Dispatch from PantheaCon: Preparing for Our Future

Greetings from PantheaCon! My con has not been quite all I hoped. Although our Patheos Pagan panel on Pagan Intrafaith went really well (and I look forward to sharing the recording with you all soon), Friday night I came down with a nasty cold, and since then I’ve only been able to do one or two events a day. I have gotten some very good social time with those who don’t fear the plague, though, for which I’m grateful.

Happily, I was able to attend Wild Hunt writer/editor Jason Pitzl-Waters’ presentation on “Preserving Our Past, Preparing for Our Future.” It seems obvious to me that, however we feel about it, the Pagan movement is going to develop institutions—schools, libraries, temples, community centers, and more. Pagans have some valid fears about this process, such as the idea that with sustainable institutions may come rigidity of belief and practice. If institutionalization is inevitable, it becomes very important to think deeply about the structures we’re adopting. Creatively structuring our institutions to express a pluralistic, process-oriented perspective may help us combat rigidity if we think innovatively.

Jason began with an overview of contemporary Paganism that emphasized its successes: its rapid growth and its effectiveness in shaping media perception of Pagans. He noted that the interest of American Hindu groups in Pagan interfaith work has, in fact, been driven by Pagans’ media success; although American Hindus have built far more infrastructure in the past thirty years than Pagans have, we have far greater visibility and are better positioned for effective advocacy. Our persistent media presence has also shaped representations of Pagans in popular culture: as Jason pointed out, even in terrible movies like the recent Hansel and Gretel, the traditional narrative of the evil witch is now inevitably paired with a contrasting counternarrative about “good witches.”

Despite these successes, as our elders pass on, we are losing opportunities to record our history. Although some universities archive papers and letters from Pagan leaders, Jason believes it’s essential for us to create our own libraries to make sure these materials are accessible to both researchers and non-academics. (Two Pagan libraries are in development right now, the New Alexandrian Library in Delaware and the Adocentyn Research Library in California.) Several organizations are supporting oral history projects, including Earth Medicine Alliance and one additional Pagan-specific project whose website is due to launch in the next few weeks. Jason feels strongly that as these materials are collected, they should be archived in an open-source, publicly-accessible format. Additionally, Jason echoes Chas Clifton’s call for more memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies of Pagan leaders.

Jason next turned to the strategies that will help us move forward. Firstly, he advocates a stronger Pagan ecumenicism—opportunities for Pagans and those of related faiths to encounter each other in person and reaffirm community connections. Jason sees recent battles over defining “Pagan” as a good thing—he feels that being able to challenge the term is, counterintuitively, a sign that the community feels safe in re-examining itself. He emphasized, however, that it’s important not to alienate anyone by forcing labels on them, and that we should acknowledge that many of the emerging new Paganisms and polytheisms are quite unlike Wicca and its derivatives. We need to stop demanding “Pagan unity” and focus instead on our shared interests and on understanding one another. Rather than trying to find a common belief or practice, we can concentrate on building relationships, especially through face-to-face interaction.

To prepare for the future, Jason says, Pagans must solve our community’s money problem. He believes that the narrative of the impoverished, selfish Pagan who won’t give to community causes is actually false. Listing examples of successfully crowdfunded projects, including his own Wild Hunt, Jason suggested that the key is to take full advantage of internet fundraising technologies. Additionally, Pagan groups need to be clear in their fundraising pitch, specifying how a given project will benefit the movement as a whole, not just the group that receives the money. Organizations must also understand that before they can raise money, they must win the trust of donors by doing good work over a significant period of time and deliberately building networks of relationships. Successful fundraising can require months and years of preparation, but it is possible for Pagans.

Next, Jason was critical of many Pagan organizations’ failure to bring in the younger generation. In many organizations, forty is considered young; those in their twenties and early thirties are largely not active, especially in decision-making. One audience member remarked that despite being an initiate in her tradition and a leader in other organizations, she is still treated as a child and dismissed when she expresses an opinion at some Pagan gatherings. Pagan organizations must focus on welcoming younger Pagans into leadership and soliciting their input.

Finally, Jason argued that the Pagan community must be proactive about facing future challenges. One example raised was the issue of sexual abuse in our communities. Largely, Pagans do not yet have systematic community sex education, clear and nuanced ethical guidelines that reflect sex-positive values, or structures for ethical accountability around this issue. The community needs to lay groundwork to proactively address such problems, rather than waiting for a highly publicized tragedy.

I find almost nothing to disagree with in Jason’s talk. As I listened, I found myself thinking about Pagan organizations I have been involved with that struggled to raise funds, yet continued to use fundraising strategies that were a decade old. I thought of areas I’m already trying to address in my own work, such as the issue of Pagan erotic ethics that my upcoming book is focused on. And I found myself excited by the growing push to record our history—particularly because this is the perfect time to take the lessons of the past and integrate them deliberately into our evolving organizational structures.

Underlying Jason’s remarks, I heard a call that it is time for us to take ourselves seriously. We are no longer a movement of rebellious adolescents, rejecting the faiths of our birth to forge experimental and alternative religious identities. We are coming to a point where our innovations will produce structures to sustain a continued and steadier evolution, an ongoing process of development that takes our Pagan values as a starting point, not the rejected values of the culture from which we emerged. I very much appreciate Jason Pitzl-Waters’ faith that we are up to the task.


All errors and misstatements in this summary are my own.