Critiquing Pagan Studies

Several friends mentioned today an essay based on the Handbook of Contemporary Paganism   (Leiden: Brill, 2009) which in its abstract makes this critique:

[The essay] demonstrates that pagan studies is dominated by the methodological principles of essentialism, exclusivism, loyalism and supernaturalism, and shows how these principles promote normative constructions of ‘pure’ paganism, insider interpretations of the data, and theological speculations about gods, powers, and a special “magical consciousness.” It seems thus that the methodological discussions in MTSR have little effect on pagan scholars. In the concluding discussion, I raise the questions why this is so, and how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion.

I made an interlibrary-loan request for the article — or extended book review, whichever it is— and will read it with interest. Off-hand, I see a couple of issues. First, the one source is a reference book, one that sells for a high price and will be available in limited places.

In my experience, contributors (and I was one) to such books tend to summarize their work but not to break new ground. The new thinking appears in conference papers, in journals such as The Pomegranate, in monographs, and in more focused edited collections, as opposed to reference books.

Second, Pagan studies includes more than potential readership of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. In  Pomegranate alone you will find anthropologists, sociologists, folklorists, scholars of Western esotericism, and historians publishing as well as religious-studies scholars of various sorts. Their methodologies and theoretical perspectives are going to be different as well.

Nevertheless, Markus Altena Davidsen‘s  accusations of essentialism, exclusivism, loyalism, and supernaturalism are calculated to discredit the field by suggesting that its practitioners lack (from his perspective) theoretical rigor.

Ironically, those are the qualities that critics such as Ben Whitmore want to accuse scholars of Paganism of failing to display in sufficient quantity.

Without having yet read the article, I would say that Davidsen identifies a possible cliff that Pagan studies could go over. That it has indeed gone over such a cliff, I dispute.

To switch metaphors, I would not want to see scholars of Paganism build the walls of their own ghetto, and as much as I can, I will struggle against that impulse when it arises.