In the final article of our series “Pagans on Campus 2014,” we discuss the challenges and hurdles that lay before young Pagans as they reach out beyond campus life and beyond the comforts of the Pagan Student Association. If backlash is not the biggest problem, what is? The students also share their thoughts on the future of Paganism as a whole. What would they like to see as they continue their religious journey over next twenty years?What is the biggest obstacle facing young Pagans as they explore their chosen spiritual paths?
Syracuse University Chaplain Mary Hudson says, “Being young and not finding teachers or mentors that are willing to work with them. Students are hungry for learning and they are full of energy. I have heard many young Pagans talk about being frustrated for not be treated well.”
Hudson’s comment was echoed by other advisers who regularly interact with college Pagans. Jeff Mach, a Rutgers University graduate, says, “It is incredibly hard to get taken seriously while you’re young and everyone in a position of power tends to assume you don’t have enough life experience to know what you’re doing.”
Interestingly, Pagan students did not cite this as an issue at all. The biggest obstacle for most of the them was the attaining of valid religious and spiritual information. Nick Nelson, president of Ball State University’s Society for Earth-based Religions (SER), said, “Young pagans need access to quality and accurate information on Paganism. That means more than just books.” He believes that young Pagans have limited opportunities to experience ritual or interact with other Pagans outside the small campus sphere. He adds, “The leaders of Pagan [organizations] have to be creative in how they are getting information out there for younger members.”Sarah Morgan, a Druid at the University of Georgia (UGA), wishes there was more available information on non-Wiccan practices. She says, “I think the biggest obstacle for young Pagans is for them to find a Path that truly fits them … You don’t have to follow a specific path word for word. You don’t always have to be Wiccan.” Morgan says that most authors who write specifically for young people are Wiccan. She adds, “We need more options out there.”
It may seem surprising that in a so-called information age it is the information itself that is the biggest obstacle. Several Pagan students specifically said that the Internet is as much of an hurdle as it is an asset. Jackson Elfin, a Heathen studying at BSU, explains “The Internet can breed things that are erroneous and dangerous, and teens have a risk of finding things that are unsafe/untrue … a big need in Pagan education is learning how to sort out the good stuff from the bad.”
Sabine Green, adviser of New Mexico State University (NMSU) Pagan Student Association, notes, “Students are at a pivotal point in their spiritual journey … it is so important to find valid teachers and traditions. It is vital that [elders] help steer the up-and-coming generation to explore and stay safe.” Green feels that guidance is absolutely essential because one of the biggest dangers for young Pagans is exploitation.
Looking at the greater Pagan experience, what would you like to see happen over the next 20 years?Several of the students would simply like to see global acceptance of the various religious practices that fall under the Pagan umbrella. Wiccan student, Suretha Thacker, says, “I would like to be able to say, ‘I’m off to celebrate Lughnasadh,’ and have no one give me a puzzled look.” Heather Sky Cybele, a recent Purdue graduate, has a similar dream saying, “I would love to see Pagans be open about their religion, just as Christians and Jews are, without being considered crazy.”
Morgan adds, “Many Pagans are becoming a lot more comfortable with coming out … this allows young Pagans to not only feel accepted but also lets them have the resources to grow on their Paths.”Elfin would also liked to see greater acceptance. He adds, “The establishment of spaces for Pagans is important … I know that gaining land is a way to survival because no matter how much we talk about legislation or representation, the religion game is ultimately landocratic.” Looking into the future, Elfin sees Pagans gaining more prominence by owning more land on which to practice and celebrate.
With land ownership and event sponsorship come structure and organization. Most of the young Pagans interviewed want to see cohesion and community-building in the coming years. Nelson says, “It will be much easier for a united Pagan community to gain public acceptance rather than every denomination working individually.”
UGA student Angela Riverio adds, “I feel that part of the reason that we hide so much is because we are divided and that makes us more vulnerable. Separation of practices is perfectly fine, but when a group is being pressured by an outside force, making allies really helps.”Many of these students, like those at UGA or BSU, are coming from a campus environment that supports a well-structured, supported Pagan association that thrives within a cultural microcosm. Such a level of community organization may be difficult to find or replicate beyond campus life. However, with the growing development and interest in campus Pagan groups, this next generation of Pagans might be “growing up” with an entirely different understanding of community-building, including the benefits and downfalls of such work.
Caity Wallace, president of Drexel University’s Pagan Association (DUPA), says, “Pagans tend to be a decentralized, somewhat religiously anarchist lot, which is great for a lot of things, but it doesn’t lend itself to helping a new cohort enter the community.” She would like to see more strides in community organization that assist new seekers, both young and old. Wallace adds, “Right now I’m seeing the community splintering a bit … However I’ve also been seeing the community be more aggressive about policing itself … and that gives me hope. So in the next 20 years, I see us becoming a much more diverse group, with more accountability.”Paul Blessing, former president of Rutgers University Pagan Association, says:
Honestly Paganism appears to be simmering down … It’s becoming more of an accepted form of religion, and with that comes a sense of mundanity. This could be good or bad. On the good side, it will allow more people to explore Paganism without fear of negative social and familial consequences … On the other hand, I have to admit, I’m kinda afraid of Paganism getting “old and fat” like the rest of mainstream religions.
There were several other wishes for the future, including the embracing of technology and the building of community centers. Two students turned a critical eye on their own generation in expressing the hope that more young Pagans develop an interest in learning. Veloblom Vigjaldrsdottir, an Asatru student at Nazareth College, explains, “The more you understand your faith and beliefs, the more you understand yourself … Sadly younger Pagans that I meet don’t tend to share that ideology.” She finds that trait primarily in “elderly adults” who convert to Paganism. Vigjaldrsdottir hopes to see a strengthening of the bridge between the various generations so that “we can learn collectively.”
As the African proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Dr. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, adviser to the Pagan Student Union at Skagit Valley College, Whidby Island Campus, says:
To anyone who considers advising such a group … never underestimate what might be possible if you simply ask. We have been able to secure funding [from the school] for attendance of some of our students [to] the Polytheist Leadership Conference … It has been an excellent opportunity to … do something of lasting importance and meaning for members of our community.
Chaplain Mary Hudson adds, “The young Pagans are the future and what we teach is what we will harvest. The students are smart, they are informed in ways that we never dreamed and they are eager to be full, productive members of Pagan communities. Accept their enthusiasm and be honest with them (not brutal) and enjoy the ride.”
To read the previous two articles: