Last weekend (January 26–27, 2013), I attended the 9th Annual Conference on Current Pagan Studies. This was not your typical Pagan festival or convention. The conference took place in a large room at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. Although anyone could attend, the presenters from all over the country were primarily university professors and students. Some of them are popularly known. Some of them have academic books and a few had more popular books.
With only brief breaks, we listened to the papers being presented by their authors for two full days. There were a few major themes that ran through the conference ranging from who is a Pagan (there has been a lot about this in the blogosphere recently) to the fact that there are more Pagans in the U.S. than there are members of some important Christian denominations. Those Christian groups, however, have built and support schools and hospitals while we have not. We have the numbers. Certainly we should be able to do this. One organization, the Cherry Hill Seminary, is trying to achieve federal accreditation. They have fulfilled most of the actual requirements for this, but they have not yet obtained the money, $10,000, needed just to apply.
Why is this an issue? Because if Pagans want to have the respect and recognition of other scholars and official groups they need to have their education accredited. Working within the greater professional communities becomes far easier with accredited degrees. For example, most, if not all, Pagan ministers serving incarcerated Pagans do so as volunteers. With accreditation, they can ask for, and demand, the same respect, recognition, and salaries as ministers of other faiths.
Of course, this ignores the existential question of what sort of community should Pagans have, but that is another issue.
The professors and students will go back to their universities and colleges (accredited ones) and teach their classes or ask questions with what was presented at the conference in their minds. As a result, although the actual attendance was less than 100 people, the influence and impact of the conference will spread far beyond those people. Their 10th annual conference next year will be even bigger. Their web site is here and their FaceBook page is here.
Literally the day before I went to the conference I was contacted by one of the people who is attending and giving workshops at PantheaCon. “P-Con,” which I’ll be attending and giving two workshops, is nowhere near as formal as the conference (there’s a lot of entertainment, music, performances, rituals, and parties), and is intended for a much wider audience. There should be 2,000 people or more. It will literally take over a hotel for the weekend. The presenter (since we communicated via email I don’t have authorization to use her name) is a Pagan of color. I wrote to her saying, “Although most Pagans claim to be progressive (at least in certain areas, albeit there seems to be a growth in reactionary Pagans in parts of Europe and among some U.S. groups), I remain amazed at the distinct lack of Pagans of color. I think there needs to be a self-analysis of why people of color tend to avoid being identified as Pagan or want no part of it when, IMNSHO, they should find a welcome home among Pagans.”
On the second day of the conference, Amber Deneén Gray, gave a workshop titled, “On Racism, Misogyny, and Homophobia in Pagan Reconstructionist Communities.” I think much of what she had to say shocked a lot of people. She, a woman of color, had been told by the Pagan community she had joined that they were authentic, she should beware of Neo-Pagans and Wiccans because they would hate her, and finally, that people of color and gays were not welcome in the Pagan tradition she was following!
I think the shock was due to the title of her paper which applied to “Pagan Reconstructionist Communities” in general rather than just her particular group. Also, it was shocking to see her justifiable anger, compounded by the fear she felt at coming to a conference where, according to leaders on the path she was following, she expected to be treated poorly. When it was eventually realized that the community she had been part of was an extremist fringe aspect of Paganism, the shock quickly wore off and several people expressed sympathy and compassion for her, assuring her that this was not the way most of us felt. She said she had no way of knowing this because she could only go by what she had seen on the websites associated with her tradition, and there was extreme racism and homophobia there.
In my experience, most Pagan traditions have no trouble welcoming people of color or of other than “heteronormative” sexualities. I personally have participated with numerous groups that have GLBTQ members. Nobody seems to care about what your sexual interests are as long as you’re devoted to the Goddess and God. However, the number of people of color involved in Western Neo-Paganism is surprisingly small. Why are more people of color not choosing Paganism? I certainly don’t have the answer. People of color have always been welcomed to events I’ve attended. I wouldn’t attend if it were not so. And yet relatively few participate. This is something, I predict, that will become an issue in months to come.
You Can Act to Change Things
One of the keynote presenters, Peter Dybing, did mention one thing that I can see as a cause of the lack of integration in Pagan groups as well as what you and I can do to change this.
Peter is a real Pagan hero. His background includes experience as a firefighter, EMT, and mental health counselor. He has helped out with international humanitarian disasters including being hands-on in Haiti as well as the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. He is also a former National First Officer of Covenant of the Goddess. One of the points in his workshop was based on the concept of what happens if you choose to lead a Pagan group, especially if you have a presence on the internet. He summed it up by using an image designed by the late Isaac Bonewits (you can find more of his designs for sale HERE): That’s right, no matter how much good you’re doing, someone is going to attack you. Become a leader and you may as well paint a target on your shirt. Several of the more public Pagans in the audience agreed and shared their stories.
There is nothing wrong with having people disagree with you. People disagreeing with each other and presenting different opinions and approaches so that a consensus can be reached is a good thing. But too often, especially on the internet, that’s not what happens. Rather than disagree and present a coherent argument, a few people (commonly known as “internet trolls”) simply attack the person, often calling him or her names while presenting no position of their own. They hide behind a veil of anonymity and use frequent posts as a means of giving themselves legitimacy through frequency.
What Peter suggested, and I agree, is that it is up to each of us to stand up to such trolls. Tell them that such behavior is not acceptible. If they want to disagree with ideas, that’s fine. But let’s keep it to that level. He also pointed out that many people are only familiar with the internet practice of disagreeing through anonymous attack. It may be that part of what we need to do is educate a person out of their trollishness and become one of the voices presenting alternate views. But, we do need to stand up to the trolls.
This is Where You and I Come In
I realize that we cannot do everything everywhere. But if you are on a website or forum where people are commenting by spreading hatred, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, etc., you can stand up to them. You can tell them that their hatred is not accepted. You can remove the hatred from their position and look at their arguments, then show whether the argument has any validity. You can stand up for all good people. We can stand up for all good people. Toleration of hatred gives the false impression of acceptance.
Hatred and intolerance won’t fade away from our actions on this. But it will show that the majority of Pagans will not accept it. And perhaps it will make potential brothers and sisters of color and different sexualities, along with all they can share, a bit more welcome under our Pagan umbrella.