“Interconnectedness vs. Insularity: Making A Case for Pagan Proselytzing” by John Halstead

This is the third in a 3-part series, looking critically at contemporary Neo-Paganism from an earth-centered perspective. Note: The views expressed in this essay are the author’s and are not necessarily representative of HumanisticPaganism.com or any of its other contributors.

Photo I took of Pando, a clonal quaking aspen stand, that, according to some sources, is the oldest (80,000 years) and largest (106 acres, 13 million pounds) organism on Earth

Experiencing Interconnectedness

This past summer, while visiting my in-laws in Utah, we drove up to Fish Lake, which is home to what may be the largest living organism on the planet … Pando.  Pando isn’t a blue whale or a giant sequoia.  It’s a grove of quaking aspens that’s been determined by genetic markers to be a single living organism with a giant root system stretching over 100 acres and containing over 40,000 individual trunks.  It is estimated that the root system is 80,000 years old, although it may be much older.

My wife and kids and I went to see Pando along with my Mormon in-laws.  We stopped at the main grove, which was partially fenced off, and then found a picnic area in a smaller grove of the aspens next to the lake.  After lunch, my Mormon wife took the initiative and led us in a spontaneous interfaith ceremony for the family.  She read a verse from Genesis about Abraham planting a grove where he prayed to God (Gen. 21:33), and explained that “grove” was sometimes used in the Bible as a euphemism for and symbol of the goddess Asherah, who was the wife of Yahweh (“Lord”).  She then went on to explain how our family, Mormon and Pagan alike, can honor both the divine feminine (Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father) and “creation”, in the form of trees generally and specifically the grove in which were were sitting.  She then invited everyone to pour a libation of water and think on how we are grateful for nature and our lives.  My mother-in-law, who is a lifetime Mormon, drew the connection between the interconnectedness of the roots of Pando and how we human beings are all connected as a family … and I think it is just a short step from there to the interconnectedness of all living things.  It was a beautiful ceremony and it was very special sharing it with my extended family.  I am confident that no one walked away from that experience without a deeper appreciation of our connection to the earth and a fresh appreciation of what Paganism is all about.

We then went to the ranger station, where the nagging question I had was answered.  I already knew that Pando was under threat from what I had read, but I wanted to know how an 80,000 year old organism suddenly becomes at risk, coincidentally in my lifetime.  The park ranger explained that Pando is under threat from blight and new invasive insects.  According to the ranger, global warming has changed the climate of the area, inviting new pathogens and insects that had not previously threatened the trees.  Pando was partially fenced off because the forest service was trying different techniques to mitigate these effects.  My mostly-conservative extended family listened to this matter-of-factly, which was in itself remarkable in a culture where climate change denial seems like the norm.  And I thought about how fortuitous was the coincidence of our ritual in the grove and our learning about one of the very real ways that our interconnectedness manifests: the impact of human pollution on this ancient organism.

Fish Lake, home to Pando

Pagan Environmentalism

The bloggers at Patheos (of which I am one) recently attempted to answer the question whether Pagan environmentalism has failed.  That question is part of the larger question of whether environmentalism has failed, and that question is beyond my ability to answer.  But I do know this much:

  1. Whether or not there is time to prevent global catastrophe, I chose to act as if there is time and our actions matter.
  2. If were are to going to really change things, we need to change our relationship with the earth in a fundamental way.
  3. By viewing environmentalism as a religious issue and religion as an environmental issue, earth-centered Paganism has the potential to help effect this fundamental change.
  4. If Paganism is going to help effect this change, we need to start sharing our faith.

And here we come to the crux of this essay: I believe that the Pagan aversion to “proselytizing” is standing in the way of fulfilling our potential as earth-centered Pagans to help save the world.

In her recent book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Kline argues that what is needed to avoid irreversible ecological disaster is nothing less than a cultural-wide paradigm shift:

‘Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals, but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis— embedded in interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

An alternative worldview embedded in interdependence and reciprocity?  That sounds like exactly what earth-centered Paganism has to offer.  Kline goes on to say that we need to take a lesson from the transformative movements of the past — like the abolition movement and the civil rights movement —  which succeeded in shifting cultural values: “they dreamed in public, showed humanity a better version of itself, modeled different values in their own behavior, and in the process liberated the political imagination and rapidly altered the sense of what was possible.”

They dreamed in public … How do we “dream in public”?  Joseph Campbell famously wrote that “myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths”.  If myths are public dreams, then we dream in public by creating new stories, new narratives, new myths, as well as new rituals to enact those myths.   And that is the business of nature religion!

Am I really out of the broom closet?

Coming Out of the Broom Closet

But if we are going to “dream in public” on the scale necessary to effect a cultural paradigm shift, I think a lot more of us will need to come out of the “broom closet” and be willing to share our beliefs with non-Pagans.  This includes those of us who are entirely in the closet, as well as those of us (like myself) who are standing more or less on the threshold.

Pagan secrecy has both historical and practical causes.  While Earth-centered Paganism is a product of the 1960’s Counterculture and the feminist movement, the form that it initially took was borrowed from British Wicca, which was itself a product of the Western occult tradition.  As the name suggests, “occult” groups tend to be secretive, and this tendency persisted in Neo-Paganism through the influence of traditional Wicca.

But even earth-centered Pagans, with few real ties to occultism, had good reason to keep their religion secret, especially in the first few decades of Neo-Paganism’s existence, which coincided with the satanic ritual abuse scare.  It wasn’t until 1986 that the U.S. Court of Appeals decided, in Dettmer v. Landon, that Wicca was entitled to the constitutional protections of a religion: “Wicca occupies a place in the lives of its members parallel to that of more conventional religions. Consequently, its doctrine must be considered a religion.”  There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence of people loosing their job, or even custody of their children, in those early years because of their affiliation with Paganism.  But since that time, Pagans have won several important legal and cultural victories in securing tolerance, if not respect, within the mainstream culture.  And with the growing ecological consciousness, earth-centered Paganism is beginning to look a little less strange to outsiders.

I realize that there are still dangers for many Pagans choosing to come out of the closet, dangers which depend a great deal on geography and life circumstances.  I am very fortunate to live where I do.  Although I live in a conservative town, we are close enough to Chicago that my liberalism and religious non-conformity is not so exceptional.  I am also fortunate to be a lawyer, which affords me a relative level of job security and easy access to the means to exercise my legal rights.  And, most of all, I am fortunate to have supportive non-Pagan family on both my own and my wife’s side of our family.  Still, it is still hard for me sometimes to be open with my family about my Pagan beliefs and practices.  So, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for those who are living under different circumstances.

But while I cannot tell any individual whether it is right for them to “come out of the broom closet”, I do think we need to start moving as a community toward greater openness.  We as individuals need to ask ourselves the hard question of whether our remaining in the closest is born out of a legitimate fear or mere timidness.  If you’re looking for support in coming out, check out the International Pagan Coming Out Day (May 2) website, especially their “Guide to Coming Out”.

Hedonism or Environmentalism

Good luck!

For those who really want to influence the public conversation about ecology, I also suggest we call into question the practice of using silly “craft names”.  I’m not talking here about the special names used in ritual contexts.  I’m talking about the names many Pagans adopt in public and on the Internet which only distract Paganism’s message to the world.  And the same goes for a lot of the outlandish Pagan costumes.


Rev. Patrick McCollum, the first Wiccan chaplain, does not need to wear a wizard’s robe to tell the world he is Pagan.

I don’t think Pagan chaplain Rev. Patrick McCollum would have been invited in 2008 to testify before the U.S Commission on Civil Rights or would have become the the first government-recognized Wiccan chaplain, if he had been calling himself “Reverend Gandalf” or if he had shown up to testify in a wizard’s robe instead of a suit and tie.  We Pagans may have to choose sometimes between radical self-expression and the radical social and political change we need to effect in order to avert climate catastrophe.  We may have to choose sometimes between our commitment to hedonism and our commitment to the environmentalism.

Pagan Proselytizing

In addition, I believe that we must find a way to actively share our faith with non-Pagans.  The Pagan taboo against proselytizing is a product Paganism’s excessive individualism, and it stands in sharp contrast to our espoused belief in the interconnectedness of all life.  The words “proselytizing” and “evangelism” get a bad rap in Paganism, probably because of negative experiences many Pagans have had with Christians trying to aggressively convert them.  But I don’t think we should let this stereotype of domineering Christians become an excuse for what amounts to insularity on our part.  Nor do I think we should buy into the myth that people will magically find their way to Paganism if they are “meant” to be here, a myth which may be operating as a convenient cover for our own timidness.

I’m not suggesting that we should start knocking on doors like Mormons with a “Book of Shadows” in hand.  But I do believe we have a responsibility to share our faith with our friends, our family, and our neighbors, when we really can.  This is not about trying to convert people to Paganism, but about sharing with people the perspective that Paganism gives us, helping to normalize the idea that we are an interconnected part of this earth.  And it is about acting as if we believe it too … that we are not just connected to the earth, but to other people too, Pagan and non-Pagan.

This requires getting our Pagan “elevator speech” down pat, so if we are asked by someone what Paganism is, we don’t respond with “an unhelpful, incoherent non-answer with the gods and nature and magic bobbing about in a froth of words”.  This requires making Pagan Pride Day really be about public outreach instead of just another gathering for Pagans to wear costumes.  It requires not standing with our backs to the world when we circle together, figuratively or literally.  It requires taking seriously Chas Clifton’s challenge to “live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home that you followed an ‘earth religion'”.  And it requires inviting people to participate in rituals that will help them form a living bond with the earth … or even just talk a walk in the woods with you.  The marriage equality fight has shown us that what moves people to protect an Other (whether human, other-than-human, or the entire biosphere) is personal contact with the Other.  As John Beckett wrote in his contribution to the Patheos conversation on Pagan environmentalism:

“What will cause people to order their lives in ways that differ from what the mainstream culture says they should?  What will cause people to set aside their immediate desires for the long term good of other people and other species?  It isn’t education or information.  It’s a personal, heart-felt connection to what is desired.  It’s learning to see the Earth as sacred, to feel the Earth is sacred.”

And we Pagans can help people feel that.  But first we need to question our motives for being in, or part-way in, the closet.  We need to let go of this idea that people will magically find their way to Paganism.  We need to rethink the idea that sharing Pagan values is the same as forcing our religion on them.  We need to get over our timidness and our excuses.  We need to be brave enough to “dream in public”.

As Pagans, we have something the world desperately needs and, if there is such a thing as sin, then I think, under the circumstances of our present environmental catastrophe, it is a sin for us to hide our faith in the closet.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.com. John currently serves at the Managing Editor here at HumanisticPaganism.com.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

24 Comments on ““Interconnectedness vs. Insularity: Making A Case for Pagan Proselytzing” by John Halstead

  1. While I agree with all your points that it’s really important to promote environmentalism, I would feel uncomfortable with active large-scale proselytising of Paganism as a religion. I think that what makes Paganism so appealing to some is that its members are quiet and don’t tend to shout that their way is the best way. The same reason that I always think that the environmental messages in “My Neighbour Totoro” or “Princess Mononoke” are way more effective than in “Fern Gully” – because they’re subtle and balanced! I liked what you said about “Deep Ecology” in your previous post and I think that would be worth promoting – I wouldn’t necessarily call that “proselytising” because I don’t think you can call it that if it isn’t a religion your promoting. Really enjoying all your posts by the way! I love your writing style and what you have to say 🙂

  2. I agree. Yet as much as I agree, I also recognize in myself a certain reticence. I am generally very open about almost everything, yet I am ambivalent on the issue of religious identity. Labels are helpful in terms of finding information, yet I find myself hesitating to apply them to myself. In my writing, I generally try to avoid them as I find this forces me to express myself more clearly, but also I find I’m trying to address a universal audience and feel that labels might limit receptivity. In person I am sometimes hesitant about even uttering the P-word. There are so many associations people will have that are just really not correct, and so unless I know I’m going to have an opportunity to address those and dispel some myths, I might limit myself to mentioning “Earth-centered spirituality” or some other less familiar terms. Anyhow, such ruminations aside, I agree we need to share this perspective the world desperately needs. The question for me is how best to accomplish this.

  3. I agree with nearly everything in this very good post, John. But I wonder how much of the Pagan community is really that focused on the Earth any more. Not only is there increasing emphasis on (real or imagined) “re-created” historical worship, there is also a sizable contingent of the Pagan community who are just along for the ride, to go to great parties and get to wear cool clothing.

    And then there is the W-word. Which I have always said we should dump. But others feel very strongly must be front and center.

    I think it is very challenging to bring forward Pagans as environmentalists without making it even easier for anti-Earth forces to discredit the environmental movement. I’ve been a Pagan working professionally in environmental advocacy, and I didn’t dare go public, even though I live in a very liberal area. That’s one reason why I have one of those silly magical names–because I needed to go by an alias when in Pagan circles.

    Anyway, great food for thought, and certainly pertinent to our challenges both as a community and as a species.


    • That is a real conundrum. How do we come out without giving anti-Green Christians more ammunition. On the other hand, I’m not sure victory on pro-Green Christian terms is really victory. I see the transformation of our relationship to the environment and our relationship to Christianity as intertwined.

  4. Great points, as usual John, but I do wonder whether linking environmentalism to religion/paganism so closely is a good strategy. Anti-environmentalists, and indeed the apathetic majority, already see “hippy pagan tree-huggers” as eccentric at best and dangerous at worst. By making environmentalism a “pagan” thing explicitly, it could give our opponents more ammo against us.

    Have you seen the Christian film “Resisting the Green Dragon”? It basically portrays environmentalism as dangerous pagan idolatry and warns Christians not to get involved in it. For environmental change to work, we need to encourage all people, of all religions, to see it as a good thing and get involved. I think the only way to do that is make it secular, that is to divest it of any explicit religious ideas so that everyone can work together without conflict.

    Regarding the “craft names”, I too roll my eyes when I see another Moonblossom Starchild or whatever, but we must be aware that not everyone has the opportunity to use their real name when talking about paganism. They might live in a conservative religious area, or have an abusive family, and face real persecution if they were “outed” as a pagan. People have lost jobs, lost family and friends and been physically assaulted for having mninority religious views. For some people, the pseudonym is a necessity.

    • That is a real conundrum. How do we come out without giving anti-Green Christians more ammunition. On the other hand, I’m not sure victory on pro-Green Christian terms is really victory. I see the transformation of our relationship to the environment and our relationship to Christianity as intertwined.

      Regarding the use of craft names, I wonder why can’t we just use normal pseudonyms instead of “magic” names?

      • Speaking as someone who needed to use a magical name to participate in the pagan community while being a public political figure, a “normal pseudonym” would look like an *alias*, and would rouse suspicion. Better to have an out-there name that no one associates with you than to look like you’re living a double life.

    • Funny, this is what attracted me to this form of spiritual practice in the first place. Since I was being accused of being a “hippy pagan tree-hugger” anyhow, since I was being accused of worshiping the Earth, I figured why not make it explicit and intentional. Anyhow, the characterization will be made regardless. Maybe they’re on to something. I’ve seen a secular environmentalists say that what we need is a popular paradigm shift in our deepest values and relations, which begins to sound a lot like religious movement. Finally, I wanted to note that I have found the particular sort of approach to religion articulated at HP to be highly amenable to secularism.

      • Jason Pitzl-Waters at The Wild Hunt shared this quote last earth day:

        “… environmentalism is often slurred with the epithet of “pagan” by some political conservatives.

        “‘With the demise of the biblical religions that have provided the American people with their core values since the country’s inception, we are reverting to the pagan worldview. Trees and animals are venerated, while man is simply one more animal in the ecosystem. And he is largely a hindrance, not an asset.’

        “This slur, meant to shock Christians of a certain stripe, is increasingly losing its power in the face of greater ecological catastrophes.”

        – See more at: http://wildhunt.org/2014/04/earth-day-and-the-pagan-spirit.html#sthash.RYiNgkvT.dpuf

        Whether or not Jason is right that the “slur” is loosing its power, I always find it fascinating when Christians say things that are meant to shock, but that I complete agree with. “God is longer in heaven!” Yep!

  5. This is a good article.

    I must, however, point out one problem which is likely an inheritance of your particular cultural milieu–the issue of “silly craft names.”

    Folks like Starhawk are quoted very often in academic journals and texts; Starhawk’s “silly craft name’ has been no barrier at all to people taking her thoughts seriously, and she is quoted by her chosen name, not by her legal, birth name. Further, the naming conventions of minority peoples, particularly amongst racial minorities inspired by the Black Power movements, certainly seem strange to white Americans (just as First Nations’ names sound ‘silly’, like “Lonefight” or “Two Bears”), but to insist that they change their identities and monikers to fit something more aesthetically pleasing to middle-class white folks would be more than colonialist.

    If anything, middle-class white sensibilities are part of the problem which prevents any action on climate change–the demands that the world fit their preferences and everyone bend to accommodate their consumer preferences (big cars and houses, wide streets, strawberries in winter, pools, cheap gasoline, etc.), as well as their demand any changes not inconvenience their preferred way of life.

    Would you have Alley Valkyrie change her name to something more acceptable to suburban folks? Would she have more to say or successfully stop pollution if she were, say, Susan Smith or Betty Archer? Really?

    • I disagree. Being published in a journal is one thing; being taken seriously by the public at large is quite another, and no one named “Starhawk” is going to experience the latter. Whether or not we like that what you term “white middle class sensibilities” are dominant here, the fact is that that is the majority of the country and therefore that is, in fact, the playing field on which we must move.

      Yes, I would have Alley Valkyrie change her name to something more acceptable, to use your example. By choosing such a moniker for her political life, she has guaranteed that she will always be on the outside looking in when it comes to actual power.

      When I took a magical name, it was for use in the Pagan community so I could avoid being identified by the legal name I used in politics. Credibility counts. What WORKS counts. I’m not in this to make a symbolic gesture–I’m in it to make actual change, and if that means I have to have a “normal” name to influence the public, that’s exactly what I will do.

      • We’ve had 20 years of activists “playing the game,” and now we’ve got the EDF supporting fracking and the Nature Conservancy drilling oil and Democrats sponsoring the Keystone XL.

        I’m pretty sure the game’s rigged.

        Besides, a myriad of people have heard of Starhawk and have rallied around her call to fight environmental destruction. The powerful shudder when Alley Valkyrie walks into city hall (it’s a beautiful sight I think everyone should have the pleasure of witnessing). Their influence and power (taken, not groveled for) is undeniable.

        A case could be made that there’s actually power in a name, particularly when it represents all of their identity, rather than a segmented life. That segmentation between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material’ is, after all, one of few things that all Pagans, atheist or not, can agree needs to be done away with.

        • You would be wrong. I live about 20 minutes from Starhawk, and only a tiny minority of people even here has heard of her.

          As to the game being rigged…well, if that’s your perspective, you might as well give up. Because street action is nothing but symbolic; it doesn’t change things.

          I used to be the guy that “people shuddered” when I walked into city hall. For ten years, in my area. And the way I got that kind of power was by organizing voters, running candidates, and lobbying like hell. That’s where the power is. If decision-makers don’t think you can hurt their chances at being re-elected, they couldn’t care less what your cause may be.

          I don’t care if the price of mobilizing a voter is a “segmented life”. I’ll pay it, if that voter will go in my direction. This isn’t a make-believe world, it’s a real one, and in the real world there are tradeoffs and hard choices to make.

      • First off, for the record, I did not choose my moniker for my political life. Hell, I didn’t even really choose a political life at all. My name is my legal name, and I inadvertently ended up in the public spotlight and just ran with it as I didn’t have much of a choice. Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

        But I must so strongly disagree with your statement that you “guarantee” that my name keeps me on the outside looking in when it comes to actual power.

        I’m generally not one to toot my horn, but I was undoubtedly one of the most powerful unelected public figures in the city I lived in for several years, and my name was actually a part of that success if only because everyone remembered it and it was instantly identifiable. I had more access to and more effectiveness within the local bureaucratic and community political power structures than any of the ‘Jane Browns’ and ‘Joe Smiths’ ever did, and I think one could make a pretty fair argument that my name actually aided in that, not detracted. I had all the power I ever wanted. If anything, I held way too much power for my comfort, and I actually had to walk away from much of that power because it became too much for me to handle on several fronts. But I did and still do have a HUGE amount of credibility. If you doubt that, Google me.

        I don’t know anything about Starhawk’s recognition (or lack thereof) in the local community, but I do know that I now live 100 miles away from where I used to and I still hear random strangers yell my name on a regular basis when I’m in public. I might be the only person with a pagan name who’s been invited to speak at the Rotary Club, the City Club, etc, but I was enthusiastically invited to those forums, often by rigid Christian types, and my name NEVER got in the way.

        So your “guarantee” has already been proven wrong, FYI. I do agree with you overall that the “Fluffbunny Moonbeam” type names don’t help, but my name has never been a hinderance in my gaining power on a political level. If anything, its been an asset.

    • Rhyd, I think Starhawk may be the exception the proves the rule. In fact, her generation may get a pass. Taking on a name like Starhawk is one thing if you came of age in the Sixties, and another thing entirely for succeeding generations. Renaming yourself may have been a revolutionary act in the 1970s, but I think it has since lost a lot of its power.

      To clarify, it’s the silly craft names of “middle-class white folks” that I am complaining about. I think there is a vast difference between racial minorities adopting alternative naming conventions and predominately white middle-class twenty-something Pagans doing it. The latter seems like a trivialization of the former. We Pagans like to act like we’re a persecuted minority, but for the most part we aren’t demographically, and we haven’t (yet) earned it behaviorally, IMO.

      My concern is that we trivialize our message when we allow ourselves, through dress and names, to become parodies of ourselves.

      For every Allie Valkyrie, there are a hundred Lady Pixie Moondrips.

      • “Lady Pixie Moondrip” asking a petroleum executive politely not to drill on her land won’t get listened to (but nor would “Janet White”).

        But Lady Pixie Moondrip torching a bulldozer or blowing up a logging road, however? That’s kinda poetic, and would inspire lots of us to do the same.

  6. Well geesh, way to make me feel guilty when I wear my Klit and Tree of life cloak when I go into ritual. I mean my mystical name is LionLord, cause of both my Scottish heritage of the lion and the Lion is my totem animal. Its what I have felt who I am and agreed with the Lord and Lady with. I’ve never heard anyone, even the most experienced Pagans I have worked with ever say that would be so silly as they do the same…

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