Why Paganism Failed (in one chart)

I came across this chart, which comes from the book Deep Green Resistance, along with the explanation below. It captures perfectly my issues with popular Paganism, by which I mean 99% of what you find on the bookstore shelf and 95% of what you see at Pagan conventions, festivals etc.

“An alternative culture built around the project of an individualistic and interior experience, whether spiritual or psychological, cannot create a resistance movement, no matter how many societal conventions it trespasses. There is no firm moral ground under the feet of those who can only counsel withdrawal and personal comfort in the face of atrocity.”

— Lierre Keith, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet

“We’ve all encountered groups or movements that claims to seek social change, but has no strategy or true aim to get there. Instead, they reject political engagement and serious organizing, and create a cultural bubble within the dominant system. The focus is on keeping their bubble authentic, oppose norms, find emotional comfort, validation and “kicks”, identity, symbolic actions, a certain lifestyle, moral purity, and so on.”

As wrote recently here, I withdrew from popular Pagan culture because:

“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. …

“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.

But I think all of this writing could be summed up in the chart above.

15 thoughts on “Why Paganism Failed (in one chart)

Add yours

  1. Well said. I’ll have to check that book out. This is why I’m thrilled to see my own pagan circle starting to embrace Permaculture and seeing that there is no individual but interconnectedness and community needs. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  2. GREAT article, John. I completely concur, with the proviso that the Pagan project isn’t over yet. Some of us, at least, are focused not just on ourselves and hedonism.

  3. Really very interesting thoughts John, a lot I agree with here – I recall you commenting favourably on my post-mortem of British Paganism (or rather, the “scene”) I wrote a few years ago, and I would like to return the favour! It’s pretty clear that contemporary Paganism has not (yet) evolved into the kind of unified earth religion it was sometimes touted as; and I think your article and the table correctly identify a kind of individualism and escapism that plays a critical role in this.

    One caveat I would suggest is based on my observation that most Pagans come in two stripes: there are those who are seeking a sanctuary, while there are others who are seeking to recharge their batteries. The second type would often draw strength and inspiration from their practices to go out and help nature through other more inclusive institutions – such as in a professional capacity, or via activism. You see this a lot in the UK with how a sizeable number of Pagans are moved by their faith to campaign against road building, or oil and gas extraction. Indeed, Paganism is often the most visible form of spiritual practice within these activist spaces, at least in this country.

    Of course, this phenomenon is small potatoes compared to what Paganism -could- have accomplished. If it formed a big, Earth-centred ecumen of the type you’re longing for, then it could act as a powerful cultural and political force, supporting people economically and politically when they seek to live their lives differently, as well as actively challenging vested interests. Going back to the two stripes of Pagan I mentioned above, it’s always interested me that you come across very few Pagans who view their participation in terms of duty or service.

    Something I’ve been thinking about recently is what kinds of institutions are genuine earth spirituality would have. Personally, I think it’s very clear it would need to be based around [sacred] land, and therein lies the rub – land is expensive, and interest over how it is managed is shared with lots of other groups, many of whom don’t view Pagan interests in it as legitimate. I recently tried to bring together a group of 100 or so Pagans in Britain to buy a farm we’d camped on for years; we just didn’t have the cash available.

    I remember at the time that pretty much as soon as my article about the death of the British Pagan scene was published, in 2018 there was an enormous upswing of interest in witchcraft amongst millennials in the UK, that still hasn’t gone away. Many of these younger witches are tremendously environmentally engaged, and I suspect that there could be the germ of new potential for earth religion here.

    I’ve been wondering about penning a manifesto of sorts – a summary of the problem we face, and the types of institutions earth religious Westerners might create to address them. I’d love to know if this is something you’d be interested in, or if you had any ideas I could refer to!

    1. Thanks Jonathan! You wrote: “it’s always interested me that you come across very few Pagans who view their participation in terms of duty or service.” Honestly, that was true of me too. I came to Paganism looking for healing from my Christian upbringing. And that’s all it was for me for years. It was when I started turning outward and looking for ways to translate my beliefs into socially responsible action that I my frustration with the Pagan “community” reached a fever pitch.

      I think your observation about two kinds of Pagans is true, and also true of other religions. One of the interim ministers at my UU congregation had names for them. I remember one was “sanctuary” members. (Unfortunately I can’t remember the other.) I think I move back and forth between the two types. A couple years ago I created a service to celebrate both of these types of members, as well as a third:

      “1. Keepers of the Flame: We must sometimes turn our backs to the world in order to protect our flame. And in so doing, we make a sanctuary for those whose hearts have been wounded by harsh words or merciless deeds, and whose minds are troubled by the buffeting winds of change. Here, we make a place of rest, peace, and healing, shielding each other with our bodies and our spirits.”

      “2. Bearers of the Flame. We carry the light from our sanctuary out into the harsh world so that we may also be a beacon of hope to an unjust world. But the winds of the harsh world buffet our flames and then they are extinguished. So we must continually return back to our spiritual home to renew our souls at the center of our community, before carrying our light out into the world again.”

      “3. Builders of the Flame: The journey out into the world from our sacred sanctuary can be a long one. And for the Bearers of the Flame, it may sometimes seem that a great chasm is separating them from their spiritual home. Meanwhile, for the Keepers of the Flame, it may sometimes seem that their fellow congregants have gone so far into the world as to strain the connection to the community. This is why we need the Builders of the Flame those who do the work of the church which is so rarely appreciated, but without whom the Keepers would not have a sanctuary and the Bearers would not have a flame to carry out into the world. The Builders keep things flowing smoothly and they bring people together in community.”

      It is good to hear about the rising interest in millennial witches in the UK who are environmentally engaged. What do you think prompted/is continuing to feed that? I’m wondering, was Peter Grey’s writing a factor?

      I’d love to read your manifesto, or a draft of it, when you write it. The only thought I have about a new earth religion is this: think in order for it to really grow, it would have to somehow (1) reject virtual community and rediscover the power of in-the-flesh community, while also (2) not recreating the kinds of institutions which worked in the past, but are moribund now.

  4. Excellent Article to help bring Pagan values into the social change and recognize what can get in the way.
    Thank you John! I am glad you found the chart from the book Deep Green Resistance.
    – Ruth 🙂

  5. This is a fabulous post, but I thought you would want to know that Deep Green Resistance is virulently transphobic—it’s a pity because this is such a good chart.

    1. Yeah. I usually add a caveat when I share DGR stuff and I forgot this time. I thought maybe they were past it, but they recently posted two new transphobic articles. They’re like that one friend who is great in every other way, but they have that one crazy thing they won’t let go of.

      1. It isn’t enough to just excuse DGR’s transphobia and ableism: the latter, especially, is core and intrinsic to their philosophy. DGR is fundamentally wrong.

        1. Can you give an example of their ableism, because so far I haven’t found anything that suggests that it is core and intrinsic to their philosophy. If true, that would indeed be the one and only valid discredit against them, from what I’ve read. Otherwise I see pretty much almost nothing about them that is “fundamentally wrong”.

        2. Mark, you’ll have to connect those dots for me. Certainly DGR sees their attitude toward trans people as flowing out of their (I think flawed) understanding of feminism (they’re TERFs), and their feminism is wound up with their environmentalism (as it is for many eco-feminists), but I don’t think it follows that their environmentalism is flawed because they are trans-exclusionary. You can disagree with them about their anti-civ and about their TERFism, and the two may be connected for them, but anti-civ does not imply TERFism, and debunking TERFism doesn’t debunk anti-civ. Hope that makes sense.

          1. I agree those two things are not necessarily linked. ABLEISM, on the other hand, is inextricably linked to anti-civ. As someone who relies on medication, the collapse of industrial technology is not exactly a favorable prospect. DGR’s response to this is pretty much “too bad”, which edges directly in the direction of eugenics.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: