Religion, Spotlight

Why More People Aren’t Pagan

Two years ago I caused serious commotion by stating that, although I worship the gods of nature, I am not pagan.

Friday, Allergic Pagan author John Halstead made a similar declaration. He still totes the P-word—but he’s ashamed of it:

I was embarrassed. Paganism for me was a rich and complex tradition with the potential to transform consciousness and, dare I say, save the soul of the world. But the public face of Paganism seemed to me silly and naive. I’ve written before what I love about Paganism and what I hate about Paganism… What I want to do here is explore this embarrassment.

He explores not just the movement’s failings, but his own hang ups. These hang ups are more than personal quirks, they represent a growing recognition that mainstream Paganism is, well, just not that well suited to a scientific, humanistic and superstition-averse 21st century.

In the past I’ve asked why Paganism isn’t a major world religion: I think John answers that well.

He refers to Pagan powerhouse Teo Bishop’s own professed embarassment:

It turns out that Teo’s embarrassment was not so broad as my own… To me, the ritual Teo describes is flighty New Age drivel and not fundamentally different from praying to an all-powerful monotheistic God to save us from everything bad in the world… I think this type of ritual is characteristic of the public face of Paganism. And it is something I absolutely do not want to be associated with.

John then goes on to present his own vision of paganism: a belief that embraces the entire world, its good and its bad, the whole lively mix of pain and delight that we slog through without the help of gods. It is profoundly humanistic and yet, I sense, it leaves room for the Infinite.

Just like veins of Classical paganism and—not coincidentally—the Heroic Faith.

John will take a lot of fire for his critique of Paganism-the-mothership. But this is one of the best personal essays on religion I’ve seen. Paganism offers a beautiful promise to the world, undermined in its entirety by the behavior of actual Pagans.

You can read his words here: Being Ashamed of Paganism. Will John’s kind of religion, which blurs the line with humanism, ever grow? Is this the century of religion sans faith, and is that a good thing? Or will religion only succeed when it provides a promise of comfort?


19 thoughts on “Why More People Aren’t Pagan

  1. Niniann Lacasse says:

    I admit there have been times when I have been to Pagan events or rituals that were not my cup of tea. I don’t know that I was embarssed by them but that may be because the only people I knew at them were other pagans. I do not approve of public rituals that exlude anyone. I spent several decades being a solitary pagan starting out studying witchcraft and eventually finding my way to druidry. I am currently a member of ADF. I am a polytheist, in love with the Irish gods, and an herbalist and grandmother. I have other beliefs that some humanist pagan types may find embarassing but I tend to keep those to myself. I made the move to find other pagans 20 years ago and get involved in the pagan community. I was surprised to find that while I had been doing my “homework” as a solitary pagan studying everything from ancient Indo-European religions, mythology, different magical practices and philosophies, Wicca, Druidry, and the history of paganism in the U.S. most of the pagans I was meeting had not.
    I agree that many of the pagan events I attend are more like some of the counterculture gatherings I had such fun at in the 60’s. I’m not complaining. It actually is kind of amusing meeting young people that in many ways remind me of the way I was in my early 20’s. I enjoy roaming around the vendors , listening to the music, and visiting with other pagans. I can even attend the rituals as a community event as I am not looking for a great religious or spiritual experience on that particular day. I am a great believer in diversity, and think whatever religious practices make people happy and encourage them to be decent to their fellow humans is fine with me. I prefer the rituals of ADF to honor and develop realationships with the gods I choose to work with for improving myself and using my talents to make life better for family and friends, people in general and the Earth. I even confess to believing in magic in a way that is powered by my own will, nature and a pinch of help from the gods.
    I find my main concern is that paganism in general stay Earth centered. To this end I teach free workshops on various herbal health and medicine topics, and working with nature in our rituals and celebrations. If you aren’t happy with the face of paganism in the public and at Pagan Pride Days then step up and volunteer. Work to improve things. Everything from teaching kids to appreciate and be interested in the natural world to helping adults learn to identify and value plant and tree species is what I like to concentrate on as part of my spiritual practice.

    • I like your brand of Paganism Niniann. Actually I love it. It’s everything Paganism should (in my opinion) be: earthy, practical, sensual and spiritual. Sure there may be beliefs that humanists wouldn’t like but that’s why you’re a Pagan and not a humanist.

      I’m something else. I too love diversity though, and I’m glad people like you exist and are carrying on such beautiful traditions.

  2. I struggle with this same thing, Drew. I call myself Pagan because it’s the closest I can come. I don’t like having to tag a ‘religion’ at all! I tack Shamanic Path onto it for people who at least have a vague clue what Pagan means, and then go from there. I think a lot of ‘Pagan’ ritual and methodology have become so um… tainted… by the religions that a lot of Pagans used to be before they found out there was something other than Christianity, etc. that the original meaning of the word and what it means from a world-view is hard to distinguish.

    I am heading now to read the article; I am curious to see what he says.

    • I strongly agree. Many, maybe the majority, of Pagans carry over Christian notions of religion — especially the notion of faith or an emphasis on belief. It may be individuated belief but belief itself is still emphasized and considered desirable, even necessary.

      That does not match classical or ancient paganism. Those religions were about ritual, culture and the practices. A practice-based religion can be completely humanistic or, as the ancient pagans did, embrace a spectrum of humanism and theism.

      But our current Paganism does not offer that, which is why there is a lesser exodus happening right now.

  3. Interesting. I have been Pagan all my life. I believe we are born that way. We don’t come out of the womb chanting Om, reciting the rosary or the Lord’s prayer; we come out breathing and thus we complete the first sacred cycle of life – to breathe in is to live, to exhale is to die. EVERYTHING else is an overlay and it is up to each individual to find the path and practice that connects them to something larger than themselves. For me, being Pagan is to know myself when I strip all of that away and when I bow in awe and humility at the power and grace of the natural world – which includes what exists outside of time, space and the five senses. Wicca and the New Age – Neo-pagan practices have attempted to claim the word – and yes, some of the spokespeople and their antics are an embarrassment however; the term Pagan has been precious to me since I first heard it uttered to define who I am and I’m not going to allow it be taken from me.

    • Jade P says:

      Angie… I like this: “For me, being Pagan is to know myself when I strip all of that away and when I bow in awe and humility at the power and grace of the natural world – which includes what exists outside of time, space and the five senses.” It’s very close to how I feel. Thank you.

    • I think that’s beautiful, Angie.

      Once upon a time, I often taught that people are “pagan” from birth. The movements of the sun and the turning of the seasons are there no matter what doctrine one has, and the natural world affects us strongly. Thus other religions have to be grafted on (baptism, etc.) but paganism is the natural state — or so I said.

      But the word Pagan has taken on a whole extra meaning, far above and beyond simply being at one with and part of nature. Now it carries a host of beliefs that no one is born with. The word has, I think, changed in the last 50 years.

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  5. The responses you’re receiving are exactly the kind of thing I’m used to seeing from the online Pagan community, though it has been many years since I was involved with the Public Pagan Community. Perhaps it even has a regional influence or sorts. Where I “grew up” ‘Pagan’ was used by the less… ah… “love and light” kind of practitioner, where those who were more ‘mainstream’ called themselves Wiccan. I don’t know, though, as language is a living, breathing thing. I’ve written more in response to your post at my own blog because there are definitely a lot of thoughts around this.

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