Pagan Chic

Feb 13, 2003 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Paganism’s not just on Buffy and Charmed; it’s spreading on campus. Understanding its appeal is the key to confronting it.

Nowadays, it seems that everywhere I turn I run into pagans. Not in the sense that I did growing up with people named Angel, Tito, Marisol and Sylvia Pagan (pronounced Pah-gahn). Nor am I using “pagan” in a descriptive sense — the way it was used in Braveheart when Robert the Bruce called King Edward I, a.k.a. “Longshanks,” a “cruel pagan.”

I mean it literally. I mean people whose beliefs approximate how books like Paganism for Dummies (yes, there is such a book) and Rocking the Goddess: Campus Wicca for the Student Practitioner would define paganism: a series of religious practices that predate (or at least claim to predate) Western monotheism. Their rituals are characterized as “Earth-centered” and are tied to the cycles of nature, such as the seasons, the harvest, and the migration of animals.

(For the etymologically inclined or the merely curious among you, the word “pagan” comes from the Latin word “paganus,” which is what the Romans called rural folk. The term was eventually applied to people, most of whom lived in rural areas, that continued to practice traditional and folk religions after Rome converted to Christianity.)

My local Borders has more shelf space devoted to books on paganism and related subjects than it does for the previous spirituality du jour, Buddhism and other Eastern religions. And when it comes to popular culture, in particular television, I’m not going out on a limb when I tell you that you are much more likely to see a practioner of paganism or Wicca depicted on television than you are to see a Christian, Jew or Muslim, at least in a positive light.

One obvious example is Charmed, a show that is so preposterous that it makes Alias look like a documentary. Here witches are the front line in the eternal battle against Evil (note that capital “E”). Vanquishing suffering and protecting “innocents” is nearly always a matter of casting the right spell or mixing up the right potion. While there’s a Source — note that capital letter again — of Evil, there seems to be no corresponding source of good. Similarly, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel, there’s a First Evil but no First Good. Again, magic is the Scoobies’ spiritual weapon of choice.

Besides television, another place where you’ll find plenty of paganism is on college campuses. Across the country, college chapels, most of which date to a time when the school had some real or at least nominal connection to a Christian denomination, have had to adapt to contemporary spiritual trends.

Thus, at Syracuse, the university’s Pagan Society lit candles in Hendricks Chapel, the same one used by Jewish, Christian and Muslim student groups. At the same time, interested students were able to sign up for a class on witchcraft and magic. The course, taught by a graduate student, is so popular that enrollment, which was previously capped at 25, was raised to 35.

It isn’t only Syracuse. Students at the University of Arizona and at Lehigh University can be excused from class on Wiccan holidays like Beltane, which falls on May 1. And there’s enough interest in witchcraft and other pagan practices on college campuses to warrant a Web site — Collegewicca.com — devoted to helping student pagans “adapt to their unique situation.”

Among the questions tackled are dealing with school regulations as they apply to candles and incense in dorm rooms, “finding altar space,” “dealing with roommates” and (since these are college campuses we’re talking about) the indispensable “dealing with discrimination.” The site also assists aspiring pagans by providing information about local college pagan groups.

This still leaves the question: Why are students opting for paganism? One possibility is the influence of pop culture. But blaming it on the media raises the question of whether life is imitating art or whether art is imitating life. What’s more, it’s condescending to say that people are merely imitating what they see on television. People have reasons for choosing paganism over more traditional beliefs and it’s important, especially for people who disagree with those beliefs, to understand why.

Whatever else is going on, the interest in paganism represents a repudiation of secularism and its first cousin, scientism — the tendency to assume that science has more or less All the Answers. Most of the 20th century was an experiment in denying man’s spiritual nature. Both secularism and scientism told us that everything worth knowing or understanding lay within the realm of the empirically verifiable.

Whatever else you make of collegiate paganism, it’s obvious that people aren’t limiting their search for meaning and truth to the empirically verifiable. If anything, polling data suggests that Americans, or at least some of us, are willing to believe in just about anything. It’s in this context that this (to paraphrase Father Richard John Neuhaus) “pagan moment” should be seen. It’s part of a larger interest among all Americans in spiritual matters.

Notice that I said “spiritual,” not “Christian” or even “religious.” That’s because an essential part of this renewed interest in spirituality is the search for an alternative to biblical religion. As Thomas Wolfe, the dean of Syracuse’s Hendricks Chapel, put it, “there is a cultural shift with college students identifying themselves less as religious and more as spiritual.”

Why? Because “spiritual” is more in keeping with the zeitgeist — the spirit of the age. Religion comes from the Latin word “ligare,” which means “to bind.” And being bound, i.e., limited in any way, runs counter to our cultural obsession with personal autonomy. Calling ourselves “spiritual” is a way of rejecting secularism, which was personally and culturally unsustainable, without encumbering our freedom.

Someone who understands this is Anthony Paige, the author of Rocking the Goddess. Paige says that part of Wicca’s appeal lies in the fact that “there is no sense of sin.” While “there is a karmic law” that practitioners must take into account, they’re spared any sense of “scorn or condemnation” over their wrongdoing.

In other words, paganism, unlike Christianity, helps us to feel good about ourselves. It provides a sense of connection to a larger reality while leaving us unencumbered by any considerations of our personal failings.

Finally, there’s what you might call paganism’s “authenticity.” Shows like the Discovery Channel’s Before We Ruled the Earth tell viewers about role that shamanism — the invocation of animal and other spirits — played in the lives of ancient humans. It’s easy to come away with the sense that paganism is “natural” (i.e., good) and that monotheism, especially Christianity, and its “rigid” moral code and guilt-inducing ideas about sin and evil, is an interloper.

If that’s true, all I can say is “thank God for the interloper.” This interloper made the world that we in the West take for granted possible. Take, for instance, the American emphasis on the individual. It’s directly traceable to Martin Luther and St. Augustine of Hippo. The rule of law? It was Christianity that replaced the often ruthless and primitive legal systems that Europe inherited from paganism with a system based on justice. That’s why the preface to the first German legal code, the Sachsenspiegel, states “God is himself law and therefore law is dear to him.”

Art? As Bryan Appleyard, an art critic for the Times of London has written, “Western art was Christian, is Christian and, for the foreseeable future, can only be Christian.” It was Christianity, Appleyard tell us, which taught the West how to think and create. The same is also true of science and politics. Nearly everything that is truly humane about the world we inhabit is the product of the synthesis between biblical religion and the best of the Greco-Roman tradition we call Western Civilization.

What’s more, places like Lindow in England and Tollund in Denmark, where archeologists have found perfectly preserved victims of human sacrifice, give us a glimpse of paganism-as-actually-practiced as opposed to paganism-as-imagined.

I don’t bring this up to tar modern pagans with a prehistoric brush. (Although some critics of Christianity don’t hesitate to do the same to contemporary Christians.) I do it as an illustration of how much of our current fascination with paganism really is a search for a contemporary alternative to biblical faith — one without the moral code we find so limiting and objectionable — and not a search for religious and spiritual origins.

In that sense, it brings to mind a similar effort 200 years ago. Only then, the goal was to find a way to justify morality without reference to the supernatural. We call it the Enlightenment. In both instances, the ultimate goal is the same: to enjoy the benefits of biblical faith while disregarding what we find unacceptable about that faith.

The problem is that biblical faith isn’t divisible. What Christians believe about God, creation, justice and, yes, sin, are intertwined. These “unacceptable” ideas all helped make this world, which we like living in so much, possible.

Of course, you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy Christianity’s contributions to our way of life. As Father Neuhaus once put it, my Christian beliefs compel me to protect your non-Christian beliefs. Which leaves you free to deal with the matter of dorm regulations and finding altar space.

For more information about paganism, read The Hidden Traps of Wicca.

Copyright 2003 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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