Wicca: History, Belief, and Community

Ethan Doyle White has recently published an important new book: Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, and due for release on 1 November 2015. So I approached him for an interview. 

Wicca - by Ethan Doyle White [Cover image supplied by Ethan Doyle White]

Wicca, by Ethan Doyle White

DfD: Tell us about yourself, Ethan…

I am a trained archaeologist with a particular interest in the pre-Christian belief systems of Europe and the manner in which they have been reinterpreted and utilised in modern contexts, particularly within the contemporary Pagan movement. I am currently engaged in MPhil/PhD studies in Early Medieval archaeology at University College London (UCL), and run the Albion Calling blog on which I have interviewed such scholars as Ronald Hutton, Sabina Magliocco, and Graham Harvey.

DfD: What prompted you to start researching Wicca?

It was just down to personal interest, quite frankly. Growing up in suburban London, I was born and raised in what Professor Robert Mathiesen called an “esoteric family”, in that my parents were involved in various esoteric movements. In the case of my own household, that esotericism expressed itself as a syncretic blend of Spiritualism, the New Age movement, and (to a lesser extent) Christianity. I’m thus in a fairly unusual position of being an individual who was raised to believe in the fundamental normalness of esoteric ideas; I would come home from school to find séances, Tarot card reading, or reiki healing taking place in the living room, for instance. Quite a few friends and acquaintances have expressed jealousy of that fact.

As a tweenager and teenager I was very interested in religious studies. On a personal level, I experimented with the likes of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism, and developed a great fascination with ritual and the materiality of religion ((of course, at the time I’d never heard of such jargon as the “materiality of religion”, which describes the way in which religiosity is expressed in “material culture”, or to put it more bluntly, it’s all about religious paraphernalia and other “stuff”!). I was also very much interested in mythology, folklore, and the pre-Christian societies of the European continent, in particular those of the North. As I would later find out, these are all common elements reported by those who subsequently convert to forms of contemporary Paganism, thus helping to generate the sensation of conversion being a “homecoming.”

Ethan Doyle White (photo supplied by EDW)

Ethan Doyle White

Pretty soon I came upon Wicca through an eclectic ‘Wicca 101’ book, and I found it absolutely fascinating. I certainly flirted with the ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement, as so many others did at the time. However, within a few years my involvement with the Craft had moved from being that of a teenage spiritual seeker to quite firmly being an “outsider” with no particular desire for practical participation. As I grew into my late teens and early twenties I had lost my faith in many of the esoteric and religious ideas that I was raised with, becoming a great deal more sceptical about the existence of preternatural entities, magic, and all such ‘paranormal’ things which have not had their existence confirmed by scientific enquiry. These days I self-define as a secular humanist, although my strong fascination for religions like Wicca has remained and for that reason I have continued to research the subject and write on it in an academic capacity. I think that I’m quite well placed to do so, being an “outsider” to the religion who at the same time has an awful lot of respect for esoteric and Pagan schools of thought as a result of my own personal background. My work on the subject is therefore not un-critical, but is generally quite sympathetic and is certainly not hostile; I hope therefore that it will satisfy both devout practitioners and ardent critics of the Craft.

DfD: How long did the book take to write?

If I remember correctly, I started to write a book on the subject of Wicca – specifically the history of Wicca – when I was seventeen (so seven years ago now). At the time I had never read an article in a peer-reviewed journal and had absolutely no idea how to write academically. After entering the university system, as well as independently researching and publishing a variety of articles in peer-reviewed journals, I gained a much better grasp of how academic writing is done. For that reason, I largely scrapped my original manuscript and started again when I was nineteen, this time deciding to create a work that would cover all areas of Wicca – history, belief and practice, and sociological and cultural issues – which I felt was probably a lot more useful for people than a book purely dealing with the faith’s history.

By this point, I had realised that while some excellent research on Wicca had been conducted – work by Ronald Hutton, Sabina Magliocco, and Helen Berger jumps to mind – there still wasn’t a single academic book that actually offered an introduction to this new religious movement. There were introductory works on contemporary Paganism as a whole by the likes of Graham Harvey and Margot Adler, and of course there were various ‘Wicca 101’ books authored by practitioners, but these weren’t ideal for the needs of a religious studies student or just a general interested reader who really wanted a good, scholarly, yet in-depth summary of Wicca. I’m not terribly business-minded, but quite simply I saw a gap in the market.

Thus, I would say that the book as it currently exists probably took me five years to write; of course, I had to juggle its production with my university studies, research articles, the Albion Calling blog, paid employment, and of course an all-important social life! So it has been a lengthy process, and a labour of love, but I do hope that it was worth it.

DfD: What was your research methodology? 

In this case there wasn’t a research methodology per se. I wasn’t in the position to conduct in-depth ethnographic research – and even if I did it would have been regionally constrained – but rather I wanted to produce a textbook that brought together other scholars’ work and synthesised it all in one place. Most of those with a scholarly interest in Wicca will be aware of the best known book-length academic studies of the subject, but in producing this volume I discovered that there was an awful lot more research on the subject than I had ever realised, with hundreds of academic articles having been published, often in comparatively obscure academic outlets like the World Leisure Journal and Cornish Studies. That’s why my book’s bibliography is 29 pages long!

However, as I was writing the work there were questions that really intrigued me, in particular regarding such issues as the etymology and changing usage of the word “Wicca” within the Pagan community, the origins of the Wiccan Rede, and the life and theology of the British Witch Robert Cochrane, so I undertook historical studies on those particular issues, resulting in articles for peer-reviewed academic journals like The Pomegranate, Correspondences, Folklore, and Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft. These were spin-offs from the book as it were, and helped to give me – as someone too young to possess either a doctorate or professional academic post – the scholarly credibility that I needed to ultimately gain an academic publisher for the volume.

Can you share any of your more surprising findings?

I think that my most surprising findings all arose from my research into the word “Wicca”, which resulted in my very first academic publication, ‘The Meaning of “Wicca”: A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics’, in a 2010 issue of The Pomegranate. It seemed that most people with an interest in the Craft – including myself, initially – were under the impression that Gerald Gardner had either developed the term “Wicca” (based on the Old English wicca) or gained it from the New Forest coven. According to this story, Gardner used the term explicitly to describe his Gardnerian tradition, but in the 1970s and 1980s “eclectic” practitioners adopted it for themselves and stretched it into a far more inclusive term for all forms of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft.

Simply put, a methodical examination of the early texts of the movement showed that that wasn’t the case. Gardner never used the term “Wicca”. What he did use was the term “the Wica”, which contains only one c, not two. However, “the Wica” was not a name for this religion, or even his tradition specifically. Instead it referred to the community of Pagan Witches – a community that he of course believed (or at least, publicly appeared to believe) – represented isolated survivals of a pre-Christian Murrayite witch-cult with its origins in prehistory. Thus, in Gardner’s understanding of the term, “the Wica” comprised not only his own Gardnerians, but also members of the traditions propagated by other Witches like Charles Cardell and Victor Anderson, both of whom he was in contact with.

The historical data shows that the term “Wicca” – as a name for the religion itself – appears in Britain in the early 1960s, where it is use among the early Alexandrians. They don’t use it in an exclusive manner to refer solely to the Gardnerians and Alexandrians, but rather in a far wider, inclusive manner, to refer to all Pagan Witchcraft groups claiming to be the survivals of Murray’s witch-cult. If you read Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do, an early Alexandrian work, you’ll see him talking of Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Traditional, and Hereditary “Wiccans”, not “Witches”.

Basically, what we see here is that the common conception of the etymology of “Wicca” – that it was originally very exclusive and only later transformed into a wide-ranging inclusive term – is completely wrong. The term was in fact very inclusive from the start, and instead it was practitioners of the Gardnerian-Alexandrian tradition operating in the U.S. who then tried to restrict its usage during the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps as a part of boundary policing at a time when they wished to distance themselves from the growth of the Dianic Wiccans, Feri Wiccans, and self-dedicants who had built their tradition on the published work of Lady Sheba, Paul Huson, Raymond Buckland and the like.

For those Wiccans, and scholars interested in Wicca, who have not necessarily been following all of the latest developments in the study of the subject over the past few years, or even decades, I think that my work will be a bit of an eye opener.

DfD: How do you think Wicca, which was born in the repressive 1950s, and grew up in the “permissive” 60s and 70s, fits in with contemporary culture?

Well, in many ways I think that Wicca is intrinsically counter-cultural – it’s hardly a widely accepted part of mainstream culture to call oneself a “Witch”, venerate a deity other than the Judaeo-Christian God, and proclaim the ability to work magic! It is also marginal in that it holds the adherence of only a very tiny proportion of the overall population in any given country. Thus, I think that – just like other esoteric and Pagan movements – it exists within the “cultic milieu” at the cultural margins of Western society, which is part of what makes it so interesting for me and probably for many of its own participants, but at the same time it is that which makes it vulnerable to prejudice and persecution. I’m personally sceptical regarding the idea that Wicca will ever truly break out of this marginal position and enter the cultural mainstream; to do so I think that you would need to see not only the “western rationalist” scientific establishment embrace the objective validity of magic but also Wicca become a dominant religion with a large minority or even majority of the population professing allegiance to it. I appreciate that there are Wiccans who do believe – or at least hope – that this might eventually happen, but if I’m honest I have to say that I’d very surprised if such a scenario ever came to fruition. Then again, stranger things have happened – how many people living in the Roman Empire during the first-century CE thought that Christianity would come to dominate not only Rome itself but the entirety of Europe ?

DfD: What do you think might be the future for Wicca – both the eclectic varieties and the initiatory traditions?

I think that the short term future – the next fifty years or so – looks quite bright. The established, initiatory traditions are in a fairly stable place right now, at least in the Anglophone Western nations. Even if they aren’t growing at the rapid pace that they once experienced, their membership isn’t in significant decline, they’ve shown their capability to develop good relations with their neighbours, and they’ve established legally-recognised organisations that have helped to provide Wicca with greater visibility and legal protection. While this process of routinization definitely brings benefits for some Wiccan groups, at the same time other practitioners have resisted all of this and retained a fairly anarchic, secretive structure that they are far more comfortable with. To me, this says that Wicca is remarkably flexible and adaptable, able to fit both its participants’ desires and society’s demands, and that will no doubt stand it in good stead, at least over the coming decades.

When it comes to the “eclectic” Wiccans, I think that we will also see things remaining fairly stable in the near future too, with no dramatic surges and no dramatic declines. I have little doubt that while the books of Scott Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf remain readily available, you will still see a trickle of practitioners brought into the fold through them. I’ve noticed that in the past year or so there appears to have been something of a miniature revival of pop culture interest in Wiccan(esque) witchcraft and magic: we have a remake of The Craft coming out, talk of a revival of Charmed, and the girl band Little Mix recently launched a music video that revolved around the idea of four schoolgirls discovering a magic book and using it to advance their own interests. Sound familiar? Furthermore, I’ve noticed a fascinating but rather unexpected interest in Wicca within the queer hip hop scene coming out from the States; an artist called Zebra Katz released a song called “Blk Wiccan”, while one of the most innovative rappers of recent years, Azealia Banks, has talked about Wicca in some widely publicised tweets. I suspect that all of this reflects an embodiment of 90s nostalgia – like myself, these are all individuals who were exposed to Sabrina, The Craft, Buffy, Charmed and the ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement as they were growing up, and now that they are bursting onto the musical scene they are bringing those formative influences with them. However, it would not surprise me if these factors resulted in a second ‘Teen Witchcraft’ movement, emerging among those consuming this new media, even if this one is not as large or as significant as its late 90s/early 00s predecessor.

As for the longer term, by which I mean the next five hundred to a thousand years (and as an archaeologist I often find myself thinking in those terms), I’m really not sure what will happen to Wicca. I believe that the impulse that many Westerns have – to “revive” in one way or another pre-Christian spiritual systems – will undoubtedly survive and thus I think that modern Pagan religiosity will undoubtedly surface again and again, in either explicitly spiritual or simply artistic and aesthetic forms, just as it has done ever since the Renaissance. Wicca itself, however, has the potential to die out at some point in the far future. Both history and archaeology tell us that most religious groups do eventually succumb to extinction, either by being wiped out or by evolving into something else entirely. Since the 1950s, Wicca has been propelled in part by its counter-cultural chic and its rejection of dominant modes of monotheistic religiosity, but there could come a point where Wicca just feels like an out-of-date irrelevancy for people, and is unable to attract young blood to its cause. It could become an old folks’ religion on the brink of extinction, which is the fate that many (formerly powerful and influential) Christian groups in the West are facing right now. Equally, it could fall victim to serious persecution, or fall by the wayside as humanity is wracked by totalitarianism, epidemics, or war. I appreciate that that might not be a message that many Wiccans want to hear, but I don’t believe that practitioners of the faith should ever think that their religion is somehow immune to the forces of history that have wiped out many belief systems in the past, including those “paganisms” of the ancient world that inspire Wicca’s modern spiritual endeavours. However, even if this pessimistic outlook should be the case, I hope that texts such as my book will have helped to document the existence of this truly fascinating religious movement for posterity.

Thank you very much, Ethan!

You can find out more about Ethan Doyle White by following his blog, Albion Calling, or his work on Academia.edu.

Petition to Capitalize “Pagan” – Chicago Manual / AP Stylebook Letter

If you are a scholar or author and would like to add your name to this petition, click here for an electronic version at Change.org (set up at the original organizer’s request).

FROM:
Coalition of Scholars in Pagan Studies
PO Box 758, Cotati, CA 94931-0758 USA
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CapitalizePagan
CapitalizePagan@yahoogroups.com
Contact: Oberon Zell (Oberon@mcn.org)

TO:
Chicago Manual of Style
ATTN: Anita Samen, Managing Editor
The University of Chicago Press
1427 East 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637

AP Stylebook
The Associated Press
P.O. Box 415458
Boston, MA 02241-5458

 

To the Editors of the Associated Press Stylebook

and the Chicago Manual of Style: A petition

 

November 30, 2013

 

Dear Editors,

We the undersigned are a coalition of academic scholars and authors in the field of religious studies, who have done research into contemporary Paganism, and written books on the subject. Pagan studies represents a growing field in academy and the American Academy of Religion has had “Contemporary Pagan Studies” as part of its programming for more than a decade. We are approaching you with a common concern.

The word “Pagan” derives from pagus, the local unit of government in the Latin-speaking Roman Empire, and thus pagan referred to the traditional “Old Religion” of the countryside, as opposed to Christianity, the new religion with universal aspirations. Paganism, therefore, was by definition pre-Christian religion. Over time, with the expansion of the Roman Church, “pagan” became a common pejorative by Christians toward any non-Judeo-Christian religion.

In the 19th century, the terms pagan and paganism were adopted by anthropologists to designate the indigenous folk religions of various cultures, and by Classical scholars and romantic poets to refer to the religions of the great ancient pre-Christian civilizations of the Mediterranean region (as in the phrase, “pagan splendor,” often used in reference to Classical Greece).

Today, the terms Pagan and Paganism (capitalized) refer to alternative nature-based religions, whose adherents claim their identity as Pagan. Pagans seek attunement with nature and view humanity as a functional organ within the greater organism of Mother Earth (Gaea). Contemporary Pagans hearken to traditional and ancient pagan cultures, myths, and customs for inspiration and wisdom.

Thus contemporary Paganism (sometimes referred to as “Neo-Paganism” to distinguish it from historical pre-Christian folk traditions) should be understood as a revival and reconstruction of ancient nature-based religions, or religious innovation inspired by them, which is adapted for the modern world. Paganism is also called “The Old Religion,” “Ancient Ways,” “Nature Worship,” “Earth-Centered Spirituality,” “Natural Religion,” and “Green Religion.”

The Pagan community is worldwide, with millions of adherents in many countries. Moreover, increasing numbers of contemporary Hindus, First Nations activists, European reconstructionists, indigenous peoples, and other polytheists are accepting the term “Pagan” as a wide umbrella under which they all can gather, distinct from the monotheists and secularists. They are using it positively, not to mean “godless” or “lacking (true) religion.”

Therefore it is understandably a matter of continuing frustration to modern self-identified Pagans that newspaper and magazine copy editors invariably print the proper terms for their religion (i.e., “Pagan” and “Paganism”) in lower case. Journalists who have been confronted about this practice have replied that this is what the AP and Chicago Stylebooks recommend.

But names of religions—both nouns and adjectives—are proper terms, and as such should always be capitalized:

Religion:      Christianity    Judaism   Islam        Buddhism    Hinduism   Paganism 

Adherent:    Christian        Jew          Moslem    Buddhist      Hindu        Pagan 

Adjective:    Christian        Jewish      Islamic     Buddhist      Hindu        Pagan 

This list could be expanded indefinitely for every religion in the world. As you can see, Paganism, like all faith traditions, should be capitalized.

Pagan and Paganism are now the well-established chosen self-designations and internationally-recognised nominal identifiers of a defined religious community. The same terms are appropriately lower-case only when they refer to ancient “pagans” since, in that context, the term does not refer to a discrete movement or culture. In short, “Pagan” and “Paganism” now function much as “Jew,” “Judaism,” “Christian,” and “Christianity” do.

(—Graham Harvey, Contemporary Paganism, NYUP, 2nd edition 2011)

The current journalistic convention of printing lower case for these terms seems to have originated with the Associated Press Stylebook, first published in 1953.  However, a new era of religious pluralism has emerged over the past sixty years. The terms “Pagan” and “Paganism” are now being capitalized in a variety of publications, texts, documents, and references, including religious diversity education resources such as On Common Ground: World Religions in America, The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, and Inmate Religious Beliefs and Practices, Technical Reference Manual, Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Department of Justice.

In order to assure greater accuracy in 21st century journalism, we hereby petition the AP and Chicago Stylebooks to capitalize “Pagan” and “Paganism” when speaking of the modern faiths and their adherents in future editions.

Thank you.

Signatories

  1. Cairril Adaire (founder, Our Freedom Coalition: A Pagan Civil Rights Coalition; founder, Pagan Educational Network)
  2. Margot Adler, M.S. (National Public Radio; Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1982; author: Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today, 1979, 1986, 1996, 2006)
  3. Eileen Barker, PhD, FBA, OBE (Professor Emeritus in Sociology with Special reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics; Founder and Chair of INFORM [Information Network Focus on Religious Movements]; author of over 300 publications on the subject of minority religions)
  4. Carol Barner-Barry, Ph.D. (Professor Emerita, University of Maryland; author: Contemporary Paganism: Minority Religions in a Majoritarian American, 2005)
  5. David V. Barrett, Ph.D. (London School of Economics and Political Science; British sociologist of religion who has written widely on topics pertaining to new religious movements and western esotericism; author: The New Believers: A Survey of Sects, Cults & Alternative Religions, 2001; A Brief Guide to Secret Religions, 2011)
  6. Helen Berger, Ph.D. (resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University; Professor Emerita of Sociology, West Chester University, PA; author: A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism & Witchcraft in the United States, 1999, 2013; with Evan A. Leach and Leigh S. Shaffer, Voices from the Pagan Census: Neo-Paganism in the United States, 2003; Witchcraft and Magic in the New World: North America in the Twentieth Century, 2005; with Douglas Ezzy, Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self, 2007)
  7. Jenny Blain, Ph.D. (Recently retired from Sheffield Hallam University, previously taught at Dalhousie University, Canada, and now on faculty for Cherry Hill. Co-editor with Graham Harvey and Doug Ezzy of Researching Paganisms, 2004; author of Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy and neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism, 2002; with Robert Wallis, Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights, 2007; also numerous articles and chapters on Heathenry and Seidr, and on Pagan engagements with Sacred Sites.)
  8. Jon P. Bloch, Ph.D. (Professor, Sociology Department, Southern Connecticut State University; author of New Spirituality, Self, and Belonging: How New Agers and Neo-Pagans Talk About Themselves, 1998)
  9. Raymond Buckland, Ph.D., D.D. (founder of Seax-Wica; Originator Gardnerian Wica in America; author: The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Paganism, 2002; Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, and more than 50 other titles.)
  10. Dennis D. Carpenter, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Wisconsin; author: Spiritual Experiences, Life Changes, and Ecological Viewpoints of Contemporary Pagans; co-founder, Pagan Academic Network.)
  11. Chas Clifton, M.A. (Colorado State University-Pueblo (retired); Co-Chair of Contemporary Pagan Studies Group, American Academy of Religion; editor: The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies; author: Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca & Paganism in America, 2006; with Graham Harvey, The Paganism Reader, 2004)
  12. Vivianne Crowley, Ph.D. (Formerly professor at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College, University of London, specializing in psychology of religion. She is on the Council of the Pagan Federation where she focuses on interfaith issues. She is the author of many books on Wicca, Paganism and spiritual psychology, including Wicca: A comprehensive guide to the Old Religion in the modern world.)
  13. Carole Cusack, Ph.D. (Professor of Religious Studies, Chair Studies in Religion, Arts and Social Sciences Pro-Dean, University of Sydney, Australia;  co-editor, Journal of Religious History; co-editor, International Journal for the Study of New Religions; author: Invented Religions, 2010)
  14. Marie W. Dallam, Ph.D. (Assistant Professor, Honors College, University of Oklahoma; Co-Chair, New Religious Movements Group, American Academy of Religion)
  15. Frances Di Lauro, Ph.D. (Lecturer, Undergraduate Coordinator, Writing Hub, School of Letters Art and Media, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia)
  16. Maureen Aisling Duffy-Boose (President Emeritus, Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) 2005-2010; VP Emeritus, Pagan Pride International 2003-2013; Board Chair, Utah Pride Interfaith Coalition 2002-2005; Founding Priestess, Four Dragons Clann, 1734 Witchcraft, 2011)
  17. Robert S. Ellwood, Jr., Ph.D. (Emeritus Professor of Religion, University of Southern California; author of Religious & Spiritual Groups in Modern America, 1974, 1988; Many Peoples, Many Faiths, 1976; 10th edition with Barbara McGraw, 2014)
  18. Douglas Ezzy, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Tasmania; published extensively in academic journals and academic monographs on contemporary Paganism, Witchcraft and religion)
  19. Holly Folk (Associate Professor of Liberal Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA)
  20. Rev. Selena Fox, M.S. (Senior Minister, Circle Sanctuary; founding editor, CIRCLE Magazine; co-founder, Pagan Academic Network; diversity educator, U.S. Department of Justice; author: When Goddess is God (1995); contributor to Religions of the World (2002), Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America (2006), U.S. Army Chaplains Manual (1984), other works)
  21. Elysia Gallo (Senior Acquisitions Editor for Witchcraft, Paganism, and Magic at Llewellyn Worldwide; Vice President of Twin Cities Pagan Pride)
  22. Wendy Griffin, Ph.D. (Professor Emerita and Chair of the Department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach; Academic Dean, Cherry Hill Seminary; Founding Co-chair of the Pagan Studies Group for the American Academy of Religion; Co-editor of the Alta Mira’s Pagan Studies Series; editor: Daughters of the Goddess: Studies of Healing, identity and Empowerment, 2000)
  23. Raven Grimassi (Director of the Fellowship of the Pentacle, author: Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, 2000, and other award-winning books on Pagan-related themes)
  24. Charlotte Hardman, Ph.D. (Honorary Fellow, retired senior lecturer, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University; co-author: Paganism Today 1995; Other Worlds 2000)
  25. Graham Harvey, Ph.D. (Head of Department of Religious Studies, The Open University, UK; President, British Association for the Study of Religion; co-author: Paganism Today, 1995; Contemporary Paganism, 1997; with Chas Clifton, The Paganism Reader, Routledge, 2004; Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding religion as everyday life, 2013)
  26. Irving Hexham, Ph.D. (Professor of Religious Studies at University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada; author with Karla Poewe: New Religions as Global Cultures, 1997; Understanding World Religions, 2011; and many other works on new religious movements)
  27. Ellen Evert Hopman, M.Ed. (Druid Priestess; Co-founder and Vice President for nine years, of The Henge of Keltria Druid Order and co-founder and Co-Chief for five years of The Druid Order of White Oak; author with Lawrence Bond, People of the Earth: The New Pagans Speak Out, 1995; with Lawrence Bond, Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today, 2001; and other volumes)
  28. Lynne Hume, Ph.D. (Associate Professor and Research Consultant, University of Queensland, Australia; Faculty, Cherry Hill Seminary, Bethel, VT; author of Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia, 1997; The Religious Life of Dress, 2013; co-author, with Nevill Drury of The Varieties of Magical Experience, 2013)
  29. Ronald Hutton, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Historical Studies, Oxford University; author: Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, 2000)
  30. Christine Hoff Kraemer, Ph.D. (Instructor, Theology and Religious History, Cherry Hill Seminary; author of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theology, 2012 and Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake, 2013)
  31. James R. Lewis, Ph.D. (co-founder of the International Society for the Study of New Religions and editor-in-chief of the Alternative Spirituality & Religion Review (ASSR). Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tromsø in Norway; Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wales, Lampeter; author: Magical Religion & Modern Witchcraft, 1996; The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions, 1998; Peculiar Prophets: A Biographical Dictionary of New Religions, 1999; Witchcraft Today: An Encyclopedia of Wiccan and Neopagan Traditions, 1999; with Murph Pizza, Handbook of Contemporary Paganism; The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements; with Jesper Petersen, Controversial New Religions;The Encyclopedic Sourcebook of New Age Religions; Odd Gods: New Religions and the Cult Controversy;Legitimating New Religions)
  32. Scott Lowe, Ph.D. (Professor, Philosophy and Religious Studies at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire; Co-General Editor, Nova Religio)
  33. Sabina Magliocco, Ph.D. (Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at California State University, Northridge; author: Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America, 2004; Neopagan Sacred Art & Altars: Making Things Whole, 2001)
  34. Ven. Rev. Patrick McCollum (Director of Public Chaplaincy, Cherry Hill Seminary; Chaplaincy Liaison, American Academy of Religion; Minority Faith Chair, American Correctional Chaplains Association; Executive Director, National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association; President, Patrick McCollum Foundation; Religion Advisor, United States Commission on Civil Rights; Recipient, Mahatma Gandhi Award for the Advancement of Pluralism; publications: California Department of Corrections Wiccan Chaplains Manual, 1998; Courting the Lady, 2000; Religious Accommodation in American Jails, 2013)
  35. J. Gordon Melton, Ph.D. (Institute for the Study of American Religion; The Encyclopedia of American Religions, 1991; with Isotta Poggi, author of Magic, Witchcraft, and Paganism in America: A Bibliography, 2nd ed., 1992; Religious Leaders of America, 1999)
  36. Brendan Myers, Ph.D. (Professor at CEGEP Heritage College, Gatineau, QC, Canada; faculty, Cherry Hill Seminary; author of The Earth, The Gods and The Soul – A History of Pagan Philosophy: From the Iron Age to the 21st Century, 2013)
  37. M. Macha NightMare/Aline O’Brien (American Academy of Religion; Nature Religions Scholars Network; Marin Interfaith Council; United Religions Initiative; Interfaith Center of the Presidio; Association for the Study of Women and Mythology; Biodiversity Project Spirituality Working Group. She also serves on the Board of Directors of Cherry Hill Seminary; the Advisory Council of the Sacred Dying Foundation; former Adjunct Faculty at Starr King School for the Ministry. Books: The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over (with Starhawk) 1997; Witchcraft and the Web: Weaving Pagan Tradition Online, 2001; Pagan Pride: Honoring the Craft and Culture of Earth and Goddess, 2004)
  38. Joanne Pearson, Ph.D. (co-author with Richard H. Roberts & Geoffrey Samuel of Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World, 1998; (ed), Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age, 2002; A Popular Dictionary of Paganism, 2002; Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual Sex and Magic, 2007)
  39. Christopher Penczak (faculty member at North Eastern Institute of Whole Health; founder of the Temple of Witchcraft, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit church; co-owner of Copper Cauldron Publishing; author: The Living Temple of Witchcraft, 2008; 2009—and over two dozen other books)
  40. Sarah M. Pike, Ph.D. (Professor of Comparative Religion, California State University, Chico; author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and The Search for Community, 2001; New Age and Neopagan Religions in America, 2004)
  41. Richard H. Roberts, Ph.D. (Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, Lancaster University; co-author with Geoffrey Samuel & Joanne Pearson of Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World, 1998)
  42. Kathryn Rountree, Ph.D. (Professor of Anthropology, Massey University, New Zealand; author of Embracing the Witch and the Goddess: Feminist Ritual-makers in New Zealand, 2004; Crafting Contemporary Pagan Identities in a Catholic Society, 2010; Archaeology of Spiritualities, 2012)
  43. Michael Ruse, Ph.D. (Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL; author: The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet, 2013)
  44. Geoffrey Samuel, Ph.D. (Cardiff University, UK, as well as an honorary attachment at the University of Sydney; author: Civilized Shamans, 1993; co-author with Richard H. Roberts & Joanne Pearson of Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World, 1998; The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, 2008; Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, 2013)
  45. Bron Taylor, Ph.D. (Professor of Religion & Nature, University of Florida; Fellow, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society; Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, München; Editor, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture; author of Encyclopedia of Religion & Nature, 2005; Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, 2010; Avatar and Nature Spirituality, 2013; Civil Society in the Age of Monitory Democracy, 2013)
  46. Robert J. Wallis, Ph.D., FRAI, FSA (Professor of Visual Culture; Associate Dean, MA Programmes, School of Communications, Arts and Social Sciences; Convenor of the MA in Art History and Visual Culture; Richmond University, the American International University in London; author of Shamans/neo-Shamans, 2003; and numerous articles on contemporary Paganisms, neo-Shamanisms and their engagements with prehistoric archaeology in Britain)
  47. Linda Woodhead, M.B.E., D.D. (Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, UK. She studies religious change in modern societies, and is especially interested in how religion has changed worldwide since the late 1980s. Between 2007 and 2013 she was Director of the “Religion and Society” research programme in Britain, which involved 240 academics from 29 different disciplines working on 75 different projects. Her books include Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (2013), A Sociology of Religious Emotions (2011), Religions in the Modern World (2009), The Spiritual Revolution (2005) and A Very Short Introduction to Christianity (2004). She is a regular commentator and broadcaster on religion and society.)
  48. Michael York, Ph.D. (Faculty, Cherry Hill Seminary; retired Professor of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology with the Bath Spa University’s Sophia Centre; he directed the New Age and Pagan Studies Programme for the College’s Department for the Study of Religions and co-ordinated the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs. He continues to direct the Amsterdam Center for Eurindic Studies and co-direct the London-based Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies. Author: The Roman Festival Calendar of Numa Pompilius, 1986; A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements, 1995; The Divine versus the Asurian: An Interpretation of Indo-European Cult and Myth, 1995; Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, 2003; Historical Dictionary of New Age Movements, 2004)
  49. Oberon Zell, D.D. (co-founder and Primate, Church of All Worlds, 1962 [incorporated 1968; 501(c)(3) 1970]; co-founder, Council of Themis, 1968; Publisher Emeritus, Green Egg magazine, 1968-ff; co-founder, Council of Earth Religions, 1974; founder, Universal Federation of Pagans, 1990; founder, Grey Council, 2002; founder and Headmaster, Grey School of Wizardry, 2004; Secretary, Sonoma County Pagan Network, 2010-2013; author: Grimoire for the Apprentice Wizard, 2004; Companion  for the Apprentice Wizard, 2006; with Morning Glory Zell, Creating Circles & Ceremonies, 2006)

Signatories Appended after Initial Submission

  1. Thomas Baurley, B.A. (Archaeologist, GIS Specialist 2006, and Curator/Data Manager Fort Carson Cultural Resource Program, U.S. Army–Ft. Carson, CO; Independent writer, blogger, and publisher. Published various articles in the Florida State University Anthropology Quarterly on Neo-Paganism,1991-1994; Ethnography of Wicca in the Southeastern United States, 1990;  NEPA packets, memorandums of record, and reports for Fort Carson Cultural Resource Management Program 2007-2011 for protection and evaluation of various Archaeological sites on Fort Carson and Pinon Canyon, GIS/Curation Manual for Fort Carson Cultural Resource Program 2011; SAA Public Education Papers and online archive with Smith, KC and Miller, James. “The Neo-Pagan Explosion”–FSU Anthropological Quarterly Fall 1995; Tree Leaves’ Oracle Folk Journal (Editor and Author of numerous articles); Editor/Author of Ethno-Facts Issue 1, Fall 1993)
  2. Dana D. Eilers, J.D. (1981 cum laude graduate of New England School of Law; 1978 graduate of Smith College; licensed attorney MA, IL, and MO; author of The Practical Pagan, 2002; Pagans and the Law: Understand Your Rights, 2009)
  3. Stephanie Taylor-Grimassi (Co-Director of the Fellowship of the Pentacle, and author of divinatory oracle kits)
  4. Rev. Jerrie Hildebrand (Ordained Minister, Circle Sanctuary, Massachusetts)
  5. Timothy Miller, Ph.D. (Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas at Lawrence; author of America’s Alternative Religions, 1995)
  6. Rev. Luke MoonOak, Ph.D. (Professor, Religion & Humanities, College of Central Florida; Minister, Church of All Worlds, Florida; author of Radiant Circles: Progressive Ecospirituality and the Church of All Worlds, 2010 and Solantis, 2012)
  7. Jeff Rosenbaum, B.A. (Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Association for Consciousness Exploration LLC; B.A. in Sociology; Co-Director & creator of the Starwood Festival)
  8. Mike Williams. Ph.D. (maw@globalnet.co.uk) (BSc (Hons), MA, PhD, MRICS. Tutor for the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Author: Follow the Shaman’s Call, 2010; Prehistoric Belief, 2010; The Shaman’s Spirit, 2013)
  9. Laurie Kelly-Pye (Director of Sales & Co-Publisher at Career Press/New Page Books)
  10. Benjamin E. Zeller, Ph.D. (Assistant Professor, Dept. of Religion, Lake Forest College; Co-General Editor, Nova Religio; author of Prophets and Protons: New Religions and Science in Late-Twentieth Century America, 2010; co-editor of Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, 2014)
  11. Stuart A. Wright, Ph.D. (Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He is known internationally for his research on religious and political movements, conflict and violence. He has published five books, including Armageddon in Waco, 1995; Patriots, Politics, and the Oklahoma City Bombing, 2007; Saints under Siege: The Texas State Raid on the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, with James T. Richardson, 2011)
  12. Starhawk (Graduate Theological Seminary; Reclaiming Collective; author of The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess, 1979, 1988, 1997; Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics,1982, 1988, 1997; Truth or Dare, 1988;The Fifth Sacred Thing, 1993)

[Change.org: Petition to Capitalize “Pagan” in Chicago Manual and AP Stylebook]

Pathways in Modern Western Magic (Review)

Pathways in Modern Western MagicAs I mentioned in a previous post, Pathways in Modern Western Magic is Concrescent Press’s answer to the conditions of contemporary academic publishing—an activity that, especially for scholars of area studies, is at best difficult and at worst, financially untenable. The book is the first release under the Concrescent Scholars imprint, “dedicated to peer-reviewed works of scholarship in the fields of Esotericism, Pagan religion and culture, Magic, and the Occult from within, and without, the Academy.” In other words, this collection contains contributions from scholars, some of whom are practitioners, and practitioners who though not involved in the academy, are serious about the scholarly study of magic. Each article has been “peer-reviewed,” meaning that it was reviewed and deemed fit for publication by scholars with PhDs in relevant fields.

Unlike traditional academic publishers, however, Concrescent is set up to be fast and nimble. Headed by Pagan priest and PhD candidate Sam Webster, the press prides itself on bringing manuscripts through the publication process in a timely fashion—much more quickly than the 2-3 year process that is typical for most academic publishers. I see this publishing model as being very promising for scholars of area studies, especially independent scholars who are more concerned with being read than with the dog-eat-dog realities of tenure reviews. The editor of the collection, Nevill Drury, may be a perfect example of this new kind of scholar: having completed a PhD at the University of Newcastle, Australia in 2008, Drury now brings together formal academic training in the humanities with decades of experience in editing and publishing. His recent publications include several books on occultism and art.

So why might you, dear reader, want to read Pathways in Modern Western Magic?

First of all, although the anthology is scholarly, it is far from dry. The articles are accessible and engagingly written. For a reader who wants an introduction to the academic study of magic or an overview of major areas of magical practice in the West, this book delivers. Pathways includes articles on Wicca and witchcraft, neo-shamanism in the United States and Europe, Heathen seiđr, Thelemic sex magick, the Golden Dawn system, Satanism, Tantra, and more. In addition to these established topics of study, the collection also offers essays on lesser-known traditions and figures: Dragon Rouge; the Temple of Set; chaos magic; artist/occultists Ithell Colquhoun, Austin Osman Spare, and Rosaleen Norton; and technoshamanism.  Especially for readers new to the field of Western esotericism studies, the book provides an overview of modern Western magic while also opening up tantalizing new areas for exploration and research.

As a religious studies scholar, however, I’m always interested in what a book has to offer to the larger field. What would someone with an interest in religion and how it is (or can be) studied get out of this book? Some of the book’s articles don’t have much to offer the reader who isn’t already interested in magic: they are descriptive or historical pieces that provide essential context for the topic, but don’t necessarily make an argument for why a reader from outside the field should care. Some, however, do make broader arguments that I still find myself chewing over weeks after finishing the collection.

Nevill Drury’s introduction makes a case for the idea that emic (basically, insider) approaches to the study of religion are just as valuable as etic (outsider, “objective”) approaches. Although his article seems to have been prepared before the publication of Markus Altena Davidsen’s essay “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies?”, Drury addresses a number of Davidsen’s criticisms. Davidsen is impatient with emic, insider, and “religionist” approaches, believing that they lead to a lack of skepticism—in other words, scholars with insider approaches risk uncritically agreeing with their subjects and taking their assumptions for granted. As support, Davidsen gives examples of Pagan scholars making arguments that seem to be contradicted by their data, perhaps out of loyalty to their subjects.

On the other hand, Davidsen praises etic “outsider” scholars who, as Drury points out, have made equally clumsy errors. Drury criticizes anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, for example, for her lack of grounding in the historical study of magic. Rather than approaching British Wicca using a definition of magic derived from Western esotericism (from which Wicca is partially, but directly, derived), Luhrmann uses a theory of magic developed from the practices of pre-literate Oceanic cultures. In other words, her contextualizing theory is wildly inappropriate for the subject matter.

Davidsen makes an important point that insider perspectives can lack skepticism. But, as Drury argues, an insider can bring a far greater depth and integration of knowledge to a subject and so avoid such gross errors of context. (In her essay, Lynne Hume makes a similar argument, suggesting that too great a degree of skepticism or investment in outside theory prevents researchers from genuinely participating in the religious traditions they study and so threatens to distort their perceptions.)

Nikki Bado’s essay uses the Wiccan Triple Goddess as a jumping-off point for issues that are broadly relevant to religious studies: contemporary challenges to biological determinism that undergird sexism; literalism and the way it prevents access to other modes of truth (including the rational, allegorical, mythic, and faith stances); and most importantly, the nigh impossibility of operating outside of the paradigms of one’s own culture. Bado is an advocate of “reflexive” rather than “objective” scholarship; she believes that it is more helpful for scholars to identify and reflect on their biases within their work than it is to attempt to free themselves from them. As a low-level example, Bado focuses on the number three in both myth and scholarship. Tripartite models and triple aspects are pervasive in Western culture, conditioning us to look for and find triples even when there are other possibilities. She writes, “The problem with paradigms is that once they are created—some would say discovered—it is nearly impossible to escape their influence. Once identified, they appear everywhere, dominating and even determining how and what we see. If something doesn’t fit the model, we manipulate it until it does” (80). Bado ends with a call, not to abandon paradigms and categories, but for greater openness to their subjectivity—in other words, for a better understanding that our models are maps, not the territory.

I also particularly enjoyed James R. Lewis’ essay on the role of Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible in modern Satanism. Lewis brings his own original ethnographic research on Satanists into the essay to argue that, despite Satanists’ explicit rejection of traditional religious values, many use LaVey’s book in an extremely traditional fashion—as an authoritative textual source. This continues to be the case even as the level of education among Satanists has risen and more and more information about LaVey’s fabricated biography has come to light. Even more interestingly, contemporary Satanists’ strategy of textual legitimization is completely different from LaVey’s strategy in the Satanic Bible itself. Rather than appealing to a particular authority or text, LaVey’s philosophy was based in scientific thinking: secular humanism and a particular understanding of human nature based on Darwinian evolution. Lewis concludes, “It appears that being raised in a religious tradition that locates the source of authority in religious figures and sacred texts creates an unconscious predisposition that can be carried over to other kinds of persons and books—even in the unlikely context of contemporary Satanism” (278). The issue of how converts’ former religious affiliations influence their experiences of the religions they choose as adults has wide-ranging implications for religious studies, and Lewis’ article is a fascinating contribution to that conversation.

Overall, Pathways has the most to offer to a reader who is just beginning a formal academic study of Western magic. When it broaches less-treated topics of study and connects its subject matter to broader discussions in religious studies, however, it is also potentially valuable for established scholars of esotericism or contemporary Paganism. I am pleased to add it to my personal library.

[Drury, Nevill, editor. Pathways in Modern Western Magic. Richmond, CA: Concrescent Scholars, 2012. 484 pp.  $39.95 (softcover).]

 

Pagans and Academic Publishing

Some of you may remember that I’m publishing a book of Pagan erotic theology entitled Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake with an academic publisher next year. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover image I commissioned from artist Valerie Herron. Gorgeous, no?

Deciding what kind of press to approach with this book was a difficult process because both the publishing industry and academia are in crisis right now. This makes it a particularly difficult time for those of us in Pagan Studies and other minor area studies to get our work out to our intended audiences. Let me tell you a little about why.

A big part of it is that many academic publishing houses are still using the publishing strategies that worked in the past, even as the internet and electronic publishing steadily deconstruct the industry. The old academic publishing strategy looked like this:

  1. Put out a sturdy, expensive hardback library edition specifically to sell to university libraries. In the past, some well-endowed university libraries bought nearly everything that certain academic publishers offered, so each publication was guaranteed to make the press a certain amount of money. These books would then be in circulation at those universities and for interlibrary loan at other institutions, making the book relatively easy to get as long as you were willing to wait.
  2. Send out review copies to journals and scholars in the field and market the book through conferences and catalogs sent to members of professional organizations. If the book was well-received and all the library copies sold out, it might be released in a cheaper paperback edition for a wider audience.

Under this old academic model of publishing, the advances and royalties given to authors for academic books were small. This wasn’t considered important, however, because most academics had full-time teaching or research jobs. They needed publications in order to get tenure or get promoted, but they didn’t need to get money directly for their writing.

Fast-forward to the present, where university tenure is disappearing and most universities make regular use of armies of underpaid, overworked adjuncts. Funding for many libraries has been cut, meaning that the automatic library purchases that sustained academic publishers in the past are no longer guaranteed. The old models of publishing are no longer working very well—but they haven’t quite completely collapsed, meaning that well-established presses continue to cling to them.

I’m an independent scholar teaching occasionally for Cherry Hill Seminary. Publishing won’t get me tenure or a promotion, but because of the way academic publishing is set up, it won’t get me much money either. Due to economic conditions, publishers also have a much reduced capacity to market books to libraries and scholars. So why publish with an academic press at all?

I seriously considered self-publishing the book. There are ample resources available for becoming your own print-on-demand publisher: format your own manuscript, do your own cover design, and put out a professional-quality book (or if you need help, hire contractors). In the Pagan world, I can particularly recommend Asphodel Press as a print-on-demand writers’ collective that puts out books at least as professional in quality as Llewellyn or Weiser.

In the end, however, I felt that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a theologian, I needed the credibility of an academic press, which comes with the guarantee of peer review (in other words, other scholars have reviewed the text, made suggestions, and told the publisher the book is worth publishing). I also engage a lot with existing queer theology in the book, and I knew I’d need an academic publisher if I wanted any of the theologians I admired to ever hear of it. Self-publishing would have required an enormous amount of marketing, and the reality is that without the imprint of an academic press, some scholars simply would never have looked at the book at all.

The end result, however, is that my book will initially appear as a library edition with a Very Large Price Tag (and, happily, also as an electronic edition, but academic electronic editions sometimes cost considerably more than the average trade paperback!). If the book sells enough copies in hardback, it will be released in paperback, but there’s no guarantee of that. I had to sacrifice accessibility for credibility, and it wasn’t an easy choice.

I want to emphasize that my editor and everyone else at my publisher has been very professional and helpful. The ground is shifting under the publishing industry’s feet, and everyone is fumbling around to try to find new publishing strategies that are sustainable. But even as I go through this publication process, I find myself thinking about the publishing alternatives that may arise in the future, especially for academic books.

One dream of mine is that academic publishing might reorganize itself in the form of profit-sharing scholarly writers’ collectives. The main strength of academic publishing now is peer review: scholars read and comment on others’ work, usually as volunteers. This process can be time-consuming, and since the reviewers do not derive any direct benefit from it, the reviews are not always thorough or of good quality. Since print-on-demand makes it easy to start one’s own small press now, though, I have been imagining peer review collectives in which scholars who wish to be published work collaboratively to peer review, edit, copyedit, and proofread each other’s work. Rather than being volunteers, they would be helping to create the opportunity for their own work to be published (hopefully on less than the two-year timeline that most academic publishing involves). Although a professional-level editor would still be needed to oversee production, still, more of the sales profits could be directed back to the writer. It would take time for such presses to grow large enough to send representatives to professional conferences, but in the short term, they could provide opportunities for quality academic publishing that do not currently exist.

Print-on-demand services have also made it much easier to start small, more or less traditionally-modeled presses for niche topics (and indeed, Pagan studies is a niche topic, and Pagan theology a niche within a niche). One such attempt is Concrescent Press, which recently put out an academic, peer-reviewed collection on esotericism entitled Pathways in Modern Western Magic. The volume features prominent scholars in esotericism as well as scholarly practitioners. I’m working through the book now, and hope to write up a more thorough review here in the future.

This book’s existence, however, gives me hope that academic publishing could reinvent itself to become more streamlined (fewer people involved with each project, shorter timeline), to create opportunities for scholars with unusual interests to be published, to direct more of the profits back to the writers, and to produce books at a price point that is accessible to non-academics. If we were to stop thinking of the typical scholar as a tenure-track professor and instead face the reality that many up-and-coming researchers are now adjunct instructors and entrepreneurs, the result could be a more accessible, egalitarian, and innovative academic publishing industry.

 

Fundamentalism

What is fundamentalism? Is it all bad? Can the term ‘fundamentalist’ be applied to Pagans?

What is fundamentalism?

The term fundamentalism originated in Christianity, when a series of books called The fundamentals was published, outlining five beliefs that the author considered it essential for Christians to hold.   In that context, the term originally meant someone who adhered to these five beliefs. The movement was created in response to liberal theology and higher criticism; so in that sense it is essentially conservative.

Since then, the term has been applied to other religions (notably Islam), where it is characterised by a tendency towards literal belief  in a particular interpretation of the scriptures or tenets of that religion.

There have been movements to take scriptures literally in the past, though whether we can back-project the term “fundamentalist” onto them is open to debate.

A commenter on this blog has argued that fundamentalists are not all bad, but are passionate in their beliefs. I am not sure that this is true — I think that fundamentalism is characterised by fear and insecurity.

Mystical and experiential religion is characterised by direct experience of the Divine or deities. The mystic recognises mystics from other traditions, and assumes that they have a similar experience with a different mythology (or with a different being or beings). Someone who experiences their religion in their heart usually has no need for rigid dogma and doctrine (unless the need to conform to a doctrine is imposed on them from outside).

Conversely, a person who does not have an inner experience of the Divine or deities may resort to fundamentalism to give them a structure or a sense of certainty. (I am not saying this is always the case, just that it is a frequent occurrence.)

Is fundamentalism all bad?

Well, not all fundamentalists are necessarily bad people, but if we define fundamentalism as a fearful response to critical engagement with doctrine and dogma, then the fundamentalist tendency can’t really be seen as a good thing.

If your faith is strong enough (because it’s rooted in an inner experience of your deities or deity), it ought to be able to withstand criticism, either from atheists, or from other traditions. It is possible to be a passionate adherent of your tradition, and still open to other views and to criticism.

Can Pagans be characterised as fundamentalist?

Where there is a tendency to be rigid and dogmatic about tradition or belief (e.g. “we’ve always done it this way, so it’s correct, even if it hurts you”, or “we believe this, so we act in a certain way, even if the belief is contrary to evidence and the action hurts people”), then yes, it is possible to be a Pagan fundamentalist.

Recently, Pagan Studies academic Sabina Magliocco wrote a guest post at The Wild Hunt, in which she discussed fundamentalist tendencies in Pagan traditions.

She defines fundamentalism as:

a form of ideology, religious or secular, characterized by a black-and-white, either-or, us-vs.-them morality that precludes questioning.  It generally involves insistence on belief in the literal truth of some canon, as well as a concern with identity politics and boundary-setting.  Fundamentalisms are inflexible and have difficulty adapting; they have a strong need for certainty and a clear sense of belonging, and anyone who disagrees is labeled an enemy or heretic.

She goes on to discuss whether this is applicable to contemporary Pagans, and finds that a certain rigidity has emerged around two particular topics: the historicity of Wiccan foundational narratives; and the reality of deities. She cautions against defining our community belonging by belief, because belief is provisional and changing. I recommend reading the whole article, and the paper when it becomes available.

I have also noticed a tendency towards rigidity when discussing gender roles in ritual. When I have questioned why a thing is done a particular way, and suggested changing it, people have responded with “but that’s the tradition”. Well, traditions evolve and change in an organic way; they are not fixed. They change in response to circumstance, and people’s needs.

A further indication of fundamentalist tendencies is the way in which some people have spread rumours about academics studying Pagan traditions that they are out to discredit Paganism and undermine it. This seems to me to be a fearful and insecure response, which is a characteristic of fundamentalism. In fact, as Sabina Magliocco points out, many Pagan academics have risked opprobrium from other academics by even writing about Pagan traditions and taking them seriously. They are also bound by a code of ethics; and in most cases, the academics who study Pagan traditions are also practitioners (either of a Pagan tradition, or of another tradition).

Whether or not we apply the label “fundamentalism” to these tendencies towards rigidity and dogma, we do need to guard against developing an us-versus-them mentality, and labelling people who disagree with us as enemies. We need to be flexible, open-minded, and inclusive.

Interview with Christine Hoff Kraemer on Albion Calling

I was honored this week by an interview with Ethan Doyle White for his blog, Albion Calling. The article is part of a series of interviews with scholars of Pagan studies and esotericism; previous interviewees include Dave Evans, Chas Clifton, Caroline Tully, and Nevill Drury. (I am in excellent company!)

Here’s the link: An Interview with Dr. Christine Hoff Kraemer

EDW is an up-and-coming scholar himself, and I’m champing at the bit to read his recent article in The Pomegranate, Robert Cochrane and the Gardnerian Craft: Feuds, Secrets and Mysteries in Contemporary British Witchcraft.”

I also just turned in my final draft of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake to Routledge; it should be out in early 2014. During the publication process, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the future of academic publishing and Pagan studies publishing in particular, but I’ll save them for my next post!

Links: Pagan Systematic Theology, Sacred Lands Conference, Pagans vs. Gnostics

Over at PaganSquare, Sam Webster has the latest installment in his Pagan systematic theology. Sam’s approach differs from mine in many ways — his grounding in the writings of the ancient Greeks (especially Iamblichus) being just one — and teasing out my own reactions to what he has to say is always instructive.

This latest post is on the nature of the Gods, and I’m particularly pleased to see him differentiating monotheism (one deity) and monism (one spiritual essence) on the way to polytheism. The conflation of those two terms has led to some less-than-productive conversations between Pagan soft and hard polytheists (and, as Sam points out, even among scholars).


In other news, the deadline to submit papers to this awesome upcoming Pagan conference (featuring Ronald Hutton!) has been extended to February 1:

 We welcome papers that explore the following questions:

In today’s post-modern, urbanized world, where everything is a commodity, how and where do Pagans find their sacred places? How should we protect and maintain these sites? In colonized worlds, how do we avoid the appropriation of these lands? If Goddess is immanent in nature, what makes some places more sacred than others? How is our spirituality shaped by the land and our relationship with the land shaped by our spirituality?

Proposals of up to 1000 words are due by February 1, 2013 and may be uploaded at  http://www.cherryhillseminary.org/blog/announcements/call-for-papers/

I’m hoping to attend (blessedly, as a nonpresenter — after this fall of intense writing, I need a little break!). Maybe I’ll meet some of you there?


In the first episode of The Pagan Voice, a new web TV show for and about Pagans, Pagan studies scholar Michael York is interviewed on the subject of Pagan vs. Gnostic theology. The piece with Michael starts at about 21:13. There’s also some worthwhile material on the subject of violence against minorities and Transgender Day of Remembrance.


Finally, this week I read P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’ book All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power: A TransMythologyI had no idea an epic poem could be so steamy! With luck, I’ll have a review up here sometime in the next week.

Until next time!

Theology Is Not Religious Studies

In teaching theology and religion, I’ve learned that most people don’t realize that the two are separate disciplines. Although theology and religion have overlap, treating them as if they were the same can lead to a great deal of confusion. Since the assumptions made in theology and the assumptions made in religious studies are quite different, conflating them makes it difficult to do either well.

So, let’s revisit: What is theology, particularly in a Pagan context? While I love definitions, I am never content with just one. Let’s look at some definitions from scholarly Pagans.

Yvonne Aburrow defines theology as “reasoning about the Divine… involv[ing] dialogue between different schools of thought. It can include skepticism and non-theism. It does not lay down dogma or doctrine, but is exploratory.”

Sam Webster says that “Theology is God-talk” and “Theology in practice is the engagement with meaning and values with respect to that which we consider the Divine.”

My preferred short definition of theology is “a vocabulary and a framework for thinking about spiritual issues,” although I’ve also defined it elsewhere as “an investigation of the nature of Deity, deities, and divinity; an intellectual framework for religious belief and practice; an organized expression of the meaning of numinous or sacred experiences.”

Theology, by definition, is written by insiders: practitioners of a religion who are articulating their personal religious or spiritual convictions within a like-minded community. These religious convictions are, at their root, unverifiable. Though practitioners may have experiences that support their commitments or beliefs, theology includes issues (such as the nature or existence of deity) that cannot be explored with concrete evidence.

Religious studies is different in a number of ways. Religious studies can be (and often is) written by people who are at least partially “insiders” (in other words, they practice that religion or are at least sympathetic to it). But religious studies scholarship is written to specifically include readers who are “outsiders,” those who have no previous knowledge of or investment in the tradition. Theology assumes a certain baseline of shared beliefs, attitudes, or practices that cannot be completely demonstrated with reason. Religious studies, for the most part, only assumes that the audience is open to being logically persuaded by evidence.

Briefly, then, religious studies is the academic study of religion, in which scholars use evidence from authoritative texts, history, ethnographic or statistical studies, and other concrete sources to make logical arguments. In religious studies, the arguments made about a given religion are designed to convince readers who do not practice that religion. Whether or not a religious studies text is written by an “insider” or an “outsider” (and this is a spectrum, not a black-and-white distinction!), the intended audience always explicitly includes “outsiders” to that religion.

When people are trying to read or write religious studies or theology without understanding the difference between the two, things get sticky. For example, I once co-taught a class on the Bible as literature. Our primary goal for that class was to help students read the Bible as if they had never encountered it before. (Some hadn’t — and in most ways, that was an advantage.) We wanted them to encounter the text, learn about its historical context, and then learn to interpret it using historical evidence and direct quotations.

The Temptation of Adam and Eve (1509-1513) by Mariotto Albertinelli. Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The Temptation of Adam and Eve (1509-1513) by Mariotto Albertinelli

The students who struggled most in that class were those who had been drilled in confessional (“insider,” or “believer”) biblical interpretation. For eighteen years or more, they had been taught to approach the subject of religion through the theological lens of a particular tradition. Although that lens was probably useful and precious to them as religious practitioners, it was useless for actually reading the words on the page.

One student, I recall, submitted a paper analyzing the Genesis story of the Fall, in which she repeatedly referred to the snake in the garden as “Satan.” When it was pointed out to her that the words “Satan” and “devil” do not appear in the story — in fact, that the text never identifies that entity as anything more than an ordinary snake — she was speechless with confusion. Her church’s theology was such an accustomed lens for approaching the world that she wasn’t even aware it was there. Rather than an interpretive tool, it was simply reality.

It’s possible to make arguments about religious stories without resorting to received dogma. For example, my student could have argued that the snake hurt Eve and Adam by damaging their relationship with God, which they valued: Genesis has evidence that supports that argument. She could even have gone to other parts of the Bible to try to show similarities between the snake and Satan. But because she assumed that the snake *was* the angel called Satan without giving evidence for that connection, her argument was not convincing to anyone who didn’t already share her beliefs.

Unfortunately, even within the much more theologically flexible Pagan community, we encounter similar problems. Pagans sometimes read religious studies books as if they were making theological claims, rather than describing one possible theory about a collection of facts. In some cases, academic historical theories are even read as morality tales on which we should base our lives. Stories of a pacifistic, matriarchal prehistory and of the intact survival of a fully-functioning European indigenous religion, though originally presented in a religious studies framework, have become the basis of new, dogmatic theologies. These theologies, in turn, have led to the widespread misunderstanding of religious studies scholarship, because they are based on inflexible personal convictions rather than openness to new research and evidence.

Sometimes theological readings of religious studies happen because scholars’ personal convictions color their work. Today, it’s accepted that everyone has biases, and the important thing is to identify them openly so the reader can take that bias into account. But in other cases, Pagans and other religious people have misread religious studies scholarship that was never intended as theology. Religious studies constructs theories based on evidence that can verified by others (such as text, historical artifacts, interview data, etc.). Although theology may use this kind of evidence as well, at the root of theology is always personal conviction — a religious commitment that drives the practitioner to passionately advocate for an ultimately unverifiable point of view.

Theology can and should involve logic. Ultimately, however, logic is only a means: theology is religious conviction supported and shaped by reason. Religious studies, on the other hand, must always let reason win.

 

A Community of Scholars

My theology class this fall at Cherry Hill Seminary is wrapping up this week, and my students are making their closing remarks and evaluating each others’ final projects. I love to see the gratitude and delight my students express at the end of the semester—sometimes to me, but more often, to each other.

I design my classes to be discussion-oriented and as non-hierarchical as a graded class can be. As an instructor, what I provide is structure—readings, theoretical frameworks, vocabulary. The real learning takes place when my students enter that structure: they struggle together, question and challenge each other, hear each other’s stories, and bear witness to each other’s epiphanies. Deep understanding grows most naturally in a community of intellectual and emotional support.

There’s a myth that scholars work alone, tucked away in libraries or at computers. It’s true, when I’m on a writing marathon, I tend to forget the rest of the world. But the thoughts that I write down so avidly rarely come to me when I’m alone. Most often, they develop in classrooms, in intimate conversations with friends, or over breakfast with my long-suffering husband (who, surprisingly, is not yet sick to death of listening to me talk about religion). The best scholarship is collaborative.

I feel greatly blessed by the community of Pagan studies scholars who gather every year at the American Academy of Religion conference. I’ve had opportunities to present my work there and receive feedback, but the most enriching parts have always been the intense debates over coffee, the casual dinners where a dozen people or more laughingly cram themselves around a too-small dinner table, and the brilliant extracurriculars organized by locals. This year, religion and performance scholar Jason Winslade put together an amazing “Occult Chicago” pre-conference. The pre-conference brought incoming scholars and local practitioners together for presentations, conversation, and a wonderful piece of occult steampunk theater. I find myself going back to the AAR conference year after year, not for the massive book exhibit or the keynote addresses, but for the company, the encouragement, and the warm mentoring I receive.

I’ll let you in on an open secret: most Pagan studies scholars are Pagan themselves. Not all study the same Pagan traditions they practice, and many study contemporary Paganism as a sidebar to some broader discipline, which provides paying work (sociology, for instance, or the religions of a particular region of the world). There’s a myth going around that scholars who study Paganism are somehow hostile to the movement, that their historical studies are meant to undermine the religion or destroy it. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do often disagree, though: not all scholars of Paganism (or Pagans in general) share the same vision for our movement or have exactly the same values. That’s as it should be.

Pagan scholars who are Pagan themselves are in a slightly strange position, academically speaking: they’re “insiders” to certain Pagan traditions, “outsiders” to others. An entire book, in fact, has been published just to talk about participant-observer methods and insider/outsider positioning in Paganism (Researching Paganisms). The insider-outsider spectrum is complex, and deserves its own post… as does the difference between religious studies, which traditionally uses an “outsider” method, and theology, which by definition is written by insiders. But more on that another day.

I’ll continue to unpack that complicated question of “What is theology?” (because it is not the same as religious studies!) in a later post. Today, I’m content to celebrate the warm communities of scholars I have access to, and also to invite you to join some of them.

In the spring, I’ll be teaching “Paganism and the Body” as an online course at Cherry Hill Seminary. It is a Master’s-level course that requires some previous training in theology or religious studies, but don’t despair if you’re not there yet—I plan to teach it every few years. Here’s the description:

Declaring that all acts of love and pleasure are the rituals of the Goddess, contemporary Pagans widely affirm the sacredness of the body and of sexuality. Students will engage with the-logical and ethical writings around gender, sexuality, and the body from Pagan and allied perspectives, such as Christian and post-Christian feminist and queer theologies. Special attention will be given to Pagan understandings of same-sex relationships, BDSM, polyamory, transgender, and other expressions of gender and sexuality that are marginalized by mainstream society. The role of gender polarity and sex magic in the Western esoteric tradition and its influences on religious witchcraft will also be considered. Students will examine their conceptions of gender and sexuality and develop their own the-logies of the body in a context that takes both personal liberation and social justice into account. Students will also consider the challenges and joys of ministering to a sexually diverse Pagan community and emerge better equipped to counsel their communities in ethical responsibilities around eroticism and touch.

Mine is not the only class available by far, though – in addition to the Master’s classes, there are also 4-week community classes for those looking for a smaller commitment. Click here for descriptions.

Also, Cherry Hill Seminary is holding an exciting conference on sacred places in April, with Ronald Hutton as keynote speaker! Paper proposals are being welcomed through January 1:

 We welcome papers that explore the following questions:

In today’s post-modern, urbanized world, where everything is a commodity, how and where do Pagans find their sacred places? How should we protect and maintain these sites? In colonized worlds, how do we avoid the appropriation of these lands? If Goddess is immanent in nature, what makes some places more sacred than others? How is our spirituality shaped by the land and our relationship with the land shaped by our spirituality?

Proposals of up to 1000 words are due by January 1, 2013 and may be uploaded at  http://www.cherryhillseminary.org/blog/announcements/call-for-papers/

The best scholarship happens in community. Won’t you join the conversation?