Building Paganism is a Multi-Generational Process
Posted on January 26, 2016
Note: I wrote this piece between the 22nd and today, the 26th, of January. Today, January 26th, the Wild Hunt released a news story asking notable Pagans (and others) their opinions on what the future of Paganism will look like in 100 years. Amusing coincidences. – Marc.
Every so often there are people who, whether privately or publicly, lament the state of the “organization” of Paganism. They lament that we do not have established temples. That we do not have the wide-spread community support. That our populations are low in comparison to some of the larger religions in the world – or even in the individual countries where we are found. The state of the religion necessitates a greater population of “doers” in the Pagan sphere, whether Wiccan, polytheistic revivalist, Druid, or what have you.
The state of affairs prevents casual participation on a wider scale. “Participant-observation”, in this case, is not a negative practice. It is the mass of people who want a religious experience without having to take the initiative in order to build it in some way. To be able to have the option to do so if desired, but to otherwise simply be participant in ritual, in the community, in the wider religious culture. No expectations for responsibilities if one does not wish there to be. That is the biggest benefit of the larger religious.
And some people are searching for something in a religion which is eluding them, they do not know what, and after experimenting in other religions after Paganism they find it. This point was brought up recently by Dagulf Loptson in his column on Polytheist.com. Because this is not a direct rebuttal to his writing (Article: “What is Heathenry Missing”), but addressing some points and opinions to the overall theme that he brings up, I’m not linking it here. For edification, I feel that the post was good, he touches on some good points, but he takes the conclusion to a disagreeable conclusion.
His piece brings up people who have left Paganism (in this case, Heathenry), for other established traditions, finding what they need there. Leaving for Judaism or Santeria, or what have you, largely for a wider network, more established traditions, and more through ritual and mystical practices. I have seen this much before, by both friends, fellow bloggers, and people I did not particularly know well.
And while their reasons are their own, I feel it has to do with the same basic fact that Paganism is young and under-established. I would like to take a very brief look at the timeline of Contemporary Paganism.
Modern, contemporary practices of Paganism are not old religious practices. Truly, contemporary Paganism as it is understood today is less than a century old. No matter the source documentation which might inform the particular religious expression, the history of contemporary works does not go much further back than Gerald Gardner and his particular development of Wicca. The post-Enlightenment fixation on Celtic and Germanic histories which, in part, transitioned into romanticist nationalist initiatives do not count. Many of these are esotericist initiatives, and do not self-align with the identity of Paganism.
Nor do attempts like the First Anglecyn Church of Odin constitute a satisfactory start date. Socially, and culturally, speaking the history of modern Paganism is best dated to 1950s in the west. If we want to be generous, we can extend that timeline to 1945, with the repeal of Britain’s Witchcraft Act of 1736. This moment is what opened the door, so to speak, where truly “pagan” practices could come into their own. Though only part of the identity of the contemporary movement can trace its lineage to Wicca, it was this pivotal role which I’ll use as the metric for the age of the religion.
Yes, I am intimately aware that arguments can be made as far back as the 1920s. Yes, I know that the Druid Order was formed and officially founded in 1909. No, I will not debate this.
So we need to think, with 1945 as the beginning base, that there has been seventy-one years to the present year of 2016. Seventy-one years of sporadic religious growth. A growth, I remind you, which does not encompass a singular religion. It is seventy-one years of total growth which includes many smaller timescales. Paganism is a movement of interfaith, as much as intrafaith, practices. Different religions with different ideology, as much as it is related religions and similar ideology.
This point is often glossed over because Pagans want to compete, numerically and socially, with the bigger religions. But think about this seventy-one year period. This very rough time frame includes:
- British Traditional Witchcraft: 1945-present, seventy-one years.
- Ray Buckland’s establishment of American Wicca: 1962-present, fifty-four years.
- Establishment of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids: 1964-present, fifty-two years.
- First stirrings of Heathenry: 1969-present, forty-seven years.
- Solitary and Self-Initiation Wicca (Cunningham): 1983-present, thirty-two years.
- Establishment of Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF): 1990-present, twenty-six years.
- Increased emphasis of reconstructionist polytheistic practice: 1998-present, eighteen years.
Of course, this list is rough and debatable. As I said, I don’t consider esoteric practices like the original Druid Order to be “Pagan” in the sense that they were reared in a culture which gave birth to various Left Hand Paths, and not in a culture which is specifically trying to bring about a “Pagan” understanding. This list is also done through a quick and dirty search through Wikipedia, for a rough idea of the dates.
The point is made, though, to illustrate the vagaries of this timeline.
This list also doesn’t include the social pressures which might have exerted themselves at the time. Recall the period of contraction and realignment that much of Paganism (in reality, Wicca) had during the 1980s and early 1990s with the Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic. Toss in individual reaction to baggage from strict doctrinal upbringings which can lead to a reticence of organization, and we have as many stumbling blocks as we do have open lanes to progress.
So in reality, in the seventy-one years since the repeal of the British Witchcraft Act of 1736 there are seven major strands in modern Contemporary Paganism, and this does not encompass the totality of Pagan being. Each of these have detailed histories all their own, which all began as soon as they were formed or branched off from their parent tradition. This does not – and cannot – hint at how disparate Pagan belief can be. All it does is point to the propensity of Pagan groups to fracture and schism. As a religious grouping, we are predisposed towards individual practice without a central authority, and that is just how we are.
Take Heathenry, for a quick example. 1969 is the foundation of the Odinic Rite in Florida. This, of course, is not Asatru, which was founded largely at the same time in both the United States and Iceland (1973ish). This is not Theodism, which was founded in 1976. This is not the Old AFA, the New AFA, the Troth, the Asatru Alliance, or any of the other groups which have been created with the growth and fracturing of Heathenry. This is not reflective of the trend of local groups, at the expense of national organizations which might have some shred of singular identity. There’s a bigger population of more insular people who must be reached.
Wicca is much the same way. Some of the oldest Wiccan and Witchcraft lineages come about due in part to alleged disagreements between individuals and the leaders of the tradition or group body. Solitary Wicca is absolutely a-traditional in the sense that the Wiccan practice of the individual is almost entirely up to them with less of an overarching hierarchy than other groups. Self-Initiating Wicca gives rise to groups which can independently form from access to publicly printed works, and are only bound to each other by virtue of choice and decision.
This is repeated throughout the Pagan-sphere, from various Left Hand Path and esoteric organizations to polytheistic reconstructionist communities.
More importantly, this is repeated throughout history. Humanity’s religious beliefs go through periods of growth, codification, schism, recodification, reaction, counter-action, and a whole mess of different viewpoints. Take a look at any one of the major world religions, take a look at their beginning histories, at how long it took them to codify into something distinctive. I’m not going to compare Paganism with any of them directly, but the trend is noticeable even for casual perusal.
The fights that Paganism has, all the instances, all the controversy (barring the obviously modern ones), all the theological debates, the fights in understanding divinity, and proper practice, and all the others, is not a new thing. It’s part of the birthing process of any religious identity in human history. In the scope of religion, we are a collective group of newborns. And we are being criticized, sometimes derisively, by people who feel that we should be able to run before we have yet to learn how to walk.
This is especially true in the case of American Paganism. I won’t claim that American Pagans act more “entitled”, but I feel that there’s a greater disconnect that reflects in the attitudes of American Pagans. Our holy sites are not the holy sites of Europe. There is a disconnect between our culture and our sacred spaces. Where in Europe one can go to a standing stone monument, especially those off the beaten path of tourism, that is simply not available in the US. Temple sites, which serve as a historic and sacred backdrop for some of the revivalist Pagan religions in Europe, do not exist here as part of the historic environment.
So people push and drive and agitate for infrastructure which many of the communities are not capable of supporting. Publicly accessible sites are springing up around the country, that is absolutely not to be diminished or marginalized. But the overall impact of those sites on the culture of American Contemporary Paganism is going to be small for a very long time. The same can be repeated for community support. Things such as societal re-admission after incarceration (especially in the case of Heathenry), a support structure for the elderly, legal assistance, and many other programs are things that those coming from a culture dominated by an ubiquitous religious perspective take for granted.
Is Paganism ready for those people who are sampling religions, who want a community, but don’t want to play a more integral part of the religion itself? No, probably not.
Are we getting there? Absolutely.
But we’re establishing a community, a subculture, no matter how much we become accepted by the mainstream. Barring some massive and substantial paradigm shift, the Western world is fully entrenched in the ethos of Christian classicism. It will otherwise take a long, arduous, and undoubtedly painful process to begin to even disentangle society from it. After all, we need to decolonize ourselves first, and in some cases we never really will.
In the meantime we have to build what we can, where we can, protect ours and our own, and establish something for future generations to latch on to, to build from, and to expand upon. We have to build our various religions to be attractive to the people who do not want to take the lead and do that work, but nevertheless will find something of spiritual and religious value in our efforts. Otherwise we’re building an elitist and inaccessible clubhouse.
We can’t do anything about the state of Paganism in relation to the larger religious bodies. As much as I wish I had the answers for it, I do not. We do not have the time under our belts, the dialogues and discourses which can foster future growth and lay the foundation for greater works to be done. We need to go through those periods still. We need to be proactive still. Now people come to a religion for a variety of reasons, and they leave for just as many. Their choices are up to them, their decisions to do so their own. We cannot, nor should not, force anyone to stay who does not feel like they are not receiving due returns on their time and effort. There are some ways which we, as productive Pagans, can mitigate the losses of those people:
- Accessibility. Making sure that the information that we have, which we can share is able to be shared. To make sure that we don’t hide behind overt obscurities and archaicisms which prevent an easy transmission of material knowledge. This includes having the right people take the role of educator and teacher. It is an all-too-frequent happenstance that an individual is placed in a position of education (and de facto leadership) while being wholly unsuited to the task, simply because they in the right place and the right time. People who can teach, who are predisposed to the roles of educator, should do so. Those that are not good at it should not be.
- Pushing beyond the basics. I have publicly complained, both in these pages here and elsewhere around the ‘net, that a big failing of many Pagan religions is that they never get “beyond the basics”. We live in a capitalist society, and people reasonably expect a return on their work. The most profitable form of publication in Paganism is the introductory-level works. We need to stop reinventing the wheel as a group of religions. Because until we do, we’re going to hit a block time and time again where there is a dearth of intermediate to advanced-level works, which stymies greater theological discussion. And those discussions are necessary. More importantly, and this was also spurred on by Dagulf’s post commentary, developing new traditions and practices which resonate with people, artistic works, philosophies, and the like. There has to be growth that is consistently stymied by the hashing and re-hashing out of basic material.
- Contemporary developments. Admittedly, this is less of an issue for the non-reconstructionist Pagan religions. Creating contemporary works, focusing on the here and now in one’s life are paramount. Applying the practices we seek to teach, or to revive, or to emulate, to the day-to-day life of an individual is important. This echos the previous two points. Maybe it is my failing, but if I do not feel like my religious practice is enmeshed in my life, I feel incongruous and silly. I’m not an ancient Roman or ancient Germanic pagan. I’m an American Anglo-Saxon Heathen and Roman Polytheist, who lives in the 21st century, drives a white sedan. Make the religion important to the here and now, and people will not feel dissatisfied with it. Nor will they use it like an escape, which is just as problematic.
- Establishing for the future. Say you’ve created a group that you’ve poured countless hours, enormous resources, and the blood, sweat, and tears of a lifetime into. Are you willing to, at that moment, set it aside? Are you secure in the choices you’ve made with the foundation of your religious group that it won’t immediately dissolve without your guiding hand? Do you trust your successor(s)? Did you leave them the tools to grow without your input? All of us who are dedicated to the establishment of groups and organizations have to do what we can to ensure that there is something which can flourish after us. Can your tradition, or the tradition which you are beholden to, survive your efforts and your energy?
Notice the lack of advocating building temples, or establishing community centers, or whatnot. These initiatives are being done by successful, bur rare, groups. This is a great thing, and not to be diminished. But as a whole, we need to focus on building the foundations first, to finish shoring up the foundation for the wider movement to take advantage of. By building our numbers, by making it accessible for people to join the Pagan religions, by educating more people in a more capable manner, by protecting and supporting legal defense groups, getting out there and making a positive image of ourselves, and by doing a multitude of other things we’re going to more productively spread our religious identity.
Previous generations of Pagans, Wiccans, polytheists, Druids, and all the others, have laid the bare bones that we, today, must build upon. If Contemporary Paganism is a house (or apartment complex, let’s be honest) that we’re all building, the slab and some of the framing have been laid. It’s up to the generations now, the 20-45 year olds, or new converts, to finish that framing and begin to fill in the walls and hang the sheetrock and do all measure of that stuff that my brother who is a construction worker could tell you how to do that I have absolutely no idea the practicalities of beyond metaphor.
Call me a conservative in the sense that I want to make sure that what we have built will stand the storm and won’t fold in on itself. Do I want to see a temple nearby that isn’t on someone’s backyard or in the back of some metaphysical shop, regardless of where I may end up living? Absolutely. However, I have resigned myself to not seeing that in my lifetime, and the best I can do will be to help the future generations realize that dream.
I have veered all over the place in this post. I will return us to the core of the work and then close out. Paganism, building Paganism, is going to take time. Comparing us to the larger religions, who in some cases have hundreds, if not thousands, of years of uninterrupted history is simply unfair. The individuals who join up with Paganism searching for something that are mirrored in the larger society are going to understandably finding it to be lacking. Theology is still shallow, practice is still being codified, contemporary developments have been in the making for many years but haven’t yet become wide-spread.
Building Paganism as a contemporary religious identity, despite being a cacophony of individual religions, is a multi-generational practice. We’re only just now, within the past decade or so, getting to a second (in some rare cases third) generation worth of children who have been born in Pagan homes, although the timeline on this one for Wicca is longer. We are already reaping the fruits of the efforts of those who have came before us: Cascadia Grove, part of the ADF, already has property that they have built on, they are adding shrines to it, including one for Cernnunos this year. The Covenant of the Goddess exists as an administrative body that brings together many Wiccan covens. Cherry Hill Seminary exists, is pushing towards state-supported accreditation for religious studies and training. There are InReach efforts for Heathens and Wiccans alike. The Military is beginning to change their stance on our religions. And so much more.
There’s still much work to be done, but we’re on our way to where the participant observers may feel more comfortable within the religion across the spectrum of Paganism. But we’re not there yet, and we need to be aware of that. There are still a lot of holes to be plugged, a lot of practices which need to be expanded upon.
I guess I don’t blame people who do not wish to take a bigger role in establishing Paganism. Religion is a personal matter, and I cannot and will not critique someone’s decision for remaining (or not). However, I do ask that they do not blame us for “not having our act together” or some such, to look beyond their expectations at the current state of a religious identity that is very much a fractious and undefined morass. Because we’re only seventy-one years old. And in the scheme of religious developments, that’s chump change.
Thanks for reading.