Will Pagans find solace in cyberspace?

Jack Lesage

(A better-case scenario)

“Every successful individual knows that his or her achievement depends
on a community of persons working together.” – Paul Ryan

One of my bugbears as a contemporary Pagan has always been what I perceived as a lack of a solid and united Pagan community, and I am not referring to a centralised authority but rather to a communal identity.

As Pagans, we tend to be separate and separated from almost all other religious and spiritual communities. And the explosion of Internet-based Pagan communities seems to have made it even more so, not only separating us from others, but separating us from ourselves.

But is this really the case?

Even before the Internet, the ideal of a united Pagan community had already been discounted, mostly due to the vast array of paths within Paganism and due to the growing numbers of solitary practitioners – this had already altered the social organisation and communal feel of the earlier Pagan movement, which was very much group-based.

Although it may be true that the Internet managed to bring new people into Paganism in general, it has nonetheless partially transformed Paganism from an earlier movement based on face-to-face interactions into a virtual community of physically-separated individuals.

Ironically, it is that very separateness which empowered many Pagans to imagine functional communities that are not dependent on face-to-face interaction for authentic communication.

This lack of personal contact is, however, rather peculiar if one thinks about the fact that much of Paganism is, for many within the movement, basically a communal and nature-based religion and spirituality, and as such one would expect the community and its members to be based in the physical, closer to nature and people.

But the opposite seems to have happened, and is perhaps still happening. Most of the Pagan community, in South Africa and elsewhere, is now pretty much Internet-based. And contrary to what one would expect due to the lack of face-to-face interaction and oral communication, Pagans have formed authentic communities everywhere. And this was done by transforming a digital-based landscape into a spiritual cyber-environment.

Unlike some other religions, Paganism has for the most always embraced otherness and change, and for this reason, the otherness of amalgamating ancient-based religions and spiritualities with modern technology does not seem out of the ordinary. Many Pagans have shown themselves capable of living in accordance with what they perceive as the beliefs and customs of their ancestors, and with the technology of their times.

Another reason for this acceptance is that Paganism places experience of personal ritual and growth over dogmatic belief. This ability to transcend set beliefs and to remain interconnected as a functional entity without person-to-person communication may be one of the reasons why Paganism keeps growing, and why it has thrived, and is thriving, in cyberspace.

Yet another thing which has strengthened Paganism, is that Paganism itself tends to be a personal religion in which personal empowerment comes from each individual – it is up to each individual to decide what feels right, and each person must accept responsibility for their own actions, hence perhaps the lesser need for a face-to-face form of practice and communication.

One must not forget that, in the material world, Pagans still do have access a variety of structured events – social gatherings, public rituals, study groups, covens, festivals, etc – and are thus not totally cut off from one another, and this further adds to an overall sense of identity and belonging. However, due to the independent mindedness of Pagans in general, organised events alone have never truly been enough to unify Pagans.

It is strange that where the “real world” seems to have failed, the cyber-world seems to have managed to enhance the feeling of unity within much of Paganism, thanks to how the Internet enabled and eased communication.

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” – Rollo May

In “Is There Such a Thing as Digital Religion?”, Stefan Gelfgren, writes that digital religion as a phenomenon dates back to the early 1980s, when people were beginning to use discussion forums and email lists to exchange religion-related thoughts and experiences.

In the mid-1990s, when the first web browsers began to appear, different religious communities began to set up websites and experiment with how to transfer religious expression and practices to the web. In the mid-2000s, he writes, the interrelation between online and offline religiosity became obvious, and it became more and more difficult to separate them.

A reason for the success of Pagan-related Internet content, is due to what Gelfgren describes as the fact that the “internet can be a means to overthrow established and often hierarchical structures”.

Something which is right up the alley of most Pagans, especially solitaries.

In “Pagan religiousness as ‘networked individualism’”, Angela Coco writes: “Ties to community have shifted from linking people in a particular geographic locale to linking people in any place thus enabling individuals to construct personal communities that supply needs for information, identity, a sense of belonging and emotional support.”

Contemporary Paganism has never been a singular entity, it has always been recognised as an umbrella term – in effect the label has always described a Pagan network linking individuals and small groups into a rather loose collective. Now it seems that the move online has managed to expand that collective, moving it forward and transforming it into a more established community.

Until the advent of the Internet, Pagans were dispersed geographically making it difficult for them to acquire social status, and making it even more difficult to form true community structures, and hence the reason why Paganism worldwide is populated by so many solitary practitioners.

Cyberspace has strengthened social solidarity by mobilising the diversity of groups and especially solitaries within Paganism, thus developing a feeling of a more united and unified collective, perhaps even a suspicion of community.

A question which needs to be asked, however, is whether technology has merely strengthened and reconfigured especially solitary practice into networked individualism, or whether it has birthed a new kind of spiritual community.

Surely, a religious or spiritual community implies a unified set of objectives, symbols, beliefs and practices. Something Paganism has never really had.

Are Pagan forums, sites, etc truly a new form of community, or merely a meeting place, yet another form of a social club, about religion, spirituality, etc? Can cyberspace house a true religious and spiritual community?

According to Leslie Erin Prest in “Technopagans: NeoPagans on the Internet and the Emergence of Virtual Communities”, modern Paganism, for the most, emerged in the 1950s in Europe and came to North America in the 1960s, where it gained popularity after it was brought to the US by Raymond Buckland.

It was in the US that Paganism started undergoing a transformation, and where it lost much of the structure and hierarchical elements, which had existed earlier in Britain.

It was also in the US where Paganism became more individualistic, much more flexible and decentralised, especially when in the 1990s it started moving to the Internet – which saw its popularity and accessibility grow even further.

This accessibility was one of the reasons which led to the emergence of widespread solitary practitioners. Individuals could gain access to information without the necessity of joining a Pagan group. Paradoxically it was also then that solitary practitioners began to emerge as a group, creating a convergence of individuals – until that stage online solitaries might, at best, have been a collection of cyber-hermits.

“A solitary practitioner is an individual who chooses to practice their spiritual faith in the privacy of his or her home or other designated space, without the need to participate in a group such as that of a Wiccan coven; although it’s not uncommon for solitaries to participate in some communal activities.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solit…)

One of the reasons often given for solitary practice is concern by solitaries that they might be the subject of harassment or abuse, should they openly express their beliefs, especially when those beliefs are in direct contrast to those of their local community.

The Internet offered these people the opportunity to voice their beliefs, while remaining incognito, and thus safe.

Another reason, perhaps the main reason, is the strong need for individualism within Paganism, most Pagans do not really support the idea or ideal of a more or less united community, especially not if it necessitates a central authority. Something which may prove to be a mistake in the near future.

The Internet also offered something which the earlier forms of “organised” Paganism did not, it offered solitaries the opportunity to ignore the need for authenticity, and this helped transform Paganism in a more eclectic religion and spirituality – something which has not always been welcomed by everyone in Paganism.

I think for many solitary Pagans the inner drive for some kind of community saw the ideal of community being re-imagined, and this was achieved based on easily accessible communication, which bound Pagans together, allowing the sentiment of belonging to take root.

“New communications technology, such as the Internet, allows members to communicate and form social bonds without ever meeting in-person. In the last fifteen years, solitary NeoPagans have formed virtual communities online and have revolutionized NeoPagan practice,” writes Prest.

Paganism has never been known for its institutionalised character. Some traditions may have established hierarchies, but these have over the past decade or so increasingly become the minority. However, contrary to expectation, the success of cyber-communities may not necessarily lead to a decline in established formalities, structures and practices, but may perhaps see a rekindling of group-orientated practices – the only difference will be that these will, for the most, be cyber-based and most likely administered by (former) solitaries.

The majority of Pagans are solitary practitioners, these very same solitaries are to ones who to have formed the new communities in an online environment, and have by doing so created a distinct group identity through their cyber interaction.

The question arises whether solitaries have by creating a distinct group identity through their cyber interaction retained their identities as solitary practitioners, and are we dealing with networked individualism, or have these cyber-solitaries in fact stopped being solitaries in the true sense of the word, and instead become a genuine community?

Many Pagan-related sites, discussion boards, etc were, and are, created by solitaries. Many are run by solitaries. Such sites have for the most certain policies to which “members” must comply. So, these cyber-communities of solitaries follow certain rules and have leaders (administrators, moderators, etc). Furthermore, these solitaries have formed virtual communities where they have found a sense of belonging, while maintaining some independence in their private practice.

There have historically always been followers of paganism and Paganism who practised alone, and who offered essential services to their communities, such as hedge witches and other wise women and men, shamans, etc. These forms of solitary practice still exist today.

But many, if not most, contemporary solitary practitioners do not fall within these categories, and it is these solitaries who were and are responsible for much of the success of Pagan cyber-communities.

But exactly what types of communities have been created through cyberspace? Have Pagans created communities of practice, communities of interest, or something else?

A community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

A community of interest is a group of people interested in sharing information and discussing a particular topic that interests them.

I think that what has been created includes both, but it has also developed into something more, into something which has given all Pagans a sense of belonging through the creation of relationships between people who may otherwise never have connected.

Psychologist Seymour B Sarasons writes that sense of community is “the perception of similarity to others, an acknowledged interdependence with others, a willingness to maintain this interdependence by giving to or doing for others what one expects from them, and the feeling that one is part of a larger dependable and stable structure”.

What we are experiencing, I think, is the evolution of the more traditional idea and ideal of a Pagan community: we have moved from person-to-person and face-to-face group communication as the dominant form of community to a largely solitary-driven community, which interacts almost exclusively through the Internet.

This “community” provides a forum for practitioners to develop their Pagan identities – a user tends to be automatically associated with being a member of a specific cyber-community. Also, online information enables people to access multiple sources of information, which after some study allows these practitioners to further entrench their claim to their Pagan identity.

Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, defines virtual communities as: “the social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace”.

Cyberspace is, spiritually speaking, a liminal space and a place of transition. It is also a place where Pagans stand at the threshold between their previous way of structuring their identity, time and community, and a brand new way.

Perhaps, as Pagans, we have entered a new spiritual reality; a reality which has further helped spread Paganism past all geographical, societal, religious and spiritual boundaries. And this has been achieved by a new kind of community, but a community nonetheless.

The adoption of online communication has provided Pagans a means of co-ordinating activities accommodating diverse beliefs and practices, and the ability to avoid hierarchical and centralised organisation.

This has led to new forms of community structures and of belonging, and has shown itself to be much more that mere social engagement. It has transformed a diversified group into a “living” cyber-based community.

The Internet allowed Paganism to evolve and grow much faster than before the advent of electronic communication, while it has also made Paganism more visible giving it a voice which is no longer easy to ignore.

The idea and ideal of a contemporary Pagan community, if not Paganism itself, has thanks to the immense growth in and success of cyber-based Pagan communities possibly been rebooted.

“In effect, the Internet and other new communication technology are helping each individual to personalise his or her own community. This is neither a prima facie loss nor gain in community, but rather a complex, fundamental transformation in the nature of community.” – Barry Wellman

The immediate future…

However, SA Pagans must not loose sight of the fact that due to its composition, based on diversity at all cost, Paganism is unable to provide a clear and defined religious identity, and this makes it difficult to implement any kind of structural change that may become necessary in the near future.

Also, being mostly a cyber-based community may be yet another hurdle Pagans may need to overcome …. soon.

The proposals to legislate and regulate religion in SA could mean that most forms of Paganism will find it difficult to meet the criteria as set out in the preliminary report of the CRL Commission.

According to the preliminary report, following the hearings on “Commercialisation of Religion and abuse of people’s belief systems”, the commission has basically proposed that all religions and religious organisations in South Africa should be regulated.

Many paths within Paganism do not meet many, if any, of the proposed definitions as set out, and could face an uphill battle to “qualify” as “recognised” religions in SA.

And being cyber-based is not one of the qualifiers for such recognition.

PS: Pagan and Paganism are used in the broadest term, and as overarching concepts throughout this article.

REFRENCES:

– Is There Such a Thing as Digital Religion?” by Stefan Gelfgren;

– Pagan religiousness as ‘networked individualism’ by Angela Coco;

– ONLINE AND OFFLINE – LOCATING PAGAN COMMUNITY by Angela Coco;

– God is dead: secularization in the West by Steve Bruce;

– Religion and the Internet The Techno-Spiritual In Cyberspace by Sara Johnson;

– Technopagans: NeoPagans on the Internet and the Emergence of Virtual Communities by Leslie Erin Prest;

– . Neo-Paganism in the Post-Modern Age by Amber Laine Fisher

http://www.jwmt.org/v1n6/editorial….;

– The Internet as Social-Spiritual Space by Heidi Campbell;

– Rheingold, H. “ Which part is Virtual, Which Part is Community?”

– The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 8(3), by Barry Wellman

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imagi…;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tribe…;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outli…;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solit…;

http://cricksrants.homestead.com/AP…

http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/k…;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moder…

https://cti09.wikispaces.com/Pros+a…;

– Virtual communities http://media-culture.org.au/index.p…

http://www.usask.ca/art/dc/lit/pros…

http://besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/impact/s…;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commu…;

http://socialnetworking.lovetoknow.com/…;

 

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