Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Pagans are not a Community nor a Tribe -- Not Yet

The lively discussion at The Wild Hunt over "moving on from Paganism" should put an end to the notion that Pagans constitute a "tribe" or a "community."

Not yet, anyway. We are still part of modern society with its cafeteria spirituality.

Many Pagans, such as Emma Restall Orr in her book that I recently reviewed, are fond of the idea of "tribe."

Jews, for example, are a tribe (or several). A Jew might never cross the threshold of shul, synagogue, or temple--may even be an avowed atheist--but he or she is still a Jew. Only conversion to one of the other Abrahamic faiths might change that fact -- after a time -- and even then, you still have "crypto-Jews" popping up. (Everyone wants to be special.)

A Navajo Indian might follow traditional religion, Mormonism, some kind of Christianity, or the Peyote Road, but is still a Navajo.

What we have is a network, not a community nor a tribe. Maybe in a few generations that will change, who knows? (For you anthro and sociology majors, it is the Gemeinschaft / Gesellschaft issue, no?)

Everytime I hear someone going on about "the Pagan community," I say to myself, "Not yet." Not when you can walk in and walk out so easily.



Blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters said...

I've been increasingly fond of using the term "movement" instead of "community" when referring to the various modern Paganisms. Though I find myself slipping back into the "c-word" out of habit.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Deborah said...

You make a cogent argument against Paganism as a "tribe," but "community" is a different word and the argument against it is necessarily different. I don't think you've made that argument. I'd be interested to see you do so.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...


Let's make an appeal to authority and see what Random House says:

1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
--Nope, that's not us. No locale, no government.

2. a locality inhabited by such a group.
--Not us either.
3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the): the business community; the community of scholars.
--Possibly us, to the extent we see ourselves as distinct. In fact, that political definition come closest.
4. a group of associated nations sharing common interests or a common heritage: the community of Western Europe.
5. Ecclesiastical. a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule.
--No common life here.
6. Ecology. an assemblage of interacting populations occupying a given area.
7. joint possession, enjoyment, liability, etc.: community of property.
8. similar character; agreement; identity: community of interests.
--Another possible, but I would say that the interests are often chiefly political, in other words, being taken seriously as a "real religion(s)."
9. the community, the public; society: the needs of the community.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Peg A said...

I have also been more prone to use "movement" as in "Neo-pagan movement" myself in recent years.

I recall the awful years of trying to create "pagan unity" vis the Witches' Voice website. It was amazing; people actually seemed determined NOT to become unified, all the while discussing how to make it happen...

I think we're just too insecure as individuals, too desirous of being unique, to know how to make it work. But that is not to say we have not formed a tribal-style community on many levels.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Pombagira said...

i like Movement to describe Modern Pagans... *nods*...

hmm.. the Pagan Movement with its imagined community (opps am at work and cant quite remember the dude who came up with 'imagined community' *frowns* but it fits..

a Movement with an imagined community, which comes out of its mythologically created history which harkens back to an bygone error of small villages with village witches. And has veiled promises of induction in to the mysterious and the secrete...

opps rambling...

but still i really like Movement as opposed to Community.. *nods*


4:02 PM  
OpenID dawa-lhamo-9 said...

We are not a community, no, nor a tribe, but we have small (micro) communities, I think. (Using a blending of definitions 1 and 2 - with no government as such.)

I usually just think of it as my family, because that how I grew up with it. *shrugs*

But then I know there are lots of pagans who don't have that. Is it something they want or need? Would it be a good thing for the rest of us? I honestly don't know.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

I tend to think we are a community by definition #3. We perceive ourselves as distinct. It's almost self-fulfilling; we are a community because we perceive ourselves to be a community.

Certainly there are sub-communities within the larger community, and we are not homogenous, but I don't think that's a requirement.

I think "movement" is also descriptive only of a sub-set, because Pagans who are simply practicing their religion and living in a way they feel reflects that may have no sense of themselves as part of a movement. Sort of, there are gays and gay activists, Jews and Zionists, I think there are Pagans who are, and are not, part of a "Pagan movement."

We are certainly in a process of becoming more of a community, or of communities, whereas we will not be a tribe for a hundred years, if at all.

6:34 PM  
Anonymous Aron said...

I have been a self-described Pagan for twenty years, "simply practicing my religion and living in a way I feel reflects that". I most certainly see myself as part of the Pagan Movement, but NOT necessarily a Pagan community. To me the analogy with the Gay Movement doesn't work. The struggle for gay rights is activism; in my thinking, the "Pagan Movement" refers not just to activism but a much broader cultural shift. It's the "paganizing" of Western civilization that's in question, and though I worship without coreligionists I most definitely count myself as part of that process.

9:18 PM  
Blogger DarklyFey said...

I like the term 'movement' as well, but still think that we can embrace definition # 3. We're still very young as a movement and I think some pagans who come to it via bad books tend to forget that.

I'm amazed that one person's leaving paganism behind in favour of atheism is stirring up so much discussion, but I'm also excited by this as well. I enjoy the question "Who are we as a movement?" and I enjoy the diversity found in the answers.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Pax said...


Give the passion and effort folks are giving and going through to discuss this very issue, doesn't that show that there are some seeds of community?

Given that so many of us care about this issue, aren't we a community? Can't we take this caring and passion and use it to move towards the goals of improving our movement, helping it blossom into community?


2:19 PM  
OpenID annehill said...

I think using the term "movement" goes pretty much to the heart of Jason's question about why people with a more philosophical bent are bowing out of a Pagan identity. Movements need motion to remain stable, and they have a goal (in this case I'd agree that it is largely a political one) which creates a group identity. But without the sensation of gaining ground, or an opposition to re-galvanize their identity, the movement fractures and turns into many things, least of which is a community in any sense of the word.

I tend to agree with you that we are a network, but it is more complicated than that. I have a circle of many Pagan friends I consider my community, therefore I am part of a Pagan community. We do not always identify with, agree with, or even tolerate others who call themselves Pagans, so I don't agree with those who use the term "community"--not to mention "tribe"--more broadly.

What this looks like is indeed a network of affinity-based communities, some overlapping and some quite distinct, yet mostly connected in a Venn-diagram-on-acid kind of way.

And I agree with Aron that the "paganizing of Western civilization" is the most interesting thing going on here. I could give a shit if Pagans develop a stronger group identity. But the incorporation of Pagan values and ethics into the mainstream--now that's something to watch.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Noira said...

Actually, i am doing field research among Czech Neopagans (a post-communist country of mine) and so far my hypothesis is being confirmed: Czech Neopagans have very ambivalent feelings about the term "Pagan community" which is slowly becoming accepted as a Western concept. It´s no wonder if you considerr that the movement has only emerged here in late 1990´s, from 2 opposing sources: the New Age milieu and the ultra-right nationalist circles.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

My thoughts on this are at MetaPagan: Spirituality, identity and community (where I have gathered links to most of the other bloggers commenting on it and on related issues).

If there is a Pagan community in sense #3, then I think it's a plurality of communities. There are certain groups which are not welcoming to certain other groups.

One thing which is problematic is that different groups have different criteria for membership; in some it's participation, in others it's identifying as the thing, or values, or beliefs, or practices, or a combination of all of these. So until we know what being a Pagan includes, and how identity becomes membership, perhaps we won't have a community in the fullest sense.

I personally want the term Pagan to embrace as much as possible without becoming meaningless; I want it to include atheist Pagans and non-theist Pagans; I would prefer it be about values rather than beliefs.

3:21 AM  
Blogger dscarron said...

The Pagan "community" has been a scene for quite some time. A community has responsablity and ethics that in an environment of anything goes will not fly.

I will suggest that the Asatru community does have many aspects of a community but is in it's infancy.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Pitch313 said...

This discussion got me thinking enough to put up a blog post of my own, not just make a comment--What do We Want to Call PAGANISM? How About A FANDOM?


12:06 PM  
Blogger Kitty said...

I agree with Yewtree in wanting the Pagan definition to be as broad as possible and to include all levels of theism. There should always be a type of liberty in the Pagan world, paralleling the ancient world.

However, I too have to sadly acknowledge that this type of attitude (in part!) has created more of a gesellshaft, or as Pitch says, a fandom. And this touches all parts of Paganism, including Asatru. We are a faith group - not a bunch of comic book readers.

I would like to also say that there are some pagan communities out there, such as large, established Wiccan covens and the OTO, but for the rest of the world, we have to wait some time.

10:05 PM  
Blogger ColoradoCelt said...

I hear what you are saying about the word "Tribe". I so personally use the term. For me it is an ideal, one that represents my own yearning for a group of people bound not only by blood but also history and a shared view of what constitutes a good life.

Now I will be the first to admit that if I held my "tribe" up to the standards of the Hopi or Ute, that I would be a pal reflection of such a thing. I hope, however, the the concept of "tribe" will draw others to share their time and experiences with me, and so create one over the slow steady pace of time.

I have been a part of a community here in the Springs for almost 7 years now. People have come and gone, but there has always been a strong sense of fellowship and care. Perhaps there simply is no words to describe what constitutes a pagan "community/tribe/movement". I honestly can't say.

But I do know this. If paganism is to have any future we have to believe that tribe *can* exist.

4:27 PM  

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