The Missing History of Modern Paganism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 27, 2006 — 1 Comment

Two recent books have taken a look at religion and spirituality in America; “Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality” by Leigh Schmidt and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture” by Mark Oppenheimer. While they have different focuses and goals they do have one thing in common, they both ignore modern Paganism in America.

Schmidt’s book largely deals with the influence of Transcendentalism and the creation of the “spiritual but not religious” demographic in America. It traces the religious left from the Quakers and the Spiritualists to the New Age movement and Oprah. I was looking forward to this book talking about the obvious influences these movements have had on the growth of American forms of modern Paganism. Several commentators within Paganism (Hutton and Adler to name two) have mentioned the influence of Henry David Thoreau, Spiritualism, and Theosophy in the growth and development of what we now know as modern or “neo” Paganism, topics dealt with at length in Schmidt’s book, yet there is scarcely a mention of Paganism at all. It makes me wonder if it was merely oversight or an genuine unwillingness to look at our history in America?

If Schmidt’s lack of Pagan material strikes me as an oversight, Oppenheimer’s book tries to eliminate the influence of modern Paganism for the sake of “clarity”. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” purports to be about American religion during the countercultural 60s and 70s but quickly backpedals from this sweeping title to only focus on denominational faiths (AKA religions with buildings and money). Knowing he would be questioned on the oversight Oppenheimer lays out his justification for exclusion in the introduction.

“The alternative groups we identify with the late 1960s were far smaller than imagined, and some historians, easily infatuated with the new and the sexy, have been led badly astray…there has never been reliable evidence of widespread Satanism or paganism…One might argue that by excluding the preponderance of cults, sects, and communes from this study, we are denying them the status of “religion.” That is correct – but for the purpose of clarity not condescension…religion is commitment to a set of beliefs that requires meaningful sacrifice. A belief that you must tithe, or donate of a portion of your income to your church or faith community…religions require sacrifice and exclude other religions.”

In other words religion is Unitarian-Universalism on the far left and conservative Catholicism and Judaism on the far right. Anything outside of that equation isn’t American religion or religion at all under his criteria. This book should really be called “The Struggle By Outside Groups For Acceptance: How Hippies Brought Us The Guitar Mass”. The book rehashes issues covered several times in other books, women priests, the struggle for homosexual acceptance, war resistance, and Vatican II. The only unique feature of the book is his look at Unitarian-Universalism, which has prompted a book discussion at the UU blog Philocrites.

How many Pagans were there in the 60s and 70s? Was it just a few people, a smattering of followers? Hard census data isn’t available, but we do know that when Margot Adler started her research for “Drawing Down The Moon” in 1972 she discovered that modern Paganism had flourished into a unique and nation-wide phenomena with thousands of adherents in small pockets across the country largely unaware of its own growth. We know that Gardnerian Wicca was introduced to America in 1964, and that American-grown forms of modern Paganism were already appearing before that. Our family of faiths shouldn’t be swept aside along with the flaky gurus and communes that have long since faded into memory, the authors easy dismissal of Paganism betrays his prejudice and ignorance on the subject.

In the end the only decent histories of our faiths have been written by insiders and sympathetic fellow travelers. Mainstream academia still seems reluctant to engage in religion outside their denominational comfort zone. I can only hope that the efforts by Pagan academics and scholars continue to reverse this trend, and that mainstream writers tackling subjects intertwined with our history won’t continue to overlook or omit us. Eventually our missing history will be included in the history of religion in America.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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