The Pagan Community in Transition

Once upon a time, there was a deeply oppressed minority whose very existence was illegal: the gay community.

And though we* are far from winning the fight for full equality for LGBTQ folks, it is fair to say that much progress has been made, and the LGBTQ community has made transitions as a result. For one thing, it isn’t as necessarily committed to secrecy, to clandestine gathering in obscure locations like dive bars and bathhouses to avoid police and the general, critical public.

I believe the Pagan community is arriving at a similar crossroads, and is changing as a result.

Recently, two major announcements have discomforted the North American Pagan world: the shutting down of Witchvox.com, which used to be one of the most heavily trafficked websites for Pagans, and the ending of Pantheacon, up to now the largest indoor gathering of Pagans and witches in North America.

I think these reflect a similar trajectory to that of the LGBTQ community: not downward, but outward, in expanding visibility, acceptance and social influence.

Once, Pagans and witches were freaks. We were rare, and we were thinly spread, and the mainstream culture DID NOT LIKE US. Before the Internet, we were a tiny minority: perhaps a hundred thousand of us in the US in the 1980s.

Under such circumstances, it made complete sense that isolated communal gatherings were the only way that we could build relationships and community. That we would have to travel long distances to get to such gatherings, and it would be worth the expense and effort. And that people of varying practices and traditions would all clump together into a single community.

We’re still a minority, but in the US there are now estimated to be a million of us, possibly even two. We’re showing up in the media, and not always in a negative context. We’ve achieved some legal recognition.

There is now the Internet, which enables us to connect with those we share common values and practices with, no matter how far away, and specialize in our practices and paths.

And, let’s face it, with the ongoing cannibalization of the middle class by the very wealthy, most of us have less in the way of disposable income to travel long distances to such gatherings than we did in the 80s and 90s. (Not to mention the carbon footprint.)

It’s a different time, and sociologically speaking, we’re evolving. More and more of us are embracing our Pagan hearts, and declaring ourselves.

Now, I have loved many of my experiences at Pantheacon. I have been glad to be a part of it. But a top-down, for-profit enterprise as the great communal gathering place has always struck me as incongruous with Pagan values.

Maybe something new will rise in its place. Maybe not.

But my point here is that it doesn’t matter very much.

Times have moved on.

There are enough of us now that many of us can gather in more local clusters (and I encourage you to roll your own). The Internet has enabled large communities to convene virtually…which, while it seems far less “real” to me, I am assured is completely real to younger generations than I. People who follow small traditions can find one another, communicate and share community.

The days when we all needed to drive long hours to pitch a tent and spend precious hours with people of like mind are over for many of us. We have social circles, communities, local organizations.

And we have computers.

Is it sad, in some ways? Surely, of course it is. Just as with all beloved contexts that have evolved and changed—think Renaissance Faires, or Burning Man—I feel a little sad longing for those Pagan festivals of 30 years ago.

Paganism is changing. It is in the nature of people to resist change, to see it as threatening what they value about the past. Perhaps it is no longer in the reasonable scope of a budding young Pagan to go to a convention with thousands of fellow Pagans. Perhaps now it’s a local community group or event. Or a private circle, or coven.

Or simply being solitary, and contented with it. As so many are.

Times are changing. Our culture is evolving.

It’s not a crisis.

It’s just a phase in an inevitable evolution. We’re getting bigger, more visible, and more accepted.

We’re gaining ground, folks.

Don’t mourn: celebrate.

 


*We: LGBTQ folks  and their allies. I’m making no claims here except to be on the side of equality and justice.

The Point of Friction

Once upon a time in the mid-80s, few of the Pagans I knew ever even talked about what they believed. We just did rituals together and enjoyed one another’s company. Sure, there were shout-outs to various gods and goddesses in most of the rituals, but those were easily understood as metaphorical (as I did).

When the subject of beliefs did come up, they were all over the map: there were those who believed in everything, from gods and magic and fairies to alien abductions and Atlantis…and then there were those like me who saw our rituals as meaningful but ultimately symbolic and metaphorical practices.

And no one cared. We were friends and co-religionists and we got along fine, theologically speaking. When there was friction, it wasn’t over cosmologies.

But then, over the next ten or fifteen years, the number of us grew…by a LOT. And things changed.

Most of those newcomers were coming from Christianity. And they brought with them a core assumption about religion: that it is about what you believe, rather than your values and what you do.

Now we are in a very different Pagan community than the one I originally entered. Where people actually talk about “Pagan faith”.

And fortune help you if you try to inquire about the basis for such faith. The immediate and vehement response is invariably, “How dare you question my beliefs?”

Um…because I use the scientific method, which is to question everything?

But that really doesn’t fly among believers. Some are deeply insecure about their beliefs, evidently, because even a question about why they believe them or a statement of fact that others may not believe in them provokes many to fly into a rage.

Beliefs are ideas: they are concepts held in the mind and given weight and authority as being truthful through a decision process.

Ideas are fair game for critique and analysis. Anyone who says we have to respect all the ideas of others has never been confronted with someone who thinks they are subhuman and should be exterminated. We do not have to respect the ideas of Nazis and Klansmen, nor of climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers or incels or those panicked about chemtrails.

Within the Pagan community, however, there is a convention: an ethic that expects that we will all nod gravely at one another’s expressions of belief and reports of supernatural experiences, however improbable. That stipulates that it is rude to do otherwise.

Recently, I read an academic paper on how “authority” is conferred upon claims of spiritual experiences in the Neopagan community. You can read it here, but I can save you the trouble: the bottom line is that the community is an echo chamber which amplifies the credibility of claims to some degree because of the social status of the claimant, but mostly because the community itself is unwilling to question such claims.

This is a place where we are going to have to accept that we will chafe with other Pagans, my fellow Atheopagans. There’s really no way around it: ours is a path of analysis and sifting and weighing and testing and doubting; our fellows are instead Believing and trying not to ask any embarrassing questions that call Belief into doubt.

These approaches are diametrically opposed to one another. They cannot be reconciled.

So our solidarity with others under the Pagan umbrella must be the kind of solidarity that brings different political parties into coalition with one another in a parliamentary system: we don’t agree with one another on some profoundly important questions, but we agree to work together on issues of common interest. In this case, such common interest can include advocacy for separation of church and state and freedom of religious practice without fear of oppression or discrimination, opposing racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and other forms of bigotry, fighting abuse within our community, and–in some, but not all cases–we can make common cause around issues such as climate change and anticapitalism.

Recently, I have had interactions on the Reddit subreddit r/paganism (where I am one of the moderators) with theist Pagans who insist that Atheopagans cannot be members of the Pagan community unless they “respect and defend the cosmologies” of theists*. And I’m sorry: that is not a reasonable expectation. Nor do I expect theists to defend my ideas—that’s my job, not theirs.

We must respect theists as people. But it is not reasonable to expect us to respect their ideas. Because ideas, again, are fair game for critique in our world, and we have standards when it comes to ideas. Standards involving verifiable evidence…and the more extraordinary the claim, the more compelling must be the evidence.

There were things about those times back in the 80s that I miss. That lack of theological gatekeeping is certainly one of them.

 


*I also was told in a Facebook group that being an atheist Pagan is “abnormal”, which literally made me laugh out loud. Since when did “normality” have anything to do with being a Pagan?!

Atheopaganism for Solitaries

We’re a subgroup of a subculture. Of a couple of them, actually: atheism and Paganism.

So it’s not a surprise that though there are many of us collectively, we are spread thinly and may live far away from anyone else who identifies as practicing the path of Atheopaganism. Thus, this post, about practicing as a solitary.

That said, I do encourage folks to meet up as best they can. I have heard many heartwarming stories of folks from the Atheopaganism Facebook group meeting in person and establishing friendships. I think that’s wonderful!

I myself mostly practice as a solitary. Though I have a ritual circle that meets 8 times per year or so and the rituals of which don’t generally involve invocation of deities, most of my day-to-day practice is things that I do by myself, or sometimes with Nemea, my partner in crime.

My solitary practices fall into several categories: Daily practices, contemplation, craft projects and solitary rituals.

In my daily practices, I often have very little time in the morning before leaving for work, as I am not a morning person and typically sleep in until the very last minute when I must prepare for work. Still, I stand before my Focus, and ground myself. The Arrival Phase of ritual is particularly important in solitary work, because it is there that we submerge into the Ritual State, or trance. The creation of a sense of being safe and protected is particularly important when working alone–you’ll want to ensure you have privacy and won’t be interrupted.

I then draw a Tarot card, and contemplate its meaning. It will become a theme for reflection throughout the day. And then I’m off to work, and my day.

In the evening, mostly I just like to spend time by candlelight, to enjoy the dreamy entrancing feeling of the flickering candles on my Focus. But sometimes I do more formal solitary rituals (see below).

In contemplation practices, I typically lay out a selection of ritual decorations and tools to create a Focus, and then read Tarot cards by candlelight. I am a very poor meditator, as my attention tends to be drawn away, but Tarot or other “divination” practices work well for contemplation for me.

Similarly, when creating Pagan craft projects, I like to lay out a Focus and play music that puts me in a proper mood. Generally, you need full light to work with cutting tools and so forth, but beginning with Arrival and declaration of Qualities you would like to be imbued in the product of your crafts can make a ritual out of a crafting project. For examples of such projects, see here.

In a solitary ritual, I plan an intention in advance, and do what I can to create the setting that will enable me to go deeply into trance. So I play appropriate ritual music (see link above), burn incense or dried herbs, light candles or oil lamps, and perhaps dress in special ritual apparel or put on a special piece of jewelry. I go through the five phases of the ritual structure for Atheopaganism that I recommend (Arrival, Qualities and Intentions, Deep Play, Gratitude and Benediction). Such solitary rituals are usually planned in advance.

However, bear in mind that such personal rituals may not involve prior planning. It is perfectly legitimate to simply ground, establish sacred space, and perform an impromptu ritual without thinking about even the goal in advance. Sometimes the goal is simply to experience the ritual state of trance itself, sheerly for the symbolic meaning and pleasure of it.

And now, a word about mind-altering substances. Many find dropping into the deep Presence and warm, glowing feeling of trance to be easier—particularly when solitary—if they have some chemical assistance. I make no judgements about this, but suggest that if you choose this route, you start from the standpoint that less is more. I find personally that a single glass of wine is helpful to me in establishing the Ritual State; any more than that and I am unfocused and not really in the best state for doing rituals. Others may prefer a little cannabis or even something stronger.

If you choose to experiment in this direction, one route I highly suggest avoiding is that of stimulants. The effects of such drugs as caffeine, cocaine and amphetamines are directly opposite that of trance: they tend to lead to people being hyper, scattered, and unable to focus very well unless taken in very small doses. Not to mention their addictive natures.

There is a lot of literature on the usage of chemical drugs in ritual contexts. I’m not familiar with much of it because that isn’t my area of interest, but if you root around the Internet I’m sure you can find a lot. One very good resource on psychoactive substances generally is the nonprofit site Erowid.

Obviously, you should be aware of the laws in your area and take care of your personal security in making decisions about use of chemical enhancement.

Explore your solitary practice and I hope you find much joy and meaning in it! Feel free to remark on your experiences in the comments.


Beautiful as this image is, please: don’t EVER wear sleeves like this when working with naked flame.