I recently reviewed Philip Heselton’s latest biography of Gerald Gardner, but I did not have time to discuss one of his final observations, written in a too-brief closing chapter, “An Assessment of Gerald Gardner.”
Heselton writes, “Indeed, he really didn’t, I think, have any of what we might call ‘spiritual’ feelings: at any rate, he never wrote about any.” Nor, in his assessment, did Gardner believe in spirits or have any success at working magick on his own (640).
Think about that, the chief founder of a new Pagan religion who never had one of those knock-you-down experiences with the gods that convinces you that She, He, or They are really there. Compare, for example, the experience of Feraferia, Fred Adams, also back in the mid-1950s.
If he, Edith, and friends were talking about witchcraft during lazy days at the nudist camp in the late 1940s, they had a lot of concepts swirling around, concepts such as these:
- Witchcraft was merely a collection of psychic abilities available to everyone.
- It was spells and herbal curing and folklore and whatever, with no clear organization — just a soup of this and that.
- It was power given to someone after a pact with the Devil.
- It was power that you were born with, either for good or ill.
- It is a super-secret Pagan cult that survived 1,000 years of Christianity in western Europe (Margaret Murray’s view).
Somehow this vagueness and messiness of definition ties in — in my mind at least — with P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’s recent blog essay, “Bringing Back the Gods.”
What I am noticing more and more recently, however, is that modern Paganism is being purposefully defined so as to not include the gods. In recent weeks alone: Jonathan Korman has defined “the pagan sensibility” as not necessarily needing to include the gods; John Halstead has discussed the four centers of modern Paganism, but has portrayed the deity-centric forms of Paganism as inherently creedal; and here at Patheos’ Pagan Portal, Yvonne Aburrow has defined “theology” as “reasoning about the Divine” rather than “reasoning about the gods,” which is not remotely the same thing (on which more will be said in a moment).
For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.
On the “nature religion” part, I would suggest that non-theistic nature religion is rooted in 19th-century American thought, and Catherine Albanese tackled it well in Nature Religion in America and other writing. So it is not a reaction against contemporary polytheism originally, but a genuine spiritual current on its own. I have argued that the existence of that spiritual current made it easier for Pagans in the 1970s and 1980s to grab the “earth religion” label — partly as camouflage.
And some people just have not had that knock upside the head that leaves you saying, “All right, You are real and now we have some sort of relationship.”
I would agree that there is a cultural prejudice against polytheism. Some practitioners of what look like polytheism to us have maybe learned to emphasize a “Great Spirit” or “High God” behind them in order to avoid that label. It’s what you say when the missionaries have you backed into a corner.