In ways the various founders, visionaries, and clergy could never have anticipated, modern Pagan faiths have thrived and become world religions. In many instances our faiths have entered the mainstream. Sometimes, embedded within the interconnected Pagan communities, dealing with the day-to-day controversies and obstacles, it’s hard to see just how far we’ve come. This isn’t to say that no challenges remain, or that we enjoy complete parity with other, more dominant, faiths, but we have reached a place that few could have initially hoped for. Further, larger shifts in Western culture towards a post-Christian social and political reality, along with important advances in interfaith initiatives, create a fertile soil for a number of religious minorities to grow at impressive rates in relative peace.
This relative safety, this freedom to venture outside the dominant monotheistic paradigm, has seen our community grow and change faster than its already established leaders and clergy have prepared for. Changes that in other contexts could have taken decades, even generations, are now happening in a matter of years. This has caused increasing tensions among different generations, religious groups, and schools of thought. It has caused many to critique, and in some cases completely abandon, the label “Pagan,” finding the term too limiting, too burdened with preconceptions as to what one might find under the Pagan “umbrella.” These debates over the term “Paganism” are not new. You could argue they began with the emergence of modern Heathenry in the 1970s, and grew only more heated as the second wave of modern polytheistic reconstructionism coalesced in the 1990s. A compelling argument could be made, looking at Chas Clifton’s “Her Hidden Children,” that the limitations of creating a “Pagan” community were apparent from the very beginning.
“Much of the credit for the popularization of Pagan and Neo-Pagan goes to Church of All Worlds (CAW). In a tract published in the 1970s, “Neo-Paganism: An Old Religion for a New Age,” Tim Zell, who was chief CAW spokesman, makes all the popular, if sometimes historically inaccurate, arguments that characterized the movement at the time […] by the early 1970s, with Green Egg serving as the official journal of the Council of Earth Religions – a brief successor to an earlier pan-Pagan group, the Council of Themis – the utility of Pagan and Neo-Pagan as umbrella terms has become well established […] the word Pagan, with its overtones of nature religion, was a good fit for these groups, and it rapidly shouldered aside its only competition, Aquarian (as in “Age of Aquarius”), which has been chiefly used in the title of the Aquarian Anti-Defamation League (AADL).”
Those early “councils” faced the problems of how big (or small) to make one’s umbrella, and often suffered for it, usually imploding over personal conflicts and arguments over who could and couldn’t be included in their ranks. Meanwhile, the very groups that would challenge the effectiveness of Pagan as a political label were already emerging, as a growing number of Witchcraft Traditions, Druid groups, and organizations like CAW, were settling on Pagan as a descriptor for the larger religious movement that they all saw themselves as a part of. For twenty years or so this accord largely held, as Heathens at that time had their own internal issues to sort out, and the second wave of polytheistic reconstructionism was still largely pre-formative. Long enough for Paganism (with and without the “Neo”) to be adopted by religious scholars (instead of “New Age”), and for the movement to establish a number of important wins in the realm of equal treatment under the law. To seep its way into our pop-cultural consciousness, and in some ways, to become something out of the control of the groups that adopted it as an umbrella term.
Which brings us to the present day. As I mentioned earlier, the climate today is very different than what it was in the 1970s. Wiccans and Pagans in the United States number anywhere from 700,000 to over a million, depending on how you crunch the available data. In England and Wales, official numbers for Pagan faiths jumped from around 40,000 to around 80,000, with many thinking the true number is larger still. Likewise, Australia also saw census counts rise, though more modestly than in the UK. This is all good news for us, but perhaps more importantly the number of religiously unaffiliated individuals, the “spiritual but not religious,” has exploded in the West, and non-Christian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism have seen ongoing strong growth. The unaffiliated and “other” non-Christian religions made up 32% of Barack Obama’s winning coalition in his recent re-election to the presidency. The unaffiliated are now on statistical parity with evangelical Christianity in America, creating new paths to victory that don’t depend on courting Christian culturally conservative issue stances. It’s natural in such a climate to perhaps reevaluate the Pagan label, and for groups dissatisfied to voice displeasures that were before muted due to more pressing political considerations.
This brings us to the issue of solidarity. When we say “the Pagan community,” that is a form of solidarity in action: several discrete groups (Wiccans, Druids, etc), with their own identities, banding together for a common purpose. Similarly, the initialism “LGBT” is another term of solidarity, showing the political alliance of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals (expanded in various permutations, like “QUILTBAG”). While there are a growing number of people who identify their religion simply as “Pagan,” we must remember that this term started as an umbrella that could be used for shorthand when encountering groups outside the established (albeit permeable) boundaries. It was a way to say, We are allies in a common struggle, and an injustice against one is an injustice against all of us. However, solidarity is not unity. Too many battles have been fought over well-meaning but wrong-headed initiatives to get us all singing from the same choir book (so to speak).
In the last twenty years a growing number of Pagans have allied themselves with, and sometimes even joined, a variety of faiths outside the Pagan umbrella as it was understood in the 1970s, including African Diasporic and African Traditional Religions, Dharmic faiths like Hindusim and Buddhism, and, to a lesser degree, Native American and other indigenous religious expressions. This tendency finds its perfect expression at a convention like PantheaCon in San Jose, which while a “Pagan” event, also draws polytheistic reconstructionists, practitioners and initiates of Palo, Vodou, Hoodoo, and Santeria, Hindu converts along with representatives from Hindu groups, and a good number of Pagans who have embraced or converted to Buddhism over the years. In short, it’s a place where new ideas of solidarity are being negotiated in real time, and the utility of the Pagan label is both strengthened and regularly questioned. PantheaCon isn’t necessarily unique in this, but its size and proximity to large urban areas facilitate more diversity than at some of the outdoor festivals or smaller conventions.
So should the Pagan label be scrapped for something better? Something more inclusive and flexible? I’m certainly open to the notion, and perhaps it could even come to pass as the next generation who embraced, or were raised in, Paganism comes into their full power and leadership. Until then, perhaps we can acknowledge that we are doing solidarity differently in 2013 than we are in 1970. That “Paganism” and the “Pagan Community” may still work for a large number of individuals, but feels stifling to some who would be our allies and friends. We should encompass an expanding Venn diagram of coalitions that have overlapping goals and features, but are still distinct in identity. There can still be a “Pagan Community,” but it will exist in a constellation with the “Polytheistic Reconstructionist Community” and the “Hindu Community” and the “African Diasporic Community.” There will be a growing number of individuals who have a foot in more than one of these communities, and we can attend each other’s open events without the expectation that we will also be forced to adopt the labels of those gatherings. More importantly, we can work on the many issues that still face non-Christian religious minorities in the West (and elsewhere) without re-litigating who is and isn’t a Pagan.
Finally, speaking personally, I think that the act of leaving the Pagan label behind casts a new light for those who want to keep being “Pagan.” It should inspire us to think, to reevaluate, to constantly question our goals. The debates over terminology and theology within the Pagan umbrella have led me to view my membership within the Covenant of the Goddess very differently than when I first started the process, over a year ago. I now see that COG needs to revitalize and strengthen its place as an explicitly Wiccan voice and advocacy organization. While I may be comfortable being called a Pagan, I need to spend more time existing within a Wiccan frame of reference. By enriching Wicca, I better prepare it collectively for what the future may bring.
Our models of solidarity are only as strong and vital as those who use them, and the component parts need to be strong enough to shift and reform should we change, or our needs change. None of us has clairvoyance enough to fully anticipate what our culture will be like in another twenty years, but I can guess that we will still have political and cultural goals to rally around, and that our movement’s name will shape itself to the times. Who can say if Paganism will be that name?
I am happy for my Polytheist brothers and sisters for emerging into and finding their preferred collective identity, just as I am happy for any group or individual that realizes itself and acts to claim the power in naming. This time does not need to be rancorous, and we all need to rise above the fear and anger that can come so easily when these shifts happen. There is still much we can share, can have in common, and can work together to achieve; we just have to do so differently, with greater mutual respect and consideration — with more outreach, and more listening. If these developments result in the Pagan umbrella shrinking, I find solace in the fact that my faith is still there, my conception of the sacred is still there, and my friends are still there.
I have much more to say on this issue, but I will save the rest for a talk I’ll be giving at PantheaCon this February entitled “Preserving our past, Preparing for our Future.” There I will lay out some suggestions, and some thoughts as to how we, how Pagans, how our friends and allies, should confront our successes and the challenges ahead of us. I’ll make sure to have an audio recording for those of you unable to come, and hopefully will have even more to share once I’ve given the talk. If you are attending, I hope you’ll come and share your own thoughts.