Paganism in America: Misunderstandings, Controversy, and Mainstream Conflicts
What is Paganism? There are countless definitions of this, or rather these, minority groups. The part of speech these is used, because Paganism is in its most basic sense an umbrella term used to describe religions such as Wicca, Druidism, Asatrú, and ancient cultural Pagan reconstructionist faiths. One views the diversity among the very definition of the term Paganism by looking up the term from a Pagan source, and then looking up the term from a non – Pagan source. According to Scott Cunningham, who is heralded as one of the foremost important authors in the Pagan path, a Pagan is “from the Latin paganus, country – dweller. Today used as a general term for followers of Wiccan and other magical, shamanistic and polytheistic religions.
Naturally, Christians have their own peculiar definition of this word. It can be interchanged with Neo – Pagan (Cunningham 200) .” However, a non – Pagan, and more specifically, a definition clearly derived from Christianity’s impact on Western Europe and the United States is “a person not subscribing to any major or recognized religion, esp. the dominant religion of a particular society; spec. a heathen, a non – Christian, esp. considered as savage, uncivilized, etc (pagan, n. and adj., Oxford English Dictionary) , ” which can be found in the 2010 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
This is indeed peculiar, as Cunningham stated in his definition. The main issue facing this description is that it highlights the implications the non – Pagan source that is the OED has on currently practicing Pagans. That is, what type of impact Pagans face day to day with a leading source of direct, resolute, definitions found in books such as the OED. This definition is the tip of the iceberg in the American Christian and political conservatives’ conflict with Pagans.
A look must first be taken at the first amendment right to practice religions in order to understand the dilemma faced by Pagans. The amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… ” (Fathers) which translates to most Americans that not only can Congress not establish any type of state religion, but that they constitutionally cannot block the free exercise of any one particular religion. However, this is amendment is seemingly not inclusive of all. Pagans face discrimination in the workplace, at their homes, their places of business, against their children, and most of this comes from the deeply embedded Christian principles most citizens believe America was founded on.
This often creates legal problems for Pagans tried in courts with cases directly tied to obvious discrimination against their religion. It must be realized that Paganism is a rapidly growing group of religions in the United States. The brief history of Paganism in the U.S, its tensions with Christianity, and the legality of its many religions in relation to Christianity in America shall be discussed. What Paganism is in relation to mainstream religions is paramount in understanding why there is a growing tension among them and mainstream Christian groups. Ultimately, a goal on how to address and dissolve this conflict will be looked at lastly.
Paganism grew within the United States in the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s, and has been blossoming ever since. This started with the influence of key leaders in the early Earth – Religion movements, such as Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca. This was spurred on by writers such as Margot Adler, who’s “Drawing Down the Moon” is still read and looked upon today by Pagans as a guide to the past of American Paganism, and where it may be headed in the future. According to Adler,
“Most neo – Pagans sense and aliveness and presence in nature. They are usually polytheists or animists or pantheists, or two or three of these things at once. They share a goal of living in harmony with nature and they tend to view humanity’s advancement and separation from nature as the primes source of alienation. They see rituals as a tool to end that alienation. Most neo – Pagans look to the old pre – Christian nature religions of Europe, the ecstatic religions, and the mystery traditions as a source of inspiration and nourishment. They gravitate to ancient symbols and ancient myths, to the old polytheistic religions of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Celts, and the Sumerians (Adler 4) .”
This holds true today, in the year 2010. Although the first copy of Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon was written in the late 1970’s, this revised addition is testament to the evolving growth in numbers of Pagans/Neo – Pagans, but also to the fundamental values Pagans held and still hold to in the modern age.
Although at first glance these practitioners seem to be nothing more than reconstructionists of ancient cultural practices, the fact that many of these people find daily conflict with America’s main religious groups, Christianity, illuminates that there is a tension between the two. The main tensions faced by today’s Pagans with Christians come in the form of what the writer coins to be ‘domestic conflict, ’ or conflict that deals with the day to day life and livelihood of the subject. Also, there are no ‘manageable models, ’ a term coined by Diana Eck, meaning a model on which to base a fair and equal comparison of the two religious groups.
Currently, “the most contentious issues arise from the desires of some practitioners to flaunt their alternative behavior and exhibit their religion as counter cultural on one hand, and those who are more concerned with fostering mainstream acceptance and pursuing legal rights and protections on the other…Pagan[s] struggle to control how others perceive their religion (Davy 183) .”
Clearly, Pagans struggle with the way they are perceived because of the mystery nature of the majority of their religious practices, as well as with individuals within the Pagan movement that wishes to be gaudy and flashy with their religion. These particular individuals, along with those who commit acts of horror such as murder in the name of their particular Pagan religion, are the same individuals making Pagans who are honest, law abiding citizens look like horrible people that should be feared and in some cases, attacked.
While most Pagans and Christians living within the same area normally lead peaceful, non – violent lives, in some cases it has been found that Christians take it upon themselves to demonize and denounce the practices and practitioners of Pagan religions. Many Christian authors have written several books within the last two or three decades which denounce Paganism, and “condemn the rising popularity of modern Paganism as an insidious threat to morality and civilization (Strmiska 8) .”
Here one observes two things: one, that modern Paganism is something that should be condemned, and two, that it is an insidious threat to morality and civilization. There are several cases where this form of thinking through the lens of one’s own faith rather than attempting to understand the other is played out in the form of domestic conflict.
For those who practice a minority religion such as Wicca or Druidism within Paganism, “[they] can be assured of little protection under the Free Exercise Clause, unless the law harming them has clearly and unequivocally targeted their particular religion (Barner – Barry 23) .” For example, in Beaumont, Texas, a reverend of a Unitarian Universalist church and his congregants were explicitly harassed at a meeting they had called within the community. The purpose of this meeting was to answer any questions had by the community about Paganism because of recent allegations of abuse against children during a Pagan festival. This abuse was alleged because a group of children found out that some congregants of the church were indeed Pagan, and the police were soon brought in because the parents of some children stated that their children must have been harmed by the Pagans they spoke with.
During this meeting, the explanations of Paganism were soon silenced by police harassment, and the Pagans who remained after their pastor was removed for refusing to be silent were surrounded by Christians agreeing with their sheriff deputy. Not only was this deputy abusing his power, but he stated that he was “[a] Christian policeman…not going to tolerate Pagan religious practices (Barner – Barry 65) , ” which clearly demonstrates the abuse of the religious majority (and abuse of a position of power, in this case the police) overriding the Constitutional rights to practice religion of the minority.
This example explicitly highlights the abuse of positions of power given by the government, such as that of sheriff deputy in stating that he would indeed illegally enforce his personally formed law that Pagans who practice their religions would not be tolerated.
Examples of these abuses are not limited to adults, and happen in the public school system as well. Since the expulsion of prayers in school, there have been flairs of tension when schoolchildren are caught praying or found to be speaking about their religious beliefs. For the most part, these children are simply reprimanded, or not spoken to at all. However, for Pagans of the elementary, middle, and high school age groups, simply being reprimanded does not happen.
For example, at a middle school in the Midwest, a Pagan student was featured on the school’s wall of fame for having received extraordinarily high grades, as well as for having contributed to the school and her community. However, after the school saw she had drawn herself with a pentagram and a winged pig pulling at it, her portrait was “rejected because it had a religious theme and contained a pentagram (Barner – Barry 190) , ” yet “another picture was placed on the same wall of fame… had a clearly Christian theme (Barner – Barry 190) .” The pig, the student reported to school authorities, represented those who were ignorant of her religious faith and beliefs. Ironically, the school became that pig – not only were they ignorant of her religion, but they also explicitly favored and allowed a Christian display of faith to remain on the wall. After speaking with the child’s parents, her portrait was re hung (Barner – Barry) .
However, this is a success story in terms of religious tolerance, and does not happen often, especially in areas inhabited by conservative Christians. Thus far, conflict with general religious intolerance and school children has been observed. How conflict with Christians affects the lives of day-to-day individuals is of paramount importance, because it demonstrates how otherwise mature and sensible adults treat one another.
Every individual within the United States has the ability to start his or her own businesses. Indeed, America is made up of self – made men, men who worked hard and diligently for their earned titles, positions, and earnings. Opening a business is a difficult endeavor, which includes finding a market to sell to, costs of startup and operations, as well as buying and stocking product that is to be sold, among myriad other things. These things being difficult in their own right, add on top of that for Pagans opening shop in largely Christian areas the threat of vandalism and daily harassment.
For example, a Pagan who wished to open his shop in Austin, Texas, was harassed and ultimately forced to move because of daily taunts that he practiced Satanism. These daily taunts in front of his store caused him to lose business, and thus leave due to pressures of conflict with Christians. Another example of Pagan businesses being attacked is that of a woman in Lancaster, California as recently as 2002. She re named her store, and thus held a new dedication ceremony in the parking lot of the strip mall. Not only did conservative Christian hecklers harass her, but also when the police were called due to the disturbance of the peace, the police unit failed to respond (Barner – Barry) .
These examples given about business owners run counter culture to the idea that each individual has the ability to become a self – made man in the United States. If owning a business comes in direct conflict with the main morals and virtues of the population, then rather than allowing the business to exist as it legally is allowed to, these Christians feel the need to attack and actively take a role in shutting down these stores. Therefore, in reality, every man cannot be self – made if the mold does not fit. Here, one observes the majority coming directly down on the minority based on suppositions of Satanism, evil, and sacrificing of humans/animals. Here, one observes the ignorance and obvious lack of education of the minority religion by the majority.
Furthermore, even though it appears as though attacks are being wrought from every available angle, there is yet another, and most important to every American that is being attacked: the home. Home is supposed to be a place of solace and serenity, a place of relaxation and fun with family. It is supposed to be a place to let go of the cares of the `worldliness of work, school, and other obligations. As an extension, the neighborhood is supposed to be a place of community relaxation and recreation. For many Pagans living openly in majority Christian areas, this is sadly not true. In some extreme cases, Pagans have had to move out of their homes in order to avoid harassment and illegal actions taken against them.
For example, a Pagan couple whose house was almost paid off was found to be practicing Wicca by their neighbors. After discovering the poisoning their dog and the harassing their son on the way to the school bus, the Wiccans went to court against their neighbors only to be told to stop practicing their faith in one week or move out by a judge (Barner – Barry) .
This obvious abuse of power by the judge and illegal act of poisoning another’s animal, along with harassing someone’s child would appear to have been an easy case to decide. However, this was not true. The problem in the sphere of where one lives is that it attacks the right of anyone to live wherever they can afford. It furthers the idea that you can live where you want, so long as you prescribe to the majority lifestyles of those around you. Living in an obvious ‘counter – culture’ way is so threatening to the majority that acts such as poisoning an actual living being are not only not charged as animal abuse, but because no one was charged, it serves as an example that harming someone of a path different than one’s own is fine so long as a perceived threat is thought to be at hand.
All of the above cases have ties to the justice system, which is to Pagans, not just at all. This is seen most clearly in child custody disputes after the breaking up or divorce of parents who are one or both Pagan. Many Pagans face this fear, and “the loss of custody or visitation rights is one of the primary fears of Pagans who are parents of minor children…intact Pagan families may face custody challenges that are initiated by relatives, police, social workers, and adoption agencies. These challenges are usually based on a genuine belief that the children are potentially being harmed by their family’s non-conformist religious practices. (Barner – Barry 116) .”
Clearly, the belief that minor children are going to be harmed because of the minority religious practices directly affects the family. Not only are homes being torn apart, but these children being taken from their homes solely based on religious choice is in direct conflict with the constitutional right to the freedom of religion. It also makes a clear pathway for those who wish to remove minor children from the homes of parents or guardians based solely on their religious choices rather than if there is actual abuse in the home perfectly normal.
These cases of abuses from the majority over the minority are only growing in number as Pagan numbers increases as the years go on. The history of Paganism would appear, to a secular and unbiased individual to be that of a peaceful and Earth – based religious movement that is evolving as technology and people evolve as well. As with other religions that have growing numbers such as Islam and Judaism in the United States, one would first think that Paganism too would, like the aforementioned religions, be accepted as a legitimate religion to co – exist with. However, as the above cases have pointed out, this is not so. Pagans face discrimination in the workplace, at school, at their businesses, and in the courthouse. Stress must be placed on the fact that although these cases are largely isolated incidents, they are growing in number as Pagans grow in number in the United States.
But how are these problems do be dealt with? What is the solution to the many aspects of discrimination against Pagans? Perhaps an unbiased education about Paganism for communities would help foster understanding and help end these conflicts. Education is the key to stopping these attacks on people who have done nothing wrong but practice their religion of choice in a country that is supposed to protect that right. First, people must be taught that Pagans do not want to harm anyone: child, adult, even an animal. To do so goes against most Pagan creeds and vows to not harm any living beings. Second, people must realize that Pagans do not practice Satanism or carry out any Satanic rituals. This is the most important thing – realizing that Pagans are not evil and are not trying to attack the mainstream will be paramount in determining the fate of these minority groups in relation to the majority.
Conclusively, the minority religions of Paganism must be protected equally under the free clause law, and under the legally binding Constitutional amendment that declares that all people have the right to practice their religion of choice. Furthermore, these case studies show the cruel reality faced by Pagans who choose to live openly must face. Their minimal news coverage and lack of media attention show that there is a lot of work to be done in terms of fair coverage of events, but that their stories are covered at all shows that some effort is being made for equal press. Finally, the hope of education for those who do not understand the minority will ultimately lead to true religious freedom for all.
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers and Other Pagans in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Barner – Barry, Carol. Contemporary Paganism: Minority Religions in a Majoritarian America. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practioner. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2003.
Davy, Barbara Jane. Introduction to Pagan Studies. Lanham: Altamira Press, 2007.
Fathers, Founding. “The United States Constitution.” 25 June 2010. US Constitution. 1 December 2010 .
pagan, n. and adj., : Oxford English Dictionary. November 2010. 1 December 2010 .
Strmiska, Michael F. “Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives.” Strmiska, Michael F. Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC – CLIO, Inc., 2005. 1-54.