There’s been much talk recently of individuals, who many would classify as adherents of a “Pagan” religion, rejecting that label. The reasons tend to vary, but most center on a dissatisfaction with what the label Pagan implies, who it includes (or excludes), and the wider impressions it engenders among outsiders. Polytheistic reconstructionists, Druidic groups, Traditional Wiccans, and the rainbow assortment of eclectics, start-ups, and syncretic hybrids that have been lumped, willing or no, under the “Pagan” banner have long debated, fought, schism-ed, and chaffed over the idea that they are part of a larger definable movement, and if they are, what they should all be collectively called. In my lifetime I’ve seen the adoption and rejection of “earth-based religions,” the almost unanimous casting-off of any allegiance with “New Age,” the rise of “Heathenism” as something distinct from Paganism, the slow shift from “Neopaganism” to simply “Pagan,” and the somewhat controversial idea of “European Indigenous Traditions.” If anything truly defines all of us it may be our collective uneasiness with being classified under these often inadequate umbrella terms.
This tension is understandable. The very idea of a modern pan-Pagan (if you’ll excuse the term) movement is rather young. While there are historical antecedents, it was really the rise of large-scale regional festivals like Pagan Spirit Gathering and Starwood, along with the publication of Margot Adler’s “Drawing Down the Moon” in 1979, that started to open up the possibility that there were: A. more of us than we suspected, and B. that we could collectively work towards some common goals. Now a truly global phenomenon, more interconnected than we’ve ever been before, our family of faiths faces the growing pains that come with our initial, and sometimes surprising, successes. In addition, there is important work going on right now that could have long-term ramifications for the diverse faith traditions that are currently lumped together as Pagan. I think there is value in exploring how we can continue to work towards shared goals, while allowing our diversity and distinctness to emerge in healthy ways, but to do that we need to move forward in good faith and not resort to the acrimony that has emerged in past discussions on these topics.
Polytheists, Heathens, and other self-identified groups dissatisfied with the Pagan label need to acknowledge that the eclectic Wicca-centric nature of the modern Pagan movement isn’t that way out of any desire to alienate them, or force ritual conformity, but simply a result of Wicca’s runaway success. A success that most Wiccans and Witches could never have dreamed of, a success that created deep divisions alongside the growth. Meanwhile, those comfortable being labeled Pagan need to attribute the best motives to those who want to leave the Pagan umbrella. That they are not simply being contrary, or engaging in the barrel-shooting sport of mocking the foibles and excesses of Pagans they find embarrassing or offensive. A greater willingness to be open, to dialog, and to be willing to address real grievances from both sides could do much to mitigate this recurring “splitting” phenomenon. I think the current willingness to largely avoid personal attacks or inaccurate smears in this latest debate is a positive sign that this dialog is possible.
All that said, if an individual or group wants to split off, I will not stand in their way or argue with them. I will respect their chosen nomenclature and acknowledge their need to be seen as outside the Pagan umbrella. What I will do is ask that they don’t isolate themselves completely as we collectively move towards achieving legal and social advances that could benefit us all. As I mentioned earlier, we are at a critical moment in several struggles that could have far-reaching ramifications for Pagans and those who follow religions and traditions that bear some similarities to us. We need to build coalitions and practice solidarity if we are to not lose ground, and I am less concerned about what my allies call themselves so long as they remain my allies.
I’m currently reading a new book entitled “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” and it talks about how a coalition of Catholics, Jews, and pluralistic Protestant Christians joined forces to counteract American nativism, Protestant antipathy, political hostility, and a revived Ku Klux Klan, to redefine the boundaries of faith in America. Everett R. Clinchy, a founder and former president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now the National Conference for Community and Justice), warned against America declining into a “cultural monism” that would lead to authoritarianism. He believed America thrives only when it accepts its diversity. I doubt Clinchy would have predicted the rise of Paganism, polytheism, and other non-monotheist faiths, but his message and vision remains important. I think the mantle of continuing to expand America’s, and in turn the world’s, boundaries of what manifestations of religion are an acceptable part of our cultural dialog has now fallen to us.
I see a future with a National Conference of Pagans and Polytheists, or to be even more grand, a National Conference of Pagans, Polytheists, Syncretic Religions, and Indigenous faiths. Encompassing not just Pagans, and the polytheists who want no part of our umbrella, but Hindus, Vodouisants, practitioners of Santeria, those who follow traditional Native beliefs, and other groups who see the utility in counteracting the pernicious side-effects of a society that indeed seems to have slid quietly into a sort of cultural monism. Where religions outside the now-established “Tri-Faith” consensus are seen as suspect, a joke, or at best given quick lip-service and then forgotten. Where some Christian groups seem to be reviving the dangerous nativism that once so concerned men like Everett Clinchy. At this critical point in time we must not allow these natural splits and debates over terminology to take our eyes of the prize. We must engage in pragmatic solidarity on the matters that affect us all, and be ready to fight for rights and privileges so many Christians, Catholics, and Jews now take for granted.