The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma

Modern religions that are derived from or inspired by the indigenous polytheistic traditions of Europe (I’ll call them Neopagan) have experienced a great resurgence in the last couple of hundred years, and especially in the last fifty or so. This is surprising, because prior to that, everyone pretty much thought they were gone for good.

erinpavlinainterviewTheir decline started with the influx of Christianity during the time of the Roman Empire, and during the early middle ages they were effectively erased. Of course, undercurrents of pagan-inspired culture and thought could not be removed entirely, and frequently survived as superstitions, holiday traditions, or even dressed-up church doctrine; but certainly as living, growing, open traditions, they were finished. It was only when Western thought was loosened up by the Renaissance, and given wings in the ages of Reason and the Enlightenment, that it became more socially acceptable for people in Europe to start poking around with non-Christian belief systems again. Alongside atheism, agnosticism, and non-specific spiritualities, Neopaganism became more popular as Christianity lost its grip on philosophy.

Nowadays there are more pagans in Western society than there have been for fifteen hundred years, but there still aren’t very many. suggests that there might be about three million of us worldwide — slightly larger than the population of Chicago, but not as big as Los Angeles. Anecdotal evidence suggests that our numbers continue to grow, fueled especially by the educational and networking opportunities created by the internet, but how fast we’re growing is anybody’s guess.

Predicting the future of the movement — given the uncertainties of its current situation, the complexities of the social forces in the world today, the unknown effects of technology, and the unfathomable purposes of the gods themselves — is surely a fool’s errand. Only an idiot would even attempt it.

So I figured I’d give it a shot.

The Tools of Prognostication

In other articles I’ve written at some length about the similarities between religion and language. While the correspondences between them are not perfect, there are a lot of common features. Thus:

  • They’re both frequently associated with ethnic groups
  • They are learned by children and used throughout life (and the one you learn in childhood has a powerful effect on how you learn others as an adult)
  • They are distinctive, both defining and defined by the cultures that use them
  • They are uniquely human
  • They change over time.

If you look deeper, you see even more similarities. A language, after all, is not just a list of words; it also consists of rules governing how those words may be combined to create meaning. Similarly, a religion defines a set of rules governing interactions between humanity and Spirit. A speech act (like a sentence) is rule-governed behavior; the rules of the language define which words are allowed, how you can put them together, and what they mean when you follow the rules. A religious act is similarly rule-governed – the religion defines the underlying concepts and tenets that must be accepted, the actions required for a ritual, and what it all means.

The nice thing about this analogy is that a lot more is known about language than is known about religion. For example, sociolinguistics — the study of language in society — and historical linguistics — the study of language change over time — are well-developed fields, with excellent track records. It might be worthwhile to take some insights from these studies and see if we can apply them to the social status and development of Neopaganism.

Prestige and Stigma

Predicting the future of language development is not a simple matter, but there are some basic factors that we know have a lot of influence on the process. Without doubt, the very best predictor of the health of a language is the social status of its speakers. If the language is spoken by people with prestige — whether it be government officials, popular leaders, rock stars, whatever — the language has a bright future. If not, the language will likely be crowded out by competitors that are spoken by prestigious speakers.

A variation on this theme is the prestige of the language itself. Sometimes, using a language or dialect confers prestige on the speaker — e.g. using a British accent in America, or Latin in the Roman Empire. The opposite is also true, of course: some languages or dialects are stigmatized, and stigmatize their speakers — e.g. the Southern American accent. Of course, some languages may be prestigious in some societies and stigmatized in others, e.g. Black English (African-American Vernacular English). All other things being equal, a language will grow in socieities in which it is prestigious, and shrink in societies in which it is stigmatized.

Note that “society” here can be defined along geographical lines, class lines, racial and ethnic lines, etc. A single language may be shrinking in a geographical area, while growing in certain class strata.

Thus: to predict the future of a religion, we should look at the extent to which it is practiced publicly by prestigious individuals. We should also look at the extent to which the religion is itself prestigious, or stigmatized.

Example: Christianity in the Roman Era

Let’s take an example that might seem to be a counterexample at first blush. In the first three centuries AD, Christianity went from a fringe religion — unofficial and definitely stigmatized — to the dominant, official religion of the Roman Empire. How did this happen? According to the model I’ve outlined so far, Christianity should never have spread outside of Judea.

The Romans were extremely tolerant of other religions — generally, foreign pantheons were simply “mapped” to existing or known Roman dieties, and religious observances were permitted to go on according to local custom. In fact, religious observance was considered essential to the cohesion of society and the state. Christianity, which was quite explicitly anti-state (not least because the Roman Emperor was not worshipped), was therefore officially stigmatized.

It has been claimed (mostly in history books that are rather out-of-date now) that Christianity replaced paganism in the Empire because paganism was “tired”, or because people were generally skeptical of it anyway and were looking for something new, or because people were impressed by the faith of the martyred Chrisitians. Given the extremely slow advance of Christianity in the Empire (380 years before it became official, at which time pagans still outnumbered Christians in the Empire, and many many more years before paganism was eradicated, as shown by the need for draconian laws against paganism over the next hundred years), these explanations seem unlikely.

A more likely explanation is that, along a different social dimension, Christianity was actually prestigious.

Among those who were dissatisfied with Roman rule — of which there were quite a number — Christianity represented a principled rejection of the Emperor, who was officially a god. Growth of Christianity among this group was extremely slow, especially during the first couple of hundred years, during which the Empire was strongest; but as the troubles grew, and the Empire weakened through internal and external strife, Christianity locked into the dissatisfaction and became more popular.

It was not until the early 300’s that Christianity was fully legalized, and 50 years later it was the official state religion. This did not mean that Christianity was accepted by the entire population of the Empire; on the contrary, the Empire had a great deal of trouble to stamp out pagan practices in its territory. However, it was necessary to do so. The Emperor was no longer officially a god himself, so where did his right to rule come from? From the claim that he was appointed by God, and the blessing of the Pope; so the citizenry had to accept Christianity to recognize his divine right to rule. At this point, with social prestige of the highest order, the spread of Christianity throughout Roman lands (and wherever Roman armies marched, and wherever Roman culture was esteemed) was assured.

In the next article in this series, I’ll take the prestige/stigma model and look at Neopaganism today. (Sneak Preview: by these measures, Neopaganism is in trouble.)


10 responses to “The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma”

  1. Neopaganism is in trouble?

    Not from where I am looking…

    Just as Christianity grew out of the political undercurrents of Rome, I see paganism growing out of the political undercurrents of the United States.

    In Rome, religion and politics were closely married. If someone wanted to make a political statement, they must also have made a religious statement… After all, if they were going against the current Caesar, then they were also going against the gods. Rome’s practice of pairing local gods with Roman gods helped to defend Rome’s political structure from religious strife, but it also ensured that any political strife hurt the pantheon-based religions.

    In the United States, Christianity is re-entrenching itself within politics… I believe that this would be a devastating move. Also, many of the roles are completely reversed… The pendulum has swung, lost its momentum, and is beginning to return.

    In the Roman times, most pagan religions were fear-based. That is, the gods could and would visit plague, famine, death, or all manner of discomfort upon you at any time with little provocation. By following the will of the gods, you avoided suffering… Also, those who suffered were, by extension, people who didn’t follow the gods.

    Ancient Christianity was a hope-based religion. Its central theme was loving your neighbor, helping your community, volunteering, and all of that pinko-commie liberal Democratic stuff. One revolutionary, radical idea that Christianity presented was that bad things can happen to good people without making them social outcasts… Martyrdom became acceptable because suffering in life did not equate to being hated by the gods… The suffering that you could withstand during life helped prove your worthiness and assure a better place in the afterlife.

    This came with a terrible trade-off, though. Rather than abolish the source of fear inherent in religions of the time, it simply postponed the fear. Suffering today might not be the result of the disfavor of the gods, but if you fell into God’s disfavor, then you would be damned to Hell. The pagans of the time didn’t have an analogy to Hell… Everybody went to the same afterlife, no matter how good the person was. If a person was born noble, they got a better afterlife, but that was pretty much the only distinction between any type of afterlife… They were given a mansion, instead of a hovel, but they were still in the same place.

    I believe that the only reason why Christianity survived the Dark Ages is because it was literally a dark age… Ice core samples of the Dark Ages showed a marked decrease in plant growth worldwide, which would have led to famine. During times of famine, people are reluctant to go against their governments, and by this time, Christianity was the religion of the upper class. It is only during times of prolonged prosperity that a society can change its religion or underlying political structure… The American Revolution was an example of both, riding after Britain’s global expansion… The political results are obvious, but few people realize that the founding fathers of the U.S. were not Christian… they were Deists, very similar to the Universalists of today… And, for the first time in centuries, religion was removed from government.

    After the American Revolution, Christianity worked its way back in to politics as the birthing pains of a new nation began to grow more severe. Christianity took a bold step forward during the Civil War, even being as bold as to have put the words “In God We Trust” on a few coins. After the Civil War, and as America continued to prosper, Christianity once again took a back seat, except in the South, which had extremely severe economic blocks put on it after the war. By and large, Christianity only made slow advances back into our government up until WWII, continuing into the Cold War, when fear was easy to spread, and the words “In God We Trust” appeared on our money again.

    Christianity’s quest for political power may be its undoing. Despite predictions of doom and gloom, technology has improved our standard of life far beyond anything seen in recorded history, and this acceleration of our rising standards continues to increase. Political revolution, in a form never seen before, is inevitable, though fortunately, I believe that it will be a non-violent revolution. As people have continued prosperity, they will continue to see any setbacks as a result of their nearest scapegoats: their leaders. The more openly Christian politicians there are, the more the stigma against Christianity will grow among the political counter-cultures. When the revolution hits, and the political counter-culture assumes power, Christianity will suffer the same crippling blow that Paganism suffered under Rome.

    Modern Paganism seems to be the most likely candidate for a majority religion after the political revolution, because it is not fear based. Buddhism is also another highly likely candidate… I would conjecture that any religion which has a place of eternal suffering will fall along with Christianity… Probably the entire Abrahamic triad will fall in a matter of decades, or at the very least, suffer fatal wounds. Neopagans have adopted the ancient Christian idea that bad things happen to good people… We call it essential lessons, although the Wiccan version of Karma could cause a lot of trouble further down the line, since it is a hook back to fear-based religions. Any extra reward for piousness also implies extra punishment for the non-pious. We’ve seen what that gets us, time and time again.

    What is my prediction for paganism?

    It will grow. Hopefully, it will obtain a marginal majority, or a close minority to other hope-based religions. More than likely, it will settle in with 25% of the religious population before (voluntarily) merging with other hope-based religions.

    Then, humanity will reach another limit… famine will spread and people will become far more subservient than they are now. The fear elements of the majority religion will strangle out any of the good elements, leaving us in the same situation we’re in now. The displaced religions will sit in the background, slowly dieing out and leaving highly edited records, so that when humanity expands again, we’ll see the broken, partial records and revive what we can. Religion, like so many other things in society, is a pendulum, and its nature is to swing.

    Sorry for the micro-novel… 😉


  2. Excellent posts, both! To add a tiny bit to the discussion (I’m going to withhold most of my commentary until Part 2, when I can see more fully where this is headed) –
    Adam said, Buddhism is also another highly likely candidate

    I’d have to concur, and even go a bit farther: I believe in the short to possibly medium term, Buddhism would benefit even more than Paganism from any sort of (still highly unlikely, IM current O) collapse of Christianity. It has high prestige among the privileged classes (particularly celebrities, which contributes to additional aceptance among many in the less-privileged classes) and it is perceived less negatively by a broad spectrum of the American public …partly, I’m sure, because it’s not explicitly condemned in the Bible. *shrug*

    I think the continued growth and exposure of the Engaged Buddhism movement will also help Buddhism to flourish here for the foreseeable future – it fits right in with our cultural impulse toward charitable works.


    PS – Jeff, have you seen Robert Place’s Buddha Tarot? I thought the concept was a bit odd at first, but if you read the companion volume, he makes a very interesting case for parallels between the alchemical journey he sees laid out in the Majors and the canonical life of the Buddha. Thought you might find it interesting; it’s certainly been speaking to me recently.


  3. Jeff,
    Thank you for taking on such an ambitious conversation — as always a welcome high-level, high-brow intellectual discussion in a topic area that’s become a sea of watered-down “How to Be A Witch” titles.

    I always appreciate your sophisticated and academic approach. You raise the bar…

    What an excellent juicy comment from Adam to get the discussion rolling! I tend to agree with his assessment of politics and pendulums swinging… But I also think that generally, as human beings, we are always moving toward a greater variety of hybrid faiths — the diversity and options and specialization available in the “long tail” while the center grows toward a homogeneity that is a stew of all these elements melted together…

    Anyway, as someone whose faith community has been neopagan for a few decades now, it is easy to see the growth and the development in my local experience, but I realized I don’t necessarily have a frame of reference for how that’s playing out in larger populations. Thanks for the perspective!


  4. I have been totally bogged down with work for the past few days, or I would have engaged this conversation a lot sooner!!

    Adam, you have a fascinating analysis of Christianity’s political entrenchment here. You’re certainly correct, I think, that the more Christianity ties itself to the American hegemony, the more it will suffer when that hegemony fails. However, you have to remember that Christianity is now not a unified religion, but a loose collection of very different faiths, some of which have a lot of political clout, and many of which don’t. Also, there are plenty of Christians trying to disassociate themselves from the party in power, successfully I think (consider the recent very public comments of Rev. Wright!) and I personally doubt that the coming collapse will stigmatize Christianity enough to destroy it. So I see Christianity continuing to have a lot of prestige, and a lot of adherents, for the foreseeable future.

    As for the hope/fear dimension, that’s an interesting distinction, and I agree it’s probably a good predictor of how well a religion will mesh with government control (ie fear-based religions will do a better job meshing with governments). However, there are many factions of Christianity working on returning to its hope-based roots; and so a collapse of the government may destroy the fear-based version of Christianity, rather than the hope-based version.

    And it’s worth remembering that even if Christianity were to be totally stigmatized and destroyed, there are many, many competing religions that can rise to take its place. Buddhism is just one of them, which happens to have a great deal of prestige; there is also Native American spirituality (and various spinoffs), atheism, agnosticism, more-or-less-vague notions of New Age spiritualism, and on and on. Who’s to say which, if any, would win out?


  5. Erik, thanks for your good points about Buddhism and your pointers to that deck! I haven’t seen it before — it looks awesome!


  6. Slade, thanks for your kind words! I think you’ll be very interested to see what my final conclusions are.


  7. […] « The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma […]


  8. […] I wrote at length about the future of religion, and I argued that we are seeing a movement towards more organic religions — polytheistic in […]


  9. […] games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens […]


  10. […] Jeff Lilly (2008), “The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma”. Druid Journal. […]


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