Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Future of Modern Paganism

As of May 24 this Essay is published on Witchvox

Link here: http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usca&c=words&id=13284


The Future of Modern Paganism: Activism, Mobilization, and Community Building

The state of the United States and, by extension, the Pagan community in America is in a unique and advantageous position. For the past two decades American politics have increasingly become dominated by the growing power of evangelical Christianity reaching its peak of power and influence in 2004 with George W. Bush’s re-election. Now with Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 and the subsequent rout of the Republican Party coupled with the growing tally of victories by the Gay Rights movement, Prop 8 notwithstanding, the Religious Right is in steady retreat in the public sphere and in society. While this retreat will not be permanent we now stand at an interesting cross-road. Opinions regarding gay marriage and religious plurality are shifting away from dogmatic adherence to one creed and exclusionary ideas and more in an open-direction. We stand at a moment where, if we should be able to effectively mobilize ourselves as a community and truly build real community and communities, we could easily establish ourselves as a religious group in society that will be, while not necessarily liked, at least respected and treated as the serious diverse group of faiths that we are.

The first major matter is the current situation. The Republic Party in 2008 was solidly routed, many of the more prominent defeats were candidates who had run on strong family values and socially conservative platforms. Sarah Palin’s attachment to the ticket and the association of her with defeat has serious weakened the credibility and power of the Religious Right. With these defeats the GOP has collapsed into political infighting and struggle as to who will stand as the leadership and while the Religious Right is still a serious force it no longer is the clear-cut leader of the Party. These events also go hand in hand with new statistical information. Recent studies in late 2008 and 2009 confirm that American attitudes towards religion are shifting to a more open one. 55% of adults under 44 in America are in favor of Gay Marriage or Civil Unions and the segments of the population supporting banning it are aging and shrinking[i]. Similarly a majority of American Christians believe that other religions can, in fact, lead to eternal life and not just their own[ii]. Both of these trends show a change in opinions on religion in American towards a much less dogmatic one to a more pluralistic, accepting one. While the loudest voices may claim that conservative dogma is the face of Christianity in truth the majority are not pro-life evangelicals but more inclusive and unorthodox believers.

Also vitally important are the results of the Pew Center 2008 Survey on Religion in America. The survey, with a 0.6% margin of error, concluded that 0.6% of the American population are Wiccan or Pagan of some form or another[iii]. To give that a sense of context when the numbers are run the estimated number of Pagans in the US comes out to 1.3 million. This coupled with previous polls that have put Paganism, not Islam as is most commonly reported in the mass media, as the fastest growing religion in the United States of America more than suggests we not only are not a mere handful but a group not to be ignored and growing larger every day and that the days we spend in the shadows, whether willingly or not, are numbered. With increasing open-mindedness of the public and our own growing and established numbers it is likely in the next generation we will be one of the largest religious groups in America. While earlier predictions there would be more Pagans than Jews in America by 2012 may seem a bit overstated at this date there is no question that we are as a community on the rise. But in spite of all this data in our favor events are often sparsely attended. Of the estimated 1.3 million Pagans very few are actually active members of any established Pagan religious organizations. This, however, can be changed. If we are to gain the respect we deserve as our inherent rights as human beings then we will need to bring together our community and make our voice heard.

But first many may ask ourselves: by what measure is a Pagan? This question is far simpler to answer than it would seem. In spite of all the names and divisions between Wiccans, Druids, Asatru, Kemetics, Neo-Shamans, Eclectics, and all the rest we share much more in common with one another than we would admit. It is not unusual for members of different groups to attend each other’s rituals. At the base of it even the most pacifistic Wiccan and martial Heathen can sit down at the same table and still have much more in common than either of the above would with one of the followers of Abraham that form the majority of Americans. We all venerate the same, or similar, holidays. We all worship multiple Gods ranging from Wiccan duality to hard polytheism but all the same recognizing the Gods of other groups as worthy of honor and respect. We have strong emphasis on culture, although many different ones, and tradition and venerate our ancestors. For all Pagans without question the Earth and all things of Nature are Holy. Most Pagan groups are very inclusive and tolerant, judging a person not by race, gender, or sexuality but by reputation, words, and actions. Honor is a concept that, while not universally followed, is well understood and highly respected. While we may have different ethical systems and virtues all of them place the emphasis on personal accountability and not helplessness before the Powers. Based on this we need to stop thinking of ourselves just as in our one box but as willing to recognize our common ground and stand together against all adversaries on that common ground. But first we need to come together and not just metaphorically. Concentrated minority communities, in the United States, often have the best chance of success against adversity and in the struggle for rights.

To be able to gain proper respect and protection of Pagans from quiet discrimination and persecution we need to make our voices heard and have impact in government and the enforcement of the law and public policy. To do this we have to play by the most basic rule of democracy: those who get out the most votes win, simple as that. Yet this is much easier said than done. When a community is diffuse and dispersed it can often be difficult to mobilize such a community to action leaving such a community unable to act effectively in all but the direst of circumstances. Often there is no sense of community beyond a vague sense on an abstract level making effective voter mobilization an exercise in futility. Yet once people of common community come together in physical space and closeness you have a kind of rapid development of common culture and norms. From this it becomes much easier both in an abstract sense and a purely physical sense to mobilize a group to action. This goes both from the cohesion and sense of togetherness physical community creates as well as the more prosaic fact that it is easier to get a group of people living on the same block out to vote than having to zip all over a county to round up voters.

There is criticism to taking this approach. The main lines that said criticism, so far based on a discussion on the ADF-Druidry mailing list, are threefold each of which will be examined in detail. The first is the matter of why we should bother with gaining the respect of mainstream society, the second the possible dangers that may come from consolidation, and the third being the difficulty in organizing Pagans in the first place. That said, the benefits of truly banding together as a united community both in a physical and social sense greatly outweigh any perceived cost.

The first is simply why we should seek the acceptance and respect of a majority that more than a few Pagans disdain. The answer is simple. Just because we may not like some aspects of mainstream society and culture does not mean we can ignore mainstream society. While the Religious Right is in retreat now, they likely will recover and return and when they do going after gays will not be socially acceptable or tolerated and if we have not established ourselves strongly enough we will be the next target. While the persecution we suffer now is not severe enough to need physical protection from threats, if we remain isolated and diffused when that time comes we will be easy to pick off one at a time. It is much harder to bring down a strong pack or herd for a predator than to take down lone targets. For this reason we must gain said respect to protect ourselves from the inevitable backlash against us. It is not a matter of accommodation and assimilation but of simple survival. We do not need nor should we seek to become more palatable to the majority. Instead we must show them we are different, but worthy of respect and valuable members of society and not just some fringe mystics to be easily ignored. We must, through mobilization and consolidation, gain their respect on our terms.

The second main criticism of this approach is the fear of Pagans becoming “ghettoized” as well as the perception that consolidated communities are not always a benefit. This fear of Pagans becoming easily isolated by consolidation ignores that in our current situation we already are isolated. The difference between now and in that possible future of Pagan neighborhoods, districts, and villages is that while we can be shoved off into that box, we can’t be shoved off the map as we can and are now. There is also the point that the Castro and other gay neighborhoods in California couldn’t stop Prop 8. This does not take into account that the campaign against Prop 8 was poorly conducted and often too little, too late and all the victories the gay community has gained from gay enclaves in the state of California and other states in America.

The third and final is the practicality. Pagans are often accused of being as difficult to organize as herding cats. While this is very true and will be an obstacle, just because something is difficult is never a good reason to not make the effort. Every culture that are venerated by Pagan groups has at least one legendary moment in their lore and their ancestral history of when their ancestors had the choice between doing what had to be done and what was right being weighed against what was easy. At many of these crucial junctures they chose to do what had to be done instead of simply acquiescing to the current situation. We cannot shirk from taking the necessary steps to acceptance and respect just because it will be difficult and take effort and work. We also need not do it in one rush. The Castro was not born overnight. If you have 20 people willing to move into the same neighborhood and live openly as they are there, others will soon come to join them. The Castro started small and by 1978 was big enough to propel Harvey Milk into office, the first openly gay man elected in American history, from its origins in 1972 as an Irish Catholic blue collar neighborhood. More impressively this was done well before the internet, a tool vital to modern Pagan networking that makes the cost and ease of coordination for all groups of all types infinitely easier.

Once such communities exist, and on the way to achieving that, we need to get our own people into elected office. It does not matter if this is for dog catcher or school board or mayor or state legislature or governor no minority group in the US has ever been taken seriously until they were able to put one of their own in office on their terms. This is not to say people are not trying, but rather that the openly Pagan candidates who run often run for third parties with little support, organization, or chance at victory. We need, through community consolidation and voter mobilization, to get our own people in through the major political parties into office on their own terms. This will certainly not be easy, but if we can establish political muscle it will be much easier to make our own candidates forces to be reckoned with in American politics. Even without this we can still get some of our best and brightest in. We have plenty of distinguished veterans, police officers, firefighters, and other emergency workers in our ranks, people who society is raised to respect and revere. By having people run who have records of impeccable and honorable service to their communities and country we can, in places where it is possible, deflect the religious issue by using strong character to render it a moot point. We also need people who can appeal to either of the major parties both by personal record and mobilized base of support to establish voter coalitions to propel them to party nominations and election. Again this will not be easy and will take some compromises but as much as we need mystics, clerics, and teachers we also need our own warriors and chieftains as a community to establish respect with the mainstream. Until we are able to elect our own and show that we are movement worthy of respect we will remain easy to isolate and ignore and those that can be ignored thusly become easy prey for persecution.

With all the encouraging data presented at the beginning of this essay it may be easy to simply say, “Why worry? All the numbers are trending our way anyway so there’s no threat.” This ignores certain cycles that regularly repeat themselves in American history. One such cycle is the specter of religious revival. Almost like clockwork this happens in American history, the first such event being the Great Awakening of the 18th century followed by the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century that gave birth to the Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist churches. Following this was the birth of modern fundamentalism in the 1880s and 1890s that gave its muscle to Prohibition and achieved their ends by the 1920s. This pulse faded back into the background, but another that was born in reaction to the 60s and counter-culture and continues with us to this day known popularly as the Religious Right is not a unique phenomenon but the latest in a succession of fervent, conservative religious revivals in US History. While the trends are pulling away from their dominance often in American politics and society a strong swing in one direction will be followed by another in the opposing one. With the coming of a new fundamentalism in America it is not a question of if but when and how it emerges. We must take advantage of the time we have now while the Religious Right lays in its death throes to move quickly, establish ourselves strongly enough while they collapse. If we do so decisively and effectively when their children both literal and philosophical take up the cause of their forbears we will not be scattered and alone waiting to be picked off but ready, waiting, and able to defend ourselves literally and politically. We must take advantage of our current situation and move quickly otherwise when the threat is direct and present the cost of defeating it in the future will be much higher than taking direct, effective action now.

Ultimately the future of the Pagan community lies not in continued solitary closeted existence if we are to gain respect and recognition of our rights but in consolidation and open action. We can no longer simply sit on the sidelines and let events in our country go on without our say or action or for our rights to remain out of our hands to protect. We must, as a whole, band together, mobilize based on common issues, needs, and ideas and assert our rights as a unique, vibrant, and crucial part of American society. We cannot afford to continue slowly and quietly while waiting for a hero on a white horse with a magic sword to ride over the hill and lead us to victory. We are the heroes we are waiting for. Until we do so and come together on issues of common importance we will forever remain part of a marginalized fringe of American society.


[i] "Civil Rights." http://www.pollingreport.com/civil.htm (accessed April 20, 2009).

[ii] "Pew Forum: Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life." December 18, 2008.http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=380 (accessed April 20, 2009).

[iii] "Pew Forum: Church Statistics and Religious Affiliations." http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/affiliations-all-traditions.pdf (accessed April 20, 2009).

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