Saturday Keynote: Vivianne Crowley

“Stepping Out of the Shadows and Into the Light: Evolution and Tensions in the Future of Contemporary Paganism”

Paganism has benefitted from attention by anthropology, sociology, study of religion, etc., when researchers have approached with sympathy and allowed Pagans to express their own experiences. Academic work on Paganism has helped communities see how trends and movements in Paganisms reflect trends and movements in society at large. It has also helped legitimize Paganism/s as religion.

Crowley realized that “Wicca had mainstreamed” when she heard discussion of it at a conference on the study of religion in Stockholm around 2013. She says that currently we are at the end of “day one of the Pagan Project,” when innovators and early adopters have become ancestors. The existence of figures such as the Zells and other major innovators gives Pagans in the 21st century a history.

Liquid modernity (a phrase coined by Zygmunt Bauman) is the breakdown of perceptions of previously important structures (mistrust of government, media, church, etc.). This also affects “the great monolithic religions,” exhibited, e.g., in the proliferation of independent Protestant churches.

Crowley understands modern Paganism as a response to the human desire for a structure that acknowledges and allows the animalistic side of the human spirit. People were looking for sexual, bodily, and spiritual liberation and connection with nature. We can see this longing in literature and poetry of the 19th century, and often manifested in calls to Pan. After World War I there was a similar movement to return to the “natural world,” responding to the horrors of the trenches. Movements during these two periods were also drawn towards goddess worship. Charles Leland and the figure of Aradia emerged from this draw, as did Gerald Gardner.

The effect of the British empire is important: while the British were sending people out to administer non-Western places through Western practices, they were exposing such administrators to other cultures, and “often the colonizers were captured by those they were colonizing.” British people became Buddhist and Hindu, and brought back ideas of magic and goddess worship.

As witchcraft gained popularity, people were “attracted by the allure of the dark,” and by the suggestion that witches are (and must be) special people. Paganism and witchcraft continue to be “liquid” and alluring, in that they can be what the practitioner needs and wants from them. As Paganism matures, it has jettisoned or de-emphasized some of the more “counter-cultural” elements to allow it to come out into the light and become more mainstream.

“Wicca-lite” is the divesting of religion from witchcraft, and is seen in the proliferation of popular books on spell-casting. “It becomes a technique that anybody can learn.” You don’t have to be chosen by the gods or spirits, or have the correct ancestry. Magic becomes a self-help process (e.g., books like The Secret and The Source).

“Wicca-dark”? When a movement goes mainstream, and gets rid of all of the less culturally acceptable elements, it leaves a kind of hole. In the past couple of decades we’ve seen the emergence and growth of Satanic movements, and other “dark” kinds of Paganism and witchcraft to restore those occult elements. Aside from that, the proliferation of Paganisms has lead to a lot of eclecticism in contemporary practices, and many younger Pagans aren’t as aware of the history of modern Paganism or interested in investigating the roots of their practices, and in many cases aren’t interested in the “religion” at all, but enjoy occasionally attending events and in some sense being spectators of Paganism.

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