Talking Paganism in the Mainstream

Ross Douthat, conservative columnist for the New York Times, has stirred some Pagan feathers with a column arguing that rather than becoming fully secular, the US may be moving away from a transcendentalist religiosity (such as that of Christianity and Judaism) and towards “paganism”, which he describes as a religion of “this world” as opposed to one focused on some other world or afterlife. He followed up with this piece, further expanding on these ideas and suggesting that the “civic religion” of the United States may be moving away from Christianity and its paradigms.

Douthat is clearly unenthused at the prospect that his theory is correct, but I think he is onto something. He almost puts his finger on what is happening in the US as support for mainstream religion fades.

Meanwhile, there have been Pagan responses. John Beckett makes some good points in the linked piece.

My take on all of this is that Douthat’s analysis is fundamentally flawed. He is extropolating trends that are real, but his worldview prevents him from being able to understand what he is seeing.

Yes, the US is abandoning Christianity, and it’s doing it rapidly. That doesn’t eliminate the religious impulses of Americans–the desire for meaning, sense of place in the Universe, connectedness with others of like mind, tutelary principles, and ritual observances. It just means that they aren’t getting those itches scratched by a tradition created by preliterate Bronze Age goatherds and laden with horrific history and values.

I think that what is happening is that Americans are moving away from old institutional religions that do not work for them, and are gravitating to individual religious practices that are life-affirming, optimistic, kind, inclusive and fun. In the process, they don’t want to have to pretend that they believe a lot of hokum that clearly doesn’t pass rational muster.

With skepticism on the rise, I don’t think that Paganism as it is widely practiced in the community is likely to hit the sweet spot for such folk. It is unlikely that Americans will give up on resurrection from the dead and talking shrubbery to instead subscribe to astrology and literal magic and not one, but thousands of invisible, supernaturally powerful People.

I think, in fact, that the culture is moving directly towards what we Atheopagans are already doing: accepting the cosmology of science as real, and developing practices and observances that bring meaning, connection and principles to a person’s life while understanding that gods, spirits, and magic are found in stories, not reality.

So it’s not a surprise that we are growing rapidly.

Personally, I doubt that the “civic religion” used in public ceremonies is going to become what Douthat calls “pagan”. What I think is more likely is that it will become more diverse, as court rulings affirm that Christian-prayer-only invocations to start public meetings are illegal and public expectation of more inclusiveness grows. And it will transcend the fundamental meanness and judgment of the Christianity it supplants.

These are good things. Watching the trend lines, we can only be encouraged.

As I and others have noted before, Paganism and “witchcraft” are having a moment. That means that throughout the nation, people–particularly young people–are exploring the trappings of Pagan religious practice, at least, and discovering that building an altar, lighting candles, burning incense, etc. feels good. They are discovering experientially what we know to be true: ritual is healthy for us. Presumably, some portion of those who are now in this experimental phase will learn more, read books, etc. Their spirituality will be shaped and informed by core axioms such as I can do this myself–I don’t need someone to do it for me; these symbolic actions feel meaningful and important; my spirituality is mine to create as I see fit.

These are fundamentally Pagan principles in my opinion. While there are Pagan paths that require initiation by more experienced followers and which expect all followers to do things a particular way, these traditions are not seeing the kinds of mounting interest that is showing up for the do-it-yourselfers right now.

We have entered a moment where the follow-your-own-spiritual-path ethos of the Sixties counterculture has reached a tipping point in the mainstream culture with the do-as-religious-leaders-say-you-must model of the Abrahamic religions, and the latter is (finally!) giving way to the former. This is an unmitigated good: religious institutions which lean heavily on obedience are generally authoritarian, bigoted, exploitative and corrupt.

Freedom of religion isn’t just freedom to sign onto some institution’s program of instruction and control; it is freedom truly to seek and find the religious path that fulfills, inspires, moves and motivates the seeker. What we are seeing now is a long-overdue transition to a society in which the spiritual “norm” is shifting from one of institutional obedience to one of individual fulfillment.

This can only be a positive development. Much as the Abrahamic religions wish for us to be “a flock of sheep”, we are not that: we are complex and unique individuals for whom one-size-fits-all conformity is not a natural spiritual state.

Douthat fears that the transcendent religions (those that seek to transcend this world for another “better” one) are being supplanted by immanentism (which holds that this world IS the sacred place). I hope he’s right about that, because it’s a far healthier way of looking at things.

But he misses the larger point that conformity in general is simply on the wane in the religious sphere. The nation is diversifying, and that includes its religious behavior and spirituality. We aren’t going to have a single “civic religion” any more.

Can’t happen quickly enough, if you ask me.

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Forging Paths of Integrity (with Minor Update)

There has been a lot of talk online lately about the Pagan (or neopagan, if you prefer) community* and integrity, or lack thereof.

Stuff about “fakelore” traditions and lineages: pretense of ancient roots that aren’t, and people using this pretense to dangle “ancient secrets” before naive seekers to leverage sexual favors .  Stuff about lousy sexual boundaries, harassment and assault**; particularly, the usage of status and power (such as the power to approve or disapprove elevation to higher “degrees of initiation”) to extort sex, money or power.

I’ve written about some of these issues before. They are real. They go to the origins of modern witchcraft’s practices and culture with some decidedly kinky Brits, and their flourishing in the self-indulgent counterculture of the 1960s.

And the Pagan community struggles with them. More, I think, than the atheist community does, because of the Pagan community’s early roots in the Sixties counterculture, but the atheists have their problems too.

As someone who came into the Pagan community through the Church of All Worlds, which has historically had a culture very much in keeping with that unboundaried Sixties-style sexual free-for-all, I have seen this close up, and I’m guilty of having played along at times, thinking at the time that this was “normal” in that context. I have seen and experienced creepy and predatory behavior (by both men and women) in that community, and have heard reports of much worse. This figured heavily in why I left CAW in the late 1990s***.

I think every community that allows people to become the objects of cults of personality is destined to experience abuses of power. That’s why Atheopaganism as we are creating it has no priesthood, no hierarchy of degrees. It’s not a guarantee that there will be no abuse, but it’s a hedge against it. Atheopaganism is a collaborative venture: we’re doing it together. We have no priest/esses, no “teachers”.

It’s also helpful, I think, that we make no claim that what we are doing is a centuries-old (or even decades-old) tradition. Ours is a new path, a modern way based in current understanding of science and age-old ritual and religious techniques . We borrow from no particular culture, but from the accumulated tool kit of humanity itself. We kicked off in 2009. So: no “ancient secrets” that can be “revealed” by a self-styled “teacher”.

Just because something is old doesn’t make it valid. And just because something is young doesn’t make it inconsequential.

I think it’s a bit silly that people claim long histories for their traditions when they are instead products of the 20th century. But there’s not a tremendous amount of harm there except insofar as they use such claims to assert “authority” or “superiority” over others, or use the prospect of learning “ancient lore” as bait to leverage sex, money or obedience.

On the other hand, I think the broader Pagan community has some serious soul-searching to do around sexual behavior and culture.

I have many dear friends in the Pagan community. There are lovely, amazing people there. But I have also seen people in that community—generally, high-status people with power and influence—abuse their standing in myriad ways. It seems that being a big fish in a small pond just creates too much temptation on the part of many…particularly if they can rationalize their behavior with supernatural explanations. And the tone that is set by the common belief that Pagans are up for a sexual free-for-all means that countless instances of inappropriate behavior ranging from annoyance to harassment to outright assault happen in the community. It makes us a magnet and a hunting ground for predators and creeps.

It is my hope that this is reducing as awareness of consent issues and the #MeToo movement gain traction, but frankly, predators aren’t going to change. We need to root them out.

We have to work at this; it won’t just happen on its own.

I hope that is happening now. Certainly there are some newer voices that are much more sane than those of prior generations, and much more aware of issues of respect, integrity, and boundaries.

But I think there are some key recommendations we can derive from the problems we have inherited from the past:

  • The Pagan community needs a broadly adopted Community Statement on Sexual Abuse, Etiquette and Ethics. There was an attempt to create one a few years ago, and it fell apart when some who like things as they are now protested. It is long past time for those complaints to be rejected as apologetics for a culture that indulges abuse. No one likes “rules”, but we need some. The statement could be endorsed not only by organizations, covens, and paths, but by festivals and conferences. [UPDATE: HERE is Brendan Myers’ report on what happened to the first attempt at creating such a statement. It’s not pretty]
  • We must end sexual initiation, and festivals should disinvite those leaders who won’t. Just stop it. It’s unnecessary and it leads to many abuses. It doesn’t matter if it’s part of a “tradition”. So was strangling people and sinking them in peat bogs.
  • We must desexualize Pagan events. That means keeping sexual behavior (other than symbolic actions, like planting a Maypole in the ground) out of open rituals and ensuring that any sexually explicit or skyclad activities are private, adult, and by invitation only. That’s the only way to keep creepers out and only allow consenting participants in. Say it with me: privacy is not the same thing as shame.
  • We must teach consent culture and boundaries at every event, have written conduct standards prominently provided to participants, and require in practice that they be followed by everyone, no matter how revered. To their credit, some events like Pantheacon are already doing this.****
  • We must teach our communities about leadership. People who understand leadership know unleaderlike behavior when they see it. Real leadership doesn’t exploit, doesn’t extort. Real leadership is transparent about money and decision making, and admits when it makes mistakes. And it doesn’t demand, cajole or bargain for sex for any reason.

And why, after all, should we do these things? When confronted with these issues, why not just quit, practice as a solitary (as so many do) or seek (as I have done) to find a corner of the community with a more conscious culture?

Well, I’ll tell you why. Because as frustrating as the Pagan community can be, it can also be wonderful. It can be amazing. Much of it stands for reverence for the Earth, which the world desperately needs now. And by and large, it is made up of people seeking to be the best people they can be. It is a tragedy and a travesty that such abuses take place among people who are so worthy. 

I’m sure there are other lessons I’m missing. But if we were to adopt these, things would get a lot cleaner and safer in Pagandom.

May it be so.


*Setting aside the question of terminology and what that “community” really means in detail, as it is a aggregation of many different paths, perspectives and practices.

** This is long, but well worth taking the time to read in its entirety.

*** I understand there is now an initiative to transform that subculture, and I applaud the effort.

****For an example of such policies, see the Atheopagan Event Planning Guide.

Atheopaganism is Not Just a Religious/Spiritual Path. It’s a Movement.

Imagine…

A world where critical thinking and reason and Occam’s Razor are the predominant means people use for determining what to believe. Where education is celebrated and made a major public priority, and expertise is once again respected.

A world where the Earth and Sun, and beauty and truth and love are considered Sacred. Where people conduct themselves according to principles of kindness and compassion.

Where we ritualize our life transitions, and calmly and factually embrace both sex and death as natural parts of a human life. Where consent culture is a norm rather than an aspiration. Where each of us is empowered to take on whatever religious roles we choose, subject to no priesthood, no religious authority.

Where our rituals are meaningful and transformative, and bring us into a sense of community and shared culture with our fellows. Where love, kindness, reason and wonder are the watchwords of an entire society, and the difference between experience and fact is clearly understood.

Wouldn’t it be lovely? Wouldn’t it be right?

Atheopaganism is a path for individuals to adopt and adapt as they see fit, but it has core principles and a vision that we all (hopefully) share. And that vision entails that through our practices we will become wiser, more grounded in reality, more reasonable, more kind, more compassionate, more environmentally and politically responsible.

And that as a result of our examples, these values will rub off. Will spread.

It’s late in the day for Western industrial capitalism. All the indicators are that it isn’t going to be able to manage to keep going for much longer. We’re going to need new values and approaches to living if humans are to enter another chapter and succeed.

So be proud, Atheopagans. You’re doing something new, something that actually squares the circle of integrating science and religion not only in terms of cosmology, but practices. And in the process, you’re building richer and more joyous lives for yourselves, your families and your communities.

Never doubt it: we’re playing the long game of culture-building.