“Pagan” communities 101: all you need to know to join or stay away.
So you want to befriend like-minded polytheists? Don’t know what to expect? Follow these guidelines.
It’s autumn. You saw it coming.
My interest in modern paganism goes back to my late childhood / early adolescence in the 90s/2000s. You do the math. I’ve been on and off, even going on a long sabbatical period (10 years give or take) when I tried being a total Atheist and complete sceptic. Nonetheless, I think you can probably say I am no newbie or outsider at all.
I debated myself on whether or not I should link to educational articles on the History of modern paganism, (as I already have done, in other blog posts — browse away) but ended up deciding not to do it here. The reason being: there will always be one elder or two who has beef with another elder or two and will automatically try to steer you away from this article of mine if they see as much as a reference to their mortal nemesis here. I’m being sarcastic… To a point. Stay long enough in these communities and you’ll know what I mean. So, in the spirit of writing a basic 101 guide to modern pagan communities that is as neutral as possible (and will still end up offending the members of the community who are addicted to suffering), I’m referencing no-one but myself (and will likely get accused of talking off my arse as a result of that, but alas, life is made of compromises).
Relax, grab a cup of tea (or your preferred comfort beverage), and enjoy a casual piece of advice by this cranky oracle woman here who no longer has patience for people’s gossip and games.
1. Keep in mind that most modern pagans are from a white Christian background.
I’m telling you the facts. You judge them the way you feel like it.
I haven’t yet conducted any formal research on that. Feel free to try, or better yet, commission an outsider for that (if you care about getting ostracised when you go as far as suggesting the research is needed). A lot of “pagans” get offended by the facts and figures when it comes to their ethnic background because, as white people do, they don’t acknowledge their own ethnicity (platitudes like “oh, I’m just human”; “let’s not talk about race”, etc come to mind). Everyone else is ethnic and “cultural”, except them. Don’t argue with that, just accept it. You will not change their minds. Trust me.
The reason I know most modern pagans (English speaking, at least) are white from a Christian background is by observing first of all their looks, secondly their often very WASP-y antics, and third, the ever-present history of trauma with the (often protestant) Church. It repeats like a broken record, and it is what it is. You can perhaps accuse me of being salty about that if you read between the lines, but in my defense let me just say the following: the only bad thing here is the fact there is a lack of racial diversity (or at the very least, an extremely noticeable imbalance) within modern pagan communities. Now, whether or not “being white” is bad? That’s for you to decide. I married one. Clearly, I don’t think so. But what do I know…
If you’re white AND Christian from a protestant background, you’ll fit right in. On the other hand, if you aren’t white and/or actually come from a fully Catholic or Orthodox or Muslim or [insert mainstream religion or Atheism here] background… You’ll have to tread a bit more carefully. I’m not saying the majority of modern pagans will ostracise you because of these aspects of you which you can’t change and aren’t to blame for; No, don’t worry. They will not.
Instead what I am saying is it’s best to lurk for a while before making yourself known if you’re any such outlier (speaking from experience…), simply because you can’t take relatability for granted in these communities. WASP people tend to grow up quite sheltered (not their fault really… just stating a fact; and their European equivalents tend to be of Germanic origin), so their willingness to accept or even BELIEVE you when you can’t relate too well to their very specific kind of religious background and trauma will depend entirely on personality. Some are super open-minded and will give you no problem at all; others, though, aren’t as willing to accept dissonant voices among them, and that’s where you could run into unpleasant debates or even bullying.
No, the “bullying” I’m referring to is not overt like “ew, you are [such and such ethnicity]”. I’m not accusing anyone of racism. If I were, I’d have used the correct word. I’m saying there is bullying. And it’s usually covert, for example: “why are you so dumb? Clearly I’m talking about [insert here very specific reference to how Protestant Christians dislike religious statues because they think it’s idolatry]” meanwhile the black pagan with a background in Santería or the Latino pagan from a Catholic background where the churches THEMSELVES have statues and consider it ok sit there trying to understand why the condescenscion (from this WASP person). It’s pure close-mindedness and sheltered antics.
“Wait, but aren’t there close-minded POC people? And close-minded white or POC people of other church denominations or religions?”
Absolutely! I’m not denying that. The thing is… Unfortunately, love it or hate it, privilege nowadays in the English-speaking west still remains concentrated in the hands of WASP communities. (And by that I’m not saying they’re “rich”, I’m just saying “sheltered and culturally isolated” as a result of how their communities formed in the first place and still maintain themselves to this day). Therefore, people of other “ethnic” backgrounds tend to be less socially privileged, and no matter how close-minded some of them are because of personality, invariably they end up HAVING to spend a lot of time interacting with and experiencing cultural diversity every day. So, they sort of learn how to “cope” with that by osmosis. And that’s why I’m saying (in and out of modern paganism, by the way. In every context), generally speaking, different groups of POC end up learning how to navigate culturally-diverse contexts with more ease. Thanks for coming to my very informal TED talk on uncomfortable Sociology that people would rather turn a blind eye to.
The above is valid for, again, I’ll repeat, the English-speaking industrial world. I’m not talking about the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, Pacific Islands, or even most of South America. My blog is in English, after all. You can google translate it if you want, but the framework of cultural references will remain there — and that’s why we still need human translators nowadays, but I digress.
Last, but not least: modern paganism does indeed exist in places as far away [from WASP-y America] as Asia and South America, but it’s still not “big”. I’m talking from direct experience once again. That’s because the movement’s very roots can be traced back to a handful of English and American authors in the 1960s, not some vague ancient past. (Let’s see how long I can resist the urge not to link any sources here. It’s getting difficult, guys!). The other reason why modern paganism is still not “big” outside some parts of North America and western Europe is the fact these places (whose native people are often labeled “ethnic” or at least “cultural” by the people who come from a WASP background — and yes, I’m totally including the Irish and the Finns here as “ethnic”; not my words though) still preserve folk spiritual traditions that did NOT start with Gardner or Alex-Sanders. But alas, Neopagans don’t like these traditions because they’re syncretic with Christianity. Go figure. The big old boogeyman of Christianity.
Actually, this tangent deserves its own section:
2. You must hate on the big old boogeyman of Christianity.
Not to do so will get you burned at the metaphoric stake (ironically…), because HOW DARE you not blame every problem in the world on Christianity?
Rules for thee, not for me. Religious intolerance is “a-okay” if it’s coming from a place of spite, apparently. But then again… When has it ever NOT come from a place of spite? Do you think the Christians of old who converted people by force were doing it for funsies? Just ’cause they had power? Out of a totally healthy and not fucked-up psyche without a single semblance of trauma?
*Reaches for History books, curiously revisits the late Roman Empire and how they blamed pagans for unrelated political problems upon adopting Christianity… out of spite*
Nah, nothing to see here. Clearly, modern pagans’ irrational hatred of everything and everyone Christian could never go wrong. *wink*
You see… hurt people hurt other people. There are no one-dimensional villains, those are reserved for mangas and comic books. You could interpret this as “Lucy wants me to excuse villains”, OR you could summon whatever good faith is still left in your heart and understand that what I want you to do is realise YOU, TOO could become a villain. You’re not immune to that. Nobody is. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Replace “hell” with your chosen word for moral corruption.
Anyway, back to the innocent newbies who came here for the basic 101 guide: hi, how are you? Sorry, I got carried away side-eyeing irresponsible idiots. You’re fine. The lesson here, if you care, is simply that unfortunately you’ll have to let some bigotry go unchecked if you want to have any hope of belonging in a modern pagan community.
Yes, I said what I said. Bigotry. With a capital B. And I’ll repeat it louder every time people try to silence me.
A Christian person or group of people traumatised you? I’m very sorry to hear. I 100% understand not wanting any more involvement in a religion where people were mean to you. Even if the 2 things aren’t always correlated, this is perfectly understandable. It’s not a problem to stay away from Christianity now, or even say “thanks but no thanks” to Christianity from now on while you politely go about your new pagan business and let the Christian go about theirs. The problem only starts when this sentiment turns into spite, and sweeping generalisations, and hate speech. No, you don’t have the right to turn a religious denomination into an insult, OR set out to exclude/bully/slander Christian strangers you haven’t ever even talked to. See the difference?
It’s also not a very good idea to accuse anything and everything you dislike of “Christianity” willy nilly. I see that a lot in modern pagan communities. People claiming they respect Christian people’s boundaries, but on the same breath call anything they dislike “Christian” even if there’s no evidence.
Oh, this trendy newage belief is bullshit — it must be Christian.
This person I don’t know disrespected me — they must be Christian.
There’s a hurricane — those pesky Christians!
Sarcasm aside, some of the interactions I’ve witnessed were very mind-boggling and not too different from the examples above. God forbid you correct them! Oh, no, all hell breaks loose. So, I hope you understand that this is an endemic problem in modern pagan circles. The best course of action (from experience…) is to unfortunately stay quiet and lay low, OR leave the community.
3. Mentally healthy “pagans” are quite rare.
You could argue mentally healthy anyone is quite rare these days. We all have our traumas and inner monsters. Aye, that checks; But as far as I’ve observed, mental illness and personality disorder in Neopagan circles follow a very particular pattern.
By and large, modern pagans (or those from a white, Christian, protestant background especially) aren’t big fans of therapy.
I can almost predict the avalanche of comments saying “but I go to therapy”, as if I didn’t know this good habit does indeed exist in the community. Yes, sir; yes, ma’am; yes, [insert gender]… I’m aware you go to therapy. You see a therapist, allright. But how often do you lie to them? A therapist can only work with what you provide. They’re not investigators or lie detectors.
My point is: a lot of our mental turmoil DIRECTLY AFFECTS our relationship with gods, faeries, spirit guides or what-have-you. It won’t always be easy, and these are relationships like any other. If you sometimes have issues with living people, you’ll sometimes have issues with these other kinds of individuals as well. If you’re a very spiritually active person, it’s not enough to only ever talk about your secular life when you’re at the therapist’s office. You can get mad at me for saying that, but you know it’s true.
What’s the elephant in the room? We both know, aye? Let’s address it: modern pagans have a very irrational fear that they’ll be misdiagnosed “schizophrenic” if they open up to their therapist. This stems from an old problem that was actually very real until the middle of the 20th century, when people would be sent to so-called madhouses for the most unfair reasons — ranging from transgender identity to female “hysteria” and other gems. So of course, if you admitted BACK THEN you talk to spirits, this would absolutely happen to you. I’m not saying today there aren’t still a handful of very unethical psychologists or psychiatrists who would absolutely gaslight you about a spiritual experience because of their own colonialistic worldview and close-mindedness (they probably exist… Who am I to deny), but this is no longer as rampant as it was in the olden days. And most important of all: this no longer goes unchecked, and you can absolutely sue them if they attempt anything against your will.
So, no, you don’t need your therapist to necessarily be “pagan” (or a non-white practitioner of Afro-diasporic traditions who didn’t ask to be called pagan but you slap the label on them anyway like a know-it-all. Yes I get oddly specific sometimes. Gotta let out the shade SOMEHOW). All you need is a therapist who is open-minded. You think spiritual encounters are off-limits to a psychologist? Bitch, that probably didn’t even make top 5 most outlandish confessions they hear. There’s a reason why they must adhere to confidentiality. Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not that interesting. Go to the goddamn therapy and talk about the goddamn feelings you’re having about spiritual situations.
Here’s a rule of thumb: sickness makes you sick.
No, really. Sickness makes you sick. Are you feeling good? Do you take away good life lessons and helpful insights from your interactions with ethereal beings? Well, then, it’s just a quirk and not a thing you’d need treatment for.
Nonetheless, a lot of modern pagans don’t know that. And you, dear newbie, will end up meeting these people. They’ll have a lot of harboured unaddressed emotions around specific topics of conversation, exactly because these aren’t topics they’re happy to talk about with a therapist. And unfortunately, you’ll have to deal with that. It’s another endemic problem in these communities. Bear in mind this is not about you, try not to take it personally, and perhaps give the person the space they need to recompose.
Or alternatively, ya know, don’t join these communities.
4. Befriend members, but beware the leaders.
Alice in Wonderland reference incoming. Not tarot (just to make it clear).
By “leaders”, I don’t just mean community leaders (as in, those in charge of running modern pagan communities, online or offline), but also famous authors, known “elders”, and anyone else with a considerable following.
Let me rephrase this title: befriend everyone as long as you don’t stand out; on the other hand, beware the leaders if you do, because the next thing you’ll be hearing is “off with your head!”.
I don’t know what it is — unaddressed psychological “stuff” (like we saw above), a love-hate relationship with the idea of hierarchies and succession of power, or a combination of both. Nonetheless, modern pagan leaders are power-hungry and will stop at nothing to protect their metaphoric “crowns”. Yes, they’ll go as far as starting smear campaigns about you, forcefully get you removed and silenced from spaces both in person and online, manipulating you into believing you’re worthless, whatever it takes to fully ensure you won’t outshine them.
Narcissistic? Yeah. It’s probably an understatement.
“But Lucy, aren’t you being unfair on these leaders? Why generalise?”
I’m not generalising. I’m speaking from experience. With one single surprising exception (a certain guy in Texas I only know online), every Neopagan person of prominence I’ve ever followed and/or interacted with has undoubtedly shown a very unhealthy relationship with the idea of power. Usually it’s a matter of “the more they have, the more they want”. Other times, a bit more rarely, the problem is more along the lines of “they’re not expansionist, but get paranoid at new members who have the audacity of not being total newbies”.
I think the trick here, if you’re interested in surviving in these environments, is to hide each and every previous knowledge you have about mythology and spirituality for a good few years upon joining. Or alternatively, talk to other members in private. As long as the leaders don’t see that, I think you’re safe. I could be wrong, though — this hasn’t been tested. I happened to lose my patience with Neopagan leaders before putting this into practice, but good luck there.
And with that, you’re hopefully good to go.
I chose to blog about some of the pitfalls, where they come from, and how to avoid them. I could have only blogged about the positives — such as the relatability (to a point; we went over that), the exchange of tips and hints about super niche topics like how to keep an altar or what to do if certain dreams happen, etc.
Please don’t take this article as a discouragement from joining modern pagan communities. Quite the opposite: I’m being upfront about the uncomfortable bits so that you’ll learn to expect them and they won’t come as a shock. There are two sides to everything, these communities exist and keep existing (steadily since the 1960s) for a reason, and it’s always nice to at least give them a go. But discernment is always encouraged — there be dragons out there.