Some weeks ago, I wrote about how Paganism is having a moment in the sun, and mainstream culture is noticing us. If nothing else, take as evidence the eternally fluffy and pop-culturey Huffington Post’s article about encountering Pagans. Seems pretty clear that between sugary media offerings like The Spooky Adventures of Sabrina and the explosion of “witchy aesthetic” material on Tumblr, plus the steep decline of Christianity and rise of “none” or “other” as a religious identity, Paganism has tipped—for the moment, at least—over the edge from obscurity into the public eye.
As I wrote before, I think this is a good thing. But there are certainly some considerations for Pagans that apply in the context of public attention that we haven’t had to contend with before.
The first is that we really should dispense with the in-group habit of describing Pagans and witches as “special”. It’s inevitable that some members of a religious minority will congratulate themselves this way, but the truth is that we are all just people, seeking to live lives of integrity and fulfillment. If anything, the “special” thing about us is that we’ve taken into our hands the choice about what our spiritual paths shall be, rather than opting for an off-the-shelf package like the various Christian denominations. There is courage in that, but it’s a courage that appears to be spreading. We should welcome those who investigate our paths without getting carried away with self-importance.
A challenge for many of us as we encounter newcomers is that we hold for ourselves a radical identity. We see ourselves—often rightly—as exponents of a marked divergence from mainstream culture and values. This can translate into belittling and even contempt for that mainstream as “straight”. The effect is that people who are coming from that culture to check us out can experience attitude rather than welcoming.
(…and for those who don’t so self-identify: exactly what are you waiting for? Trumpenmacht soldiers goose-stepping up your driveway?)
But there are a couple of things to keep in mind about those “straighter” people who are moving in our direction. The first is that culture is getting steadily less “straight”. While governments lag behind or even fight to resist it, younger generations are becoming far more inclusive and sensitive to issues of injustice. So we have no right to assume that just because someone is only just now coming to learn about us, that they are any less tolerant and radical than we are.
The second, though, is that we got to where we are through a growth process. None of us was born an Earth-loving, capitalism-shattering, pleasure-positive rainbow person. We learned that. We learned that Othering is a lie. We learned that body-shaming and “sin” are nonsense. We learned that economic systems that eat the world to make crap and sell it to us are offering empty calories and destroying what is really of value.
It is on us to be welcoming of those who may not be as far along in that process as we are, and to help them to evolve, too. Certainly no one is going to be helped to be a kinder, more independent person by encountering smugness or anger on the part of those who could instead help them to see what they may not yet possess the ability to see. So let’s ease up on the straights when they knock on our door, shall we?
When it comes to gods, I think a lot of the seekers who are checking out Paganism have been burned by the expectations of Abrahamic religions and probably aren’t all that interested in signing up for other gods. Others may very well be. I would hope that at the least, we would tell our newcomers and curious that Pagans can being theists or nontheists, and let them make their own choices.
Finally, there is the issue of “magic”.
As Atheopagans, we have a naturalistic understanding of ritual magic as a psychological-programming practice that affects only those who participate in the ritual, not spooky-action-at-a-distance like in fantasy fiction. But many who come to us from the mainstream have been propagandized by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and the aforementioned Sabrina and such stuff, so that they believe that by joining our movement, they will have literal magical powers.
It would be a great thing if we discouraged such beliefs as a community, and focused attention on the majesty and wonders of the natural world, on personal development and empowerment, and on efforts to make human society kinder and more sustainable. But on this one, other Pagan paths are going to do what they’re going to do, and nothing I say about it will make a difference. All I can do is speak to my Atheopagan community and say: You’re on the right track. Keep it up, and be welcoming.
The Atheopagan online community continues to grow, and so we are always in a “welcoming newcomers” mode. I think that is a good orientation for the Pagan community writ large…even traditions that have hierarchies and require initiations to join their ranks can at the least be kind and welcoming and helpful with newbies, pointing them to where they can go even if that tradition isn’t a fit.
I’m sure that for many of us, all these cautions are unnecessary. I say them because I’ve seen the attitudes I describe in the community before, and I hope they will fade as popular culture pays us more attention.
Imagine: what if our numbers doubled, rendering us about 1% of the US population? That’s half the size of the Jewish population. That’s big enough to matter in a whole bunch of ways.
Wouldn’t that be great?