This is another in my series on climate change and religion in the US. I have already written on Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, mainline Protestant Christianity, African-American Protestant Christianity, and Islam.
American paganism is misunderstood, hard to define, and, for many, plain unfamiliar. It is the subject of active discrimination in some circles, to the extent that many pagans hide their religion for their own safety–a measure of how different the pagan continuum is from the religious experience of most Americans.
Related to that discrimination is the fact that it’s possible to discredit someone by accusing them of paganism (or witchcraft, or anything related). Sometimes environmentalists are accused of being pagan in this sense. The implied–and much more problematic–accusation is that environmentalism is pagan.
Some pagan environmentalists would, of course, agree that environmentalism is pagan, in much the same way that a Christian might say that ministering to the poor and the sick is Christian. But imagine a country in which Christians are suspect and the problem becomes clearer to see; perhaps some Roman aristocrat, on the way home from the Colosseum, decided that if charity is Christian than he certainly wasn’t going to give any of his money away….
So, to be clear, environmentalism is not pagan, any more than individualism, compassion, or creativity are. Probably, most American environmentalists are Christians.
Technically, “pagan” just means “not Christian,” or sometimes “non-Judeo-Christian.” In the US and in some other places, the word usually replies to the neopagan movement, a large group of religions and religious sects that generally attempt to revive or re-imagine the pre-Christian traditions from Europe. The most well-known of these religions is Wicca. Some pagans call themselves witches (a male witch is also a witch), but others do not.
Most of what most people know about these religions is wrong.
The neopagan religions are not, as a group, organized. Most are not organized in any sense. There is no one with the authority to tell pagans what to believe or do, and no one with the authority to say who is pagan and who is not. Even consulting polls is problematic, because pagans are not always willing to identify themselves to pollsters. And there aren’t very many of us, so pollsters don’t always bother to ask. Probably, around 0.2% of the American population is neopagan in one way or another.
Fortunately, I am pagan, and therefore know something about it already.
It is important to reiterate that there is more than one neopagan religion and that their edges are fluid and fuzzy. For example, is an agnostic who celebrates the winter solstice pagan? What about a witch who casts spells but doesn’t believe in the gods? Or a New Age practitioner who worships Jesus and his wife, Mary Magdalene? Are people who follow traditional Native American practices or African Diaspora religions, like Santeria or Voudou, pagans in this sense of the word, or is there some important difference to be respected there? There are many answers to these questions–probably as many answers as there are pagans. It is important to approach any study of the movement with this fluidity and fuzziness in mind.
I’m not going to describe the neopagan movement in any detail here. There are plenty of books and websites on the subject already. As a broad generalization, neopagan religions tend to be polytheistic, egalitarian, and individualistic. Most have no concept of the devil, and may lack a conception of evil. Neopagans tend to be both feminist and socially liberal. Many (though not all) are “Earth-centered,” meaning that they recognize the Earth as inherently sacred or even divine.
Pagans as Climate Activists
Earth-centered religions have obvious doctrinal support for environmental action; the Earth is sacred. And perhaps because most of these religions are only a few decades old, there is no conflict between ancient cosmology and modern science–neopagans might question, or even abandon mainstream science (many believe in magic), but that is an expression of resistance to having a set cosmology, a kind of radical open-mindedness. There is no reason for a neopagan to doubt climate science and I know of none who do.
But do pagans actually act on that support to do something about climate change?
Well, this one does–I write this blog. But this blog is not religious in nature and, before today, there was nothing in it to suggest its author’s religion. The same is probably true of most other pagan environmentalists, people going about acting on their conscience without ever discussing their religious lives publicly–either because it isn’t safe or because it just isn’t relevant.
Many neopagans are either unaffiliated with any religious organization, or they practice in small, private groups. Organized groups of pagans exist, but they under-represent the whole. Lacking anything analogous to a church, most pagans cannot engage in climate action in anything except a personal or secular capacity–they may be motivated by an underlying religious conviction, but it is hard to know that without asking. That makes it hard to find out what the impact of paganism on climate action really is.
Here, again, the “fuzziness” of neopaganism is relevant, for while a climate activist might be pagan without showing it, he or she might also show paganism without being it. For example, at my graduate school, the environmental studies department (that is, the department actively training people to do something about climate change) had a tradition of beginning each semester (and occasionally marking other significant events) by ceremonially reenacting this history of the universe in mythic terms–the stage right before the Big Bang was the Cosmic Egg, for example. That ceremony was non-denominational Neopagan in both flavor and structure, to the point that at least one Christian student chose not to attend. Nor was that ceremony the only pagan element of the school’s traditions. Yet the only member of the department’s faculty to identify his religion publicly was Christian. Generally, no one, faculty or student, talked about religion one way or the other. My guess is that most were agnostic or atheist and that they participated in the school’s traditions as a form of play, or out of a vague sense that it resonated with aspects of their private spirituality. The school could not be said to be religious.
And yet, public play that resonates with private, unspoken, spirituality is very pagan. The neopagan movement takes much of its inspiration from a form of religion that was based in community tradition and in those cultures’ equivalent of scientific knowledge–their understanding of how the world worked and why. The original European pagans probably conducted their ceremonies in exactly the same spirit that my grad school did. We may have been what a neopagan community acting on climate change looks like.
Bringing It All Together
There are neopagans writing or speak publicly about climate change in a religious context. I have not done a rigorous study of such work, but most of what I have encountered consists of pagans exploring how pagan ideas map onto what science tells us about climate change. They are not calling for other pagans to get involved, nor are they wrestling with whether climate change is real or important, possibly because they regard both as forgone conclusions. Rather, the underlying question seems to be whether neopagan practice has anything of its own to add to the conversation.
It is possible that looking for self-declared pagan climate activists is beside the point.
Perhaps paganism as a group of religions is hard to define because it is and always has been a default category applied by other people–pagans are those who are not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim, and so forth. Perhaps our society as a whole is growing towards a realization that the Earth is sacred–that is, that it is of central and existential importance to us as humans. Each religion expresses that realization in a different way, and the growing popularity of Earth-centered religions among what might be called ceremonially inclined religious individualists is just another expression of that movement.
In other words, neopagans do not lead, drive, define, or even exemplify caring about the planet. But the societal shift that made that caring possible made us possible as well.