[The following report was written by Joanne Young Elliott, and was originally published at PNC-Southern California. It is being republished here with the permission of the author.]
The tenth annual Conference on Current Pagan Studies this past weekend in Claremont brought to bear the research of two dozen scholars and alternative religious activists to consider issues including Pagan identity, racism and homophobia within the community and the environmental impact of what has often been referred to as an “earth-based religion.”
The Feb. 8-9 conference at Claremont Graduate University, an official event of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont, focused upon the theme “Relationships with the World.” It fittingly began with a video from Patrick McCollum, a Wiccan Priest who has been invited to represent American paganism the UN and to large religious gatherings around the world. The video was a hello to us from India as he made his way to the Mahayaga in Kerala. Patrick was invited to co-facilitate this multi-million person spiritually-based event. He stated in his video that, “We need a new narrative that includes everyone.” He believes that within Paganism we have an inclusive story.
There were twenty-three conference presenters including the two keynote speakers, Lon Milo DuQuette and Crystal Blanton. Everyone had something interesting to say, but I will only give an overview of important highlights for the Pagan community. You can see the full list of presenters here along with the titles of their papers. If you want a detailed account of all the speakers you can check out Tony Mierzwicki’s blog, The Emerald Tablet. (To be up within the next couple of days.)
Joseph Futerman in his paper “The Burning Times Bugaboo—Using Fear to Create Insiders in Contemporary Paganism” asked us: “Why do we keep this myth of destruction, sadness and loss alive?” It hasn’t stopped genocides. He later went on to say that he was using the word “myth” to mean story or narrative and not an untruth, but a greater truth. What is that greater truth we think we are telling ourselves and what does the myth of the Burning Times give us? He suggested that it gives us our identity, the Insider versus the Outsider. He then asked a few more questions:
- What is the effect of interacting from fear, suspicion and anger?
- What is the effect of claiming that we are the disempowered few?
- Is this what we seek to teach?
Joseph likes to ask questions, at some point later in the conference he said, “I only ask questions, I don’t have the answers.” This is what this conference is all about. And his provocative questions sparked some interesting comments during the Q&A. Sabina Magliocco talked about the trope of the disempowered and identity and how that has helped create some important movements like Feminism and the Civil Rights Movement. Joseph suggested that working from this identity ultimately leads to war in terms of things like the war on poverty. He also mentioned that embracing this role means we’re agreeing with those who think we shouldn’t be here. There was a lot to contemplate.
So what else do Pagans have in common? Pagan therapist Scott Gilliam presented “The Reemergence of the Pagan Soul and Its Voice in the World.” In his research he discovered twelve shared themes amongst Pagans who became Pagan and were not brought up Pagan. One of them was that feeling of coming home once they discovered there was such a thing as Paganism. The most important theme in terms of the conference topic was a feeling of purpose in the world. He said Pagans see themselves as active, not passive participants in the unfolding of history. Patrick McCollum is a perfect example of this shared theme. Scott also speculated that there is a pagan dimension to the soul that has long been neglected in our society and is now reemerging for a reason.
Paganism seems to be going through an identity crisis with much discussion going on around the Internet about whether or not we should be using Pagan as an umbrella term. What kind of relationship can we have with the rest of the world while breaking up if that’s what is happening?
One relationship that has been going on a long time is that between Pagans and Christians. Sam Webster addressed this in his paper: “The Relationship of Christianity with Paganism.” This paper came about when he got an intense response to his blog post on Patheos: “Beginning the Pagan Restoration” in which he stated “And, no, you can’t worship Jesus Christ and be a Pagan.” And the subsequent post: “Why You Can’t Worship Jesus Christ and Be Pagan.” The flurry of over 300 comments gave Sam some data to work with regarding the Pagan community. Here are a couple of things that he came up with:
- There is a need for better identity formation and education in history and theology in the Pagan community.
- A deeper discussion about authority is needed because we are framing things in a Christian way.
Although recently more people report that they are “Christian Pagans,” Sam sees Christianity as a threat. Christianity is a challenge to anyone or culture that is not it and he said he doesn’t want to see the dilution of Paganism.
Margaret Froelich: “The Maiden, the Mother and the Other One: Testing the Triple Goddess for a Feminist World” and Amy Hale: “Cell Block Arcadia: “Nature Religion” and the Politics of Being Pagan” both brought up ideas about how the frameworks and names we use may not fit us and what we actually practice. Margaret said that we should make sure our symbols reflect our values and that the triple goddess model doesn’t fit our modern life, it’s not inclusive enough. Amy argued that calling Paganism a “Nature Religion” may replicate an antimodernist view and perpetuate “noble savage” ideology. By using this as a claimed characteristic of Paganism, Amy states that it may impact the potential ability of Pagan groups to develop.
In terms of Pagan history which is often thought of in terms of our ancient ancestors several presenters in this conference have been investigating our more recent past as a way to help us build our identity and relate to the world we live in today.
Jacqueline Rochelle in “Psycho-Magickal Analysis of the Industrial Revolution and the Rise of Contemporary Paganism” suggests that modern Paganism emerged in the tension between industrialization and the agnostic counter culture.
Armando D “Murtagh An Doile” Marini in “Proto-Pagans: Precursors of the Modern Pagan Movement – Seeking the Themes of Myth and Magic in the American Experience (1850 to 1975)” also sees the Industrial Era as the place where modern Paganism begins. He states three great awakenings:
- 1731-1755 – Great religious tolerance reigned.
- 1790-1840 – Period of the Transcendentalists, Mesmerism, Spiritualists and Theosophists.
- 1850-1900 – The social gospels emerge.
Murtagh’s wife Elizabeth Rose-Marini in “Mythic Landscapes: California and the West Coast – 19th Century Utopias, Cultural Creatives, Health Pioneers and Proto-Pagans” looks at a particular group to give us a sense of what the “Proto-Pagans” were doing and how what they did is connected to what we do now. The Temple branch of the Theosophical Movement used the four quarters in their rites, wanted spirituality to be useful, and empowered women.
There is so much more to their research than I can give here. Please follow them and the Pagan History Project here.
The work of Kimberly Kirner: “Relating to Nature: Spiritual Practice and Sustainable Behavior” and Sabina Magliocco’s “Animal Afterlives” brought out some interesting and somewhat surprising information about Pagans.
Kimberly discovered through her research that the practice of Paganism does not lead to environmentally sustainable behavior. There are non-Pagans who live a sustainable life. Though many Pagans practice small acts of recycling and reusing, this behavior does not reduce overall consumption. Kimberly did find that Pagans that practice in groups did more outdoor ritual and connecting to place. The non-solitary was more likely to be an activist, according to her data. She ended her presentation with a question: “What is our relationship with the earth and its creatures with whom we claim connection?”
Sabina’s work centered on how Pagans confer spiritual personhood on their pets. She noted that this wasn’t something special to Pagans. She discovered that 81% of her survey respondents believed animals have souls regardless of religious affiliation. Like Kimberly’s findings, Sabina noted that Pagans are not as likely to make the personal and political sacrifices for animals that animal workers, who are often atheists, do. Pagans tend to work with animals spiritually.
During the Q&A Sabina mentioned that anthropomorphizing animals began in the mid-1800s with the rise of industrialization. The distance from animals due to the move to urban centers allowed this to take place. Kimberly noted that farm workers don’t see animals as having souls. She noticed a difference between the rural and urban Pagan in this matter. Sam Webster joined the discussion saying that our culture needs to change at the systems level. All the little things we do are not making a difference, he maintained. He believes that religion might be the way to change enough hearts and minds to have a major impact. Kimberly and Sabina pondered how Paganism can be that religion when there is a major dissonance between ideals and action. They did remind us that Pagans are more likely to take action if they belong to groups. Sam thought that it was not just actions, but the act of living a meaningful life that was the key.
Some disturbing information was provided by Tony Mierzwicki: “Ancient Greek Racism, Homophobia and Misogyny?” and Kat Robb: “A Study of Lesbiphobia in the Pagan Community”. This discrimination isn’t just in the past as shared by Marie Cartier – who read from her new book: Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars and Theology Before Stonewall. Both Tony and Kat brought up specific examples of current racism and homophobia within the Pagan community.
Tony shared an online discussion filled with hate speech by a Greek Reconstructionist. He went on to describe how Ancient Greece was filled with racism, homophobia and misogyny. There is a need to be careful when recreating these various Paganisms. As mentioned earlier by Amy Hale and Margaret Froelich, we need to question whether or not what we do has relevance in our modern world.
Kat Robb’s survey showed that even in what she thought of as an inclusive, sexually open religion there are exclusionary tendencies in some individuals and groups. She shared a personal experience of exclusion that left her in tears.
Keynote speaker Crystal Blanton gave a powerful and moving presentation, “Cultural Empathy, Collective Understanding and Healing within the Pagan Community.” She said that Paganism has grown beyond the bounds we have set for ourselves so this healing is important. Paganism needs to include more than just Euro-centric cultures now, she suggested. In the past Crystal said she felt she had to leave a part of herself – her black culture – outside the circle, but she no longer chooses to do so. She asks: Can we have a relationship with the world if we can’t be authentic with each other?
She goes on to talk about how we can heal this in such a diverse community. We need to truly listen to one another and not assume to know another’s cultural story. All of us need to be able to feel safe to be fully who we are in all of our communities. She let us know that “It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about understanding. In order to learn, you must unlearn what you think you know about diversity, cultures and people.” She provided us with so much more information shared with much love for this community. If you’d like to know more about the resources she shared you can contact her via her website.Lon Milo DuQuette’s talk was called “Good and Evil? Get Over It!” and as always he entertained us while enlightening us. He shared his music and wisdom. Through his story of a personal experience of awakening he realized at more than an intellectual level that all is one. He connects to this one via the god Ganesha. He says you get over the idea of evil by expanding your consciousness to include everything. Though we are all unique it’s important to remember Lon’s message as we move forward as a community.
These conversations I’m sure will continue this weekend at PantheaCon. If you are going, seek out those I’ve mentioned. Talk to them. Listen. Ask questions. Share your ideas. Be a part of the conversation. Carry the conversation out beyond the walls of any conference. It’s important at this time when the world needs a new story, a new paradigm. Paganism/Paganisms are coming of age and have something important to offer to the world.