Contemporary Paganism Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

04/11/2017 12:25 pm ET Updated Apr 11, 2017
Summer Solstice Sunrise at Stonehenge
Summer Solstice Sunrise at Stonehenge
Paganism is the moment when you are the most alive and aware of the world around you. Paganism is when that moment sweeps you away in to spontaneous ceremony and celebration of life within and all around you. Paganism is the place where you feel the most at home, where you connect to the natural living-world in deep and intimate ways. A Pagan is someone who looks for the sacred everywhere they go. A Pagan takes breath as sacrament. A Pagan is someone who feels with their whole being. A Pagan can be anybody at any time. — Glen Gordon

While the origins of some forms of contemporary Paganism, like Wicca and Druidry, go back further, the beginning of what is called the “Pagan movement” can be dated to 1967* -- making this year the 50th anniversary of contemporary Paganism.

Paganism’s Beginnings

Fifty years ago, in 1967, three organizations were formed which would have a profound impact on the shape of contemporary Paganism: Frederick Adams founded Feraferia, a wilderness mystery religion; Aidan Kelly and others formed the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn, an eclectic witchcraft tradition; and Tim (Oberon) Zell filed for incorporation of the Church of All Worlds, which was based on the fictional religion described in Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.

The influence of Church of All Worlds on contemporary Paganism was perhaps the most significant of the three. Official legal status was granted to the Church of All Worlds in 1968, making it the first Pagan state-recognized “church”. The Church of All worlds also began publishing the Green Egg newsletter in 1968, which became the most influential public forum for Pagans many years and was instrumental in the formation of an emerging identity around the word “Paganism” (or “Neo-Paganism” as it was called at the time).

Like the Romantics a century and a half before, the Pagans of the 1960s and 1970s saw in ancient paganism a cure for the spiritual alienation of modern industrial civilization. They attempted to revive what they thought were the best aspects of ancient pagan ways, blending them with modern humanistic and pluralistic ideals. In the 1970’s, the movement took a decidedly feminist and environmentalist turn. In 1971, Zsuzsanna Budapest founded the Susan B. Anthony Coven No. 1, creating feminist “Dianic” witchcraft, an exclusively women’s religious tradition. Also in 1971, Tim Zell, the founder of the Church of All Worlds, published an article entitled, “Theagenesis: The Birth of the Goddess”, which anticipated James Lovelock’s 1979 “Gaia Hypothesis”.

Unlike other forms of Paganism which originated in Europe, and which claimed to reconstruct the religions of ancient pagans from surviving historical sources, the form which Paganism took in America drew freely from many religious traditions, both ancient and modern, without much concern for historical authenticity. Although drawing inspiration from ancient religious myths and practices, the focus for many Pagans was not on recreating an ideal pagan past, but on fostering what some call a “Pagan consciousness”, the experience of the immanence of divinity and the interconnectedness of all life.

Early forms of American Paganism integrated nature religion and feminist spirituality with Jungian psychology and the mythology of Robert Graves’ poetic work, The White Goddess. The result was a loosely-related group of new religious traditions which shared certain distinguishing characteristics, including a perception of divinity as immanent, a multiplicity of deities of all genders, a commitment to environmental responsibility, and a creative approach to ritual.

Paganism Today

Estimating the number of Pagans is difficult due to the lack of any central Pagan institutional authority and the the persistent stigma attached to self-identifying as Pagan. The best estimate is that there are approximately 1 million Pagans in the United States, with over 100,000 in the United Kingdom. This is less than one half of one percent (0.5%) of the population in the U.S. While Christian denominations have been steadily shrinking over the decades, Paganism is growing. According to the 2001 Canadian census, Pagans experienced the greatest percentage growth of all religions in the country over a 20 year period. Australian census figures also show rapid growth of Paganism.(The U.S. Census does not ask for religious affiliation.)

Today, the word “Paganism” is often used as an umbrella term for a diverse group of people with varied beliefs and practices which includes eclectics, witches, druids, animists, Goddess worshipers, reconstructionists, polytheists, occultists, and myriad other varieties. What most contemporary Pagans have in common, though, is that they look to ancient pagan religions and contemporary polytheistic religions (like Hinduism and the African diasporic religions) for religious inspiration. How they make use of these sources varies considerably, though.

Most Pagans use some form of religious ritual to express their connection to and attune themselves to divinity. These rituals are often intentionally created, rather than inherited from tradition. The most common form of Pagan ritual is the celebration of the Wheel of the Year, the eight seasonal stations which include the solstices and equinoxes and the points in between. The Wheel of the Year is a year-long spiritual meditation on the rhythms of nature and the ebb and flow of our inner lives. Pagan ritual may include elements of “grounding and centering”, “calling the quarters”, breathwork, meditation, prayer, invocations, singing, chanting, dancing, drumming, pouring libations, making offerings to a fire, enactments of symbolic dramas, and sharing food and drink. The mood of Neo-Pagan ritual may range from celebratory to ecstatic to meditative.

Pagan Organization

In spite of our relative smallness, Pagans have made significant institutional advances in the last 50 years. Some Pagan traditions are established as legally-recognized churches with tax-exempt status, like the Church of All Worlds and the Aquarian Tabernacle Church. There are other large umbrella Pagan organizations, like Covenant of the Goddess in the U.S. and the Pagan Federation in the U.K., both of which have been around for decades. This year, the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) celebrates its 30th anniversary of receiving its charter from the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Pagans serve in the leadership of various ecumenical and inter-faith groups, like the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the American Academy of Religion. Pagan studies is growing as an academic discipline, and there is an academic journal of Pagan Studies called Pomegranate. There is even a Pagan seminary, Cherry Hill Seminary. Pagans have also received official recognition and support from U.S. military.

Annual Pagan Pride events are held around the country in the fall of every year and outdoor Pagan festivals, which draw thousands of people, take place throughout the summer. Pagan advocacy groups, like the Lady Liberty League, work to protect the rights of Pagans in the workplace, in prisons, and in the community in general. Significant Pagan legal victories of the past include the recognition of Wicca as a religion in the federal prisoner’s rights case of Dettmer v. Landon, the defeat of the Helms Amendment, which would have denied tax-exempt status to many Pagan churches, and the approval of Pagan symbols on headstones by the Veteran’s Administration.

The Wild Hunt is a daily online news journal which gathers news and commentary of interest to Pagans. And there are many online forums where Pagans can share ideas and organize, like Witchvox and the Pagan Portal at Patheos.com. There are also Pagan publications like Witches & Pagans and the Green Egg.

Becoming Pagan

Many people come to Paganism after leaving the religion they were raised in. Different Pagan groups have different requirements for membership, like a probationary period of study, but there is no formal process of conversion to Paganism generally, and many Pagans never join any group. Anyone can call themselves Pagan. Most Pagans come to identify as such through a process of individual spiritual exploration.

Many of us experience our coming to Paganism as a feeling of “coming home”, by which we mean that Pagan is an expression of an innate religious identify for which we previously had no name. For a variety of reasons, we feel drawn away from the religions of our birth. We feel drawn to the woods, the mountains, or the seashore. We feel a sense of the divine in nature, whether in the earth itself, in the changing of the seasons, or in our own bodies. We are moved by fairy tales, stories from folklore, and ancient pagan myths and art. When we meet other like-minded people, we discover that we are not alone and we realize that we are Pagan too.

* Note: Religious studies scholar, Sarah Pike, dates the origins of “Neopaganism” to the incorporation of Frederick Adams’ Feraferia and the founding of NROOGD in 1967.

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