There’s been some discussion of late in the pagan blogosphere as to whether contemporary paganism is dying. I think the answer to that is a clear, obvious, and resounding “No,” but more than that, I think it’s important to address what I believe is happening to paganism. I believe that yes, as John Halstead and Mat Auryn state, paganism is changing. But where they see it pulled apart by entropic forces or hijacked by hostile ones, I rather see a different direction to the flow. Paganism is finally starting to take the first incremental steps to emerge from its overlong adolescence.
One of the biggest symptoms that seems to be cited as evidence for paganism’s allegedly impending demise is that its institutions are beginning to fail. While I’m willing to allow that this is the case, I don’t believe that it’s indicative that paganism itself is failing. Jonathan Woolley seems to have been the first alarmist in this particular train, and I believe it’s telling that the first man to sound the death knells of (in his case, British) paganism is a figurehead of one of Paganism’s most outdated institutions. It’s no great mystery that I believe paganism must move- and is moving- past its feeble, ill-defined roots as “nature-based religion.” The first post I made on this blog was a testament to that. But it seems that some people would rather it stay the same as it’s always been.
Woolley laments the decline of the OBOD and its aging membership, but he seems to fundamentally misunderstand that that organization is part of the old-new paganism. It’s a vestige of a historically illiterate romanticism that yes, has played a large role in defining modern paganism, but is beginning to decline. While Wicca and Druidry still enjoy preeminence in the pagan sphere, reconstructionist traditions are coming into their own, in large part due to increased accessibility afforded by social media and to the efforts of knowledgeable individuals within those traditions to open doors once shut to those without fairly rigorous academic training.
It is my belief, and my hope, that paganism will continue to diverge as it presently is, to encompass a number of traditions and to fulfill its definition of being an “umbrella” under which many distinct religions may be found. Part of this process is going to be the decline of Paganism’s more “venerable” institutions, as people move to more distinct and indeed more clearly defined and, from my view, more spiritually fulfilling traditions.
I will allow that British paganism in particular may yet be declining. I am less familiar with that particular community, though I do speak with a number of British pagans on a semi-regular basis. I simply think that is important to not confuse paganism for pagan institutions, which rarely prove to be especially durable, particularly when they are built on such nebulous foundations.
While Woolley provides a fairly thorough examination and does, at least, allow for many explanations for the problem he’s perceived, John Halstead takes a rather less nuanced view. At one point, he offers pagans’ self-absorption as an explanation for the decline. Even so, the way he actually quantifies that decline is rather suspect; he mentions that Cherry Hill Seminary may be on the verge of ceasing to exist as it does now, that CUUPS is faltering, and that a glorified pan-pagan petition is lacking in signatures. Once again, institutions are mistaken for the community itself, with the addition of conflating paganism with common pagan politics.
The issue with Halstead’s assertions are that institutions like Cherry Hill, while having some value, were never particularly viable in the first place. They cater to a fairly murky, broad-spectrum notion of what paganism is to begin with; a seminary such as Cherry Hill simply is not adequate for actually producing tradition-specific clergy, and with “paganism” alone meaning nothing definable in religious terms, “pagan” clergy are similarly undefinable. It’s rather hasty to ask why Cherry Hill is failing, rather than asking why it existed in the first place.
Likewise, CUUPS, as an extension of Unitarian Universalism, could be said to be failing for the same reasons that UU churches more broadly have failed to gain traction in a great many places. Of all the UU churches I’m aware of in my state, very few of them have a sizable congregation, let alone manage to attract a significant number of pagans. Most do not even have a CUUPS chapter in the first place. In truth, CUUPS falls victim to the same faults as the UU organization itself; it is an ill-defined, superficial substitute for a real spiritual endeavor. These churches provide little more than a meeting place for pagans, in practice; they may host rituals, but in many cases that I know of there are a number of different types of pagans at any given chapter, with little real cause to share in disparate rituals.
Halstead’s solutions, as ever, primarily focus paganism into a force to further his political views rather than to serve as any sort of religious expression. A great deal of time could be spent on this, but it really comes down to the common issue of his posts and his interactions throughout the pagan community: Halstead is an atheistic humanist first and foremost. He is not a practicing pagan and engages in nothing identifiably pagan beyond the same outmoded nature-centric quasi-spirituality that the movement is beginning to discard.
While he may raise a few good points about pagans’ obsession with identity and with how we are viewed, I don’t believe these are the core issues facing paganism. Rather, they are a way to distract from the development of truly distinct religious traditions within paganism- traditions that do not preclude working together, mind you- in favor of a monolithic pagan identity that can be channeled into serving a particular political slant. It is a rejection of paganism as religion and an embracing of paganism as an activist ideology, where the gods are secondary to politicking, if not outright discarded.
Which brings me to Mat Auryn’s post on this subject. He does take the time to refute the politicization of paganism into one or more echo chambers, but still misidentifies what I believe is actually occurring. After all, institutions like that Asatru Folk Assembly show that for good or (far more often) ill, pagan groups have always been politicized. But the fact of the matter is that these divisions and demarcations within the pagan sphere are not a bad thing, in and of themselves.
Twenty or thirty years ago, newcomers could not reasonably find reliable information or communities for traditions like Fyrnsidu, Brythonic paganism, Kemeticism, and others of their nature. When I first came to heathenry, there was no identifiable Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. The best one could hope to find was something along the lines of Swain Wodening’s books; badly edited reskins of Norse heathenry, which in itself was barely distinct from vapid chest-beating Asatru. When I was introduced to paganism, for several years I wasn’t even aware of any kind of distinct traditions outside of Wicca, Druidry, Asatru and eclecticism.
Yes, paganism is splitting, dividing down into smaller and smaller groups. And that’s okay, because while not every group is good, while not every community is constructive and helpful, a whole new generation is beginning to take shape. New traditions with distinct, clear-cut rituals are forming, information is available for people to formulate true religious practice rather than only giving lip service to the gods. Paganism isn’t perfect, and it still has a great many problems. But it isn’t dying. It’s finally growing up.