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A Work in Progress: Notes on some challenges facing neo-Paganism
By N.V. Andersen
Copyright © 2009 by N.V. Andersen

Since its introduction – or re-introduction, if you will – to modern society a number of decades ago, neo-Paganism in its many forms has become a flourishing global phenomenon and a welcome spiritual alternative to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. We have watched with joy as our faiths gradually moved from the fringe of the acceptable to something akin to the mainstream, and we have applauded as national governments acknowledged and accepted our practices. New books are published on the many forms of neo-Paganism every year, and practitioners everywhere are contributing to its development with new insights.

However, all is not well. We have come very far in the past decades, but we cannot afford to rest on the laurels. In my opinion, there are a number of very serious challenges that we need to face in order to clear the road ahead. The purpose of the present article is to offer some suggestions as to the nature of these challenges and a way to start resolving them.

Resist the allure of conspiracy theories.
Whether or not one cares about being taken seriously by the public at large – there are many religious communities that soldier on in the face of public scorn and ridicule - the cultivation of conspiracy theories as a fundamental part of the collective narrative will eventually lead any group to self-destruct, isolated and unable to take part in any kind of mainstream reality. An “us against everyone else”-attitude is not conducive to any kind of constructive growth. We are all aware that untold thousands were tortured and burned, hanged or crushed by Christian authorities in the past, but it is bad taste in the extreme to try to appropriate other people’s misery to stiffen one’s own convictions. Also, we are all aware that there are many different factions in society today who seem to think that neo-Paganism is some form of global satanic conspiracy, but how is it helpful to battle their conspiracy theories with more conspiracy theories of our own? What is needed in that regard is rather the distribution of factual information.

Conspiracy theories can act as a unifying factor when they are used to conjure up images of an overwhelmingly powerful and devious enemy, which the group must then protect itself from. Christians have long used such imagery, and is that really a method we should borrow from them? There are countless different shades of neo-Paganism, but can we not find a more constructive and sober way to establish the kind of unity we would like to see?

What is also commonly forgotten is that the use of conspiracy theories is not limited to good-hearted people who genuinely do sense dark forces at work behind the scene. The Third Reich, zenith of evil in human history, was also founded on conspiracy theories – both about the Versailles Treaty and about the Jews. We all know the result. Obviously this is not an attempt to equate neo-Paganism or Christianity with Nazism. The point is merely that conspiracy theories are dangerous toys when they fall into the wrong hands. One of the lessons of history is to never, ever put a grand theory before compassion with fellow humans.

So, let us step away from the conspiracy theories, and leave the victims of the witch craze alone and out of our present agenda.

Do not become that which you oppose.
It is plain as day that there are many people out there who would like to see a flaming end to neo-Paganism in all its many forms. Also, there are many who see it as their special mission in life to interfere with the religious lives of others, and try to convert everyone to their own particular worldview. If neo-Pagans attract attention in the media, we are quite often made out to look like deluded role-players or the minions of Satan. Fundamentalist right-wing Christians seem to be the shrillest opponents to neo-Paganism. Some of them seem to break out in a rash and foam at the mouth at the mere mention of it, and will go to any lengths to broadcast their hateful opinions. Such people are seen as being dogmatic, arrogant and tragically misinformed – by choice. What right to they have to trample on anyone who doesn’t happen to agree? Why can they not just go away and do their thing, instead of meddling in the affairs of others? If they are really so sure they have found The Truth, how come they feel so threatened by everyone else? Who do they think they are to arrogantly believe they are speaking on behalf of the divine? Do they not realize that screaming abuse at people is unlikely to make said people convert to their faith, or even take them seriously? We feel frustrated and angry at this, and these people seem like brainwashed zombies of a virulent, destructive cult to us.

This is a question of picking one’s battles, and of being very aware of one’s own reactions. In situations of such extreme pressure, many of us harden ourselves and our beliefs. Also, many of us come from a Christian background of some description or other. We must resist the temptation to combat these attacks with the same methods used by the very people we oppose. It is a bad habit, the negative aspect of our Christian heritage. We have not seen the One True Light, nor have they. We do not need to get up on the barricades and put ourselves forward as the mouthpieces of the divine. We do not need to conveniently forget our own short-comings to appear enlightened. And we most certainly do not need to cultivate our own cast-iron dogmas to weed the heretics and unbelievers from our ranks and present a strong front. Remember, these are characteristics we despise in others.

We will not bend to the will of hateful bigots. They will never have the satisfaction of seeing us hide or disappear. But if we turn ourselves into hateful, dogmatic True Believers, and start fighting them and each other for supremacy of opinion, then we have lost anyway. Then we have become the mirror image of these deluded fanatics. We know that many of our pagan ancestors of the ancient world did not feel any need to convert or suppress others. The ancient Norse recognized the gods of other tribes, even if they thought they were rather strange. The ancient Romans did not give a dart who people worshipped, or how they went about doing it, so long as their practices did not upset public order. They were tolerant towards others, even if they also thought the customs and cosmologies of those others were rather silly or barbaric.

Let us use their example instead of the fundamentalist right-wing Christians. When we speak up against them, let us do so in a sober, well-informed manner. We cannot hope to inspire our most hysterical opponents to become open and accepting, but we can combat the sour old misinformation floating around in the public domain, and we can present ourselves as tolerant people who want to create rather than destroy.

Know your history.
This point ties in well with the argument against conspiracy theories. Neo-Paganism is just that, new. We feel at home in ancient practices and world-views, and we want to resurrect them as genuine, practicable religious paths for today’s world, whether we be Druids, Wiccans, Heathens or followers of any of the other paths. However, we are all aware that we cannot revive everything our ancient ancestors did, and so we have to fill in the gaps ourselves.

Many feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea that we must adapt, reinterpret and even create new traditions to fill those gaps. Doing so makes our religions inauthentic, insincere or even false, in the view of some. This is a perfectly reasonable feeling. We live in a society that values authenticity above all else. How many times have we seen something marketed as “the real thing” or “the real experience?” And how many times are we reminded that we should go forth and realize our true selves? In our modern thinking, authenticity equals reality itself, and anything that is inauthentic cannot be real and must therefore be a lie.

This is arguably the biggest challenge that neo-Pagan communities face today, and the subject of more extensive writing elsewhere. However, there is a side to this argument that we sometimes overlook in our despair. Everything must start somewhere, religions included. The Christians have no problem admitting that Jesus Christ was the start of their church, nor do the Muslims when speaking about their Prophet. Our Pagan ancestors would have experienced change and innovation in their religious practices, too. It is a natural and desirable process, and it is far better to encourage bright new ideas than hang onto something old just because it is indeed old. Even the old and traditional probably started out as a bright, new idea.

The single most destructive way of trying to attain authenticity is to invent a history. We might invent new religious practices for today, based on old values, but we must never tweak or re-invent factual history to fit with our present needs. Doing so removes us even further from the goal of feeling real and authentic in our worship. Margaret Murray’s theories were spurious in the extreme, lacked concrete factual evidence to back them up, and have been thoroughly discredited by modern scholars. And yet we still see them published and celebrated in many parts of the neo-Pagan communities. It is understandable, but lamentable. In essence, Murray’s theories were little more than conspiracy theories, and we most certainly do not need them to become a valid religious path.

One needs to take modern publications on the subject of neo-Paganism with more than a grain of salt. There was no “Vanilla Paganism” in the ancient world, to which one can simply add the Celtic or Egyptian topping of choice. Witches were viewed with skepticism and mistrust in pre-Christian times, too. The words “wicce” and “wicca”, derived from the verb “wiccian”, do not have Celtic roots, and do not mean “craft of the wise.”1 There are shreds of folklore to be studied, but there is no ancient witch cult from the Ice Ages, surviving unchanged into our present age. Much of the magical practice of modern neo-Pagan traditions have more to do with late medieval and Renaissance ceremonial magic and 19th century occultism than with ancient pagan folk customs. Perhaps most importantly, there has never been a lost Golden Age of Paganism, where women were treated with uniform admiration and respect, and where peace and beautiful values ruled supreme. Human nature has always been human nature, and is not something we should ascribe solely to Christians past and present.

Much more could be said on this subject, but the point of the present article is to present arguments against this line of wishful thinking, rather than to disprove it in detail.

Everybody is entitled to his or her own opinions and beliefs, but critical questioning has only ever been harmful to people living under oppressive censorship. If we live under censorship, it is something we have imposed on ourselves and our own neo-Pagan communities. We are fortunate to live in a part of the world where scholars are free to conduct serious research and we are free to benefit from it, and where a wealth of information is available at the push of a button. With no attempt at melodrama, people fought and died in the past to earn us such privileges, and we should use this opportunity to form our own opinions based on proper, critical enquiry, rather than willfully disregarding this privilege. Factual history will always be far more complex, fascinating and inspiring than fanciful pseudo-scientific attempts at conspiracy theories and spurious claims of authenticity, and we do ourselves and our ancestors a massive disservice by swallowing such inhibiting fantasies without question.

We have a wealth of resources at hand to help us understand the past and form our own opinions about the present - libraries, bookstores, good web-pages, night classes, universities, museums, archaeological excavation reports, first-hand historical sources, scholarly seminars, magazines and even some quality television documentaries. How many of us can honestly claim we have no access to any of these things? We must make good use of them, and do our own research with a critical and open mind, not just go there to find snippets that will support ready-made Murrayite beliefs.

Thus equipped with factual knowledge, we can clearly see where we need to make an effort to fill in those gaps in our faiths. Some ancient practices will obviously need to be discarded in this day and age – human sacrifice and mandatory temple prostitution will not sit well with most. Where ancient pagan beliefs are reduced to skeletons, we can fill in the meat and spirit with a balanced approach of strenuous research, a good understanding of our present needs and personal spiritual kennings.

Face the present.
The world has changed dramatically since the days of the ancient pre-Christian world. Back then, most people would have lived off the land in a much more direct way than even present-day farmers and fishermen do. Even if we were able to know everything about ancient religious practices and go about our worship in the exact same way as our ancient ancestors, such a style of worship would make less sense in our present world. Today, if we are hungry, we can go to the local supermarket, and if somebody robs or attacks us, we can go to the police. If we are afraid of the dark, we can switch on the light, and if we are in pain we can eat painkillers. Good doctors are at hand to protect us as much as they can against disease and problematic births. We can look forward to an old age in safety and relative comfort, and we need not fear invading armies that will burn our homes and sell us into slavery. We cannot hope to understand the difficulties and threats our ancient ancestors faced, nor does the present writer expect that we would really want to. Our ancestors in the ancient world were resilient beyond our understanding, and faced their challenges with resourcefulness and courage. However, we need not cultivate inferior complexes because of this. In a very short time, relatively speaking, the past few generations have created and continue to create a society that is unequalled in safety and privileges in comparison, arguably, with all preceding human history. The very fact that we get to be neo-Pagans is something we owe to more recent ancestors and our own efforts, and these achievements are also something we should treasure and celebrate.

When considering all this, it becomes clear that our religious practices need to change to fit this new world. Societies are never static, and so religions can never be static either. Our most basic world-view can remain similar to that of past generations, and of course, the human experience remains the same even if we possess refrigerators and computers today. Birth, coming of age, romantic and sexual love, parenthood, death and loss remain constants and probably still evoke the very same emotions as they did in our ancestors.

So we can of course still venerate gods and goddesses of old, still sense the enchantment in the natural landscape and in liminal moments in life, and still interact with an Otherworld of spirits - but maybe the need reconstruct ancient rituals for the literal fertility of livestock and fields or for protection against marauding Gauls is rather less present. The urge to interpret the attributes of ancient deities in psychoanalytic terms is a slippery slope that smacks more of homocentric self-empowerment than religious devotion. In translating ancient deities into a modern language of faith, so to speak, we must think about how the ancient attributes relate to our modern day. Reducing a goddess of fertility to a symbol of bank accounts, feminism or personal creativity, or a god of war and hunt into a symbol of masculine virtues that are acceptable in a modern context cuts us off from the powerful, all-pervasive life-giving and death-dealing powers that the gods were seen to have, or represent if you will, in the ancient world.

In essence, the human experience remains unchanged though circumstances and values do not. We must find a workable way to celebrate and express that basic human experience in our religious life. And if we need to make changes and adapt ancient Pagan practices to do so, then so be it. Otherwise we will be venerating fragmented relics on life-support.
So maybe the gaps in our knowledge of past religions, though lamentable, afford us with the opportunity to adapt ancient traditions to modern life? We have no need to get up and claim to be followers of a religion that survives unchanged since the last Ice Age, the evidence of which we cannot really divulge because of convenient oaths of secrecy which are necessary to protect ourselves from a grand Christian world conspiracy. Doing so is both nonsensical and inhibiting to progress and change. In steering clear of such things, we will be facing our real challenges and hopefully be able to create something sustainable which might truly merit the label ‘authentic.’

These are the some of the many challenges of our present age, and they are challenges which, in the present writer’s opinion, must be faced and worked with constructively if the many paths under the umbrella term neo-Paganism are to work for us in the present and continue to flourish in the future. Much more could and should be added, and everything should be subject to critical evaluation and debate. We have something precious and worth-while here, but the reintroduction of Paganism on the world stage is a work in progress, not a done deal set in stone. I am sure we want to set an example of critical and creative thought and of originality in the face of adversity to our children, grandchildren and future generations, who will eventually look back on our efforts and judge them according to their own needs and standards.

1Russell, J. B. & Brooks Alexander: A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans (Thames & Hudson, 2007), 12.

Sidebar Notes

Many challenges face the revival of modern Paganism

The single most destructive way of trying to attain authenticity is to invent a history.