Archives For Claremont Graduate University

[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.”

Friday night celebration with cake. Photo by Charles Elliott.

Friday night celebration with cake. Photo by Charles Elliott.

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.

Crystal Blanton. Photo by Charles Elliott.

Crystal Blanton. Photo by Charles Elliott.

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.

Lon Milo DuQuette. Photo by Charles Elliott.

Lon Milo DuQuette. Photo by Charles Elliott.

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.

[The following is a guest post from Patrick Wolff. Wolff is a professor of religious studies and holds a PhD in the history of religious thought. His interests include studying religion and Romanticism, playing Classical and Celtic music, and reading science fiction/fantasy literature. Spiritually he’s either openly eclectic or hopelessly muddled, depending on who you ask.]

The ninth annual Conference on Current Pagan Studies met at Claremont Graduate University in the city of Claremont, California on January 26-27. This is a unique academic conference, not only for its topical focus on Pagan Studies, but for its inclusion of both academic and non-academic Pagans as presenters. Both the conference theme and the selection of keynote speakers exemplified the desire to, as the tagline of the conference website puts it, bring “Academia and Community Together.” The conference theme, “Pagan Sensibilities in Action,” covered not only ritual and spiritual practice but history, art, social justice, environmental concerns, psychology, politics, and other topics. The theme reflected a concern that is current in many religions, a desire to explore the implications of one’s theology (or thealogy, or theoilogy, as the case may be) in all aspects of life.

The two keynote speakers embodied this theme, one a recognized scholar in the fields of folklore and anthropology and the other an activist with experience fighting for social justice as well as service through disaster relief and emergency care. Dr. Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge, and author of numerous books including Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America and Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole, presented a lecture titled “The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism.” Joking that she hoped to avoid being tarred and feathered, Magliocco identified two tendencies of Pagan Fundamentalism, both of which centered on the concept of belief. As a broad religious phenomenon, fundamentalists in all religions insist on a literalist interpretation of foundational texts, and demand conformity of belief as the primary marker of a genuine religious identity. Those who do not share these essential beliefs are viewed with suspicion, or rejected as imposters.

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

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

The first belief is in the literal historicity of the foundational narrative of paganism as an unbroken stream flowing from the ancient past to the present. This “received” view of Pagan (particularly Wiccan) history, shaped by Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner, holds that the Old Religion persisted throughout the centuries amidst persecution, passed down as a closely guarded secret to initiates into the present day. However, when subjected to the scrutiny of critical historical scholarship, the foundational myth of pure Paganism transmitted through the ages was revealed to be lacking in solid historical evidence. Revisionists, most notably English historian Ronald Hutton, author of Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, contended that Wicca was better understood as a new religious movement than as a preserved ancient one. Counter-revisionists, such as Ben Whitmore, author of Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft, have objected that Hutton overstated his case, ignoring or minimizing evidence for continuity in the transmission of Wicca (to which Hutton has replied in his article “Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History” in the most recent issue of Pomegranate). The claims of revisionist historians can come as quite a shock to Pagans who never had reason to question the received myth of Pagan origins, and while many were open to the new perspective, others experienced a crisis of cognitive dissonance which was countered by an uncritical insistence on the literal truth of the myth of pagan origins and a dismissal of, or attack on, revisionist arguments. Since the revisionist perspective presented Wicca as an eclectic, creative religious movement influenced by other forms of occultism and Romanticism, those most opposed to it were often those whose Paganism was heavily invested in the claim of possessing secret knowledge passed through carefully guarded secret initiations. This debate over Pagan origins is not merely an ivory tower discussion, since how Pagans view their past will shape their future.

The second tendency that has emerged in Pagan Fundamentalism is a belief in gods and goddesses as literal spiritual persons, formulated as a reaction against the emergence of humanistic paganism and panentheistic or archetypal interpretations of the divine. However, Magliocco argued, historically Wiccans have varied greatly in their theology, and found unity not in right belief, but in common practice. Against this non-dogmatic tradition of finding shared identity through ritual, Pagan Fundamentalists seek to exclude those who do not hold to their “orthodox” pagan belief in the nature of the gods. This is problematic, Magliocco argued, because it imported a criteria from the dominant Abrahamic faiths that was ill-suited to the ritual-focused nature of Paganism.

Why has belief emerged as a critical identity marker now, when it did not function this way in the past? Magliocco pointed to several reasons, such as a desire legitimate Paganism as a “real religion” in the eyes of adherents of other religions (which comes as a result of the growth in size and influence of Paganism), and a quest for certainty in a tumultuous marketplace of religious ideas (a motivating factor in the fundamentalist strand of all religions). But her third reason pointed to what would become a theme throughout much of the rest of the conference: the role of the Internet, and particularly comments on blogs, that dank and murky lair of trolls, where insults fly freely and rational reflection is beaten down by bombast. The Internet tends to encourage “enclaves of idiosyncratic views,” unchallenged by real-world interaction with those holding differing views, and provides a veil of anonymity that allows abusive behavior that would not be tolerated in face to face interactions. After her presentation, one questioner raised the intriguing possibility that the Internet actually encourages fundamentalism, since online (particularly in blogs and blog comments) individuals are easily reduced to text-based persons.

The second keynote address, “Stirring the Cauldron of Pagan Sensibilities,” was presented by  Peter Dybing, a national disaster team Section Chief with experience as a firefighter and EMT as well as serving on the board member 100% for Haiti and a former National First Officer of Covenant of the Goddess. Stressing is non-academic identity, Dybing challenged attendees to “suspend your academic approach, and access your emotions,” issuing a call to action rather than offering intellectual reflection. His first two points called for a new look at the questions of Pagan leadership and the role of elders. While acknowledging the strengths found in Traditional (hierarchical, individual-focused) and Organic (communal and local) models of leadership, as well as the dangers of what he termed Fantasy Leadership (the self-appointed blogger harassing his or her enemies online, “liked” by clique of online admirers ), Dybing drew from his experience in disaster relief to formulate a Transformative model of leadership, one that is mission-based and organizationally-focused. Leadership should not be limited to the Priest or Priestess as representatives of the God or Goddess, but should be shared based on recognition of diverse skills and expertise. On the related topic of Pagan elders, Dybing stressed the importance of honoring the body of work left by an elder without venerating the person. Elders, even after death, must be remembered as human beings, not saints.

Peter Dybing (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Peter Dybing at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Though the first part of presentation took up the majority of his time, it was in the second part that Dybing most fully revealed his own heart through a call to service as an expression of Pagan spirituality. It was in offering direct aid for the good of others, whether in international aid or in community service, that Dybing said he most fully felt the presence of the Goddess. In a time of environmental degradation, Dybing warned, we must expect a future of natural disasters on an unprecedented scale, and Pagans are uniquely qualified to respond to these challenges. While Magliocco made the case that Paganism should continue to value ritual action over belief, Dybing called on Pagans to pursue active service as a practice of Pagan spirituality.

The other twenty-five presentations were too varied and rich to be adequately summarized here, with topics ranging from theology to psychology, good pedagogy in the classroom to creating masks (and even the pedagogy of making masks), environmentalism, politics, and mysticism. One particularly exciting project described was the Pagan History Project, which will record oral histories of Pagans, similar to the oral history project being conducted by many universities of World War II veterans. Several times a desire was expressed to continue discussion after the conference ended, either on the conference website or Facebook page. This does not seem to have happened yet, but it would be another way to bring Pagan scholarship into conversation with the broader Pagan community. In addition to the thoughtful nature of the presentations, two other aspects of the conference are worth noting. First, there was an ethos of dialogue and conversation among the approximately fifty attendees, so much so that interaction between the presenter and audience sometimes broke out in the middle of a presentation, a rare occurrence in a typical academic conference. Second, the atmosphere of the conference could be described as convivial, with a great deal of laughter and good spirits. In this way, the conference itself was a manifestation of Pagan sensibility.

Pagan Studies has come under recent criticism by some for a lack of necessary critical distance from its subject (see, for example,, Markus Altena Davidsen, “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, available online). This criticism is not without merit. The calling of a scholar of religion is not to support the religion being studied, but to understand it, and the conclusions that come from scholarly inquiry are not always welcome to those being studied (hence Magliocco’s “tar and feathering” comment). Further, too much of an “insider” atmosphere can create an us-and-them dichotomy which distances or even excludes outsiders. The “them” could be non-insider scholars or practitioners of other religions, viewed as outsiders who can never really “get” those on the inside (some of this could be seen by the dramatic eye-rolling and snarky asides from one presenter whenever he made mention of Christian beliefs, something that would not be tolerated in other academic conferences). One Pagan Reconstructionist presenter admitted she had felt nervous about attending a conference of Wiccans and Neopagans, and while she was warmly welcomed, her initial misgivings say something about how the conference could be perceived by outsiders.

The lines of insider and outsider in scholarship are not always clear cut, however, and if there is a danger in insider scholarship designed to offer the benefits of scholarly insight to contribute to the flourishing of one’s own religious community, the opposite danger is scholarship for the sake of no one, except perhaps the expansion of the scholar’s own reputation (and ego). Granted that much of what academics call risky seems rather dreary to most people, the conference organizer, Dorothea Kahena Viale, should be commended for taking the risk of envisioning a conference that seeks to connect scholars with practitioners and intellectuals with activists. There must be a place for scholarship for the good of the community, and for Pagans, one place this can be found is the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.

ADDENDUM: For another perspective of the 2013 Conference on Current Pagan Studies, see Donald Michael Kraig’s blog at Llewellyn.com.

ADDENDUM II: I’d just like to note that this piece is an effort on Patrick Wolff’s part to convey the messages of the two keynote speakers, and of the general tone of this conference. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Mr. Wolff or any other Wild Hunt contributor. Our goal, as always, is to inform our readership about events that could impact the broader Pagan community. I (Jason) hope to weigh in soon with an editorial touching on some of the issues raised here.