The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion
1997 Annual Meeting - San Diego
Session on `Neo-paganism and the Status Quo'

A Question of Restricting Boundaries

Michael York
Bath Spa University College
Bath, England


In October of this year, Conservative party member, Norman Tebbit attacked what he labelled `multiculturalism' as a destructive momentum threatening to undermine traditional British identity. He deplored the presence of Moslems and other ethnic groups in the United Kingdom who did not share British history but preferred different cultural and religious pasts. At the same time, Queen Elizabeth, attending the independence anniversary celebrations in Pakistan, specifically praised `multiculturalism' and welcomed the emergence of British Moslems as an enriching addition to the cosmopolitan development of her nation's society. These politically divergent opinions are further indications that as traditionalism competes with innovation and change, there is an emergent conflict between the maintaining and the re-drawing of established boundaries in England as well as other Western countries.

In the late twentieth century's confrontations of sub-cultures and religious movements, Islam poses a deep challenge to the traditional Christian and modern scientific orientation of Western culture. The re-emergence of Western paganism or the contemporary invention of Neo-paganism as a new religious movement poses an even deeper challenge to the thought-structures of the present occidental status quo. In this paper, I wish to explore the ongoing process of and resistance to the re-mapping of conceptual borders occasioned by the current growth of (Neo-)pagan sentiments in the British Isles. Following Georges Bataille, Michael Foucault and Jean Baudrillard's recognition of transgression as a means for establishing viable self-legitimation, I understand mainstream attitudes as the status quo against which sectarian dissent is often directed.[1] Jacques Derrida argues that the social agenda in today's political arena is one which seeks the invisible, unheard and marginalized other: blacks, women, the handicapped, the poor, gays and lesbians.[2] As well as other religious minorities, we may add to this list the contemporary Western pagan.

"With the repeal in Britain of the Witchcraft Act in 1951 and the publishing of Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today in 1954, a renewed possibility for the co-existence of pagan and mainstream religions came into being for the first time since the edicts of the Emperors Constantine and Justinian" (York, 1995:118). During the 1940s and 1950s, Gerald Gardner was instrumental in developing a British lineage of witches' covens. A coalition of several covens on September 30th of 1970 announced their intention to found the Pagan Front which was subsequently officially inaugurated on Beltane the following year. Originally, this Gardnerian Wiccan organization was secretive and kept a low profile and was designed essentially to resist the breakaway emergence of Alex Sanders' Alexandrian Wicca. In 1979, the Pagan Front was renamed the Pagan Federation and, over the years, has continued to grow into becoming a confederation representing most if not all Neo-pagan paths: both Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca as well as Shamanic Craft, Shamanism, Druidry, Odinists, Egyptians, Thelemic Magicians, Chaos Magicians, Goddess Worshippers, solitaries and so forth.[3]

While at first the number of members belonging to the Pagan Front/Pagan Federation remained approximately 200 from the time of its inception (York, 1995:136), by the late 1980s membership has begun to increase dramatically. At present there are approximately 3,000 paid-up members.[4] The number of pagans in the United Kingdom as a whole is currently put at 120,000, although Pagan Dawn editor Christina Oakley claims that "some sociological researchers have put the number as high as 400,000."[5]

The gradual transformation of the Pagan Federation from an organization consisting largely of witches to one which comprises the full diversity of contemporary paganism has been reflected in the change of its journal's name from The Wiccan (established in 1968) to the Pagan Dawn in 1994. The logo of The Wiccan identified itself as "the Newsletter of the Pagan Federation, a National and International free association of Pagans and Crafters... It is a forum for discussion between various branches of the Craft, and it serves to promote the unified face of Paganism against the calumny of the media." On its second page of its February 1989 issue, the newsletter proclaimed that "Whoever is of good will, who loves Nature, and who worships both the Goddess and the God, is welcome in our Federation..."[6] Membership is accordingly open to anyone over the age of 18 who agrees with the principles of (1) Love for and kinship with Nature, (2) the Pagan Ethic, and (3) the concept of the Goddess and God.[7]

Apart from its networking functions, the Pagan Federation has established an anti-defamation league and seeks to counter media lies and misrepresentation. It has been in particular engaged with countering satanic child abuse allegations issued by the anti-cult movement through such organizations as the Reachout Trust or FAIR. In these efforts, the PF reflects the activities simultaneously undertaken by other pagan organizations or the wider British pagan community as a whole. For instance, in 1993 the Odinshof challenged the London Borough of Hounslow for excluding `Paganism' from its Religious Education syllabus `Widening Horizons'. Although the Council is an Equal Opportunities employer endeavoring not to discriminate against any group on religious grounds, its Director of Education (Douglas Trickett) argued that paganism "was not a principal religious tradition in the area, nor in the country as a whole." Despite the syllabus' aim "to present religion and religious traditions in a balanced way, to include both traditional and non-traditional examples," it contained a large section on Buddhism even though, according to the Odinshof, the number of pagans in Britain was four times that of Buddhists.[8]

The PF works closely with other pagan groups in Britain. Belonging to an interactive pagan network, for its May Council meeting in 1994, observers were invited from PaganLink, the Council of British Druid Orders, the Odinshof, the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust, and Dragon (the pagan ecology and campaigning association). As part of the ever-growing environmental activities, most pagan groups in Britain participated in the Oxleas Woods, Wychbury Hill and Twyford Down campaigns. Ecological concerns occupy the attention of most pagan communities throughout the United Kingdom.

As a separate organization from the Pagan Federation, the Pagan Funeral Trust was established to handle funerary needs of British pagans. Subsequently recognizing the need for hospice care for the ill and dying, in 1992 the PFT changed its name to the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust.[9] Eventually it applied to the Charity Commission and, in July of 1995 under the `relief of sickness and suffering' category, was granted charitable status after a ten-year application process. "They had agreed that once they had achieved charitable status under this heading, they would begin to discuss with the CC the issue of Paganism as a religion."[10] The PHFT, therefore, followed the Odinic Rite and the Odinshof (founded in 1987) as the third pagan organization with charitable status in Britain.

In March of 1996, the Pagan Federation submitted an application to the Charity Commission to register as an educational charity. The PF felt the Commissioners might be better disposed to accept its organization as educational rather than having to accept paganism outright as a religion. As with the motivation behind the PHFT's application for charity status, the Pagan Federation needed to raise funds.[11] However, the PF's application was rejected by the end of April on the basis that "Paganism does not have a sufficiently certain meaning in ordinary English speech for its promotion to be charitable." In its letter to the Pagan Federation, the Charity Commission claimed that `paganism' could simply mean `non-Christian'. Therefore, on the basis that it could not be clearly defined, it could not be charitable.

Following shortly upon the Pagan Federation's rejection, the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust received a letter on April 18th, 1995 informing it that its charitable license was to be revoked in 28 days. "We must say," the CC argued in this letter, "that there can be no question of promotion of paganism itself being charitable: it is not a religion, as that has been defined by the courts for charitable purposes, nor is it a subject of education in a sense which is charitable by law."[12]

Pamela Holt, the Charity Commission's solicitor handling the case, declared in the letter that "Paganism itself is not a sufficiently definite linguistically [sic] term." Ms. Holt subsequently allowed that the process for appeals is open to the public but that she had been too busy to post that information. After being requested through the solicitors working on behalf of the PHFT and PF, the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust had its deadline extended until the 7th of June in which to present its case. Further extensions were granted in response to pressures raised by the PHFT's legal representatives. On October 28th of 1996, The Times reported that the PHFT "is alleged to have promoted ancient beliefs, and proposed pagan-only burial grounds, instead of simply consoling the dying and bereaved."[13]

Accordingly, the trust had moved to purchase a burial ground in Wales so that 400 followers could be interred near ley lines and sacred stones. The CC, however, contends that buying burial grounds could only be considered charitable if for the community at large, rather than for pagans alone. In the consequent re-negotiations with the Charity Commission, the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust reorganized itself and changed its name to the Voyager Trust early in 1997.[14] By February/March of this year, the Odinshof, which had also come under review at the same time as did the PHFT, was allowed to keep its charitable status.[15]

Definition, according to Derrida, is a form of censorship.[16] The crux of the problem between the Charity Commission and the Pagan Federation rests on the Oxford English Dictionary definition which the Commission uses to define a religion: "Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship." The Odinic Rite and the Odinshof have been allowed to retain charity status on the basis that they worship a supreme being whom they name as Odin. While Buddhism would appear not to meet the CC's qualification as a religion, "an `eminent Buddhist' [swore] an affidavit that `he does not accept the suggestion that "Buddhism denies a Supreme Being"'"[17]

A monotheistic assumption remains implicit in the Charity Commission's understanding and acceptance of a religious charity. In her letter of support to the Commission on behalf of the Pagan Federation, Eileen Barker argued that since many pagans affirm a belief in the Mother Goddess, to conclude that they did not therefore worship God was sexist.[18] In the Buddhist situation, "A case brought challenging the [OED] religious definition resulted in the court ruling that something was considered a religion if it worshipped some kind of power/deity."[19] Following this ruling, one would assume that paganism would be acceptable to the Charity Commission as a bona fide religion, but since it is still not, we are forced to conclude that British paganism through the Pagan Federation has not yet been able to open a dominant hegemonic thinking or successfully to transgress established, traditional boundaries.

In the British Charity Commission's understanding of religion, we are confronted by traditional, perhaps pre-modern, thought paradigms - in this case, those represented chiefly by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. But while these last have been transgressed by and forced to adapt to or co-habit with modern, rational paradigms as products of the ever-expanding hegemony of science, the emerging pagan worldview itself challenges both the traditional and the modern aspects of contemporary society. This has been brought most immediately to my awareness through the confrontation in Bath, England between the Springs Foundation and the Town Council. The Springs Foundation is a legally established charity trust which has been given permission to operate the ancient Cross Bath as a museum. In reality, it maintains the Cross Bath as a pagan sanctuary. The Council, on the other hand, now seeks to regain control of the Cross Bath and incorporate it into its plan to reopen the thermal spa facilities. As Coordinator for the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs (BACRA) who has attempted to mediate between the conflicting parties, I have become directly aware of the difficulty of comprehension for the mainstream mind-set (represented by the Town Council) when the opposing party speaks in terms of `sacred space', `sacred place', `shrine' and `the presence of deity'.

I would contend, therefore, that the emerging pagan perspective in the West offers a radical challenge to the status quo comprising the already uneasy alliance between traditional Christian attitudes and modern, scientific rationalism. To the degree that paganism can change prevailing attitudes or acceptances, it has therefore successfully transgressed what is now the status quo, that is, what Bataille considers to be a `virulent myth'. In Bataille's understanding, the social is less a representation of society as it is a challenge to it. He could therefore see sociology itself "as a challenge to the very notion of the social and to society" (Baudrillard, 1987:122). The purpose of contemporary political and ethical activity, according to Derrida, is generated by others who seek to subvert and explode cohesive social discourse (Champagne, 1995:64).

To the degree that paganism cannot be countenanced by the established powers that be, presently existing authority has been unable to hear what Derrida refers to as the `call of the other'.[20] Derrida's `other' is represented by the marginalized, the disenfranchized, the economically impoverished, those who are differentiated on the basis of gender, race, creed or sexual preference.[21] The very notion of sacrality of place, one which remains central to pagan religiosity, is yet again an `other' which established modes of political and social power are largely as of yet unable `to hear'.

This `hearing of the other' is part of the ceaseless processes of cultural and social change. In the terms of current Complexity Theory,[22] a rigid and inflexible status quo represents the usurpation by a social part in order to dominate the whole. "To privilege the whole society over its contentious parts," the architect Charles Jencks (1995:64) argues, "is implicitly to favour the middle class and status quo." Borrowing Arthur Koestler's term holon to designate any "entity that is itself a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole,"[23] Ken Wilber refers to social expropriation by any subsection of a society as "a pathological or dominator hierarchy" as opposed to the natural holarchy, the hierarchical order of increasing holism and wholeness which composes the natural structure of the entire cosmos.[24] As a part of this ‘natural structure’, "religion and ethical rules provide a way of structuring human behavior in a way that allows a functioning society."[25] Consequently, a hegemonic religio-ethical status quo which prevents socio-cultural evolution by marginalizing, ignoring or repressing sectarian dissent as a possible source for renewal, growth and change runs the risk of interrupting or at least delaying emergent self-organizing processes upon which any dynamic and non-moribund society or culture depends. As Wilber (1996:64) explains, in a developmental or evolutionary process, "each worldview gives way to its successor because certain inherent limitations in the earlier worldview become apparent. This generates a great deal of disruption and chaos, ... and the system, if it doesn't simply collapse, escapes this chaos by evolving to a more highly organized pattern." Because random events might lock a culture into a selected outcome which is not the optimum social outcome, historically discarded perspectives might subsequently resurrect in time. The notion of evolutionary and self-organizing or corrective change depends on this possibility.[26]

The challenge to the status quo represented by the British Pagan Federation and the Springs Foundation among others is a challenge to established borders and boundaries as part of a contemporary remapping of religion in a changing world. This is only one part of the inevitable social ferment occasioned by the evolution of increasing cultural complexity in world society, but as a re-emergent and rapidly growing but hitherto marginalized voice, the Neo-pagan call is not only one about social uncertainty[27] but also one to which contemporary social scientists and cultural analysts must remain cognizant as an emergent object of study.[28]



Georges Bataille, Erotism, Death and Sensuality (tr. Mary Dalwood; San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986).

Jean Baudrillard, "Forget Baudrillard: An Interview with Sylvre Lotringer," Forget Foucault (tr. Phil Beitchman et al.; New York: Semiotext, 1987)

Jean Baudrillard, America (tr. Chris Turner; London: Verso, 1989).

Roland A. Champagne, Jacques Derrida (New York: Twayne, 1995).

Jacques Derrida, Psyché: Inventions de l'autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987).

Charles Jencks, The Architecture of the Jumping Universe (London: Academy Editions, 1995).

Bill Martin, Matrix and Line: Derrida and the possibilities of postmodern social theory (Albany: SUNY, 1992).

M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Touchstone, 1992).

Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (Boston: Shamballa, 1996).

Michael York, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995).

Michael York, "Postmodernity, Architecture, Society and Religion," Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion (ed. K. Flanagan & P.C. Jupp; London: Macmillan, 1996).



End Notes

[1] Bataille (1986:63-70), Foucault (1972:131-3), Baudrillard (1989:75-105). See also York (1996:59f).

[2] Derrida (1987:344): "la necessité d'une nouvelle éthique.” Martin (1992:19, 50, 201).

[3] The Wiccan: A Newsletter of the Old Religion of Wisecraft and Pagan Comment 91 (February 1989). The article added as well: "We offer, as always, a referral service between covens of goodwill who want new members, and genuine enquirers who want to begin their journey on the Path of the Old Ones, the Guardians of Nature and of the spirituality which flowers from it. We also offer a forum for dialogue between Wicca, which spearheaded the re-emergence of Nature religion in our time, and other Pagan paths such as Druidry, Asatru and Neo-Shamanism, which have emerged alongside Wicca. We keep links with the native Pagan religions of Japan, Nigeria, North America, and anywhere else that wants to join in. Paganism is now finding a voice!" (page 2).

[4] Telephonic communication from Belinda Winder on 9 October 1997. With the death of the founding editor of The Wiccan in November of 1979, the Pagan Federation continued to serve largely as a contact and support system for aspiring Witches, although formal membership lapsed. In February of 1989, the PF called for the reformalization of what had become merely a grapevine-network.

[5] Christina Oakley, "The Long View," Pagan Dawn: The Journal of the Pagan Federation (Samhain 1996:20). In the late 1980s, "The Federation's journal, The Wiccan, [had] currently a six-hundred copy print run, but `since many of these are couples, we are really into four figures" (York, 1995:136). However, by 1993, "we now have a print-run of around 1,500, and rising" (Wiccan 106; Imbolc 1993:5).

[6] A further reflection of the changes occurring within the Pagan Federation can be seen in the statement from the Imbolc issue of The Wiccan 95 (February 1990:2): "The main purpose of the Pagan Federation is not to promote occultism in general, nor yet to condone its persecution, but to bring back into public life the European Pagan tradition which was driven out of official recognition many hundreds of years ago. This ancient and now rediscovered religious outlook gives perhaps the only tenable basis for the future of our planet."

[7] The three principles:

"Love for and kinship with Nature: rather than the more customary attitude of aggression and domination over Nature; reverence for the life force and its ever-renewing cycles of life and death.

"The Pagan Ethic: `Do what thou wilt, but harm none'. This is a positive morality, not a list of thou-shalt-nots. Each individual is responsible for discovering his or her own true nature and developing it fully, in harmony with the outer world.

"The concept of the Goddess and God as expressions of the Divine reality; an active
participation in the cosmic dance of Goddess and God, female and male, rather than the suppression of either the female or male principle."

(From The Pagan Federation flyer: `Working together for the Pagan Community'.)

[8] "Odinshof Challenges Council," The Wiccan 107 (Beltane 1993:13).

[9] The PHFT focuses on `considerations for the living', `care of the dying', patient discussion of `post-mortems, transplants, transfusions and body donation', `procedure at death', and `funerals' (Nursing Times 88.33 - 12 August 1992:43).

[10] Communication from Pagan Federation representative Belinda Winder on 14/05/96.

[11] "Basically, for both of them [i.e., the PHFT and PF], funds are desperately low. In the PF we really need one full-time administrator to handle all the enquiries, and thus need to be able to raise money to do this. There are various grant-making bodies that might help us IF we're a charity. It gives us an official and therefore respectable (and in some cases legal) basis for raising funds. Also, for example, the bank account would not (as it is now) be dependent on someone having a friendly bank manager" (e-mail communication form Belinda Winder on 14 May 1996).

[12] Communication from Pagan Federation representative Belinda Winder on 14/05/96.

[13] Dominic Kennedy, "Pagans demand civil rites over their way of death: Charity Commission threatens tax-free status over burial grounds and says: You are not a religion," The Times (Monday 28 October 1996:5). In an `Urgent Appeal' flyer issued by the PHFT, the following quotes were listed from the Charity Commission's letter of April 18, 1995: "Paganism is not recognised as a religion," "Paganism has many meanings which are not consistent with each other," "The Trust is an organisation promoting Paganism as its essential purpose," "Pagans cannot be adequately defined," and "The term `Pagan' is meaningless."

[14] "We thought long and hard about changing to our new name and logo. Ultimately we had to decide if we were a Pagan PR company or if we were truly dedicated to helping any person who needs us" (Clare Prout, Coordinator, "Funeral Trust Changes Name," Pagan Dawn Samhain 1996:7).

[15] As part of the process for the Odinist groups to gain legal acceptance, Steven Flowers (a.k.a. Edred Thorsson) from Iceland testified to the Charity Commission on their behalf. He argued that the British Queen claims descent from Odin. The Odinic Rite received charitable status on the 24th of February in 1988; the Odinshof, although having applied earlier than the OR, received permission to establish itself as a trust only in May, 1989. In September 22, 1990, a number of delegates walked out of the Odinic Rite's National Moot alleging the organization to be `fascistic'. The following year the Odinic Rite split in two: BM Edda and BM Runic. Odinic Rite Edda continued to send its accounts to the Charity Commission and retained its charity status. In 1995, in the spring issue of Odinism Today, it launched a polemic against the entire `mainstream' pagan community. Odinic Rite Runic, which the year before had decided to increase communication with the wider pagan community, had mounted a challenge for charity status in place of that retained by Odinic Rite Edda but was unsuccessful.

[16] Champagne (1995:63).

[17] Belinda Winder (e-mail communication 14 May 1996).

[18] Belinda Winder (e-mail communication 14 May 1996).

[19] Belinda Winder (e-mail communication 14 May 1996).

[20] "To answer the call of the other is to begin negotiation with the other" (Champagne, 1995:74).

[21] Derrida (1987:344); Martin (1992:19, 50, 201).

[22] Or what Waldrup (1992:88, 118) identifies as "a science of emergence, ... the incessant urge of complex systems to organize themselves into patterns." "What we're really looking for in the science of complexity is," according to Stuart Kauffman (Waldrup, 1992:299), "the general law of pattern formation in non-equilibrium systems throughout the universe."

[23] Wilber (1996:20).

[24] Wilber (1996:28f). Describing the universe as a hierarchy in and of itself, Philip Anderson says (Waldrup, 1992:82) that "At each level of complexity, entirely new properties appear. [And] at each stage, entirely new laws, concepts, and generalizations are necessary, requiring inspiration and creativity to just as great a degree as in the previous one."

[25] Los Alamos physicist Doyne Farmer in Waldrop (1992:319).

[26] University of Michigan's John H. Holland claims that "At some deep, fundamental level ... all [the] processes of learning, evolution, and adaptation are the same. And one of the fundamental mechanisms of adaptation in any given system is [the] revision and recombination of the building blocks" (Waldrup, 1992:146).

[27] Waldrup (1992:142): "In nonlinear systems ... chaos theory tells you that the slightest uncertainty in your knowledge of the initial conditions will often grow inexorably."

[28] Although its appeal for charitable status was still pending, following a vote of its council members, the Pagan Federation withdrew its application to the Charity Commission in May of 1997. The consensus was that becoming a legal trust could detrimentally affect the way the PF is organized and run. The majority `no'-voters were resistant to the over-regulation contingent upon British charity status as well as the restrictions concerning the issues for which they would be allowed to campaign. The decision was then to set-up a subsection, a specific part of the PF rather than the whole organization, which could apply for Charity status. This charitable arm of the PF, possibly to be named the Chalice Fund, would, like the Chalice Trust, be constituted to collect money for worthy causes. (Prudence Jones, telephonic communication 9 October 1997).