Christina Oakley Harrington: Paganism in Britain Today

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 31, 2011 — 29 Comments

I’m very pleased to present a lecture by Christina Oakley Harrington, founder of Treadwell’s Bookshop in London, a former Pagan Federation Committee member, and a former university lecturer in History. The talk: “Paganism in Britain Today: Observations, Issues, Trends” takes a snapshot of Pagan thinking and theology today.

“Why are some pagans saying Paganism is not a religion? For the Pagans who identify as Witches, is there any liminality left to them? Is the Goddess an oppressive concept, if gender is not binary, as science suggests? What’s the role of mystery in an information age? Pagans in 2011 engage with these issues, consciously or unconsciously; tonight’s speaker surveys the main areas of contention and challenge within Paganism today.”

This lecture was recorded at Treadwell’s on Thursday, July 28th. You can download the audio file of the entire talk, here. I’d like to thank Dr. Harrington for sharing her knowledge and expertise with my audience. If you are ever in London, few places surpass Treadwell’s for events and lectures appealing to modern Pagans and occultists, so do look them up.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • EdthePagan

    Thanks for this…I love lectures when well done.

  • Mia

    Well, they’re kind of right. Paganism isn’t “a” religion, it’s a whole bunch of different ones listed under a convenient umbrella. I may be lumped under that same umbrella, but my beliefs are different than a Druid or an Alexandrian Wiccan, and so on. It wouldn’t make sense to say that I’m a member of the same religion as them; at best, I’m a member of the same loose social group.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Kind of like Christianity.

      • Mia

        I disagree. In my experience (I don’t have anything else to back this up though) even if Christians are of a different sect and disagree with many things with each other, they still have a common enough religious background to understand what each other is talking about regarding God, Jesus, church, etc. One can say that God is fire and brimestone, and the other can say that God loves everyone, but they’re still discussing the same concept, which is the nature of God. But in Paganism all bets are off, especially if the broad definition of “not part of the 3 monotheistic faiths” is used.

        To use a personal example, Wicca would be completely alien to me if I didn’t enjoy reading books. I only understand some of what a Wiccan talks about because I happened to read about those concepts somewhere, not because I share a similar background or worldview.

        • Also, Christianity grew from one root, a seemingly insignificant Jewish sect in Roman-era Judea.

          The group of religions that is commonly referred to as Paganism, on the other hand, had many roots: Various Indo-European-speaking cultures, as well as some Afro-Asiatic ones, as well as Finno-Ugric, ceremonial magic, etc. Paganism is more like a forest filled with many different species of tree– Date palm, pomegranate, pistachio, birch, cedar of Lebanon, olive, oak, frankincense tree, almond,etc. Some of those species have their own varieties (just as some fruit trees have different cultivars/varieties). What this wildly diverse forest has in common as that date palms, pomegranates, birches and oaks…Are all trees.

      • Charles Cosimano

        Did to me too. It could have been a talk about any mainline Protestant denomination.

    • Anonymous

      What I don’t like about it, is that it lumps all pagans into a post modern category and then holds out Wicca as a basterdized form of Christianity making it a Christian hersey. That is BS and dangerous IMO. And too many pagans let it slide for my taste ethically and then call it ‘vampirism’ or at the opposite end, ‘enlightenment’

  • Pagan Puff Pieces

    “Gosh Golly. I haven’t thought of that. Let’s put our thinking caps on.” I love you all.

    But, yeah, ever since the need to kill the Goddess as necessary to Feminism came up in Feminist Theory class, so, I’ve been curious about how Pagans tackle this issue.

    (I suppose Paganism embodies the right to be the People… I guess. I don’t know. I’ll just keep sitting here in the corner at the Prom, watching the couples dance. Actually, I never went to Prom. I’ll try thinking of another metaphor….)

    • Anonymous

      I’ve never heard of a need to kill the Goddess in any feminist theory class but I know alot of bisexuals who can practice psychic vampirism. As I said above, look at basterdized Christianity and Homosexuals in the Republican party if you REALLY want an answer. Homosexual rape and gendered discourse is a better answer to this.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I was surprised to hear no mention of Dianic Wicca, which would have its own light to shed on these core issues. Does no such phenomenon exist in the UK?

    • Christina Oakley Harrington

      Baruch — well observed! Dianic witchcraft has always been a small movement in the UK, and did not have the wide social impact in the UK that it did in the US. It’s also not active very vocally in the debates happening here at the moment, compared to other community sectors. Had this talk been about the US, Dianics would have been referred to a great deal. Thanks for noticing the lacuna.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Thanks for the quick answer!

  • The audience was fantastic. Great comments, insights and questions.

  • Anonymous

    I listed to the first two issues raised and I think she could have done better when it came to the Goddess being an oppressive concept. There are multiple ways in which gendered discourse as practiced by the mainstream monotheistic cultures runs counter to pagan practice and this does not even address the oppressive nature of Asian faiths in relation to women, which is a common theme for feminists who cite Marija Gimbatus work as ‘proof positive’ of the benovelent nature of matrifocal societies. This also gets into question 1, where pagans on the edge either are or arent part of the oppression of minority groups and THIS is the uestion she avoids. It’s so convenient to blame Christians but blaming Wiccans is another matter which is why ‘polytheism’ is a FAD in the pagan community and not a trend.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      It was pretty clear that the oppressive-Goddess meme arose from a Continental (probably French) notion of any dyad being inherently oppressive. She was pretty clear how BGLTs find personified femininity in a supreme deity as difficult as personified masculinity.

      I would not be surprised if some secular feminist theory courses on this side of the Pond called for destruction of the Goddess. Some feminist theorists have always seen the Goddess as a bourgeois distraction from the real work of improving women’s lot. I recall one argument between feminists where one side was saying, “The other side encourages the frivolity of Goddess worship,” whilst the other was saying, “How dare you accuse us of such an absurdity!?” We got no dog in that fight.

      The question of Pagans being on the edge vs the mainstream turned iirc on the prospect of their own oppression in the wake of the Satanic-abuse panic. Pagans are people and, if they do not reflect, they may well unconsciously act out the memes that oppress other minorities; one major service blogs like this can serve is to confront us with concrete examples of that fact.

      I don’t understand your characterization of polytheism as a fad vs a trend in the Pagan community and would appreciate an expansion.

      • Anonymous

        I think it’s a fad because of how modernism is pooh-pooed by many as not being inclusive enough when it comes to politics, especially by continental philosophers which is usually lumped in with liberalism de facto and it’s a narrative or discourse problem with how liberalism is interpreted on the world stage. Statism vs. nationalism is another angle on the same problem. She did bring up continental philosophy, but how many non academics in the pagan community, those who fall under the post modern rubric by default not by self definition and also not to hold out traditional mainstream pagan denominations such as Alexandrians or Gardenarians etc as modern by virtue of their organization alone but this would be part of the default mechanism I am referring to, actually know where continental philosophy originates beyond the French ideal of the enlightenment OR possibly more significiant, from what philosophical school of thought it deviates? She did not elaborate and could have given a short three or four sentance explanation that might have given non academic listeners more information to look up. I don’t class mainstream pagan denominations like Alexandrian or Gardenarians to name a few as modern and non affiliated pagans as post modern simply by virtue of their longer history and organiational structure. I don’t know if you caught what I referred to about Marija Gimbatus, but simply using the term polytheism to avoid a discussion about the oppressive history of Western Culture against minorities beyond their borders is just a crock of crap imo. It’s pagans who want to play at mysticism and academia but dont really want to do the heavy lifting. That is another reason why she limited her audience by not giving a more detailed explanation of just how continental philosophy plays into her ‘academic’ exploration of paganism.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          OK, you lost me. I’ve never studied postmodernism and am not really into its categories and distinctions.

          You read my earlier reply. Assume that’s the limit of my philosophical education and, please, try to explain to that person why polytheism is a fad rather than a trend.

          • Anonymous

            I am so sorry! I really am a talkative person who tends to be wordy and I appreciate your humble nature in asking me to speak as plainly as possible because I didn’t intend to offend. I didn’t come away from what I heard her speak about with the notion that it was the GLBT community or individuals alone who have a problem with feminine divinity although I can grasp the logic of how many people and not just pagans involved in promoting social justice might find it oppressive. I have considered it oppressive myself on several occasions. All I heard was that Goddess as a divinity is oppressive. When it came to Goddess and you brought up feminism you said ‘We have no dog in that fight’ and some pagans don’t but many do. You didn’t touch my comment on
            Asian religions and I know why and so do you. And many more religions also have dogs in that fight. Hence, I used the term gendered discourse to refer in a blanket way to the various religious positions on feminism both sacred and secular, pagan and not pagan. What one community may call ‘homosexual’ or ‘natural’ is anothers heteronormative and also ‘natural’ domain. Gendered Discourse also involves the arena of arbitrary gender, such as moral issues and naturalism. By calling it gendered discourse, more diversity in moral and natural views is permitted and doesn’t exclude ‘the other’ or different points of view, such as GLBT. If your pluralistic and outside academia, your probally post modern to some degree. I am also a Massage Therapist and the view of mainstream Health Care in the States is that we are ‘alternative health’ rather than modern medicine, designating us as ‘the other’ in relation to themselves and post modern by default first and only then, as an afterthought, by ideology. It’s like being called a Homosexual without the sex or gender. In my sphere, I am heterosexual and modern but the AMTA (a professional massage organization I am not a member of and the AMA that they are affiliated with would disagree with my self designation.) I hope that makes that a little clearer.

          • That still doesn’t seem to answer Baruch’s question (which I also share), and, if I may say, there seems to be a suggestion in what you’ve been saying that paganism= Wicca/ Wicca-type Paganism, which, of course, is not the case.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            “You didn’t touch my comment on
            Asian religions and I know why and so do you.”

            Never take my silence as anything but not understanding the original statement. “It’s a capital error to theorize in advance of evidence.” — Sherlock Holmes.

            Like your other responders I still don’t see what makes polytheism faddish rather than trendy.

        • I agree with Baruch on looking for an explanation of how polytheism is faddish. I’d like to know as well. And if it’s such a fad, how recent is it? I see nothing except “simply using the term polytheism to avoid a discussion about the oppressive history of Western Culture against minorities beyond their borders” Forgive me if I fail to see how this makes any kind of sense.

          (If anything, monotheism, whether god-centered or goddess-centered of any sort is the fad, not polytheism.)

          • Anonymous

            I do think it’s a fad and to say so is not heretical so you can all stop salivating. Of course, from a religious stand point this is an academic argument. If you need to know how Wicca and paganism are interrelated i recommend Ronald Hutton’s work or an college level english class that covers Romanticism and the history of the 19th century.

          • I get this creeping feeling that we’re talking about two different things. What exactly do you mean by “polytheism” when you say “polytheism is a fad”? As far as I’m concerned any relation between Wicca and paganism is neither here nor there. If there are commonly-understood definitions, it’s easier to talk to each other rather than past each other. 🙂

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            To Djhutmosu’s questions I’s all one about how you define fad vs trend.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Sorry, that should have been “I’d add one.” Shouldn’t type late at night.

          • Wow, patronizing much? Apparently, you get to make an unsupported claim and then anyone who questions said claim is ‘salivating’ and needs to go and take a college course?

            I can only assume that the Wicca/ Pagan comment is directed at my above comment. While no one would deny that there is a relationship between the two (i.e. Wicca is a form of Paganism) that in no way justifies treating the two as interchangeable or generalizing issues you may have with Wicca to all forms of Paganism.

          • Anonymous

            Forgive me if I came across like an ass with the comment below but it’s just simply my point of view. Ploytheism just seems to have become a buzz word and to be honest, from where I sit, as someone who is no longer a practicing pagan but is agnostic, calling polytheism a fad, is my way of describing individual groups that have formed and who are breaking off from mainstream societies post modern fringe and eclectic, not necessairly duotheistic Wicca. It may be too early to tell what comes of it but I think of it as faddish because the word is overused to me. It carries as much meaning as the more generic Pagan. I also was returning to my original position that not making a clear distinction between Wicca and Paganism is just another way to avoid a discussion about Western power dynamics. I brought up Hutton, but also discussed with Baruch in my orignial post, that it is academia and academic discourse that leaves people without academic language out. Again, where is this trend of polytheism originating? Is it really coming from polytheistic active groups or are there a bunch of academics with their own agendas pushing this idea to the fringe because of the reasons the author of this talk described when mentioning the value of being and existing on the edge? Polytheism may be the term people are moving toward, but the term doesn’t speak to me.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Perhaps you should get out more. There are covens all over North America actively engaging in polytheism, if only by invoking the Goddess and the God in each circle.

            A term like polytheism can’t be overused when it denotes such a profound distinction from the overbearingly monotheistic background culture.

            It’s impossible for academia to leave Pagans on the outside. Academia was on the outside of Paganism for generations, and Pagans pretty much ignored it until it slowly began talking sense. I think you have a mistaken notion of academia as leading the masses. In my direct experience with academics, they by and large make a career of playing catch-up with the actual phenomena they attempt to define.

          • Polytheism:
            circa 200,000/50,000BCE-Present Day
            The longest running “fad” in human history.