Sabina Magliocco: Pagan Fundamentalism?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 9, 2013 — 282 Comments

[The following is a guest post from Sabina Magliocco. Sabina Magliocco Ph.D. is professor of Anthropology and Folklore at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). She is an author of non-fiction books and journal articles about folklore, religion, religious festivals, foodways, Witchcraft and Paganism in Europe and the United States. A recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright Program and Hewlett Foundation, Magliocco is an honorary fellow of the American Folklore Society.]

I am very grateful to Jason Pitzl-Waters for making this blog available to me to expand upon Prof. Patrick Wolff’s summary of my keynote presentation, entitled “The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism,” at the Conference for Contemporary Pagan Studies at the Claremont Graduate Institute in Claremont, California on January 26, 2013.  It’s exciting that people have been discussing some of the ideas I presented, because that was exactly my goal: open discussion and critical self-reflection are healthy in any religious movement, and can help prevent the kind of rigidity and dogmatism that I critiqued in my talk.  At the same time, certain questions have been raised about my work, and I hope that I can address some of them here.

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Sabina Magliocco at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies. (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Let’s start with the first one: what did I mean by “Pagan fundamentalism,” and how can a concept that developed to describe a Protestant movement based on literal biblical interpretations and tenets of faith even apply to modern Paganisms?  The application of the term “fundamentalism” to modern Paganisms is problematic, and I adopt it with some caution, because I’m well aware that it has often been used by those in power to stigmatize worldviews that differ from the mainstream.  I defined it as a form of ideology, religious or secular, characterized by a black-and-white, either-or, us-vs.-them morality that precludes questioning.  It generally involves insistence on belief in the literal truth of some canon, as well as a concern with identity politics and boundary-setting.  Fundamentalisms are inflexible and have difficulty adapting; they have a strong need for certainty and a clear sense of belonging, and anyone who disagrees is labeled an enemy or heretic.  My adoption of the term was both descriptive and provocative: I wanted to foster awareness and discussion about strains of ideology that could be deleterious to modern Paganisms.

So, are modern Paganisms fundamentalist according to this definition?  On the whole, no.  Dogmatism and rigidity are rare among most modern Pagans.  Nevertheless, there have been some discussions, mainly on Pagan Internet blogs and responses to them, which show some of the characteristics of fundamentalism, particularly an insistence on a single correct form of belief, and the demonization of those who hold different beliefs and opinions.  These have centered around two hot-button topics: the historicity of Wiccan foundational narratives, and the nature of the gods.

Is any form of belief fundamentalist?  Of course not.  Belief only courts fundamentalism when it becomes dogmatic, when we say “it’s my way or the highway,” when we attribute malice and ill intent to those whose beliefs differ from ours.   Ironically, those very sentiments were expressed towards me by a few respondents to Patrick’s post last week, confirming my hypothesis that there is a trend towards fundamentalism among a small number of Pagans.

Are Paganisms becoming more focused on belief? What’s interesting to me as an anthropologist of religion, an observer and participant in the Pagan movement for the last 20 years, is the shift I’ve seen towards an emphasis on belief, whether in the historicity of our foundational narratives, or the reality of the gods.  Twenty years ago, Pagans were insisting that Paganism was not about belief at all; it was about practice.  This appears to be part of an evolution, a dynamic change in the nature of modern Pagan religions, and perhaps part of the trajectory of religious development in general.  And no doubt the fact that we’re surrounded by a Christo-centric mainstream culture in which faith is considered the touchstone of membership influences the way some individuals and groups in our movement think about belief.

But there are a few reasons why we might want to be cautious about using belief as a criterion for defining ourselves.  The first is that belief is emergent, shifting and contextual.  It can change over the lifetime of an individual, and it is quite diverse within any community; even traditional indigenous communities have believers, skeptics and those who are in between.

Secondly, in many cases, belief is dependent on experience.  Many Pagans come to this group of religions as a result of having experiences that lead them to question the nature of reality and the teachings of mainstream science and religion.  Among the individuals I have interviewed, they run the gamut from feelings of unity with the world around them – a blurring of boundaries or feeling that everything was interconnected and part of a larger whole – to personal visions of goddesses and gods who had specific messages to convey.  I spoke with people who felt connected to animal and plant spirits, who connected with places in the natural world, as well as those who struggled to feel any sort of “woo,” but shared the values and aesthetics of modern Pagans.  Each of these individuals developed their own style of practice and belief as a result of their experiences.

What this shows us is that belief cannot be compelled.  If we accept a universe in which the gods and spirits are real, we can say that they choose to reveal themselves differently to different people.  If we prefer a more materialist interpretation, we can say that humans are uniquely adapted to have the kind of spiritual experience that is most helpful and meaningful to them, and that partakes of both their larger religious/cultural milieu and their personal experiences and memories.  Some people have a greater capacity to perceive spirits – or to have these experiences – than others.  It is therefore not helpful, useful or even fair to make belief a touchstone of religious or community membership.

Some Pagans feel that pointing out the difference between our foundational narratives and historical facts de-legitimizes the movement.  But the factuality of foundational narratives has no relationship to the legitimacy of a religion, nor does it make the spiritual experiences of its practitioners less real or authentic.  What seems to matter much more than the veracity of foundational narratives is their ability to capture the imagination of practitioners; that spark can lead to spiritual enlightenment.  There are better ways of constructing legitimacy than relying on foundational narratives: we can make reference to our now respectable age, our prominent public presence, the important contributions of our members to intellectual and theological exchanges, the depth of our religious experiences, the beauty of our expressive culture, and the influence of our core values of social justice, gender equality, and environmental sustainability on the future of our society and the world in which we live.

So is there no relationship between ancient and modern Paganisms?  No, and no reputable scholar has ever said that.  There are very clear links between ancient and modern Paganisms, but they are not the ones laid out in the foundational narratives.  The links can be found in folk customs, in the Western tradition of magic and esotericism, and in art, literature and philosophy.  Even if the people executed during the witchcraft persecutions were not the practitioners of a fertility religion going back to the age of the Venus of Willendorf, the threads of our modern practices can be traced back at least as far as Classical antiquity.  However, that transmission was not always direct or unchanging; all traditions are constantly adapting to their surrounding historical and social contexts.

I hope this clarifies some of the ideas I expressed in my paper; a fuller version will, I hope, be published in the near future in a way that makes it accessible online to the public.  I invite thoughtful discussion and debate on these issues that deeply affect our community.

Finally, I want to counter some of the malicious and untrue rumors about me that are being spread on the Internet by a few detractors: for example, that I am an infiltrator sent by an outside organization to destroy Paganism from within. These falsehoods impugn my integrity as a scholar and could threaten my ability to continue to work with the Pagan community.

As an anthropologist, I am bound by a code of ethics which demands that I put the good of the communities I work with before anything else, including my research program and professional advancement.  Research I do with human subjects must be approved by university Internal Review Boards, and peer review committees must approve any grants I get. My published work is likewise reviewed anonymously by my colleagues. Of course, no scholar can ever be completely objective, but at least I state my biases up front and publish material under my own name, instead of hiding behind an alias.  If anything, some professional peers have criticized me for portraying modern Paganisms in too favorable a light.

I have been studying modern Paganisms for twenty years now, and have been an active member of the community since 1996.  I lead an eclectic coven in the Los Angeles area, and am a member-at-large of a Gardnerian one in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I am a member of Covenant of the Goddess and hold ministerial credentials through them. While I may be critical of certain aspects of the movement, my criticisms are based on data, and I make them because I want to see the Pagan community live up to its promise and be taken seriously as a group of religions – not out of a desire to de-legitimize or destroy them.

I have worked with news media, law enforcement and other mainstream institutions to explain modern Paganisms, always emphasizing their positive qualities as creative, life-affirming religions. My books, articles and films have introduced countless academics, college students, and interested lay readers to Paganism, both in the US and beyond.  I donate 100% of my royalties from those books to Pagan causes.  I have dedicated my life and academic career to creating bridges between scholarship and modern Paganisms, bringing the results of my research back to the community for comment and critique, including at conferences and events such as the one that led me to make this blog posting. If I really wanted to destroy the movement from within, you’d think I’d find better ways of doing it that involved less of my time, energy and money – and surely it would have taken me less than twenty years to inflict the damage.  From my perspective, Paganism is emerging as a significant player on the global religious stage – larger, stronger and healthier than it was two decades ago.  I hope it continues in that direction, because it has a great deal to offer in terms of values and ideals that support a humane and sustainable future.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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