Recently, I wrote an optimistic piece about the evolution of the Pagan movement.
Some insightful commenters were not so sanguine as I, and I’d like to address their contentions here.
Their arguments fell into several general buckets:
- The Internet is not a substitute for in-person contact and relationships.
- Rigid ideologies and fundamentalism are tearing us apart, and newcomers seeing this will be alienated and flee. We cannot have kinship and a culture—and, therefore, a cultural impact—unless this divisiveness ends.
- Paganism has reached the end of a 40-year cycle common to spiritual movements and, having not gained much social traction, will now fade. People are leaving Paganism and “occult” practice, even as pop culture seizes on them.
The first point, I am simply going to grant. Online community is not as compelling as in-person community. But that said, it seems to work well for some people, and to enable solitaries to engage with others when in-person isn’t desired or is impossible.
The second point I also largely agree with, with some caveats.
When a volume of something fluid becomes too big, the stresses it exerts in its internal turbulence will overwhelm the surface tension that holds it together; it is inevitable that it will fragment. This is why rain falls as drops rather than giant globules or solid masses.
And when a religious community of free-spirited Pagans experiences an influx of ex-Christians, it is inevitable that the latter will bring framings and paradigms with them.
Today, as the linked articles say, there is a rise in “Pagan fundamentalism” as well as a growing fragmentation as the devotional polytheists and Reconstructionists cleave away from eclectic Neopagans and Wiccans, etc., etc. So much talk about “the community” is about differences between us rather than our commonalities. And it seems that the more extreme poles of difference dominate the conversation.
So perhaps the “Pagan community” is dividing into camps which will have their own, more narrowly focused events. That is what I projected in my previous article and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. If devotional polytheists no longer want to be considered Pagan, well, that’s okay: go off and do your thing.
If they do, I am happy to declare my kinship with them as fellow Pagans, despite our cosmological differences.
There is also the demographic fact that belief in god(s) generally is on the wane. Younger generations expect and demand scientific substantiation for their cosmologies and progressive values in their spirituality, and as a result the number of non-religious, atheistic and agnostic folk is growing rapidly.
This may be a reason why Atheopaganism appears to be growing so quickly.
As for the rest of the community, I’m not so sure. I don’t see hoards of people flooding to join other elements of the community, with the exception of the “new witches” inspired by media and Internet portrayals of witchcraft to create their own ways. And those folks mostly have never gone to a Pagan gathering, nor have they studied with anyone currently resident in the community. They are truly a phenomenon adjacent to the Pagan community, but probably not reasonably considered to be of it, unless they make the leap across to engage us.
And they certainly aren’t interested in hierarchical traditions that demand months or years of obedience and fealty through ascending “degrees”.
If I had to bet money, I’d say those traditions will be vanishingly small in a decade or two. Because today’s young folks simply aren’t having it: they will not be held hostage and made to do menial things in the hopes of being shown “revelations” which often are very difficult to reconcile with reason.
My optimism is specific to the area of Paganism I know best, which is the nontheist Pagan community and allies. I think our values and our science-consistent cosmology are tailor-made for the rising generations, and our practices offer meaning, happiness, wisdom and practical tools for bringing much more mental health, personal growth and celebration into their lives.
Because let’s be honest: in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if “established traditions” persist or not, and it doesn’t matter whether or not they call themselves Pagans or witches or what have you.
What matters is for people to learn the psychological tools of ritual “magic” and to embrace values which honor the cycles of nature and foster love for themselves and their fellow humans so they can be happier, wiser and more effective people, and the world can be healed. The world desperately needs happy, wise and effective people.
I am happy to look to the right and left of me and call those other Pagan paths my kinfolk. I recognize that what they are doing is related to my practice, if only through shared values or through ritual practices. I don’t have to agree with their ideas in order to make common cause with them on many fronts.
If the Pagan community is fragmenting, it is because there are those within it who are declaring that they won’t be associated with “those people“, by which they mean people who are also following demonstrably Pagan paths. That’s flat-out bigotry and chauvinism, and it’s only valid in one case: when Nazis and white supremacists and other bigots claim to be a part of us.
We don’t have to truck with the lowest of the low in order to be considered inclusive. Tolerance of intolerance leads to the domination of intolerance, as demonstrated by Karl Popper, and we should be vigorous in scrubbing our events and communities of bigots.
But that still leaves a gigantic breadth of Pagan paths that share far more than they don’t.
My point in my recent post was that the number of those who self-identify as being a part of us (at least to the degree of calling themselves “witches”) is expanding rapidly, and this is an opportunity rather than a curse. Previous waves of immigration into the community have brought diversity and change, and we can expect this one to do the same.
I say, don’t fight it. Welcome the newcomers. I see no reason to believe that Paganism is washed up as a social movement when our numbers are increasing and the memes of our values are increasingly prevalent in mainstream society.
And I don’t care that that means we will no longer be rare and unique outliers. If that’s what really matters to you, I encourage therapy. It is far more important that our values gain traction than that we retain some kind of “special status”. I find it pertinent that the writer of one article warning that Paganism is “over” after a 40-year run seemed very invested in defining himself as a “serious practitioner” of “the occult”–maybe that mode of being a Pagan is waning, but that’s only one of many.
Are the newcomers going to do it the way we do it? Nope. Are they necessarily going to be interested in scholarly study? Nope. Are they necessarily going to believe in gods, or in magic beyond the effects of ritual practices on the mind?
That said, they’re the new generation and they are going to become the face of Paganism over time. It makes a lot more sense to welcome them than to reject them.
Things change. Paganism now is very unlike Paganism in 1979, or 1988, or even 2003. None of these was a Golden Age and we shouldn’t kid ourselves about that.
I repeat my thesis from my last post: we’re gaining ground. This will require evolution on our parts but it’s still a good thing.