Institutions vs Counterculture in Modern Paganism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 11, 2014 — 149 Comments

In 1983 something different happened within the world that we call modern Paganism. The organization Circle Sanctuary, which had been involved in activism, publishing, and throwing events since the 1970s, began the process of purchasing a plot of land after four years of fundraising in the (still nascent) community.

Circle Sanctuary. Photo: Paula Jean West

Circle Sanctuary. Photo: Paula Jean West

“Circle Sanctuary land manifests. After four years of fund raising and land hunting, land is found in southwestern Wisconsin and purchase begins. Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve becomes the first Pagan land project to be supported by Pagans from many traditions and from Paganism as a whole. Its creation inspires other centers to begin their own land projects. Circle moves its headquarters from its rented farm in Black Earth and rented offices in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin to Circle Sanctuary land. Circle changes its full legal name from Church of Circle Wicca to Circle Sanctuary. At Yule, a Stone Circle is established in an oak and birch grove atop a majestic mound on Circle Sanctuary land.”

This was not the first time Pagans owned land, but it was unique for that way it raised money from the wider community, with the idea that the land would be used for Pagan events and functions. Even today, almost all outdoor Pagan events in the United States take place on rented land, at parks, or at land owned by fellow travelers sympathetic to modern Pagans. But I’m not here to talk about land per se, but what the purchase of Circle Sanctuary represented: a move towards infrastructure and institutions. If you read any history/overview of modern Paganism, “Drawing Down the Moon,”  “Her Hidden Children,” or “The Triumph of The Moon,” you’ll see us operating as a religious subculture, or more accurately, a religious counterculture. Explicitly holding values at odds with the dominant institutional faiths in the West (namely Christianity, but also Judaism).

“A culture with values and customs are very different from and usually opposed to those accepted by most of society; also : the people who make up a counterculture.”Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Now, many countercultural currents in America, the UK, and other Western countries eventually try to collectively own land. But this is usually done in the context of creating a completely separate space from mainstream life and values. Modern Paganism’s moves in this direction, I’d argue, may have started out this way, but became something else in the last 30 years. Modern Paganism’s leaders (self-appointed or otherwise) have, quite openly, and usually with enthusiastic support, been moving our religions towards mainstream institutional participation and acceptance. We’re not only trying to buy land, but build seminaries, and libraries. We’re demanding equal treatment within the military, and in how Pagans are treated in prison, we mobilize when slandered by talking heads in the mainstream media, and have worked very hard to be seen as faiths to be respected within the context of the global interfaith movement.

There is nothing wrong at all with any of this, and indeed, I have been an active cheerleader for many of these developments here at The Wild Hunt. However, these are not the actions of countercultural faiths, and I think there’s a growing undercurrent of tension within our interconnected communities over just how integrated and accepted we want to be. For example, the publisher Scarlet Imprint recently published a book entitled “Apocalyptic Witchcraft” that was, essentially, a manifesto for embracing Witchcraft’s outsider, countercultural, and wild, elements as a way forward.

“Witchcraft is the recourse of the dispossessed, the powerless, the hungry and the abused.  It gives heart and tongue to stones and trees.  It wears the rough skin of beasts.  It turns on a civilization that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft

We are a religious movement that embraces plurality, and most often, polytheism, so we tend to reject easy binary dualisms, but there does seem to be an often unasked question hanging over many of our debates lately: what do we collectively want? Do we want to be part of the West’s religious institutional structure with churches, libraries, and schools, or do we want to be unpredictable, wild, and outside of traditional society’s norms? This is a spectrum, to be sure, there are Catholic anarchists, after all, existing side-by-side with the rules and expectations of Mother Church, but they largely exist on the fringes, tolerated, mainly as a steam valve for the pressures of maintaining a global institution hundreds of millions strong. Likewise, the organized center of modern Paganism fully embracing mainstream aspirations won’t suddenly erase the Witches, Pagans, and polytheists who live vagabond, bohemian, or radical lifestyles on the fringes of our culture. But a choice is being made, and we should be making it with open eyes.

As I see the ongoing debates over theology, I often ask myself why some of us are so concerned with what other people in our movement really believe. Certainly there are events and functions that call for a modicum of theological comity, but for the most part, these questions normally get hashed out on a small-group level. Individuals deciding if they are in tune enough to work together, to be religiously, spiritually, intimate. If concerns about theology are seen as pressing on a meta-level, that is, as being pertinent on a intrafaith, intra-community, model, then it seems to me that it ties into the larger question of what our movement wants in terms of its future. If we are countercultural, then questions of theology and belief are decided locally, by groups actually working together, larger cooperation is saved for a political crisis that demands a more unified voice (or for big parties). But if we are moving towards permanent infrastructure and Pagan institutions, then questions of theology become very, very, important indeed. Then it’s about who’s inside, and who is outside.

When I became a Pagan in 1990, we still operated largely as a counterculture. But in the last 20-plus years, I’ve heard the conversations, the debates, and the yearnings, and I know that many want the respect, and the power, that comes from being part of the institution. We want leaders to acknowledge us, we want to be respected, we want our credentials to be accepted as valid, and our pronouncements taken seriously. We want to have a say, and our elders want fiscal support, and our clergy want to be paid, and we want nice buildings, with a parking lot, conveniently located near our schools and work. These are the same people throwing the events, buying the land, and winning legal battles in our names. At the same time, there are still plenty of Pagans who have almost no connection to the “Pagan Community” as such. Who attend transformational festivals, who’d rather be at a music festival than at an indoor convention. Who live lifestyles dedicated to being radical outsiders, who participate in tree-sits and reject the very idea of “clergy” or “leaders.”

Again, I’m making no value judgements here. I’m not arguing for institution or counterculture, I’m arguing for conscious decision making. Many of us believe in magic, in Will, in shaping our own futures. As such, if we are going to be a part of this religious movement, then we should be clear-eyed about what we ultimately want to become. We are at a point in our growth and success where we’ve allowed ourselves a moment’s reflection on the future. I believe this is why we are having so many fundamental debates over who we are, and if we want to be a part of this movement. This question isn’t even necessarily an either-or, but the way in which we “lean” will shape our collective future. Eventually, some part of us will be seen as the fringe, as not representing the heart of our culture, and I want to make sure we are comfortable with the direction of our forward lean.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Lupa

    I don’t think it’s just the power or institutional integration some pagans want. I think it’s also safety. There are still places where paganism can be used against someone in a custody case, or can lead to a young person being kicked out of their home and/or disowned. So I don’t feel it’s just legitimacy for legitimacy’s sake, but for the very real need to not be harmed on the basis of belief. Some people are comfortable being openly counterculture and have the resources to be able to deal with everything from criticisms to outright attacks from more mainstream folks. Others would prefer to be able to blend in as a part of greater society without giving up their beliefs. I personally hope we can find room for both of these groups (and everyone I didn’t mention, too).

    • Chip O’Brien

      Good point, Lupa. In some areas or some minds, the idea of a culture war is more literal. There’s a feeling of security from knowing who your allies are.

      I find it interesting that we’ve been having the exact same debate in the queer community for decades: assimilation vs. radicalism. I read Jason’s (thoughtful & perceptive) post hearing echoes of similar arguments from the LGBTQIAetc. sphere. The assimilationists argue that we need a presence that the mainstream can accept, either for our protection (much as you’re describing for the Pagan community, Lupa) or for political power and the social capital we need to advance our goals. I remember a line from Angels in America when Roy Cohn says something like: “I’m not a homosexual. Homosexuals are men who can’t push a measly anti-discrimination bill through Congress after fifteen years. They are men who know nobody and whom nobody knows.” That’s changed in a lot of ways. Queer people have political power to some extent– we know people now, and people know us– but the price is that we’ve left behind the people who don’t fit our publicly acceptable face: trans* people, people of color, gender transgressive people who are accused of rubbing their queerness in everyone’s faces. Radicals argue that the price has been too high: we should embrace the radical possibilities of queerness, and take advantage of our difference to develop concepts of social justice, love, togetherness, identity, and gender that the corrupt, oppressive mainstream system could never imagine.

      My own feeling, for both the Pagan and queer communities, is that you will always need access to the spheres of power to protect yourself and your community. Relying on the long-term charity of the majority is political suicide. But, gaining political power is a dirty game with predictable rules. I’m not aware of any group that’s maintained a radically inclusive, non-hierarchical values set and still managed to become a significant political force. If I had to guess, I’d say that the Pagan community’s development might well follow that of the queer community: one assimilationist, consumer & capitalist-friendly branch, and the radical fringe groups that accuse them of leaving everyone else behind. Pragmatically, I don’t really see any other options.

      • Lupa

        *nods* I definitely agree on the parallels. It can be really difficult sometimes to balance out ideals with the very immediate realities people face on a daily basis. For those who can be the vanguard of social change, there’s a certain level of courage and risk-taking involved, and that’s okay. But not everyone can take risks, and has to show a different sort of courage under constant threat of having one’s life badly disrupted, and that’s okay too. If we perhaps think of these different folks (and others) as unique parts of a greater community who each bring their own strengths and challenges, maybe we can complement each other instead of always making things either/or.

    • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

      I think the idea of equating counter-culture with anti-organization is a bit of a misnomer. I think that’s confusing content and structure.

      Just because Circle Sanctuary is organized doesn’t mean its values are automatically going to be mainstream. It just means they’ve learned to work together in order to achieve goals. Some of Circle’s teachings are definitely contrary to mainstream culture: ecofeminism, Goddess spirituality, Shamanism, interconnectedness/panentheism, believe and practice of magick, etc.

      Jason, I think you do raise a critically valid point though: when Pagan organizations are successful, how does this effect the rest of Paganism? and how does this effect the Pagans who are not organized? When does a Pagan chose to “hop on the bandwagon” and when not to?

  • Ashley Yakeley

    We want paganism to be like Shinto is to the Japanese. We don’t want it to be a “religion”, actually, that takes its place among the list of named extant religions of the country. Rather we want paganism to be how we all express our values and the depth of our connection with the land we live on. A small-p paganism as common and as natural as eating. (Obviously by “we want” I mean “I want”.)

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      Yet there are Shinto temples scattered across Japan (and further afield), are there not?

      • Ashley Yakeley

        Yes! I’d like to see similar kinds of sanctification of the land, recognition of special places and so on, here.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          Which requires organisation, which requires infrastructure.

          • Ashley Yakeley

            Yes. I want a paganism that is the mainstream culture, not a subculture or a counter-culture.

          • Raksha38

            I want that too!

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Not necessarily the mainstream culture, but certainly a mainstream culture.

          • Ashley Yakeley

            Yeah, just something people do because that’s what people do around these parts.

  • Sam Wagar

    Good discussion. I’ve gone both ways on this one, from an anarchist and anti-authoritarian position in the early 80s where I led ritual at the Peace Camp in Toronto and lit incense and chanted in courthouse halls while protesters were being tried to founding and incorporating a church and getting licensed to perform weddings in the current century. We have a model for this already – Inner Court and Outer Court (or better, Harvey Whitehouse’ “Imagistic” and “Doctrinal” modes of action) – the mystical fiery path for Initiates and community service for those not drawn to it. Most people are not mystics and the laity / clergy distinction is not a value judgement.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    I want it all – which is why I continue to advocate for a Big Tent approach to Paganism. I want the multi-generational stability that comes from institutions, and I want the wild mystics pulling those institutions toward our ideals.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      If you have a big tent, someone will eventually become the ringmaster. Who it is (and in what form) will dictate how “wild mystics” are treated.

      • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

        Must there be only one ringmaster? I’ve always imagined that the leadership structure of a more institutional Paganism would have a variety of spokespersons and not a ringmaster.

        A council or assembly of individuals who have been authorized by their community (in what ever way seems best to that community) to act as a voice.

        Would it be an effective institution? Perhaps not; committees tend to be inefficient if nothing else. But, such a structure would provide a means by which to provide a voice to those who, otherwise, might be silenced.

        • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

          A council of individuals/groups is still steering the ship, so to speak towards one impulse or another.

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            Having been on a ship at sea (one with sails, even), a ship needs steering.

          • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

            So the question remains: in which direction do you want to see it steered.

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            My direction, obviously!! =D

            In all seriousness, that’s for the leaders to decide. If I disagree with the direction, I should be empowered at least to speak out against the choices of my leaders and, perhaps, even to vote no confidence in them in an effort to change once more.

          • ChristopherBlackwell

            But you will always have people like me who are more comfortable operating as outsiders who may come in and work with the group on some things and then move back outside. So I doubt it is going to be just either or.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

        There are examples – both good and bad – in other religions. Jews have been arguing about what it means to be a Jew for millennia, there are several major branches stretching the theological spectrum, and yet there is no ringmaster.

        • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

          There’s no singular ringmaster, the ringmaster is a metaphor to answer your metaphor. It signifies the bodies whom decide on which direction the movement advances. Judaism has no singular leader, but it has decided on being an institutional religion.

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            I draw your attention here to the fact that Quakers have managed to avoid that for quite some time now.

            Incidentally, I do NOT mean doing business by consensus, as that is not actually what Quakers do. It’s a bit more complicated than that–and thank goodness, given what I’ve seen of consensus decision making!

            The entire process of spiritual discernment on a collective level has allowed Quakers to both hold to a counter-cultural identity, challenging mainstream values in many lasting ways, and to manage our affairs in ways that have allowed us to be effective in building up a variety of institutions that meet our needs.

            It’s not perfect, and perhaps, to use your metaphor of being pulled in one direction or another, it would be appropriate to extend the metaphor to that of a ship, tacking into the wind. It’s not simple. But it’s possible to make forward progress.

            I’m also not suggesting that this is the only method that will work, though I am quite fond of it. However, it is necessary to believe that the status quo is not inevitable if we are to dream new things into existence. The calcification of the Pagan movement is not inevitable. Nor is abandoning the work toward meaningful institutional supports for our community.

            It’s just challenging, and will require a lot of wisdom and perseverance.

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            True, but it’s a very loosely defined institution. Having been raised Jewish, the Judaism practiced at one synagogue can be very different from that which is practiced at another. And that is true even within the larger branches of the faith with the possible exception of Orthodox Judaism, but there are even different ways to be Orthodox; the practices of a family in Brooklyn look different from those of one in Tel Aviv.

            I can imagine a Jewish-like institution working for some Pagans. It’s faith largely focused on what you do rather than what you think (e.g. the idea of the Mizvhot), ritual practices take place not just as a congregation but as a family in the home on at least weekly if not, for some, a daily level.

            The idea of a centralizing received scriptural source for revelation is not something that I think Pagans are going to feel the need for, but Jews are far more likely to see the Torah in ways similar to how we view mythology: moral tales describing right action toward both God and one’s neighbors.

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            It is interesting how much the family-centered aspects of Judaism remind me of Paganism at its juiciest. (Of course, I’m a New England Pagan, and many of my teachers and inspirations have been Judeo-Pagans. So there you go.)

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            Judeo-Pagan … I like that. I always just used “Jewitch” =D

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            Or “Druish,” as the case may be. ;-)

          • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

            Funny, she doesn’t look Druish.

      • Franklin_Evans

        I had thoughts similar to what Dashifen just posted. My view would be of a structured consensus — the Friends I know offer an excellent example of it — to which groups can assign representation according to their decision rules and processes, and in which individuals are invited to offer their input and opinions.

        • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

          We should point out that the Friends decided on becoming a part of institutional religious culture, with churches, schools, and other signifiers of infrastructure. There may be on the far “left” of that spectrum, but they are participants in it.

          • Franklin_Evans

            I have a similar impulse to be a part of institutionalized culture, and while I share your concern about steering I also believe there are workable solutions to it. I would not base it on the Friends’ example, but I would look to it for lessons and ideas.

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            I think there are solid examples (e.g. Circle Sanctuary as you touched on above) of some Pagans making that choice as well. I’m not sure there will ever be consensus among all Pagans to head in that direction, or if there is it’s likely many years in our future.

            As such, I think it is possible for some of us to remain countercultural (even countercultural toward other Pagans, perhaps) while others who are desirous of the institutional benefits of churches, schools, etc.

            The trick is going to be to try to work hard at making sure that the institutions that are built within our community remain respectful of those outside of it. And that’s an, unfortunately, hard thing for anyone to do.

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            How does that erase the counter-cultural, mystical aspect of Friends, though, Jason? There’s a reason the FBI likes to spy on Quaker meetings, and it’s not because they want the recipes for our potlucks! Can you go to a counter-cultural demonstration of any type, other than those espousing violence, and not find Quakers there, in numbers all out of proportion to our representation in the general population?

            As for mysticism, while there are dry meetings, I can tell you that as a Witch who has danced around a bonfire with hundreds of others, witnessed and experienced the trance possession of Drawing Down the Moon, and shared ecstatic rituals of every type for almost thirty years now, I have experienced worship every bit as deep and mystical among Friends as among Pagans.

            Less drumming and dancing, to be sure. But no less mystical.

            I’m not sure what you mean by “counter-cultural” if you are designating Friends as outside that box.

          • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters
          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            I think you have not understood this article. At least as it pertains to Friends’ meetings for worship with attention to business (which, sadly, secular organizations do not emulate at all accurately, which is what the article is actually saying).

            It might be a fair cop, though, to say that the historical involvement of Friends in business–reduced though it has been in the last 100 years–made Quakers mainstream in the past, and possibly even in the present.

            Certainly, it’s fair to say that not all Friends, and not all Friends’ meetings, qualify for the counter-cultural designation. But properly understood, the process of a Friends’ business meeting is not mainstream in the least.

        • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

          Or, if you’re able to get to the East Coast for Imbolc weekend, interested folks might consider attending the Earthspirit Community’s Feast of Lights, where among other exciting things, my husband and I will be presenting on the topic of Quaker Paganism, with a special workshop dedicated to how Quaker techniques can nurture both mysticism and accountability among Pagan elders.

          Just a thought.

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            And it’s only about 90 minutes from me …. I really need to check my partner’s schedule re: that weekend and see if I can make it out. [/offtopic]

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            Yes, please! (And, Franklin, I would love to take this show on the road one summer. If you know of a venue that would be appropriate, let me know.)[/offtopic][/selfpromote]

          • Franklin_Evans

            Any of the many Pagan Pride Day events comes to mind, and I humbly (ahem) ask that you keep August 30, 2014 in mind for a visit to Philadelphia. [/offtopic][/eventpromote]

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            [offtopic] Here’s hoping. It mostly comes down to money. I’d like to stay for the weekend, but maybe I’ll just do saturday.[/offtopic]

          • Deborah Bender

            I’d like to see you present this topic and workshop at PantheaCon 2015, if the program authorities will accept it. Techniques to nurture both mysticism and accountability? Very much needed in any religious community that wants to stay healthy and be effective.

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            Thanks, Deborah. I don’t know how I’d swing the time off to get there… but I’d sure like to get to a PantheaCon one day. And it would be rich, wonderful, and humbling to take my show on the road that far, too.

          • Franklin_Evans

            The date and distance (five hours driving for me) prevent my attending, but I would be grateful for further notice of such presentations as yours.

      • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

        Not necessarily, Jason. Liberal Quakers have not always been a big tent, but we have been for at least the last 35 years or so. And we have managed thus far to have institutions and countercultural values, a big, inclusive tent and no ringmaster to control our mystics.

        As a Witch, that is one of the things about being a Quaker I find most exciting.

        I no more want all Pagans to become Quakers than I want all Wiccans to join my Trad. But there do exist tools for creating structures of mutual accountability without creating either a centralized authority or a creed.

        And, as my Trad teacher taught me, when it comes to useful tools for shaping reality, we should steal everything not nailed down. And if it can be pried loose, it was not nailed down.

        • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

          I think there’s a big discussion about how countercultural Liberal Quakers really are, but I don’t know if this is the space to have that discussion.

          I think it’s also important to note how small the Liberal Quakers are, even in relation to modern Paganism.

          I think it’s not easy, and may be impossible, to have one’s countercultural cake and eat at the institutional table too.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

            Becoming institutional doesn’t have to mean adopting the values of the mainstream culture. There’s no reason why a future institutional Paganism can’t promote (among other things) interrelatedness and interdependence, a reverence for Nature, and diversity in worship and practice.

            It is true that institutions inevitably inspire a certain conservatism (to “conserve” the institution and its values). That’s why I want those wild mystics on the fringes, constantly pulling us toward our ideals and reminding us that the institution serves the movement, not the other way around.

          • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

            In fact, I think that, without those wild mystics that you speak of John, any Pagan institution is likely to become as stagnant and as slow to respond as those from which many of us moved on. It is the countercultural element within our community — not just outside of it — that I think has the potential to keep us fresh. The trick is going to be creating an institutional memory with respect to the need for the fringe to un-quo the status. It’s all too easy after the slow march of time to loose sight of that.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Am I the only person who left Christianity for theological reasons?

            I have no problems with the structure of the Church of England (the denomination of Christianity I am familiar with). It was their collection of god(s) and quasi-gods I had an issue with.

          • Northern_Light_27

            Sure. Just as there are people like me who didn’t leave Christianity because we never joined it to begin with. (Any Christian baggage I have is cultural, I got no religious instruction at home from my lapsed Catholic mother or my apatheist father.) But like it or not, Leoht, we’re not the majority. (At least, not yet. I think people who were never Christian are going to become considerably more common as younger nones’ children become old enough for their own religious formation.)

          • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

            I’m right there with you as well (my mom is non-kosher Reform Jewish, my dad is a very odd christo-shinto-pagan).

          • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

            “Becoming institutional doesn’t have to mean adopting the values of the mainstream culture.”

            Examples?

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            The American Friends Service Committee?

          • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

            Why does the AFSC have investment portfolios? Do they think late-stage capitalism can be tamed and reformed?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

            There’s not a perfect example, particularly if you define “counterculture” in a idealistic way. We’ve been talking about the Quakers – that’s probably the best.

            But if institutions can have radically different values – say, the Unitarian Universalist Association vs. the Southern Baptist Convention – there’s no reason why a movement that embodies countercultural values can’t become institutionalized, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            Thanks for that, John. Yeah, the UUs show it pretty well, also.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Again, Unitarian Universtalism. We teach a Sunday School sexuality course that’s gay-friendly, and we offer it to the larger community. The UU Service Committee builds birth control clinics in Third World countries and turns them over to the locals as soon as possible.

          • Northern_Light_27

            Maybe it’s just down to how you define the word, but I just don’t see “gay-friendly” or pro-birth control as countercultural. That UUs *do* them certainly makes them better at walking their talk and more productive than most Americans, but the ideas behind them have plurality if not majority support. If the Sunday School course was LGBT-written, assumed a gay default, and was “het-friendly”, that IMO would be actually countercultural.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            OWL (“Our Whole Lives”) was indeed partially BGLTQQIA-written. I wrote “gay-friendly” because I was in a hurry. I will pass your other questions along to the Sunday School Director at the local UU fellowship tomorrow, and get back to this thread with her replies.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            A couple of things I must hasten to add. Support for birth control is not cultural in all the countries where the UUSC operations.Whatever answers I get to the questions I’m taking to the RE director, it is definitely counter-cultural to teach a fully-informative rather than abstinence-only sexuality curriculum in a small city in a rural Ohio county, even if that small city is a college town and that rural county is adjacent to a metro county. Especially if it is offered to the community at large.

          • Northern_Light_27

            Which questions did I ask? /confused

            Is OWL something only developed for that small city, or was it developed on a larger scale? Is it truly the only source, or one of very few, of fully-informative sex ed in that area? Gay-friendliness isn’t uncommon in the wider culture of the US, nor is fully-informative sex ed truly revolutionary, nor is birth control a risky thing to back in the culture from which the money is flowing to do it– even if it is in some of the places it’s being done. (And I think of one culture bringing its ethical/moral thinking to another as a different kind of thing. “Counter-cultural”, to me, is about countering *your own* culture. Otherwise trying to bring capitalism, Ayn Rand, and Evangelical Christianity to various parts of Africa would be considered counter-cultural. You’re bringing them a beneficial service that’s fully cultural in the culture it’s coming from. Laudable, yes. Countercultural, no.) With the example I made with the sex ed, the truly counter-cultural part of a LGBT-default, LGBT-written, het-friendly curriculum would be deliberately not centering heterosexuality, and the majority-orientation students encountering something that, while inclusive of them, was aimed primarily at someone else.

            I admit to some Satanist influence here, a thing that seeks to be both countercultural and actively antinomian, in seeing a need for at least some degree of applecart-upsetting and sacred-cow-butchering before a thing can be truly countercultural. If you can be reasonably comfortable in the dominant culture *and* be reasonably comfortable in an organization that claims to be countercultural, it probably isn’t to the degree that it thinks it is. The UU church strikes me as fairly progressive for the US, but firmly within its cultural borders, even if closer to the edge than many mainstream churches. I mean, it’s the first choice of people who aren’t Christian yet still want that “mainstream church experience” for their kids for the reason that it’s a mainstream church. That’s a fine thing to be, don’t get me wrong, but counter-cultural feels like a reach to me.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I took as a question your comment that OWL would be truly countercultural if it met certain criteria. I must say my own assessment would be dour about a course that made either default assumption. I see you are taking “countercultural” in a very literal way, of needing to contradict on every particular. I regard it as applying to a mode of action that is sometimes contrarian. The UU General Assembly, for example, supported legalization of marijuana in 1970, countercultural at the time and place. We may have to agree to disagree. Parents who come into UU for their kids are not seeking a mainstream Sunday School experience; they can get that in a lot of places. They seek a UU Sunday School experience. OWL was certainly not developed for my town. It is a joint product of the religious education arms of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Much of the instruction is wholly secular. Each denomination has authored a section about why OWL comports with denominational values; these are of course omitted when OWL is offered to the larger community.

          • Northern_Light_27

            You missed my point, I think. There was no question in my post, I simply put forth an example (just *an* example!) of a way to do sex ed that would actually be countercultural. OWL sounds like a good program, and neither a discussion with your RE director nor the capslock “ATTN” thing were needed– I was simply too busy to reply before now.

            I don’t think a thing needs to contradict “on every particular” at all. I think Faoladh’s definition upthread is a good one: “The test is not whether an activity is culturally acceptable. The test
            is whether the activity is subversive of the mainstream culture and
            supportive of a cultural alternative.” I guess we simply disagree on whether being gay-inclusive and “partly written by LGBTQ people” is subversive of mainstream culture. To me it isn’t.

            And yes, many of the people who bring their kids to UU *are* searching for a mainstream Sunday School experience– they’re searching for a mainstream Sunday School experience that is inclusive of non-Christians and isn’t about Christianity. That’s a thing you absolutely cannot get “in a lot of places”, you can pretty much only get it with the UUs. By “mainstream”, I’m talking brick-and-mortar, considered normal and unexceptionable by most people and therefore providing an acceptable answer to that “what church do you go to?” question, stable and unlikely to poof out of existence before your kids hit their teen years, have the usual panoply of church service + kids programs + social groups for adults, isn’t going to present material that is upsetting for parents to have their kids see (gay-friendly sex ed program is good, BDSM scening on the way to the kids’ ritual is not so good)… basically mainstream but completely open to and inclusive of non-Christians theists and atheists. I’ve had many people I know describe their reasons to take their kids to a UU church even though they are Pagans, Heathens, and atheists in almost exactly those words, so I don’t know why you’re resistant to having that describe you.

            Actually, that’s my feeling on the counterculture issue, too. Everything you’ve described to me is positive and laudable, I don’t know why you want so badly for it to also be countercultural. “Countercultural” doesn’t equate to “good”, and “within the boundaries of the dominant culture” doesn’t equate to “bad”– some countercultural things are a disaster, and some aspects of mainstream culture aren’t Sauronian evil. Isn’t it a good thing that at least some people see being inclusive of gay sexuality as within the spectrum of cultural norms now?

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            We are in agreement about the nature of UU Sunday School. We quite thoroughly disagree about what is mainstream and what is countercultural.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            Covenant of the Goddess, Asatru Alliance, Etc.

          • Northern_Light_27

            Those are two awfully odd organizations to use in the same sentence, especially with an “etc.” after it. What do you see them as having in common?

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            Both are very organized, but haven’t “adopted the values of the mainstream culture.”

          • Sam Wagar

            Co-operatives, credit unions, unions in general, are all institutions that are in some cases quite successful and not bought into capitalist heteropatriarchy
            . Congregationalist religious bodies like the Sikhs, Muslims, Quakers.

          • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

            How about GreenPeace? Or the Sierra Club?

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            Well, I’ll go along with that: “not easy.” For sure.

            And there is room for the criticism that Quakers were called to do good, and wound up doing well. Plenty of individual Quakers–and some Quaker meetings–certainly do suffer from complacency. It does happen.

            But the small size of the Quaker movement actually points to the lack of complacency overall. Very few peace activists, advocates for the homeless, the hungry, or the incarcerated have _not_ had contact with Quakers working alongside them. While I absolutely know of Pagans who “walk their talk” on social justice and environmental matters, I know a far greater proportion of Friends who do that.

            There’s more than one institutional table… that’s key. And deciding when to sit down, and when to stand back up again… and being willing to work hard to discern what compromises our values and what doesn’t on a moment to moment basis… that’s also pretty damn important. Pagans have few tools for this kind of collective self-reflection–but they do exist. We could do better.

            Right now, what I see is much less the inevitability of institutional competence eroding mysticism and counter-cultural values than it is a willingness of too many Pagans to toss our values out the window, in exchange for mainstream respectability.

            It’s possible to be respected without making such heedless decisions, but only when our priorities are straight. We need to be very, very careful if we are to keep any kind of grip on those at all.

          • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

            I feel like I’m being painted into a corner of criticizing the Friends, when that is not my intention. I have a great respect for their mystic impulses and peace testimony.

            I don’t want to vilify institutions per se.

            That said, I think Quakers, on the whole, seek to reform and improve the dominant culture, rather than overturn it and replace it with something else.

          • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

            No, no, and your topic is broader than this.

            In the end, the question is not “What are Quakers?” The truly meaningful question is, are there alternatives to an either/or view of the tension between the two things you’re describing.

            It seems as though the answer we give to that question depends largely on what we mean by “counter-cultural.” I know the counter-cultural values I most passionately want to retain: our mysticism, our localism, our pluralism, for starters. The willingness to challenge mainstream culture on its objectification of nature, women, and humans (especially from cultures different than our own). These are all things I love in us, and want us to keep–and fear that we are willing to compromise in order to get mainstream approval. Any way forward that preserves those looks good to me.

            But I’m going with a very personal definition of “counter-cultural,” and I have not paused to acknowledge that–in addition to getting caught up explaining nuances of a different group, that’s really only tangentially relevant to this conversation.

            Sorry to micro-focus on Quakers–that’s just the danger of being a nerd at heart, and having studied the group passionately for the past twelve years! My apologies for that.

          • David Pollard

            The question at hand may be much simpler than that – Can a counterculture be institutionalized? Or if that organization is partly successful and some of it’s values become “mainstream” does that by default kick them out of the counterculture?

          • Northern_Light_27

            Isn’t part of the problem the fact that “counterculture” is kind of a moving target, it shifts as the culture it counters shifts? As stable institutions tend to be governed by elders, what they remember as countercultural isn’t, necessarily, to their children and grandchildren. (And it’s not uncommon to be less actively countercultural as you get older, as well.) So I’d think balancing the two would necessitate the institution being more openly multigenerational and multigenerational in a way that allows younger people into the governance, not just into the membership body.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            A live question at the moment in Colorado. Is it, as of January 1, cultural or countercultural to by and consume recreational marijuana in CO?

          • Faoladh

            Legalities are not in question (and it has been legal to consume marijuana in Washington as well, though we seem to be dragging our heels about the purchasing part, despite a clear mandate in the law as passed). Purchasing and consuming marijuana has been cultural, that is to say culturally acceptable, for a very long time now. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that the primary purpose of marketing it as “countercultural” is to divert any real countercultural impulses.

          • justplainwyrd

            It’s cultural acceptability still relies largely on the circles you travel in. There are some where the idea of it is still repugnant.

          • Faoladh

            OK. But that doesn’t change the fact that smoking marijuana is no longer a countercultural action, and hasn’t been for a very long time.

            There are some places where the idea of buying up faltering companies, stripping them of their capital goods, and laying off the employees is repugnant, but that doesn’t make those practices countercultural. Similarly, murder is not culturally acceptable, but murder is not, itself, countercultural. The test is not whether an activity is culturally acceptable. The test is whether the activity is subversive of the mainstream culture and supportive of a cultural alternative. Using non-alcohol/nicotine/caffeine drugs has failed the first part of that test since at least the 1970s, and arguably the 1950s (the heyday of the Miltown).

          • Faoladh

            And I do realize that I was the first to use the “culturally acceptable” terminology. That was a mistake on my part.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Indeed, when the Voting Rights Act whose 50th anniversary we are soon to observe was signed by President Lyndon Johnson it was at once the law of the land but highly counter-cultural in the American South.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I think it’s not easy, and may be impossible, to have one’s countercultural cake and eat at the institutional table too. Unitarian Universalists do it all the time. This may be one reason why UU Paganism is big enough to be acknowledged as a Trad of its own.

    • Shauna Aura Knight

      I also want it all, thanks for putting it so succinctly :) I’m an ecstatic ritualist and mystic who wants institutions. At heart, I’m an anarchist, at least, an optimist, but I’m also a realist. True anarchy (I can safely say that that is countercultural) means, if I see a pothole, I fix it. I don’t wait for “them” to fix it, there’s no them. There’s only me being radically self responsible. That’s optimistic…but, people are people. We aren’t there.

      Similarly, with Pagan leadership, I wish that Pagans and Pagan leaders were all ethical, self responsible people. I wish that Pagans were as tolerant as they purport to be. But we aren’t. I hear about the deep, dark, stanky underbelly of the ugly crap Pagan leaders have done all the time, particularly because I teach leadership and offer my help to people going through a rough situation.

      So my thing is–if we’re going to have institutions, then we need to do them *well.* If we’re going to have leadership and hierarchies, then we need those leaders to be accountable. And even if that leadership is shared–consensus, rotating leadership, voting in officers…whatever it is, we need our leaders to have actual leadership training. To have some method of doing the intense personal work and facing shadows so that we don’t step on ourselves.

      Most of the group blow-ups I hear about are leaders who started with positive intent whose own baggage got in their way and they had a massive egotistical kablooey at someone in their group or another leader.

      I know I can be a broken record about leadership, but I’m sick of hearing about group leader after group leader who is causing these problems in their own community. Worst case, we’re talking about group leaders seducing minors–which happens. Theft, rape…it does happen. Far more common are people who should *not be in positions of leadership* due to being completely unstable, having untreated mental illness, rampant egotism, or other various problems.

      How do these folks end up in leadership? Well–there’s nobody else. There’s nobody else motivated to step in to do the work. It’s often the less stable of us that seem to get the leadership bug. Or maybe it’s that you have to be slightly insane to want to be a leader for a Pagan group, or run events that run the risk of not breaking even.

      As I’ve pointed out, I’m not always a paragon of sanity and stability myself. And, at times, I’ve stepped back from my role as an event organizer and group leader. I’ve worked on my own issues in order to become a more stable leader. But so many people I engage with seem to either have no clue how destructive they are in their own community, or, they just don’t care that they are jerks.

      So–if we’re going to have leaders, these leaders need training, and they need to be held accountable. But, that takes us back to the Big Tent…there’s no Pope, no ringmaster, no “this person’s above you” method of accountability. A lot of the so-called “witch wars” are attempts to hold leaders accountable that created inter-community disputes that leave rifts for years.

      I want us to have healthy groups, and healthy institutions. I want those institutions to not be institutions that betray our values. And for me, part of that is that we (Pagans) need to figure out better methods of learning how to build institutions and groups, how to be better leaders (and group members, or be leaderful group members), and how to hold each other accountable without it being a “witch war” of he said/she said.

      • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

        Yes. The trend you’re talking about… it’s familiar to any of us who have been around long enough, I suppose. And it’s probably not possible to have 100% healthy groups, 100% ethical, wise leadership.

        But we can do better. I know we can.

        My own theory is that we will need to develop the idea of accountability to one another–and to the Spirit/s who gather us– as an inherent part of our spiritual practices, rather than seeing Paganism as the spiritual equivalent of libertarianism. And you’re right… that doesn’t have to mean a “this person’s above you” method of accountability.

        A lot of what we need is simply the understanding that there’s a difference between using our judgement and being judgmental. We need to be open and supportive, but also recognize that the person who can’t balance their own checkbook should not be placed in charge of a group’s bank account, either, and that someone who regularly quarrels with their students, their teachers, or their peers, is likely to continue the pattern in other settings, too.

        Seeing that we have different gifts and different weaknesses is not the same as being arrogant. But organizations often behave as though it were.

        • Shauna Aura Knight

          The only difficulty I have with that is the “accountability to Spirit” part. I’ve seen many leaders, Pagan and not, who are absolutely convinced they are doing the “right” thing. I’ve seen Pagan leaders convinced (or at least, doing lip service) to the idea that “God/Goddess/Spirit” told them so.

          I think it works, but only if there’s an assumption of competence, maturity, and stability, and that’s not an assumption I can ever make, given the people who I see in leadership roles.

          I’m an optimist with a broken heart. And the people who tell me they are led by Spirit (by whatever name) are often the ones who are doing the most damage.

          There’s a saying I’ve heard in a number of fictionwriting workshops, that a good villain/antagonist is actually the hero of their own journey, just a hero that made different choices than the protagonist. I use that a lot in the personal growth work that I teach; we’re all the hero of our own journey, and in the course of that journey we sometimes might trample others in the quest for our individuality, our personal sovereignty. We aren’t necessarily trying to, but it happens. I think the mark of a mature leader is trying to do less of that trampling, but that requires self awareness. That requires self reflection.

          The leaders who cause the most problems are not self aware. They are not stable. These are folks who are not seeing their impact, and aren’t likely to. Maybe they have untreated mental illness. Maybe they are just egomaniacs. What I see over and over is, they aren’t going to change how they act any more than any abuser in a relationship is likely to change.

          That’s the category of leader that I just don’t know what to do. You can’t “make” them get help. You can’t “make” them stop leading. If they’re doing something illegal, you can try to get them arrested for it, but that’s not usually the case. Going postal on another leader who steps on their toes (ie, starts a new group in “their” region isn’t illegal, it’s just destructive.

          I hate that the only advice I can usually offer people dealing with someone like that is, “Ignore them, don’t recommend their group, and try to make them quietly irrelevant.” Essentially, wait for them to die and go away. That’s not a solution.

          But, without any hierarchy of gatekeepers running seminaries to say, “You really aren’t suited to this work, come back to seminary after 5 years of therapy,” there needs to be another way.

          And obviously Paganism won’t ever have that hierarchy, that system of gatekeepers. Not in that way.

          We can do better. We *must* do better. I’m just not sure how. The best strategy I’ve been able to come up with is, train the stable people in leadership skills so they can at least cope with this crap when it crops up. Harvest a new generation of ethical leaders and teach them how to do it well. And, over the next generation, look at ways that we can actually collectively work together to get past “he said/she said” into true conflict resolution.

          In the Pagan communities, diverse as we are, perhaps the only way to oust a poor leader who’s unwilling to change is, after intervention and discussion, a process of shunning. I don’t like that. But, I also don’t like what the unstable leaders do to our communities.

          • Northern_Light_27

            Thank you so much for this post and for the work you do in leadership training. I agree with everything you’ve written here. What scares me is that, because we’re still an “alternative” (group of) religons, we attract a lot of people who’ve been ill-treated by people with power and by the overculture. I’ve often seen it happen when people try to warn newcomers away from bad groups, the newcomer thinks “I feel like an outsider and that group are clearly outsiders to these people in power so I can relate to them!” and end up more attracted to the “poor, bullied” bad leaders. Which becomes an argument for simply saying nothing about the group, simply being silent and, as you say, hoping they fade off/go away. The trouble is, though, they often don’t, especially if they’re run by someone who becomes dependent on that feeling of adulation and being chosen as a channel for the gods/spirits.

            I’m part of another subcultural group that struggles with the same issues, although I think which collectively has become a lot more savvy about troublesome members thanks to willingness of people to speak up and willingness of other people to actually listen and not just say “troublemaker!” to people who speak up. (This group also has a lot of actual anonymous, not just pseudonymous, space, and also has pseudonymous “sock” space where it’s okay to use a pseudonym different than your usual one. I think that has been immensely helpful. Yes, at times there’s trolling. But people are also able to say what they feel without worrying that those with name recognition and social power will ostracize them for daring to be critical in public, and ideas are able to be discussed *as ideas*, without the baggage associated with it never being seen because it isn’t on a BNP’s blogroll or because “oh, I dislike that BNP, the idea isn’t valid” or the converse “I like this BNP so I won’t give their idea enough scrutiny”.) Scams and dysfunction are hashed out publicly. Which doesn’t mean they don’t still happen, but there’s more wariness and less willingness to just take things on face value than I see in Paganism. An example, there’s a guy who has accrued a hell of a reputation as a con artist and an abusive, charismatic personality whose victims are ex-cult survivors in every valid way. The person he cheated out of >$10,000 spoke out, one of his most visible right-hand lieutenants spoke out in detail about what life with him was like and the way her mother helped her win free of him (and sent her to a therapist with experience deprogramming cult members). Every time this guy goes into a new part of the subculture, warnings go out. There are still new people willing to buy into what he’s selling, but I’d say most people in the community are informed about him and willing to inform others.

            This is a place we just haven’t gotten to, IMO. We seem, in my experience, more likely to warn someone off a group for bad theology/scholarship than abusive leadership. I see a lot of victim-blaming with people who do speak out, and if the abusive leader writes or speaks well, an awful lot of excuse-making. If someone was harassed or raped at a festival and the festival’s security is lax/uncaring, we don’t want to confront that if we like the festival. We don’t have a way or a place to talk about this that’s safe for whistle-blowers or even for people who have questions and don’t want their questions to be interpreted as “choosing a side”. People simply have to hope they’re lucky enough to meet stable, grounded Pagans from the same religion in person and be quietly warned off Group X and steered toward well-run, stable group Y, because the people who say it one-on-one won’t say it online because it causes too much drama.

          • Deborah Bender

            “I hate that the only advice I can usually offer people dealing with
            someone like that is, “Ignore them, don’t recommend their group, and try
            to make them quietly irrelevant.” Essentially, wait for them to die and
            go away. That’s not a solution.”

            Why isn’t that a solution? If there are other local groups and leaders who are accessible, who behave ethically and responsibly, who share standards of behavior, who cooperate when they see fit and stay out of one another’s way when they don’t care to cooperate, the bad apples are not going to set the tone of the community. Seekers will have a range of options, and people who have been burned by the bad leader will have chances of meeting someone who can help them heal.

            Good leaders and the functional groups tend to be more stable over time, because the leaders who have emotional problems or selfish motivations will alienate their most capable followers. They must keep recruiting new acolytes to replace the ones who got wise. Without support or cooperation from other elders, a leader of this kind has to rely entirely on his or her personal resources to maintain a group; although that’s fun when you are creating a startup, it gets tiring. Without colleagues, disciples, acolytes or friends, you’re just a solitary blowhard.

            Do things work differently in your community?

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        In the UK, we have a thing called “competence” (as an official term. Not implying that no other country has competent people). If someone provides a service, they should be trained to a competent level.

        This requires regulation. Be it a corgi registered plumber or an ordained priest.

        At the moment, anyone can claim to be a “High Priest of Danu” or a “Goði of Þunor” and not have anyone contradict their claims.

        I would suggest that roles such as these be properly explored and defined. Then people can know what competences are required to adequately fulfil these vocations.

        • Franklin_Evans

          Intended to support Lēoht’s point:

          There are two broad support structures involved. I don’t mean to gloss over any significant subsets that anyone deems worthy of further discussion. I do mean to be brief if possible.

          There is the ubiquitous institutional structure. It is expected to be self-provisioning (given the material support of those it is supposed to serve), self-organizing (at any level of detail) and self-policing. It is that last attribute that drives my point here.

          There is the approach we — extending also the logic and point made by kenofken — apparently would choose, and that’s “policing” done by those being served.

          Accepting the authority of an institution exempts us from the effort required as a group to perform and maintain those functions and structures (physical and otherwise) expected of the institution. Retaining at least that portion of authority as it relates to leadership/clerics/etc. requires the significant effort of everyone. Every one.

          The “solution” to self-proclaimed leaders is very simple: a general and very public denunciation of them. So long as we fail to do that, our only alternative (in my general case) is having an institution we expect to do it for us.

  • Franklin_Evans

    I believe that the entire idea of hierarchical structure, concerns about leadership authority and behavior, and general “but what about” questions deserve the strongest respect and closest examination. What I cannot agree to is that those concerns are an excuse to reject the entire notion out of hand.

    We have models of plurality that can work, q.e.d. Establishing an institution on such a model is possible and would require much effort. If we commit to that effort, we commit to the intended and desired results. Those who disagree, those who eschew the effort, have declined the initial invitation and nothing more. We show them respect by making sure we don’t make assumptions on their behalf. The rest is just going about the indicated business.

    • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

      “We show them respect by making sure we don’t make assumptions on their behalf.”

      The hard part, though, is not to end up speaking for them. And, it might be that an institution never seeks to do so, but because of the respect that an institution can earn on a wider scale than any small group or individual, their voice is likely more often and more loudly heard. Our institutions would do well not just to respect those who choose not to be a part of them, but to actively listen and to cherish to their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

      • Franklin_Evans

        I see it as a matter of scale as well as scope. I can for example invite all and sundry to the initial and subsequent discussions, but those who decline to show up must understand that unintended consequences must at the least be tolerated. I won’t saddle an organization with such a breadth of responsibility for consequences. I tried it once, and have the burn-out scars to show for it.

        As a personal perspective, to which I ask your clarification: I see many secondary consequences to institutional structures. One of them is a general tendency to make assumptions — on the smallest excuse of a word that vaguely sounds like another word, for example — and while I can and will feel personal regret for those consequences, I will not accept even the smallest responsibility for them. There is a limit to human capacity in life’s endeavors. Any institution that demands anything beyond that limit is one for which I offer no respect.

  • http://enondragonart.com/ Kelly NicDruegan

    I have never understood why it must be an “either/or” situation. We seem to have done very well over the years with a mix of formalized (if generally small) legally founded Pagan churches and organizations along side smaller, more intimate family-style covers and groves, and militaries. Politically speaking, the larger formal organizations may carry more weight because of the assumption that organizations implies numbers and cohesive position.

    Right or wrong, a large and incorporated organization like Covenant of the Goddess, Circle Sanctuary, or the ADF are going to carry more clout…and are more likely to have a trained and experienced media officer… than would the local 13 member Coven of the Mystic Garden Gnome, and definitely more thana random local group of individuals consisting of a couple of solitary Witches, three Heathens, and maybe a Voudoun or Santarian if you are lucky enough to have local practitioners willing to go public over a particular issue. For that reason, for Paganism to thrive, we do need larger, more institutionalized organizations.

    Libraries where people who don’t have the funds or the space for their own private book collections will always be of benefit to the Pagan community as a whole and that is easier to do establish as an incorporated organization that can file for tax exemptions as a nonprofit. Formal seminaries are necessary for expanding the legal reach of Pagan Clergy for inclusion as chaplains in the military, hospitals, prisons, and in fields of religious counselling. It’s one thing to claim you are a certified, third degree initiated priestess in the Coven of the Mystic Garden Gnome, and within the Pagan community that will carry a certain amount of weight. But as soon as you a want to apply for the open Chaplain position at the local hospital being able to show you completed the master’s counselling program at Cherry Hill Seminary is going to carry much more.

    And let’s face it, it is eventually going to be the very public legal and political work (and clout) of larger, institutionalized Pagan organizations that are going to make life much easier for the smaller local covens, groves, and solitaries to be able to practice their faiths without (too much) fear of harassment or persecution. And on those occasions when harassment and persecution happen, it will be the larger, institutionalized Pagan organizations who will have the resources to offer effective assistance.

    • Chip O’Brien

      Right, exactly. If we want resources (land ownership, a say in policy-making, rights protection), that’s a job for institutions. The only trouble comes when the institutions’ demographics are homogenous– like I mentioned in my comment to Lupa, in the queer community, our most powerful and best funded groups are often run by middle-class cisgender white men. When minority groups aren’t represented in our decision-making bodies, their concerns aren’t, either. Some radical queer activist groups protest at the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign as often as they protest queer homelessness.

      I wonder if the differences within the Pagan community would change its development. Some Reconstructionist groups have a very dim sense of identification with the larger Pagan movement, and some, like Elaion, explicitly state that identifying with the group precludes allegiance to any form of neopaganism. The queer community has a rainbow flag, but I don’t know if there is a single flag that every Pagan or Reconstrucionist polytheistic group would rally around. Are we just left with a system wherein the largest and most powerful groups represent themselves, and everyone else is left behind– either through lack of representation or through their own choice?

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        If a group want to go alone, that is their choice, surely?

        Much like Heathenry continues to put distance between itself and Paganism, if one organisation has the means and funds to pursue its own goals, should it really be expected to stop in order that others (that it may not particularly identify with) are not left behind?

        Remember, there is a difference between allegiance and alliance.

  • finnin

    The key is in the conflict its self. As
    long as institutions keeps working towards collective goals and the
    “countercultures counterculture” keeps fighting centralized
    authority then we should stumble right along in a state of healthy
    internal give and take. Things will take a bad turn if one “side”
    ever wins (Forget respect, the winners call the shots in there own
    interests.). Institutions are inevitably compromised or corrupted,
    and its the anarchistic counterculture that take the heaviest
    casualties in the culture wars. Nurturing the contradiction is how an
    individualistic collective is maintained.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    I have a dream…

    Various Heathen denominations work together for common goals, but retain independence from each other (similar to Christianity, really).

    The individual denominations operate as they each feel best. If one wants to build hofu, then it should do so. If another wants to keep to living rooms and public parks, then it should likewise do so. So long as they operate under distinct identities, where is the concern?

    There is no reason why one system should be a threat to the other. It is not like either wants a monopoly, is it?

    • Northern_Light_27

      And yet there’s a similar debate going on in Heathenry right now. Not as regards Paganism, but in regard to whether big (inter)national groups are a blessing or a blight. There seems to be a growing number of heathens who see “denominations” as kind of silly, that Heathenry=local by definition because it’s about worldview and culture. It’s not the same debate as whether one should have institutions or be countercultural (although IMO Heathenry *is* countercultural in ways but those ways are kind of atypical to what comes to mind as “countercultural”), but it seems a species of it, concerned as it is that large institutions ossify and promote a top-down “culture” and theology rather than allowing culture and theology to grow organically out of locality.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        There will always be debate. But those that want the institutions will make them anyway. And so they should.

        • Northern_Light_27

          My point was that even as reconstructionist religions break away from Paganism and grow bigger, they end up with the same question within their own house. It’s an inevitable debate because non-insider media will seek out a “credible source” to ask about the religion, and that source is almost always going to be The Troth/AFA/etc. and not Yourtown’s Kindred or even Yourstate’s Heathen Alliance. You end up with the big institutions speaking for everyone else, and setting expectations about what Heathenry is that smaller groups who operate very differently then have to have their new members unlearn before they can grasp the smaller group’s culture. It’s not a debate about whether people who want institutions should make them, it’s about the power those institutions have to mold the larger religion around their image.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            It is always going to be a problem. Look at last years entry of Ásatrú into the Region Stylebook. There was some disgruntlement over the terminology seeing Ásatrú as the umbrella term, rather than Heathenry.

            That is unavoidable. All that can be hoped is that the group being quizzed responds with honour and points out that it is not the only branch of Heathenry.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            You succinctly describe a dynamic by which the institution-counterculture question remains ever green. I have repeatedly chastised reporters for failing to check facts before quoting some “occult expert” wasting taxpayer dollars by lecturing the local police dept. But to whom would I have that reporter flip her Rolodex for that check? By the nature of things it’s got to be an institution. Am I prepared to dedicate my efforts to building that institution? Depends which decade we’re talking about. It’s gotten easier to make that referral these days, largely thanks to Circle. Am I OK with that? Yes. Is the Pagan community, howsoever defined? Again, that might depend on the decade.

          • Northern_Light_27

            Fair point and I mostly agree with it, and definitely agree that the question of how to contain these institutions’ outsize intrapath influence is and will be ever green. I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens in Heathenry. The particular parameters of local-focused movement isn’t anything I’ve seen in Neo-Paganism, and to me it makes a great deal more sense than big national orgs. One example: a state Heathen alliance may be a better choice to deal with prison outreach issues than a national org because prison administration isn’t the same in every state and one that’s actually in $state understands $state and what it’s doing, what it needs, and how to interact with its government in a way that a national org doesn’t. (Something I’d think would be even more true of an international org.) Basically, it’s not a contest between big orgs and individual covens, but between big orgs and local alliances– a middle path that might be useful to Neo-Paganism as well.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Some issues, though, are supra-local in nature. Discrimination against Pagans or Heathens anywhere in the US is a violation of the federal Bill of Rights, and response by a national organization is not out of line. I am thinking, of course, of the Lady Liberty League, an institution I could sorely have used in the 1990s. However, for dealing with the journalists I beat up in the 1980s (see earlier comment) an Ohio-wide or Cleveland-area institution would have been just fine.

          • Northern_Light_27

            That discrimination is also a bigger issue than just Pagans or Heathens, hence why non-Pagan and non-Heathen rights groups sometimes get involved. National-level discrimination is probably the place to line up everyone that could be prodded to get on board whether they’re explicitly part of your religion or not. (I don’t think, for instance, I’ve ever seen anyone deny the usefulness of allying with Neo-Pagan groups for this kind of macro-level discrimination, even people who think Neo-Paganism otherwise has nothing to do with what they do.) The interesting part to me is that this kind of Heathen thinking really, truly is theologically counter-cultural– it specifically refutes the idea that larger-than-local theology or praxis is needed or is even desirable, while still establishing institutions.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            There is no one person in charge of “Christianity”.

            People go on and on about “the Pope” but, lets face it, the Pope is the figurehead of only one denomination and does not speak for all Christendom.

            In much the same way, there can be numerous individual organisations existing within a larger umbrella (be it Heathen, Pagan or otherwise) that share a common definition but also have plenty of differences. These individual organisations can work with other groups as they choose.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      ^– YES! THIS! Lēoht, you hit the nail on the head!

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Jason, thanks for articulating this important issue in a really clear manner. My own two cents is that we are headed for more infrastructure, will we or nil we. I’m glad to see a serious discussion of the pros and cons.

    I will say that I continue to object to framing Paganism as a “faith.” Paganism is category of religions, not faiths. Using “faith” as a synonym for “religion” buys into the Abrahamic framing that sees faith as an essential element of religion. That framing isn’t helpful to us. As Occult Librarian has noted, we are not a confession of faith. I don’t have faith in the Goddesses and Gods. I have experience of them. I’m not a member of a faith; I’m a member of a Pagan religion.

    But that’s a small nit to an otherwise needed and interesting discussion.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      To be pedantic, your experience of them is entirely subjective, and that is where the faith comes in.

      There are those who still want religious experience to be listed as a form of mental illness.

    • Northern_Light_27

      I dislike that faith/experience binary. Many Pagans have *not* had experience of the Gods. Some doubt the experiences they’ve had. Many Christians *have* had experience of their God. I’m incredibly tired of the “we KNOW our gods, THEY just believe in theirs” concept. Beyond being rather obnoxiously superior, it just isn’t true. What is true is that faith isn’t *required* in many/most Pagan religions and isn’t centric to them.

  • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

    I see no reason for an either/or. I’m mystically inclined myself, and yet, I want institutions. I want there to be accountability for our religious leaders and freedom for the people to explore their relationships with the Gods, Ancestor, spirits, each other, and their communities without being stifled. I want there to be accountability for our mystics as well, and I see the setting of boundaries as a normal, healthy thing even if, to some degree, some mystics from our various traditions become institutionalized.

    I think having healthy expectations and having better boundaries on what to expect from our spiritual specialists is a good thing. Institutions can give us tese things, something I believe will be a healthy move forward. I don’t think that Mcpriests and Mcshamans necessarily need to result from this; there are plenty of ways we can keep our traditions within their bounds and explore new ways/forms of our relationships with, and giving devotion to, the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    Honestly I thin will mov in all directions. Some like me will be staunchly solitary we just don’t function in groups. Others will work in small groups and others will form still larger groups for the political and financial benefits that brings. Now can we only not argue over who are real Pagans and let each find their way and still come together or cooperate when either an opportunity comes our way of and danger needs to be death with.

    I worked with Circle Sanctuary and still have much respect for it and its leaders but yet I will never be a group person, However there are things a larger group can do that individuals and small groups would have a difficult time dong by themselves, including large parcels of land that might prove us with sacred and safe space to get together on for larger gatherings on.

    Might I point out it was Circle that got me involved in my first political action doing, stopping Senator Jesse Helms from denying non profit groups of either Witches, or Satanists, from having the same bulk mail rates allowed to other non-profit ad religious groups. That was in the middle of the growing power of the Religious Right, Moral Majority and we were in the midst of the Satanic Child Abuse scare.

    By postcard Circle alerted, as did some other Pagan groups, of this bill in committee that looked like a shoe-in. Nevertheless by post cards and letter, enough of them came in so that the bill never got out of committee. So a sure thing died because of Pagans working together,

    The convinced me that a small minority could affect politics and other things if they worked together actively and didn’t let all their differences to tear them apart. I am still an activist even now. now cooperating with Pagan groups in various parts of the world, by interviews ad publish their success here and there problems s that we Americans know what is happening and in personally taking part n letter to the editors in various countries, in those countries. But that was a legacy from my experience with Circle Sanctuary that stays with me inspire of being a solitary.

    So though I am not a group person much less large grip person, I see possible value in allowing those that are to create their groups and not tell them that they should be solitary like I am. We do claim our strength is our variety so make it so and let each move in their own direction, but allow for cooperation when it helps us all.

  • http://www.eyeofhorus.biz/ JR Hansen

    I honestly don’t see the need for a vs. why not an and? Institutions AND Counterculture. If we are Poly in our beliefs, why not in our structures and communities? Why not absolutely embrace both? Each serves a purpose, one to provide stability and the other to challenge existing paradigms and continue to grow.

    • kenofken

      I don’t see the overarching issue as a binary “institutions or counterculture choice. If I dare speak of us as a movement, however fragmented, I think we are, as a whole, supremely countercultural about institutions. Wherever our paths have taken us, whether we want to own the “pagan” label or not, I will make a sweeping presumption that almost none of us took the journey we did because someone told us “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

      Certainly for all of us not born into pagan families, our entire journey began with a radical act – a decision to live as we are called, not as we are told. That pattern repeats itself on the macro level where institutions are concerned. I don’t think we’re anti-institution as such. It’s more the case that we refuse to uncrtitically mold ourselves into the Judeo-Christian templates of “institution” in order to gain societal approval or mainstream cache.

      We have seen how the obsession with bricks and mortar and money and hierarchy has hollowed out other spiritual movements and drained them of all authenticity. Consider the Catholic Church. Nobody made the leap from counterculture to institution like they have. They grabbed the One Ring of power with both hands and held it for 15 centuries. What did it get them? They went from a force that literally brought emperors to their knees to an outfit whose moral stock these days trades close to Scientology in the Western World. Centuries of brutal repression and starvation couldn’t shake the Irish from Catholicism. Institutional rot did it in a decade.

      The current pope is defining his entire tenure by trying to get out from under the very institutions he commands. He is so leery of their corrupting influence he won’t even live next door to them! While we lust after his palaces and cathedrals and financial infrastructure, he’s trying to get Catholics to live their faith more like a day at PSG. Think about that.

      Clearly we haven’t closed off all consideration of institutions. We have many of them. The difference is that we insist (wisely), that institutions, if they are to exist, must take the form and number that serve who WE are (on whatever scale), not conventional wisdom about what “real” institutions should look like. We set a pretty high bar for the formation of institutions. Basically, there has to be an overwhelming need, it has to have strong buy-from all the constituencies it proposes to serve, and it has to remain relevant, justifying its existence on a regular, if not daily basis. Very few clear that bar. Those that do, thrive – Circle Sanctuary, PSG, COG, Wild Hunt, a number of others I can’t think of at this hour of the morning. Do they look and work just like the big-name Christian churches on every corner? No, but that’s because we’re not them. (Based on the declining fortunes of many Christian institutions, “they” are no longer them either).

      If and when we ever have the megachurch buildings and paid pastors and all the rest, it will be because particular traditions evolve an understanding of communal spirituality which demand those things and are willing to pay the very significant costs in money (thousands a year, per family), time and surrender of personal autonomy. It will not happen because of some collective consensus by “the community” or because someone it’s time to take on all those things as evidence that we’ve “grown up” as a movement.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        It is a serious flaw to look at the “template of institution” as Judeo-Christian. They were not the first to build temples, after all.

        Without organisation, how do you think that the pre-Christian peoples of Europe (and other areas) managed to have permanent temple structures (whether we are talking about the Parthenon, local shrines or the various buildings mentioned by Pope Gregory in his letter to Mellitus)?

        What they had is support of their community. Which, at the moment, Pagans and Heathens do not.

        • kenofken

          The template we’re measuring ourselves against are primarily those of modern churches. We can look to the ancient pagan world to get ideas for business models which might suit us better.

          At the same time, it would be a great oversimplification to say that the old pagans had cool things and we don’t because they were just more willing to to band together. Pagan religion was the majority, default religion of those old empires and societies, and inseparable from the state itself. Temples like the Parthenon were built with tax money, spoils of war and sometimes the patronage of insanely wealthy citizens.

          Pagan religion was the basis of civic life and the projection and legitimization of state power. This model is not even remotely an option for us due to demographic realities and the structure of modern secular states.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I get it is a simplification, but it is still inherently true.

            I also think that the ancient model is one worth working towards.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            The problem is that we don’t have a great idea of exactly what those models WERE. We don’t know much about the structure and organization of the Temples/Clergy, even among the (comparatively well documented) Germanic tribes.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            We can hazard guesses or, at the very least, be inspired by what we do know to create something new.

            It seems that the hofu were funded by the community and maintained by the sācerd/goði who would likely have been trained by others in the same role.

            Obviously, the cultural differences between then and today are different enough that we are unlikely to be able to implement that, exactly, but we can use the concept as a basis for a new infrastructure – Have any buildings paid for by voluntary donation and, from any excess each hof generates, give a percentage for the training of new clergy via a centralised teaching of the clergy, but allow them to be fairly autonomous once invested.

          • Deborah Bender

            You might also want to look at the organizational model of rabbinical Judaism, particularly in the pre-industrial period before it got partially assimilated to a Protestant model. This system is decentralized and incorporates a great deal of local autonomy. It’s based on local meeting places paid for by the communities that use them, a large number of congregants studying at least part time in the same meeting place used for communal prayer, and lay prayer leaders following a generally agreed on form of worship.

            Every
            congregation controls its own money and runs its own worship services.
            It may or may not have a full time rabbi, engaged by mutual agreement.

            Rabbis, whose learning exceeds that of the lay prayer leaders, have formal authority from being ordained by another rabbi. Beyond that, their authority is based on respect for their learning, personal qualities and whatever services they provide. Rabbis are needed as teachers but most rituals can be performed without their assistance.

            The Jewish model depends on having a community within easy traveling distance, large enough to support the expenses of a meeting house. If the local community is large and dense enough, it can support more than one local synagogue, giving people a choice. There are jokes about Jews who belong to one synagogue refusing to set foot in another one, but this is based on personal preferences about the style of services, the rabbi or the members of the congregation, not on any doctrinal issue.

            To operate something like this as a Heathen community, you need at least two things: 1) enough people who choose to get together on a regular basis for activities relating to their religion and who are willing to pay for a regular place to gather; 2) agreement among these people that there is a body of knowledge or skills relating to their religion that takes some time to acquire, and that people who take the time to acquire those skills and knowledge will be given opportunities to lead religious activities and to teach others.

            If the body of knowledge is capable of being written down and passed on by a combination of reading and personal instruction, there is no need for centralizing the teaching.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Numbers is the big issue, really. There are two option for that – either existing Heathens move to be in proximity with one another or more effort is made to increase the number of people in the existing area that become Heathen.

            I’d favour a combination approach, myself.

            If a body of knowledge is written down, then it is centralised.

          • Northern_Light_27

            I may be completely wrong in this given that I’m able to do very little in person, but this looks like how Northeastern US heathenry has organized itself. I’m also thinking of the old notion that “you’re a gothi if you can call yourself one and your community doesn’t laugh”.

          • Alyxander M Folmer

            In the Jewish community there is a long standing tradition of apprenticeship among Orthodox Rabbis. You work under the guidance of another Rabbi for a while (Usually a number of years) and then that Rabbi recommends you for the job when they think you’re ready.

            In recent decades though, this tradition has become less common. Instead they use Rabbinical college institutions to train Rabbis in a specific denomination. That graduate is then expected to find a synagogue and adapt to their specific belief structure (which varies from congregation to congregation).

            I’ve noted a similar trend in many Pagan traditions. People are favoring clergy that have some form of “official-ish” training. (Like the Clergy programs from the ADF or Cherry Hill).

            So (In the context of Heathenry) would you advocate for a return to the apprenticeship program, or follow the current trend towards clergy training institutions?

            I think there are strengths to both, but I’d like to see what you think.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            At the moment, I am studying carpentry at college. On the same course as me, there are apprentices. They come in for two days a week, the rest of the time they are in the workplace.

            A similar set-up would work well for a priesthood.

            It would, of course, depend on what roles a priest would have. In the CofE (the model of established organised religion I am most familiar with), for example, the priest also acts as a counsellor – someone to talk to when life is tough.

            If we wanted our Heathen priests to fulfil that kind of a role, I would much rather they actually had formal training in counselling that just having their heart in the right place.

          • Deborah Bender

            I agree.
            That’s one of the programs Cherry Hill Seminary offers, a professional level counseling curriculum for pagans and heathens who include counseling in the activities they do as priests/clergy/godi whatever.

            It’s primarily a distance learning program, so I presume it’s available in the UK.

            Cherry Hill was created to offer pagan clergy the kind of organized college or postgraduate level courses that are taught in seminaries of other religions. They have a website.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Honestly, I’ve not really looked at it. May be worthwhile for me, though.

      • http://www.eyeofhorus.biz/ JR Hansen

        Nice. I like the idea of a re-definition of institutions for the counterculture, rather than adopting the models which work pretty well to oppress rather than empower. The argument against creating new types of institutions is that is our model isn’t viewed as legitimate we lose a place at the table, but I think some diversity is starting to creep into those definitions, and we’ve already proven the success of alternative structures. Seeds of the counterculture are being planted in the over-culture thanks to more community-based organizations and even not-just-for profit corporations cropping up as a new legal definition, with sustainability built into bylaws and systems.

        • kenofken

          I would also argue that mimicking the big traditional church institutions is becoming less necessary in the new century. They are rapidly losing the exclusive lock hold on respectability. The momentum is with “spiritual but not religious” and “nones”. Credibility, a place at the table, comes through participation, not title.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Getting to the table can be a tricky thing, anyway.

            Has the Vatican changed its stance on getting involved with interfaith with Pagan (and Heathen) religions, yet?

  • g75401

    Hmmmmm….institutions tend to support the “status quo”-as in the more they have invested in society (buildings, status, money), the more they act to maintain that society-for good or ill. I’m fairly certain the early followers of Jesus and Paul would be stunned to see how their at one time iconoclastic faith has been transformed into dozens of sects, all of which support greed, intolerance, division, ignorance, and bigotry. Plus I think emphasis on having a building and a hierarchical clergy takes away from the spirit of naturalism and immanence. While I appreciate the fact that many pagans face discrimination and work and in court, the answer is not to make our philosophy more like xtianity, the answer is to more aggressively utilize legal protections already in place.

    • Nick Ritter

      “the answer is not to make our philosophy more like xtianity…”

      The thing is, though, that there have been plenty of religions in history that were certainly not Christian or otherwise Abrahamic, that had buildings and priestly hierarchies, and that had room for, as you put it, “the spirit of naturalism and immanence.” Any religion of any pre-Christian civilization can serve as an example of this. As such, I disagree that institutions such as brick-and-mortar buildings and priestly hierarchies necessarily detract from the naturalism and immanence you are talking about; it is simply a matter of finding how they work best together in any given tradition. Clearly, they have worked together in the past.

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

        This is a good example of why it is useful and important to understand what really distinguishes pre-Christian polytheistic religious traditions from Christianity. When we get this wrong it leads to endless confusion and, what is worse, to a false sense that we are following one tradition when we are actually doing the opposite.

    • Deborah Bender

      I don’t think all Christian sects support greed, intolerance, division, ignorance, and bigotry. That is a very sweeping assertion.

      Protestant churches in England and America were among the leaders in abolishing the international slave trade, slavery in the U.S. and Jim Crow laws. I see churches doing more to help the homeless and the very poor than most other organized groups do.

  • justplainwyrd

    I hesitate to participate in groups these days because I feel doing so suggests I support the religious views and/or practices of everyone else at the table. I don’t think all paths and practices are valid and/or healthy, but I recognize neither is voicing these disagreements as a clarifier before working together.

    l would like to see an organization based on a separation of bureaucratic and religious authority. I would then like to see individual and groups voluntarily surrender any claims of religious authority while working on behalf of this group.

    In theory, the group accomplishes something and the chosen spokesperson that day diverts all recognition to the group. They are asked of their own path, and they decline to comment, explaining that as a group all members operate as simply Pagans. No self promotion whatsoever. If somebody else wants to delve into the speakers public pagan profile and spread that, fine – but I feel the statement will have been made.

  • aidanakelly

    This a brillliant essay. Jason. Bravo!!! One factor you do not mention. Are you familiar with Michael York’s _The Emerging Network_? In it he proposes that the SPIN model (Segmented Polycentric Integrated Network). which he adapted from sociologists who were studying the New Age movement, I think, describes the actual high=level decisionmaking pattern in the movement, at least for those who call themselves Witches of some variety. It does make sense of some long-term patterns. I’ll tell you more backchannel.

  • Lomaz Wurdimanni

    I’ll come down (almost) unequivocally on the side of institutions. Institutions are real and have tangible benefits. Counterculture is a very vague ideal which, to be perfectly honest, has little to no spiritual worth to me in and of itself. Yes, I think elements of the overculture are unhealthy. Yes, I hope that my religion provides an alternative to these unhealthy elements. I do not have any interest in attacking the overculture just because heathen/pagan/polytheist = counterculture somehow.
    I would love to see a flourishing variety of temples, denominations, charitable societies, and seminaries in every community in the world. I would love to be able to send my kids to a heathen summer camp, or attend a funeral at my local Hellenic temple. Is my hope that these institutions would be local and responsibly administered? Of course. Would I lose sleep because the heathen seminary my kid attends is insufficiently radical and countercultural? I have a really hard time picturing that.
    It’s not that I think this debate is a bad one so much as I think it is premature. If, in my twilight years, my biggest concern for the heathen/pagan/polytheist community is that its just become way too accepted and mainstream I will be able to die a happy man.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      In the UK, we have the Arbitration Act (1996 England & Wales; 2010 Scotland) that allows people to form Arbitration tribunal courts.

      There have been news articles about Jewish Beth Din courts and Islamic Sharia courts being set up with this legislation. To the point that some people believe that this law is solely to allow the legalising of Sharia rule in the UK.

      It is not true. Anyone group can form an arbitration tribunal court to settle civil disputes, where both parties agree to abide by the ruling of the court. They do not have the authority to contradict UK law, nor do they have the power to inflict otherwise illegal penalties.

      I would love to see this act used for Heathen (and Pagan and other) Arbitration courts to be set up.

      If nothing else, it is a stepping stone to bigger things.

      • Lomaz Wurdimanni

        I agree that such courts would be a positive development, if for no other reason than providing an avenue to model those values that provide a genuine alternative to the mainstream culture.
        Personally, it is the summer camp example I mentioned that I would most like to see. My own experience at summer camp was absolutely fundamental to my formation. A heathen camp would be such an amazing asset to the growth and promotion of the community.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          Summer camps would be amazing, but they require significant infrastructure and outlay to provide. If nothing else, insurance will be needed, as will Enhanced Criminal Record Background Checks (or the local equivalent), not to mention appropriate training for the camp leaders.

          I am not suggesting for a moment that these issues are insurmountable, but I think they do require the stability that a decent infrastructure provides.

          • Lomaz Wurdimanni

            Absolutly it is way off in the future.. I was just allowing myself to dream for a minute. I am all for organization and infrastructure. It really bothers me that I live in what has to be the most pagan state in the US (I have no numbers, but it would shock me if another state had a higher per capita incidence of paganism given our tiny population and the wealth of solitary pagans I know in Vermont), with only one above ground pagan organization that I’m aware of (the Green Mountain Druid Order). There are tons of us doing our own thing individually or in small, informal groups, but with just a bit of that organization and infrastructure you keep mentioning we could be a pretty major cultural force in this little state.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Keep dreaming. But do not just dream – chase it!

            If it is something you want, plan for it. If not you, then who?

          • 12StepWitch

            It isn’t that unfeasible. The Reclaiming tradition does summer camps every year, and does ones that include children. What they DON”T do is camps where you send your children off to be taken care off–instead they are family camps, where you can BRING your children.

        • Northern_Light_27

          I’ve a friend who is Heathen, owns a campground, runs a kid-focused summer Heathen festival, and is always thinking about ways to do more kid- and family-focused things at her campground. I have no idea where you live, but perhaps something awesome could come of you sharing your ideas with her? If you’d like and you don’t mind sharing an email address, feel free to comment with a way to email you and I’ll see what I can do to get you in touch with her.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Of such conversations can amazing things be born.

            Chance or the subtle hands of the gods?

  • John W. Morehead

    I did my MA thesis at a Protestant seminary on Burning Man Festival. I discussed its counterculture aspects, and noted how difficult it is more such things to stay counter to the culture, and to resist the impulses to move toward or become in some sense mainstream. I don’t know that it’s possible. It’s almost as if there’s a cycle of wherein mainstream institutions create situations that lead to countercultural movements, these maintain a high tension with the culture for a time, but that eventually lessens, which can then lead to new countercultural or revitalization movements and responses. Incidentally, something similar could be said of Christianity, which began as a counter-imperial cult (among other things), and which then became mainstream with Constantine.

    • Henry Buchy

      it’s an overton window type thing

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      It’s a numbers game.

      A concept starts off as a minority ideal then, with dedication from people, it gains momentum and becomes a movement. After a while, the numbers of people drawn to the concept grow until they hit a critical mass and suddenly they are not a minority any more.

      Once that happens, it cannot be counter to culture, but part of it.

      I don’t get why anyone would not want that to happen with something they feel strongly (favourably) about.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    ATTN NORTHERN LIGHTS 27: As promised, I checked with my congregation’s Sunday School director. OWL does not have any default for a student being gay or het; they are what they are and the information imparted is what it is. And BGLTQQIA folk were involved in authorship. The current frontier of inclusion is trans.

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    My anarcho-socialist polytheist pagan heart utterly rejoices at the fact that this discussion is taking place.

    Hooray, all of you. : )

  • Sharon Knight

    I am late to this discussion but as it is dear to me I’ll weigh in. For my part, I became a Pagan to experience life, and myself, as more fully a part of the soul of nature. I do not need institutions to do this. In fact, I fear that without significant awareness and imagination, we are likely to fall into the same arc that Christianity has, ossifying into dogmas and power struggles. Of course I also have good friends who are all for institutionalizing, and I have great respect for them. I think it can be done without falling int the same traps that religions tend to fall into, but it is going to take vigilant intention and awareness of the pitfalls. It is going to take imagination that does not fall into habitual thinking. Are we up to this? I am not sure.

    For me, the magico-religious experience happens in the course of life itself, in recognizing the divinity inherent everywhere, in the soul of nature, in the awareness of the miracle of life, in the realization of immanence. I don’t need a special place to do this, or indeed, even ritual, a good part of the time. I just need a place free of distraction (often nature) and the will to get quiet and still. The simple act of getting present reveals that it is all right there, all the time.

    I hear those who say that they want the institutions as protection. I echo the sentiment that we can do this through existing legal means.

    Ultimately, Paganism is going to go the way it always goes – in several different directions. I think this is generally okay. Some will form churches. I may even occasionally visit these churches. Those that ossify or become fraught with drama, I will avoid. As I do now. For my part, I will continue to be a voice for Paganism as a worldview that we incorporate into our day to day lives. For me, educating the world about what Paganism is is far more important than whether we have formal churches and such.

    As I’ve said before, the day that Pagaism becomes “Same religion, different Gods” is going to be a sad day for me. I don’t think this has to happen, but it is going to take some inspired work on the part of those who are working for institution to prevent it.

    That’s my 2 cents. If anyone wants me, I’ll be running barefoot on the beach.