Heading the Wrong Way Into the Mainstream?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 29, 2007 — 9 Comments

Wiccan author Gus diZerega (“Pagans & Christians”, “Beyond the Burning Times”) gives an account of a public Solstice ritual, and the elements within it that troubled him concerning how modern Pagan faiths (specifically Wicca-derived models) may be changing themselves to become more palatable to a mainstream audience.

“Every new spiritual movement faces the challenge of enabling people unfamiliar with it to partake of its message, its approach to celebrating and connecting with the sacred. What is important is what is new, and what is off-putting and most easily misunderstood to others is also what is new. The more familiar the practice the more accessible the tradition – but at the same time in promoting greater accessibility the tradition might lose what it truly once had to offer. This dilemma is unavoidable when a tradition grows. How a religion handles this task is vital to its future. History is replete with people seeking to institutionalize their spiritual tradition to make it “more relevant” to ever more people, and in the process losing track of its initial message … During this Solstice Sabbat I saw this danger raise its head for the NeoPagan community.”

So what did he see and experience that troubled him? First off, the ritual leaders stopped the active involvement of participants to present a “short sermon”.

“The Sabbat’s major organizer strode forward and gave a “short sermon.” This was the speaker’s own description, not my interpretation of them. Sermons are a central aspect of Christian practice. They imply a specific kind of relationship between deity, the sermonizer, and those hearing the message. Deity is distant. The sermonizer is an expert at theological interpretation, at least compared to the audience, who are essentially passive receptacles … Like any viable spiritual practice, sermons have their strengths and weaknesses, but their strengths are not in keeping with Pagan approaches to relating with the Divine, and their weaknesses undermine the vitality of Pagan spirituality.”

This was followed by a “guided meditation” in which standard scientific explanations for life on earth were laid out for the attendees. The author claims that it was so free of religious elements that Richard Dawkins would have enjoyed it. These two elements, according to diZerega, effectively canceled out the Pagan elements of the ritual and could pose a disastrous harbinger of “mainstream” modern Paganism.

“Changes like these when repeated and institutionalized are how a religion with a new focus is gradually tamed, and brought into harmony with the status quo. If sermons become a component of Pagan ceremonies, participants will increasingly be called upon to become passive vessels filled by whatever words the preaching Priest or Priestess feels called upon to say. If the altered awareness of trance and ecstasy is replaced with hypnotic introductions to scientific orthodoxy, we end up being more dependent on the competence of those giving the sermons and less on the Gods.”

I encourage you to read the entire essay, to fully understand diZerega’s concerns and critiques. The inclusion of a sermon (with left-leaning political messages) and a science-heavy creation story seems to fit right in with your basic humanist-friendly Unitarian-Universalist service. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with such a structure, but as diZerega points out, it comes from a fundamentally Christian understanding of religion and doesn’t accurately capture the modern Pagan mode of practice.

I wonder if any of my readers have experienced similar public rituals? Do you think there is a danger that modern Pagans are watering-down (or altering) practice to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience? If so, what should our reaction be?

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Kris

    Yes, I have attended such public rituals where the practice was watered-down.However, the purpose of such rituals was not the same as, for instance, the purpose of my group’s “working” rituals where we are actually trying to effect some change.They were more simply celebratory in nature, without the emphasis on the workings. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with it, as I would not invite anyone not familiar with at least the basics of Pagan practice(s) to a working ritual.It’s just the introduction, before we drag them away to Teh Darkness, mwahahaha! 🙂

  • Lynna Landstreet

    Yes, I’ve experienced some public rituals that left me with a similar feeling of “What the hell is happening to my religion?”The one that stands out most strongly in my mind was a purportedly Wiccan open ritual I attended during a trip to California, which was so wildly different than what I was used to that I really had to wonder if it made any sense to use the same term to describe it at all.First off, setting. I’m used to a darkened temple space, lit by candlelight, with a slight incense haze, and most participants robed, all of which contribute to a fairly otherworldly ambiance. This ritual took place in a room brightly lit by fluorescent lights, which was apparently normally used as a daycare, so everything was in bright colours and decorated with children’s art, cartoon characters, etc. Everyone was in street clothes, and there were no incenses, oils, or any other kind of scent used, or candles, or really anything else that could have remotely altered the room’s ambiance.Second, I’m used to rituals that are fairly poetic/theatrical – any spoken words during ritual are appropriate in content and tone to a ritual space and an altered state of mind, any movements are done consciously and in a ritualistic manner, tools are used that contribute to the desired mood and mindspace (casting with a sword, wine in a chalice, etc.), and if any kind of instruction or explanation needs to be given, in non-ritual terms, it’s generally done beforehand. In this ritual, everything was explained in minute detail during the actual ritual, the leader’s tone of voice was more appropriate to a corporate training session, virtually no ritual tools of any sort were used, and there was no grace or elegance to any of the ritual actions, such as they were.Third, I’m used to the ritual wine (or sometimes mead or ale) being blessed as a peak point in ritual, usually via some variant of what has come to be known as the “symbolic Great Rite”, and the chalice passed around to all participants afterwards, for each to take, meditate on a moment, raise in reverence to the Gods, and then drink a small sip and pass on. This ritual replaced that with a big plastic jug of some sickeningly sweet Koolaid-like fake juice drink, poured into individual disposable plastic cups for each person, and cookies served from the plastic package they came in. Needless to say, there was no reverence in the consumption of either, and the blessing was short and utterly banal.There was no sense of energy, or alteration of consciousness, whatsoever, at any point, at least that I was aware of.All in all, it was the most un-ritualistic ritual I’ve ever attended, and left me feeling completely unmoved, and wondering how on earth this sort of thing had ended up sharing the same name with the religion I’d spent 20 years in…The thing is, I can see potentially valid reasons for any one individual change – some people have issues with alcohol, some people are allergic to incense, some people probably find athames and/or swords intimidating, etc. – but when you add up the whole lot of them, you end up something so dumbed-down and “safe” that it’s utterly lacking in any kind of depth or power.

  • Brock

    On those rare occasions of late when I’ve had occasion to do public ritual it’s been less a matter keeping discordant notes out of the ritual design and more about finding ways to draw the focus of the attendant multitude into the ritual working. But then, I had the luxury of good training in this area.At its heart, religious ritual is a form of theater. (Indeed, theater first began as pagan religious ritual, so taking the concept full circle seems somehow quite apt.) In order to be able to make rituals work for large groups, the entire ritual structure needs to be integrated and focused so that everything that is done in the ritual engages the participants and draws them into the working. But that’s probably a subject better left for an article on my own blog.

  • Kris

    For me it’s not necessarily so important to “advance” into the mainstream anyway.Far more important than whether anyone and everyone understands my beliefs and practices is that I have the right to engage in them.And in my experience, it is extremely difficult to manage a large public ritual. I doubt one would ever be able to get the same level of engagement and immersion that happens in smaller groups, thus that “watered-down” feeling.

  • dubhlainn

    I am not Wiccan so perhaps I shouldn’t leave this comment. However I happen to believe that Wicca is most powerful, meaningful, and effective when it is done in a small group (coven) or solitary setting. In my experience almost all Public Pagan events are what I would call “Wicca Lite”. My own tradition (ADF – Druidic Neopaganism) is meant to be a public observation. The rituals are designed to used for a score or more of people. There are some solitaries as well (I am one of them) and many small groups but the most focus is on the large group setting. That is not to say that ADF is appropriate for every public event either. As for the inclusion of a sermon in ritual, I would say risky at best. In addition to being a Pagan I am also a UU Lay Preacher – I love sermons. I love hearing them, writing them, and delivering them. However the energy that is created, if one is lucky enough to create any, is not the same as is used in magical or ritual work. I guess what I am trying to get at is that is ok to experiment, maybe even essential, to move away from small group practice when presenting for the public but one must be very deliberate and very focused on what the end goal is and should be.

  • Hildegard Of Vinland

    With regards to this statement:”Sermons are a central aspect of Christian practice. They imply a specific kind of relationship between deity, the sermonizer, and those hearing the message. Deity is distant. The sermonizer is an expert at theological interpretation, at least compared to the audience, who are essentially passive receptacles … Like any viable spiritual practice, sermons have their strengths and weaknesses, but their strengths are not in keeping with Pagan approaches to relating with the Divine, and their weaknesses undermine the vitality of Pagan spirituality.”I would have to say this:This person clearly does not understand that a “sermon” is first of all not limited to Christian practice.Within a pagan or heathen context, a sermon would be considered sharing the rede – “rede” having associations with the rune Raidho (http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v112/lovehound/All%20Things%20Norse/raido.gif) and meaning “the Way” or “the Path” or “the Advice.” Another rune/mystery that a sermon could be associated with would be Ansuz (http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v112/lovehound/All%20Things%20Norse/ansuz.gif) which stands for communication with the Gods. So I say that a sermon is very appropriate for pagan rites. My rites will have them. They are a means to impart wisdom and to help the listeners understand the will of the Gods.

  • Hildegard Of Vinland

    I also think it is pertinent to add that this is what happens when people try to be everything to everyone, instead of having a specific tradition with a specific liturgy for specific rites and specific deities that one invokes during said rites. I strongly think this is part of the problem of eclecticism: there’s no commitment to any one actual path, so the result of that is having too much information to choose from, and in terms of one’s guests having to try to please everyone’s tastes, and it doesn’t work. When a person attends Mass at a Catholic church, the Mass isn’t watered down or changed to accomodate everyone’s tastes. People know what to expect when attending Mass. It is consistent everywhere you go – and that is part of why Roman Catholic spirituality is so powerful. A Catholic can attend Mass in any state in the US, or any country outside the US, and know that on any given Sunday, they are praying the same prayers as every other Catholic, they are reading the same verses in Scripture, the priest is saying the same things and the congregants are all responding in the same way. It connects all the worshipers through time and space. Eclectic pagans do not have this….this….kind of liturgical and spiritual power (for lack of a better term). In their complete fear of hierarchy and elimination of individuality, eclectic pagans have really overcompensated in completely the other direction – and it results in watered-down, weak rites that have little to no spiritual effect.

  • Hildegard Of Vinland

    With regards to this part of the statement:”Like any viable spiritual practice, sermons have their strengths and weaknesses, but their strengths are not in keeping with Pagan approaches to relating with the Divine, and their weaknesses undermine the vitality of Pagan spirituality.”I’m not in favor of the way he phrased this. The more I ponder it, the more I dislike it. Given the way he put this, it sounds like he is basically dictating for all Pagandom what are and are not appropriate ways for ALL Pagans to approach the Divine. Or he sounds like he’s indicating he knows all the answers about how Pagans should be relating with the Divine. This is very disturbing. “Not in keeping with Pagan approaches to relating with the Divine.” I can’t even really express how floored I am by this very statement.There are a myriad of ways to relate with the Divine. There are an infinite number of ways of relating with the Divine. I really can think of some Gods and Goddesses right now for Whom preaching and teaching in the form of a sermon would be a very deeply appropriate way to relate to the Divine. Saga, Odin, Frigga and Tyr from my own pantheon come to mind first. I’m a little reluctant, however, to speak for other pantheons, as I don’t know them as well.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “There are a myriad of ways to relate with the Divine.”I have never said otherwise. I have never claimed that sermons are always verboten or inappropriate. I was relating to a specific context that Gus writes about at his blog. Which, from his way of presenting it, didn’t seem very Pagan at all. I should also point out that the ritual discused here was a Wicca-derived ritual structure, not Asatru or any other modern Pagan faith. So specific criticisms should be seen in that light.