Creating a Pagan Culture

by Michael Ream


Harken back to the days of high school, when strep throat was a common ailment, seemingly always on the verge of an epidemic. Remember also your friendly neighborhood doctor or school nurse sticking that long Q-tip in your mouth, then smearing it on a jelly-filled Petrie dish. In the medical parlance this is known as making a culture. It basically boils down to taking something from the larger environment, isolating it, giving it the nutrients it needs and letting it thrive. Whether you are cultivating bacteria, plants or your faith, the process is the same: create an isolated, nurturing environment and sustainability will result.

So many of us, myself included, have spent tremendous amounts of time and energy trying to get ourselves and our faith accepted by the larger communities we live and interact in. Several years ago, while doing a local tv news interview about being Wiccan, a friend of mine made the statement that he "wished he could be ignored about his faith." The point he was trying to make was that he wanted the overall Pagan community to be so commonplace as to not be of any interest except to those who practiced this faith. Unfortunately, there are some harsh realities we must come to terms with. No matter how hard we try, not everyone is going to like us or believe what we have to say about our religion. In a day and age when a Protestant university can openly proclaim that the Catholic Church is a satanic sect, how can we expect close-minded hypocrites to embrace our religious world view?

Shouldn't we be striving for acknowledgement rather than acceptance? When the Jehovah's Witnesses come a-knockin', I acknowledge that interrupting my cornflakes and cartoons on Saturday morning is fundamental to their faith, but I don't necessarily have to openly accept any of their teachings as valid for me, or even valid. I can either stand there, smile and say thanks but no thanks, or more likely hide under a blanket and hope they don't realize I'm home. Either way they are being true to their doctrine and I'm being true to mine.

I am not suggesting we run screaming back into our broom closets. Just the opposite - we should be as openly Pagan as we can afford to be while avoiding the "convert syndrome." Remember when you were first walking along this spiritual path and just wanted to share your giddy happiness with anyone who would listen? Or have you known someone who recently gave up smoking and spends all their time trying to convince everyone in earshot how bad smoking is? This is but the first of many pitfalls that await not only pagans and smokers, but anyone who is granted the gift of a new empowering perspective. We need to support and protect our own, because until we do we gain no credibility. Let me make one thing prefectly clear - I am taking a separatist view. We need our own space to grow in.

Historically speaking, cultural isolationism is a viable option. A quintessential example are immigrants who came over to this country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you were uprooting your whole life to move to a foreign land, you would at least want to live around people who understood you. From this, ethnic neighborhoods developed. Even today, nearly every major city in the U.S. has a Chinatown. If you're Jewish, it's preferable to be within walking or short driving distance from your synogogue. These enclaves serve as a form of filter between Old and New World views.

Most of us are first-generation Pagan, discovering our calling during our teens and early adulthoods. We first had to work through the quagmire of the established faith we were raised in. I was raised as a Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic schools from second grade all the way through college. The church was so intricately weaved into my life and the lives of my friends that it seemed impossible to separate the two. For all their faults, our parents tried to instill in us a sense of faith through community. Whether they can see it or not, that lesson has stuck with some of us, even if the specific faith has changed. We can learn a valuable lesson from these experiences. People with strong religious convictions are compelled to pass along their traditions to their children in the hopes that the children will someday accomplish more than their parents could. Don't our children deserve the same from us?

Ideally, we would send our children to private Pagan schools centered in our predominately Pagan neighborhoods. Realistically, these are far-away goals, not to be abandoned but to be placed in their proper priority. Before we can gain acceptance we must first be acknowledged. Before we can be acknowledged we need to be recognized. Before we can be recognized by others, we have to recognize the power we can wield. I'm not speaking of magical power, but rather economic and political power.

From the influx of witches on television to a local Barnes and Noble expanding its "New Age" section from two bookcases to an entire aisle, freemarket capitalism is groping to embrace our disposable income. In turn, we must provide a focus as much for ourselves as for those who want to offer us goods and services. Waiting for the divinations of market analysis to tell retail conglomerates to start stocking cauldrons and athames will only delay our cause. All variations of earth-centered religions are grass-roots by nature (no pun intended). Since we worship locally, we should obviously shop locally too, frequent local eateries, haunt independent bookstores, support your self-employed artistic friends, truly live in your neighborhood. Don't just park your car and hide inside your home wondering why there's no Pagan outreach programs.

Obviously, not all of us are cut out to be the leaders of Goddess-based charities, but what about charities that are already well-established? Why can't a grove participate as a walk-a-thon team for Special Olympics, or a coven organize a local food/clothing drive for the homeless? Druids and shamans can volunteer to clean an area beach or park. Somehow, I can't see Jerry Lewis rejecting our bake sale money. As important as it is to us, we need to do more than just gather for rituals and cast spells by the light of the moon. The Gods will only do so much for us; we need to work in their names in the greater world for their blessings to flow upon us.

Let's not forget the unearthly realm of politics. Ever since a second-rate actor seized the throne of democracy, we have witnessed the power of the "religious right." This seems a bit one-sided to me. Shouldn't there be a "religious left" for counterbalance? Please understand, I refute the idea that just because you're Pagan, you should lock-step with the Democratic party. In fact, I had a friend who was a gay Republican witch. You don't see many of them out in the wild. Yet, because we are Pagan, we need to be more politically aware. Our First Amendment right of freedom of religion should not be assumed as a given. On June 24, 1999, while on Good Morning America, presidential hopeful George W. Bush was asked about a controversial Wiccan coven on a Texas military base. The Republican golden boy responded, "I don't think witchcraft is a religion and wish the military would take a look at this and decide against it." Here is a man vying for the political position that appoints Supreme Court justices, who in turn can reconsider the worthiness of our faith.

The implementation of a Pagan culture will not be easy, nor should it be. We must always test the courage of our convictions. Yes, your neighbor may give you a wide berth when they see you walking down the street. You will probably get nasty little notes on your cars about being a devil worshipper. You may even become estranged from family and friends. These are all things that one must consider before openly proclaiming to be a child of the Goddess. If not now, when? Maybe we should individually approach our patron deities and ask for the gift of tenacity. Ghandi, Malcolm X and John Lennon never truly enjoyed the comforts of the establishment, yet the ripples of their tenaciousness are still being felt. If 12 Jews and a guy with a messiah complex could become the biggest game in town in 300 years, how long can it possibly take us to be woven into the fabric of our neighborhoods?