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.

22 thoughts on “The Pagan Community in Transition

  1. Well, I have to admit that, for me, much of the thrill is gone.
    The thrill was not only finding a community of like-minded people; it was also about being a part of this kind of sub-rosa, semi-secretive group, who gathered in shops that catered to our kind, and exchanged recognition signals when our paths crossed.
    Now? I’m long since “out”- but nobody cares. I’m a psychotherapist, and I freely identify myself as “Pagan”, in our chat sites, but nobody cares except the occasional people who respond, “Me, too”. We have relative strangers come to our home, for music lessons, and we don’t hide our “pagany” stuff, on the Altar and elsewhere.
    I’m not even sure how “Pagan” I am, anymore, or what that means- except that I do my best to honor the Earth, and be a good person. It’s not a sexy as standing in a Circle and waving a stick around, but it seems to be good enough for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. KenofKen

      I too have very mixed feelings about this evolution. Yes, we’re more accepted and have formally secured more of our rights, and that’s all to the good. But the Pagan movement, as with all subcultures, loses a great deal of itself in the mainstreaming process. We’re a lot less secretive and much more accessible, but the trade-off is that being Pagan today is a low or zero investment proposition.

      We’re more diverse, but I think in many ways less experimental and more rigid. We’re seeing ugly orthodoxies of belief and even a sort of fundamentalism within Paganism that was inconceivable back in “The Day” (which could encompass anything from the 1960s to, I would say, even a decade or so ago).

      What used to be a fight for basic justice and human rights for Pagans and minorities within our movement is now shrill thought policing which combs over convention programs under ultra-high magnification looking for any conceivable micro-aggression. The mildest personal, political or theological disagreements lead to demands for deplatforming on the grounds of “safety.” That lunacy, as much or more than financial issues, is responsible for blowing up Pantheacon and a couple other longtime festivals. What used to be about irreverence and pushing the boundaries now has all the fun and spontaneity of Joe Stalin’s staff meetings.

      I am also skeptical about the idea that online community is a viable substitute for the real thing. I might be able to chalk my skepticism up to advancing age but for one fact: For all the supposed connection and community of social media, the generation most enmeshed in it seems to be suffering a lot of isolation and alienation and anxiety as they struggle for constant validation from hundreds of “friends” who are not there for them in any real way. Teenage suicide rates have jumped 56% in the past decade. That can’t all neatly be pinned to social media or technology, but clearly something in the social environment isn’t working for these kids.

      So I mourn some of these changes, struggle to understand others, but we cannot return to the past, so we must do our best with what remains before us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So many of the people at Pantheacon are elder now. Seems like just in the past ten years or so the demographic has shifted, it is almost all gray heads and walking staffs now. I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m sad to see it go. I have friends that I won’t otherwise see face to face. I don’t blame Glenn for wanting to retire. I don’t get why younger folks haven’t wanted to pick it up and move it forward. There was somebody who wanted to start something… have you heard from her?

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  3. Bahni alicia

    “We’re showing up in the media, and not always in a negative context. We’ve achieved some legal recognition.”
    Love this…how many times has “witch hunt” been said by the Pres? Legal status! He laughably knows not of what he speaks. It’s the good witches reporting in, yes…hunting to stamp out the undesirable, destructive, unconscious. We need to reconvene a huge ritualistic convention for that. I’d go!

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  4. I’ve never been to Pantheacon, and visited Witchvox maybe a dozen times, at the most.

    I agree with Ken about Facebook. Other social media like Instagram and Discord has better formats though. I miss the old PHP forums of the early 2000s, before Facebook and hackers killed them off.

    But for me, online community is not a substitute for meeting people face to face. You can make a friend for life by digging a fire pit together. I do have online friends who I’ve never met face to face, but I want to meet them face to face.

    As to Pantheacon: I like large gatherings of Pagans — but not as large as Pantheacon. It’s great to see how many Pagans there are.

    Small group ritual? It’s still there, and some of it is still secret. Yes there’s lots of solitaries but there are still people who are interested in being in a coven.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark, you’ll probably not be surprised that I’m going to disagree with you on this one. These are signs of the end. The two writer below capture my feelings well:

      John Michael Greer: “Thirty to forty years is the average lifespan of a spiritual movement once it finds its way into pop culture, and the Neopagan scene, having dutifully passed all the other milestones along that overfamiliar trajectory, is reaching the one marked “Road Ends Ahead” right on schedule.”
      https://www.ecosophia.net/blogs-and-essays/the-well-of-galabes/the-twilight-of-the-neopagan-era/?fbclid=IwAR159t08rbupLCiRnRzrs9aY-a7t_stlpMF6UtxSrJNa0O8k9tqtTyN8FcM

      Dayan Martinez: “No kinship is possible under these conditions, and thus, there can be no pagan culture. There will be the brief, self-indulgent 20th and 21st century experimentation with a Great Promise, all of which faded at the World’s Turning.”
      https://atroposianmusings.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/finding-pagan-culture-redisclaimed/?fbclid=IwAR09EyJ3pA6Xr9KG06jSZWUnitcoEq3L0uYpIGiOLb0oz666QKs7UpcXZp0

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      1. I don’t disagree with these analyses, except for the doomsaying. What I see in my little corner of the community is growth, enthusiasm and optimism about our path. It’s not an “occult” path, but that doesn’t matter to us.

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  5. Thank you for your comments (both of you). I agree about online community–I’m just reporting what I hear, and yes, Ken, maybe that’s a fool’s paradise. Person to person is certainly far better.

    Also the fundamentalism and gatekeeping and heavy judgmentalism along axes of political analysis: yes, I certainly see these. The latter has both positive and negative impacts in my view. I can certainly understand, for example, how trans women would find it unsafe to attend an event that chooses to highlight someone who denies their very existence as women. That’s a civil rights issue.

    I chose to focus on what I see as positive evolution in our community because I think that as we continue to expand and diversify, more specialized events that aren’t trying to be all things to all people will spring up to serve those elements of the community that organize them. Then it will be less about “combing over” event programs for any sign of someone having ever wrongfooted on a hot-button issue, and more about people voting with their feet and attending the events they find best suit them.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that’s where we’re going.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am not a LGBT Fan, and I think while they have more rights, you should keep apart the pagan community as well as the other LGBT community. Being Bi or gay has nothing to do with spirituality. Being Pagan does. Don’t use the pagan community (Then or Now) to further your activism. Use your voice as a LGBT participant, but do so maturely. Just because paganism is more mainstream should it be used to promote your cause, or any pagan can use paganism to promote their activism and cause as well. That isn’t fair to the starts of paganism, because the Lord is the lord, (male) and the Lady is the Lady (Female) regardless of how you dress your lord and lady up, they are still male and female. Paganism is not an agenda, or propaganda.

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  7. Pingback: More on Community Transition – Atheopaganism

  8. Although a bit late to the party these are things I’ve been contemplating for some time. Especially when I look back and realize I’ve been on this path far closer to 30 years than 20. I wasn’t surprised when Wicthvox made the announcement although a bit uncomfortable with that change. 20 years ago I was on that website a few times a week but now so rarely. The deeper I get into my Sage years the more I agree it doesn’t mater. It is good to know I’m not the only person pondering such things.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Among the Juniper

    Personally I love this change. If it wasn’t for this change, my religion wouldn’t have evolved as much as it has, and I’d still be believing the pseudo-history and “witchcraft myths” that permeated 100% of witchcraft materials I had access to in the early years of my explorations.

    I don’t think accessibility and acceptance leads to destruction or makes it a zero sum commitment for people. I think it does just that: Makes it more accessible. And like with any religion, people will come, and leave, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    As for the emergence of doctrine and rigidity, I see that as a good thing- as a fundamental maturation of the faith; lets face it: Paganism can’t continue to survive if we don’t establish a baseline- maybe not for the umbrella as a whole, but certainly for individual traditions. Eclectic “do whatever you want” methods aren’t for everyone anymore than covens and temples are. But you can’t have Covens or Temples without standards of faith and practice… Not successful ones in the long term, anyways.

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    1. I agree with your first two points, regarding access and the dispelling of the silly myths about origins of modern Paganism which dominated during the 70s through 90s.

      I completely disagree, however, with your characterization of “doctrine and rigidity”. These are the banes of living spiritual paths. I’ve been in a coven for nearly 30 years and we have never established “standards of faith and practice”, and it works just fine for us. In fact, “faith” itself is anathema: it is the opposite of thought, of usage of evidence and critical faculties. I have no use for it, and it flies in the face of the spirit of Paganism itself, which is one of curiosity and exploration.

      On your last point, you’re just wrong here, sorry.

      Calcification isn’t maturation. It’s death.

      As for “Temples”, I’d say we don’t need them. We have forests, mountains, oceans and deserts.

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      1. Among the Juniper

        As a first note, I’d be willing to bet big money that your Coven has more rigidity and standards of worship (even doctrine, probably) than you recognize. Because the fact of the matter is (and you can disagree with it all you please, but it doesn’t change the fact) that groups / communities without cohesifying elements of practice and belief eventually fall apart.

        In religions, that cohesifying element is undeniably the development and setting of standards concerning doctrine and ethics / values (faith), and worship (practice) among its members- even if those standards are relatively flexible; not all rigidity of faith and practice looks like what we’re familiar with thanks to white, western protestant Christianity… And it’s truly sad that more people can’t understand that fact.

        For all the areas you disagree with me, though, the easiest response I could give you is that’s honestly great if it works for you and your group… But for many of us, it just doesn’t; you might not need a temple, but there are plenty who do. You may not need what you consider to be rigidity and faith and doctrine (because clearly we’re not working from the same baseline definition or understanding of that concept here), but there are plenty of traditions which require them to function properly.

        It’s only “calcification, failure, and death” if it’s applied wrongly, or to the wrong traditions… Hence why my statement was “maybe not for the umbrella as a whole, but certainly for individual traditions”- not a blanket statement… Because Paganism isn’t a monolith; we’re not all eclectic, eco-centric, goddess worshiping witchcraft cults- let alone all of us polytheist.

        There’s thousands of systems, and traditions, and theistic outlooks beneath the umbrella- and very few of us are actually even related to one another let, alone have the same needs (even among those faiths which are legitimately more closely related). And IMO, it’s well past time we stopped pretending that the Wicca and NeoWicca of the first and second wave revivals still have any sort of monopoly on the Pagan identity and its multitude of systems / structures, and can dictate the total sum of its needs.

        Lastly, I disagree that faith is the absence of thought or critical thinking… Otherwise what the hell am I doing in Reconstructionism, of all places? Then again, I’m also not looking for simple “spirituality”, or “curiosity and exploration” in the first place… I’m looking for a tangible, living religion- and people’d really do well to remember that those are the same thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re wrong about my circle (coven), because what we do is about what works best for each individual within the group. It’s not codified, doesn’t have “rules”, and it works completely well for us. We have a range of beliefs and practices, and what connects us is love and history and a shared reverence for the Earth, not some list of rules. We don’t “worship” at all. Worshipping implies that there is some entity out there to receive it, and to my knowledge, none of us believes that.

        Yes, there are thousands of paths. A lot of them are going to diminish in coming decades as credulity in gods wanes in the US with the rise of the younger generations.

        It’s clear that you may not understand where you are, and what this site is about. My answer to your question, I’m sorry to say, is that if you are a Reconstructionist who literally believes in gods, you gave up on critical thinking a long time ago.

        Our path here has nothing to do with Wicca or with polytheism. It IS a “tangible, living religion”: without gods, without magic, and without the supernatural. A path that respects the thinking faculties of the human mind to the degree that it applies Occam’s Razor and the scientific method to proposed beliefs.

        Enjoy your path, but understand that other than the word “Pagan”, it is likely we have nothing in common. I don’t worship–I ritualize to help focus my intention, make more effective my actions, and build community with those with whom I share it. There is no “Otherworld”, no afterlife, no magic, no fairies, no god/desses. At least, there is no credible evidence for any of these, and I therefore do not believe in them.

        My path is about joy and celebration in living this one short life each of us is granted, and creating new cultural models with better values and intellectual practices than those presented by the overculture. It is about joy, and connection, and exploration, and love.

        If that isn’t a “tangible, living religion”, there probably isn’t any such thing.

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      3. Among the Juniper

        “if you are a Reconstructionist who literally believes in gods, you gave up on critical thinking a long time ago.”

        I’m Agnostic bordering on Atheist, dear- and I’m not a Reconstructionist because “I believe in the Otherworld. afterlife, magic, fairies, or Deities”.

        As far as I can tell you’re not interested in having any sort of legitimate conversation about what religion is, isn’t, and ultimately requires to function. So I’ll take my leave. Have a lovely night (or day, wherever it is that you are).

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      4. You are the first self-labeled Reconstructionist I have ever encountered who is an agnostic or atheist. Sorry I assumed otherwise, but note: I DID say “If”.

        I am happy to have a conversation about what religion is, although I have a definition that satisfies my needs: it is comprised of three elements, a cosmology, a value set, and a practice.

        Every religion on Earth contains all three. In our path here, we accept as our cosmology the description of the Universe provided by the latest scientific understanding. Our value set is defined by four Sacred Pillars and 13 Principles; our practices are a cycle of holy days, rites of passage, and rituals.

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      5. Bonnie Berkeley

        Well spoken, Mark. Works for me.
        The one thing I could say I “worship” is nature. And even though there may not be evidence of the unseen presences, I am open to their existence. And I believe that fits in to the overall practice that allows for and doesn’t judge individual meanderings and explorations.

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      6. Well, that’s fine, but this particular site is about an Earth-honoring religious path without unseen presences, using science, reason and Occam’s Razor to understand our world and celebrating just that.

        It’s enough. We don’t need a world with gods and souls and spirits and afterlives to be happy.

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