirits or deities, without ever having to experience the inconven­iences and harsher realities of nature or appreciate di­rectly the connection between our actions and their effect on the natu­ral world. Poet and Pagan ritualist, Steven Posch, questions whether Pagans, as they gather in their circles, are “standing with our backs to the world,” [8] figuratively as well as literally.    This raises the question what exactly the word “nature” re­ally means to Pagans.[9] In his study of the rise of Paganism in America, religious studies scholar, Chas Clifton, distinguishes what he calls “Cosmic Nature” from “Gaian Nature.”[10] 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. Many 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 some Pagans, may be more of a social construct than a direct experi­ence, a romanticized or idealized “nature” that serves as little more than a backdrop to esoteric rituals.

Clifton has challenged Pagans to “[l]ive so that someone igno­rant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home, that you followed an Earth religion.”[11] This is excellent advice, but Peg Aloi, who studies Paganism in the media, questions whether we Pagans have lived up to that challenge:

“There are now hundreds of thousands of people who iden­tify as ‘pagan’ or ‘Wiccan’ or ‘Druid’ … who have never conducted a ritual out of doors, who have never at­tended a festival at a campground, who have never planted a garden in honor of the Eternal Return of the Earth Mother in spring. Do they discuss the gods and their ritual practices and spells and theology? Sure! But do they get their hands dirty, in actual dirt?”[12]

Two beliefs which are common among contemporary Pagans can serve as distractions from the natural world. The first, which I have already alluded to, is the belief in practical or instrumen­tal magic—the idea that we can cause physical change at a dis­tance without corresponding physical action. This kind of “magic” is just ritualized wishful thinking. It is based on the false premise that thought or intention alone can change the mate­rial world. This notion originates in the division of mind and body that patriarchal Christianity perpetuates. Within that paradigm, magic becomes just another form of “technol­ogy” that contributes to the disenchantment of the world.

As Trudy Frisk as written in her essay, “Paganism, Magic, and the Control of Nature”:

“Paganism has an unparalleled opportunity to evolve spir­itual ceremonies compatible with ecological knowledge; to create a new sense of sacredness to set against destruction. The message of humanist material­ism is hollow. People yearn for something greater. … Pagan­ism, if it reconsiders magic, may be the faith of the future. … The world urgently needs eco-centered, not ego-centered, religions, blending reverence for nature with knowledge of its complexity. Paganism, if it treats magic as an expression of wonder and not a means of con­trol, could be one of these religions.”[13]

Also problematic is the belief in invisible supernatural beings, including literal gods, spirits, fairies, and so on. Such beliefs (at least in their unnuanced forms) are intellectually naïve and psycho­logically regressive. They resemble closely the belief in an invisible monotheistic God to which Paganism is supposed to be a counter. But there simply isn’t much metaphysical difference between a solitary Yahweh and a pantheon of Yahwehs. What­ever some Pagans say about the relationship between these be­ings and the natural world, without a visible and physical pres­ence, they function as distractions from the visible, physical Earth.

Unfortunately, Paganism has been taken by many as a li­cense to believe any fantasy they want. They may believe they were a priestess in Atlantis in a former life or they were burned alive as a witch in Salem. They may believe they can see fairies or they may collect stones with supposed magical qualities. They may think they can affect the weather with their minds or heal people far away by sending them positive energy. In contem­porary Pagan culture, all of these beliefs are treated as valid. The one inviolable rule among Pagans seems to be that no one is allowed to question another person’s beliefs.

Paganism doesn’t have any commandments per se, but if there were a First Commandment of Paganism, it would be “Thou shalt not judge another’s experience.” This is a problem. If we really want to avoid orthodoxy, as Pagans so often claim, then we need to have more discussion, not less—and some of that discussion needs to be constructively critical. Pagans need to get more comfortable with the idea that criticism can be construc­tive. So long as we avoid criticism, we are vulnerable to self-deceit and groupthink. Sometimes that criticism can come from friends, but sometimes it takes an outsider to challenge us to ask the hardest questions about ourselves and our experi­ences. When done in a spirit of openness and humility, critical questioning benefits both sides in the conversation and the commu­nity as a whole.

While it’s not productive to deny that anyone had a spiritual experience, it is legitimate to criticize that person’s interpretation of their experience. We can’t tell another person that they didn’t feel what they felt, but we should question the meaning they have assigned to their experience if it conflicts with our own under­standing of reality. Admittedly, this can often feel like the same thing to the person whose interpretations are under scru­tiny—especially for those who don’t acknowledge the interpre­tive step. But it is precisely those experiences that seem to come with ready-made interpretations that we most need to examine critically if we are to lead authentic religious lives.

Rather than “Thou shalt not judge another’s experience,” I would like to see the First Commandment of Paganism be “Thou shalt keep an open mind.” And this would be observed by both sides in any conversation. On the one hand, it would protect against confirmation bias and unconscious orthodoxies, and on the other hand, it would protect against destructive forms of criticism that are born of a need to always be right about everything or an antisocial desire to deconstruct all beliefs. Everyone needs safe spaces where they can talk about their experi­ences and their tentative interpretations of those experi­ences without fear of criticism, constructive or otherwise. But if that’s where we choose to stay, then those safe spaces become intellectual ghettos. And that is what a lot of the Pagan commu­nity has turned into.

Separating the promise of re-enchantment from the peril of superstitiousness in Paganism is not simple. In fact, the two often seem intertwined. Perennial philosopher, Ken Wilber, de­scribes how human psychological development moves through stages from pre-rational magical thinking to rational scientific thought to trans-rational consciousness. The trans-rational stage transcends the limitations of positivistic rationality, with its egocen­trism and logocentrism, without losing its insights and falling back into superstitious magical thinking.

The difficulty is that the pre-rational and the trans-rational sometimes look a lot alike, and so it is easy to confuse them. Wil­ber calls this the “pre/trans fallacy.”[14] A person who thinks they have transcended the limitations of rationalistic consciousness may actually have only reverted to a pre-rational mode of thought. And this, according to Wilber, is exactly what a lot of Pagans have done. (Some folks on the other end of the belief spec­trum make the corresponding mistake: by failing to see any distinction between the pre- and trans-rational, they condemn it all as irrational.)

So how do we distinguish the pre-rational from the trans-rational in Paganism? How do we regain the sense of “magic” without resorting to superstition? How do we incorporate the wisdom of pre-scientific cultures without losing the rigor of the scientific method? How do we restore a sense of life and even personhood to our experience of the world without projecting our own imaginings onto nature? How do we awaken to other modes of consciousness without regressing into psychological infantilism and wishful thinking?

On the one hand, we must be willing to plunge into embod­ied spiritual experience, without fear of looking silly or fear of being wrong. As cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, has writ­ten:

“Beyond a given point [humans are] not helped by more ‘knowing,’ but only by living and doing in a partly self-for­getful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experi­ence and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflec­tion and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.”[15]

On the other hand, we must, as individuals and as a community, be receptive to criticism from the outside and cultivate a discern­ing attitude on the inside. When writer James Joyce brought his schizophrenic daughter to Carl Jung for treatment, Joyce told Jung that his daughter had an artistic mind like his own, to which Jung responded, “Yes, but you are swimming in it; your daughter is drowning.” While we need to plunge into the depths of embodied spiritual experience, we need to beware of drowning. We must from time to time return to firm ground, to rest and recover our bearings.

Many Pagans today seem to me to be drowning in pre-ra­tional waters. An uncritical mindset and a susceptibility to supersti­tion haunt contemporary Paganism. In spite of this, I still call myself a Pagan, because I believe that Paganism, espe­cially Neo-Paganism, is a door to the trans-rational. I believe that Neo-Paganism has the potential to bring together the wisdom of our animistic forbearers and the discoveries of contemporary science in a way that has the power to re-enchant the world.

But it’s important to remember that the contemporary Pagan community is not the same thing as the experience of Paganism. The experience that I have been calling “Pagan” isn’t found exclu­sively, or even reliably, in nominally “Pagan” spaces. The most Pagan experiences I have had didn’t happen inside a ritual circle. They had nothing to do with the things that can be read about in most Pagan books or on most Pagan blogs or the things talked about in workshops at most Pagan conferences or in most Pagan online forums. They certainly didn’t have anything to do with the things I could buy in Pagan shops or under vendor tents at Pagan festivals. They aren’t the kinds of experiences that self-identified Pagans can lay exclusive claim to.

The experience that we call “Paganism” requires no casting of a circle, no calling of the quarters, no ritual paraphernalia. In fact, all the candles and crystals, circles and correspondences, cauldrons and costumes (some of which I do like) can be a distrac­tion. Even the theology and the mythology can become a distraction from the experience that we call “Paganism.” The experi­ence doesn’t even require other Pagans—though some­times being in community with other like-minded people can help. All it really requires is a willingness to be fully, passion­ately, sensuously present to the place where you are.

I’m talking about the exultation I feel in a demanding hike up the side of a mountain and feeling the inexplicable compul­sion to build a rock altar at the top. I’m talking about rituals which arise without effort, naturally, as a result of contact with the Earth. I’m talking about pouring a libation of water and feel­ing my sense of sensual connection with the physical 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, yet powerful, rituals for re-enchanting our experience of the world.

I’m also talking about more common experiences, like lying in the grass in the summer and letting my skin drink in the sun­light and the air until it spills out of me in a semi-articulate prayer of thanksgiving. I’m talking about sweaty, passionate sex in the candlelit dark as an act of worship, worship both of my partner and of the Holy Body of which we are a part. I’m talking about sacralizing seemingly mundane experiences, like my first conscious breath of air when I wake, the sight of the Sun rising in the east, the feeling of water flowing over my hands, and the feeling of dirt under my fingers.

There’s a human tendency to look for answers everywhere except where we already are. This is true in much of contempo­rary Paganism as well. But I think the greatest secret of Pagan­ism is an open one. What Unitarian minister, Lester Mondale, wrote about the practical mysticism of Emerson applies as well to Paganism: “Far from being fogged behind seven veils of Rosicru­cian obscurity and centered in the inmost sphere of ta­boo and sanctity,” the Pagan experience is rather “as common and yet as enigmatical as a dandelion.”[16] It is a secret only to the extent that we’re not paying attention.

This seems to be the great “mystery” of many of the world’s religious traditions. It’s so simple, and yet so profound, so obvi­ous, but so easy to overlook. Organized religions keep complicat­ing it with grand theological systems and interposing priestly intermediaries between us and it. But the mystics of the world’s religions always call us back to the direct, unmediated experience. As one mystic, Martin Buber, has written:

“There is something that can only be found in one place. It is a great treasure, which may be called the fulfillment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands.

“Most of us achieve only at rare moments a clear realiza­tion of the fact that they have never tasted the fulfillment of existence, that their life does not participate in true, ful­filled existence, that, as it were, it passes true existence by. We nevertheless feel the deficiency at every moment, and in some measure strive to find—somewhere—what we are seeking. Somewhere, in some province of the world or of the mind, except where we stand, where we have been set—but it is there and nowhere else that the treasure can be found. …

“If we had power over the ends of the earth, it would not give us that fulfillment of existence which a quiet de­voted relationship to nearby life can give us.”[17]

A quiet, devoted relationship to nearby life. That is a kind of Pagan­ism which we all have access to, whether or not we call ourselves “Pagan.”


[1] Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1979)

[2] Paul Eluard, Œuvres Complètes, Vol. 1 (1968)

[3] Muntean, Fritz. “Are We Really a ‘Nature’ Religion?” [http://Witches html]

[4] Ibid.

[5] Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon (1979)

[6] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esoteri­cism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (1997); Joanne Pearson, “Demarcat­ing the Field: Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft,” DISKUS, 6 (2000) [http: //]

[7] Joanne Pearson, Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World (1998)

[8] Steven Posch, “Standing with Our Backs to the World” [http://Witches]

[9] Marion Bowman, “Nature, the Natural and Pagan Identity,” DISKUS, 6 (2000) [ %20]

[10] Chas Clifton, Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America (2006)

[11] Chas Clifton, Witchcraft Today, Book One: The Modern Craft Movement (1997)

[12] Peg Aloi, “Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed? Yes, Yes, A Resound­ing Yes.” [ 07/has-pagan-environmentalism-failed-yes-yes-a-resounding-yes/]

[13] Trudy Frisk, “Paganism, Magic, and the Control of Nature,” Trum­peter, 14:4 (1997) [ w/169/206]

[14] Ken Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (1981)

[15] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

[16] Lester Mondale, “The Practical Mysticism of Ralph Waldo Emer­son,” in Alfred Stiernotte (ed.), Mysticism and the Modern Mind (1959)

[17] Martin Buber, The Way of Man (1950)


8 thoughts on “The Promise and the Peril of Paganism

Add yours

  1. Two thoughts immediately come to mind reading this:

    1. Ran Prieur recently introduced his readers to an interesting take on the concept of enchantment in the modern world: that we are just as superstitious and in awe of the sacred as ever before, but where this happens in modernity has shifted in such a way that it becomes difficult for the contemporary theologian has a hard time recognizing it. While the natural world remains a disenchanted place, a mere accumulation of inert material waiting to be exploited, the world of the market (money, finance, banking, consumerism, etc) has become a kind of secular paganism for the masses.

    2. Of course my experience here is colored by my being a devotional polytheist, but I believe that most of the “stuff” that gets in the way between direct, lived experience of the divine is put there by the politically insecure. The grand theological systems exist to control, to extract “proof” from the masses and ensure a homogeneous experience. There’s a reason that the world’s mystics don’t really give a damn about what others are doing, and why priests tend to make it their literal business to give a LOT of them lol.

  2. Lots of good stuff here, particularly the bits about direct experience of Nature.

    I think your writing is at its best when you talk about what inspires you.

    When you talk about what you disagree with, I think you are creating straw man versions of other people’s ideas.

    Most Wiccan authors urge people to adapt the festivals to their locale. I’m always urging people to ditch the heterocentric myth of the courtship of the God and Goddes, and look at real mythology and the natural world.

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