Zealots remain plentiful, but the statistically average young American is losing religion. But even as major faiths and major research universities part ways, an ancient religion is reconstituting itself on campus. Paganism isn’t on the march — that would imply a level of organization antithetical to the faith — but it is on the rise. An all-you-can-eat buffet of naturalistic practice, polytheism, social awareness, and environmentalism, modern Paganism is both the outgrowth of Europe’s neolithic neuroses and a belief system well-suited to a generation grappling with the idea of privilege and rejecting the bromides offered by powerful institutions.
Paganism has always been a spiritual insurgency. The umbrella term was only created in the fourth century, once Christianity established itself as a dominant religion and the pre-Christian religions of Europe began to be collectively dismissed. From the Roman word paganus came pagan — a person who stayed true to their native customs.
Now, there is a certain irony to that etymology. Paganism has become a reproach to ditch America’s reflexive puritanism.
“Modern Paganism’s main appeal is as an alternative to traditional religions like Christianity,” Michael Strmiska, a visiting professor of religious studies at Masaryk University, tells Inverse. “Not all Pagans accept the label of Pagan, but from a scholarly point of view, their common denominator is an attempt to recreate and revision pre-Christianity.”
The Contemporary Pagan Movement includes, but isn’t limited to, a variety of branches including Wicca, Goddess Spirituality, and Pagan Reconstructionist religions — those of the Nordic, Druidic, Egyptian, and Greek. Strmiska says that it’s his estimate that Wicca is the most popular form of Paganism in the U.S., followed by Norse Paganism, then Celtic Paganism in close or equal appeal.
Over the past two decades, followers of these faiths have experienced increased visibility: Wiccans, for example, can be found as chaplains in hospitals and prisons; as members of the armed forces. In 2007, after decades-long litigation, Wicca followers received permission from the Department of Veteran Affairs to have the symbol of the pentacle etched onto the military gravestones of fallen Wicca soldiers. The Army has been playing a role in mitigating misconceptions about Paganism since the 1975 — in an official guide produced that year for chaplains working with non-traditional religious soldiers, it emphasizes that Wiccans do not, in fact, worship Satan.
Because the federal census does not ask about religious affiliation, it’s hard to say exactly how many people identify as Pagans in the U.S. But current estimates conducted by scholars suggest there are between 500,000 and one million Americans who identify as Pagans. Not enough to be mainstream, but critical mass — enough to guarantee widespread exposure to the religion’s practices. And a lot of that exposure is happening on college campuses even as those campuses deal with cultural upheaval.
In 1998 the Pagan Educational Network received its first request from a student who wanted to start her own on-campus pagan group. Now colleges from the University of Texas to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have their own student pagan groups, while institutions such as the University of Arizona allow Pagan-identified students to be excused from class on Wiccan holidays.
Az is a vice president of the Pagan Student Union and a sophomore at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County. They (Az’s pronoun of choice) were raised in a New Age Catholic home and began to look towards Pagan faiths about seven years ago. While Az was first interested in Wicca, they now worship a hybrid of Pagan faiths.
“I think one of the things that really helped solidify for me that Paganism was the path for me was the almost complete freedom I had,” Az says. “There is no one holy text we all must read, there is no organized church service which is mandatory to attend, there is no concept of original sin or any pressure to be perfect people. Paganism is exactly what you want it to be.”
This emphasis on acceptance and personal sensibilities appeal to the young, spiritual crowd, according to Syracuse University’s Pagan Chaplain Mary Hudson. Hudson has been a religious advisor on campus for 14 years and a chaplain for six. When she was first asked to be an advisor she was only approached by a handful of students — now she regularly interacts with an upwards of 16 to 25 students as well faculty and staff. She is headquartered in Hendricks Chapel in Syracuse, a situation she finds faintly amusing.
“A chapel, which is what I work out of, is probably about the last place that anybody who identifies in a Pagan faith would go to try to find a group to belong to,” laughs Hudson. “But everybody goes, ‘Oh you need a Pagan? Go to the church.’”
Hudson says that she doesn’t yet consider Paganism a mainstream religion but does believe it has become more normalized and accepted.
“There is still a great deal of misunderstanding and misconception about what it [Paganism] means and what it is that self-identified faiths practice and how they integrate that faith into the world and into their lives,” Hudson says. “That’s why I think that while it’s becoming more known, the numbers are such that it’s still very much — all the specific faiths — are still very much minority religions.”
Still, Hudson emphasizes that, at Syracuse, Pagans have become part of the fabric of campus culture. When she engages with rituals, she does so on campus, in the quad, at an altar of four stones laid into the ground symbolizing the cardinal points. She notes that religious policies are changing at different university campuses across the country; many allow for days of observed worship for inter-faith students.
Just because modern Pagans are largely inspired by the Pagan religions of the past, doesn’t mean they follow the sort of inherited wisdom that often turns out not to be wisdom at all. Paganism is, in practice, fluid and embracing of fluidity. Because the concept of sin doesn’t hold the tent pole high, practitioners can embrace, say, gender fluidity without worrying too much about outmoded mores. The religion shares a great deal with the more liberal “natural theology” doctrine espoused by Catholic thinkers since Thomas Aquinas, who argued in his blockbuster work Summa Theologica that religious scholars must balance the pronouncements of the divine with evidence of intention in creation itself.
For the same reason that people are drawn to Pope Francis, who has gone out of his way to speak about mankind’s relationship with the environment and science, those who prefer trees to texts are moving towards Paganism.
“The value that most Pagans place on reviving our connections with the land, the Earth, and our nonhuman kin,” says Adrian Ivakhiv, “We might think of that as the future-directed side of things, since our future depends on finding a better relationship with all of those things.”
Ivakhiv is a environmental studies professor at the University of Vermont and sits on the board of the International Journal of Pagan Studies. He’s not a fan of labels so he doesn’t self-identify as Pagan, but admits his interest is personal. He thinks Paganism is becoming more accepted in the mainstream because the dimensions of what is considered mainstream are changing. He sees Americans turned off by the organized parts of organized religion, left with nowhere to put their spirituality. He also sees the movement as less about paleolithic nostalgia and more about optimism.
The extreme version of this spiritual naturalism is Humanistic Paganism, which may be the least organized faith of them all. John Halstead, the managing editor of the website Humanistic Paganism, is quick to point out that many people on his branch of the Pagan tree don’t believe in God-like figures at all.
“I was raised Mormon, so I have a Christian background,” Halstead says. “What drew me to paganism was a handful of things – one was I think there is a growing consciousness among people generally, religious and not, about climate change and our need to be more responsible towards the Earth…. It was a religion that seemed to me to be consistent with the most up-to-date science of our day.”
In humanistic Paganism, people use what Halstead describes as “God-language” — theistic type language that uses God-like archetypes or metaphors when speaking about nature. To him the Earth needs to be treated as a sacred entity; as something that needs to be protected and celebrated in a religious way. Strange to say, but he talks like an astronaut.
While the Paganism in the U.S. is, in Michael Strmiska’s words, “thriving”, there are also successful Pagan movements in Europe, Canada, and Australia. John Halstead says that community efforts like the “Pagan Community Statement on the Environment reminds him of the broadness of Paganism — so far the call to protect the ecosystem has received nearly 7,000 signatures from people all over the planet.
Like any faith, with increasing membership comes new problems and responsibilities. In her essay on the future of Paganism, the recently deceased Margot Adler, a longtime NPR correspondent and Wiccan priestess, said that while modern Paganism brought many good things to the movement, they must be careful of the corruption of normalcy.
“There is a downside to the mainstream,” wrote Adler. “Our movement remains important partly because of its critique of monotheistic and patriarchal religions. Will that critique be lost or watered down as Paganism takes its rightful place as a respected religion?”
This remains an open question, but one being mulled by an increasing number of people. Given the choice between the chapel and the woods, many — probably most — will still choose the chapel. But that won’t make the choice any less culturally significant. History is shaped by both institutions and their alternatives. Paganism will remain the latter. For now.