May 28, 2014

Welcome to Under the Ancient Oaks, a thoughtful little blog on the Patheos Pagan Channel.  I’m John Beckett, and as the header says, I’m a Pagan, a Druid, and a Unitarian Universalist.  Earlier this week I felt called to respond to the misogyny in our society after the killings in Isla Vista, California.  Apparently what I had to say resonated with a lot of people, because traffic on this blog is up.  A lot.  More people read Dude, It’s You in its first 24 hours than visit in a typical month.

I think it’s safe to assume a lot of these new readers don’t know much about Paganism.  That’s what I do here – write about modern Pagan religion as I understand it and as I practice it.  I’ve been needing to put an introductory piece together and this is a good time to do it.

There is no clear, generally accepted definition of Paganism.  That’s because Paganism isn’t an institution – it’s a movement.  Institutions have boundaries:  clear distinctions between who’s in and who’s out.  Movements are more amorphous – they don’t have boundaries.  Instead, they have centers.  You aren’t in or out of a movement – you’re more or less close to the center.

The Pagan movement has four centers – four key concepts and practices around which modern Pagans gather.  They are Nature, Deities, the Self, and Community.  The Four Centers model was first proposed by John Halstead last year.  I found it to be very helpful in understanding the diversity of modern Paganism, and I’ve incorporated it into my own writing and teaching.

If you aren’t familiar with Paganism, or if you are but you aren’t quite sure how to describe it, read on.  Don’t worry – this isn’t an exercise in proselytization.  My job is to talk about Paganism, but in the end, the Gods call who They call.

Nature Centered Paganism

Nature Centered Pagans find the Divine in Nature – their primary concern is the natural world and our relationship with it.  You may hear terms like “Earth centered” “tree hugger” and “dirt worshipper.”

This may be a non-theistic practice, though not necessarily so.  It includes Animism, the idea that whatever animates you and me and the birds and bees also animates the wind and rain and even the mountains.

We know that life on Earth evolved once – all living things share a common ancestor and are therefore related.  Nature centered Pagans understand the Earth is sacred in and of itself – its worth does not depend on its usefulness to humans, and so we treat the Earth with honor and respect.

Though none of them called themselves Pagans (and certainly not in the sense the term is usually used today) you see the ideas of Nature centered Paganism expressed in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and John Muir.  You see it articulated for our era in Dark Green Religion by Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida.

Nature centered practices start with science, the study of Nature.  Its creation myths include the Big Bang and evolution.  Its daily practices include observing the sun, the moon, trees, and animals, and simply spending time in the natural world.  Many Nature centered Pagans are environmental activists.

As for me, I do not have a commitment to Nature because I’m a Pagan.  I’m a Pagan because I have a commitment to Nature.

Deity Centered Paganism

Deity centered Pagans find the Divine in the many Goddesses and Gods.  This is usually a polytheistic practice, although we’ve had a debate or two about just what “polytheist” means.  Deity centered Paganism is mainly concerned with forming and maintaining relationships with the Gods, ancestors, and spirits.  Much of this is done through acts of devotion:  worship, offerings, sacrifices, prayers and meditation.  Some traditions teach ecstatic experience of deities, while others are more reserved and formal.

Monotheists claim their God is the only God and that He (it’s always a He) is infinite.  Polytheists look at the world as we actually experience it and see little evidence of an all-powerful, all-good deity.  But many deities of limited power and limited scope fits our world very well.

Deity centered Paganism includes most ethnic reconstructionists:  groups such as Heathens, Hellenists, and Kemetics who are attempting to reconstruct and reimagine the religions of our pre-Christian ancestors.  They emphasize scholarship, both to learn how our ancestors worshipped these deities and to find and share the best ways to worship them here and now.  We read Their stories, but we also study mainstream history, archeology and anthropology.

A commitment to the Gods is a commitment to embody Their virtues. Most of our deities have the title “God or Goddess of Somethingorother.” This is not all they are any more than “artist” or “engineer” or “mother” or any of your roles and identities fully describes all you are. Still, it’s an important part of who They are and what They have to teach us. They are different from us, but not so very different. The more we embody Their virtues, the more like Them – the more God-like – we become.

While Nature called me to Paganism, I was never able to devote myself fully to this path – and I was never able to fully extricate myself from the fundamentalist religion of my childhood – until I experienced the Gods first-hand.

Self Centered Paganism

Self centered Paganism doesn’t mean it’s all about you and your ego.  It means you find the Divine within yourself.  It means the focus of your religious practice is to make yourself stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and more magical, so you can be of greater service to the world.

Wicca – at least in its traditional Gardnerian and Alexandrian forms – is Self centered.  So is much of ceremonial magic, traditional witchcraft, and feminist witchcraft.  There’s a story that in the early days of Reclaiming, Starhawk would tell her students “Now I will show you a Goddess.  Turn and look at the woman beside you.”

Self centered Paganism is perfectly described by the subtitle of Lon Milo DuQuette’s book Low Magick:  “It’s All In Your Head … You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is.”  It’s also exemplified by the famous quote from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:  gnōthi seautón:  know thyself.

Self centered Paganism may be non-theistic, pantheistic, or monistic.  It is frequently concerned with magic, which the legendary – and notorious – Aleister Crowley defined as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.”  Your Will isn’t what you think you want or what you think you’re supposed to want, it’s why you’re here in this world.

I’m a Self centered Pagan because I can’t do justice to my commitment to Nature and to the Gods without a commitment to excellence in my spiritual life.

Community Centered Paganism

Community centered Pagans find the Divine within the family and the tribe – however they choose to define those groups.  Ancient tribal religion was (and is, in the few places where it still exists) about maintaining harmonious relationships and preserving the way things have always been.  Individuals are secondary to the family, and immortality is in the continuation of the family, not in the continuation of the individual.

It usually includes some form of ancestor worship, and may include offerings to the Agathos Daimon – the “good spirit” or guardian spirit of the household.  Ancestors and family spirits are generally thought to be more accessible than Goddesses and Gods – a Heathen saying goes “if you feel a tap on your shoulder, it’s probably your grandfather, not the Allfather.”

Humans are social animals – we live together, not as lone wolves.  Our families of blood and families of choice provide encouragement, reinforcement, and accountability.  Communities are their own entities – they are more than a collection of individuals.  Communities exist to fulfill their missions and continue their traditions, not to meet your needs – being in community is being a part of something greater than yourself.

Community centered Pagans teach hospitality toward guests, including our divine guests.  And they teach reciprocity – are you giving at least as much as you’re receiving?

Communities are helpful and rewarding, but they require work by all their members.  Avoiding the unpleasant parts of community marks you as a religious consumer instead of someone who is committed to the goals of the community.

Without the active, caring, and sometimes frustrating religious communities in which I live, work and worship, my practice and my life would be far less than they are.

Synthesis and Exceptions

In practice, most of us identify with more than one center.  We feel the call of Nature, but we’re also interested in magic.  We worship the Gods, but we prefer to do so along with other Pagans.  In general, it’s better to dive deeply into one or two centers than to glaze over all four.  You’re certainly not doing it wrong because you aren’t fully committed to all four.

I’m primarily a Nature and Deity centered Pagan, but I also participate in Self centered and Community centered Paganism.

Not everyone who does these things is Pagan.  There are atheists who revere Nature, Hindus who worship many Gods, Christians who practice magic, and Jews who love community.  And there are people who I think are clearly inside the Big Tent of Paganism who simply don’t like the term and prefer to call themselves something else.

This is Paganism

There is no definition of modern Pagan religion, but these four centers do a very good job of describing what people who go to Pagan events, buy Pagan books, write and comment on Pagan blogs, and call themselves Pagans have in common.  This is what Pagans think and do:  revere Nature, worship the Gods, refine the Self, and support community.

What about you?  Do any of these centers call to you?  If you’re curious, there’s almost six years of material here on Under the Ancient Oaks, and there’s plenty more on the other blogs on the Patheos Pagan Channel.  Look around and see what seems to fit – and what doesn’t.

And if none of it seems to fit you, that’s fine too.  They call who They call.  As long as you do the right things and as long as you treat other people and other creatures with dignity and respect, it doesn’t matter which God or Goddess you do or don’t worship.

Blessings to you on your journey through life.

June 17, 2013

[addendum: As Joseph Bloch points out in his comment, there are actually four centers of Paganism, not three.  The fourth is community. – JFB]

John Halstead at The Allergic Pagan is doing some of the best work in contemporary Pagan studies that I’ve come across. I don’t always agree with his commentary, but when he’s focused on what Pagans are doing and why they’re doing it, he’s as good as anybody I’ve read. This post draws heavily on his observations of the Three Centers of Paganism.

I have come to understand that the reason we have so much trouble defining Paganism is because defining it requires drawing boundaries, declaring some beliefs and practices in and others out. But name virtually any belief or practice and you’ll find someone doing it and calling themselves Pagan.

The problem is that Paganism is not an institution with boundaries. It’s a movement. Movements don’t have boundaries – they have a center and a direction. Or, in the case of Paganism, three centers and three directions.

I encourage you to go read John Halstead’s post from last year The Three (or more?) “Centers” of Paganism. While you’re there read the comments too – they’re also worth your time. Rather than trying to summarize all that, here are a few key excerpts:

To begin with there is what I will call “earth-centered Paganism” .. [it] would include those Paganisms concerned primarily with ecology, those more local forms of Paganism that I would call “backyard Paganism” or are sometimes called “dirt worship”, and many forms of (neo-)animism which view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of beings. The Pagan identity of earth-centered Pagans is defined by their relationship to their natural environment.

Last month I wrote this post where I asserted “We must learn to see Nature as sacred and treat her with reverence.” The strong reactions from some show that while this may be important for many Pagans, there are some who don’t agree. But a connection to Nature is one of the primary reasons I became a Pagan, and it’s probably the most common reason I hear from people who come to our CUUPS circles.

The second group is what I will call the “Self-centered” Paganism. I don’t mean this in the pejorative sense of ego-centrism … [it] includes Jungian Neopaganism, many forms of Wicca and feminist witchcraft, and more ceremonial or esoteric forms of Paganism. The Pagan identity of Self-centered Pagans is defined by spiritual practices which aim at development of the individual, spiritually or psychologically.

Halstead has had some trouble with people misunderstanding what he means, despite his disclaimer. Self-centered Paganism doesn’t mean it’s all about you. It means the focus of your religious practice is to make yourself stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more magical and such so you can then be of greater service to the world. My early attempts at learning magic were from this center, as are a good portion of my OBOD studies.

The third group is “deity-centered” Paganism … [it] includes many forms of polytheistic worship, many Reconstructionist or Revivalist forms of Paganism, including those which are closer to Heathenry, and those which borrow techniques (i.e., aspecting) from African-diasporic religions. The Pagan identity of deity-centered Pagans is defined by a dedication to one or more deities.

What drew me to Paganism was a fascination with magic and a love of Nature. Deities didn’t enter into the picture until much later. Because I had trouble making a clean break with the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood, I tried to ignore the deity-centered portions of Paganism. I did it… I just didn’t do it very well.

My beliefs during my early days in Paganism were a vague deistic universalism: there is a God or a Goddess, he or she loves us and wants us to be happy, and will take care of us all when we die, but he or she doesn’t really get involved in our day to day lives. It was nice and comfortable, but I spent eight years running in place. It was only after I developed a deity-centered foundation that my spiritual practice began to grow, and I got moving on the journey I’m still on today.

Each time I’ve felt a particularly strong pull toward one of the three centers, I’ve had feelings that I was doing something wrong because I was taking time and energy away from the other centers. I really should develop a deeper relationship with my gods but in order to accomplish anything I need stronger magical skills but none of that matters if we aren’t caring for the Earth but aren’t these gods of Nature but magic gods nature magicgodsnature…

Sometimes my head is a very noisy place to be.

This is not the monkey-mind chatter that Buddhist meditation is so effective in controlling. This is three centers, three focuses of thought and practice, all clamoring for attention – and deservedly so. All three have long traditions (though not equally long) and good intellectual foundations, and all three have proven to be spiritually helpful to individuals, communities, and the world at large. And all three are calling to me. How could I possibly devote myself entirely to one and ignore the others?

My goal for this year is to decompartmentalize my life. I envisioned this as learning to be the same person at work, at church, with family, with friends, and alone. But now I see the project is even bigger than I thought. I also need to decompartmentalize my Pagan identity. I need to combine my Nature-centered, deity-centered, and self-centered Pagan beliefs and practices into an integrated whole. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to do this, but the first step is recognizing the source of these internal conflicts. That’s where Halstead’s work has been so helpful.

That’s what I have to do. If you identify with one or two of these centers but not another, that’s fine – and you have plenty of company. If you identify with any of these centers, I want you in the Big Tent of Paganism. I enjoy theological discussions and debates (so long as they remain respectful) – they help me refine my own ideas about the gods. But in the end the nature of the gods or God/dess or the All or however you see Divinity remains a mystery.

And that mystery will be the topic of my next post.

May 16, 2019

Recently I’ve seen two deep and heart-felt comments from Pagans that I’ll describe as “Catholic envy.” Both are committed polytheists, but both are also envious of the Catholic church with their physical churches in every town (and in some cities, in every neighborhood), professional clergy, established seminaries and monasteries, and all the stability and continuity that comes from being the largest religious institution in the world (depending on if you consider the Sunni version of Islam to be one thing, which I don’t).

I understand their envy, and I share it to a certain extent.

Let’s be clear what we’re envious about. Despite the occasional off-hand comment from the current pope that hints at inclusivity, Catholic theology is exclusivist and therefore not something I support. I support their politics on justice for the poor and against the death penalty, and I just as strongly oppose their politics on reproductive rights and the equality of women. Their history of abuse – whether we’re talking about the Inquisition, the Magdalene Laundries, or the rape of children by priests – is long and has not been accounted for, which means we cannot be sure it has ended.

And none of that is the point here. Neither my friends nor I have any great love for the Catholic church. But we cannot help but be envious of its institutions, and we wish we had similar resources in our Pagan and polytheist religions.

A large percentage of Pagans are solitary practitioners. The institutions we do have – such as OBOD, ADF, Covenant of the Goddess, and CUUPS – are fine organizations, but at best they’re networks of small local groups and solitaries. They’re not even close to being the same thing, and won’t be in our lifetime, if ever.

There’s a reason envy is one of the seven deadly sins (which are a Catholic invention). It focuses our attention on what we lack instead of on what we have, and if we are not careful, can cause us to resent our neighbors’ abundance while ignoring our own. It can cause it to chase things we do not need and sometimes do not even want.

The best way to combat envy is to approach it head-on, examine our desires, and then figure out if we should work toward obtaining these things for ourselves or simply focus on our own lives as they are.

So I’d like to take a look at Catholic envy in the contemporary Pagan movement.

Paganism is a movement, not an institution

The Catholic church is an institution. Paganism and polytheism are movements. The primary difference is that institutions have boundaries – either you’re in or you’re out. Movements have no boundaries – they have a center and a direction. Beginning in 2013, we identified four centers of the modern Pagan movement: Nature, the Gods, the Self, and Community.

Because of their tighter boundaries and focus, institutions are far more capable of marshalling resources to build and maintain “sub-institutions” like temples and schools. Even when we have adequate numbers we rarely have the narrowly defined commitments necessary to support infrastructure.

This is the nature of a loosely defined movement. If Paganism was one thing, things would be different. But it’s not one thing, and it’s never going to be one thing. There will be no Pagan Council of Nicaea. We will remain a movement, and it’s hard for movements to build institutions.

But it’s not impossible.

Religious institutions must be built on spiritual depth

We can all come together for something like Pagan Pride Day centered on nothing more than a vague identity as Pagans. But Pagan Pride Day is a once-a-year gathering that doesn’t require most people to do anything more than show up for a few hours (though organizers invest substantially more time and effort that usually goes thankless).

Want to build a temple? Great – what deities will be enshrined there? Denton CUUPS Pantheon ritual was a great success, but does anybody really want to try to build a permanent temple to house 35 deities from at least seven different traditions? And once you start enshrining individual deities, will the “Goddess and God” Pagans and the non-theistic Pagans want to participate? Will the Hellenists be willing to share space with the Heathens, much less share rituals?

Getting to the level of commitment that will allow us to build substantial infrastructure won’t happen by different flavors of Pagans “putting aside their differences” (better stated as “important cultural and theological diversity”). It will come when one or two or six traditions develop enough spiritual depth to appeal to a larger number of people and develop the necessary resources on their own.

The leadership dilemma

You cannot build an institution without strong, competent leaders. At the same time, a group has to move from dependence on key individuals to operating as an institution. Isaac Bonewits founded ADF, but he stepped down as Archdruid in 1996 and died in 2010. ADF is still going strong. It transcended Isaac – it became an institution.

At the same time, no organization – whether institution or movement or something else – can last for long without good leadership. One of the reasons so many Pagan groups fail is that when their founder(s) die or burn out or just move on, there is no one to replace them.

We need a bigger pool of leaders. We need more people who are capable and willing to make sure the group fulfills its mission and does what it says it’s going to do, no matter what. Many people are capable of doing this – far fewer are willing.

Most Pagan groups have enough trouble attracting ordinary members – trying to recruit leaders from the general public is virtually impossible. But if we attract more people in general, that give us more chances to find someone with leadership capabilities.

Of course, it helps if we don’t burn our leaders at the stake

Prioritize the movement

I want to be part of something bigger and longer-lasting than myself. Though I believe we live on after death, I am certain we live on in the families and communities of which we are a part. Right now, our immortality as Pagans is in the movement, not in institutions.

I expect OBOD will continue long after I move on to the Otherworld. ADF is much smaller and CUUPS is smaller still – while I expect them to continue, I’m less confident they’ll be around in two hundred years. But I’m sure Paganism and polytheism will persist. Their roots are older and far broader; they speak to basic human desires for connection to Nature and to the Gods.

Our legacy is in the movement. And the stronger the movement, the larger the pool of Pagans to fill our individual paths and traditions.

But build strong local groups

The word “religion” comes from the Latin religare meaning “to bind together.” Religion is about relationships with other persons, and while some of those persons are Gods and spirits, others are living humans.

There is no substitute for gathering together to celebrate Beltane, to work magic for a sick friend, or to discuss the nature of the Gods around a bottle of wine. I love my Facebook friends and they are my friends, but there’s no substitute for someone who can come to your house when you really need to see and hear and touch someone.

There are a million reasons why people choose to be solitary and most of them are valid. That doesn’t negate the need for strong local groups. You must do what you think is best for you, but the stronger and deeper your local connections, the better.

Stop fixating on Christianity, either Catholic or Protestant.

If we had stronger Pagan groups, Pagan institutions, and a Pagan movement we would have far fewer reasons to be envious of the Catholics and what they have. But I need to address “Catholic envy” directly.

Stop it.

Stop the envy for Protestant institutions and infrastructure too.

It’s not that envy is a mortal sin – as a Pagan I don’t believe in mortal sins and I’m not sure I believe in sin at all.

The modern Pagan movement is at best 150 years old. Realistically it’s better to date it from the publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954, making it 65. How can you compare that to a religion that’s 2000 years old and was the overwhelmingly predominant religion in the West for 1500? As much as I’d like to have temples in every city and some of them as big and ornate as cathedrals and all the things that go with all that, that’s not going to happen in the lifetime of anyone alive today.

Catholic envy is a useless distraction from the Paganism we can build here and now.

We can learn more from Judaism and Buddhism

If you want to look at other religions for ideas, there are more relevant choices than Catholicism.

Judaism has been a minority religion for over two millennia, and a persecuted minority for most of that time. Yet it has persisted, and is considered one of the “Big Five” world religions. There is much we can learn about forming and maintaining a religious identity from our Jewish friends.

Buddhism is far less hierarchical than Christianity and just as diverse. Also, the relationship between monks and lay Buddhists is rather different from that between Christian clergy and laity, in a way that may be instructional for Pagans.

I’m no expert on Judaism or Buddhism, but I know enough about them to realize they’re both significantly different from Christianity, in more ways than beliefs. It isn’t helpful to be envious of Jewish synagogues or Buddhist monasteries, but if we’re going to study the institutions of other religions, let’s look farther than what we see on the nearest street corner.

We know something about how our Pagan ancestors organized their religions – a lot about Egypt and Greece, less about Scandinavia and the Celtic lands. But those were either state religions, or the near-universal indigenous religions of the people. We can learn from them and be inspired by them, but trying to copy them is no more likely to be helpful than trying to copy the Catholics.

Envy is not helpful

Call it a sin, call it a vice, call it human nature. Whatever you call it, envy isn’t helpful.

It’s one thing to admire the beauty of an exceptionally attractive person. It’s another thing to become so obsessed with the artificial beauty of celebrities that we lose sight of the ordinary but real beauty of our spouses and partners.

I’m pretty sure both of my friends who inspired this post are on the healthy side of their attraction to the Catholic church. And I’m just as sure that many Pagans aren’t.

We’re Pagans because something called to us. Whatever that something (or Someone) was, it wasn’t institutions and infrastructure. Let’s answer those calls and become the best Pagans we can be, of whatever variety we choose or that chooses us.

And then we can build the institutions and infrastructure we need, here and now, and not mindlessly copy what they have in the religion we left.

December 6, 2018

I can’t count how many times I’ve read “Paganism is dying!” over the past couple of weeks. A few of those pronouncements expressed sadness, but most were filled with a satisfaction whose righteousness depends largely on your point of view.

I’m not going to list all the controversies driving these portents of doom, not because they’re not valid (some are and some aren’t) but because I don’t want to debate their merits here. That’s not the purpose of this post. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go read the last several weeks of The Wild Hunt. They haven’t covered all these situations as well as I’d like, and in one case they were the cause of the problem. But they let the wider Pagan community know what’s going on, and that’s why I still support them.

What I want to address here is the idea that because there’s controversy, or bad behavior, or because some institution is failing, the movement itself is dying. Paganism is dying because we don’t respect our elders, or because our elders did bad things and haven’t repented. Paganism is dying because we put environmentalism before the Gods, or because we put the Gods before environmentalism. Paganism is dying because big name events, websites, and publishers include people we think they shouldn’t, or because they exclude people we think they should include, and in either case they never handle difficult situations the right way.

Mind you, I’m not saying “it’s all the same” or “both sides are wrong” or “we should tolerate anything and everything.” I have an opinion on all these controversies and I’ve expressed a few of them, most quietly but some more vocally. While it’s good to take a stand and especially to support your vulnerable friends and co-religionists, if you need to make a public statement on every controversy I have to wonder how well you’re living your values. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know where I stand on most issues. If you aren’t sure – and if you care what I think – just ask.

What’s right and what’s wrong on a given issue is important, but that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that controversy and the fall of various “Big Name Pagans” is not evidence of the death of modern Paganism.

Paganism was never one thing

We often talk about Paganism like it’s one thing. I do it too: Pagan is one of the titles I claim in the header of this blog, which is on the Patheos Pagan website. I write about Paganism all the time. My first book is titled The Path of Paganism.

But Paganism isn’t one thing – it’s a collection of many things. It’s a religious movement with four centers. It’s a big tent that includes many different religions, traditions, and spiritualities. It’s a hundred varieties of Wicca, fifty varieties of Druidry, countless ethnic reconstructionisms, different ways of non-theistic Nature worship, and much much more.

It was the same with ancient paganism (lowercase intentional). The religion of the Celts was different from the religion of the Romans, and both were different from the religion of the Egyptians. And although Egypt was remarkably stable over 3000 years, its religion also varied from place to place and from dynasty to dynasty.

There is value in the term Pagan and I think we should continue to use it. But it’s much more than one thing.

Paganism is more than any individual

Ancestor veneration is a big part of my regular spiritual practice. That includes not just my ancestors of blood but also my ancestors of spirit – some of whom are still living and aren’t ancestors yet. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us and who laid the foundations on which we build. Most of us understand this intuitively, and we rightly hold the ancestors and elders of our traditions in high regard.

When we find that those we respect did bad things, or are accused of doing bad things, or make excuses for others who do bad things, it can be devastating.

But as influential as various personalities have been in the development of modern Paganism (and in most other religions too), they do not define it. A religion centered around a living human isn’t a religion, it’s a cult – in the common usage of the term, not the academic usage.

Our Paganism (or Paganisms, if you prefer) is grounded in Nature, in our Gods, in our communities, and in our own better selves. Cults of personality aren’t helpful and they must die.

Paganism is decentralizing

I’m not sure how centralized Paganism ever was. But we certainly talk about it like it was centralized, or that it should be centralized, or that it’s inevitable that it will be centralized one day. That’s not going to happen.

The future isn’t solitary either. Now, solitary practitioners will remain a large portion of the Pagan movement. But solitary practitioner are, well, solitary – they work on their own and so their influence on the movement as a whole is minimal.

The future of Paganism is decentralized. It’s small groups that meet in someone’s living room and create a family that can support each other in the mundane world. It’s large organizations with autonomous chapters in different locations around the world. It’s scholars and mystics and priests working together to restore and reimagine the cults of the Gods – and here cult is used in its academic sense. And it’s hundreds of independent paths and traditions, most of which will only last a few years, but some of which will turn out to be powerful and strong and relevant and will be around for generations.

Are some Pagan traditions and institutions dying? Yes. But there are many more that are doing just fine, and still more are developing all the time.

I still support the Big Tent of Paganism…

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying these words at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Turns out that may have been literary license by his biographer 50 years after his death. But whether he said them or not, they were true.

Our situation as modern Pagans isn’t quite so dire. But we are horribly outnumbered, and the only reason Christian conservatives aren’t ranting against us (more than they already are) is that they’re more afraid of Muslims and atheists. We need to work together where we have common cause, especially on respecting religious diversity and preventing religious discrimination. And we need to pool our resources to support pan-Pagan events and institutions – to do together what none of us are big enough to do separately.

…But I’m a polytheist first

When I moved Under the Ancient Oaks to Patheos in 2013, Christine Kraemer and I came up with “musings of a Pagan, Druid, and Unitarian Universalist” as the subtitle. I still wear all those hats. But if I was starting over today I’d work “polytheist” in there somewhere. My first religious commitments are to my Gods and to my co-religionists. And those commitments aren’t dying.

No fallen elders can break the ties between me and the Gods I serve. No racists, homophobes, or transphobes can come between those of us who gather in our common grove, whether that grove is in this world or the next. No manipulative mages can rob me of the magic that is my birthright – and yours.

Even if the entire Pagan movement crumbled, my ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public, Pagan polytheism would remain. I have made oaths with Gods. I have made oaths with my co-religionists. These oaths do not have an out-clause – and I don’t want one.

Real religion is messy

Most of the world follows religions that are hundreds and thousands of years removed from their founders. Their mythology is that their founder created a perfect tradition (even if their founder never claimed to do so) and that they have the best version of that tradition in existence.

Modern Paganism has no such illusion. We are inspired by our ancestors, but we’re figuring how to do it here and now. And because we’re human, we’re making mistakes.

Some modern Pagan traditions were built on weak foundations – they’re crumbling. Some were built around personalities – they’re failing. Let’s learn from the mistakes of others and do better going forward.

Let’s be patient with those who mean well, firm with those who aren’t trying, and ruthless with those who harm others out of hatred or for their own amusement.

But the Pagan movement as a whole isn’t dying – far from it. It’s bigger than any one or two individuals, or any one or two traditions. It’s good when we can gather under the Big Tent, but it’s best at the local level, where people who know and trust each other explore their common beliefs and practices in depth.

Even if some of us fail – even if most of us fail – so long as people keep working and practicing and worshipping together and on their own, Paganism will never die.

For further reading

I’ve written on this theme before, under different circumstances.

Paganism Is Evolving, Not Dying

“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.

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 religions either adapt to their environments or they die.

Is your Paganism robust and adaptable?”

Rethinking the Big Tent of Paganism

“Our Christian-influenced mainstream culture assumes all religions are supposed to be universal religions. It hasn’t worked for them and it won’t work for us.

Instead, let’s listen as our Gods and spirits call us onto different paths. Let’s find the others walking those paths and work with them. Let’s build strong individual traditions and local groups that encourage exploration and mutual support.”

October 14, 2018

Last Sunday I posted 7 Things We Owe Pagan Newcomers, a list of what those of us in the Pagan community must do to fulfill our obligations of hospitality for those who show up at our doors. Today I want to look at this from the other side. What do newcomers need to know about Paganism when they’re just starting out?

This is an incredibly broad question – that’s why we have so many Paganism 101 books. Some of us complain “do we really need so many books for beginners?” People keep buying them, so obviously we do.

I couldn’t possibly condense several dozen books into one blog post. Instead, I want to provide some general information and some resources. Then I want to talk about what you need to know if you decide to practice the particular form of Paganism I practice.

What is Paganism?

The Big Tent of Paganism

The Four Centers of Paganism

Paganism is impossible to define – it’s too broad. But it can be described. Paganism isn’t a religion, it’s a religious movement that includes many religions. It’s centered around the four concepts and practices where modern Pagan gather: Nature, the Gods, the Self, and Community. The two blog posts listed above cover these topics in more detail.

The fewer words you use the less precise you can be, but sometimes you need a Pagan elevator speech: something you can say if someone in an elevator asks “what’s your religion all about?” and you have to answer before they reach their floor.

My elevator speech is that Paganism a connection to Nature and its rhythms and cycles, a connection to our ancestors and to their beliefs and practices, and a view of the Divine that is multiple in number and in gender. That probably covers about 90% of Pagans, and if somebody is looking for a quick definition, that’s as good as it’s going to get.

But if you’re interested in becoming Pagan you’re going to have to do some more research to find the particular path that fits you best.

Getting started

Pagan Reading List

Druid Reading Recommendations

6 Critical Situations, 6 Helpful Books

Five Non-Pagan Books For Pagans

A common saying is that while Jews, Christians, and Muslims are the People of the Book, Pagans are the People of the Library. There are many versions of Paganism and we have books written for and about our many different traditions. But also, we find helpful material in non-Pagan, non-religious books. I find Richard Dawkins’ atheist diatribes on religion to be annoying, but his book on evolution The Greatest Show on Earth is brilliant and highly recommended for Nature-centered Pagans.

Everyone needs a first book. I have three recommendations. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham (1988) is the classic Wicca 101 book. Irish Paganism: Reconstructing Irish Polytheism by Morgan Daimler (2015) is a short introduction from a polytheist perspective. And while Druid Mysteries by Philip Carr-Gomm (2002) is intended to be guide to Druidry, it also serves well as a general Pagan introduction.

Paganism is most importantly a religion of doing, not a religion of thinking or believing (though thinking and believing are important too). Exactly what you do depends on which particular form of Paganism you choose to follow. I can’t tell you how to start becoming a Gardnerian Wiccan or a Hellenic Reconstructionist, because I’m neither of those things.

But if you’re interested in becoming an ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public, Pagan polytheist, read on.

Following this path

Why What I Am Takes So Many Words To Describe

Beginning a Devotional Practice

Why Would Anyone Take an Oath to a God?

The Path of Paganism

It seems rather presumptuous to call what I do a “tradition.” Perhaps someday it will be a tradition – and maybe by then it will have a real name instead of a long list of adjectives. Or perhaps it will simply be seen as one person’s way to follow a larger tradition. For now, let’s just call it a path – the path I’ve traveled so far, and the direction I’m heading going forward.

My path is a religious path. Magic and self-development are part of it, but first and foremost it’s about religion, from the Latin religio (meaning obligation and reverence) and religare (meaning to bind together). Religion is about forming and maintaining respectful, reciprocal relationships with our Gods and ancestors, with our families and communities, and with the natural world.

And that begins with devotion. Choose a deity and create an altar and/or a shrine. Pray, meditate, and make offerings. Read, study, and learn.

What are the virtues of the deities you follow? How can you embody them in your life? How can you help manifest them in this world?

You may be called to deeper service, to ecstatic practice, or to make an oath to a God. These are not matters to be taken lightly, nor to be jumped into without careful consideration. This level of commitment was neither expected nor asked of me when I was starting out. That’s rare, although it does happen occasionally.

My first book The Path of Paganism is essentially a guide to walking this path. It begins with Building a Foundation – how to recognize the unquestioned assumptions in your life and figure out for yourself what makes sense, rather than mindlessly accepting what you’ve always been told is true. It covers Spiritual Practice in detail, at both the beginning and intermediate levels. And it concludes with Living at the Edge – what to do once you’re not a beginner any more.

Advice for beginners

9 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was A New Pagan

Will You Be My Teacher? Essential Questions For Beginners

So Long and Thanks for All the Abuse: A History of Sexual Trauma in the Pagan Community by Sarah Anne Lawless

Some Pagan traditions are only taught one-on-one, face-to-face. But those traditions are very few. For others, a personal teacher is certainly nice to have, but it is not required. I trained with OBOD’s postal mail course. I engaged a paid spiritual director for about four months when I felt stuck. Her services weren’t cheap but they were worth every penny. And I had a personal mentor as I trained for another tradition. That did not end well, though it was for the best (don’t ask – I won’t talk about it online).

Other than that, though, my training and education has been self-directed, with a lot of help from my Pagan friends and co-religionists. There’s been a lot of trial and error – learning by doing is undervalued in our education-obsessed society.

You don’t have to have a teacher, and there are two major problems with thinking that you do.

The first is that you’ll end up with a teacher who’s wrong for you. Someone who doesn’t know your path. Or possibly, someone who doesn’t know their own path. I continually come across “elders” (mostly self-proclaimed, but occasionally folks with a substantial following) who learned Paganism 101 and never went on to Paganism 102, much less higher levels.

Or you could end up with a teacher who’s looking to exploit students. Read “So Long and Thanks for All the Abuse: A History of Sexual Trauma in the Pagan Community” by Sarah Anne Lawless. If anybody tells you that you have to do something that violates your ethics, or that just doesn’t seem right, walk away.

The second problem with the idea that everybody has to have a teacher is that you may decide you need to be a teacher long before you’re ready.

You don’t need to become a teacher to validate your knowledge and experience. You need to become a teacher when someone shows up looking to learn something you know very well. How long does it take to learn something “very well”? It depends. I was teaching Introduction to Paganism after four years of serious practice and three years of group work. I’m still reluctant to teach journeying.

Your timeline will be different. Just make sure you teach only what you know, not what you think you know.

Nova Iconologia by Cesare Ripa (1618) – National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Welcome to Paganism

Before Christianity and before Buddhism, there were the many religions of our ancestors. They were for the most part based in animism and polytheism, with a deep respect for ancestors and for the land. A few of those religions continue uninterrupted to this day, primarily in Africa. The ancestral religions of most of Europe and the Near East were wiped out by Christianity and Islam.

We cannot simply pick up where they left off. Too much time has passed, too much has been lost, and the world around us has changed immensely. We must create a Paganism – many Paganisms – for our time and place.

If you feel called to this great work, welcome. Come into the Big Tent, look around, and see where you might belong. It’s OK if you bounce around a bit at first – the first place you stop may not be the right one for you. Or maybe it is.

It isn’t perfect. Paganism is made up of Pagans, who are humans, who make mistakes. Sometimes bad mistakes. But on the whole it’s been a deeply fulfilling journey for me, and I intend to continue on this path for the rest of this life, and beyond.

I hope you’ll join me.

July 22, 2018

A couple weeks ago, Cyndi Brannen of the Keeping Her Keys blog asked “what is it that makes witchcraft… witchcraft?” Jason Mankey liked that idea so well he asked all the Patheos Pagan bloggers to write on what makes what we do what it is.

My first thought was to write on Druidry. It would be both easy and timely to write on polytheism. But after further thought I want to explore this question at its broadest level: Paganism. What is it that makes Paganism Pagan?

The origin of “Pagan”

The English word “pagan” comes from the Latin word paganus, which means “country dweller.” It was used by the invading Romans as a term of derision (think “hick”) to refer to the native Britons who worshipped in sacred groves and wild places instead of in “proper” temples. When the Empire converted to Christianity, the term was used for those who kept their ancestral religions regardless of where they lived.

The term stuck. When all the English-speaking world became Christian, it was used to refer to anyone outside the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) – again, as a term of derision. It reached its worst during the days of the British Empire, when Imperial operatives, missionaries, and scholars lumped ancient Greeks, Celts, and Norse together with Hindus and Buddhists and with the remaining tribal religions of Africa and Asia.

What do all those diverse “Pagans” have in common? They weren’t proper civilized English-speaking Anglican Christians. That’s it. When you read “pagan” in 19th and 20th century literature, it almost always means “not us, and therefore wrong and in need of correction.”

No ancients called themselves Pagan

It’s not hard to imagine a conversation in southern Britain around 400 CE that went something like this. “Paganus? You’re damn right I’m paganus. Now get out of here before I go all Boudica on your Roman ass!” Terms of derision often become a badge of honor.

Other than that, though, no one ever called themselves Pagan. The Iceni were the Iceni. The Hellenes were the Hellenes. Religion wasn’t a set of beliefs to be affirmed or denied, it was part of who you are and especially whose you are.

We often speak of “ancient Paganism” but there is no such thing. There were many ancient religions, some of which were similar, some of which were syncretized (see Ptolemaic Egypt), and some of which have virtually nothing in common. It is a conceit of the modern West to assume that “deep down it’s all the same” when even a casual look at the foundations, core beliefs, and regular practices of different religions clearly show that they are, in fact, different.

And that, too, is part of our heritage.

Our more recent ancestors wanted to be Pagan

In his excellent survey of Pagan philosophy The Earth, The Gods and The Soul, Dr. Brendan Myers said:

People got tired of the austerities of Christian discipline and the misanthropy of the Doctrine of Original Sin.  They maintained the appearance of being committed Christians, of course … But they dramatized for themselves a world that never knew Original Sin, and so still existed in a state of original blessing.  In that imagined world it was no sin to ‘dance, sing, feast, make music, and love.’

The Europeans of the Renaissance and after didn’t know exactly what they were looking for, but they knew they wanted something that wasn’t proper civilized Anglican Christianity. And they had a word for it: Pagan.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

“The World Is Too Much with Us” – William Wordsworth (1802)

Pagan or Neo-Pagan?

Expressing Pagan yearnings and Pagan themes in a Christian context is one thing. Abandoning Christianity for a Pagan religion is something entirely different. That started happening in significant numbers in the second half of the 20th century. And when it did, some people began to realize they weren’t doing anything like what the Paganus were doing 2000 years earlier.

Oberon Zell-Ravenheart is generally credited with coining the term “Neo-Pagan” to describe the Wiccan and Wiccan-influenced religions that were growing in popularity from the 1960s forward and that focused on reverence for Nature, gender equality, sexual freedom, and magical practice. It was an attempt to say “we’re reimagining ancient religions for our era.”

By the time I got here in 1993 “Neo-Pagan” was already fading. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. More than that, people began to understand that the Pagan movement was never going to be just one thing – it was going to be many things. There was Gardnerian Wicca, Alexandrian Wicca, and eclectic Wicca. There were several dozen forms of Druidry. Heathenry, Hellenism, Kemeticism, and countless other traditions were rising. We might – or might not – all call ourselves Pagans, but we knew that deep down we had some differences, and we saw no reason to ignore them.

Some people didn’t like this “speciation” and wanted unity, but at the cost of the distinctions that give our various traditions depth and meaning. In 2014 John Halstead tried to re-establish “Neo-Paganism” and set up a very nice website, but it doesn’t appear to have been updated since its launch, and the term is rarely used among practitioners.

Today we have Pagan music, Pagan books, and Pagan Pride Day. We wear Pagan jewelry and go to Pagan conferences. This website is called Patheos Pagan. I wrote a book called The Path of Paganism. Language is an organic thing that evolves on its own, and “Pagan” is the winner.

The Big Tent of Paganism

I first heard the phrase “Big Tent” in reference to the Democratic Party’s attempt to appeal to voters with a wide variety of interests: labor unions, racial minorities, feminists, LGBTQ persons, economic liberals, and more. It’s a place where groups who are too small to exert significant influence on their own can come together and use their collective power for the common good.

I wrote about the Big Tent of Paganism in 2015.

The Big Tent provides a visible, easy-to-find entry point for ordinary people who are looking for something their current religion isn’t providing.  And it makes it much easier for us to find others inside the tent who are doing the same things for the same reasons …

We are not one.  There is no single Pagan religion and I have no desire to create one.  But the Big Tent of Paganism is a useful and beneficial approach to grow and support our many Pagan religions.

We understand that Wicca and Norse Reconstructionism aren’t the same things. We know that what modern Druids do probably isn’t all that close to what the ancient Druids did. And perhaps most importantly, we understand that while there is much we can learn from Hinduism, African Traditional Religions, and other remaining tribal religions, they are not part of the Pagan movement and they are not ours to take.

But where we can come together to support things like The Wild Hunt and Mystic South, and where we can raise our collective visibility far higher than we can individually, we are better off embracing the Big Tent of Paganism.

Pagan currents

And that brings us back to our original question: what is it that makes Paganism Pagan? The answer lies in all the complicated – and at times, conflicting – usages of this problematic word throughout the centuries.

It’s the beliefs and practices of our pre-Christian ancestors. It’s their values and virtues and ways of seeing the world. It’s their Gods. It’s what was stolen from us by missionaries and empires, and it calls us to reclaim our heritage.

It’s the organic religions of the world, which arise not from the word of a prophet (not that there’s anything wrong with prophets) but from the interactions of a group of people with the land and the spirits where they live. It calls us to put our faith in our lived experiences and the experiences of our co-religionists rather than in sacred texts or creeds that are frozen in time.

It’s living in a world that, despite its challenges and indifferences, is not fallen but good. It’s dealing with the thorns to enjoy the beauty of the rose… and then finding that the thorns are beautiful in their own way. It calls us to “dance, sing, feast, make music, and love” and to enjoy our time in this life as deeply as we can.

It’s the organic religions arising from the lived experiences of people in the industrial and post-industrial West. It’s a reverence for Nature and it’s seeing the Divine in all genders. It’s the magic of the learned scholars and the magic of the ordinary folk – the paganus of today. It calls us to remember that good religion is a living thing, growing and changing to adapt timeless principles to where we are here and now.

These four “currents” are what makes Paganism Pagan. Like currents in the ocean, they collide, combine, and comingle in ways that can be difficult to predict. Sometimes they are in conflict, and no one expression of Paganism can be all these things in full. This is why we cannot define Paganism, and why the best description of it uses a model with four centers.

Self-identification and the Big Tent

Some people who wander into the Big Tent of Paganism say “I’m not a Pagan.” They find their primary identity as a Heathen or a Hellenist, as an animist or a polytheist. So be it. A big part of religion is who you are and whose you are, and if you don’t identify as Pagan, I’m not going to call you a Pagan even if you spend a lot of time inside the Big Tent.

And even though I’m inspired and at times informed by the tribal religions of the world, I’m not going to insist that they’re Pagan. Their identity is their own and we have no right to claim them.

My primary religious identity is polytheist – the worship of the many Gods. But my polytheism is a Pagan polytheism – it flows from the Pagan currents, from the many ways in which the word paganus has morphed and evolved over the centuries.

This is what makes Paganism Pagan.

Addendum: In a Facebook comment, Dr. Edward Butler took issue with the common belief that “pagan” meant “country dweller.”

Edward Butler: Pagus is a district, not necessarily a rural one. We see its descendants in Romance languages such as French pays, which means a country or nation. I would argue that pagani, which as far as I know in its religious connotation originates with Christians, functions as a direct Latin translation for the Greek term ethnê, “nations”, which is used in the New Testament to refer to the “gentiles”, the faiths which are particular to some nation, as opposed to the new church, which is “catholic”, from Greek kath’holikos, “pertaining to the whole”, i.e., “universal”.

John Beckett: I think I hear you saying that “pagan” was still a way of othering people who kept to their ancestral religions, though not in the way most modern Pagans think. Is that a fair assessment?

Edward Butler: Yes, it was definitely a way of othering people by saying that they belonged to a religion that was “particular” instead of the one that was “universal”. That was the method of othering, not the charge of being “rustic”.

Another common term that early Christians used for pagans in the East was simply “Hellenes”, which was used even for people who were not ethnically Greek in the modern sense, but who were seen as upholding the values of Hellenistic civilization as it had developed over the centuries since Alexander, which included polytheism.

I say this because there is a tendency, greatly encouraged by Christians, to project the evils of Christianity as much as possible back onto the Roman Empire, as though what the Christians did in eradicating indigenous faiths was no more than what pagans had already been doing to one another, just “business as usual”.

April 30, 2017

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.

April 27, 2017

After a journey of over three years, my first book The Path of Paganism is out. I got my author copies two weeks ago – I started getting Facebook messages from people who got their pre-ordered copies on Tuesday.

If you didn’t pre-order, it’s now in stock for immediate shipment from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or direct from Llewellyn, the publisher. I hope Barnes & Noble will stock it in their stores, but I have no way of knowing if they will or won’t – if you see it, please let me know. I will have copies for sale at DFW Pagan Unity Fest on May 20 at Arlington UU Church, and at other events where I’m speaking.

I do not intend to turn Denton CUUPS circles into book selling sessions, but I’ll have copies with me – if you want to buy one, just ask. Plus our Beltane is going to be awesome this year – if you’ve ever thought about driving or flying to Denton for one of our rituals, this would be the one.

If you want an objective review, read this one by Claire Dixon at The Wild Hunt.

This is the story of The Path of Paganism.

The Path of Paganism 04.26.17

I always wanted to write a book.

I had dreams of being a rich best-selling novelist who worked from home. That dream was complicated by the fact that I can’t write fiction worth a damn. While I would have gotten decent if I had worked at it, I’m much better suited to writing non-fiction.

I started this blog in 2008 with no intention of doing anything other than working through some religious thoughts and sharing them with whoever wanted to read them. The blog has its own story – what’s important here is that I learned to write blog-length essays very well.

When I moved to Patheos in 2013 my traffic exploded, and I started getting a regular question: “when are you going to write a book?” My stock answer (that I stole from somewhere I can’t remember) was “I don’t have a book-shaped work in me.” I’m good at writing 1000-1500 words on the topic of the day. I had no idea how to write a book of 50,000 to 100,000 words.

Former Patheos Pagan Channel Manager Christine Kraemer suggested that maybe my book was already in my blog. I could take The Four Centers of Paganism, go into more depth, add some rituals and exercises, and have a short but useful book.

All of a sudden the way was opened.

Procrastination and false starts

Saturday night was Imbolc. I promised Brighid I’d write the book. Time to get busy. – Personal journal, February 2, 2014

I never had much of a relationship with Brighid, but She’s been the unofficial patron of Pagans in Denton since long before I moved to Texas. And She is a Goddess of Inspiration. For whatever reason, She wanted this book written. What do you say when a Goddess asks you to do something? I said yes.

I put a matrix together with the Four Centers and how I wanted to explore each one. And that’s all I got done. 2014 was a difficult year for me, for many reasons that are no longer relevant.

In 2015 I threw out the matrix. There wasn’t a book in the Four Centers. But my own practice – individually and with Denton CUUPS – had solidified to the point where I had something I could teach… and that I felt a need to teach. When people asked me “where do I begin?” I had no good references for them.

Another a bit of wisdom I can’t remember where I heard says “if the book you need doesn’t exist, it’s your job to write it.”

The four sections of the book came first: foundations, practice, intermediate practice, and advanced practice. Chapters came next – the topics that needed to be covered in each section.

Started writing the book today. – Personal journal, April 4, 2015

I wrote about 2000 words and then stopped.

What to say?

Writing time is always a problem. I’ve got a blog to maintain, a CUUPS group to support, and I have a day job that pays the bills. How was I going to get all that done and write a book?

When I did have time to write, I encountered another problem: what was I going to say that I hadn’t already said on the blog? For example, I knew I needed to cover the Gods, but how many blog posts have there been about my experiences with Them? What else do I have to say that I haven’t already said?

Maybe the book was already written. Maybe the value of a book isn’t in giving readers brand new words but in giving them the material they need, organized in a logical, progressive manner. Maybe the value is in giving them something tangible they can hold and highlight and refer back to in a year or five. Plus a lot of people who buy Pagan books don’t read Pagan blogs.

I had seen a few Pagans who turned blog posts into books – I didn’t like them. They read like blog posts that had been copied and pasted into a book. No, if I was going to build a book from blog posts, I was going to build a real book that would look and feel and read like one thing.

All I had to do was sift through seven years of blog posts and tease a book out of them.

04 St. Kitts 342

Building a book

Book is coming along. I’ve got over 120,000 words in Scrivener, almost all from blog posts. I’ve dumped and rearranged – now it’s time to start editing. – Personal journal, June 22, 2015

I got some good book-writing tips from Morpheus Ravenna, who wrote The Book of the Great Queen in 2014. Her most useful tip was to get Scrivener, a book writing program. It was far easier writing and editing in Scrivener than in Word.

I was aiming for a 90,000 word book, more or less. That would bring it in at about 300 pages – enough to feel like I had produced a substantive work, without making it so long no one would want to finish it. I needed to start cutting.

I also needed to blend and smooth a lot of material. If something is important to me, I tend to blog on it multiple times, often saying the same thing from a slightly different perspective. That works well with blogging – it doesn’t work at all for books. I had to take out repetitive material, as well as move sections from one chapter to another where they would fit better.

That’s a lot of work and it wasn’t moving along.

“Tell him to do Brighid’s work before I come for him.” – Ecstatic message from the Morrigan, July 12, 2015

That message could be interpreted a couple of different ways and none of them were pleasant. Time to get to work. I put a schedule together to finish the book by the end of the year, and I committed to working the schedule. And I did.

Making progress on the book. I’ve done the blog dump, the organization, and the first edit.  Now I’m in the second edit, with the primary goal of giving the book one voice:  open, but unapologetically polytheist. – Personal journal, September 2, 2015

The biggest pain in all this? My grossly inconsistent style in referring to deities. Sometimes Gods, sometimes Gods and Goddesses, sometimes goddesses and gods, and in some of the early posts God/dess. And then the there’s the capitalization of pronouns – all that had to be manually changed to one consistent style.

Initial feedback

A book is not finished when you’ve written the last word. Someone else needs to give it an honest look. I had four “alpha readers” – people I know and trust, but all chosen for slightly different reasons.

Cynthia Talbot was first. She’s my closest friend, advisor, and fellow priest. Much of what I write about (in the book or on the blog) she’s experienced with me. Jason Mankey brought the view of someone who’s been writing longer than I have and who recently published his own book. Sean Harbaugh brought the perspective of a senior ADF priest, and Yvonne Aburrow brought the perspective of a British Unitarian Pagan.

All four alpha readers had constructive comments, ranging from “this isn’t clear” to “you’re using this word wrong.” But their overall feedback was positive. I felt good about the finished book – this convinced me the “build a book” process had worked.

I asked Kristoffer Hughes to write a foreword – he enthusiastically said yes. It helps an unknown author to have an established author associated with a book, but I also wanted his feedback. Kris has been my biggest cheerleader from the moment I told him what I was doing.

Selling the book

The major publishing companies generally won’t touch previously published material. Fortunately, there are several independent publishers who will. And print-on-demand services have made self-publishing a viable option. I assumed I’d go one of those two routes. When an independent publisher contacted me out of the blue about publishing a collection of blog posts, I figured that was it.

Early on, both Jason and Kris told me I should send it to Llewellyn, who had published their books. After reading the final draft and before writing the foreword, Kris virtually insisted I try. I liked that idea – over the years Llewellyn has published some things I wish they hadn’t, but they’re the biggest player in the game, and they can get a book in more hands than anyone else in the Pagan world. I really didn’t think they’d want my book, but as Kris told me “what do you have to lose?”

So I contacted Elysia Gallo, Acquisitions Editor at Llewellyn. I had met Elysia briefly at Between the Worlds in 2012. She remembered me, and while she was non-committal, she agreed to look at the book. I sent it to her the Monday before Thanksgiving, 2015.

She liked it, and wanted to present it to the Llewellyn Acquisitions Committee. Because of holidays, conferences, and other projects, that didn’t happen till early March. But the committee liked it and offered me a contract. I got it on March 11, 2016.

The publishing process

It takes a long time to make a book. I’ve written about this during the process (both here and on Facebook) so I’ll summarize briefly.

Editing: Elysia sent me six pages of comments and recommended changes. 80% of them had me smacking my head and saying “that’s much better – why didn’t I write it like that in the first place?” 10% were “I’m OK either way and you’re the publishing professionals, so we’ll do it your way.” The final 10% were things where I said “no, it needs to stay the way I wrote it and here’s why.” Those things stayed the same. It was a very collaborative process and everyone’s first priority was to make the book the best it can be.

Title: My working title was Gather Under the Oaks. That connected it to my blog “Under the Ancient Oaks.” And I like the image of a Druid teaching under a tree. I thought it was a nice, poetic title, but I wasn’t thrilled with it. Llewellyn’s editors were concerned that didn’t tell someone who picked up the book in a store what it was about – they proposed The Path of Paganism. I’m good with it. They kept my subtitle An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice, which describes what the book is all about.

Cover: I’ve seen some great covers from Llewellyn, and I’ve seen some awful ones. I gave them examples of both.

The purpose of a cover is to sell the book, but please – find something serious and dignified. I will scream and throw things if someone puts a cute cover on it. – E-mail to Elysia Gallo, March 31, 2016

I could not be happier with the cover. It says visually what the title Gather Under the Oaks tried to say verbally, only better.

The Path of Paganism 04.11.17

The finished book

Someone on Facebook asked me how it felt to finally hold my book. At first, it was no big deal. I’ve been finished with it for so long I’ve been disconnected from it. But the more I thought about it, the better it felt.

I wrote a book. More than that, I wrote a book that didn’t exist. There is a dearth of 200-level Pagan books – this is one. There was nothing that provided a good introduction for Paganism as I practice it – now there is.

I hope all of you find it helpful, now and in the years to come.

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