The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently released its landmark study, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” stating “that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country.” The report also says, “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all.” Some of us have suspected that trend for several decades, but the hard data – out there in black and white now – provides a sharp contrast to the shrill neo-conservative religious public rhetoric we’ve heard for the past 25 years.
What the report only hints at is the growth of so-called “Other Faiths,” which the Pew Forum study breaks out as Unitarian Universalist and other liberal faiths, New Age, and Native American. Pagans and Wiccans are listed separately under “New Age.” The Unitarian Universalist Association cites at least 217,000 members; 629,000 people self-identified as UU in the 2001 U.S. Census. By comparison, the American Religious Identification Survey, done in the same year, estimated 750,000 Wiccans, and another 70,000 non-Wiccan Pagans.
Meanwhile, I look around at my own Pagan community, considerably enlarged since I first registered the internet domain osireion.com several years ago. In that time, the new Pagan scholars and their research have become wider known, people like Ronald Hutton, Michael York and Sabina Magliocco. Most of us now understand that contemporary witchcraft is a modern phenomenon, the product of a particular European sub-current strongly influenced by the Industrial Revolution, liberal angst, and the poor scholarship of icons like Margaret Murray and Robert Graves.
While we Pagans adjust to the idea that we really can’t trace any particular lineage of continuous goddess-worship back to prehistoric times, we are still plagued by the divisive culture of sectarianism in which most of us were raised. We claim to be open-minded and different from the closed religious belief systems of our birth. Too often, however, I see Pagans taking pains to demarcate differences between traditions, examine lineages, define correct ideas, or on a much baser level, simply use the Pagan community as a theater in which to act out personal dysfunctions.
I believe that we westerners still labor under a sort of fundamentalism masquerading as a scientific mindset. Ever since the ages of exploration, science and reason exploded out of post-Renaissance Europe, we have placed physical and historical facts on a pedestal. In doing so, we have displaced the truths that arise out of the spiritually numinous.
Whereas we still struggle intellectually over whether the gods are real, the ancients were quite tolerant of the abundant diversity of beliefs and deities in their world. For the most part, the pre-monotheistic worldview did not presume the need for scientific fact to prove matters of faith. With no need to be either “right” or “wrong” about one’s deities, ancient pagans could live in relative peace in multi-cultural population centers.
In a past article, I wrote that “When you make your life a bridge, others will find their way across.” Having fallen into the pit of doctrinaire-thinking earlier in my life, I now enjoy learning as much as I can about the spiritual beliefs of others, since I can learn from every one of them I encounter.
At the annual PantheaCon conference in California in February, I had the chance to chat with my friend Christopher Penczak, whose recent book, “Ascension Magick,” takes on the task of reconciling New Age spirituality with modern Paganism. Christopher and I discussed how these two groups are highly squeamish about each other, but actually overlap to a great extent. And yet, the Pew Forum demographically grouped Pagans, Wiccans and “other New Age groups.” One could say that they did not understand the differences between those groups, or we could realize that they recognize our similarities.
For generations my family celebrated a dying and resurrected god named Jesus. Now I contemplate the dying and resurrected Osiris, the returning Persephone, the triumphant Inanna. My forgotten pre-Christian ancestors no doubt called on the spirits of certain plants, stones, springs and amulets to protect and heal them. Now I raise medicinal plants in my herb garden, and use crystals and amulets in my meditation and devotional practices. My brother is a successful banking executive, but only a few centuries ago, he would have been prohibited from that career by the church ban on usury. Instead, medieval merchants would have relied upon the Jews, who, deprived of land and basic freedoms with which to make a living, became experts in investment. Without this cross-beliefs exchange, western commerce would never have flourished.
Christopher made a comment to me that I will not soon forget: “Pagans in our time have not yet been able to articulate their myth; it’s hard for us to explain to outsiders what we believe.” In our Osireion classes for spiritual seekers, we increasingly see pilgrims coming together from many paths. We support each other in a mutual search for truth, but we understand that truth is not the same as fact, and that each of our truths may be expressed through a different myth. This dialogue inside our Pagan groups will eventually result in our being able to articulate our own myths to the broader public, giving us grounds for sharing and exchange.
My recent trip to a reception held by the Parliament of the World’s Religions gave me a small glimpse of what is possible when people of faith put aside their differences to recognize and celebrate all that we have in common. In my new role as the executive director of Cherry Hill Seminary, I also face every day the fascinating challenges of bringing together very diverse individuals and groups for the common purpose of education for public ministry.
During this age of religious change, Pagans have the opportunity to make our individual lives and our corporate community a bridge to a better world. I challenge all of us to look for opportunities to build, strengthen and fabulously decorate that bridge, making it a well-traveled highway for everyone who looks for life’s meaning.