Pagan Theology

Growing Up


What do we want to be when we grow up?


That is a very loaded question.  First, it assumes that any of us want to grow up, and, frankly, I have not met a lot of Pagans that think growing up in the traditional sense is a good thing.  Having rules, being serious, acting deliberately, and losing your sense of wonder at the world are all generally accepted parts of what it means to “grow up” in our society.  Unfortunately they are pretty much diametrically opposed to the polytheistic, fun-loving, world-embracing, and spontaneous Pagan movement.  Second, its worth commenting on the individual pieces of the sentence.  “We” as used in the question is simply a rhetorical device.  There is no “we” in any realistic sense in the modern Pagan movement.  There are “many” groups and individuals who practice Paganism, but it’s hard to say there is a “we.”  And what do I mean by “grow up”?  Becoming serious, pinch-faced, killjoys who fuss at anyone who doesn’t believe what they do?  Accumulate worldly power?  Build big temples?  I’m not exactly sure what “growing up” would entail.


However I do think the question is a legitimate one.  Not in its implication that we need to become more adult-like, we don’t, but rather in its’ questioning where we are going.  What would an acceptable future look like for modern Paganism?  Now that we are many, and we are, and we have a lot of activities going on, what do we do now?   Where are we going with all this?


Now I am not someone either qualified or “authorized” [1] to really discuss the future of modern Paganism.  I will gladly leave that to people who have devoted a much greater percentage of their lives to the project of modern Paganism than I have.  However I think it might be helpful to at least think a little about the options.


There are several ways to examine the future of any organization or movement, including Paganism.   You can look at the various phases of maturity in the organization, from inception, to organization and consolidation, to entrenchment and institutionalization.  You can also look at various scenarios in order to identify what some of the key variables are that will influence the future [2].   Or you can look at the broader trends in society and ask how they will influence the shape of the organization in the future.


Paganism as a movement is still in the broad and unstructured second phase of its growth.  It has moved beyond the initial stages of its founding, one key indicator of that is that many of the founders of modern Paganism (Gardner, Fortune, Crowley, Bonewits, etc.) have themselves moved on.  We have established a large number of small institutions, and have a number of self-identified first-generation followers with a smattering of second and third generation followers.  The smaller institutions that we currently have are still vulnerable to fluctuations either in society or in interest, so we still are not at the stage where Paganism has become an embedded social institution [3].


If the question is “where to from here” then some form of scenario analysis might be useful.  At minimum going through the process of a scenario analysis of modern Paganism might be informative for understanding how each of us thinks about the future of the religion.  Of course in it’s fully realized glory a scenario planning process for Paganism would occupy more time than I have and be a longer essay than you would like to read.  So lets just hit the high points.


What are we trying to understand?  The starting point is the most important part of analysis using scenarios, because if you don’t know what you are doing, then you can’t get it done.  For this column the question is:  how might modern Neo-Paganism evolve over the course of the next 20 years?    That seems like a reasonable question, and one we can examine with scenarios.  Of course we would normally ask how we might affect that evolution over time, but that is too complicated for now.


What are the key driving trends that will affect Neo-Paganism over the next 20 years?  Now that is an amazingly good question (if I do say so myself).  Some of them we know: demographics, for example.  America will become more diverse, at the same time that it becomes older.  But demographics is not a variable, it is determined.  At the same time demographics matters a lot for religious traditions Just ask the old-line liberal Christian denominations.  You could argue that Paganism got a lot of momentum coming out of the demographics of the 1960’s and that momentum is what has propelled it to where it is today.


If Paganism grows, by having more individuals come into the faith, then it will evolve.  If it shrinks, then it will most likely remain a small faith that is on the margins compared to the big two or three faiths.  The biggest trend in recent years is the idea of “spiritual but not religious” or “seekers” who examine a large number of different denominations or traditions in their spiritual quests.  Assuming that this trend continues then a larger fraction of those with religious inclinations will also be inclined to be open about alternative religions.  Likewise some fraction of those open individuals will be inclined toward Paganism.  So, if the number of people seeking religious experiences changes in the future, we can likely assume that the number of people entering or leaving Paganism will also change in roughly the same proportion.


This seems like a good first variable:  does Paganism grow or decline over the next 20 years in terms of number of adherents?  While there are many factors that might be involved, it is likely the answer to this question will be decided by how the two primary competing forces of aging and spiritual seeking interact.  There should be an increase in seekers as the population ages, but that may be offset by the possible tendency for people to be conservative in their religious choices as they age [4].


The second variable I’d propose is the diversity of Neo-Paganism.  Currently the diversity of Paganism is quite high, with a lot of different paths and denominations.  It may not even be possible for our faith to become more unified and centralized, and in some cases that is the real attraction of the faith [5].  However we can ask whether the faith will become even more diverse, with an increasing number of small groups dominating our worship, or whether some group such as Circle or Reclaiming, or the Asatru or Druids will “break out” and gather enough momentum and followers to become a noticeable presence.  Should that happen I’d really like to be around to see the expression on all the Fox News anchor’s faces.  Then, of course, we’d all run like hell!


For me that’s the second variable:  how diverse Paganism will be in 20 years.


We can plot these two variables and see what comes of it.  The figure shows my interpretation of the four potential outcomes when diversity and numbers of Pagans are plotted in a 2×2 matrix.  On the one side we have a decreasing number of Pagans.  In that case an increase in diversity would be like now, only more so.  Here the number of leaders would be more than sufficient for the number of followers, and the cacophony of voices would tend to ensure that no one “spokesperson” emerged.  Less diversity would imply that Paganism stabilized as a small faith, with one or two groups emerging with sufficient clout to consolidate the faith under their banner.   Here a small, professional, clergy might be possible, particularly if the current model of book-writing and speaking/presentations carried over.


On the other side we have a growing number of Pagans.  Here an increase in diversity would likely lead to an insufficient number of leaders where compared to the demand.  A continuation of lay leadership would be likely as no one group would garner enough followers to have a professional clergy.  These lay leaders would be taxed.  It is also likely that the sheer number of different paths would eventually intermingle with the New Age and other alternative religious movements, as is sometimes the case now.  This “thousand flowers” future would look a lot like now, only on steroids.  How much clout this growing movement would have in the world would likely be determined by factors other than religion, such as how much collective social action they would engage in through various other groups.

The final future is one of a growing faith but with a few traditions consolidating the movement into a well-defined path.  Just like today with Christianity, there might be a number of lay-led denominations or other groups, but most of the funding, people, and activity would be in the larger groups.  Here a professional clergy would be likely, along with temples and a national governing body to support it.  Inevitably this would lead to a more doctrinaire, and judgmental, approach to Paganism, simply because those attributes are more common in the larger society than they currently are in Paganism.  In other words, the bigger you get the more like everyone else you will look because everyone else will now be in your temple instead of their church.


But the details of these scenarios are not my main point (surprise!).  My point is that we can use a structured way to think through what the future might hold for Paganism, and can have some interesting results.


So, what are the key variables for you?  What do you think are the uncertainties in your group, or modern Paganism?  How do they fit together for you?  What would the 2×2 matrix for your group or coven, or Neo-Paganism writ large, look for you?


While I am not “authorized” to speculate on the future of Paganism, we all, ultimately, are “required” to come up with one.  For me it would be better to kind of know where we’re going, and what we might encounter, than to sail blindly into the future in the hope that some new people will come along and sustain our faith.  Because when they did that 2000 years ago the people who came along were followers of Christ, and it didn’t quite work out so well for the Old Gods.


[1]  It’s an essay in itself to go into the governance structure of modern Paganism.  As far as I can tell there exist large organizations that drive a lot of the political and spiritual agenda of modern American Paganism, primarily the Covenant of the Goddess, Reclaiming, and Selena Fox’s Circle Sanctuary (to include the affiliated Lady Liberty League).  At the next tier down are large denominational organizations that bring together a lot of groups, but don’t seem to have as widespread a “popular” voice in the media and society, the Druids, Asatru, and the larger networks of covens.  However none of these groups speaks for the all, and the progress that large “intrafaith” groups have had is reflected in the difficulty I have in finding any that have persisted.

[2]  This approach is encoded in the scenario planning process as developed by Shell Oil Company in the 1970’s though it dates back further in the National Security Community.  Essentially this type of planning involves deciding what the driving variables are, and coming up with a matrix of scenarios that examine what might happen depending on the values of those variables.  So, for example, if one variable is “climate” and the other is “technology” then you could have a wet or dry world, or a high or low-tech world.  A wet, low-tech, world would be heavily agrarian with minimal future development of technology, particularly energy technology.  A hot, high-tech world might be a word where geoengineering and genetic crops were well developed but climate change had gotten the best of us.

[3]  Even groups with a huge amount of social capital and that are deeply embedded in social tradition can still be vulnerable to medium and long-term fluctuations in social fashion and interest.  For example, look at the various social clubs that grew up in the 19th and early 20th century like the Moose or Elks.  Most have dwindled to a small fraction of their original membership, and many have disappeared more or less completely despite being very heavily subscribed early in the century.

[4]  I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds possible (science!).  We do know that people become more conservative as they age, which would imply that their taste in religion might also become more conservative.

[5]  I fear I have always been an outlier, I’m attracted to Paganism because I believe, not because I have a problem with religious activity.  Thus I have no problem with a Paganism that looks, acts, and smells like the Catholic Church (as long at the crucified guy is gone), which is exactly what Paganism looked like for the thousands of years before the Christians did a number on us.   Back in the day it was the Olympic Athletes who were honored in Pagan temples, not whoever at the time was the equivalent of Filk singers and Quiddich players.  But I fully understand and really do appreciate the other side of the argument, that a hierarchical structure is oppressive and results in the jocks beating up on those of us who find our way to Paganism because we don’t fit anywhere else.  I certainly fit in the latter category along with most of the rest of us.