We have a problem in the Contemporary Pagan community. It’s a structural problem and not one easily overcome. You see, we have an issue with ethics. Bear with me, I’ll explain as we go. First to set the primer a bit, we are not alone in this issue. As a New Religious Movement (NRM), it is a trait we have in common with other NRMs, and like them the issue is engrained in our structure and is both crowned in stars and simultaneously soiled in mud. Finding the balance of how to correct things, the chewing up the meat and spitting out the bones part, is and will remain a challenge.
Our collective issue is not that we don’t have ethics or teachings within our various practices. Nay, not at all. In fact, Contemporary Paganism is saturated with numerous principals, tenets, and virtues. The personal delving of our own inner morality tends to be something that we are good at teaching. This is part of our practice’s appeal, the individualistic and personal nature of the movement. In contrast, as a collective we suck at Professional Ethical Accountability and Standardization. As an aside note and for full disclosure of this discourse, there are some organizations within the scope of Contemporary Paganism that have bodies of governance and enforcement of standardized ethics for both their leaders and priest/esses. However, their influence does not extend beyond their own borders. As such, whether we like it or not, the whole of our movement must contend with the good and the ugly that results from the nature of the beast.
To really dig into the root of the issue, it is prudent to know more about NRMs and the traits that Contemporary Pagandom have as a result. Just as there is no strict definition of religion academically speaking, there is no strict definition of what exactly is a New Religious Movement. It is an oversimplification of the nuances thereof to simply state that NRMs are nothing more than a religious group whose beliefs and/or practices are deemed deviant within the larger culture. Though not all NRMs follow the same pattern of organization, there are some mutual family resemblances that take the understanding of the base definition and narrow it enough for a common framework.
(1) A district alternative in belief and/or practice:
Cultural deviance is nothing more than behavior that differs from the established norm of the overarching society to which the individual or sub-group are counted amongst. Deviance is relative then to the culture, society, and group based upon the shared mores thereof— it’s all about group context. There is, however, no objective context by which deviance is defined.
In regards to Western society, Christianity and the Abrahamic Faiths have dominated religious culture for thousands of years and so many of the particulars therein have become synonymous with Western culture, for example, the assumed religious paradigm is that of orthodoxy vice orthopraxy. In the Western context or religious beliefs and practices, NRMs are considered deviant. Considering this, Contemporary Paganism differs distinctly from our own overarching society in both practice and assumed beliefs. In short, we have this family resemblance.
(2) Relatively small:
Google just how many of us there are and you will quickly get mixed results. The truth is, when we compare our numbers, regardless of the numbers, against the scale of the world’s largest religions we don’t even make the top ten list. Take a look at just the West or the U. S. and you’ll find us still far down the list.
(3) A Charismatic and/or authoritative leader:
Just like my earlier caveat, there are some organizations within our greater movement that have structures setup to prevent this. They have bylaws, elections, etc. Also it is not true of all decentralized groups or individuals but for the majority of Contemporary Paganism people tend to follow the latest personality, big name teacher, authors, and shop owners. Whether any of these people like it or not, some do and some don’t, they are the individuals that stand out and attract groups about themselves.
(4) Emphasize subjective experience and personal subjectivity:
Almost the entirety of our community, though we are beginning to grow beyond this phase of movement development, are comprised of converts. Remember that religions grow in two ways, conversion and birth-rate. Want to appeal to those seeking religious truth? Make it about the individual and their specific journey. It does not take an academic to see that we do this.
(5) Boundary demarcation that stress conformity:
The concept of self, or self-concept, from a psychiatric perspective is defined as “the totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings with reference to themselves and can be characterized in terms of diverse dimensions, different regions, different planes, etc”. Not to be confused with the ego. In short, it is how an individual sees themselves in a multitude of various ways. It is the total sum of the individual’s internalized dialogue within the self-defined frames of the experience of the external world. For example, an individual can include both the identity of being a mother and a sister in their concept of self but their own order of importance placed upon each of these roles refines the whole of their self-concept.
Just as the mores is the cultural expression of the group, the concept of self is the individual expression. Likewise, religion is a core factor both in the overarching cultural identity and the individual’s subjective identity. It has been suggested then that the alluring force of New Religious Movements drives from the concept of self when the desire for a spiritual life exists but the larger cultural interpretation does not concur with their internal dialogue of self. The complexity of the concept of self found amongst some NRMs members is entangled in interpersonal relationships that are other-dependent or of strict independence. This desire fit in while being separate has been found to exist amongst the majority of New Religious Movement members here in the West.
As a NRM comprised largely of converts, it is our business to teach, with classes even, exactly who we are, what we do, what we believe, and how to be one of us. It is about identity and we draw the line in the sand that says this is us.
(6) Self-viewed as authentic by long tradition:
Holy crap. Anyone that has been around our community for ten minutes has run into this. Our early history is chopped full of nothing but stories of being direct descendants of the ancient past. I am happy to say though, that most of the Contemporary Pagans I know today, and the movement as a whole, have left any such fantasies long behind. We do, however, allow scholarship of the past to inform our practice today.
These resemblances are not all-encompassing though, for it is the over-arching culture that provides the context. For example, in Japan Zen Buddhism would not be considered a New Religious Movement but in the survey book Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America it is listed as a NRM within the context of 1980s America.
Our own manifestation of the NRM phenomenon is one with a decentralized structure and organization. There is no overarching organization or hierarchy, though we do have organizations that have hierarchies. There is no board of leaders or head of the religion institution. There is no institution.
On one hand this is a glorious thing of pure beauty. The sheer nature of being decentralized allows for maximum personalization and a plethora of religious expression without the confines of strict orthodoxy. I love this aspect. LOVE IT. The array of religious expressions that exist within the confines of our community are a thing to behold in wonder and glory. It is crowned in the stars.
Likewise, there are trappings that come with decentralization. As a whole, though not always within individual organizations: No one vets our leadership. There is no body of standardized training. No certification of quality. No institutionalized accountability. In many ways, this is not a problem. In regards to ethics, it is. In this regards, our feet are soiled in the mud.
Let us take the case of Kenny Klein. He was a leader in the greater Contemporary Pagan community beyond the boundaries of his Blue Star Coven*. After his 2014 arrest many came forward with stories of his past behavior that were clear red flags. Go read more about it here. Would a board of professional oversight and ethics have prevented victims and his continued leadership? I dunno. But there isn’t one and so we will never know. Nor can I say that the creation of such an institution is recommended.
The bottom line here is that we must recognize and contend with the fact that there is no person other than ourselves to hold one another accountable. I don’t have an answer to correcting the issue either. All I can offer is the advice to speak out, vote with your feet, and be the first line of accountability for in our decentralized movement there aren't any others.
“Lost in a thicket, bare-foot upon a thorn path.”
*There are many great Blue Star folks out there and he should not be the litmus test for their character.