The American Academy of Religion held its annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas from November 19-22. The meeting is held concurrently with the Society of Biblical Literature, and the two organizations combined bring together nearly 10,000 educators and scholars of religion for a packed weekend of lectures, workshops, and events.
AAR’s Contemporary Pagan Studies Group has been in existence since 2005. This year saw the induction of two up-and-coming younger scholars as co-chairs of the group: Dr. Shawn Arthur of Wake Forest University, and Dr. Amy Hale of Helix Education. Hale and Arthur will be taking over from Dr. Chas Clifton and Dr. Jone Salomonsen, influential Pagan Studies scholars who have provided long-term leadership and service in this fledgling academic field.
AAR presenters strive for unbiased analysis of the history and current trends in contemporary Paganism. The academic tone of the papers, however, could not conceal scholars’ concern for the future of scholarship and the Pagan movement after the 2016 presidential election. Underlying the thoughtful, measured discussions was a grave sense of responsibility, and a commitment to finding truly effective responses to national and global crises.
A Pagan Scalability Crisis
Many of this year’s papers focused on challenges to Pagan communities created by the movement’s growth, the current political and economic environment, and/or the realities of climate change. Dr. Gwendolyn Reece (American University) gave a paper entitled “The Scalability Crisis: Contemporary Paganism and Institutionalization.” Reece suggests that there is an under-acknowledged element to Pagan institutionalization controversies: namely, that the growth of the Pagan population in the United States has strained the movement’s non-institutional resources to their breaking point.
Reece based her work on a large-scale national survey she conducted from 2011-2012, as well as an analysis of 69 blog articles by Pagans on institutionalization. As with similar studies, Reece notes a large percentage of solitary Pagan practitioners in the United States (52% in her study, 79% in a recent study by Helen Berger). Reece’s data indicates that most of these practitioners are not solitary by choice. Her analysis suggests that around 60% of solitary Pagans want a group but cannot find one given current conditions.
Reece argues that this situation is caused by the non-scalability of the “house church” model used by many Pagans. In a “house church” model, groups meet in a member’s home and all leadership services are provided on a volunteer basis. However, these groups are inherently unstable, as they are easily impacted by leader burnout or unexpected life events on the part of the host. Other challenges include the necessity of hiding Pagan practice due to neighbors’ prejudice, limited space for worship, and lack of funds to support aging volunteer leaders.
Due to its inability to serve the majority of self-identified Pagans and its instability, the house church model is failing on multiple fronts. As a result of this unmet need, Pagans are being pushed toward greater institutionalization despite their ambivalent feelings about organized religion. It is unclear, however, whether Pagan communities have either enough density or cohesion to provide the services that Pagans desire.In a last-minute addendum, Reece also noted the additional urgency around legitimization and protection of legal rights triggered by the 2016 presidential election. She remarked, “I expect organized anti-defamation to again increase in importance. Because these are external threats that do not make a distinction between the variety of Paganisms, it is possible that this will increase the solidarity among Pagans in resistance.”
Pagan Legitimization Strategies
Strategies for forming Pagan identity and legitimizing Pagan traditions in the eyes of the public were a major thread in this year’s presentations. Both Dr. Patricia E ‘Iolana (University of Glasgow) and Dr. Lee Gilmore (San Jose State University) grappled with the belief that an unbroken line of religious practice is what makes a religion legitimate. This belief has often been problematic in Paganism, leading Pagans to cling to outdated historical research because it seems to support their hopes for their religious communities.
Gilmore explored how the desire for unbroken lineage has influenced Pagan use of the term indigenous at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. She notes that there is no universal consensus about the meaning of indigenous. It is contested wherever it appears.
However, when white North American Pagans use the term indigenous in order to legitimize their religious practices, they obscure the economic and environmental desperation of indigenous communities of color. Gilmore states that Pagan use of the word indigenous “purchases political legitimacy for Pagans on the interfaith stage, but does very little to give back to generationally traumatized and impoverished indigenous peoples.”
Gilmore also notes that narratives of unbroken lineage often tie religious authenticity and identity to blood ancestry. This is a legitimization strategy used by far-right white supremacist groups, and it is associated with concerns about “ethic purity”—concerns that in the past have justified violent campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Gilmore encourages white Pagans to “try to get ahead of [this dangerous rhetoric] by allying with indigenous peoples and other communities of color [and] remaining attentive to the differences and intersections of power in these relationships.”
Responding to these remarks, Dr. Shawn Arthur questioned the desirability of narratives of “unbroken lineage” for any religion: “Do we really believe the old is better than the new? …Upon reflection, I think we can see many of the… ideological positions addressed here today are not particularly helpful for strong or unifying identity development. Nor are they particularly useful for… good community relations, especially when these perspectives unknowingly support existing webs of power and authority.”
Dr. Sabina Magliocco (California State University, Northridge) noted that North American Pagans are not alone in their attraction to ancient and pre-modern cultures. The desire to reclaim cultural and religious traditions, she explained, is a characteristic of a post-colonial world: part of a global movement, not in any way restricted to North America.
She stated additionally that narratives of victimization, such as the narrative of The Burning Times for Wiccans and Witches, are also part of a wider pattern. Since the 1950s, narratives of oppression have been part of the way groups claim identity, and that pattern is now part of the way groups must position themselves in US discourse to be seen as legitimate.
This paper session raised the question: if myths of unbroken lineage and political oppression have negative consequences for our North American Pagan communities, what alternative strategies for legitimization and identity-formation can we pursue instead? This complex question is too large to answer at a single conference, but the second Pagan Studies paper session suggested ways Pagans might alter their existing strategies to be more effective.
An Inclusive Future from an Imagined Past?
In a joint paper, Barbara Davy and Stephen Quilley (University of Waterloo) examined some of the problematic consequences of some Pagans’ desire to dismantle the modern state and return to a smaller-scale, tribal society. Many Pagans indicate that they are willing to accept trade-offs in quality of life in exchange for the community cohesion, lessened ecological impact, and potential spiritual benefits of such a shift. In her presentation, however, Davy noted that the modern state is what protects individual human rights. Without an overarching state that organizes and governs smaller communities, many barriers to the xenophobic behavior that has historically been a component of small-scale agricultural societies would be removed.Although our society is already torn by systemic inequalities, small-scale societies could be worse, not better, for people with marginalized identities. As Davy and Quilley state, “In the absence of effective nation states, societies would be likely to experience greater violence, intolerance of diversity and an inability to sustain modern health care systems. Existing patterns of institutional care for the disabled and elderly would break down as would the established provision of all manner of public infrastructures.”
Unfortunately, Davy notes, whether or not we have fully accepted the consequences, climate change is likely to cause a collapse of the global economy and force us back to a smaller-scale society whether we find it appealing or not. This research challenges Pagans to re-evaluate their romantic ideas about small-scale pre-modern societies and to more realistically envision the challenges presented by climate change.
Dr. Amy Hale emphasized the need for Pagan religion to be truly responsive to the historic moment, rather than simply reactive. She states, “A lot of anti-modernist rhetoric… is a Romantic expression of privilege, given that conditions of the past were not exactly favorable to women and people of color… Pagans very explicitly look to a past that probably never was, to try to find inspiration for a better, more tolerant and inclusive future.” The past, real or imagined, may not be the best place for Pagans to find strategies for facing environmental and economic crisis.
As right wing, white nationalist political parties gain power in governments around the world, more than ever Pagans must create robust structures to support diverse but harmonious communities. Mr. Thomas Berendt (Temple University) presented on the diversity of Pagan communities in the Philadelphia area, and he particularly highlighted the prevalence of multiple religious and sexual identities among Pagans. This embrace of diversity and hybridity, he suggests, is a strength of the Pagan movement.
In the ensuing discussion, Berendt and Dr. Christopher Chase both spoke passionately about their efforts to create safe community spaces for students fearing harassment and violence. Magliocco also noted a positive aspect of Pagan narratives of historical oppression: these sacred stories, she says, tell us that “We must be in the first line of fire to protect.”
Relating her own family’s experience with sheltering friends and neighbors during the Nazi occupation of Rome, Magliocco reminded the audience that there are many forms of resistance, some as simple as opening one’s home to those in danger.
Additional papers in these sessions were given by Lee Ann Hildebrand (Graduate Theological Union) and Christopher W. Chase (Iowa State University). A complete listing of titles can be found in the 2016 AAR program book. For members of the public who are interested in future Pagan Studies sessions at AAR, the American Academy of Religion annual conference is accessible with the purchase of a registration. Many of the papers presented at AAR Pagan Studies session are later published in The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies or may be available by contacting the author directly. The 2017 annual meeting will be held November 18-21 in Boston, Massachusetts.
[About the Author: Christine Hoff Kraemer is a religious studies scholar specializing in contemporary Paganism, sexuality, theology, and popular culture. In 2008, she completed her PhD in Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University. Christine is an instructor in the Theology and Religious History department at Cherry Hill Seminary. Her books include Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies and the collection Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy (edited with Yvonne Aburrow). She is also the proud parent of an extremely high-energy toddler.]
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.