Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Overview of Modern Paganism in the US, University Friends Meeting Adult Religious Education, July 12, 2009

I was asked to give a presentation at the Adult Religious Education hour at University Friends Meeting on Paganism in general. This is in no way a comprehensive discussion of modern Paganism in the US. I have written this from my notes for that talk and from my recollection of it. An hour's time for presentation and discussion was, of course, too little for what I wanted to cover; and I had already cut quite a lot from my plan. The presentation went well, and the discussion was warm and rich.

I am deeply grateful to the International Pagan Pride Project for their existence, their work, and the resources they've made available over the years. I have been very privileged to be involved with the Mid-Atlantic Pagan Pride Project.

- sm

An Overview of Modern Paganism in the US
University Friends Meeting Adult Religious Education, July 12, 2009

We began with worship. I introduced myself and my talk. There were between 15 and 20 people attending.

Exercise: Tree of Life; Connecting with the Air, Fire, Water, Earth, and Goddess

I led the group through a Tree of Life meditation to ground and center, followed by an exercise to connect even more consciously with the elements and the Goddess. After the Tree of Life, I asked Friends to pay attention to their breath and their breathing; then to the air around us and the wind; to notice how it's all the same. I asked Friends to move a body part, any body part, and think about the energy, the firing of our neurons, required for that; about the food required for our energy; about the Sun needed to grow our food. We repeated this with water and earth.

Then I asked Friends, when they were ready, to open their eyes and look into the eyes of another person, and recognize and honor that of God, the Goddess-within, the Air, Fire, Water, Earth, and Spirit in that other person. (There were lots of smiles during this part, which I loved.)

What is a Pagan?

I passed out handout packets. We started with the Pagan Pride Project's "What is a Pagan?" and "Definition"; I walked folks through the main points, and added details from my own experience.

  • The Pagan Pride Project has a set of definitions they have worked out to help begin to answer this question.
  • Many people consider anyone who is not part of an Abrahamic religion to be Pagan, and any religion which is not Abrahamic to be Pagan.
  • While I know and have worked with people who fit almost all of PPP’s categories, I am most familiar with and can talk most intelligently about their last two: religion and spirituality that focus on the Divine Feminine and on the Earth. (My personal area is feminist Witchcraft & eco-feminsm.)
  • (There is information about some of the other categories on the PPP’s website, as I have noted on your handout.)

Paganism main points

The handouts I used here are Ceclyna and Dagonet Dewr's "Neo-Paganism -- the Divine in All Creation" and the Pagan Educational Network's "Paganism." Again, I highlighted some main points, adding details from my own experience.

  • “The Divine is in all creation and everything has Divinity within”
  • The interconnectedness of all life, of all beings
  • This is why many Pagans are environmentalists
  • An est’d 500,000 to 2.5 million Pagans in the US; why it's hard to get accurate numbers.
  • Many Pagan traditions emphasize personal and direct experience of the Divine, often as the Goddess and the God; some focus primarily on the Goddess
  • Many traditions focus on natural occurrences such as the cycle of the seasons (ie, The Wheel of the Year), moon phases, and births, deaths, and other stages of life (coming of age, first menstruation, menopause/croning)
  • Personal responsibility comes with direct experience of the Divine → Can’t hide behind what a charismatic leader tells you to do or not to do, to believe or not to believe
  • Like Quakerism, no dogma
  • There are Pagans from all walks of life; Paganism cuts across race and class
  • “Disorganized religion” → coherent, but not structured
  • How many Pagans talk about discovering Paganism in similar ways to how lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people talk about coming out -- "Oh, my gosh, there's a word for what I am," "There are other people like me," "There's a word for my experience," etc.


I wanted to talk about Witchcraft, as a specific example of one kind of Paganism, and as a kind folks in the Meeting were likely to have heard about (or have had experience with). I chose Reclaiming Tradition because there are active Reclaiming groups in the Seattle area, as well as active groups of Radical Faeries. I also chose Roses, Too! Tradition, since I knew folks in the Meeting may have been reading about it, and because I could talk about it intimately and intelligently. :)

Reclaiming Witchcraft - main points

From the Reclaiming Principles of Unity:

"The values of the Reclaiming tradition stem from our understanding that the Earth is alive and all of life is sacred and interconnected. We see the Goddess as immanent in the Earth's cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration. Our practice arises from a deep, spiritual commitment to the Earth, to healing and to the linking of magic with political action.

"Each of us embodies the divine. Our ultimate spiritual authority is within, and we need no other person to interpret the sacred to us. We foster the questioning attitude, and honor intellectual, spiritual and creative freedom.

"...We know that everyone can do the life-changing, world-renewing work of magic, the art of changing consciousness at will. We strive to teach and practice in ways that foster personal and collective empowerment, to model shared power and to open leadership roles to all. We make decisions by consensus, and balance individual autonomy with social responsibility."

Roses, Too! Tradition - main points

From Roses, Too! "Who We Are - About Roses, Too!":

"Roses, Too! Tradition is a tradition of eclectic feminist Witchcraft. We hold Sabbat potlucks and semi-open ritual, usually on the Saturday (or Sunday) closest to the holiday. Our spiritual backgrounds are diverse: Quaker, Pagan, Jewish, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Catholic, Atheist, and more. As Witches, some of the values we share are:
  • Respect and love for the Earth, for all living things, as the embodiment of That-Which-Is-Sacred – as the Goddess.
  • The courage and honesty to do hard spiritual and emotional work.
  • The compassion to support and bear witness to each other's work.
  • A commitment to justice and to non-violent political activism.
  • An understanding of magic as a way to create personal, political, and cultural change.
  • The recognition of the importance of play, silliness, and fun in what we do."

"Imagine a Woman" and "The Declaration of the Four Sacred Things"

I handed out Patricia Reilly's "Imagine a Woman" as an example of something that might be used in Goddess circles.

I also handed out Starhawk's "Declaration of the Four Sacred Things" as an example of something from Earth-centered tradition, that reaches across thea/ologies.

Why Pagan Pride?

I handed out the Pagan Pride Project's "Why Pagan Pride?," and talked about the discrimination I face every day as a Witch. This is a Meeting community that understands LGBTQ oppression and discrimination, so relating it to my experience as a lesbian, and the way PPP relates it to queer oppression and discrimination, made sense to them.

I also talked a little about being not just a religious minority, but a non-Abrahamic religious minority. For example, as someone who's part Jewish, sometimes members of the dominant religion in the US tell me they can relate to me because their God the Father is the same as the God of their Old Testament. But as a Witch, as someone who works with the Goddess, I'm just a heretic to them (whereas, as a Jew, I just haven't progressed to Christianity yet).

Working with children, teenagers, or young adults

I asked how many people teach or work with children, teenagers, or young adults, in their professional work, their work in the Meeting, or elsewhere. Many hands went up. I called their attention to the handout "You Have a Pagan Student in Your School - A Guide for Educators," which was part of their packet.

Q&A and discussion

I started this with the question for the group: "If, to you, the Divine is immanent, is present in the world, is something you can experience directly, what are some things you would believe? What are some ways you would act?"

Discussion was warm and rich, with many Friends bringing their own experience to each others' questions.


Books I mentioned during discussion

Based on our conversation, there were four books I mentioned:

If you decide to purchase any of these books, please do so from the publisher or from an independent bookseller. To find one near you, click here.



Here are the handouts I used:


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a good discussion and I am sorry to have missed it. I will be there this Sunday (8/2) though. I'm saving your links for some of my independent study research. - Laura

staśa said...

It was good. And thanks so much for being there for that part of Meeting for Worship for Business. :) I heard a little from Sharon about the discussion. And it was lovely to see you!

I hope some of the links will be helpful! And I look forward to hearing more about your independent study research.