Archives For The Rise of Liberal Religion

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

  • It’s Groundhog Day! That day of the year in which we all sit down to watch one of Bill Murray’s finest films. It’s also Candlemas
  • If you’re a dealer in outsider art, you simply must have a Witch. Quote: “When asked why she decided to participate in the fair for the first time this year, Santa Fe dealer Laura Steward succinctly explained, ‘One of my artists is a witch,’ referring to sculptor Erika Wanenmacher, a.k.a. Ditch Witch. ‘I like this fair because it’s more interested in people, in the artist’s minds.'”
  • More witchcraft-television is coming your way thanks to the Lifetime network. Quote: “Based on Melissa de la Cruz’s best-selling novel, Witches Of East End centers on the adventures of Joanna Beauchamp (Ormond) and her two adult daughters Freya (Dewan-Tatum) and Ingrid (Boston) — both of whom unknowingly are their family’s next generation of witches. Amick stars as Joanna’s mischievous witch sister Wendy.”Will the television series go as far as the novels? If so, it will be very Pagan-y indeed. 
  • The very first Parliament of the World’s Religion in 1893 wasn’t all handshakes and pluralism, Michael J. Altman at the Religion in American History blog points out that Swami Vivekananda (representing Hinduism  had some very pointed critiques of the dominant monotheisms that were essentially edited out of the official history. Quote: “We who come from the East have sat here on the platform day after day and have been told in a patronizing way that we ought to accept Christianity because Christian nations are the most prosperous. We look about us and we see England, the most prosperous Christian nation in the world with her foot on the neck of 250,000,000 of Asiatics. We look back into history and see that the prosperity of Christian Europe began with Spain. Spain’s prosperity began with the invasion of Mexico. Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellow men. At such a price the Hindoo will not have prosperity.” As is almost always the case, the truth is messier than the narrative crafted by history. 
  • Congratulations to Crystal Blanton on the publication of her new book, “Pain and Faith in a Wiccan World: Spirituality, Ethics and Transformation.” Quote:  “[The book] fuses spirituality and counseling concepts to add a deeper layer of personal growth and connection to living the Wiccan path. This book looks beyond the concepts of ritual and reaches into previously untouched territory within the Pagan book market to address thriving as a Pagan.” Crystal is a friend, and someone who truly walks her talk. Be sure to check this out. 
  • M. Macha Nightmare adds her own take on the recent Claremont Pagan Studies Conference. Quote: “Others have written about Sabina Magliocco’s keynote speech on Saturday on “The Rise of Pagan Fundamentalism.”  I will only add a few notions I jotted down.  She spoke of the fact that foundational narratives foster group cohesion, and the core experiences are those common to all people of all religions.  She pointed out that the reconstructed traditions are growing faster than witchen traditions, and that their practitioners tends to disdain syncretism.” For more on this, check out the guest post from Patrick Wolff here at The Wild Hunt

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

The traditional narrative has always been that as we grow more secular, more permissive as a society, theologically (though not necessarily politically) liberal religions fade with irrelevance, while theologically conservative faiths that stand athwart history would endure as they always have. But what if that’s not true? What if we were quantifying success in a manner that favored one side over another? That seems to be the topic of an upcoming book by religious studies professor Matt Hedstrom entitled: “The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century.”


“The story of liberal religion in the twentieth century is a story of cultural ascendancy  This may come as a surprise. Most scholarship in American religious history, after all, equates the numerical decline of the Protestant mainline with the failure of religious liberalism. Yet a look beyond the pews, into the wider culture, reveals a more complex and fascinating story. Here, we see that the defining features of religious liberalism—its cosmopolitanism; its engagement with the latest historical and scientific thought; its ethics; its focus on psychology, mysticism, and individual religious experience—arose among a spiritual vanguard in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but by the middle decades of the twentieth century had become commonplace among the American middle class. This book tells the story of how that happened.”

Even more interesting is the idea that modern Paganism could be included in the modern classification of “liberal religion,” especially if you compare and contrast liberal religion’s “book culture” with modern Paganism’s.

“The Rise of Liberal Religion attends especially to the critically important yet little-studied arena of religious book culture—particularly the religious middlebrow of mid-century—as the site where religious liberalism was most effectively popularized. […] by the post-WWII period the religious middlebrow had expanded beyond its Protestant roots, using mystical and psychological spirituality as a platform for interreligious exchange. This history of religion and book culture not only shows how reading and book buying were critical twentieth-century religious practices…”

There seems to be an argument that post-WWII American religious book culture helped create space for modern Paganism, very much spread by its own culture of books (“people of the library” as the old adage about our faiths go). Indeed, Unitarian-Universalism, which seems to be on a recent upswing in numbers, and the de facto poster child for liberal religion, explicitly lists nature religion as a source that it draws from.

“Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

As a result, Pagans have a strong presence within the UUA, and liberal religion often gets tarred as “pagan” by its critics. In addition, I think that talking about the success of liberal forms of religion can’t be complete without mentioning those with no religion, the “nones,” and their recent (and ongoing) growth. Many, including myself, have pointed out that “nones” aren’t without beliefs or spirituality, they simply have abandoned formal religion in the sitting-in-pews sense. Author Brian D. McLaren, writing for the Huffington Post, sees that many “nones” are simply tired with the choices theologically conservative, specifically monotheistic, forms of religion present them with.

Later in the evening, two young women, current college students, told me the same thing. “We grew up in the church,” they explained. “We’re still followers of Christ, but we’re not attending church any more. We can’t find a church that doesn’t load a bunch of extra baggage on us. We tried, but they all had this long list of people we had to be against. It’s just not worth it.”

So long as success of a theological stance, or religion, is measured by how many people sit in chairs on Sunday, evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism, and other related traditions, will be seen as “winners.” However, a broader look at our culture, and the varieties of religious experience within it, may tell a different story. I’ll be very much looking forward to Hedstrom’s book, and I think that like another recent book about religion in American history“Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” it will reveal a lot about our communities, even if never mentions us.

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