Science Fiction and the Para-Religious

Written by Race MoChridhe in response to a podcast by Tara Smith and Benn Banasik, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

The bad news about this episode is that I lost a significant bet by only a few seconds when it took until just after the 10:00 mark for Robert Heinlein to be mentioned. The good news, of course, is the very interesting conversation that unfolds from that point. I am not recapping that conversation here; if you haven’t listened to it yet, go listen!

Instead, I want to follow up on a thread the conversation didn’t follow, based on a comment Mr Radford makes just after Ms Smith invokes Strangers in a Strange Land. He observes that:

writing something like [Heinlein’s work] in the 1960s … was completely antithetical to the standards and practices, if you will, of American society at the time. Which brings us to the idea that science fiction is social fiction. So you know, he’s sort-of writing this idea that in the future, possibly, we have comradery and free love. And we’re not being jack-booted into oblivion by fascist governments or anything like that…

The reception history of Heinlein could be a Ph.D. thesis in itself (if it hasn’t already been). What made me smile about this characterization was that, even as Heinlein was bringing the opprobrium of American conservatism down on himself for the promotion of loose sexual mores and socially instrumental pseudo-churches, he was also calling down the vitriol of American liberalism for populating the future with valorized jackboots (à la Starship Troopers or, even more strongly, Space Cadet) that, in confirmation of Ms Smith’s thesis, reflected his real-world enthusiasm for nuclear weapons testing, the Vietnam War, and Reagan’s SDI initiative (an argument over which permanently clouded his relationship with Arthur C. Clarke). The omnivalent gadflyism of Heinlein has been remarked upon frequently, but its importance to his success has been perhaps most deeply recognized by Brian Doherty, who wrote that “[t]hat iconoclastic vision is at the heart of Heinlein, science fiction, libertarianism, and America.”

What does that have to do with religion? A great deal, if one recalls that Pope Leo XIII characterized “Americanism” as a heresy in his Testem benevolentiae nostrae (1899), understanding by it “the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, [and] the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world”. What that pope might have thought of Heinlein’s novels may be left to the amusements of the imagination. More to the present point was Leo XIII’s concern regarding the suggestions from some American Catholics that “the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions”.

Even if one takes some umbrage with the other elements identified as “Americanism” by the Holy Father, this last point—the belief that the future is to be qualitatively different from the past such that, in Henry Ford’s famous saying, “history is bunk” and all human life is open to reinterpretation and reimagination from the ground up—is characteristic of the whole wave of revolutionary republics that trace their inspiration to Lexington and Concord. (Americans tend to be somewhat amnesiac about how much of the rich symbology and rhetoric of the Church’s other great 20th century nemesis—Marxism—sprouted on American soil.) It is also foundational to many (if not most) strains of science fiction writing, which not only use “the future” as a tabula rasa on which fundamental reimaginings of the human condition can be inscribed, but justify those inscriptions on the basis of some form of technological or scientific determinism, where the latent possibilities opened by new feats of engineering or new understandings of the physical world compel reconfigurations of society and the psyche by their own internal logic. What these stories designate as “science” thus functions analogously to “fate” in classical literature or “divine Providence” in medieval writing (or, for that matter, “historical dialectic” in socialist realist novels).

Heinlein coined the term “speculative fiction”, which has now come to be used as a catch-all for science fiction, fantasy, and related genres that presuppose orders of reality in which the conditions of life in the world are fundamentally different from those experienced historically and in the present. Notably, however, this is very different from the sense in which Heinlein originally used the phrase, as a means of distinguishing what we now call “hard science fiction”—science fiction that pays scrupulous attention to the scientific plausibility of its envisioned futures, which Heinlein more or less pioneered and was extremely proud of—as against the more fanciful storytelling common to both the pulp “space opera” adventures of the early 20th century and the great 19th century originators of the genre, for whom the “science” in science fiction was more or less interchangeable with “magic” in fantasy works. Heinlein’s careful “speculation”, as distinct from this wild and uninhibited imagining, brought his work out of the realm not only of the cheap entertainment with which pulp novels had been associated but also out of the domain of allegory and parable in which writers from H.G. Wells to Charlotte Perkins Gilman had pioneered science fiction in the first place. Heinlein’s work became not only thought-provoking but plausible. It is no coincidence that, to my knowledge, his was the first fictional religion to cross over into real-world practice through the Church of All Worlds, as Ms Smith notes.

I will be curious to see the survey results from Ms Smith’s interviews of Nebula attendees, and specifically what they might suggest about authors’ religious affiliations and beliefs. I don’t pretend to any encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction authors, but the only “big name” writer I can think of who is deeply involved in a “formal” religion is Orson Scott Card. (A much less famous example, but notable to me as the subject of some of my own recent research, is Annalinde Matichei, who incorporates the new religious movement with which she is identified—Filianism—directly into the world of her novellas.) I am sure there must be others, but it is notable how infrequently religion appears as a major theme in the personal lives of famous science fiction authors and how many, including those for whom religion is a major theme in their work, are themselves either atheists or practitioners of idiosyncratic or unorganized alternative spiritualities—a phenomenon made all the more notable by the powerful presence of formal religious identity and belief among foundational figures of modern fantasy writing, such as J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Could this be, I wonder, because many forms of science fiction fundamentally depend upon quasi-religious attitudes toward science itself?

Although he came to publicly embrace the term later in his life, Isaac Asimov always retained a certain discomfort with labelling himself an “atheist” because, he said, it was a statement about what he didn’t believe rather than what he did. He often went by “humanist” instead. Is it possible that the general intellectual commitments from which the bulk of science fiction springs—to an iconoclastic questioning of society, a vision of history as qualitatively transformative, and an understanding of scientific knowledge and technical invention as carrying teleological consequence (either in their own right or in their interaction with the known qualities of the human psyche)—are manifestations of a kind of humanism, scientism, or both (depending on one’s emphases and perspective) that is commonly incompatible with majority religious beliefs or else functions cognitively as a substitute for them?

That is, perhaps, where my digression rejoins the main conversation, as Mr Benasik goes on to discuss parallelism in the way avid video game players conceive their experience and the way that religious adherents understand their spiritual engagement. To what extent those parallels could be the result of para-religious aspects of modernity underlying gaming culture and game development (as I have suggested they may underlie science fiction as a genre), versus the extent to which they reflect similarities in the cognitive processing of experience as Mr Benasik explores in the interview, I will leave, with the anticipation of a sci-fi fan awaiting an author’s next release, to his future research.

Mother Earth, Sister Earth: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Susannah Crockford

A major theme of the interview with Dr. Crockford concerns the extent to which adherents of the “New Age” currents of thought she has studied in Arizona were motivated, or demotivated, by the framework of their ecospiritualities to address problems of environmental or ecological concern. She observed that, somewhat counterintuitively, a majority of the individuals with whom she had spoken evinced no particular commitment to environmental activism on either a societal or an individual level. Instead, they tended toward a millenarian belief that issues of pollution, mass extinction, climate change, and similar would largely resolve themselves in the course of a coming transformation of planetary consciousness, predominantly understood in terms of a shift from an exploitative relationship with an externalized nature—a paradigm coded as masculine—to a cooperative relationship with a nature in which human beings are understood as holistically embedded—a paradigm coded as feminine. Dr. Crockford further speculated that the apparent passivity of her research subjects toward environmental issues could be connected with this gendering of nature, insofar as the idea of “Mother Earth” implicitly casts nature in the role of caretaker, comforter, and nurturer. Indeed, in many ways it might be seen as effecting a startling transfer of responsibility insofar as nature can then be read, like a mother in respect of her child, as having some form of inherent moral responsibility to attend to the welfare of human beings.

I have lived in the American Southwest much of my life, and so Dr. Crockford’s description of Sedona and its inhabitants was very familiar to me (although I have never visited that particular corner of Arizona). I was somewhat startled, though, by the idea of connecting the kind of hyperemotionalized and largely disembodied approach to spirituality and the environment that she found there to gendered discourses. On a personal level, as a former inhabitant of the region, I see much closer connections between the kind of American New Age spirituality she described and the transhumanist millenarianism that pervades much of the culture of Silicon Valley. Both are driven largely by fear of imminent physical catastrophe that, in the minds of their adherents, can only be escaped by transcending the physical limitations of one’s humanity and finding refuge in a kind of Pleroma, be it “spiritual” or digital. In both cases, the work of reaching this safe-haven is understood as properly belonging only to a chosen few who possess the requisite vision, and one’s personal arrival at the envisioned end-point suffices as a total victory, either because the masses simply don’t matter (as in Silicon Valley) or because their conditions will be magically transformed by the deus ex machinasummoned by the efforts of their spiritual superiors (as in Sedona). That these broadly comparable attitudes thrive among women leading Goddess workshops and men in the commanding heights of one of the world’s most patriarchal subcultures suggests to me that gender-coding of the kind Dr. Crockford investigates is a generally tangential issue to many of these attitudes.

As a scholar in religious studies, however, the idea of this connection surprised me in a different way, as the majority of my own work concerns what some (but never its own participants) might call a “New Age” movement that flourished in Britain and Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s—a religious order called Lux Madriana. The Madrians, as they were known, also believed that the planet was approaching disaster and reconfiguration on a scale unprecedented in recorded history, that their religious movement was a vanguard of a new spiritual awakening, and that the new era would be dominated by feminine conceptions of Divinity and society. Indeed, their religion was based around the worship of God as Mother—a belief they said had once been universal to humanity in the days of what Marija Gimbutas called “Old Europe”, until being overthrown in the period of patriarchy, which they identified with the Hindu Kali Yuga, or Iron Age. Unlike the Sedonans, however, this prompted them to promote genuine political and social matriarchy, as well as to critique industrialism and most modern technology as near-diabolic outworkings of the modern obsession with quantification, scale, and material efficiency (à la the “reign of quantity” described by René Guénon, whom the Madrians greatly admired)—tendencies which they regarded as decidedly masculine. Accordingly, they protested nuclear power, commercial pesticides, and other environmental depridations and dedicated very practical (though ultimately unsuccessful) efforts toward the creation of sustainable, subsistence agricultural communities in several locations. Members of their order returned to the land, without electricity, in order to cultivate traditional trades and crafts as meditative disciplines and pathways to spiritual progress.

In asking myself why the feminine millenarianism of the Madrians did not beguile them into the same passivity that Dr. Crockford found to be so common in Sedona, I suspect the answer has less to do with concepts of gender and more to do with metaphors of family. For all that their social and political teaching was quite radical, Madrian theology was quite traditional (in both the common and the Guénonian senses of the term). While cultivating a strong sense of the Divine presence withinthe material world, they kept careful and nuanced distinctions between Creatrix and Creation; because God was seen as Mother, the Earth, as a part of the Creation, could not be. Instead, their scriptures taught that “the earth is thy sister, and the creatures thereof are thy kin” (The Heart of Water, v. 3)—a position echoing G.K. Chesterton (of whom they were also a great admirer), who wrote that “The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature was not our mother: Nature is our sister.” (Orthodoxy) Among the many creatures of the Earth the Madrians recognized were the fairies, whom they saw nearly everywhere in the natural world but (as they lamented in the pages of their magazineThe Coming Age) with less and less frequency as time went on, for they believed that modern practices of industrialized agriculture were driving the fairies, whom they called the “little sisters”, away from human habitations. In this charming term of endearment we perhaps hear another echo of Chesterton, who observed that “To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

In both Christianity and Madrianism there are, obviously, vast reaches of gendered implication in images of motherhood and of sisterhood but, in comparison with Sedona, the key aspect seems to be the difference between parenthood and siblinghood. Across many spiritual and religious traditions, including all those considered here, the image of the Divine parent does not contrast an adult child, but rather a little child, as the image of the believer or of humanity, and while a little child can be responsible to a father or a mother, no little child can be responsible forone. This is the symbolic trap of “Mother Earth” into which much of the New Age movement readily falls, implicitly (and perhaps quite accidentally) casting nature as the eternally self-sacrificing parent who will, from natural affection, ultimately give her own life for the welfare of her child. Indeed, one is tempted to read much New Age thought on the subject as a naturalized recapitulation of the Christian theme of Divine self-sacrifice born from the inexhaustible love of a parent. Wherever nature and deity come too close together, human beings will quite readily read themselves into the story of the prodigal son, whose parent, no matter how long he has been gone or what he has done, will gladly slaughter many animals to throw his welcome feast. Even a relatively young child, however, canbe responsible (within reasonable bounds) for a younger sibling, and we might well expect to find a more environmentally engaged attitude among those of any religion who expect that, one day, their Divine parent might call them to answer for what has become of their little sisters on their watch.

Dr. Crockford, at the beginning of the interview, usefully defines ecospiritualities as perspectives and practices that, beyond seeing the natural world as a divine creation or as a field of immanent divine activity, instead relate to nature, reified, as a divine force in its own right. Writers and speakers associated with these movements often portray this as a re-enchantment of the Earth—a return to the primordial worldview of peoples who still lived on lands they knew as sacred. Indeed, the subjects of Dr. Crockford’s research frequently alluded to the reverence in which the area of Sedona was held by the tribes that inhabited it. As jumbo-jet pilgrims seasonally swell the population of the fragile, drought-threatened landscape into a lucrative bazaar of workshops and mined crystals, however, the comparison that comes to mind is not with the respect given by the Apache and Yavapai to the lands from which they were forcibly removed in the 1876 midwinter march that killed nearly half of them. Instead, one cannot help but think of the customs of peoples throughout history who, upon choosing a sacrificial victim, have dressed and celebrated them as a god before delivering them over, bound, to satisfy the true objects of their worship.

The Perils and Promise of “Authenticity”

A Response to “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” with Theodora Wildcroft and Stephen Jacobs

by Race MoChridhe

Read more

Messengers of Many Gods: A Response to the RSP Interview with Tehri Utriainen

“Why is it the angel, particularly..?” David Robertson asks Tehri Utriainen in their recent RSP interview, “Not fairies or dragons or Thor..?”

Dr. Utriainen’s answer to the above is doubtless the primary reason. “Those who consider themselves or identify primarily as Lutheran—they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something they allow in their lives.” Despite its recent decline, Christianity is still predominant in most Western countries, and fairies, dragons, and Thor simply do not have a place in the symbolic and doctrinal systems that mediate most Western people’s spiritual experiences. To the extent that, as Stewart Guthrie has argued, perceptions of such agents is a “culturally universal” phenomenon, iconographies and traditions of angels are the only socially-affirmed cultural resource most Western people have for interpreting these natural experiences[i].

Whether in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, however, angels have never been merely one-way messengers. In a general survey of religious attitudes and practices, such as the one from which Utriainen’s studies developed, the role of angel spirituality in mediating spiritual phenomena and esoteric practices to the Christian majority will surely be the most important facet. From the perspective of Pagan Studies, however, additional reasons for angelic pre-eminence in the West’s spiritual discourses become apparent. I have known Witches who would not touch anything they perceived to be “Christian” with a ten-foot pole, but who nonetheless freely invoked the archangels in the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. I have walked into metaphysical bookshops where Christian materials were strictly taboo, but Raphael and Gabriel could be found among the statuettes (the latter, interestingly, often depicted as female). These are big, brand-name angels, whose Hebrew etymologies and Biblical references could conceivably be troublesome; nameless generic angels, more readily assimilate to new contexts, saturate Pagan shops, homes, and Tumblr feeds, often keeping merry company with fairies and dragons (and, occasionally, even with Thor).

An angel figure by fantasy artist Anne Stokes entitled, 'Harbinger', being re-shared on a Pagan Pinterest as an image of the goddess Lilith.

An angel figure by fantasy artist Anne Stokes entitled, ‘Harbinger’, being re-shared on a Pagan Pinterest as an image of the goddess Lilith.









It is not simply, then, that angels provide the West’s only “orthodox” veneer for cross-culturally common folk beliefs and practices, such as many of the divination and healing rituals described by Utriainen. It is also that they stand virtually alone among the symbolic forms of Christianity in being largely acceptable in post-Christian spiritual circles. They have thus, true to their name, assumed a vital mediating role not only in moving ideas and practices from the esoteric, occult, New Age, and Pagan peripheries into the Christian “center”, but also in “reclaiming” aspects of popular and folk Christianity by modulating them out into Pagan, New Age, and other post-Christian communities.

The reasons for this are several. The nineteenth century freely syncretized angelic iconography and Pagan subjects, bequeathing us visual traditions in which valkyries, for example, look very little like their textual descriptions in the Eddas. Pagan and New Age books and websites often go farther than simple syncretism, locating the origin of our contemporary ideas of angels themselves in pre-Christian and even pre-Judaic sources (such as Zoroastrianism), thus decontextualizing them from Christianity and shifting their discourse into a comparative framework familiar to, and comfortable for, Pagans and New Age participants. Though the former seek to build spiritual paths by reaching back to the memory of pre-Christian times, and the latter often attempt to transcend Christianity through the construction of a new dispensational discourse, neither group can wholly avoid grappling with centuries of Christian intellectual, cultural, and ritual heritage.

Angel traditions and symbolism, especially as mediated through the Western esoteric tradition and ceremonial magick, provide a means of engaging this heritage that avoids triggering traumas that many in the Pagan and New Age communities carry from Christian religious settings. A particularly striking example of this angelic versatility may be found in Filianism—a New Religious Movement that lists “a strong angelology” among its defining traits, and then uses that angelology to assimilate itself simultaneously to the Western esoteric tradition, Hellenic Paganism (as it was received by Amazon-focused feminist and lesbian separatist groups in the 1970s), Roman Catholic traditions of both scholasticism and Marian devotion, and a particularly bhakti-oriented form of Advaita Vedanta. Filianism may take these linkages unusually far, but their potential for fostering interfaith understanding is recognized even in some Christian scholarship, as in Lawrence Osborn’s identification of angelology as “a possible element in dialogue with post-materialism (particularly in its New Age manifestations)”.[ii]

Angels don’t just make esotericism accessible to Christians; they make the legacy of Christian thought and active dialogue with the Christian world accessible to people who have often left both on bad terms, and would not otherwise be willing or able to engage with them. As Christianity continues to decline in numbers and influence in the West, and a wide variety of post-Christian movements continue to expand, both directions of this exchange will be vital to fostering an atmosphere of authentic engagement and respectful dialogue in a spiritually pluralistic society.

In some respects, as Utriainen observes, the appeal of angel devotions or of “angel spirituality” is quite specific. An overwhelming number of practitioners specifically identifying with these practices and traditions are women, and most hail from lower- to mid-middle class backgrounds. In other respects, however, the appeal of these practices and of the symbology attached to them cuts across some of the deepest divides of our contemporary religious landscape, linking the Christian majority to the post-Christian minority in a way that enriches both. What, exactly, the implicit transreligious theology behind these linkages will give rise to, or how it will impact the development of established religions and movements in the twenty-first century, is anyone’s guess, but when I see a young Witch make a real connection with her Christian grandmother over an image of St. Michael or a prayer to St. Raphael, I am able to believe, if not in angels, at least in the better angels of our nature[iii].


[i] We are, of course, not obliged to accept any particular theory, nor to take a position on whether the universality of such beliefs and experiences is indicative of a metaphysical reality behind them or simply of a common reflex of the human psyche, to recognize that such universality would demand a cultural vehicle for expression in the West.

[ii] See also, albeit in a more proselytory tone, the Dominican theologian Dominic White’s work on angels in the New Age movement

[iii] Though, for the record, I do believe in angels.


Theologies That Cannot Be: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Caroline Blyth

I am an admirer of Dr. Caroline Blyth’s work, most especially for her commitment to Religious Studies’ “potential… as a means of cultural critique and change.” It is a practical focus badly needed in a discipline prone to building research foci around its own definition. I was somewhat discomforted, however, to hear her in the interview adopt Rukmini Callimachi’s term, the “theology of rape.”

What disturbs me about this phrase is that, once Dr. Blyth explains it (“justifying rape through the use of religious justification, religious terms, religious rituals…”) we all somehow understand it as a meaningful expression (indeed, an “evocative” one). In truth, however, this phrase, with its implicit suggestion that one can simultaneously engage in the rape of a human being and pursue the knowledge of God, should be semantically unparsable—a colorless, green idea sleeping furiously. “Theology of rape” should be a contradiction in terms.

When it does not immediately strike us so, we must ask ourselves what strange tension we are holding in our thought to make these terms superficially compatible, and as I ask myself this, I note something interesting—while theologies of rape are diverse, theologians of rape are almost invariably men. Some statistics are certainly at work here, since theology is still a field in which men are more heavily represented, but this in itself is a perplexing point worthy of our attention, since, in modern America at least, it is only our daughters that we teach to be Christians.

You know what I mean; just turn on any children’s television program, walk down any toy aisle, or listen carefully to the comments of teachers and fathers and little league coaches. We teach girls to be deferent and collaborative. We teach them to be nurturing and self-sacrificing. We teach them to be obedient. Our little boys we teach to insist on rights and respect. We teach them to be ready for confrontation. We teach them to know what they want and to get it. Both of these lists of virtues are familiar to those versed in Christian culture. The first comes from the Bible, where God enjoins upon us “lowliness… meekness… longsuffering” (Ephesians 4:2), “patience… kindness… gentleness” (Galatians 5:23), humility (Romans 12:14–16), and submission (Titus 3:1). The second comes from what Blyth refers to as the “godly masculinity” of men’s ministries, which uphold the ideal of a man who is “strong… powerful… heroic… authoritative… assertive… competitive… sexually aggressive.”

Taken alone and in moderation, none of those traits need necessarily be an evil, and each can be a positive good in a man (or a woman) of goodwill, but it cannot be denied that the general tenor of the second list is at odds with the first. Thus divided, there is a significant conflict between the virtues of “godly masculinity”—which are simply the virtues of the West’s hegemonic masculinity—and the virtues enjoined in Christian teaching and, for that matter, the teachings of most other religions as well.

I am far from the first person to make this observation, and I am indebted in it to my own research, centering on what Sarah Morrigan has called “the Oxford Goddess Revival” . In the 1970s, a group of young Oxonians brought together streams of thought from Guénonian Traditionalism, Marian devotionalism, and lesbian separatism to craft a unique and multifaceted theology. Among their teachings was a critique of contemporary Western masculinity as being negatively defined by the rejection of traits coded as feminine, which, in our culture, include the religious virtues of humility, meekness, silence, submission, charity, piety, and self-sacrificial love. Masculinity, in their view, was an apostasy from the Perennial Tradition—a rebellion against a necessarily feminine God.

One need not go quite so far as those ingenious young women, however, to observe that, within the context of contemporary Western culture, the term “godly masculinity” is one that should ring hollow and incomprehensible in our ears, just like the “theology of rape,” with which it is intimately connected. It is precisely in the knowledge that this term, too, has the superficial appearance of a meaning in our society that I am not surprised when, as the interview turns to the oft-neglected topic of male victims of gendered violence, we find the perpetrators to be, once again, almost entirely men. Ideas, as Richard Weaver said, have consequences, and the consequence of these pernicious oxymorons has been that acculturation to violence is a gendered phenomenon (as a quick survey of a Toys Я Us aisle or a Saturday morning cartoon lineup will once again confirm); gendered violence is an inevitable result of this.

Every discipline has both power and responsibility to contribute to the dismantling of the Patriarchy by declaring its valorization of avarice, egotism, and violence to be wrong. The particular duty and power of religious studies and theology, is to point out that that valorization is hypocritical—that the culture of Patriarchy is itself inimical to the values of the sacred social order from which it claims its authority and for which it claims to offer protection. Religious Studies is, as Blyth has said, a means for cultural change, and it is also the discipline which should recall most vividly the maxim of Confucius, that such change, to be successful, must begin with the rectification of names. It was certainly not Callimachi’s intention in coining the term to sanction the actions of Daesh, and it is certainly not Blyth’s intention in borrowing it to legitimize Deuteronomy 21:11, but to treat “theology of rape” as an intelligible phrase, rather than the incomprehensible equivalent of a “married bachelor” or a “negative surplus,” is to participate in the structural violence of Newspeak. No matter the religion, English already has a clear term for justifying rape by religion, or identifying machismo with God—nonsense.


What is Right With Pagan Studies?

Ethan Doyle White’s interview with the RSP is a fascinating follow-on to Teemu Taira’s. While Taira seeks a new paradigm of religious studies that does not require definition of “religion,” White has repeatedly expressed frustration with the inability of Pagan studies to define “Paganism,” writing that the “problem with Pagan Studies hinges on its inability to coherently explain precisely what ‘contemporary Paganism’ is. The field of Pagan Studies has gone on for two decades, all the while managing to circumnavigate this contentious issue, but I do not believe that it can do so indefinitely, considering the great importance this question has for the very existence of the field” (2012). How is it that the future of religious studies hinges on ceasing to define “religion,” while the future of Pagan studies hangs on starting to define “Paganism?”

It is tempting to say that this curious contradiction has arisen because Pagan studies is disproportionately staffed by practicing Pagans (Davidsen, 194–5) who would benefit tremendously from a definition, since constructing the object of their study—which causes so much anxiety in religious studies—is precisely their objective. This is the concern that prompted Markus Altena Davidsen (2012) to call for stricter efforts to corral Pagan studies back into methodological line with religious studies.

I applauded White’s response to Davidsen for taking what he describes in the interview as a “balanced, mixed view,” recognizing the validity of dual insider/outsider status in anthropological methodology and noting that “there are independent [openly Pagan] scholars … who have written excellent, balanced historical and biographical accounts… To derogatorily label them ‘religionists’ and accuse them of being too favorable to Paganism, as the Davidsen approach would lead us to do, would be doing scholarship a real disservice” (2012). I think White is absolutely right, but stops too short, for when he writes that he “cannot accept … the accusation that those who adhere to a particular religious belief are intrinsically unable to analyse that belief critically,” (ibid.) he, in a certain measure, reinforces Davidsen’s basic claim that the only valid approach to the study of a religion is a detached critical naturalism. In short, his response to Davidsen is to affirm that religious practitioners can be objective, too.

It is this notion of detached, naturalistic criticism that needs to be criticized, however. I would pay good money to see Davidsen walk into a women’s studies department and declare that its work can only be carried out by men, because women bring too many “insider concerns and perspectives,” or inform a queer studies faculty that queer instructors should be replaced by straight ones, because it is academically unseemly to have them “actively promoting the sexual orientations in question.” I would pay an equal sum, however, to see White defend the same departments on the grounds that they can certainly set aside their identities and, as it were, pretend to be straight cis people long enough to do “balanced” scholarship.

If this strikes us as a ridiculous example, that is because no other field in the humanities is held to the same requirements of detached objectivity demanded in religious studies. No one raises an eyebrow when an accomplished painter teaches art history, or even when a former head of state assumes a post in political science. Far from a compromise of objectivity, this is seen as a valuable leveraging of applied expertise. For all our talk of religion being a human endeavor, we are unaccountably unaccustomed to thinking of it as one; we treat it as an abstract phenomenon that can be subjected to a passably “objective” study, like thermodynamics or photosynthesis. Human endeavors, however, are humanistic—to be elaborated as practices rather than dissected as occurrences. The attempt to engage religious studies as a science ends Davidsen up in the absurd position of objecting to appointing recognized experts as teachers—as though being a successful novelist might compromise one’s integrity as an English professor (although we might be equally leery of letting them drone on about their own work).

Recognizing this absurdity, White refuses to see the “religionists” drummed out, but remains sympathetic to Davidsen’s broader concerns about Pagan worldview creeping into academic description. I find this concern misplaced, however, because the purity of observation and description to which an “insider” account is contrasted has only ever been a faux objectivity. Colonialist scholars took as their standard what most educated Europeans believed, and then proceeded to judge “primitive religions” against Christianity. Can we honestly claim to be different when Davidsen, in the very opening of his critique (p. 183) asks “how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion?” Once again, our field is simply using the majority belief of educated Europeans, which is now naturalism, as the obvious yardstick of human judgement. If anyone doubts this, let him once watch the faces of a conference audience when a presenter says that his work in religion builds on Gramsci, and then when another says that her work builds on Guénon.

Pagans often, as White notes in the interview, claim continuities with ancient peoples and kinship with indigenous ones. Perhaps the most credible of these claims is to a worldview that rejects the separation of the sacred and the secular. To insist upon that separation by disallowing methodologies and epistemologies rooted in religious belief, either in the very strong terms of Davidsen or in the much softer terms of White, is, in practice, a colonialist imposition, which, when carried out in a key space of Paganism’s own self-definition (as Pagan studies has de facto become), amounts to an erasure of identity. When White says that we “need to stop accepting Pagan ideas of what Paganism actually is, because they are often idealized and not always analytically useful to those of us who are scholars,” I cannot help but hear an echo of the old assertions that we need to stop accepting, say, Indian ideas of what Indian religion is, because we have the true model of religiosity. For all our pretensions otherwise, we still have an orthodoxy made up of educated European beliefs that invalidates its opponents by depriving them of the terms to name themselves or to articulate their own experience.

Maybe Pagan Studies isn’t infiltrated by religionists, like Davidsen alleges, or overburdened with theological elements that need to be “shaken off,” as White suggests, but instead maybe our whole academic enterprise in the study of religion is, as Russell McCutcheon recently suggested, too big a tent, as the domination of our schools of theology by the Abrahamic religions forces a growing non-Abrahamic theological scholarship to seek refuge in secular departments not designed to accommodate it. The peculiarities of Pagan studies, then, might call our attention to the need of a department to house the emerging discipline of trans-religious theology—a department that could perform the functions of a school of theology ecumenically, providing discursive space for a passionate elaboration of religion as a human endeavor, instead of trying to dispassionately dissect it as a social phenomenon. There the “religionists” would be kept at a distance that Davidsen may find acceptable, their work clearly demarcated from that of the naturalistic, social scientific scholarship that he believes to be the only path forward. White, however, would still be able to find just down the hall those “religionist” scholars whose contributions he values for bringing into the academy the experiences of those who have lived what he aims to study (this is the “deep pluralism” called for by Ezzy [2015]). Pagan scholars, for their part, would have discursive space to continue their work of self-representation and theological exploration, which Panin (2015) suggests might be an unavoidable development out of Pagan studies anyway and, in the same stroke, we would open our theological discussion not just to Pagans, but also to Hindus, Buddhists, and many others who have been marginalized in the Abrahamic spaces in which theology has been academically acceptable hitherto, enriching religious studies by deepening and broadening its most important academic partner in dialogue.

Maybe Pagan studies isn’t broken. Maybe it’s a manifesto.


Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012): 183–99.

Ezzy, Douglas. “Pagan Studies: In Defense of Pluralism,” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 16.2 (2015): 135–49.

Panin, Stanislav. “Discussions on Pagan Theology in the Academia and in the Pagan Community,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6.3 (2015).

White, Ethan Doyle. “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 5–21.