Paganism Is Evolving, Not Dying

So I go on vacation and everybody decides Paganism is dying, or deserves to die, or something like that.

Jonathan Woolley said British Paganism is Dying. He blamed the struggles of the Pagan movement on the economic hardships of the current economy and called for the destruction of capitalism (it is a Gods & Radicals piece, after all).

John Halstead wrote Why Contemporary Paganism Deserves to Die – an essay that while flawed, is more optimistic than its click-bait-y title. Halstead says we need to stop fighting amongst ourselves and work together for a better world. That’s a noble goal that I support, though John’s recommended path to a better world is rather different from my own.

R.M. McGrath said The Problem With Neo-Paganism is a lack of discipline and devotion, particularly in regards to the reality of the Gods. I’m in strong sympathy with that thought, even though the Pagan movement has deep roots in rebellion against rules and structures, including those that are helpful.

Several commenters pointed out that without good data (which we’ve never had, and likely never will), we really can’t say if Paganism is growing or shrinking. All we have to go on is what we hear and see and read: this festival is ending, that new conference is starting up, and Pagan retail is dying (I can’t name a brick and mortar retailer that isn’t struggling, except Wal-Mart).

I’m not challenging the observations of these writers – what they see is real. But Paganism isn’t one thing – it’s not an institution. Paganism is a movement with four centers. Paganism is a big tent that contains many religions, proto-religions, and spiritualities. Even as parts of Paganism are dying, new parts are being born.

Paganism isn’t dying, it’s evolving.

a beautiful product of evolution

The process of evolution

Biological evolution brings and expansion and contraction of species. Mutations and adaptations occur on an on-going basis. Those that are well-suited to a particular environment survive and succeed – those that don’t die off. The vast majority of species that ever existed are now extinct – their environment changed and they couldn’t change with it. Some species are extremely robust – crocodiles have been unchanged for 55 million years. Others are relatively new – our species is perhaps 200,000 years old. All other human species are extinct.

Religious evolution works in a similar fashion. Right now we’re in a period of speciation – lots of environmental factors are stimulating a wide variety of Pagan beliefs and practices. Some of these varieties are revivals of ancient beliefs and practices, such as the many ethnic reconstructionisms. Some are new inventions, or new variations on more established traditions like Wicca and Druidry. It’s been said there are as many Paganisms as there are Pagans, and while I think that statement downplays our many commonalities, it’s not wrong.

Most of these Pagan “species” will go extinct in a few years. Maybe they sounded good at the time, but they weren’t robust enough to survive. They were very meaningful to their founders, but never appealed to enough other people to reach critical mass. They were a good response to the conditions in a particular place and time, but the environment changed and people needed something different. The Pagan shops and New Age bookstores that served as community centers worked well for a while, but economic changes have driven most of them out of business.

This is OK. While I’m a big fan of building institutions, one of their downsides is that people often put the survival of the institution ahead of fulfilling its mission. Rather than mourning the loss of retail businesses, let’s gather in parks, homes, UU churches… and maybe start thinking about building some actual temples.

Paganism is evolving. As good Pagans, let’s embrace its deaths as much as we embrace its births.

The comparisons to early Christianity are flawed

Many people have compared contemporary Paganism to the first and second centuries of Christianity. The founders are dead, there are many competing versions of the religion, and it’s not entirely certain the religion will survive, much less go on to become a major influence in the world. I’ve made this comparison myself, and there are some valid similarities.

But it is virtually certain Paganism will not have a Constantine, much less a Theodosius. More relevantly to our time and place, we will have no Council of Nicaea to determine orthodoxy.

There will be no intentional events to consolidate our many Pagan religions into one religion.

I expect the variations of Paganism that are especially well-suited to our environment will grow over time. If some of the better ones are particularly broad and robust, we will see consolidation. But without a means for enforcing orthodoxy (Gods be praised!) the process of mutation and adaptation will continue.

Those that aren’t sufficiently well-suited to our environment will die. Absent state support and other forms of coercion, natural selection applies to religious species as much as to biological species.

another product of evolution

Paganism is particularly well-suited to our environment

The roots of the contemporary Pagan movement lie in the modern urban / industrial disconnection from Nature, in the need for gender balance in religion, and in the beliefs and practices of our pre-Christian ancestors.

We in the West do not face the massive pollution we did 50 years ago, but climate change presents its own challenges. Even those of us who live in clean cities and suburbs are still separated from the land in ways that our ancestors were not. We grew out of the land and we need the land. Paganism helps connect us to the land, and reminds us that the land is worthy of our respect.

While some forms of Christianity have embraced gender equality, many have not, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, the two largest denominations in this country. And while a few Christians are exploring the divine feminine, most still worship a father God and a male savior. Meanwhile, Paganism offers whole pantheons of Goddesses and mostly sees men, women, and gender-nonconforming folks as equal and religiously interchangeable.

Western culture owes as much to Athens as to Jerusalem, and some of us realize the Gods of Athens are far more than characters in old stories. The Anglo-Saxon Gods are more than the days of the week. The fairy-faith never really went away, and the Fair Folk are returning to the ordinary world (or at least, more of us are noticing them).

Without good data, we cannot say for sure if the Pagan movement as a whole is growing or shrinking. But we can say that the conditions are favorable for Pagan growth in the coming years, even if that growth may come in ways we are not expecting.

Evolution is a merciless process

Biological evolution does not care if a species is beautiful or ugly, fierce or timid, millions of years old or just diverged in the current generation. It only cares if it is well-adapted to its environment, and if it is either robust enough or flexible enough to survive environmental changes. And sooner or later, the environment always changes.

Religious evolution is equally merciless. While the power of government can prop up a religion long after its expiration date, in a religiously free society (and despite our shortcomings, we live in the most religiously free and religiously diverse society in the history of humanity) religions either adapt to their environments or they die.

Is your Paganism robust and adaptable? Does it celebrate the wonder and awe of Nature? Is it open to the blessings of the Gods… and to Their work assignments? Does it help you deal with the inevitability of death and the other Big Questions of Life? If so, the odds on it surviving into the future are good.

Storefronts will close. Orders will dissolve. Beliefs and practices will be abandoned. But also, new institutions will be formed. New groups will arise. Ancient beliefs and practices will be restored and new ones will be refined.

Paganism isn’t dying, it’s evolving.

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