R.I.P. Paganism

This post from a friend came across my Facebook feed today, about some controversy in the Pagan community. There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have dived into it. Now, like my friend, I couldn’t care less. But it did prompt me to look back and review how I got here.

I have to admit, I’ve been ambivalent about contemporary Paganism since I first discovered it about 18 years ago. All the esoteric woo-woo stuff was a real turnoff. But I was drawn to the symbolism and the ritual. And Paganism helped me to reclaim some parts of myself which had been buried by two and a half decades of Christian conditioning.

I started blogging about Paganism in 2009 and, two years later, I was invited to move my blog to the Pagan channel at the interfaith blogging hub Patheos. From there I built a reputation for being a lightning rod. I started contributing to and then editing a community blog for naturalistic pagans (naturalisticpaganism.org) and regularly mixed it up with polytheistic Pagans online. My confrontational style of writing drew a lot of attention, both positive and negative. Soon I was one of the top writers at the Pagan channel (behind Jason Mankey and John Beckett).

But something started to shift for me in 2014. I had some profound experiences of communion with nature, which were far more powerful than anything I had experienced in a structured Pagan context. Inspired largely by the writing of David Abram, my spiritual orientation was slowly shifting from an archetypal Paganism to an animistic Paganism, from an inward focus on the Self to an outward focus on the more-than-human world.

Around the same time, I was waking up to the threat of climate change, and I wanted to get active. I gathered together some people to draft a Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which was published on Earth Day 2015. The Statement concluded with a challenge, to put the words into action, and I started getting more involved in environmental activism. I got arrested as part of an environmental protest in 2016 and co-founded the first chapter of 350.org in my home state in 2017. I also got involved in other activist causes including, anti-racism, immigrant rights, and gun control. After lurking in the pews for years, I joined a (Pagan-friendly) Unitarian congregation, because of the denomination’s commitment to social justice activism.

Around the same time, I was growing increasingly disenchanted with contemporary Paganism. Though we got 7,000 signatures soon after it was published, the Pagan Community Statement on the Environment failed to gather my hoped-for 10,000 signatures (though it’s now close). I was frustrated with the self-centeredness of many Pagans, and I started to question whether Paganism really was as earthcentered as it claimed. I was disappointed with boring Pagan rituals (there were notable exceptions), the otherworldliness and pietism of polytheistic Paganism (which was on the rise), the lack of political engagement by most Pagan writers, and just the overall silliness and credulity of much of Paganism. Rather than finding a true re-enchantment of the world, I saw Pagans reproducing the disenchantment of the mainstream culture.

In the summer of 2016 I went to a progressive Christian festival in North Carolina (the Wild Goose Festival) and had an awesome experience, which honestly was better than most of the Pagan festivals and conference I had been to. Having a “pagan” experience at a Christian festival caused me to wonder whether it was worth it to put up with all the baggage that comes with along with contemporary Paganism.

In January 2017, a contract dispute with the new owners of Patheos lead to a controversy, when it was discovered that the new owners supported anti-LGBT organizations. I was kicked off the site after writing an incendiary post. About two dozen other bloggers left as well. Needless to say, that didn’t help my building disillusionment with the Pagan community.

Contemporary Paganism celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, which prompted me to look back over the history of the movement. I couldn’t help but feel that Paganism had failed in its promise. A lot of my writing between 2017 and 2018 reflected my disillusionment. I concluded that Paganism never lived up to its potential to be a significant social force for good, helping to shift human consciousness and transform our relationship to the earth.

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 met and was drawn to others who felt similarly, like Glen Gordon, Anna Walther, and Dayan Martinez. I started considering other ways of relating to Paganism. Finally, I concluded that my association with Paganism was at an end.

The questions that obsessed me not very long ago are becoming less relevant for me. … There is some overlap with the animist thought in the contemporary Paganism, but it seems to be on its fringes and not at its center, which is where I had thought to have found it. The questions which seem to circulate at the center of Paganism have to do with belief in literal, anthropomorphic deities and literal, practical magic, neither of which I am interested in any longer.

There are some self-described Pagans writing about the same questions I have. But, by and large, the central concerns of contemporary Paganism seem to be different. And that no longer really bothers me, since I no longer feel bound to the Pagan community.

It is disappointing to have lost a connection to yet another religious community.  I feel like I’ve been through all the stages of grief in my relationship with Paganism—denial, anger, bargaining, depression–maybe several times over.  Now I’m finally accepting it: I may be “Pagan-adjacent”, but I don’t belong anywhere near the cultural center of contemporary Paganism.  Paganism’s questions aren’t mine anymore.

That was the summer of 2018. Going forward, (small-p) “paganism” simply meant “cultivating an immediate and sensual relationship with the land I stand on and the other-than-human (as well as the human) who inhabit the world around me.” No costumes or esoteric trappings were needed, just a “quiet devotion to nearby life.” That’s been my practice for the past two years.

I didn’t cut all ties. I did speak on a panel about atheist Paganism at Paganicon in 2019. And I had a truly awesome experience at a small pagan gathering in Wisconsin in the summer of 2018, but it was, I believe, exceptional rather than representative of Paganism generally. I wondered how things might have been different had that experience come at the beginning rather than the end of my journey with Paganism. I still am tangentially involved with the naturalistic Pagan community, which itself has always been on the fringes of contemporary Paganism. I also went ahead and published an introductory book about Neo-Paganism last year, from material that I had written previously. And I may still publish another book, about the intersection of Paganism and deep ecology, with the remaining material.

Otherwise, my engagement with self-identified Pagans and capital-P Paganism is at an end, and it has been for quite a while. I have to say: It feels good.

Lest I come off as complete ingrate, though, I am deeply grateful and forever indebted to those Pagans, Pagan-adjacents, and former-Pagans who encouraged me, inspired me, challenged me, and more. This list isn’t complete, but to name some people: Alison Leigh Lilly, Alley Valkyrie, Anna Walther, B.T. Newberg, Bart Everson, Cat Chapin-Bishop, Christine Hoff Kraemer, Dayan Martinez, Glen Gordon, Jon Cleland-Host, Lupa Greenwolf, M.J. Lee, Mark Green, Nikki Whiting, Rhyd Wildermuth, Rua Lupa, Ruby Sara, Shauna Aura Knight, Steven Posch, and Teo Bishop. Thank you all!

Praise the Mama! Grok Earth! Thou art Goddess!

15 thoughts on “R.I.P. Paganism

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  1. Great piece, John. Very apt, in many ways.

    Some of us are still out there trying, organizing, seeking to build community around beliefs, values and practices that aren’t…well. That aren’t what so much of the Pagan community concerns itself with.

    Maybe it’s smoke in the wind, but it seems to add to a lot of really wonderful people’s lives. And it concerns itself with the real Earth, not imaginary “nature”. The Sacredness of it, the fact that it is we: that there is no difference.

    I’ve been at this for longer than you, and I’ve suffered more disappointments in the process than you can name. I’ve seen the charlatans and hucksters, the flim-flam artists flogging “magical powers” and “ancient wisdom” while raking money off their organizations…and, sometimes, abusing others as well.

    But the thing about Paganism that holds me is that *the Earth is real*. The Cosmos is real. Life, and love, and beauty, and truth are real. Those are Sacred things, and as dark and twisted as humanity has become with its Abrahamic blood cults, that Sacredness remains.

    I understand why you have no hope. But yet you practice.

    Me, too.

  2. As I write this, my local pagan community (that I helped build in its current incarnation and have held together for the last few years) is yet again threatening fission. That’s why I can’t just leave it all and wander the paths of wild Earth and more-than-human others that call so sweetly to me. So I make ever-larger loops and hope that I cover enough ground on the ways… holding out hope that things might change with enough time and pressure. Who knows? Everything’s up in the air and full of potential right now.

  3. Very well written article! I consider my self pagan, but have not been a member of any one group for long because I experienced these groups were, as you said, were more about the participant’s ego.

    I was raised on a farm in Idaho and spent most of my childhood days outdoors and that is how I established a very real relationship with the non-human life around me.

    There has never been any organization that has ever come close to the power of just quietly connecting with plants and animals and sensing the life of earth itself.

    You stated that so well!

    Thank you!
    Dwight

  4. Best Wishes.
    Are you stepping aside at Cherry Hill Pagan Seminary? That seems to be the fair thing for you to do.

  5. you’ve expressed very well all my dissatisfactions and sadness with Paganism. Things are a little different in the UK, less political squabbling maybe and more self delusion and Cosplayganism.

    I had a falling out a while ago with an old friend over his endless air travel (and encouraging folk to fly to his Druid events) and he had no inkiling that what he was doing was in any way problematic – this sincere man saw no problem with his large Pagan organisation having a massive carbon footprint. If even the best of us have so little environmental awareness and set such a bad example what hope is there of Paganism being in any way a force for positive change?

    Anyhow I am in the same position as you. I guess I am ‘Pagan adjacent’. As a musician serving a largely Pagan audience this causes me professional problems and a lot of sadness. I guess I’ll be standing on the outside of Paganism singing in, rather than the inside singing out.

  6. Humans being what they are, the cool stuff is always the exception rather than the rule in any mass movement, including contemporary Paganism. I have to say you’ve brought a lot of cool stuff my way over the years, under the banner of Paganism. When I think of Paganism, I think of you. Highly ironic, isn’t it? But things do shift around on our journey. Wishing you all the best.

  7. Yes, so much of this makes sense. It’s been helpful for you to consistently point out many of the real problems in Paganism, and even (especially?) when those observations were unpopular.

    Is there hope? I don’t know. I do know that I’ve come to a similar place with UUism (though I still identify as UU, I’m increasingly unsure that my efforts of support are well placed).

    You may go through a similar thought process as I do with every group and movement. I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help future generations, out of gratitude for the reality (due to chance, the Universe, the actions of my Ancestors, and more) of my life. That means for every movement, every use of my time, I ask “Is this the best use of my time, thought, and money which will deliver the best possible world for future generations?”

    It sounds like that may be similar to your thought process around Paganism above. For me, that’s what I’ve always applied to every decision and each moment as much as is practical. It’s more recently led to me to increasingly wonder if my time and effort (which used to be enormous for 20+ years) in supporting UU is the best use of my energy. I’m not sure.

    Regardless of that question, thanks again for the heartfelt, honest reflection. If only a small percentage of people cared about reality and cared as much about the future as you do (well, more than do now), then our world (and certainly the United States!) would be a much better place.

  8. It sounds like rather than declaring the Pagan movement to be dead or failed, you’re excluding your beliefs and practices from the Pagan label. That’s fair, and I get it. I currently think that the pantheistic/Gaian/animistic spirituality I’m developing is more earth-centered UUism than Paganism. I’ve even struggled in recent years to identify with the HP community. I’m not an atheist.

    I find a lot–not everything, but a lot– in common with those who regularly attend the Pagan book club at my UU church. Our spiritualities tend to be focused around a reverence for nature (a problematic concept, I know), the Wheel of the Year, reverence for ancestors, embodiment, feminist concepts, and inspiration from non-Abrahamic traditions. It’s enough in common for us to share a book club, that most UU of spiritual circles. I’m trying to avoid overanalyzing the differences among us, and to avoid worrying about how we might craft rituals that move everyone, once we’re able to circle in person again. I need my faith to be less overwrought and more spacious than that right now. And, as someone who left both Catholic and Zen Buddhist communities, I want to be sure I’m not engaging in a cycle of idealizing and devaluing communities and the people in them because they’re not perfect.

    Your ideas have inspired me, too, and I hope you keep writing about your spiritual path, however you choose to describe it. Are you doing anything to celebrate the fall equinox?

    1. Hi Anna, I’m glad to hear you’re finding community in the book club. I hear you about the struggle to craft rituals that resonate with others and about the danger of the cycle of idealizing and disparaging our communities (something I certainly do).
      This equinox I’m doing my usual simple ceremony for myself: short poem and libation at my outdoor altar. Though, I do have both my kids home from school for this weekend. Maybe we should do something together. Maybe we’ll go to Lake Michigan. The weather is just starting to turn here and I saw my first flock of geese yesterday.
      I’m also speaking at a UU church (not my own) about animism on Sunday. It’s the first time I’ve talked on this subject, so I’m a little nervous. It’s ironic that the first time will be in a virtual service, the least animistic setting I can imagine.

  9. I don’t see where Patheos Pagan has lost any of its left wing advocacy.   Conservative Pagans and Witches have their own groups on Facebook where Patheos frequently gets criticized.  

    1. Yeah, when I left, there was a fair amount of political (broadly speaking) writing. About one in eight posts, as I counted it. And that’s not bad for a site that’s not explicitly political. That was right after Trump’s election.

      Still, in my experience, most Pagans don’t see a connection between their religion and their politics (except as it might impact their practice directly) and many actively resist the politicization of Paganism. The lack of engagement is especially noticeable in environmental activism, where you would expect to see more Pagans to be on the front lines.

      A good example is this piece from Jonathan Woolley, who reported from the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, contrasting the presence of other faith traditions to Paganism’s relative absence from the event:

      “Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. … Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of traveling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).

      “Pagans, by contrast, have yet to engage in this organised fashion. Though we may be active participants as individuals, our organisations have shown a puzzling lack of initiative; failing to capitalise upon the almost unique relevance of our philosophies to climate change. While it has taken a [sea]-change in Christian theology, and a harnessing of long-neglected (but nonetheless orthodox) parts of Christian thought to respond to this Great Challenge of our Age, no such shift is necessary within Pagan religions — we share a common, compelling reverence for Nature; either as the body of the goddess, as an utterly animate cosmos, or as the province of many deities. It should be the easiest thing in the world for us to take our place in spaces like COP, and to command great power and respect when we do so: and yet, this has not happened.”

      http://godsandradicals.org/2015/12/28/ill-meet-you-on-the-field-of-mars-a-druids-view-of-cop21/%20%EF%BF%BC

  10. Hi John , I have followed you for many years, initially because of my interest in ‘naturalistic paganism’ when I also wearied of the woo woo. With regard to your difficulties with some in the pagan community I could see how this would end, 5 or more years ago. “When is he going to finally give Paganism the heave-ho?’ I have asked myself. But I know, because of that first ‘rush’ we experienced the emotional and personal ties are really powerfuI always pulling us back in, in the hope that ‘maybe this time’ we can make it work again for us.. It is a journey I and others have also walked and like you I had an equally long and bumpy journey out of Christianity before paganism. Like you I find none of those spiritual experiences and relationships were wasted in hindsight and at least helped define what I was not. At the end of the day, the appeal of particular religious traditions wax and wane historically and for us personally but behind all is the often groping universal search for meaning and communion. Wishing you all the best, your perpetual honesty and insight has been a great gift to many fellow travellers.

  11. Hi John, I’m sorry to hear this. Your positioning aligns so closely with a visibly growing tendency to animism, myself and my partner included, among UK Pagans. Agnostic and atheistic polytheism has also been pretty close to the norm here for a couple of decades, and for myself I haven’t run across any militants among the few hard polytheists. Our book appeared to strike a chord with those animists, as it sold well (now sold out 3rd printing) and we have had wonderful feedback; I never heard from you what you thought of it, after I sent you a PDF because yu seemed to be struggling to find like minds.

    It seemed pretty predictable to me that in a society like the US where everything is commodified, and consumerist messages are sledgehammered into your head; and where patriarchal, monotheistic religion has had a stranglehold right from its foundation, that commercialization and Protestantism-with-different-names would be the inevitable drift of most Pagans, as soon as the numbers started to increase. (When I left NC, there were basically no other Pagans for 200 miles.) The Christian cultural paradigm is very hard to break even when you’re trying; if you find others in the same boat who support you in not bothering, then it’s not going to happen. It’s not entirely their fault.

    Perhaps my advantage has been in starting from a place of disillusion with all groups and reaching a stage of prefering to practice alone as a general rule. But for me, Paganism has been an intimate part of my identity since the 70s, and I won’t let anyone else’s participation or redefinition – and certainly not their squabbles – put me off.

    As for activism, well, I served my time in my youth, and now stick to petitions, letters, and writing only. I admire people who have the energy and initiative (to think up strategies; I believe demonstrations only help if the zeitgeist is well and truly behind you), but I have to safeguard carefully against depression or I become unable to approach even those simple actions. I sometimes call myself a Taoist Pagan and have spent many years cultivating an appropriate level of acceptance, as brick walls hurt. Are there actually Pagan organizations in the US that compare in any way with the organizational level of the Christians you cite as supporting environmentalism? Maybe UK Pagans are even less inclined to organization than American ones. My partner is a trustee of Pagan Aid, which is however a small charity. Most of its projects involve helping people on the ground deal with their own immediate environmental issues.

    The Big Tent is NOT a *creation* of US publishers etc, but they seem to be in charge of the loudspeakers – not surprising, since they will always pay for them. You’re making the mistake of thinking that the loudest voice is the true one – especially on a global level. You don’t have to read all those stupid debates, any more than you have to read every COVID meme or new Trump rant. Search out what’s going on in the more serious echelons. Or don’t, just pursue your own deeper practice. But it would be a shame if you stopped writing about it.

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