Mark Green's Atheopaganism Blog

Living an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science

On Pagan Institutions and Representation

N.B.: This is an “inside baseball” piece addressing the current controversy within the Pagan community over whether or not it is a good idea for Pagans to emulate other religions in creating organizations, institutions, and perhaps even credentialing for clergy or other leadership. As such, this may not be of interest to Atheopagans who do not consider themselves to be a part of the Pagan community.

I have written before on Paganism modeling itself on mainstream Abrahamic religions; specifically, on Pagan conceptualization of a “top-down”/parental model of the Universe, and of the creation of modern Paganism with an assumption that in order to be a religion, a path must contain a supernatural/deity component.

Currently, another aspect of this topic has stirred considerable discussion due to the appearance of a secretive group styling itself the “American Council of Witches”, which hopes to/claims to speak for Pagans generally in relation to governmental policies such as the religious rights of military Pagans. The controversy began over the brass of this particular group of relative unknowns daring to claim to speak for all of us, but it has now broadened to the topic of Pagan institutions generally: whether or not it is a good idea for Paganism to emulate more mainstream religions in creating advocacy organizations, membership groups, seminaries, think tanks, etc.

In recent years, there has been a movement among some in the community toward creation of legally recognized institutional infrastructure such as those created in the name of Abrahamic religions such as Christianity. Those who have helped to form groups such as Cherry Hill Seminary and the Pantheon Foundation contend that these types of institutions will improve credibility of Paganism generally and will contribute to research and promulgation of Pagan scholarship. In support of their assertion that there is a need for such institutions, they cite the fact that while there have been legally recognized Pagan “churches” since the 1960s, securing such recognition is still very difficult, and exercising the rights guaranteed under such legal recognition can meet with stiff opposition on the ground (c.f. the Matraeon of Cybele’s struggle to establish a property-tax exempt place of worship in Catskill, New York after being characterized as an “illegitimate religion” by the city). In seeking “respectability”, they pursue actualization of rights which currently exist to some degree only on paper.

Others, however, argue that such institutionalization is in error: an aping of monotheistic practice that cannot be made compatible with the inherent self-determination and refusal to relinquish agency that characterize the vast majority of today’s Pagans.

Recently, a rather secretive group naming itself after the short-lived American Council of Witches of the early 1970s has arisen with the express intention of speaking for the Pagan community in engaging with governmental and other institutions.

This has not gone over well. The ACOW controversy raises a slew of issues for a decentralized, highly diverse constellation of religious traditions and practices such as Paganism. Opinions range from “someone has to speak for us, or our rights simply will not be secured” to “no one can ever speak for me except me” anti-institutionalism to we are categorically different from other religions, and should reject the idea of institutions generally, serving rather as radical independent voices seeking to undermine and overthrow institutions.”

(I have paraphrased, and if I have misunderstood, I invite the authors of the articles to which I have linked to correct my impression of their positions.)

So, where do I stand on all of this?

Well, first, as someone who has spent many years as an activist, I have seen that it is institutions such as government—and only institutions—which make decisions that affect people and the environment on a mass scale. Individuals and groups may exert pressure on these institutions, but in nearly every case, it is institutions that actually make the decisions.

Personally, I do not believe that anarchy is a viable model for human society. I see no examples of where it has worked on a mass scale; rather, conditions where rule of law has broken down have led to the rise of strong-arm dictators and warlords. While it would be nice to believe that people could be brought to a place where they would live conscientiously and heartfully in cooperation with their fellows, I believe this is contrary to the very nature of the human animal. There will always be sociopaths among us, and these will inevitably orchestrate power and disproportionate wealth for themselves at the expense of others.

Others disagree quite vehemently, and I am aware of this. But I am writing this, and this is my opinion, based on experience. Take it for what you will.

One might conclude, therefore, that I am throwing my lot wholeheartedly in with the institution-builders. However, I am not.

Pagans are never going to be a nice, coherent constituency that will be comfortable with having others speak for it. We are simply too diverse, too idiosyncratic, too averse to authority and too far-flung in the variations among our “denominations” for this to be possible. We are never going to live comfortably in the world of institutions.

And yet, we must somehow have representation. Governments and other institutions do not and cannot listen to thousands of individual voices–they listen to such voices only when organized and bundled into a small number of coherent messages expressed by a small number of representative agencies or leaders.

So here is my conclusion: we must become comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is not a puzzle that has a solution: the very nature of the Pagan community is such that any of the possible permutations available for response to the context of institutional authorities, desire for supposed legal rights actually to be enjoyed in practice, and the fierce libertarian desire not to be dictated to by the typical Pagan practitioner will not be fully satisfactory.

So I say to those on all sides of this question: welcome to the world of grays. No matter what your position, there are going to be elements of how this question is answered going forward that you will not like.

Some entity has to provide guidance to government about what Pagans stand for and see as their sacred practices, or rights enshrined in the Constitution for all religions will never be fully enjoyed by Pagans. Declaring that we should have no institutions is declaring that we should be invisible to institutions, because in all but a vanishing few cases, institutions recognize other institutions, not individuals.

Will such representative entities speak for all Pagans? In the eyes of those institutions with which they engage on our behalf, yes, they will.

Will they actually represent all Pagans?

No, they will not.

The best that those Pagans who feel their voices are left out can do is to create their own institutions to voice their perspectives; short of that, it is to accept whatever half-loaf is achieved by those who are willing to engage with institutions and governments. If the theory is that by remaining “pure” of organizing institutions, somehow radical action will achieve freedom to exercise rights which are currently restricted or non-existent, well…I don’t believe it. I don’t see anything in the history of humankind that suggests this is true.

Meanwhile, Pagan institutions, be aware that you do not have—can never have—a sweeping mandate. You should seek to acquire as much consensus as is possible rather than to simply assert your right to speak for all of us, and act with caution rather than bravado. Any real representative of even part of the Pagan community will have a strong community organizing ethic and will acknowledge from the outset that we are a fractious bunch for which you cannot speak categorically. This has been ACOW’s major failing at every turn: from its constitution of membership anointed by none but themselves to its secretive process to its claim of a name which implies speaking for all when, in fact, it appears to speak for very few. You cannot simply hand-pick a board, design a letterhead and thereby become an entity that represents Pagan constituencies. Groups such as Pantheon should take heed.

The upshot here is a jagged little pill, but it is true medicine: there is no ideal solution possible on this subject. Much of the focus of the Pagan world is on an idealized vision of the future, but that is not a useful lens here. This issue requires that we be able to hold opposites and sit with them: to embrace paradox.

It’s good practice for many human endeavors, and we should start getting used to it.


  1. yu dismiss the pagan model of Universe because you choosed a scientific model of Universe. this is the same thing that you are accusing Modern Paganism. Practice what you preach.

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