Circling Alone: Paganism’s Solitary Eclectic Future?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 29, 2011 — 53 Comments

Perhaps one of most thought-provoking presentations I attended at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco was that by sociologist Helen A. Berger at the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group panel “Pagan Analysis and Critique of Religion.” Her talk, “Fifteen Years of Continuity and Change within the American Pagan Community,” was a flurry of statistical information  gleaned from a 2009 re-visitation of the Pagan Census project. This isn’t the first time Berger, co-author of “Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States,” has presented some initial finding from this new collection of data; in late 2010 she wrote an editorial for Patheos.com’s “Future of Paganism” series where she revealed where the data was leading.

Helen A. Berger presenting at the AAR.

Helen A. Berger presenting at the AAR.

“In comparing the two surveys [The Pagan Census and the Pagan Census Revisited] I found that the number of Pagans who claim to practice alone has grown from 51% to 79%. The growth of solitary practitioners has been facilitated by books and the Internet. During the 1960s and 70s when the religion was initially spreading, it was passed from person-to-person, most commonly in groups, such as covens. This has clearly changed as in the PCR only 36% state that they were trained in a group. […] Parallel to the growth of solitary practitioners is the increase in people who state that their primary form of practice is Eclectic Paganism, which is the most common designation, with 53% of the respondents claiming this designation.  Additionally, 22% state that they are spiritual but dislike labels.”

That essay got very little attention at the time, even though it held some remarkable data of interest to our communities. Perhaps there were so many thought-provoking editorials produced for that series that it was drowned out a bit? In any case, the collection of religion scholars, Pagan scholars, journalists, and interested local Pagan community members, were very interested in what Professor Berger had to say about her (as yet unpublished) data. We found out that 40.8% of young self-identified Pagans never or “nearly never” meet with other Pagans for the purposes of ritual or religious observance. We found that a vast majority, 79%, primarily practice alone (solitary), and we found that Wicca, once the statistical heavyweight of the modern Pagan movement, is quickly losing ground to Pagans with eclectic practices. At one point Berger made an allusion to Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”, saying that a similar book about the Pagan community could be called “Circling Alone.”

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

However, while Pagans are increasingly solitary in practice, we do interact with one another, but that interaction is happening increasingly on the Internet. More than half of Pagans today use blogs, message boards, and social media to connect with the wider Pagan world, the only method of communication and interaction that garnered a majority. Are such methods of communication and connection enough to bind us together as a movement?

“Paganism is a community of spiritual individualists that is well integrated, on both the local level through gatherings, festivals and open Sabbats and on the national and international level through websites, message boards, and blogs. As much of the integration takes place on the Internet or person-to-person, it is unclear how important umbrella organizations such as Covenant of the Goddess or Pagan Associations will be in the future. However, the desire for individuals to practice together and to get together for spiritual purposes suggests that they may grow in import as they help to organize gatherings, rituals, and classes. Paganism will continue to provide a new image of what religion can be in a postmodern world; one without churches or clear boundaries, based on books and the Internet and individuals gathering together and interacting and then returning to practice what they see as their own eclectic religion.”

Berger stressed repeatedly during her presentation that she hasn’t come to any firm conclusions about the data she’s collected in 2009, and what it might mean for modern Paganism’s future. That said, she did wonder if modern Pagans were building a new model of religious growth that flies in the face of the traditional growth arcs (the building of congregations, for example). Paganism is still growing, albeit not at the explosive levels of the 1990s, and if our movement survives over the long term it could completely change ideas of how religions survive and thrive in a post-modern (and increasingly post-Christian) world. I’m hoping we see more from Berger on this data soon, and I’m hoping to contact her for a more in-depth interview about the findings she presented at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting. For now, I think our organizations, activists, and clergy need to start grappling with the directions our movement is headed, and shift their expectations and methods accordingly.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Anonymous

    I’m not in the least surprised to see this. The explosion of the Solitary has been the biggest change I’ve seen in my 25 years as a public Pagan. It’s affected everything, and one ignores it at one’s peril.

  • Anonymous

    It has seemed to me for quite a long time that the overall growth in Paganism is mostly a growth in solitary practice. In addition, I’ve seen a huge increase, over the past couple of decades, in solitary-by-choice. Often, as a younger Pagan, I’d meet people who were solitary by default, or solitary but hoping to find a group. More and more, I now interact with people who choose to be solitary.

    Also, I find many more people who are solitary but who attend occasional public rituals–at festivals, at Pagan Pride events, or at open circles in their area. Choosing a light, uncommitted contact with the Pagan community is definitely a new trend.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1006464595 Cathryn Bauer

      This describes me perfectly. I love celebrating the Earth’s anniversaries with like-minded individuals, but have found in general that greater involvement is not constructive for me. The particular problem that makes this the case is a dynamic that seems to be rampant among Pagans at this time when so many individuals are unemployed, underemployed, and generally struggling. It seems that many Pagans look on the group as an opportunity to be someone important, an authority figure, and boy, if you disagree with their judgment or interpretation of events, are you ever lacking in perfect love and perfect trust; fie upon you!

      I was, I’m afraid, unable to work around this even as I recognized the really unfortunate big picture that brought about this grating dynamic. The need to feel valued and important (and to heal the wounds of the marketplace) is simply human. And it is a need that is met for me. My own professional life gives me great personal fulfillment and recognition; I am also blessed with a satisfying personal life. I had hoped that I would be able to acknowledge that others were not so fortunate, usually through no fault of their own, and to allow the posturing to roll off me. I have not to date succeeded in this. I am open to greater involvement, but it has not really opened to me.

      • Sindocat

        There is certainly a problematic tendency for groups to support megalomaniac leaders, but it is also true that some groups have evolved effective, non-hierarchal organizational models where this is largely avoided and, moreover, all members have a turn at ritual participation, design and leadership. But these methods, and the methods of effective group practice, can’t be learned from books, or on the internet. Reading about them cannot substitute for experiencing them.

        At present, I work and observe alone. But this is grounded in 15 years group work, first in the coven which trained and initiated me, then in facilitating a study group at college as an “outer court” of the former, then with the coven that this group became, and then within the family of covens that were its descendents. Most of those 15 years were before the internet really took off (our techie was a part of the BBS world, most of the rest of us were not).

        Increasingly, I come across topics like “why do we need initiation”, and am tempted to reply “I can’t tell you – that’s a secret.” But in fact, I point to the mystery traditions of antiquity, initiatory societies of tribal cultures around the world and even at the fraternal organizations of the Enlightenment whose degree structure Wicca inherited through an unlikely chain of associations and say, “initiation is a tool, and a useful one. No, you really and truly cannot provide that experience to yourself. It is interpersonal.”

        Those who want to remain independent will tell themselves it is nothing they need or want, or accuse me of elitism, or of telling them they are doing it wrong. I’m not. I am trying to express the value I have found in group work, and why I will continue to strongly advocate for it being a core element of Pagan religious experience. Is it the only right way? Of course not. But it is a way that includes experiences not to be had by any other way.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1006464595 Cathryn Bauer

          If you have found this, more power to you. I am glad this has enriched your life. I certainly did not intend my post to reflect anything other than my own experience nor to communicate anything other than openness to group practice. And I do meet regularly with others for full moon ritual, although we are not an organized group in any sense of the word.

          My own faith is very much oriented to nature, and gardening has been a primary spiritual practice for me since 1994 when the space was acquired. This does seem to be where Brighid is leading me for the moment, and I believe that is between Her and me. I am anticipating a major move (literally to the other side of the country) in the early weeks of 2012, so it could be that She has other plans in that direction.

  • http://www.facebook.com/EdAHubbard Ed Hubbard

    This is excellent timing, and is basically what I have been seeing as a trend occur. We have a lot of Younger Pagans who are Solitary in life but fluid in their contacts on the Internet. Recently, the youngest members of the WSI community in Salem have begun Livestream study Group, which allows them to meet virtually. In fact, our entire trend is creating online spaces in which people can gain information and interact, be it live video, online radio, chatrooms etc. This is why we have been successful at all is that we create space that recognizes the world that people live in, and that they want to have their own practices as they see fit. It is very fluid and open, without a lot of boundaries.

    Also in the USA growth is slowing, maybe, but globally it is explosively growing especially in the Hispanic and Indian communities.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

    As I remarked during the session, Llewellyn Worldwide came to the same conclusion years ago. I remember Nancy Mostad, then the acquisitions manager, telling me in the early or mid-1990s that they estimated that 70 percent of American Pagans were solitaries. That is why Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (1988) was such a strong seller for them.

    What Berger notes is that the younger solitary Pagans are frequently not attending festivals, Pagan Pride Days, and other umbrella events. This may be because they feel socially uncertain in such gatherings, lack the camping gear necessary for many festivals, or because they think that they can get enough interactions on their computer screens — I don’t really know.

    • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

      You are absolutely right, this became clear with the market success of Pagan 101 books and has simply continued from there.

      My guess is that the trend towards solitary practice within the pagan community reflects a broader trend – the rewiring of society by the internet.

      There are paradoxical elements to this: people are increasingly networked via social media and able to share ideas and information, but simultaneously atomized and isolated in a physical (and dare I suggest, emotional) sense.

      However, I don’t think this necessarily sounds the death-knell of the coven. I suspect many pagans will react against the atomization of society (something I would suggest began with the advent of suburbia and really took off with TV mid-20th century) by yearning for the intimacy of an egregore – much as paganism itself represents a reaction against a disenchanted world. The question is whether the pagan community will have the capacity to address these looming needs.

    • Harmonyfb

      You forgot a major reason why people wouldn’t go to festivals – money. I’d love to go to the Pagan festivals here, but I can’t afford the gas, the time off work, or the $100+ to get in – I can’t imagine that younger folks can afford it much more. ::shrug::

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1006464595 Cathryn Bauer

      It may be simply a financial matter, particularly at this difficult time. Maybe scholarship funds could be part of festival and conference planning. When you register for a conference in my profession, there is always the opportunity to contribute to a scholarship fund for students. At the Mass Transit dance event in Oakland, individuals in need may apply for a temporary suspension of their application fee or an opportunity to do a work trade.

    • http://pinkpolarity.livejournal.com/ Polarity

      I’m going to third the financial reason for not going to festivals and the like. Not only the cost of the event itself, but also the cost of gas to get there. There’s a small heathen event I’d love to go to this month and it’s only $20 for a day rate, but the gas to go two hours away is a hell of a lot more than I can afford right now. I also have a disability to logistically deal with, which makes camping festivals pretty untenable even if I could afford them.

      There’s another thing about large festivals and being solitary that I haven’t seen mentioned yet– some of them are very clannish. If you don’t already know people, you end up sitting by yourself wishing you could be part of the socializing. I’ve been to at least two large Pagan events where that’s happened, and both times wished I’d saved myself the money and just stayed home and interacted via internet.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I suspect the growth of Pagan Pride Day has had a hand in these trends: A chance for otherwise Internetted young Pagans to get a “Pagan fix” without the logistics hassle of a festival that Chas points out.

    • Tara

      Or maybe, conversely, Pagan Pride Days make some some Pagans feel less proud, more apt to stay away from organized events.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        If PPD actually has that effect on a significant number of Pagans, then it certainly has moved its nuisance (from their perspective) into the turf of many of them.

        • http://twitter.com/MorsvirSyphin Matthew Shea

          It definitely has for me. I’ve been to the past 3 PPFestivals in my area and I skipped out this year because it always seems incredibly hokey. Like a bastardized Renaissance fair.
          I practice alone mostly because I’ve done my own exploration and it is very difficult to find a coven that fits that.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-H-Halstead/1170545330 John H Halstead

            I had similar experiences with Pagan Pride Days. I was either disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm or embarrassed by the excess of it. In my case at least, it’s probably a function of a broader conflict between my generally conservative personality and the anything-goes attitude of pan-Pagan gatherings.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paganswithdisabilities/ Tara “Masery” Miller

    Besides culture leaning away from more in person interaction, which is a topic all on its own, many young Pagans don’t attend festivals or other open gatherings because they are converts from another faith. This can cause issues with parents and peers.

    • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

      And many young folks can’t afford to attend gatherings, unless it’s something free like a Pagan Pride Day.

      • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

        Very true, the main reason I have yet to really attend any pagan events is because they generally are far away, cost more than I have, and/or are of a group who’s views aren’t close enough to my own to work :P

  • http://www.elementforge.com Adrian Hawkins

    I am curious as to how one defines Young Pagans in this study. I checked both articles but couldn’t seem to find it.

    In general though, I am the youngest member of my coven at 30. Everyone else is at least 5 years older than me.

    • http://vermillionrush.wordpress.com Vermillion

      Agreed, I’m 32 and I’m the youngest in my group. It sort of makes me go O_o really.

      • http://www.elementforge.com Adrian Hawkins

        A friend of mine attended Merry Meet two years ago, and she was the youngest person there at 35. There wasn’t anyone younger. There may have been children, but she didnt observe any. What does that say about the state of our larger organizations?

  • kenneth

    This will be the central question of paganism as a movement in the next couple of decades as we become a mainstream presence in society. What sorts of institutions, if any, will suit who we are and what we stand for? I see very little interest in congregational style worship among most quarters of pagan religions, and at the same time, traditional covens just simply aren’t going to work for most people most of the time, for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, what will it mean if the vast majority of us are permanent solitaries with no more real human connection than a chat room handle or twitter following? I’ve spent some time as a solitary myself, and I think it is a valuable part of the journey for almost anyone to spend some time on. It can also greatly limit our growth and participation as individuals and our ability as a collective movement to take a proper place in the larger culture and society. I have ideas about possible solutions, but no real answers to that.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I wonder if we can maintain a “mainstream presence” without some kind of conventional institution(s).

      • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

        I think the conventional institutions will arise, and likely arise soon. I think most of us remember the community discussion that were going around not to long ago (in which I did a few posts, which I need to continue) about how and what would be needed to make it work.

        The reasons we haven’t yet seen these things breaks down to this:

        1) Numbers. Pagan/Heathenism might be one of the fastest growing religious groups in the world, but we have no dogma nor set beliefs. Everyone works on their own. So while we are having enough numbers to build these organizations, and indeed we have some like the various branches of Wicca, or the Asatru Folk Assembly, or the Asatru Alliance, and so for, we do not have the numbers of people who are like minded in a smaller area.

        2) Related to the above, some practitioners or “philosophies” do not lend themselves to groups. The “Recons” have a leg up on this, being more “tribal” based (for which they get lots of flack in some circles) where as others insist on not being involved in groups.

        3) The big one: The Economy. This one is both boon and bane to the organization of Pagan groups, and “conventional institutions” in that it is bane because such things take money (and lets face it, most of us ain’t rich), but it is also boon because as people start leaving their comfort places for economic reasons, we may see a greater push to start relying on each other physically, and gathering together in areas, much as tent cities arose in the Great Depression. We may shortly see a gathering of Pagans and heathens, with no other real options financially, packing up and gathering together in places.

        Basically we will see the rise of institutions and communities. It’s just a matter of numbers, and we have reached that just yet. I think we will soon though. Depending on the next year or so of political events, you may see a much more emphatic push for Pagans and Heathens to gather and build these things.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          As I’ve indicated before, as a UU Pagan I straddle two communities which happen to be of like numbers. Actually there are probably more Pagans than Unitarian Universalists in the USA right now. Yet UUs have over 1,000 churches as well as national and district offices, which make for a visible presence in the larger community. UUs are almost as theological diverse as Pagans, and even in this economy my fellowship is in the process of buying a building (a commercial structure in foreclosure). I think something about the coven/grove model gives Pagans an allergy to bricks and mortar.

          • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

            Hmmm, you might be right there, though I would ask how long have the UU been around, and if they started as a “christian” group and expanded from there. Time and origin could have something to do with it.

            Or maybe the adage that we’re all like herding cats is true. That or those pagans who would build these “structures” are already part of the UU and don’t see a reason to start from scratch.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Unitarianism and Universalism are both hundreds of years old, and hundreds of years in America. Each began as a Christian heresy: that God is One, not Three; that Hell is empty. They merged in the US in 1961. The focus of UUism is the congregation, and all those memes are still in full force: open a Sunday School, hire a minister, own your building.

            At least for those in churches. A large number of UUs are in the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is a virtual church formerly organized by snail mail and now by the Iternet. So some may lack those memes. They are most parallel to the solitary eclectic Pagan cohort.

            Yes, organizing UUs is like organizing Pagans is like herding cats.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    How many “Christians” in the US are, in essence, “solitaries”? The number of Americans who attend church even once a month might be as low as 1/3.

    • Anonymous

      That was my question, as well. I know many people who self-identify as “Christian” who do not belong to or attend any church. Is there any data on how many members of other religions don’t belong to a church, synagogue, temple, etc?

      I very much liked: “community of spiritual individualists”; I think that’s a good description of modern Paganism. I don’t mind the fact that many modern Pagans are solitary; it can be a very good thing for Paganism and a very rewarding way to practice. And it allows the religions to grow “under the radar,” so to speak. Thanks, Jason, for this interesting report.

  • Kilmrnock

    My take on this most new , young pagans are solitary by design/neccesity. Just as i was . As we grow and learn and finally find out where we belong , then we look for groups , covens and or groves .This , i believe , is why most group members are over 30. Those who choose to remain solitary have made a personnal choice. As others here have said , i believe , if they stay solitary too long this will stunt thier growth on their chosen path .There are some things you can only get from a group setting.I personally came to paganism latter in my life , stayed solitary for the first four or five years , i enjoy the group dinamic and have grown from it . A forever solitary will never know how strong and even life changing a powerful group ritual can be , when done well. Kilm

    • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

      “As others here have said , i believe , if they stay solitary too long this will stunt thier growth on their chosen path”

      I would have to beg to differ with you on that. Also, not everyone has local groups that suit their particular brand of Paganism to join.

      • Boris

        I rather admire Christian and Jewish groups that take care to keep members without internet informed, and to provide transportation to services or conventions to older or infirm members without a car. I have never seen anything like this among Wiccans or Pagans, not in my part of the world, not organized by a group. Furthermore, Neopaganism is becoming overly dependent on internet. A Wiccan without a computer is more handicapped than a Wiccan without a broomstick. He/she is excommunicated for all practical purposes, and had better keep silent and return to some liberal Christian church.

        • Harmonyfb

          A Wiccan without a computer is more handicapped than a Wiccan without a broomstick. He/she is excommunicated for all practical purposes

          Nonsense. The Gods don’t disappear because your internet is down.

          • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

            No, but Boris does have a point. Without the internet, any Pagan or Heathen easily loose over half to three quarters of their resources when it comes to both information and community. They have no way to get in touch with people, and with the closing of Borders, the internet is really the only place left with affordable information about any of the various metaphysical or Pagan fields, and even when Borders was around, the Net was and still is the primary source of information for the Heathen people out there.

            We don’t really have a baseline structure to get people in touch with each other. Most people will declare online that they are pagan, and even meet other pagans, but they aren’t always willing to “out” themselves to their community, much less do it in a way that will let local pagans find them. And even if you can find locals, that doesn’t mean that they will practice anything compatible with you. I’ve been a large part of trying to get a Student Pagan group going (which has proven rather hard at times) and I’ve run into a couple people who have issues with my Heathen ways. I’ve yet to get in touch with the larger Pagan meeting group in the area, (partially because they always meet when I’m working) and partially because of the concern that with my more….ancient….attitudes towards certain subjects, that I wouldn’t be that welcome. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the Net, I and a great many others wouldn’t have much, to any, contact or resources for our paths.

    • http://www.elementforge.com Adrian Hawkins

      There is a group of solitaries in my region who get together for the Sabbats. They are run by committee and are more about building community then studying. Its a very effective model.

  • Pitch313

    The thing about social trends is that they carry us along with great subtle forces.

    Holding electrons is not like holding hands.

    We are alone in all our togetherness.

  • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    I’m noticing besides no clear definition of “young Pagans” there isn’t really a clear definition of “communicate” with other Pagans. Sure I interact w/ other Pagan folks every day, here and on FB, but it’s not necessarily about ritual or even anything particularly spiritual. Perhaps we need to separate this survey into religious and spiritual communication vs. Pagan Bowling Night or sending funny photos online. Another statistic I’d like to see is the growth of Pagan families. We usually celebrate big holy days with the people related to us, as do most of the Pagans I know. Solitary rites are for doing spellworkings or meditation, while we attend big gatherings a couple times a year.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Even as I’m contributing to this trend (as someone who both writes books and regularly updates a blog–and part of the latter is because I so rarely get to be with co-religionists), I also wonder a few things about all of this…

    For example, what does the practice of a “solitary eclectic” really look like? Too many people I’ve met who describe themselves in this manner often don’t seem to “do” much, other than identify as pagan and consume some pagan products (including books and certain ritual/altar supplies). And while it is a good thing that solitaries are not under any official authority, nor are they compelled to do anything they don’t want to, at the same time, one of the benefits of having a group or a tradition or some such connection that means you’re part of something other than just “you and the gods” is that there are external checks–not only for the very useful and often necessary “you aren’t crazy/you are crazy” level of discernment, but also the verification that the ritual a person said they prize highly and is so important and symbolic to them is something that they actually did, rather than just saying they did and either not giving any details or manufacturing details, or just giving a ritual script on their blog (which they may have written, but didn’t actually use), etc.

    No, I’m not saying that “all” solitaries are like this, by any stretch of the imagination; but, I wonder if “solitary eclectic” might be pagan shorthand for “non-practicing” a good bit of the time…

  • http://pallasrenatus.blogspot.com Pallas Renatus

    We also can’t discount the number of newer and younger pagans that are included in the new data; I imagine there are many who otherwise would have never joined the pagan community had it not been for resources made available by the internet… I count myself among them.

    While the data is certainly interesting, we have to avoid the gut reaction to adopt a “good ‘ol days” mindset, inadvertently denigrating the very real spirituality of many new practitioners in the process.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paposehn Philip Posehn

    I wonder how many Circle alone by choice, and how many simply have trouble keeping a circle together. In my own experience I have lost a few members due to moves from the area, death and a conflict with another member. It is harder to find a replacement for those lost…especially for those of us over 40 who don’t have as many Pagans in our circle of friends.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183329613 Joseph Max

    From what I understand of the practices of ancient societies of Pagans, like the Egyptians or Romans, religious observance was typically personal, or family-based. A particular household had gods and goddesses that the family revered, chosen from a greater pantheon recognized by the culture. If yours was a family of grain merchants, you’d want to be in good with the deities of grain and harvest. But your neighbor might be an artisan, and would worship different deities. This was the normal state of affairs, and both neighbors considered themselves to be “following the same religion”, because “religion” and “culture” were really the same thing.

    Of course, a person would visit a temple of particular deities when it was necessary (or prudent) to commune with those deities, but it wasn’t a regular “religious fellowship” function where people gathered for the purpose of “doing worship” together once a week. Praying or making sacrifice to the godforms of your home altar as need or desire dictated was the norm.

    I think the “religious fellowship” model is an artifact of the Abrahamic monotheists, particularly from the Hebrews. Their successors the early Pauline Christians refined the model that’s still used today – The Church. And unfortunately, Pagans raised in Judeo-Christian cultures still feel the conditioned urge to “congregate”, to form “churches” and affiliate personally with others of a like mind in a mutual support (and admiration) society – to draw distinctions between The Faithful (themselves), and The Other.

    Old Pagan cultures didn’t use that paradigm. Hinduism doesn’t. In Pagan cultures, the Gods are everywhere! There are lots of them to work with, chose the ones best for you. You didn’t need to intentionally “congregate”, your fellow Pagans were, well, everyone else you knew. Just because you primarily worshiped Ceres in your house, and your neighbor worshiped Hermes, didn’t mean you both weren’t fellow Pagans of the same culture, and you “congregated” every time you went to the market, or the baths, or chatted with your neighbor over the fence.

    What the Internet has done is facilitate a similar milieu like the social culture of an old Pagan society. So many Pagans participate in the society of the Internet that we have our own over-arching cultural background. The Gods are everywhere! My ritual practices of Pagan invocation have mostly been private or with my family, except for the occasional Pagan gathering, and even THAT is the same way of doing things as the old Pagans (who certainly loved their festivals!) I “congregate” by, for example, posting comments to The Wild Hunt. This is the natural state of affairs for a Pagan culture.

    So my personal conclusion is that Pagans practicing mostly solitary and interacting with each other (across several Traditions, which are mostly treated with reciprocal respect) in the greater context of the larger “society” (in modern times, the Internet) is the *norm* for Pagan cultures, not something to be overcome. Trying to make Pagan Polytheism conform to the congregational model as used by monotheists is trying to pound a round peg into a square hole. This may be the underlying reason why today’s Pagans don’t seem to be inclined toward building churches, forming congregations, or supporting a pastoral clergy.

    • Anonymous

      Excellent insights.

      Traditions of Wicca with covens are really closer to the old Mystery Cults. They are (or were, or can be) places for intense experiences and for study and development beyond that of the ordinary devotee.

      When I started off doing public Pagan ritual lo, those many years ago (when dinosaurs roamed the Internet and the Web hadn’t been invented yet) it was consciously presented for “the public,” in the sense of those who did not have the time or inclination (or perhaps talent) to take up the discipline of coven work. There were grumblers. Wicca was for the few, they said. Wicca should be small and intimate, they said. I said, Beltain/Samhain Pagans have as much right to worship the Gods as anyone else.

      Where we’re a mess, I thing, in terms of our development as a coherent religious community, is that we have no clear boundaries between clergy-development paths and practitioner/follower paths. Not everyone is cut out to be or desires to be a priest, nun, monk or minister. Some people just want to go to church. We are hampered by having evolved from the coven model with its idea that from the moment of your first initiation you are clergy. We are hampered by the coven model’s assumption that you will want initiation, that you will seek initiation, and that in order to “be” a Witch/Pagan/Wiccan/Asatru/Whatever you will develop certain skill sets. But none of those skills are necessary to simply worship the Gods.

      We are then additionally hampered by a false egalitarianism that insists that all skill sets are equal. That any way you do things is just fine. Well, at its simplest level, that may be true. A simple, heartfelt expression to the Gods is a fine thing. But if that is all that is valued, there is no point to the long and sometimes arduous training associated with the coven system. Yet both those who have immersed themselves in a Tradition and those who have merely read a book or a blog can call themselves Wiccan. It’s confusing and frustrating.

      The other missing link is the role of pastoral care. If all people have equal access to the Gods, why do we need priests or ministers? I am my own priest. Yep. But it’s damned hard for me to visit myself in the hospital, or give comfort to myself when I’ve lost a loved one, or guide myself into deeper initiatory experiences of which I have no previous knowledge. People who can do those things *may* (not always) come out of coven-style training or other forms of clergy training. Yet they are so often told that they are not needed, not necessary, and most certainly not to be compensated for their efforts.

      I welcome all them young ‘uns on the InterWebs. I hope more public worship experiences become available for them. And I hope those who do feel called to do deeper work find appropriate teachers, on or off line.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      ‘Pagans raised in Judeo-Christian cultures still feel the conditioned urge to “congregate”, to form “churches” and affiliate personally with others of a like mind in a mutual support (and admiration) society – to draw distinctions between The Faithful (themselves), and The Other.’

      If this were a dominant force, we would already have temples in major cities open to the public for weekly ritual. We seem to have dropped that bit of Abrahamic DNA somewhere along the line.

      • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

        Is it that we’ve dropped it, or that we suppress it in an attempt to not be as the Christians? After all, they are breaking ground on an Asatru temple in Iceland (which I really wanna go see when it’s finished.)

        I think it’s a fifty-fifty thing. IF you build it, I think they will come, but no one wants to be the one to build it, because most communities aren’t tied close enough or have enough throw away money to really put a “temple” together. That said, we may see them pop up as communities grow larger and we start having a larger, more dedicated “priestly class” start showing up as we do get dedicated clergy for more of the various paths.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Or it may be economic. I know a lot more people with wealth as a UU than I do as a Pagan, and I know a lot more people struggling financially as a Pagan than I do as a UU.

          About the “priestly class”: Once when the controversy of paid clergy was roiling Pagandom, Starhawk made a brilliant observation: “Paganism may or may not need paid clergy but it does need paid office secretaries.”

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183329613 Joseph Max

          Here’s the thing – where I live in Oakland, there are innumerable Christian “storefront churches” to be found, especially in the poorer African-American communities. They certainly don’t have much money to “throw away”, but somehow they manage to create their tiny churches. So it can’t be a simple matter of disposable income. It’s that these Christian cultures WANT it enough to scrape together the cash to rent a storefront, and the followers are conditioned to “tithe” their pitiful incomes to pay a preacher. Modern Pagans, on the other hand, do not feel compelled by social forces and religious indoctrination to cough up a tenth of their income (and more) to make it happen.

          I’m an audio engineer by profession, and I have provided services to churches to install sound systems and similar work. I was in a Baptist Gospel church office one day picking up a check (yeah, give the Pagan your money! Bwa-ha-ha!) and I could hear an assistant pastor in an adjacent office making “cold calls” to congregation members, essentially hitting them up for more donations. There was lots of implied guilt being used – “we’re doing the important work of Jesus, you know – can’t you help a bit more and contribute to our building maintenance fund?” I got the distinct feeling that it was that person’s regular job to do this – beg for money. If the Pagans want to make a congregational “church” model work, they’d better be prepared to do the same thing. Like a politician, a large portion of your regular work is gong to be guilt-tripping the followers into opening their wallets.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1183329613 Joseph Max

        What I was pointing out is the incongruity of these two social forces. It’s not a dominant force, it’s an underlying source of discontent. Pagans raised in Christian cultures think they “should” want to have churches, because that’s “what religions do, isn’t it?”, but the intrinsic structure of Paganism as a culture does not lend itself to it. We didn’t drop the Abarhamic DNA, it’s that Pagan culture rejects it as a “foreign body”, no matter how hard some Pagans want to inject it into the culture.

        The “clergy model” used by Christians and other monotheists is incompatible with the way Pagan cultures work. The Pagan priests and priestesses of old Rome (for example) didn’t have “congregations” like Christian ministers. They were guardians of Temples and keepers of the sacred rites of their deities. The Egyptians truly believed that the rites of the Gods had to be regularly and continuously observed – by “professionals”, as it were – in order to keep society (and life itself) functioning. And these priests and priestesses had to be available *when needed* by the community.

        The television series “Rome” was lauded by Pagans and historians alike (and Pagan historians) for it’s accurate depiction of Pagan Roman religion. The Pagans didn’t “go to church”, they had their regular religious observances at home, at the family altar. But occasionally they would go out to a Temple or to a particular avatar of a deity to pray to, ask for help, receive blessing or seek redemption. You saw the family regularly pray together to their household gods – they didn’t “go to church”. Instead you saw a character go out to find a “street-priestess” to grant absolution, or Caesar go make sacrifices at the Temple of Mars before a military campaign.

        So the Pagan model of clergy is not congregational. It would have to be a professional clergy that maintains the sacred rites (be it in a building or on the street) and is available for individuals to come to them on a case-by-case basis, leaving an offering in return for their services. And such a clergy has to be specialized. In monotheism, “one God” covers everything, so the same priest officiates at birth, coming-of-age, marriage, death and all other ritual observances. In Pagan cultures, they didn’t want a priest of Hades officiating a birth ritual, or an avatar of Aries presiding over a fertility rite. This makes the congregational model hard to support, since having one clergy preside over everything is the only way to have an “economy of scale” that allows for enough monetary support to pay for a small group of people (clergy) to make a living doing it. The economy of scale in old Pagan times was that *everybody* – all the citizens – used them at one time or another. Regretfully, we probably don’t have enough practitioners to do it that way.

        • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

          Hmmm, perhaps that should be our first step? Identifying the “sacred places” in America and elsewhere for Pagans, and then trying to find a way to set up temples and stuff there, with trained individuals to run them. Not as churches we go to weekly, but rather places to gather spiritual energy and go to in times of need….

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-H-Halstead/1170545330 John H Halstead

            I think this is a wonderful idea! As an eclectic solitary, I have often felt the need for a temple that I could make a pilgrimage to.

          • http://heathenfaith.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

            Well, they have replicas of Stonehenge and the Parthenon here in America (the latter is actually in Nashville) We could always start with movements to sanctify those places in the Pagan community. Once people start that, and find they like it, they might be willing to put forth funds to purchase and build other such places that more and more of us can go to.

  • Kilmrnock

    In the ADF Druid model we do have groves , and a sort of priestly class . But not all , most donot have a perminant dedicated holy space. I am fortunate our grove has a perminant stucture we call our sanctuary, and a house the grove owns . We actually have 2 rented apartments that help pay for our property .If a member chooses too there is an intiate program and after that a person can take a perscibed clergy program of study. Each grove does have a senior druid , that has met this programs requirements . But by no means is either of these a requirement for grove membership. And all rituals are open to the public , you needent even be an ADF druid to attend one of our rituals .Altho ADF membership is required to join the grove.Within the Indo-European prechristian religions each grove picks its own focus and patheon to follow , ours is Celtic/ Norse in focus , mostly Celtic .ADF does have many guilds within ADF that function independly of groves to cover individual members needs . For example , warrior , bardic, brewmaster , etc . I am a warrior guild member , was so even before i joined my grove .We are a quite diverse group of crazy pagans [Druids].

  • Charles Cosimano

    Of course a good editorial writer or cartoonist will reply that they don’t give a damn about lines and they are made to be crossed.