January 6th, 2005


A Question I Never Got Answered

I spent pretty nearly all of July 1996 at the Brushwood Folklore Center in far western New York state, just east of Erie, Pennsylvania. It's a lovely site, and the creme de la creme, the Club Med, of Pagan festival sites. I could say a lot about Brushwood Folklore Center; I think the world of the place. But the relevant background to this story is that I was living in an RV at the time, making my living selling mind machines and other meditation-related toys at science fiction conventions and Pagan festivals. In July 1996, there were three promising looking week-long events scheduled for Brushwood, so it made the most sense for me to just pay the between-event camping fee and stay in more-or-less one place for the whole four weeks. I arrived in time for the original end of the world party for the Church of the Subgenius, X-Day. I then camped in relative quiet for a bit over a week. After that came Sirius Rising, and then immediately on its heals the Starwood Festival. Now, as I've said before and will say again, Starwood is huge, and marked especially by three things. It is the most intentionally eclectic festival on the Pagan festival circuit, far more inclusive than any so-called eclectic Neopagan event. Secondly, it is insanely over-merchanted, the merchant rows stretch longer and are fuller than your average suburban enclosed shopping mall. And thirdly, contrary to what you'd expect from the preceding two statements, their carefully practiced and choreographed main bonfire ritual is, so far as I can tell, the single most reliable, reproducible, and effective large-group spiritual experience in North America.

So it will not surprise you that the Starwood Festival's attendance is huge, and I mean absolutely freaking huge. Nor will it surprise you that the main vendors take any excuse they can to get there early and set up early. So even though the festival that always rents the event space for the week before Starwood, Sirius Rising, is really a small local Pagan festival, it has all of these hundreds and hundreds of merchants sort of wandering around the edges of it, mostly doing their own thing. And on the Saturday of Sirius Rising, for want of anything better to do, I attended one of the workshops that was scheduled for right before main ritual. (Main ritual was, as it always and without exception has been at every large Neopagan event I've been at since about 1987, deadly and painfully dull, under-prepared and incompetently and unenthusiastically performed.) The workshop I attended before main ritual was set up to be a carefully moderated, carefully managed polite debate over the burning issue in Neopaganism circa 1996 (and since): "Now that Neopaganism is becoming a nationally recognized and multi-generational religion, isn't it time that we made sure that all Neopagan events are family-friendly?" And by "family-friendly," what they meant was no alcohol, no drugs, no exposing of skin that couldn't be exposed on a city street, and no flirting, public displays of affection, or any other hint or suggestion that human beings ever engage in sex.

I won't bore you with the arguments on either side. I will only note that one of my favorite texts from the great philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment is Denis Diderot's "A Philosophical Conversation." If I may quote my two favorite passages from that amazing piece of work, with the part I think relevant to this discussion underlined by me:
La Maréchale: And so you that it is quite a matter of indifference whether we be Christians or pagans; that as pagans we shall be equally good and that as Christians we are no better?
Monsieur Crudéli: Indeed I am convinced of it; excepting that as pagans we should be rather merrier. ... In all inspired books there are two kinds of morality; one general and common to every nation, to every religion, and which is followed pretty nearly; another peculiar to each nation and to each religion, in which men believe, which they preach in their churches, which they teach in their homes, and which they do not follow at all.
Anyway, walking from that workshop to the main ritual, I fell into step with a woman who had been the most polite but forceful in arguing for the "pro-family" side. I ran through her points, to make sure that I understood them, before asking my question. What she and most of the "pro-family" (or as their detractors call them, "no-fun") Neopagans want is for Neopaganism to be a responsible, respectable family religion. That means a credentialed seminary program on the campus of a nationally accredited university, with a complete and consistent degree program, leading to a centrally controlled program for ordination and discipline of Neopagan group leaders, and for that discipline program to expel any leader or group that disgraces the religion with any ritual or festival featuring intoxication, nudity, or any hint of sexuality. Religious services should be solemn, serious affairs in which the whole family can participate.

So, having made sure that I understood her position, I asked: supposing that you could wave a magic wand and have all of that, next Wednesday after lunch? What if we did make over Neopaganism exactly to your specifications? How would the resulting religion be different in any way from the Unitarian Universalist Church? She thought about it for a moment, while we walked, and then answered, "Truthfully, it wouldn't be." I lost my temper. Only briefly, and I got it back under control quite quickly and apologized, but her blunt honesty shocked me into angrily shouting at her, "Then if that's what you want, then why in the hell don't you go there?" Once I had apologized for my outburst, again, she had to think about that one for a minute. Then she answered, "Because Neopaganism is my religion, and I shouldn't have to change religions to get what I want." At the time I let it go because I had no answer for that, but the more I think about it, the more bullshit her answer becomes ... because like 95% or more of the people in Neopaganism, she's a convert. She wasn't raised in it. She didn't demand that Christianity or Judaism or whatever her family religion was to change to suit her, so what's the logic in demanding that this one change?

It's the sheer wasteful duplication of it that annoys me as much as anything. There already is a perfectly good Unitarian Universalist Church. They're every bit as eclectic as the Neopagans are. They're as intellectual as Neopagans like to think they are, as they used to be. They have the seminary, the ordination body, and all that. They have hymns to the gods and the goddesses in their hymnal, they revere the Earth and all life. They have lovely buildings that are better than anything that the Neopagans are going to have ever. They have completely family-friendly services, and a full service Sunday School program for children of all ages. If those are the things that you want, then why don't you go there and leave Neopaganism for those of us who want our earth-centered magic-friendly spirituality to be, as Diderot hoped it would be, "rather merrier?"