Reform among the (people who study) Pagans

Journal of "Pagan Studies" In need of a new name?

Journal of “Pagan Studies” In need of a new name?

For some time now, a debate has been rolling about the status of “pagan studies” as a field of academic research. It’s not that there’s been any doubt about the importance of studying contemporary paganisms; on the contrary, academic as well as mainstream interest in reconstructionist pagan groups as well as magical groups along the lines of Wicca and Thelema, still appears (anecdotally) on the increase. The problem has rather been with the aims and goals of pagan studies as a prospective discipline, as well as the approaches advocated for studying it. In an article just published in The Pomegranate – the foremost (or, rather, the only) peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to this field – the up-and-coming (and highly productive) scholar, Ethan Doyle White (known from the Albion Calling blog), argues that the time has come for reform.

The issue of whether or not pagan studies follows accepted scholarly methods was catapulted into the academic pagan discourse as an apple of discord in 2012, when Markus Altena Davidsen (here cast in the role of Eris) published a review article in MTSR, entitled “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Davidsen argued that at least four things are wrong: it’s dominated by the methodological principles of essentialism (there is a “pure” essence of “pagan spirituality”), exclusivism (pagans are pagans period), loyalism (the job of the pagan scholar is to service the pagan community), and supernaturalism (the gods are real). The following year, an entire panel was devoted to Davidsen’s critique at the American Academy of Religion – and published in The Pomegranate vol. 15. 1-2.

Responses from paganism scholars divided into two camps: those who outright dismissed the critique as wrongheaded or even sinister, and those who conceded some of its points while regretting its tone and tact. Moreover, several participants in this debate started contrasting pagan studies with the study of esotericism. This is perhaps understandable, since not only do these two fields share a considerable degree of overlap in subject matter – more rudimentary forms of Davidsen’s critique were also being raised by some scholars of esotericism around that same time (including Kocku von Stukcrad, Kennet Granholm, and the present author).

Back in 2013, Doyle White belonged to the second camp of scholars who understood the critique but defended the field (see his “In Defense of Pagan Studies”). Reading the new contribution, one gets the impression that the critique has settled and matured somewhat. The hesitation is gone: Here is a complete, confident argument for revising the field, pretty much in the direction that Davidsen suggested. Moreover, and this is half the reason why I want to devote a post to the issue, Doyle White brings out his argument for reform through an interesting comparison with the study of esotericism.

While there are a number of other aspects to Doyle White’s intervention, the basic argument is this: “Pagan studies” has failed to professionalize and normalize within the study of religion, and this is in part due to uncertainties about what it is the field studies and how it studies it. On the “what” issue, many scholars have operated on the assumption (largely attributable to the influence of Michael York’s Pagan Theology [2003])  that there is some immutable and timeless essence to “paganism” (whether related to “polytheism”, “nature worship”, or something else) which means that it can be found all over the world in different periods. On this assumption, “pagan studies” has been construed not simply as the study of contemporary reconstructionist groups that refer to themselves as “pagans” and draw on ancient traditions recorded in historical and archaeological sources, but also the study of the (non-Abrahamitic) religions of mediterranean antiquity, and even of the distant polytheist and animistic religions such as Hinduism or Shinto. On the “how-to” issue, Doyle White picks up on the wide-spread opinion that the field is and ought to be an academic arm of the pagan community itself, with a goal to service the community (what Davidsen called “loyalism”).

In the end, Doyle White argues that a name change might be required for the field to be professinonalized. “Pagan studies” retains the connotation of a field that belongs to “the pagans” (the very same problem we have with “religious studies” – which is why I prefer more proprietary versions, like “history of religion”, “science of religion” [similar to the Germans, in my native Scandinavian language we use “religionsvitenskap”], or even the generic “study of religion”) while remaining vague about the boundaries of the field of study (the “pagan”), and is hence an impediment to professionalization and acceptance by the broader scholarly community. This is where Doyle White looks to the field of esotericism for comparison and inspiration. He observes that esotericism scholars have opted for a different naming strategy that signals a difference in academic attitude:

“If we look at the two peer-reviewed journals devoted to the subject [of esotericism], we find them titled Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism and Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism. Scholarly organizations devoted to the subject are named the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, the Scandinavian Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism, the Center for the Study of Western Esotericism of the Union of South American Nations, the Association for the Study of Esotericism and Mysticism, and the Association for the Study of Esotericism. While the term “esoteric studies” does certainly make an appearance on occasion, it is clear that consistently the term “(academic) study of Western esotericism” is preferred by scholars operating in that arena.” (p. 50-51)

Adopting this model, Doyle White proposes to replace “pagan studies” with something like “the academic study of contemporary paganism”. This would not only make clear the relation between the object of study (paganism) and the approach (the accepted methods of various academic disciplines), but it would also specify the boundaries of the object of study itself as the study of contemporary groups that claim a pre-Abrahamitic religious heritage of some sort. In fact, going through the back catalogue of The Pomegranate, Doyle White finds that the vast majority of scholarly papers do already focus on this more narrowly defined object. Shifting the name, then, would highlight and accurately portray the work that most academic scholars in this field are in fact doing.

As someone working in the esotericism field myself, it is hardly surprising to anyone that I sympathize with this argument. In future, I will adopt the label “academic study of contemporary paganism” and only use “pagan studies” to refer to a specific normative discourse about how paganism ought to be studied.

I do, however, wonder if the comparison with Western esotericism is apt on all levels. While it may be true that this field has achieved a slightly higher degree of professionalization and acceptance among scholars of religion in general, it is really only marginally better. There can be no doubt anymore about the scholarly rigor and methodological robustness of the study of esotericism as exemplified through its peer-reviewed journals, book series, international conferences and organizations, and even a couple of degree programs (Amsterdam, Paris, Groningen, Rice) on the MA and PhD levels. However, if we look at the job market, a freshly minted PhD from Amsterdam’s Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents can pretty much forget finding a job that has “esotericism” in the job description. (See Marco Pasi’s comment in the ESSWE newsletter of Spring 2015 for an interesting reflection on this more pessimistic view of the field’s progress). Instead, the route to professionalization goes through showing how high-quality research and teaching in this area is relevant for broader categories, such as the study of “religion” (or, in fact, the history of science or art history), or else cast oneself as a specialist of some specific phenomenon or current (e.g., “Christian neoplatonism in the renaissance”, “contemporary alternative religion/spirituality”, “Jewish and Christian kabbalah in the 18th century”). It seems likely that this is the same kind of professionalization that the academic study of paganism can hope for: a limited number of schools where PhDs can specialize in the subject, before having to sell their competence with relevance to broader areas of interest within the academy. Seeing that the trouble with studying “paganism” in the past has been its interdisciplinary scope (the exact same thing is still true for “esotericism”, by the way), it seems likely that scholars of (contemporary) paganism might try to professionalize not only in departments of the history of religion, anthropology, and sociology, but (like esotericism scholars) in departments of intellectual and cultural history as well.


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  1. There is one possible problem to Doyle White’s new, restricted definition of Pagan studies, and it was identified in a “field report” published in The Pomegranate in 2012, “Gatherings of the Elders: The Beginnings of a Pagan International.” There the author, Koenraad Elst, noticed that representatives of a number of indigenous religions were beginning to self-identify as “Pagan,” in other to differentiate themselves from the dominant monotheisms.

    While scholars argue, the world does move on.

    • That’s an interesting point I think. One could still historically trace the development of the category itself, looking at how differnt communities start embracing it. I think this would be a really important part of the field even in the more restricted definition.

    • If that is the case then it certainly would be an interesting development in the way that the term “pagan” is used in wider parlance. That being said, I don’t personally think that it poses a problem to my central argument about how to define “Paganism” in an academic context.

      The first point I would raise begs the question as to what extent the groups Koenraad Elst is discussing actually use the term “Paganism/paganism”, and to what extent he is imposing that term upon them? His essay (which I enjoyed reading first time round, and just enjoyed re-reading) has very clear cultural/political undertones and very much operates under the broad “paganism as an ancient global phenomenon” framework. He calls the International Conference of Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures a “Pagan International” and describes its participants as “Pagans” but presents no evidence that the group in question or its members use that term themselves. Of all the various direct quotes that he provides from participants in the conference, the P-word doesn’t appear in any of them. That being the case, I’m not sure that such groups are using the term “Pagan/pagan” as a self-descriptor, even if they are recognising core shared spiritual values and approaches with other polytheistic belief systems.

      A second point that I would raise is that even if some practitioners (and spokespeople) of various indigenous religions, Hinduism, Shinto, and the like may adopt the term “Pagan/pagan” as a self-descriptor, particularly when interacting with European NRMs that explicitly describe themselves as such, I don’t think it very likely that the term is going to be adopted wholesale by all practitioners and spokespeople of these religious movements. Indeed I think that some practitioners will actively reject it, seeing it as a pejorative and perhaps damaging to their interfaith work. If this was to be the case, interesting parallels could perhaps be seen with the way that some modern Pagans actively eschew the term “Pagan/pagan” (as I pointed out in my article). Thus, I really doubt that we will ever see “Paganism/paganism” used across the world to describe one big, great world religion by members of all manner of different polytheistic movement.

      Moreover, again it begs the question: as scholars is it our job to replicate emic terms within scholarship or should we instead develop clear etic terminology? It’ll come as no surprise that I favour the latter position. The terms “Paganism/paganism” will continue to be contested, and will continue to change within various sectors of society; new folk will pop up calling themselves “Pagan/pagan”, others will get called that even if they deny it. That much is obvious. However, as scholars I don’t think that we should run-around playing catch-up, but rather we should set the boundaries of our own discourse. We should talk about how we, as scholars of modern Paganism, define “modern Paganism”, while allowing others outside of the academy to… well, to do as they will!

      • Good points, Ethan, re. Elst’s field report. I had the same impression. Perhaps a better example of the kind of phenomnon Chas has in mind, though, is found in “shamanism”. Indigenous practitioners around the world are “redescovering” their roots by attending workshops organized by Michael Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies. This is a field where practice, worldview, values, and self-descriptors are all shared by people with and without various indigenous backgrounds. Then the question is whether “shamanism” falls under the purview of the academic study of contemporary paganism. I should think so; discursively it’s built up much the same way, about claims to ancient roots, although often focused more on experience and cultural universality rather than ethnicity, tradition, and particularity.

      • A very good point, Egil. It brings to mind an experience that I had circa 2009/2010 when I attended a lecture by a “Siberian shaman” (although I believe that she was ethnically Russian as opposed to a member of an indigenous “Siberian” community) who was then visiting London. From what I recall, she devoted much of her talk to outlining her beliefs regarding 2012 and the Mayan Calendar! Talk about the impact of globalisation on esoteric discourses…

        I tend toward the view that the study of shamanism can in some instances come under the banner of the study of modern Paganism but in other instances should be treated separately. Neo-Shamans who are drawing upon the imagery of pre-Christian Europe are, in my opinion, clearly part and parcel of the modern Pagan milieu. Conversely, I am much more hesitant about describing shamanic revivalist groups active in Southern Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Russia as being part of the modern Pagan phenomenon. There are obviously interesting parallels, particularly as both are drawing on similar esoteric sources (including Harner’s Core Shamanism) and are sometimes interacting with one another, but their socio-cultural and historical contexts are quite distinct. The first camp is creating totally new religious/spiritual movements, while the second is injecting new life and ideas into pre-existing, living religious/spiritual traditions. Thus, perhaps the latter have as much in common with Neo-Hindu movements as they do with modern Pagan ones.

      • “Neo-Shamans who are drawing upon the imagery of pre-Christian Europe are, in my opinion, clearly part and parcel of the modern Pagan milieu. ”
        Talking about a specific “milieu” could be a good solution, as it suggest a context, a discourse, and a loosely knit network of social interaction, all of which providing some specificity. There are parallels here with Jesper Aa. Petersen’s work on what he calls “the satanic milieu” in order to define and delimit the study of contemporary satanism. I’m tending in the direction that we can conceptualize a lot of the esoteric “rejected knowledge” (sensu Wouter – see his comment below) in terms of Campbell’s “cultic milieu” model, and then look at how this bigger sociocultural entity is segmented into various clustering but often overlapping sub-milieus, like the “pagan”, the “satanic”, or the “holistic” (to add Heelas to the mix).

  2. Sorry, forgot to close the HTML tag.!

    • FIxed it for you.

  3. Elst’s original presentation, if I recall correctly, was at a joint session of the Indigenous Religous Traditions Group and the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group at an American Academy of Religions meeting.

    It may be that I am conflating some of the discussion with Elst’s presentation, which included slides and other information not contained in the Pomegranate article.

    That said, he himself is applying the term “Pagan” more broadly that does Ethan, as witness his latest blog post.

    Hence the problem: if we limit “Pagan” to new or reconstructed religious traditions, what about the Siberian neo-shaman (as mentioned above) who is also engaged in reconstruction of a shamanic/polytheistic tradition? There has been an eighty-year gab since Stalin had the traditional shamans shot as “counter-revolutionary elements,” after first having their photos taken and accoutrements conserved by ethnographers.

    A gap is a gap in an oral tradition, whether eighty years or eight hundred.

    Real life is slippery, and while scholars need categories, people and events keep slipping between the bars.

    • Yes, Elst and myself clearly use the term “Pagan/pagan” in different ways, but I think it vitally important to highlight that we are also using it within very different contexts, for very different reasons. I argue for a more restricted definition of “Paganism/paganism” within the study of religion (and in particular within the field now known as “Pagan studies) because I think that it will be far more analytically useful and allow for greater accuracy and precision in scholarship. My interests here are pretty squarely academic; I’m arguing for what I believe is best for scholarship. How modern Pagans, Hindus, Christians, or whomever else choose to then use “Paganism/paganism” in their own parlance is somewhat immaterial to my argument.

      Elst’s aims are both more ambitious and more overtly political. In his Pom article and elsewhere, he appears to be (openly, and at times not so openly) promoting an anti-Islamic, anti-Christian worldview. He appears to view these monotheistic religions as dangerous and oppressive ideologies that impose objectively false claims onto the populations that they dominate. Conversely, he exhibits great sympathy for the world’s polytheistic religions and aims to built unity among them, thus helping them to counter Christian and Islamic missionary efforts. It is as part of this that he applies the term “Paganism” to all of them, as a form of overarching, unifying rubric (and in this latter respect his approach is similar to that of Michael York and indeed many modern Pagan practitioners). His agenda is fundamentally different to mine, and as a result so is his usage of terminology.

      Complicating this issue is the fact that as an academically trained independent scholar, he is continuing to use this term within certain academic and scholarly settings (such as the Pom and the AAR meeting). That, however, doesn’t make the term any less political – it just makes it a political term being used within an academic setting! This is something that I take some issue with because I don’t think that it does scholarship any favours.

      Turning my attention to the second issue that you raise Chas, that of whether the revived shamanistic practices of eastern Russia should be understood as a form of modern Paganism and whether scholars could apply the term “Paganism/paganism” to them, I am on less certain ground. Truth be told, as fascinating as it is, contemporary Russian ‘shamanism’ is not a religious movement that I am particularly well acquainted with at present (I’m presuming that most of the scholarship on the subject is written in Russian?). Nevertheless, this is an issue that is certainly worthy of further thought and discussion.

      As I argue in my article, I think that (for the purposes of scholarship) modern Paganism should be seen as a fundamentally Eurocentric phenomenon, distinct from revivals and rejuvinations of polytheistic belief systems elsewhere in the world. The latter exist in very different socio-cultural and historical contexts from modern Pagan NRMs and typically have direct lineages to older polytheistic traditions, which modern Pagan NRMs of course don’t have. The question of groups like the Mari and other communities within the Russian Federation who live on the peripheries of ‘Europe’ (forgive the essentialist conception of the continent that I am heuristically using here) do throw something of a spanner in the works. Often these groups continue to have clear historical continuity with older religious traditions (despite the machinations of Stalin and friends), which would put them in the latter category, but they also exist in social contexts that are to an extent European or at least ‘Europeanised’ because of their geographical location. In general I err on the side of caution and would suggest that contemporary Mari traditional religion and other traditional religions in the Russian Federation shouldn’t be treated as part and parcel of the modern Pagan movement by scholars, but I can see why others may disagree. It’s a really, really interesting issue and I hope that someone with a good grasp of religion in Russia pursues it further!

      • Just on a personal note, Ethan, I am also at this stage an academically trained independent scholar, despite higher ed being my lifelong career. Academic training is a tool for inquiry and analysis. You can use it well or badly regardless of how you earn your paycheck. Also, there are many, many politicized terms which get used in academic environments. The issue is how you frame them, talk about them, and the level of reflexivity you use with them. We should all be aware of when an academic setting is being used primarily to give legitimacy to a set of ideas, which is I think what is underpinning much of this discussion.

    • “A gap is a gap in an oral tradition, whether eighty years or eight hundred.” I disagree here, Chas. “Reconstruction” and revival occur in different cultural contexts and with different values and even aesthetics. There are particular cultural and political conditions which generate revivalist and reconstructionist activities, and they really should not be seen as continuations of traditions. In my view “reconstruction” is frequently a reactionary undertaking. I also think, for the record, that modern Paganism is resolutely modern.

      • “Just on a personal note, Ethan, I am also at this stage an academically trained independent scholar, despite higher ed being my lifelong career. Academic training is a tool for inquiry and analysis. You can use it well or badly regardless of how you earn your paycheck.”

        Oh, I never meant to imply otherwise. As I used it, “independent scholar” was never meant to be a pejorative term, merely a descriptive one. In the past I have operated as an independent scholar, and certainly most of my publications on modern Paganism are ‘independent’ of my university-based research into the Early Medieval. Moreover, if I am not able to secure a professional career within the academy then I too will revert to independent scholar status. I see nothing wrong in that.

      • Amy Hale writes, “‘Reconstruction’ and revival occur in different cultural contexts and with different values and even aesthetics.”

        Fair enough. I was not trying to distinguish between the two — but it would be an interesting excerise to sort characteristics into the Revival and Reconstruction baskets and see what you ended up with!

      • “it would be an interesting exercise to sort characteristics into the Revival and Reconstruction baskets and see what you ended up with!”

        I agree that this would be a useful exercise to engage in. However, one problem here would be that “Reconstructionism” has multiple meanings already! It of course has an emic meaning within the Pagan community, while Michael Strmiska has adopted the term as part of his “Eclecticism/Reconstructionist” pole for academic purposes. If I understand correctly, Amy is using the term in a distinct manner again.

        Once again we are confronted with the problem of a single word having many different definitions, each dependent on the context in which it is employed.

  4. Interesting discussion. Without wanting to blow my own horns too loudly, I would argue that “paganism” and “esotericism” are quite comparable and useful as etic categories that derive their force and even their very meaning from the fact that they acquired a status of (in my terms) rejected knowledge in the context of an ongoing process of polemical disjunction in Western culture. In my view, the categories of both esotericism and paganism are unthinkable without taking into account the long battle of monotheism, more specifically Christianity, even more specifically Protstantism, against their “Other”. In very broad terms, for Judaism that Other was “idolatry”, for Christianity it was Hellenistic “paganism” (seen as idolatrous), for Protestantism it was Roman Catholicism and everything else (seen as both pagan and idolatrous), and finally the Enlightenment inherited the whole package and called it “the occult”, or “superstition” or “magic”. When we now speak of esotericism, it’s basically that waste-basket category we’re talking about, and in the wake of Romanticism it was reinterpreted positively as an alternative to basically Protestant and Enlightenment patterns of ideology. Modern and contemporary paganism comes from there. Taking my cue from Jan Assmann’s notion of the “Mosaic Split”, I think we actually need to promote “paganism” as a crucial general etic category in the study of Western culture. Modern and contemporary forms of “neo” paganism derive their power from these long historical backgrounds, but the same goes e.g. for such things as the construction of “world religions” in the 19th century (= modeled after Christian/protestant prototypes and tacitly excluding everything… “Pagan”).

    • This is one of the reasons I was so happy to see Ethan bring out the comparison and relate the two fields in his article. I think the discussion here shows that both fields could benefit from thinking about these two categories together, and not only about the professional aspects but of the substantial and theoretical ones as well. An interesting idea for a panel, perhaps?

    • And here is a writer from India using Assman’s “Mosaic distinction{ to argue that monotheistic religions are alien to India.

      He also applies “pagan” in the broader sense.

  5. Fascinating. I had no idea that “pagan studies” or “the study of modern paganism” was even a thing. And what an interesting debate.

    • Welcome, then! You’ve just witnessed an exchange between some of the key people in/around that field. Hope you are inspired to read up and keep following.

  6. “However, one problem here would be that “Reconstructionism” has multiple meanings already!” To a degree. Sure, it is a distinctive and identifiable branch of modern Paganism, but in my view the ethos and methods behind it are driven by the wider practices of “cultural reconstruction” that underlies most revivalist activities and with which Folklorists are all too familiar. Reconstructionism is driven by the idea that there has been a fundamental break in tradition that normally correlates with some sort of societal degradation, and that the restoration of that tradition will help inspire some sort of moral elevation. Revivalists and reconstructionists use scholarly research and frequently ideologically creative means to “reconstruct” or restore the traditions in question to help support a particular moral framework. It’s for this reason certainly that I would never consider any Pagan “Reconstructionist” activities as indicating continuity because so much of it happens within the discourses of an imagined past. So yes, there are Pagan and “Reconstructionists” that may sit emically on a scale with “Eclecticism”, but I can’t separate them from what I see as the inherent value system and wider phenomenon of Romantic cultural revival. The terms may continue to be messy, and for me it’s hard to pull out the characteristics without understanding the context, because even cultural phenomena with long standing and verifiable continuity change and adapt.

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