The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic

In the previous post, I outlined a model of prestige and stigma which predicts whether a language or religion will grow or wither in a society. Now let’s take the prestige/stigma model and look at Neopaganism today. By these measures, Neopaganism is in trouble.

Stigmatized Neopaganism

ire2Imagine trying to revive the Latin language. Imagine speaking it at home, teaching it to your children, seeking out Latin translations of modern works, and using it instead of English whenever you could. What would your friends and neighbors think? Do you think lots of people would jump on the bandwagon with you? Do you think that the revived Latin movement — “Neolatinism” — would have much of a future in your society? There are no celebrities speaking Latin on TV. There are no government officials speaking Latin in press conferences. Latin is stigmatized as a dead language with no future; why would anyone want to learn it?

If the analogy between religion and language holds, Neopaganism is in exactly the same situation as Neolatinism would be.

Firstly, there are of course very few figures in public life in the West who are openly pagan. There are some lesser-known rock bands, some lesser-known actors and actresses… But no one who is likely to affect public perception in any great way. Certainly there are no open pagans in the US government; such a thing would probably be even more abhorrent than homosexuality to America’s heartland. Matters are a little better in Britain — William Roache I believe is a druid, and the population in general is more open-minded about these matters — but the outlook is still bleak.

Is Neopaganism prestigious? If so, I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Even liberal, socially sensitive individuals have been known to casually and thoughtlessly disparage paganism as one practiced by uneducated or uncivilized people. And here in open-minded western Massachusetts, people who learn of my religion usually respond with something like “What? Why?”, wearing an expression of barely-concealed incredulous astonishment. For most people, the idea of believing in Zeus, Odin, or the Goddess is not just stigmatized, it’s patently absurd.

And Neopaganism is not associated with any larger anti-establishment movement, as Christianity came to be in the Roman Empire. There are plenty of anti-establishment movements in the world today, and they’re associated with a multitude of belief systems, many of which are in fact varieties of Christianity. It’s true that there’s apocryphal evidence that Neopaganism enjoys some cachet among those who want to rebel against the more stolid forms of Christianity, but the same can be said of Satanism and atheism; and anyway that kind of conversion tends to die with age and experience, alongside the desire to shock your parents.

So the outlook for Neopaganism looks very bad indeed. And yet…

And yet…

…And yet Neopaganism is growing. In fact, growth figures from surveys and censuses (censi?) in Ausrtalia and the UK indicate that the growth rate is very fast. In 2006, for example, one survey in Australia reported a stunning growth rate of about 130% — far beyond any other religion in the country — although other figures indicate more modest (but still impressive) growth. Numbers for the US are harder to come by, but the most conservative estimates peg us at about a million adherents, orders of magnitude above what it was a few decades ago.

So the religion/language analogy seems to predict that Neopaganism should be dying the death of minority languages everywhere; but instead it appears to be growing rapidly. In fact, for three hundred years, paganism has been slowly staging a revival in the West even as Christianity has lost its status as The Religion of the state and the culture. How can this be?

Well, either the religion/language analogy is imperfect in this respect, or something deeper is going on.

Not All Religions are Created Equal

I tend to think it’s unlikely that the religion/language analogy has broken down here. After all, the generalization we’re extending — that both religion and language grow and spread, or wither and die, based on prestige and stigmatism — doesn’t only apply to these social constructs; it applies to all social constructs. Whether it’s a new hairstyle, a popular jacket, or a new catchphrase, stigma kills and prestige enlivens. So there’s no reason to think that religion is any different.

I suggest a closer look at the religion/language analogy. As I’ve written about elsewhere, not all languages are the same, and not all religions are the same. For example, in this earlier post, I tried to motivate a distinction between older, organic religions and newer, revealed religions. In brief:

Organic religions tend to be:

  • very very old (usually too ancient to even date)
  • polytheistic
  • frequently non-dogmatic and self-contradictory
  • incorporating elements of shamanism and animism
  • reflecting elements borrowed from other religions in contact situations
  • comfortable to the human mind and instinctively learned by children
  • representing the accreted wisdom of hundreds of generations of a culture

Revealed religions tend to be:

  • relatively young (8000 years or less)
  • mono- or duotheistic or even atheistic
  • frequently written down and codified
  • sometimes arcane in theory, and unintuitive to children
  • representing the wisdom of a small number of individuals who have received divine insight

In terms of the religion/language analogy, organic religions are much like human languages, which are also generally extremely old, full of exceptions and self-contradictions built up over eons of linguistic contact, learned easily by children, and enriched by generations of poets and speakers. Revealed religions are more like constructed languages, such as computer languages or Lojban, being young, rigorous and self-consistent, codified and pure, learned with difficulty by children, and usually created by a small number of people. Note that this isn’t a cut-and-dried distinction: as a religion (or a language) ages, it will tend to become less “revealed” and more “organic” in character, although this can be mitigated by written rules that are preserved for generations (e.g. the Bible, Webster’s).

The Fall of Latin

Now consider what happened when Latin lost its place of pre-eminence among the literate class of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Latin is a natural language, but by the 1600s, it was used only in a fossilized, rigid, strict form modeled after the language of Cicero and other classical writers. With the Reformation, and the damaged reputation of the Catholic church, Latin was taken down from its perch, and the new national languages of Europe rose up to replace it — despite the fact that fossilized Latin was prestigious, easy (for adults) to learn, already known to all literate adults, and served as a very effective lingua franca. When Latin was no longer enforced by the church, all these advantages were tossed aside… because the natural languages were easier.

Around the same time that Latin lost its official sanction, a revolution was occurring in European education. The proportion of the population that wanted to be educated and literate (and could afford to pay for the privilege) was expanding rapidly, and new schools were opening across the continent to serve the need. In these new schools, Latin wasn’t the core of the entire curriculum, as it had been in Europe for a thousand years. Instead, classes were taught in the new national languages, because it was so much easier and faster. And who really needed Latin anyway? Sure, there was plenty of sentimental attachment to Latin, and there were two thousand years of classic works of science, religion, and esoteric learning written in Latin sitting in European libraries and monasteries. But for the average moderately wealthy European paying through the nose for every hour of education, Latin just wasn’t worth the investment.

The Fall of Christianity?

So if I’m right, as Christianity is falling from the official halls of power — as it is no longer taught in schools, and as church non-attendance loses its social stigma — there is a rising demand for simpler, more intuitive religious systems. This doesn’t mean paganism specifically; but it does mean organic — intuitive, without a lot of dogma, great stories that children love, and polytheistic — in feel, if not in absolute fact. Notice that in many American families that have abandoned Christianity, they still put up Christmas trees, hide Easter eggs, and so forth. For the young children in the household, the “religion” they’re being raised with has a polytheistic feel (Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost), and it resonates with them. Among adults, the organic religions now rising include the whole kaleidoscope of New Age belief, as well as the many people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”.

This is not to say that Christianity is as doomed as Latin was. On the contrary: Christianity will grow and thrive to the extent that it adapts to become more organic. Organic forms of Christianity — non-dogmatic, intuitive forms — should do quite well in this environment. I also think that varieties with an air of polytheism will grow — i.e. those that offer an emphasis on angels, saints, or other guardian spirits.

The Organic (Religion) Marketplace

Of course, the religion/language analogy does break down, and it breaks because religion is not just a language spoken between individuals, but a language spoken between individuals and Spirit. A religion can be living, thriving, even if it has only one human “speaker”, because Spirit “speaks” the language as well; and everyone can create their own individual Language of Spirit. My guess is that Christianity and the religions that ‘compete’ with it will grow into a state of dynamic equilibrium, not unlike the languages of modern Europe, in which one sees coexistance, contact, exchange, and mutual enrichment. Christianity may maintain a position rather like English and French do in Europe — a sort of dogma franca: everyone will be familiar with its basic tenets, and it may serve as a common point of comparison. But there is no danger of it taking over the whole society again.

So in my view, the relaxation of Christian hegemony, which has allowed Neopaganism and other belief systems to revive and grow, will not result in the destruction of Christianity, nor yet the triumph of pagan religions. Instead, we are seeing a religious Renaissance, in which the explosive growth of belief systems is akin to the multiplication of languages at the Tower of Babel. And just as at the Tower, the religious community in the West has splintered, and will continue to splinter. But because Spirit speaks to all, the religious Renaissance need not isolate individuals from each other. Instead, by strengthening the relationship between the individual and the Eternal, the Renaissance will in turn build and strengthen relations between individuals and religions. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.


17 responses to “The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic”

  1. What exactly is “neo-paganism?”
    Can I assume from your title that it has something to do with ancient Celtic religion?
    Where do you practice these “neo-paganism” beliefs?


  2. Sagacious Hillbilly, thanks for dropping by! It sounds like my blog is starting to reach outside the neopagan community. 🙂

    Neopagan religions are modern religions that are derived from or inspired by the indigenous polytheistic traditions of Europe. This includes Celtic religion, as you say, as well as Norse, Hellene, Roman, and others. It also includes religions that are less directly tied to a specific European culture; Wicca is in that category. For more, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

    As for where we practice: mostly at home (we live in the mountains of western Massachusetts) and sometimes with other druids and other kinds of pagans in the community. We don’t practice in secret, or surreptitiously.


  3. Enjoyed the last 2 posts. Very thoughtful and interesting. Your’re right-we could certainly use a pagan celebrity–or would that just make it worse!?


  4. Thanks, Riverwolf! I had a lot of fun putting them together.

    I’d guess that the effect of a pagan celebrity would depend on the celebrity. Being associated with counterculture figures like rock stars and action movie stars probably wouldn’t be as effective as, say, television news anchors, soap opera stars, business and tech leaders, and (shudder!) politicians.

    A very useful analogy can be drawn with the homosexual movement. Remember when it was discovered that Rock Hudson was gay? What a bombshell! Because he was one of those respected, beloved, establishment-type actors. Now imagine George Clooney giving a respectable face to, say, Wicca.

    I don’t even know if I can imagine that. Maybe it would just be like Tom Cruise and Scientology: instead of Cruise giving respectability to the religion, the religion gives kookiness to Cruise…


  5. There are probably more pagans out there than the rest of us realize. Guess they just keep it quiet in order to live in peace.


  6. Love these posts Jeff…

    Can’t remember where I read it… some novel… but the meaning of life was distilled as the movement towards elegant simplicity of function.

    So if the function of religion is to connect us to the Divine, then what is the most elegant and simplest expression of this?




  7. kl,
    I’d say not necessarily neopaganism per se, but definitely a spirituality that recognizes the Divine in/as the universe (including ourselves). And yes, right now, in the West, that’s mainly (but not entirely) paganism of one form or another.


  8. Erik,

    I like your broader definition.

    Perhaps in recognising that We are the Divine, ‘religion’ ceases to exist as we’ve known it, because we no longer need a path to God. We are God…

    Instead, as God would, we show reverence for Life in all it’s many forms, seeing the Sacred in All.


  9. […] This is the sort of thing that I think Jeff Lilly was talking about recently in his posts on “organic religion” and the future of […]


  10. Very interesting blogpost.

    You say that “Neopaganism is not associated with any larger anti-establishment movement” – what about feminism and environmentalism? Obviously the overlap is not total, but it is sizeable.

    I can’t think of any duotheistic revealed religions – unless you’re referring to Wicca, which I would very much place in the organic category.

    Another aspect of the religion/language analogy could be dogma and grammar. English is successful as a language because it has minimal rules of grammar; maybe Paganism is successful because it has minimal dogma.

    Have you read The Spiritual Revolution by Paul heelas and Linda Woodhead? Well wortha read, and bears out your point about organic versus constructed, in a way.


  11. Yvonne, it’s true what you say about Wicca’s overlap with these larger movements, and I have no doubt that as these movements become stronger, Wicca will as well.

    I also definitely agree that Wicca is not a revealed religion. It’s a lot more like a creole, which I’d love to write about sometime. Arguably Zoroastrianism, which is a revealed tradition, has a duotheistic character, but then again, arguably not. 🙂

    Very interesting point about dogma. I don’t agree that English’s success has a lot to do with its rules of grammar; I think it has a lot more to do with the success of the armies of the English-speaking peoples. And while English does have minimal morphology (word endings and such), it does have a grammar that is quite complex in places (consider the rules governing the placement and meaning of have, be, had, been, being, should, might, may, etc.). Plus it can be quite hard to pronounce: the vowels are hard to say properly, and there a so many of them that it’s frequently hard for learners to hear the distinctions between them. In addition, the sounds represented by ‘th’ are very difficult to pronounce. That said, I would totally agree that the lack of dogma in paganism has been a major factor in its growth!

    I haven’t read The Spiritual Revolution, but I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks!!


  12. Yes I agree about the pronunciation being hard, particularly its inconsistency (e.g. though, rough, cough, thorough, bough etc). I was thinking more of the simplicity of the verb endings, the lack of gendered nouns, and so on.

    Of course it may be more to do with the territories conquered by the English-speaking peoples, but I suspect it also has to do with economic factors (Jared Diamond talks about the spread of languages through trade in Guns, Germs and Steel).

    Islam, Buddhism and Christianity all spread on the backs of empires; what is fascinating about the spread of contemporary Paganism is that it is not spread by an empire (unless it’s riding on the back of the success of English, since most of the books about it are in English, that makes English a pre-requisite). I think it also has to do with the fact that Paganism, being non-creedal (and long may it remain so) doesn’t require you to leave your brain at the door before joining.


  13. I forgot that Diamond talks about the spread of languages in his book. I will have to go back and look at that again…

    It is very nice that Paganism isn’t being spread by the sword, and you get to use your brain! 🙂 Just to play devil’s advocate, though (joke intended), Mormonism has experienced a tremendous growth in the last 50 years, worldwide; and Buddhism has also grown a great deal in the US… I guess I’m saying that the amount of creed you have to swallow might not be as relevant as other factors.


  14. Re:

    “Paganism, being non-creedal (and long may it remain so) doesn’t require you to leave your brain at the door before joining” …

    At least some Pagans (not you, Jeff!) seem pretty darned “creedal” to me (admittedly, on this matter I speak *only* as an outsider trying to educate herself: on the principle of “know-thy-neighbor”). At least, they seem to have mental lists (often fairly *long* mental lists) of things that one “had to” think/believe/feel/do in order to become or remain a true Pagan (or, at least, to become/remain one of their particular kind of Pagan). The ways in which these particular Pagans described their particular “musts”/ lores/traditions seemed (to me) definitely describable as creedal (even though the same folks explaining all this strongly objected to the word “creed” …in the very same way that various much quite a few Christian creedal sects describe themselves as non-creedal — e.g., the Christian Scientists love to call themselves “a church without a creed” but you definitely have to learn and live by their creedal precepts if you want to become/remain a member.)


  15. Re:

    “For the young children in the [average American] household, the ‘religion’ they’re being raised with has a polytheistic feel (Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost), and it resonates with them.”

    Generally, but not always — it certainly didn’t resonate with *me*!
    (*much* to the chagrin and frustration of my parents: I enjoyed getting presents, but neither Mom nor Dad nor my siblings nor I can remember me ever “buying into” Santa _et_al._)


  16. Kate — In fact, my mother felt the same as you. And as soon as she was sure these beings were mythical, she immediately concluded that God was mythical as well, and hasn’t been theist since.

    So I’ll definitely go along with your “generally” modification. 🙂


  17. […] Lilly (2008), “The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic”. Druid Journal. […]


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