Oil and water. As Sarah Pike admits early on, the New Age movement and contemporary Pagan religions (the term “Neopagan,” popularized in the 1970s, is less and less used by insiders), view each other with suspicions. Pagans consider New Agers to be “too focused on money and ‘white light,’” while New Agers reject the dramatic personae created by some Pagans, particularly Goth Witches and ceremonial magicians. Yet both camps, she argues convincingly, have at least some roots in nineteenth-century American religious ferment. Both are children of H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, to the extent to which the T.S. put ideas of karma, reincarnation, and secret wisdom into the popular mind.
Neither contemporary Pagan religions nor New Age movements are typical new religious movements as NRMs are often conceived. There is no single charismatic leader (particularly among the Pagans) and no physical separation from the world, other than in the temporary autonomous zones of the Pagan festival, about which Pike wrote earlier in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community. On the other hand, New Agers might be the people most likely to label themselves “spiritual but not religious,” for as Pike points out, much of the New Age movement takes place in a therapist-client relationship. Pagans, meanwhile, vocally seek the status of “religion,” even taking to the courts to seek access to public religious functions (such as permission to offer invocations before public meetings), lobbying for their own military headstones, creating prison ministries, and otherwise requesting space on the religious spectrum.
What the two groups have in common, Pike writes, are eclectic traditions of spiritual creativity, a rhetoric of interconnectedness between humans and the nonhuman world, and the feeling that they must “try to change self and society.” In these, they are the heirs of Blavatsky, Andrew Jackson Davis, and all the other creative religious figures of the nineteenth-century. They differ, however, in that while New Agers tend to be future-oriented, seeing themselves as a “vanguard of consciousness,” Pagans often look to an idealized past for inspiration. Both groups claim reverence for nature, although Pagans are more likely to seek cosmic attunement through ritual timed by celestial bodies, while New Agers hunt personal transformation at Sedona and Mount Shasta.
In seeking the beginnings of American Paganism, Pike perhaps leaps too quickly to the key decade of the 1960s. Here an old problem reasserts itself. Does chronology imply causation, or is that merely the post hoc fallacy? Does listing the publication of Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which served as template for the Neopagan Church of all Worlds (1961), the assassination of President Kennedy (1963) and the first Moon landing (1969), among other items, really tell us anything about the counterculture of the time? It should also be understood that in the Pagan movement, at least, many of the key early figures were not “countercultural” in a Sixties sense, although they may have been educated bohemians. To note, for example, that the small but influential Pagan group Feraferia was founded in 1967 and then link that date to anti-Vietnam War protest is to miss the fact that Feraferia’s founders were already well down their Pagan path in the late 1950s and only filed incorporation papers in 1967.
Likewise, she mistakenly lists Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, an inspirational text for much of the new Pagan movement, has having been published in 1966. But it pre-dated the Psychedelic Sixties: it was in fact published in 1948 and had already influenced Feraferia founder Frederick Adams in the 1950s. Similarly, Witchcraft Today, written by Wicca founder Gerald Gardner in the early 1950s and published in 1954, was already being read—and acted upon—by Americans before the Sixties arrived.
She is on safe ground in asserting that both Pagan and New Age ideas of the self and their basically optimistic worldviews were part of a larger mid-century shift in American religiosity. If seeds were already planted, they blossomed more profusely during the 1965-1975 period.
Emulsifying oil and water, Pike has placed both Pagans and New Agers within a late twentieth-century move towards the “increasing personalization of religion.” The next step may be to modify the “charismatic leader” model of NRMs and replace it with the fluid, self-created structures typified by these groups, which, in the case of the new Pagan religions, may turn out to be the most successful NRMs of the past century.
Chas S. Clifton
Colorado State University-Pueblo
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