Paganism Is Mostly Fine: The End is Not Near

Did you get the memo that Paganism is dying? I didn’t either, but it’s a notice that goes out every once in awhile or when someone is trying to attract attention to their blog. I think Paganism today is fine, definitely not on its death bed, and is mostly in good hands. It’s changing, but it’s always done that, and probably always will.

"Joan of Arc" by François Chifflart.  From WikiMedia.
“Joan of Arc” by François Chifflart. From WikiMedia.

INITIATORY FORMS OF WITCHCRAFT ARE ALIVE AND WELL THANK YOU VERY MUCH

I’ve never been a huge fan of Peter Grey, most likely because his viral article Rewilding Witchcraft contains this line:

There is no halting the decline of the initiatic witchcraft traditions of Gardner or Sanders, nor the collapse of neo-paganism.

That’s just bollocks. If anything there are more Gardnerians today than there were twenty years ago, and that’s a trend that’s going to continue. Have initiatory traditions changed over the last forty years? Absolutely! I think people come to lineaged traditions later in life in 2017 because it’s no longer the only gateway into Wicca.

Instead of being initiated in their twenties people are being initiated in their thirties, forties, and fifties. After fifteen years as Eclectic Wiccans my wife and I decided that we were ready for something more, and became interested in British Traditional Witchcraft. A lot of our initiates have had similar journeys. I know that initiatory forms of Witchcraft are thriving because I’m part of one and I can’t go more than a couple of weeks without someone asking me about initiation.

Initiatory traditions are expanding outside of traditional lines too. People are using the ideas and rituals of people like Gardner, Sanders, Budapest, and Valiente and creating new forms of the Craft that include initiations and elevations. Every tradition has to start sometime, and there’s no better time than now, or last year, two decades ago, or five years from now. Traditional groups were often more noticeable several decades ago, but that’s because they were one of the few games in town. Today there are a lot of people in initiatory traditions just fine with going about their work and not making a big deal of it. That doesn’t mean the traditions are dying.

A witch and her devil.  From Wikimedia.
A witch and her devil. From Wikimedia.

TRADITIONAL WITCHCRAFT IS MOST CERTAINLY NOT IN DECLINE

Over the last five years there’s been a surge of interest in what many adherents call Traditional Witchcraft. I have mixed feelings about the phrase Traditional Witchcraft, but not about the practice. People are re-discovering old magickal formulas and finding common ground with the cunning-craft of 200 years ago and I think it’s marvelous.

One of the best things about Traditional Witchcraft has been all the books released on the subject the last few years, especially all the stuff from Troy Books and Three Hands Press. (And our Coby Michael Smith at Poisoner’s Apothecary does a great job covering all it!) The more Witchcraft in the world the better!

THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF FESTIVALS, AND THE NUMBER IS GROWING

Every year I put together a list of Pagan festivals, and every year a bunch of people tell me about the ones I’ve overlooked. There are literally hundreds of festivals, and new ones are starting up every year. If festivals were in severe decline, why is Mystic South opening its doors this Summer?

It’s true that national festivals are probably on the decline, but that’s because there’s generally a festival in everyone’s back yard. Why go to California when there’s something to visit right by your house? Going into the future I think there will be more local festivals, and many of them might be three or four day affairs instead of week long intensives, but that doesn’t mean they are going away.

As someone who goes to a lot of festivals (nine this year!) I think I’m in a good posistion to comment on them. I will say that festival attendance feels down a bit in 2017, but there are a lot of us who are still a little shell-shocked over the results of our last election. One year does not a trend make, and there may be other explanations besides.

PERHAPS INSTITUTIONS AREN’T THE FUTURE

Just because groups like CUUPS or certain Druid orders might be losing members doesn’t mean that Paganism as a whole is headed down the same wormhole. There are a lot of us who are suspicious of institutional forms of Paganism, and perhaps groups that were once considered essential are seen as less so now that Paganism has become more mainstream. Where once large open groups were the only way into the Pagan Community, today there’s social media and Meet Up. (Membership in groups has long been in decline in the United States, this is not something limited to Paganism.)

A lot of Pagan traditions aren’t designed to be experienced in large groups or institutional settings anyways. Wiccan-Witchcraft works best with fourteen people and not forty. Many new forms of Paganism aren’t looking to engage in the wider Pagan world, and just want to be left alone to do their thing and serve their gods, nothing wrong with that. If a public, Pagan group or church fails that’s not necessarily related to the decline of Paganism, it only means that group didn’t work out, and lots of groups don’t work out for a variety of reasons.

Institutions like Cherry Hill Seminary were set up with the best of intentions, but again, just because they are in trouble doesn’t mean Paganism is falling apart. It simply means that Cherry Hill is not meeting the needs of the people it hopes to serve, or perhaps some people have decided that they don’t need Cherry Hill. I’ve never signed “The Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” because I don’t think petitions like that serve any purpose. I don’t need to sign anything online in order to continue picking up trash in my neighborhood and leaving the car at home.

"The Veneration of Venus" by Peter Paul Rubens.  From WikiMedia.
“The Veneration of Venus” by Peter Paul Rubens. From WikiMedia.

MAYBE WE JUST DON’T PLAY NICE AS AN EXTENDED COMMUNITY ANYMORE?

I’m one of those pessimists that believes the greater Pagan Umbrella is not long for this world, but that doesn’t mean that groups currently under the “Pagan” banner are all falling apart, just the opposite. What I think is happening is that there are more and more groups catering to rather specific niches in greater Pagandom. Often times these newer groups don’t have a lot in common with Wiccans, Witches, and Druids, and as a result, choose to mostly absent themselves from the greater Pagan Community. No harm there, I’ve felt like that a time or two myself.

Maybe thirty years ago we all needed to have the same goals, but with the increased diversity of the Pagan landscape, that’s getting harder and harder. When I read Atheist-Pagans publicly mocking those who believe in magick or deity I find myself wanting to pull away from that segment of the community. (Much like they probably feel like disengaging from me when I wax poetically about the Horned God.) When I first started out in Paganism, I was happy to simply find another Pagan, I think if I were searching for folks of a like mind today I’d probably only be looking for Witches. And that’s because I’d expect to find a substantial number of them, which wasn’t the case two decades ago.

THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN A DOUGHNUT SIZED HOLE IN THE PAGAN COMMUNITY

When I first started interacting with other Pagans all the people I met were either college age or in their forties (or older), and that hasn’t changed much over the years. It used to be something that bothered me, but today I’ve figured out why exactly that is: many people leave the community or at least hibernate after having kids. A lot of our circles aren’t geared towards families (and some practices and traditions never will be), so people disengage after having kids, at least for awhile.

It’s easy to look at the doughnut hole and think the sky is falling on Paganism, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Yes, more and more circles and groups are welcoming of families these days, but that doesn’t mean those families are going to necessarily show up. They may not want to raise their children as Pagans, or perhaps they are simply too exhausted to attend ritual after a week of working and taking care of their children.

WE ARE PROBABLY IN AT LEAST A MINI-BOOM PERIOD

If you look at the history of Paganism there’s always been a bit of ebb and flow. We were reborn (mostly) in the 1950’s, experienced a boom period in the late 60’s and 70’s, cooled off for awhile during the Reagan years, and then had our biggest boom in the mid-90’s with the rise of the internet and TV shows and movies like Charmed and The Craft. I’m guessing we are currently in a “boom” period, it just may be that people aren’t heading towards the more “established” traditions like they did twenty years ago.

And if there are a bunch of Pagans on the “periphery” who cares? That’s par for the course with religion. Not everyone is going to want to engage in the larger community, and we shouldn’t pressure folks to do so. If they want to just do spells and serve the Man in Black that’s their prerogative.

I've got no bookstore pictures, so enjoy this instead.
I’ve got no bookstore pictures, so enjoy this instead.

SOME OF THE PROBLEMS WE SEE STEM FROM FACTORS OUTSIDE OF PAGANISM

It’s been sad to see the decline of local Pagan bookstores over the past two decades, but that really has nothing to do with Paganism and everything to do with human nature and our failure as people to recognize how we harm local businesses when shopping online. People are still buying Pagan stuff, they are just doing so online. The sad end result of that is we end up losing public Pagan spaces, which make it feel as if our numbers are declining.

Book piracy is a very real problem, which means that people aren’t buying books as often as they used to (instead they are stealing them). Also, online outlets like this one have stolen the thunder of some books, why pay for something when the answer could be online? (I have a friend who works at a bookstore, watching him try and sell a good, reputable spell book can be tragic.) Some Pagan websites have seen their traffic fall a bit over the last few months, as someone who works on the internet a lot of that is due to Facebook’s algorithms and not a downward trend in Paganism. (Our numbers here at Patheos Pagan are actually on the rise!)

YOUR VALUES MAY NOT BE SHARED BY EVERYONE

I’ve argued before that not every Pagan tradition is a “nature religion” in the classic sense, and not all Pagans share the same values. Some people aren’t looking for Paganism to change the world, they are looking at it to help them make sense of their world. I think we often want to place the things we as individuals cherish most in Paganism front and center, and not everyone is going to agree with those things.

There are Pagans who aren’t interested in deity, and probably always have been. There are Pagans who are surprisingly not interested in the environment, or at least in the same way many of us are. Not all Pagans are socialists or anarchists. We are pretty diverse bunch and will continue to be so in the future.

Paganism is changing, but it’s not going anywhere.

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