Community Doesn’t Just Build Itself

So, there was a blogosphere dustup about whether Paganism is “dying”, complete with defensive denials, gross oversimplifications, and quite a bit of ridicule all around.

All of which rather missed the point, in my opinion.

My guess is that—in developed nations, anyway— if you looked at any subculture not made up exclusively of the young, you’d find numbers dwindling. Populations are graying, and that means that many kinds of communities are shrinking.

And make no mistake about it: the American Pagan community is indeed getting older, on average, judging from what I see at Pantheacon. It seems that many second-generation Pagans, while they may enjoy being a part of the community, are less interested in actually practicing Paganism. As one such twenty-something said to me, “rituals aren’t really my thing.”

Is this a basis for panic?

Not in the least.

Demographic changes are driven by mathematical forces. Populations of particular groups will swell and ebb, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Young people will make their own choices. Perhaps as they grow older, they will come to find renewed value in observances and rituals…when they have their own children, perhaps.

We can’t do anything about that. All we can do is wait, and find out.

So if we want to be in Atheopagan community, we need to build it around ourselves.

Where I live, there are a reasonably large number of Pagans. An hour’s drive away, there are a lot of them. I know this isn’t true everywhere, but it doesn’t matter.

Generally speaking, we all have friends. We have people we wish to share in community with. For the most part, people enjoy social gatherings and occasions, and even if they aren’t Pagans, even if they aren’t atheists, they may well still find value in celebration of the beginning of autumn, or of the longest day of the year. A delicious dinner with a short ceremony beforehand may be just the thing to draw your circle of friends closer together, to build community.

Atheopagan ceremony has certain advantages in this regard: you’re not asking people to “believe something weird”. You’re not expecting them to invoke goddesses and gods or to pretend that they are doing magic. You’re just taking a moment to settle in and become present, to acknowledge the qualities you’d like to infuse the moment, to sing a song, perhaps, or light candles, or do some other symbolic act that represents the meaning of the season, and then expressing gratitude and closing.

Such events can bring groups of friends closer together. They can develop and strengthen true community. It’s can be a slow process, but incredibly worthwhile.

Community doesn’t build itself. And I think a lot of Pagans have been cruising along in their circles of like-minded friends and family, not making much effort towards building it.

Whether you’re new to this or a longtime practitioner, I encourage you to do your part.

We can’t do anything but useless hand-wringing or head-in-the-sand denial over whether Paganism is growing or shrinking. But we can build Atheopagan community—whether it calls itself that or not—and make our lives richer, and the world a better place.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Children in Circle

Recently, there has been some discussion in the Pagan blogosphere about children in ritual circle: whether and when they belong there, what the considerations are.

Those of us with experience circling in Pagan ritual know that this can be an issue. A crying baby, an ebullient toddler, a sullen, checked-out teenager who just stands there and refuses to participate…these are all distractions that can make it hard for a ritual to bring participants into the Ritual State* (also known as Presence, Trance, or Flow).

I’ll be the first to admit: I’ve been in rituals that were pretty much ruined for me by kids. I’ve also been in rituals where the presence of children has been a delight, an adorable reminder that our religion is a multi-generational thing; that, though most of today’s Pagans are converts in adulthood, this will not be true in future decades.

My feelings about disruptive children in circle have varied widely. Sometimes I’ve felt stabs of impatience. Sometimes I’ve felt a sinking disappointment that a moment which could have been fervent and meaningful has been scrambled by childish cries or banter.

And then, as I said, there have been the waves of fond warmth.

When I feel kindness and indulgence and familial about children’s inappropriate behavior in circle, it is because I feel connected with them in community. Because I understand that they are just doing what they have to do at their stage of development, and I feel caring for them.

And that’s why we must continue—most of the time, anyway—to indulge children in our circles. Even if it sometimes diminishes our own experience. Because a central aspect of why we circle is to build connection with one another: to create, deepen and grow community.

Recently, I’ve begun work on organizing Moon Meet, the first Pagan gathering specifically for nontheist Pagans and those who are interested in what we do. I’m excited about it, and for exactly the same reason I don’t get upset at children doing what children do when I’m in circle: because it will build community. And that’s a big chunk of what religion generally—and our religion specifically—is about.

Yes, there are times when its inappropriate to have minors at a ritual. When that’s the case, don’t have them there. In some cases, it may be optimal to have separate activities for children. But when celebrating most reasons for rituals, I say let ’em stay if they want to. Parents, carry out your responsibility to shepherd them, but don’t feel shame when they act like the children they are. Goes with the territory.

We should let our kids turn the wheel of the year with us. Let them be a part of naming ceremonies and weddings and memorials with us.

Who knows? Perhaps many or most of them won’t want to be Pagans when they’re old enough to choose.

But in my experience, most of them will. And the community will grow, and healthy values will spread. The world will be a better place.

And by the time they’re grown, they’ll be terrific ritualists.

It’s not about us. It’s about something larger.

It’s about the future.



*For more about the Ritual State, see the Atheopagan Ritual Primer.

The Truest Safety Net

I called my brother yesterday, for his birthday. I left a message.

I haven’t heard from him in eighteen months…although I did the same thing last year, too. We last spoke in January of 2014.

We aren’t estranged. At least, I don’t think we are. I think he’s at a loss for what to say in relation to the struggles my life has manifested over the past few years, and that awkwardness makes it possible for him, in his busy life, just to never…get…around to calling me back.

I think that the very topics of mental health and poverty terrify him so much that it’s just easier for him to avoid them.

So I don’t blame him. Much.

Meanwhile, my health is fine (thank you, Evil Big Pharma antidepressants!), I have a good job now, and although I’ve just been notified that I have to move from my home of 18 years, by and large there is less of a sense of crisis in my life than at any time since 2013.

My brother, I should mention, is the only member of my blood family with whom I have any relationship at all.

I report all this because as I write, here on this temperate holiday weekend, I have been reflecting on the Pagan community as an organizing principle.

Wikipedia, that infallible source of redoubtable knowledge, defines an organizing principle as “a core assumption from which everything else by proximity can derive a classification or a value. It is like a central reference point that allows all other objects to be located, often used in a conceptual framework.”

Nearly all of my friends are or were in some manner or fashion associated with the Pagan community. Their beliefs are all over the map, but we find ourselves at events of common interest, share a lexicon with which to speak and a generalized value set which is distinct from that of the mainstream culture. Paganism, broad as the term is, functions as that central reference point in creating a far flung, tremendously diverse network of relationships, histories, and shared experiences.

Recently, as I mentioned, I learned that the home in which I have lived for 18 years has been sold. Nemea and I must move. Having just gotten my new job, I did not have the money to move.

So we did a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign, and in 4 days, we raised enough money that we can look for a new place, knowing that we can actually put down the money a new landlord will require when we find one.

My point here is that community is something real. I have walked through most of my life feeling that I was on a tightwire: alone, and with nothing to catch me if I fell. But the truth is that I am valued by a large group of people with whom I do not share blood ties.

They are my safety net. They are my family, for all practical purposes.

Central to the weaving of that net has been the sharing of rituals. I don’t see as much of a sense of “we”ness in the atheist community, and I have to believe it is because fewer of them have gone through deep emotional experiences with one another, or shared the kind of common meaning that Beltane and Samhain and Yule mean for most Pagans.

So I conclude this rumination on family with an encouragement to share rituals, and to do so in a way that makes them communal, rather than internal, individual experiences. Hold hands. Sing together. Gaze into one another’s eyes. Pass a chalice. Take turns jumping the fire, or receiving the sacrament, or being “blessed”. Laugh together. Break bread.

It can be a cold world, and the wind is icy up there on the tightrope. But through shared ritual experience, we weave our safety net, extending far beyond what even a loving blood family can render. We become we, recognizing ourselves as parts of something larger.

And when we fall, we drift down only so far as where our community catches us, softly in the palms of its hands.