ArticlePDF Available

Locating Contemporary British Paganism as Late Modern Culture

  • Tokyo Institute of Technology (retired)


This paper addresses the place of contemporary British Paganism as part of Western culture. It is in two parts. The first explores Paganism theoretically and socio-historically and the second provides a â–˜micro-cosmicâ–™, ethnographic level of analysis. The first part focuses on the way in which the processes of modernity, manifesting within the West through such processes as individualisation and secularisation, have provided fertile ground for the inculcation of Pagan worldviews by effectively undermining cultural and institutional impediments to the adoption of overtly magical sensibilities. The second part examines more closely the group processes underlying British Paganism, using data from participant observation and in-depth interviews to illustrate the way in which late modern community forms can assuage potential areas of conflict among adherents. These two viewpoints combine to locate British Paganism as late modern culture.
Journal of Contemporary Religion,
Vol. 21, No. 3, October 2006, pp. 341–354
Locating Contemporary British Paganism
as Late Modern Culture
ABSTRACT This paper addresses the place of contemporary British Paganism as part of
Western culture. It is in two parts. The first explores Paganism theoretically and
socio-historically and the second provides a ‘micro-cosmic’, ethnographic level of analysis.
The first part focuses on the way in which the processes of modernity, manifesting within
the West through such processes as individualisation and secularisation, have provided
fertile ground for the inculcation of Pagan worldviews by effectively undermining
cultural and institutional impediments to the adoption of overtly magical sensibilities.
The second part examines more closely the group processes underlying British Paganism,
using data from participant observation and in-depth interviews to illustrate the way
in which late modern community forms can assuage potential areas of conflict
among adherents. These two viewpoints combine to locate British Paganism as late
modern culture.
This article is based on research undertaken by the two authors independently of
each other, involving substantial reading about the subject of modern Western
Paganism, interviews and fieldwork focusing on the behaviours, backgrounds,
and beliefs of British Pagans. The article consists of two parts. The first outlines,
on a theoretical level, the broad sociological and historical contexts that can
plausibly be seen as having been conducive to the emergence of Pagan
spirituality in the late twentieth century. The second part reports on how these
trends can be observed to manifest on the ‘micro-cosmic’ level of Pagan practice
and organisation.
Paganism is a modern religion that was catalysed by the work of an individual
named Gerald Gardner, who recast the tradition of Western esotericism and
ceremonial magic in terms of then fashionable (albeit now discredited) theories
of pagan ‘survivals’. Important concepts in the religion are a belief in divine
immanence, which transforms into a veneration of ‘nature’ and often of ‘the
feminine’. In addition, there is belief and ‘use’ of a magical otherworld that
co-exists with this reality. Determining the number of practitioners is difficult for a
number of reasons, not least because there are no official figures, but estimates
speak of over a hundred thousand in the UK alone (Hutton 400). The question to
address in this article is whether the Pagan phenomenon is, as some have thought,
representative of the notional socio-historical period of ‘late modernity’. In order to
do this, it is first necessary to clarify what is actually meant by the latter term.
ISSN 1353-7903 print/ISSN 1469-9419 online/06/030341–14 ß2006 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13537900600926097
Defining ‘Late Modernity’
The most influential exponent of the concept of late modernity is the British
sociologist Anthony Giddens. Giddens’s understanding of late modernity is
based on a particular, well-established understanding of modernity, which
proposes that modern Western society has been comprehensively ‘rationalised’
as a consequence of what he refers to as the ‘Enlightenment project’
(Consequences) and so denuded of the sort of ‘irrational’ elements—loosely
grouped under the term ‘tradition’—that once provided a cohesive social
‘worldview’ within communities. Accordingly, under late modernity, the
scientific epistemology that has hitherto sustained the ‘core’ assumptions of
modernity can itself no longer be taken for granted. As Helen Berger puts it
(in her study of Witchcraft), ‘‘methodological doubt and the reflexivity of
knowledge that are embedded in the tenets of science result in scepticism toward
all knowledge claims’’ (6).
However, in specifically challenging postmodernist opinion, Berger (again
citing Giddens) argues that this has led, not to the state of chronic moral and
existential ambivalence described in postmodern theory, which suggests that
currently, a culture-wide impression is being established that all ‘knowledge
claims’ are equally groundless and arbitrary—the ‘‘evaporation of subjectivity
into an empty universe of signs’’ (Giddens, qtd. in H. Berger 7), but to a
resurgence of concern with what might be referred to as the ‘great ethical
questions’ under the banner of a novel ideological orientation which Giddens
refers to as ‘life politics’. It is thus via life politics that, as Giddens puts it,
‘‘repressed existential issues, related not just to nature but to the moral parameter
of existence as such, press themselves back on the agenda’’ (Giddens, qtd. in.
H. Berger 8). Key to understanding this shift is the notion of reflexive individualism.
Essentially, this means that as ‘‘tradition recedes as an organizing principle’’—a
process attended by the ‘universalisation’ of culture through the implementation
of such innovations as ‘‘global time zones, calendars, and maps’’—we have seen
the widespread uprooting, or ‘‘disembedding’’, of cultural elements from their
original sources by individuals as a way of furnishing themselves with the means
for what Giddens calls ‘‘self-definition’’—a sense of personal identity and
‘meaning’ or a means of orientating oneself in the absence of ‘traditional’
guidelines (see H. Berger 78).
Much of what Giddens says is eminently applicable to Paganism. For one,
as Helen Berger herself avers, Witches and other Pagans can and do ‘‘borrow
rituals, deities, and magical practices from around the globe’’ (H. Berger 7).
It is also evident that Pagans are both individualistic and possessed of a
highly engaged moral sense—or what one of the authors’ interviewees
referred to as a ‘‘strong ecologically conscious and socially conscious thread’’
(Stephan, Interview
However, there are significant problems with Giddens’s premise with
respect to our discussion. Giddens presupposes the historical existence of a
modernity that never really was. In particular, we should remember that,
historically speaking, there is far more to modernity than the ‘Enlightenment
project’. This is evident if we look at one of the great ‘isms’ of the modern
world, Romanticism, a movement which arose as a spirited intellectual,
artistic, and moral challenge to the perceived excesses of the Enlightenment.
342 T. Hope & I. Jones
As Colin Campbell puts it,
The romantics asserted a philosophy of ‘dynamic organicism’ with the
metaphor of growth substituted for that of the machine, and the values
of change, diversity, individuality and imagination, for those of
uniformitarianism, universalism and rationalism. (181)
Moreover, Romanticism was by no means a marginal phenomenon, having rather
been, Campbell explains, ‘‘a general cultural movement’’ that was ‘‘on a par
with ...the immediately preceding Enlightenment’’ (180). From this one might
conclude that it is no less representative of modernity than those features it
criticised. Indeed, Romanticism was, to no small degree, an elaboration of its
antecedent movement, having attached the notion of a ‘‘unique, ‘creative’
genius’’ to the definitive Enlightenment espousal of ‘‘the right of each individual
to self-determination’’ (Campbell 183).
Another problem with Giddens’s reading of late modernity is that he
somewhat overstates the constancy of traditions in what some might regard as
their ‘natural’ (which is to say ‘pre-modern’) state. For, as Forna
¨s states in citing
Raymond Williams,
Traditions are ‘reproduction in action’, representing ‘‘not a necessary
but a desired continuity’’, actively selecting among received and
recovered elements of the past. (22, emphasis added by Forna
¨s’s point is that all traditions involve at least some degree of
‘disembedding’; thus the main substantive difference in the way Pagans, and
modern individuals in general, go about this process is that they are significantly
more ‘wise to the fact’—indeed, more ‘reflexive’—in doing so.
Therefore, if there is a ‘core’ or thread to modernity, which might also be
thought to extend to ‘late modernity’, it is evident that this has more to do with
individualism than with rationalisation. However, if we alter Giddens’s premise
slightly, the term may still be usefully employed for ‘locating’ Pagan spirituality
socio-culturally and historically. That is to say, instead of regarding the
contemporary climate of reflexive individualism, which Paganism arguably
represents, as a consequence of modern scientific rationalism ‘imploding’, we can
see it as the consequence of a long-standing historical trend towards the
individual questioning institutional structures and bodies of knowledge—a trend
which is accompanied by a general attitude of ‘open-mindedness’ (rather than
blanket scepticism) towards ‘knowledge claims’ per se. It is then possible to obtain
a view of both Paganism and late modernity that is more historically and
sociologically ‘grounded’. To restate for clarity, late modernity is seen here as a
period of heightened individual reflexivity that developed from ‘historical’
modernity as generally perceived. We shall illustrate this point by referring to
two key ideas from sociological theory, starting with a concept that has
perennially been associated with modernity within sociology: secularisation.
Arguably the most influential theorist in this area was Max Weber, who argued
that the hegemonic rise of modernity caused the world to become terminally
Contemporary British Paganism & Late Modernity 343
devoid of spiritual and existential ‘meaning’ for its inhabitants—a process he
called ‘disenchantment’ and described as follows:
Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy
darkness and hardness. (qtd. in Gilbert 14)
While not always expressed in such lyrical or pessimistic language, this notion
remained something of a ‘given’ among sociologists well into the twentieth
century. The general accepted meaning of the term is, in the words of Peter Berger
(a former champion of the theory), that ‘‘[m]odernization necessarily leads to a
decline in religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals,’’ (qtd. in
Woodhead and Heelas 435). Today, however, sociologists (Peter Berger included)
tend to offer a more cautious and qualified reading. For our purposes, the
principal qualifications, as succinctly described by the French sociologist Danie
´ger, are the following. Firstly, secularisation now tends to be regarded
as a more localised phenomenon that centres mainly on ‘‘Western Europe’’, for, as
´ger explains, this is the ‘‘only geo-cultural area [... to which] the
ideal-typical model of secularization implying the expulsion of religion can be
applied in contrast with the rest of the world’’ (116).
Secondly, the demise of institutional religion is no longer automatically
interpreted as a sign of declining religious ‘faith’. While the ‘‘political
constitution’’ and ‘‘normative and axiological organization’’ of Western societies
are no longer dependent on religious beliefs and structures, this should ‘‘in no
sense be equated with the renunciation of belief’’ (Hervieu-Le
´ger 119). In other
words, the notion of secularisation merely denotes ‘‘the movement by which the
elements of belief break free of the structures prescribed by religious
institutions’’, rather than the ‘‘end of belief’’ per se (ibid).
The second key sociological concept is also strongly (but not entirely) linked to
secularisation. This is Roy Wallis’s concept of epistemological individualism, a term
often invoked by sociologists when they refer to alternative spiritualities.
Campbell, for instance, regards it as an intrinsic feature of the cultic milieu—his
term for the nebulous, but nevertheless durable and pervasive stratum of New
Age, occult, and Pagan culture one finds in the West (qtd. in York 252). Similarly,
in his seminal sociological study of the New Age, Paul Heelas interprets this
concept to mean ‘‘voices of authority emanating from experts, charismatic leaders
and established traditions [that are] mediated by way of inner experience’’ (21).
The sentiments described here are manifestly evident among Pagans. For
example, an individual interviewed by one of the authors spoke of what he
referred to as ‘free thought’, adding, ‘‘don’t rely on doctrine, question the rules
and see how they apply to you’’ (Peter, Interview). A particularly good
illustration of this attitude comes from the Rune magician Jan Fries, who writes:
The Odin you encounter in your rituals may be more genuine than the
warrior-deity described in the sagas: the traditional form may be
obsolete in our days, but what you experience is the living reality. (17)
The concept of epistemological individualism is clearly akin to the notion of
reflexive individualism, denoting recourse to one’s own judgement and
experience in order to ‘find one’s way’. However, it is also important to bear in
mind that this has its roots in ‘historical’ modernity. Steve Bruce, for instance,
sees the origins of the current upsurge in ‘cultic’ orientations in the Protestant
344 T. Hope & I. Jones
Reformation’s espousal of the ‘‘freedom to dissent’’ from Church authority (28).
It is also possible to discern an epistemologically individualistic dimension in the
culture of the Renaissance, which, according to Hutton, placed a strong
‘‘emphasis upon personal spiritual development’’ (67).
Interestingly, even from its current platform of epistemological individualism
(as a prominent part of the cultic milieu), Pagan culture appears to be moving
even further in this direction. This is illustrated by comments which the
educationalist and Wiccan Priest Kenneth Rees has made concerning what he has
identified as Paganism’s shift away from a comparatively ‘doctrinaire’ form
based on Gardnerian Wicca, towards an altogether ‘‘looser-limbed’’ form that is
more attuned to personal tastes and proclivities (26).
It appears that, if the growth of Paganism tells us anything, it is not that we are
seeing a radical ‘break’ from, or challenge of, modernity, but that modernity’s
historical trajectory should be envisaged as an ongoing shift towards ever greater
epistemological individualism as a normative value and cultural ‘given’. One
might also suggest that Paganism offers us the consummate illustration of how,
even in the absence of ‘traditional’ contexts and guidelines, modern reflexive
individualism may reinforce rather than diminish one’s sense of identification
with broader, transpersonal frames of reference.
This is evident in two broad senses. Firstly, Pagan spirituality relies very much
on the idea of cosmological context—the notion of a complex universe
individuals share with all manner of other denizens, corporeal and otherwise,
in a scheme that could be referred to as ‘parallelist’.
Secondly, this relationship is
conceived of in vividly imaginative terms, so that it may engender a state referred
to as ‘engrossment’, a sense of complete identification with, and immersion
within, a vivid and ‘enchanted’ cosmos.
Aleister, one of our interviewees and a Chaos Magician, shows how
individualistic sensibilities and Pagan cosmology can reinforce each other.
In the following quote, he describes how he started to become interested
in Paganism:
Although I’d already come across [Pagan] ideas in terms of mythology
and role-playing games, it wasn’t until I was 16 when that started to
happen. It was with The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley,
which was her retelling of the Arthurian myths. It’s very Pagan-centric,
and it was at that time that it dawned on me that you could have one of
these myths as an actual religion; and it also dawned on me that there
were Pagan religions. (Aleister, Interview)
Here is someone who is describing the point at which he realised that an
imaginary, enthralling piece of fiction may become ‘something more’, the basis
for a programme of personal spiritual development, which involves an
altogether more ‘profound’, ‘mythic’ level of engagement with the narrative(s)
in question. In using personal tastes and enthusiasms as a springboard for
notional spiritual endeavour, individuals may convert ‘mere’ enthusiasm into
full-blown, ‘magical’ identification, reinforcing in the process existing
proclivities. This principle may be evident in any number of permutations,
involving, for example, geographical, ethnic, historical, and mythological
themes. The text cited in the above interview evokes notions of Arthurian
tradition, with its associated esoteric lore about the quest for the Holy Grail,
Contemporary British Paganism & Late Modernity 345
and the more prosaic realm of Welsh and British history, but gives these a
modern feminist slant with theories of Goddess worship.
Paganism and Group Contexts for Organisation and Expression
The regard which Pagan individuals have for surrounding context is evident on a
societal level—the level of organisation and social behaviour, where one might
expect the processes of late modernity to be most transparent. In fact, Paganism
appears to be an illustration par excellence of the argument that, while notions of
group affiliation (expressed through such channels as membership, ‘community’,
and ‘identity’) tend to be significantly more flexible now than in the past, the idea
and ideal of community seem to hold no less importance or attraction. Also, the
way that Pagans go about pursuing new relationship structures appear to meet
with some success. Jorgensen and Russell, for example, assert that, although
Pagans typically organise themselves in a ‘‘highly fluid’’ fashion, this type of
modus operandi should also be recognised as a ‘‘highly effective organizational
form’’ which has an ‘‘authentic religious character’’ (336, n. 9).
Pagan organisational strategies would thus appear to be as flexible as
Paganism’s predominant methodological features. For instance, followers may
enact rituals in small private groups, at larger gatherings or, in some cases, in
public events. Organisations, such as the Pagan Federation in the UK, will
therefore encourage networking; another of its principal strategies is to host
events, such as conferences and festivals. In addition, many British Pagans meet
regularly in informal groups—known as ‘moots’—where they have the
opportunity to discuss religious matters and to socialise without having to
engage in explicitly ‘religious’ or ritual acts. (Such events do not appear to feature
as significantly within the US Pagan scene).
Sociological research of the social practices of Pagans has so far been fairly
limited in scope and a mere handful of empirical studies deal with these. The
most significant studies in recent years have focused on North America
(H. Berger; Pike). However, while they have provided much by engaging in
interesting and useful analyses of Pagan identity and organisation, it must also be
recognised that the structure and ethos of the US Pagan community
(or communities) differ significantly in certain respects compared with those in
the UK (some of which are discussed below). Nevertheless, these studies have
also revealed a common concern, among the respective ‘national’ cultures, with
the idea of ‘community’. Further, the idealisation of community within these
cultures appears to have a specifically ‘Pagan’ character, as illustrated by the
following quote from the Pagan Federation:
Modern Pagans, not tied down either by the customs of an established
religion or by the dogmas of a revealed one, are often creative, playful
and individualistic, affirming the importance of the individual psyche
as it interfaces with a greater power. There is a respect for all of life and
usually a desire to participate with rather than to dominate other beings
[...]. This is bringing something new to religious life and to social
behaviour, a way of pluralism without fragmentation, of creativity
without anarchy.
346 T. Hope & I. Jones
While the Pagan Federation may not enjoy universal support among British
Pagans, these sentiments—denoting individuality accentuated by sociability,
in correspondence with other ‘external’ affiliations—are nevertheless similar or
complementary to those expressed by many individuals whom the authors
encountered during their research.
Dianne, for example, stated that the Pagan
standard is ‘‘open mindedness’’ (Dianne, Interview), while, for Jane, the Pagan
milieu is agreeable to more outre
´types, because ‘‘no-one is going to say, you’re a
weirdo’’ (Jane, Interview). Similarly, Cindy commented that she believed
Paganism should provide
Companionship, friendship, some [people] to share everything with.
Just someone to talk to about what [I] believe in, what [I] feel, a
[sense of] belonging, absolute belonging. (Cindy, Interview)
The kind of ideal Pagan community which these quotations evoke appears to
involve the aspiration of being accommodating with regard to personal
idiosyncrasies and opinions, without compromising group or collective cohesion,
whether regarding wider community-oriented sensibilities or the more intensive,
but also more episodic, level of ritual processes and engagements. The aim is to
allow individuals to follow their own beliefs and practices, while respecting those
of others. How is the notional ‘community’—the sense of shared belonging—
created and upheld? The processes can be seen both in the practices and
prescriptions of organised Pagan associations and in environments where Pagans
meet and interact.
We can focus on a number of arenas for Pagan activity and organisation in
order to assess the developments that have occurred within Paganism’s overall
ethos and prevalent organisational culture. In the remaining part of this article,
we look at some major avenues for collective behaviour, while also noting some
significant distinctions which the comparison of British and American Pagan
milieu reveals.
Amy Simes, an academic who conducted a broadly ethnographic study of
British Paganism in the early 1990s, has written the following comment about the
strategies of group organisation, which she believes to be most characteristic of
British Pagans:
Paganism can be described as a religion of paradox, particularly with
regard to groups and individuals [...] like bubbles in a cauldron,
groups appear on the surface, usually small at first, then grow in size
until they either burst into newer, smaller versions of the original group,
or transform into reactions against the original group, or even disappear
altogether. It is a process which often happens at a rapid pace. (169)
The rapid formation and breakdown of groups are precisely part of the
organisational ethos that might be regarded as characteristically late modern.
It is therefore also significant that British Pagans seem to have so little difficulty
accommodating it. In fact, conflict and argument are such common features in
Paganism that Pagans have a coined the (somewhat irreverent) term ‘bitchcraft’.
Simes proposes that Pagans can be divided into roughly two distinct types: the
‘solitaries’ and the ‘groupies’, terms respectively denoting Pagans who spend
most of their time working alone and Pagans who are more inclined towards
group practice. However, although the rise of solo Paganism—as exemplified,
Contemporary British Paganism & Late Modernity 347
for instance, by Hedgewitchcraft and Shamanism—might represent an important
sub-trend within the phenomenon, it could also be argued that it is becoming
increasingly hard to make such a distinction. Jorgensen and Russell, for instance,
argue that Pagans nowadays ‘‘frequently alternate between solitary practice and
group participation’’ (333).
We therefore briefly discuss the apparently characteristic Pagan interplay
between individual and group sensibilities and actions, not by proposing any
rigid categorisations within the culture, but by focusing on three distinct
‘settings’ where Pagans commonly interact: at ritual ‘workings’, festivals, and
Rituals are occasions when Pagan identities and affiliations can be both expressed
and reinforced. They have an element of ‘playfulness’ to them, but are also, by
their very nature, extremely ordered, despite typically presenting substantial
leeway for individual creativity and expression. Rituals can take many forms,
depending on which ‘tradition’ members follow, but often, the ‘default’ ritual
forms follow guidelines laid out within Wicca.
This is most probably so because
Wicca is the most popular Pagan tradition, but also, perhaps, because its roots
within the rich, foundational Pagan Western esoteric magic are now commonly
acknowledged, even by Witches. The Wiccan ritual blueprint thus serves like a
lingua franca for members of a Pagan community—or what one interviewee,
Judith’ (incidentally not Wiccan herself), refers to as ‘‘a sort of common ground
from where one can talk’’ (Judith, Interview).
For example, a ritual attended by
one of the authors began with this introduction:
OK, this is just going to be a basic Wiccan style ritual. We’ll call the
quarters and invoke the Lord and Lady. Then, well, I’m not sure what
will happen. So, who wants to invoke the quarters? (Field Notes)
This ritual eventually became a space in which the participants sought to
communicate with their deceased relatives and culminated in a celebration of the
perennial cycle of death and rebirth. The eight individuals present represented
several different Pagan traditions, which included Odinism, a form of
Scandinavian Reconstructionist Paganism. As was usual with the group in
question, little planning had been done prior to the ritual.
Pagan rituals may be public, semi-public (as is normally the case at Pagan
festivals) or, as with the ritual mentioned above, confined to private Pagan
groups. The distinction between public and private ritual milieu is not
insignificant, especially if we consider some of the factors that have been
credited with facilitating the formation of community affiliations within the
Pagan culture. Pike states that it is precisely the kind of ritual acts that a
substantial proportion of Pagans habitually perform together that give rise—in
part at least—to the formation of strong group identities, even if participants do
not know each other well. Pagan ritual may thus be thought to create potent
collective ‘bonds’ in the Durkheimian sense or the kind of collective
‘perspectives’ that Halbwachs regards as a defining component of social
experience. However, it is also important to recognise that any such social
348 T. Hope & I. Jones
dynamic is somewhat complicated by what appears to be an intrinsically
individualistic component, which has a striking resonance with the ethos of late
modernity. Sabina Magliocco writes that Pagan ritual is
... not strongly fixed, but fluid; while it is built around a basic
framework is subject to constant innovation and variation
according to the personalities of the individuals involved, their
moods and desires, the time of year, and multiple other factors. (95)
Finally, Paganism’s compatibility with late modernity is highlighted by the
obvious affinity between its ritual ethos and the kind of ‘life politics’ which
Giddens (Modernity) identified. This is evident in the two forms of ritual
‘intention’ that might be thought most representative of the phenomenon: to help
‘heal the earth’ and (even more definitively, perhaps) to promote self-
development (or what one informant, Simone, calls ‘‘self-evolvement’’
). The
former ‘intention’ is particularly prevalent in the more public type of gatherings,
whereas the notion of personal ‘empowerment’ might be considered an implicit
feature of modern magic in general. Further, concern with self-development and
global environmental issues may be combined within a single ritual, so that both
are in effect being addressed by way of the one reflexive act.
In addition to ritual (a term which covers both formal and more spontaneous or
‘improvised’ approaches), Pagans tend to gather at two specific types of social
event: festivals and ‘moots’. The former are gatherings of up to several hundred
people who, over the course of a weekend or longer, will camp together and take
part in Pagan talks, workshops, and rituals. Helen Berger states that such
occasions constitute the most visible way that contemporary American Pagans
construct their communities. Pike has come to similar conclusions in her study of
this phenomenon. Her book explores the experiences of festival participants
in detail, describing such events as ‘‘a place apart’’, separate from the everyday
world, where whole Pagan families are created, sometimes literally, and
individuals may ‘shed’ their mundane personas in favour of something more
‘magical’ (24).
This may undoubtedly be emotional and moving experiences for many
American Pagans. However, while it is true that participants in British Pagan
festivals might enjoy a similar kind of temporary, yet powerful bond, there is a
danger in seeing these events in the same way. Although British festivals are
certainly ‘out of the ordinary’, they hardly match the scale of their American
counterparts. In fact, it is by looking at such festivals that key differences between
British and US Paganisms are most evident. In contrast to typical US Pagan
festivals, British events are far smaller, usually lasting a weekend and often
taking place on land hired for the occasion (not owned by those organising the
event, as can be the case in the US). Also, the British events are typically called
Pagan ‘camps’, which indicates that their character is based on the ‘outward
bound’ ideal of camping in the open in an informal, recreational manner, rather
than focusing specifically on the experience of magical ritual. While Pike argues
that festivals are sites where a unified body of knowledge can be developed, it is
Contemporary British Paganism & Late Modernity 349
difficult to see how this could occur in the British case, given both limited
attendance and vocational emphasis of such events here.
This point can be illustrated with the case study of one British Pagan camp, the
‘Beechtree Camp’, which took place in the middle of Summer 2000, on a
weekend, on several acres of land belonging to a working farm. This annual camp
had already been run there for the two previous years, after the farm that had
accommodated it before had been sold to less Pagan-friendly owners. Although
the new site is popular among many of the attendees, some of the older Pagans
prefer the previous site.
The testimonies provided by those attending the Beechtree Camp seem to paint
a picture which is quite different to Pike’s portrayal of a ritually sourced festival
‘bond’. Two related observations are particularly pertinent here. Firstly, most of
what participants did could be regarded as ‘mundane’ (as opposed to consciously
‘magical’ or ‘religious’) and the number of individuals involved in ritual activity
was a distinct minority. The majority of camp participants seemed content to
spend much of the day sitting around talking or shopping at the selection of the
stalls on site. Secondly, during the weekend, camp participants appeared able to
use the ostensibly ‘banal’ mode of communication to forge strong relationships
with fellow participants, with the camp itself serving as a particularly useful
‘bonding’ theme (covering topics such as range and quality of products on sale or
site organisation).
All participants said that, while similarities are undoubtedly evident, British
Pagan festivals seem far more informal and low-key affairs than their American
counterparts, although no less significant or enjoyable for participants for that.
Rather than being perceived as ‘life-changing’, intensively magical ‘spaces’ where
one’s ‘true’ Pagan self may emerge, British Pagan festivals seem to be appreciated
as supportive and stimulating environments where individuals can meet others
of a like mind, in a manner appropriate to members of a loosely knit cultic milieu.
Camps and festivals are not the only occasions when Pagan individuals can
generate communal bonds. This can arguably happen more frequently at ‘moots’
or this is conceivably the case for Pagans in Britain where, as noted previously,
such events appear to be far more representative than appears to be the case for
the US. Moots are meetings that take place throughout the year, usually once
a month at a designated venue (in most cases a pub). In theory, moots present an
opportunity for Pagans of every persuasion to get together and discuss topics
with one another in an informal environment. Like rituals and festivals, moots
also require a certain amount of organisation, whether generating publicity,
securing a venue, finding speakers or introducing presenters and performances.
The event often follows this format: the evening begins with informal talk as
people arrive, which is followed by a presentation or performance, and ends with
further discussion on matters relating directly to Pagan belief or ritual or on some
other broadly relevant topic.
Moots represent a permanent feature of British Pagan communities. Although
they sometimes change locations, they tend to remain active and continue
throughout the year. While some moots stop functioning, new ones can be
350 T. Hope & I. Jones
expected to take their places. The amorphous nature of moots is reflected in the
attendance of individual members. For example, some may come one week, only
to be absent the next or may never return. Although ‘regulars’ are not
uncommon, some people only attend infrequently, at times leaving an interval
of months or even longer between visits. On one level, Pagan social organisation,
as represented by moots, is thus rather transitory—inconsistent and flexible; on
another level, the ‘permanent’ nature of such events indicates that they are one of
the most significant arenas of late modern communality, as expressed by Pagans.
Pagans’ increasing use of the internet ties in well with the character of moots:
despite their apparent permanence, locations, dates, and times may change
frequently. In the last few years, a number of web sites listing details of local
moots have emerged, such as Interestingly, an American site
(, the popularity of which has grown significantly among British
Pagans, has—in recent years—provided a similar service in what it calls its
‘witches of the world’ page. However, such events are listed under the American
title of ‘circles’. Although this service is an attempt to encompass under the same
banner what clearly sees as a global Pagan trend, the differences
are nevertheless striking, as ‘circles’ are more focused on Pagan belief and ritual
Discussion at moots usually varies, especially once the main speaker has
finished, with small groups conversing among themselves, first about the talk
in question, then about other topics of interest. Moot participants commonly
acknowledge that the sub-groups often tend to be ‘cliques’ and that the subjects
under discussion may well be ‘other Pagans’. Moots, it seems, are eminently
suitable arenas for ‘bitchcraft’. Members of this community are, as is the case
in any other community, not always in total agreement with each other.
However, any tensions are generally offset by an overall sense of
‘togetherness’. This is particularly discernible when a perceived threat to the
group or its way of life is discussed. Often, the ‘others’ that Pagans invoke to bind
themselves together are ‘Christians’. ‘Others’ may also manifest in antagonism
toward ‘New Agers’. Such ‘boundary reinforcement’ often centres on notions of
authenticity, as expressed, for example, in praising ritual tools made by hand
over ones purportedly cynically ‘mass-produced’, as the following comment
I think it’s ridiculous how many [ritual tools] are sold everywhere. I tell
you what, there used to be a shop in Northtown that just sold real,
authentic American Indian things. They sold dream-catchers—they
were about 20 quid but worth it—each one had a certificate and was
labelled as being made by an actual Native American. (Paul, Interview)
What do members gain from the arrangements like the moot? The response of
one participant ( John) which he gave when asked why he was there sheds some
light on this question:
I don’t know really. I just felt that I was looking for some sort of
spirituality. I looked around. I’m not into all the stuff that most of the
people here are into. It’s more of a nature thing to me. I was looking
around and I found Paganism and it felt like I was home. I can just look
at nature and it’s enough. Sort of meditation. (John, Interview)
Contemporary British Paganism & Late Modernity 351
John’s comments indicate that he can make an informed assessment of the other
participants’ practices in the moot. His comments also express the individuality
of the scene: John implies that he is different from the other members of the
group, while, in some respects, being just the same as they are (‘‘I’m not into all
the stuff that most of the people here are into’’). For John, membership of the moot
requires individuals to be engaged in becoming part of, yet paradoxically also
remaining ‘apart from’, the group—a state of tension between individualism and
what Pagans regard as a ‘natural state of togetherness’. Such a relationship
consummately represents the ethos and general character of contemporary
British Paganism, encompassing an attitude of epistemological and reflexive
individualism within a context of loose ‘togetherness’ and informal organisation.
In other contexts, this is interspersed with periods of intensive, ritual-centred
Paganism very much epitomises the concept of late modernity—a period of
increased reflexive and epistemological individualism—while also highlighting
that period’s roots in what might be referred to as ‘historical’ or ‘classic’
modernity. In commenting upon the ‘culture’ of Paganism, we have not asserted
any particular uniqueness, by arguing, for example, that the nature of Pagan
festivals or moots is substantively different to non-pagan meetings. They may or
may not be different. Instead, we suggest that contemporary Paganism should be
assessed by placing it firmly within a more general late modern context. In
conclusion, the trend towards reflexive and epistemological individualism, which
appears to govern late modern culture and society, is evident in the manner in
which Pagans, at least Pagans in Britain, typically frame markedly idiosyncratic
and independent outlooks within broader thematic and structural contexts,
in terms of organisational ethos, moral sensibility, and overall worldview.
Tom Hope’s doctorate in sociology examined the micro-social group processes in
contemporary British paganism (University of York 2004). He is presently employed by
the Japan Science and Technology Agency and the National Institute of Advanced
Industrial Science and Technology in Tokyo, Japan, where he continues to focus on
community practices, now with an emphasis on the social aspects of science and
technology. Ieuan Jones’s doctoral thesis (University of York 2004) focused on modern
British Paganism. He currently co-edits an academic compendium on left-hand path
ritual magic in association with the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic.
CORRESPONDENCE: 2–3–5–205 Nakamachi, Musashino-shi, Tokyo 180–006, Japan.
1. The names used to refer to interviewees are pseudonyms.
2. The USA have long been an anomaly in terms of Western secularisation patterns. The reason for
this is, as Malcolm Hamilton notes, that, despite being the world’s ‘‘most advanced capitalist
country’’, the US have perhaps the highest proportions of ‘‘church affiliation and membership’’
among such societies (86).
352 T. Hope & I. Jones
3. This term is intended to differentiate magical ontologies from ontologies associated with other
types of creed or worldview, such as monotheism, dualism or monism. Parallelist ontologies are
based on the notion that the tangible world exists simultaneously in close connection with, yet
‘apart’ from, what is held to be the ‘source’ of spiritual ‘power’—the ‘Otherworld’ realm
described in myths and magical lore worldwide. Further, in contradiction to the type of monistic
ontology that is characteristic of Paganism’s ‘rival’, modern spiritual alternative, the New Age,
parallelist worldviews ultimately portray the individual as a part of a broader, multi-faceted
cosmic whole, rather than its ontological epicentre. (See Jones for a more detailed explanation of
these points.)
4. Pagan communities are inherently complex and contextual so that only some of the significant
features are discussed here. For a more detailed account of the conception of community
employed in this article, see Hope.
5. Wicca is one of the most widely practised forms of contemporary Paganism. It is essentially a
re-imagined form of witchcraft, which emerged in the 1950s and draws upon a number of
historical sources.
6. It would be undoubtedly erroneous to suggest that all Pagans of every persuasion are familiar
with the details of Wiccan ritual. Heathen ritual, for example, differs considerably in form and
function. However, our research suggests that many involved in contemporary Paganism (in all
its forms) have some familiarity with the general characteristics of the Wiccan ritual form.
7. The term taken from a public lecture which Simone delivered in 1999.
8. It is also interesting to note the influence which the internet has had on outdoor Pagan events
such as these, to the extent of undermining the distinctive nature of British festivals. To give one
example: for many at this particular camp, the highlight of the weekend is the now traditional
Friday and Saturday evening event when a large campfire is lit and people drink, talk, sing, and
play the drum. However, some members who have attended the camp since its inception in the
mid 1980s are dismayed by what they see as the increasing amount of drumming that takes place
now. Indeed, at the 2002 Beechtree Camp, many complaints were made to the organisers about
drummers who continued to play and sing until well after the set curfew. One senior member
suggested that this was due to the influence of American Paganism on British camps. This may
well be the case, as suggested by the American origins of the chants heard around the campfire;
significantly, when asked where she had learned the chants, a singer exclaimed, ‘‘oh, they’re all
over the internet, I can write down the address for you’’ (Field Notes). The internet may thus alter
the flow of Pagan information between Britain and the US in the future, favouring the more
powerful of the two cultures.
Aleister. Personal interview. 18 November 1999.
Berger, Helen A. A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United
States. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1999.
Bruce, Steve. ‘‘Cathedrals to Cults: The Evolving Forms of the Religious Life.’’ Ed. Paul Heelas.
Religion, Modernity and Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 19–35.
Campbell, Colin. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.
Cindy. Personal interview. 14 December 1996.
Dianne. Personal interview. 21 August 2002.
¨s, Johan. Cultural Theory and Late Modernity. London: Sage, 1995.
Fries, Jan. ‘‘Helrunar: Supplement (Part Two).’Talking Stick Magazine 23 (1996). 16–19.
Giddens Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.
– – –. Modernity and Self Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity, 1991.
Gilbert, Alan D. ‘‘Secularization and the Future.’’ Eds. S. Gilley, and W. J. Shiels. A History of Religion in
Britain: Practice and Belief from Pre-Roman times to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. 503–21.
Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. London: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Hamilton, Malcolm. The Sociology of Religion: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives. London:
Routledge, 1995.
Contemporary British Paganism & Late Modernity 353
Heelas, Paul. The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
´ger, Danie
`le. ‘‘The Twofold Limit of the Notion of Secularization.’’ Eds. Linda Woodhead,
with Paul Heelas, and David Martin. Peter Berger and the Study of Religion. London: Routledge,
2001. 112–25.
Hope, Thomas. Doing Late Modern Community: British Pagans and the Processes of Group Membership.
Unpublished PhD thesis: University of York, 2004.
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford UP,
Jane. Personal interview. 15 May 2001.
John. Personal interview. 3 June 2002.
Jones, Ieuan. Modern Paganism in the United Kingdom. Unpublished PhD thesis: University of York,
Jorgensen, Danny L., and Scott E. Russell. ‘‘American Neopaganism: The Participants’ Social
Identities.’’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38 (1999). 325–38.
Judith. Personal interview. 19 July 1999.
Magliocco, Sabina. ‘‘Ritual is my Chosen Art Form: The Creation of Ritual as Folk Art among
Contemporary Pagans.’’ Ed. John Lewis. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. New York: State
U of New York P, 1996. 93–119.
Pagan Federation, The. Information on Paganism, 2004. 5
c_pathways.htm4, access date: 10 May 2005.
Paul. Personal interview. 22 April 2002.
Peter. Personal interview. 9 September 1999.
Pike, Sarah. Earthly Bodies Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community. Berkeley,
CA: U of California P, 2001.
Rees, Kenneth. ‘‘The Tangled Skein: The Role of Myth in Paganism.’’ Eds. Graham Harvey, and
Charlotte Hardman. Paganism Today. London: Thorsons, 1996. 16–31.
Simes, Amy. ‘‘Mercian Movements: Group Transformation and Individual Choices amongst East
Midlands Pagans.’’ Eds. Graham Harvey, and Charlotte Hardman. Paganism Today. London:
Thorsons, 1996. 169–90.
Stephan. Personal interview. 5 February 2000.
Woodhead, Linda, and Paul Heelas. Religion in Modern Times: An Interpretative Anthology. Oxford:
Blackwell, 2000.
York, Michael. The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements. Lanham:
Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.
354 T. Hope & I. Jones
... The lack of a readily agreed upon term for the religion is symptomatic of Paganism's larger countercultural tendencies, which have resulted in a religion that lacks defining dogma, central authorities, or a common structure for worship (Jorgensen and Russell, 1999). These characteristics, combined with its emphasis on individual beliefs and personal gnosis (Berger, 1999b) make it a quintessentially post-modern and 'disorganized' religion (Hope and Jones, 2006;Neitz, 1994). ...
... To the best of our knowledge, there have been no studies focusing on Canadian Pagans, but we have no reason to believe that their experiences are notably different from those of American Pagans. Studies of British and Australian Pagans (Hope and Jones, 2006;Crowley 2014;Coco and Woodward, 2007) suggest that they are quite similar to American Pagans. Consequently, we decided not to exclude non-American cases, except when analysing political affiliation. ...
Very little is known about the adult religious retention of children and adolescents in New Religious Movements (NRMs). The current study seeks to examine the factors that determine the success of one NRM, contemporary Paganism, at retaining the children of its first generation of converts. Using a small convenience internet sample (n=183), we found that 45% of our sample continued to practice Paganism as adults, and a further 25% remained spiritually Pagan. We find that children and adolescents who were very religious Pagans are much more likely to remain members of the religion as adults, controlling for age, gender and sexual orientation. We also find that children who grew up in more specifically defined Pagan paths, such as Wicca or Druidism, are more likely to remain Pagan and in those paths, than children who were raised in more vaguely defined ways such as ‘eclectic Pagan’.
... Each of them explained following a god or a goddess that suited their spiritual needs, greatly personalizing their practice while being part of the same Neo-Pagan community. The personalization of religious beliefs and the worshipping of objects and places from different traditions result in an innovative understanding of authority (Hope and Jones 2006). For example, some Neo-Pagans choose to be 'solitary practitioners,' meaning that they are not part of a religious community and perform rituals without the guidance of a religious leader or in the company of a likeminded group. ...
Full-text available
The study of material culture increasingly pays attention to digital religion, but there are certain aspects, such as religious authority, that remain under-researched. Some questions are still open for inquiry: What can a material approach contribute to the understanding of religious authority in digital venues? How can authority be materially displayed on the Internet? This article shows how religious authority is affected by material practices connected with digital media use through the qualitative analysis of a Neo-Pagan forum, The Celtic Connection. Neo-Pagans tend to hold a non-traditional notion of authority, accord great importance to material practices, and extensively use the Internet. The analysis of the forum suggests that Neo-Pagans use digital venues to look for informal sources of authority and strategies to embed materiality in online narratives. The article claims that it is important to develop new frameworks to analyze non-traditional authority figures and new definitions of media that include both physical objects and communication technologies.
... Contemporary Paganism is a growing feature of the religious landscape of Western countries, particularly in the English-speaking world. Since the late 1980s, Paganism has been the subject of research by anthropologists, sociologists, religious-studies specialists and others, on both sides of the Atlantic (for example , Berger 1999;Berger, Leach, and Shaffer 2003;Clifton 2006;Davey 2007;Harrington 2000;Harvey 1997;Hope and Jones 2006;Hutton 1999;Lassander 2011;Lewis 2007;Luhrmann 1989;Orion 1995;Partridge 2004Partridge , 2005Pearson 2003). There is also a growing theological literature (for example Kraemer 2012b; York 2003). ...
Full-text available
Over the past 50 years, Paganism as a religious identification has grown in Britain and Pagan groups have begun to enter the mainstream of public religious life. The numbers identifying as Pagan increased between the 2001 and 2011 British censuses, but despite Paganism's increased public profile not all Pagans feel willing or confident about openly declaring their Paganism. Census numbers fall well below estimates from other sources. In May 2013, a questionnaire was distributed to Pagans in Britain exploring how they completed the religion question in the 2011 censuses. Some 1700 responded, the largest survey so far of the Pagan community in Britain. This paper discusses Pagans' motivations for identifying or not identifying as Pagan in the censuses and the implications of their responses for the development of Paganism in Britain. More widely, it provides a case study for those seeking to understand the increasing phenomenon in contemporary societies of religious and spiritual communities that are unstructured, amorphous and post-institutional. It demonstrates that censuses and large-scale surveys can become social and community events that shape as well as measure those who participate in them.
This paper is an examination of the information behaviors and habits of practising Pagans and ritual magicians. Aspects of information behavior relevant to contemporary Paganism are discussed, before features of Paganism that may affect information needs and use are presented. An online questionnaire covering the six areas of information needs, access, retrieval, quality, use and literacy was administered with 142 respondents, and five of those were subsequently interviewed at length, before the results were analyzed using an interpretivist methodology, with reference to existing information behavior models deemed relevant. The results present the beginning stages of a model of Pagan and Occult information behavior, showing seven sliding scales concerning issues practicing Pagans and ritual magicians face when engaging with information, on which each individual may have very different positions.
This chapter explores the tension between cosmopolitanism and indigeneity in contemporary Pagan engagements with the animism of indigenous cultures. Fisk discusses three modes whereby Pagan “new animism” may risk Western imperialism: first, through direct appropriation of indigenous beliefs and practices; second, through a romanticized, essentialized view of indigenous cultures; and third, through a reimagining of indigenous cosmologies as “one’s own heritage”—the mythic and religious traditions of Europe (as in Heathenism and Druidry). She argues that attempts to heal the wounds of modernity and “return” to a state of authentic connection with nature should not appropriate the worldviews of indigenous peoples—as salvific symbols or in the pretense that they are the same as those of the European past—without attending to indigenous political realities.
Social characteristics of Neopagans from across the United States are described on the basis 643 self-administered questionnaires. A majority of these new religionists are young to middle-aged adults; a slight majority are women; and most of them are white, working-class to middle-class, urbanites. Except for their rejection of traditional religion and selection of this innovative alternative, they are rather ordinary Americans. Neopaganism cannot be explained away by socially marginal participants. Yet, much more research and interpretation will be needed for an adequate scholarly understanding of this increasingly significant and intriguing new American religion.