Thursday, 27 January 2022

An Interview with Professor Sarah M. Pike

Today I have the pleasure of presenting an interview with the religious studies scholar Sarah M. Pike, currently Professor of Comparative Religion at California State University – Chico. Professor Pike’s first monograph, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (2001), remains one of the most important studies on modern Paganism in the United States, a topic Pike followed up on in her textbook, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America (2004). Since then, she has also pursued important ethnographic research among radical environmentalist and animal rights activists in the U.S., research that culminated in her book For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism (2017). Other publications have explored spirituality and ritual at the Burning Man festival and the ancestral skills movement. Professor Pike’s most recent book is an edited volume put together with Jone Salomonsen and Paul-François Tremlett, Ritual and Democracy: Protests, Publics and Performances (2020).

[EDW] You’ve built a career around studying religion in the United States; where did this interest come from? Much of your research has focused on culturally alternative and non-mainstream communities, namely modern Paganism and radical environmentalism – were these things that you were interested in prior to moving towards academia?

[SMP] My childhood religious background was in a liberal Episcopal church my parents attended, though I became an atheist as an adolescent. Still, I remained curious, both intellectually and personally, about other people’s religious worlds. Perhaps at first this was because they possessed something I did not and I wanted to find out why. Over time, this curiosity tended to be piqued by religious or spiritual individuals and communities who chose unorthodox beliefs and practices. Growing up, my parents encouraged a pluralistic view of the world and the need to understand others unlike myself (my father founded an alternative urban high school and my mother was a psychiatrist). They nurtured my suspicion of and critical approach to dualistic views of the world. In part for this reason, I gravitated towards communities that were demonized by the media or popular opinion, but that held values I found attractive, such as environmental commitments. Because these communities were often misunderstood, I was driven by a desire to make their beliefs and practices understandable to a larger public.

[EDW] As part of your PhD project, conducted at Indiana University, Bloomington during the 1990s, you focused on the modern Pagan festival circuit in the United States. Could you explain a bit about what modern Pagan festivals are like and how you set about exploring a topic that, at that time, was essentially unexplored territory for scholarly investigation?

[SMP] For a graduate class with the anthropologist Michael Jackson (now teaching at Harvard), I needed to find a research paper topic. Around the same time, I happened to walk by a small occult bookstore, The Eye of Osiris, in downtown Bloomington. The “Eye” was owned by two of the Pagans who started a nature sanctuary called Lothlorien in a wooded rural area outside of Bloomington. The community that ran the sanctuary, the Elf Lore Family, held several festivals at Lothlorien during the year and I started attending them. What a find for a young religious studies scholar! Diverse religious traditions converged at these festivals in rural southern Indiana—Wicca, ceremonial magic, Druidism, Radical Faeries, Voudon, and others—and the material culture of costumes, altars, jewelry, and ritual objects of all kinds was fascinating, as were the many rituals that took place at these events. I soon discovered that Lothlorien’s festivals belonged to a busy calendar of Pagan gatherings across the United States, each with its own character, but all offering a space for people who felt isolated from like-minded practitioners. Many of these festivals I visited in the 1990s continue today (at least they did before Covid-19). A number of them are planned around Solstices and Equinoxes and welcome anyone who wants to attend, regardless of their beliefs (or unbelief for that matter). They feature rituals, music, workshops on various traditions and magical techniques, body work, storytelling, dancing around bonfires, and vendors selling books, clothing, and ritual tools.

[EDW] The monograph derived from your PhD research, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community, was brought out by the University of California Press in 2001. It was part of a selection of pioneering studies of modern Paganism that emerged between 1999 and 2005, alongside works by the likes of Ronald Hutton, Helen Berger, Susan Greenwood, Sabina Magliocco, and Kathryn Rountree. Was there much communication and interaction between these scholars during the late 1990s and early 2000s, or did you feel that you were all conducting your research very much independently of one another?

[SMP] When my research began in the early 1990s, it was early years for the Internet, so easily accessed social media connections that we take for granted today were not available. The first scholar I met studying Paganism was Sabina Magliocco, whom I met at a Pagan festival when I was just starting my field work. For a few years, she was the only other person I knew who was studying Paganism, but not long after that I met Pagan theologian Michael York at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) through the New Religious Movements (NRM) Group. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the NRM Group played an important role in supporting scholars of Paganism, before Contemporary Pagan Studies became its own program unit at the AAR. The NRM group’s annual AAR sessions and evening reception were important spaces for networking, and probably where I also met Helen Berger and Graham Harvey for the first time. So, I knew about these scholars’ work when it was published, but there wasn’t much networking, for me anyway, outside of that AAR context.

[EDW] In 2004, Columbia University Press brought out your book, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America, a useful introduction which was probably the first textbook-style monograph to cover both phenomena. Was this book your own idea or something that the publishers requested you put together?

[SMP] Columbia wanted a book on New Age religion in America as part of a series on religion in the US and I was the one who pushed to include contemporary Paganism. I tried to use the opportunity to explore common roots of New Age and Paganism, as well as their significant differences, in a slim volume designed for general readers. That was a challenge. Deep ethnographic work is where I feel most comfortable and when that book was finished, I swore I’d never write another textbook again!

[EDW] You’ve published several articles and book chapters on the Burning Man festival that takes place in the Nevada desert, with a focus on topics like ritual and sacred space. There are obvious commonalities here with your work on modern Pagan festivals; was it a straightforward transition from researching one to the other? What do you feel a perspective rooted in the study of religion brings to the study of an event like Burning Man, which is not officially framed as ‘religious’?

[SMP] The credit for my discovery of Burning Man belongs to a student in a seminar I taught at the beginning of my career at Chico in 1997. This student came up to me after the first class when I had introduced my research interests and asked if I’d ever heard of “the biggest Pagan festival ever,” which he said was Burning Man. It’s not a Pagan festival of the type I wrote about in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves, but it does raise many similar issues. At the time, Burning Man was often trivialized by the media and demonized by conservative Christians. It probably still is, to some extent. But I saw it an important cultural phenomenon, especially in its role as a site for expressions of being spiritual but not religious. It went on to grow and spread into multiple events around the world as well as influencing a large network of other similar events, usually referred to as “transformational festivals.” Burning Man showcased so many fascinating religious themes and was a venue for cultural experimentation and ritual improvisation that deserved to be taken seriously. People made pilgrimages to Burning Man’s site in the desert and described their experiences as “spiritual” and “transformative” in this space apart from and in opposition to ordinary life, all themes that came up in my research at Pagan festivals. The event included specific religious rituals held by religious communities, such as Zen meditation, as well as ironic takes on religion in many of the art works on display. Burning Man also offered large-scale collective ritual events and sacred spaces, such as a temple for memorializing dead loved ones constructed every year in the center of the festival.

The Temple has been the main focus of my research since 2001. Throughout the week of the festival, tens of thousands of “Burners” make offerings at the Temple. They write letters to the dead, create altars out of photos and mementos, read strangers’ messages, look at strangers’ photos of their beloved dead, meditate, weep, and pray. It’s a beautiful space that is burned to ashes in a sombre ritual involving thousands of Burners on the last night of Burning Man before everyone returns home. The Temple is certainly not a “religious” site in the traditional sense, as it is not connected to an institution or ancient tradition. However, it serves many of the functions of sacred spaces and collective rituals in other religious contexts.

[EDW] Your most recent book, For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism, was published by the University of California Press in 2017. As you describe it in the book’s introduction, For the Wild is “a study of radical environmental and animal rights activism in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America.” At various points in the book you also highlight the presence of new religions like contemporary Paganism and ISKCON in that milieu. What set you on the path to conduct this project and how did you overcome any initial suspicion among activists?

[SMP] In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I began reading about activists who were being charged as “eco-terrorists” and were receiving severe prison sentences for actions that harmed no living beings. I wanted to find out what was behind the terrorism label and what motivated these young people to risk their freedom for trees and nonhuman animals. I wrote letters to prisoners since they had already been charged and sentenced and had less to lose by telling their stories. And fortunately for me, they wrote back. They were articulate, thoughtful, and their stories were compelling, belying their characterization in news headlines as crazy and dangerous. Some of them had political agendas (anti-capitalism), but most of them had spiritual motivations that included a deep love for the nonhuman world, a profound sense of compassion for the suffering of other beings, and a deep anger for the destructiveness of our culture.

To find out more about what was happening in activist communities, I attended their gatherings, which were open to anyone. At that time, between 2009–2016, there was a lot of paranoia, based on actual cases of FBI informants and undercover agents in their midst. My approach, which I also took in my earlier research with Pagans, who had their own fears around anonymity, was to hang out informally, participate in protests, and let these activists get to know me. Some activist event organizers asked me not to write about anything but my own experience, and I honored that. Others were grateful, once they had some trust in me, to have more accurate accounts of their intentions and commitments circulating in public.

[EDW] The past decade or so has seen a blossoming of research on the intersections between religion and environmentalism, a development that probably owes much to the efforts of Bron Taylor. What do you see as the prospects for this broader field of research, as well as its value in a period of escalating environmental devastation?

[SMP] Bron Taylor deserves a huge amount of credit for founding the International Society of Religion, Nature, and Culture (ISSRNC) and getting religion into larger environmental studies conversations. But he is one of many other important figures in an early generation of scholars training graduate students, organizing conferences, and writing books and articles that shaped this field. Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, Rebecca Gould, Laurel Kearns, David Haberman, Adrian Ivakhiv, these are just a few names of religious studies scholars, along with Bron, who deserve a lot of credit for bring ecological issues into religious studies venues and for promoting the importance of studying religion to understand and address environmental issues. The field of religion and ecology could not be more important at our current historical moment and the growth of this field, especially among younger scholars, is exciting. The ISSRNC that Bron founded, with its conferences and journal, continues to be an essential organization promoting scholarship on religion and ecology and supporting younger scholars. It is currently under the leadership of religious studies scholars Evan Berry and Lisa Sideris, whose research is especially relevant to compelling contemporary issues such as oil extraction and climate change. Scholars of religion and ecology have stepped up to focus on a number of urgent topics, such as racism and white privilege in the environmental movement, environmental justice, and religion and climate change, including climate denial among religious people.

[EDW] How has your work been received, both within the communities that you have studied and among scholars of religion and related topics?

[SMP] My work on contemporary Paganism has been well-received, especially by readers who knew little about Pagan religious worlds. Other scholars have told me they appreciated gaining a better understanding of Pagan religious practices, since my publications tend to focus more on ritual than belief, which is well-covered by other writers. Colleagues tell me they gain a sense of the lived religion of Pagans through my work. To my great relief, Pagans have also had positive reactions to my books, for the most part, even though I discuss issues of tension and conflict that do not idealize their communities. Most of these issues are ones Pagans themselves debate, so nothing I have written was surprising to them. I was especially happy to be told by one Pagan festival organizer some years back that she made her staff read my book!

As for activists, their reception has been generally positive, although a few have expressed discomfort at being examined under an academic lens. Some asked me to not include quotes from interviews I did years before I was ready to publish For the Wild because their thinking had changed, and I had to delete some quotes that I really wanted to include. Most important is that in the case of both Pagans and radical activists, they recognized themselves in my writing, even if they might not agree with every aspect of my interpretations.

[EDW] Are there particular areas in the study of modern Paganism, or the study of animal rights and environmentalist activist communities, that you think are crying out for more in-depth research?

[SWP]

•           Research on Paganism beyond North America, Europe, and Australia is still scarce.

•           No one has yet written an extensive study of Radical Faeries or the Church of All Worlds, both fascinating communities that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

•           Another pressing topic, though quite challenging on the ground, is Paganism in US prison populations. The AAR has held a number of workshops for directors of prison chaplains that I and other scholars, usually those of us specializing in non-Christian religions, have participated in. These chaplains’ questions and the issues they deal with are interesting and problematic given the constraints of our penal system.

•           Pagans in the military is another topic that deserves sustained scholarly attention.

•           As for activism, climate activism is getting some scholarly attention, but deserves more. Many religious communities are active in climate protests, especially on the boundary of protest-ritual, such as creating funerals for extinct species, and many non-religious protesters have spiritual/religious motivations.

•           On the animal rights front, For the Wild could have been twice as long if I’d expanded my coverage of animal rights activists. How did the ethical commitments of this movement kickstart the trend towards veganism and how are ethics and morals involved in contemporary vegan practices and beliefs? How do animal rights activists live their beliefs in contexts such as animal sanctuaries?

[EDW] What projects are you presently working on? Do you have any forthcoming publications that we should be keeping an eye out for?

[SMP] In terms of forthcoming work, I have an article on virtual Burning Man during Covid-19 coming out soon in a special issue of Religion on “Religion and the Covid-19 Pandemic.” I’m also in the process of working on a special issue on transformational festivals for the Journal of Festive Studies, co-edited with anthropologist Graham St John, which is scheduled to be published in January 2023. The other topic I have published on recently is the ancestral skills movement, which has received no attention from scholars. A growing number of gatherings across North America focus on reviving and teaching about pre-industrial skills such as fire-making, basket-weaving, foraging for food, and other survival type skills that are identified as ancient. The focus of my research is on ritualized activities in ancestral skills communities and how they express and constitute particular kinds of relationships between humans and plants or nonhuman animals. My recent articles on this topic are “Prayerful Living with Animals in the Ancestral Skills Movement” (in Bloomsbury Religion in North America, 2021) and “Rewilding Hearts and Habits in the Ancestral Skills Movement” (in a special issue on “Ethnographies of Worldviews/ Ways of Life” in Religions, 2018).

I’m currently working on two research projects that are in the areas of ritual studies and religion/spirituality and ecology. One is on Pagan nature sanctuaries, revisiting some of the themes I wrote about in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves, but focusing more on interactions with specific landscapes and their nonhuman inhabitants. The other project that is currently taking most of my time and attention is about ritualized responses to recent catastrophic wildfires in California, including everything from Indigenous-led restoration work to memorial events. When I’m not teaching, you might find me planting seeds in the 2018 Camp Fire burn scar, coppicing willow, or doing biomimicry, such as creating “beaver” dams.

[EDW] Professor Pike, thank you for taking the time to provide us with this additional interest in your work. I wish you well with your future projects.

Sunday, 26 December 2021

From Linear Earthworks to The X-Files: My 2020 and 2021 Roundup


Having last provided a round-up of my publications and projects back in 2019, it is perhaps time for an update covering the last two years, a period in which the COVID pandemic has of course overshadowed everything. Readers of this blog will probably be most aware that this year I relaunched the scholarly interview series that I originally ran between 2012 and 2015. In its original form, I selected scholars from any background whose work interested me – folklorists, archaeologists, and philologists among them – although in its current iteration I am focusing more narrowly on those whose work explores new and culturally alternative religious movements. It is for this reason that I have renamed the blog from “Albion Calling” to the more fitting “On New and Alternative Religions.” The relaunch has been initiated at the encouragement of Professor David Bromley of the Virginia Commonwealth University and operates in conjunction with his World Religions and Spirituality Project (WRSP), a really useful encyclopaedic resource for those interested in learning more about different religious traditions, especially those lying outside the cultural mainstream. Each interview appears both here and over at the WRSP website, and I am now lead director of interviews for the WRSP.

I’ve written a couple of encyclopaedia entries for the WRSP in the past, and a third also appeared earlier in 2021, devoted to the prominent English Wiccan Janet Farrar. Unlike most academic publications, it’s freely available to read. Those interested in Wicca may also wish to check out a newly published chapter of mine – “Drawing Down the Moon: From Classical Greece to Modern Wicca?”. Exploring the history of one of the central components of the Wiccan ritual liturgy, it appears in the new Brill volume Fictional Practice: Magic, Narration, and the Power of Imagination, edited by Berndt-Christian Otto and Dirk Johannsen. I know Brill books are rather expensive, but hopefully those interested will be able access the book through their local or university library service – there are a lot of really fascinating chapters in the edited volume.

A chapter of mine titled “Wicca as Witchcraft” also appears in Darren Oldridge’s third edition of The Witchcraft Reader, published by Routledge last year. My contribution to this reader is a revised version of a chapter from my 2016 book, Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, and it’s quite an honour to see my writings alongside those by the likes of Norman Cohn, Gustav Henningsen, Jacqueline Simpson, and Stuart Clark. My interest in witchcraft is also reflected in an article that I have out in the latest edition of the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review journal – ““She Comes from a Cursed Lineage:” Portrayals of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Satanism in The X-Files.” As I hope this article shows, there’s still much research to be done when it comes to depictions of witchcraft in popular culture, especially with regard to the interplay between traditional concepts of witchery and those new religions whose practitioners claim the identity of the witch for themselves.

Over the past few years I’ve been increasingly active in the study of medievalism, the ways in which post-medieval societies have interpreted and utilised the Middle Ages. To that end, I have an article in the thirtieth edition of the Studies in Medievalism series, “In Woden’s Shadow: Anglo-Saxonism, Paganism, and Politics in Modern England.” Based on a paper I gave at the 2019 ‘Remembering the Middle Ages? Reception, Identity, Politics’ conference in London, the article looks at how certain modern Pagan groups based in England have drawn their sense of identity from the early medieval, or “Anglo-Saxon,” period of English history – the same period I looked at in my PhD research. My interest in both medievalism and early medieval archaeology is also evident in an article of mine that appeared in Offa’s Dyke Journal last year, “Saxon Kent versus Roman London? Presenting Borderland Heritage at the Faesten Dic in Joyden’s Wood, Kent.” Here I look at the Faesten Dic (pictured below), a linear earthwork lying just outside Greater London, discussing both the archaeological evidence with which we can try to fathom its age and purpose as well as the ways in which the highly dubious narrative about it representing a fifth-century Saxon-Roman border are presented to visitors of the site. The latter article is open-access, meaning that it’s free to read.

I’ve also kept up my work as a book reviewer, doing so for the American Academy of Religion’s Reading Religion website (on whose editorial board I still sit), Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, and Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture. Topics covered in these reviews include the reception of Old Norse religion, depictions of witchcraft in US film and television, and femininities in the esoteric religion of Thelema.

Thursday, 23 December 2021

An Interview with Professor Bron Taylor

Today, I have the pleasure of presenting an interview with Bron R. Taylor, Professor of Religion and Environmental Ethics at the University of Florida and a Fellow of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. Perhaps the world’s best-known scholar working on the intersections between religion and environmentalism, Taylor is responsible for formulating the concept of ‘dark green religion,’ outlined in his book Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010). He is also the author of Affirmative Action at Work: Law, Politics and Ethics (1992) and has edited or co-edited Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism (1995), Civil Society in an Age of Monitory Democracy (2013), Avatar and Nature Spirituality (2013), and the multi-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2005). He is a founding member of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (ISSRNC) and its Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, of which he is editor. More information about Professor Taylors projects, lectures, and publications can be found at his personal website, http://brontaylor.com/. We discuss how he got involved in academia, the potential for ‘greening’ the world’s largest religions, and the spirituality of surfing.

[EDW] Growing up in southern California, you worked as a lifeguard for almost fifteen years before securing a PhD in Social and Religious Ethics from the University of Southern California in 1988. What led you from the beach to an academic career?

[BRT] On my 13th birthday I was fortunate to move to Ventura, California, a short walk to the beach. I spent a lot of time there which led to a love of, and knowledge of, the ocean and the kind of skills that enabled me to land a coveted ocean lifeguard job. In California, ocean lifeguarding is a well-paying blue-collar job, which enabled me to go to college and eventually to graduate school.

During high school, I became involved in evangelical Christianity.  In a religious studies class at college, however, I was introduced to a completely different variant of Christianity known as liberation theology; it blends leftist social analysis with what these theologians consider to be the economically radical message of Jesus as a basis for resisting authoritarian and plutocratic regimes.  I was surprised to learn about this sort of Christianity and for my own reasons, identifying with those who are marginalized and struggle for justice, I was attracted to it. Liberation theology helped to kindle my long-term activist interests and eventually, my scholarly curiosities, especially about how social movements, including religion-related ones, might promote positive social change. Not long ago I was asked by the editors of The Ecological Citizen to write an autobiographical essay about my pilgrimage. Given the sometimes embarrassing details this involved, I only reluctantly agreed; it was published as “An Ecocentric Journey.”

[EDW] Your first book was Affirmative Action at Work: Law, Politics, and Ethics, brought out by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1991. This is quite a different topic of research than that which you are well-known for – how did it come about?

[BRT] As a blue-collar guy, I never really expected the academic thing to work out, although as I left college, I did have the idea that I would love to teach and open the world to others in a way similar to how my professors had done for me. Nevertheless, I loved lifeguarding, a job that, despite the tragedies one experiences, has many satisfactions, so I assumed it would be my lifelong career. I turned permanent, which with State Parks involves becoming a peace officer. This, I also valued, since it involves protecting park visitors and the park itself. But I was also open to adding to these responsibilities as one who was studying ethics and interested in analysing issues related to state power and violence not from the ivory tower but from in the midst of real-world contexts. Southern California beaches are places where all the problems from that highly populated urban society appear.

As it happened, the State Personnel board had officially sanctioned State Parks for having discriminated against women and people of color and consequently, our Department had established an Equal Employment Opportunity Committee to work toward establishing a workforce that represented the diversity of California’s population. Because I had become known as an academically inclined park animal who was doing graduate work in ethics, I was invited to serve on the committee. My efforts on the committee, which involved among other things developing curricula to and teaching the department’s anti-discrimination and affirmative action policies and practices, and the rationales for them, to rangers, lifeguards, and other parks personnel, cohered with my sense of justice. These experiences also underscored my understanding of the extent and ways in which these policies were controversial.

Given my desire to grapple with ethical issues in specific conflictual contexts, I pitched to departmental leadership the possibility of doing a study that, I hoped, would illuminate the various ways our employees thought about these policies, with the idea that such a study might even help us to make them more effective and better accepted. Both the department director and the chief affirmative action officer were supportive: they let me interview over 50 employees “on the clock,” and send a unique survey instrument that I designed to test hypotheses developed from the literature about such policies and my interviews to over 1000 randomly selected employees.  Almost no one was doing mixed methods research at the time and it led to my testifying to the US Congress in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which was being debated at the time. My findings undercut many of the most common arguments against affirmative action policies that philosophical and political opponents of such policies had advanced. Although I shifted my scholarly focus to environmental issues, I have sought to integrate diverse disciplines and methodologies into my research ever since.

[EDW] From your earliest publications, your interest in environmentalist movements, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, has been clear. Your articles on the subject first appeared in 1991 and an edited volume of yours, Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism, was published in 1995.  If I understand correctly, you were one of the first scholars to write about radical environmentalist groups such as Earth First! Where did this research interest come from, and how easy was it to conduct fieldwork with activist groups who can be fairly cautious about their interactions with outsiders due to fears regarding infiltration by law enforcement?

[BRT] While still in graduate school and working for the park service during the late 1980s, I began to notice efforts to sabotage environmentally destructive activities by self-described radical environmental activists operating under the moniker Earth First!. I was intrigued, in part, because I had long found something missing in the writing and activism of the self-described liberation theologians, namely, a concern about non-human organisms and environmental ecosystems themselves. I arranged to get Earth First!’s tabloids and quickly realized that there was something deeply religious (or at least religion-resembling) animating these wildlands activists.  I thought, after I wrapped up the affirmative action work, that I would go find these folks and study them and their claims, in part, so I could begin to work out my own environmental ethics, which was on my radar but undeveloped because none of my professors were focused on such ethics and related social movements.

Soon after receiving my Ph.D. I was fortunate to join the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. During my second semester there, in the Spring of 1990, the most charismatic of Earth First! founders, Dave Foreman, was slated to give a public lecture. Foreman had recently been arrested by the FBI for allegedly orchestrating an attack on a nuclear power station, and was at the peak of his infamy. Although I had nothing to do with the invitation, I knew more about the movement than anyone at the university and managed to arrange to be his escort, interview him, and introduce him before his rabble-rousing talk. Afterward, I hosted him and a dozen of his rather feral associates at my home. On that occasion, one of the regional leaders invited me to a gathering which took place soon after in a National Forest in northern Wisconsin. There I was able to introduce myself, my interest in learning about the movement and using it as a muse for my own efforts to figure out my own environmental ethics and political views. Fortunately for me, the leader who had come to hear Foreman speak and who had invited me to the gathering, vouched for me, which helped to create the conditions of trust that I was able to build on subsequently. This trust was dramatically enhanced when in 1991 the first article I wrote about the movement, “The Religion and Politics of Earth First!,” was published in a British journal, The Ecologist, which was then the most widely distributed environmental journal in the world. Activists in the United Kingdom and the United States viewed the article as accurate, fair, and insightful (despite a few quibbles), and it was widely distributed among them. It had the effect of opening doors because I was then considered to be a fair-minded analyst whose writings were, on balance, good for the movement, especially since they were so used to being pilloried by their adversaries and much of the media as well.

I am more than willing to say that the movement has indeed been a valuable muse – it has posed a host of critically important questions that I needed to consider as I sought to work out my own environmental values and spirituality. The movement is exceptionally diverse, despite some unifying beliefs and shared practices, so a discussion about its strengths and weaknesses, contributions and mistakes, promise and peril, cannot be put briefly.

[EDW] You are the editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, which appeared in 2005. How did this project come about?

[BRT] Knowing of my research interests, in the late 1990s Jeffrey Kaplan, a colleague of mine in Oshkosh who had recently completed an encyclopaedia of his own, suggested that the area of religion and the environment would be a great focus for an encyclopaedia. I loved the idea and he offered to help so we pitched the idea to several publishers, all of whom were interested. Most of them, however, had a template for their encyclopaedias that did not fit our vision for it, which included inviting practitioners of various religions, not just scholarly analysts, to write for it. These contributions were labelled practitioner entries and this was an innovation that some traditionalists likely thought was inappropriate for an encyclopaedia. Janet Joyce, however, who was then with Continuum International publishers, loved and supported the approach and offered a generous contract. This enabled me to hire and create a website with what were then innovative online tools to manage what became a monster project.

The process began with brainstorming an initial list of about two hundred entries and dozens of possible contributors, after which I recruited a diverse editorial board and hosted several meetings at conferences, adding to the prospective entry and contributor lists. I also orchestrated some religion and nature panels at the 2000 meeting of the International Association for the History of Religions in Durban, South Africa, which was an enriching event that contributed to the encyclopaedia eventually including 97 Africa-focused entries.  The project was originally under contract for 350 entries but through a multi-year snowball method, it was published with 1000 entries and over 1.5 million words. It also won awards, which I attribute in part to its historical, geographical, and interdisciplinary range, as well as its innovative nature, which included ‘perspectives’ essays from scholars that were more provocative and went beyond the standard encyclopaedia entry, which are supposed to remain neutral with regard to the interpretive disagreements scholars may have about the given subject matter.

[EDW] In 2006, you founded the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, and were subsequently elected to serve as its president from 2006 to 2009. What was the impetus behind this and what do you see as the Society’s impact within academia?

[BRT] The idea goes back to the late 1990s and a conversation with Northwestern University Professor Sarah McFarland Taylor (no relation apart from our long-term friendship). We shared a frustration that at the huge annual conferences of the American Academy of Religion it was difficult to find and have extended conversations with those most interested in the religion and nature nexus. A few years later, in 2002, I was hired as an endowed professor at the University of Florida and charged with helping to launch a new Ph.D. program with an emphasis on religion and nature. By then, the encyclopaedia project was well under way and had grown far beyond my original expectations for it, so I thought the time was ripe to create a democratically structured scholarly organization, to build on the ferment unfolding in the encyclopaedia.  With the modest funds then available to me I orchestrated several meetings to refine the idea, develop bylaws, and officially established the non-profit organization the year after the encyclopaedia was published. The ISSRNC, as we abbreviate the organization’s name, was launched with a major conference at the University of Florida in 2006. Scores of individuals helped to bring the society into existence. The ISSRNC history is available at the society’s website as are more details in the early ISSRNC newsletters.

Since its inaugural conference, the ISSRNC has held meetings, which are usually co-hosted with universities, in Morelia, Mexico (2008); Amsterdam, The Netherlands (2009); Perth, Australia (2010); Vatican City, Rome, at the Vatican Museums (2011); Malibu, California (2012); again at the University of Florida for its 10th anniversary meeting (2016); New York City (2017); Cork, Ireland (2019); and a virtual one in collaboration with Arizona State University in 2021. The society website provides more details about the ISSRNC conferences, which have played a significant role in increasing interdisciplinary scholarly collaborations and research exploring the natural dimension of religion and religion-resembling social phenomena.

[EDW] Through the Society, you launched the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (JSRNC) in 2007 and which you still guide as editor. Was the journal your idea and what do you see it as having achieved?

[BRT] I had the idea for the journal well before initiating the meetings that led to the society. I felt that much of what was going on within what some called the field of religion and ecology was insufficiently critical, too narrowly focused on the world’s predominant religions, and too little informed by the evolutionary and other natural sciences. I initially expressed this point of view in a ‘scholarly perspectives’ essay adjacent to an encyclopaedia entry titled “Religious Studies and Environmental Concern.” A few years later I expanded on this perspective in the JSRNC introduction. In it, I called for a taboo-free, interdisciplinary enquiry into the complex relationships between religious and religion-resembling social phenomena and Earth’s socioecological systems. I think the journal has fulfilled its promise of providing a valuable venue for such enquiry and, like the society, has helped to build scholarly capacity for such research.

[EDW] In 2010, the University of California Press brought out Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, perhaps your most important work. Here you promote “dark green religion” as a concept through which to understand “religion that considers nature to be sacred, imbued with intrinsic value, and worthy of reverent care.” You then set forward four sub-types – Naturalistic Animism, Spiritual Animism, Gaian Spirituality, and Gaian Naturalism – through which you interpret a range of past and current thinkers and communities, from Edmund Burke to the surfing subculture. What led you to write this book and what do you see as the value of your concept of dark green religion to scholars of religion more broadly?

[BRT] By the late 1990s, having been studying environmental movements around the world, as well as other actors seeking to understand and protect environmental systems, I had observed patterns that were common among them. These included religious, or at least religion-resembling beliefs, perceptions, values, and practices. Indeed, these patterns existed despite great diversity among the environmental milieu, which included those who believed in non-material spiritual beings and forces as well as atheists and others who were entirely naturalistic in their methods and views. Indeed, there were so many similarities among these actors that it seemed to me that I was witnessing the emergence of a new kind of global, nature-based worldview. The historian in me recognized that most of what I was observing had continuities with earlier thinkers and movements around the world, of course. But there were many innovations, including the ways that perceptions were being shaped by evolutionary and ecological understandings, and new means of expressing and promoting these nature-reverencing spiritualities. Impressed with its increasingly global reach and fledgling global influence it dawned on me that, with the right analytic lenses, we might be able to identify the rise of a new, planetary, Earth religion. The notion of nature religion, a trope introduced by American religion historian Catherine Albanese, is an important form of religion that is too little recognized, studied, and taught by scholars of religion. Moreover, the forms of contemporary nature religion that prioritize the protection of non-human organisms and environmental systems are especially important if religion scholars are to keep up with the religious dimension of human experience today, and think about not only the future of religion but of the coevolution of religion and Earth’s living systems.

[EDW] As you acknowledge in the book, your use of the term “religion” is a fairly broad one, one that encompasses many atheists, agnostics, and those who do not believe in any form of supernaturalism. Could you give us more of an understanding of how you employ this term and what you see as the advantages of such a broad definition?

[BRT] There is no scholarly consensus about what constitutes religion, and thus, no consensus about where the boundary of religion ends and that which is not religion begins. I am not interested in boundary setting or its enforcement. Rather, along with others who take what is called the ‘family resemblances’ school of social analysis, I have found that it can be illuminating to examine the diverse traits and characteristics typically associated with ‘religion’ when analysing social phenomena that have many of these dimensions and dynamics. It is fine with me, by the way, if some other scholar wants to borrow or make up a definition of religion, analyse phenomena based on that analytic template, and conclude that some or all of the examples of dark green religion exemplify it.  Scholars should be at liberty to deploy the definitions in ways that they find lead to insights.

What I have been doing is focusing attention on social phenomena taking place under the global environmental milieu (which I define as the contexts in which diverse actors working to advance environmental protection encounter, engage, and typically influence one another). And when I do this, I think that when spotlighting environmental social phenomena it has tremendous explanatory power to do so with the analytic tools that have typically been deployed by those who study religion.

Those within this milieu, for example, typically use religious terminology to express and promote their most profound experiences, understandings, and concomitant values, and they often promote and participate in ritualizing and ethical practices that are religion-resembling.  In the aforementioned JSRNC introduction, I provide a pithy primer to the “family resemblances” school of religion analysis, which I have learned has been useful to many readers. Dark Green Religion, of course, provides many examples – including in the lives of scientists, environmental philosophers, activists, historians, artists, musicians, filmmakers, nature writers, literary critics, museum and aquarium curators – who in their own ways express and promote such spirituality. I think this research illustrates why scholars with narrow definitions of religion cannot illuminate the full range of nature-related spiritualities.

[EDW] You’ve expressed hope that dark green religion will spread internationally and thus help move us all towards more sustainable ways of living, but I’d be interested to hear more on what you thought was the future of what you describe as “green religion”, i.e. religions which posit “that environmentally friendly behavior is a religious obligation” without actively regarding the natural world as sacred. (Might we call it “light green religion”?). Christianity and Islam are both huge and, on a global scale, are unlikely to contract substantially in the next century – what are the prospects for a greener Christianity and Islam, especially as many of the countries where these religions are strongest are going to be hit really heavily by climate change?

[BRT] I have spent a great deal of time examining these issues and, with Gretel Van Wieren and Bernard Zaleha, two colleague-friends, produced the most comprehensive review of extant social scientific research focused on the environmental potential of the so-called world religions, including Christianity and Islam, in “The Greening of Religion Hypothesis (Part Two): Assessing the Data from Lynn White, Jr., to Pope Francis.”

Unfortunately, the evidence is not encouraging.

The problem with those who think differently, who believe that the presence of ardent greens within these traditions represents evidence that a significant greening of religion is underway, is that they do not consider Émile Durkheim’s insight that religions tend to reflect the societies in which they are situated. It is not surprising that there are environmentally concerned individuals (and even groups) inside Christianity, Islam, and indeed all of the world’s predominant religions, who are trying to convince their fellow religionists about the gravity of the situation and the need to respond. The real questions are whether a religion (1) has ideas and practices endemic to it that tend to hinder, or conversely, encourage, devotees’ understandings of and care for environmental systems and the organisms who constitute them; and (2) are the devotees of a religion more (or potentially more) proenvironmental than others who are otherwise similar socially and demographically similar but who do not share that religion. With regard to the first of these questions, the weight evidence is that the world’s predominant religions tend to occlude understandings of and care for environmental systems; and with regard to the second question, the weight of available evidence indicates that, in fact, those in the world’s predominant religions are less likely to be environmentally aware and concerned than the societies are in general where they live.

The good news is that religions can be brought along when a society is increasingly focused on providing environmental education and explaining why protective action is needed. But there is little reason, as yet anyway, to expect effective environmental leadership to dramatically emerge from the world’s religions, despite the sincere efforts of some individuals in these religions to accomplish just that.  In our review of research, we explored the reasons for these unfortunate findings. The in-depth versions of these studies can be download at my website. I wrote summaries of this research in two short articles that have been published online by The Ecological Citizen as “Religion and Environmental Behaviour (part one): World Religions and the Fate of the Earth,” and “Religion and Environmental Behaviour (part two): Dark Green Nature Spiritualities and the Fate of the Earth.”

[EDW] In 2013, the Wilfrid Laurier University Press brought out your edited volume, Avatar and Nature Spirituality, in which you assembled contributions looking at James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi blockbuster Avatar. You’ve discussed your interest in the film both in the book and elsewhere, and how you see it as potentially promoting dark green spirituality or related perspectives among a substantial audience, but I wondered if you could provide a little more background on your interest in the film. Did it stem from a broader interest in the relationship between religion and cinema?

[BRT] I saw Avatar shortly after it was released in December 2009, the same month Dark Green Religion was printed. I immediately recognized it as superb cinematic example of the kind of cosmogonies, politics, and Gaian and animistic spiritualities that are common in dark green religion. I thought, had it come out a year earlier, I would have discussed the film in the book. More importantly, I wondered whether, given its blockbuster nature, the film would become the most effective propaganda for a dark green worldview and politics yet produced. I issued a call for papers about the film, expressing special interest in research analysing audience responses and its societal impacts. Several of the contributions did provide fascinating examples of the ways people have responded to the film, including resonating with the film’s nature-drenched spirituality.

[EDW] At various points you’ve talked about your interest in surfing and the spiritual or religious experiences that members of the surfing subculture often have. Could you tell us more about this?

[BRT] As one who has been deeply immersed in surfing and lifeguarding subcultures, I have long been aware of the religion-resembling aspects of the surfing, such as the ritual-like dawn patrols; reports of experiences using religious terminology to explain them; learning stories about Native Hawai’ian cultures and their spiritualities and connections to marine ecosystems and their inhabitants. And I could see that for some surfers, the complex of feelings, understandings, values, and practices was another example of dark green spiritualities.  Consequently, it has been quite natural to include these sorts of surfers in my overall analysis of contemporary nature religions.

[EDW] What does the study of religion bring to the table both in understanding humanity’s relationship with the broader natural world, but also in seeking to find more environmentally sustainable solutions for how we as a species live?

[BRT] Extant research is pretty clear that religion plays a significant role in hindering, and sometimes enhancing, human understandings of environmental systems and sustainable lifeways and livelihoods. Awareness of this research could, and I think should, inform strategies to promote sustainable and equitable socioecological systems, including communicative and political strategies for reaching religious individuals who are, of course, important political actors.

[EDW] How has your work been received by environmentalist activists, whether radical or mainstream? At the same time, how has it been received by scholars of religion (and those working in adjacent fields)? Have you experienced much resistance to your ideas?

[BRT] I’ve heard from many environmentalists (professional and not) that they consider themselves to be a part of what I called ‘dark green religion,’ and I am unaware of any of them disputing the fairness of my descriptions or my analyses.  However, I have heard, from a few scientists and science-rooted activists who fit well with what I called dark green religion, that they feel discomfort with religious terminology because they think any association with religion, and especially with Paganism, would erode their credibility. Of course, as any of the book’s readers would know, I was arguing that environmental subcultures resemble religions in many ways, and that there was evidence these could even become a kind of new global religion.

Religion and environmental studies scholars aware of the book have found it provocative if not also compelling. The only scholarly complaints I encountered, really, was with my using the world ‘religion’ when discussing radical environmentalists, when some of them might not consider themselves to be religious.  Given that I so carefully discussed the term and how I had used it, I surmise that these complaints, whether expressed by environmentalist actors or scholars, came from those who had not got much past the book’s title.

Criticisms aside, the argument and evidence have held up very well, and frankly, the way it has sold and been embraced in many countries, as evidenced by translations of excerpts or even the entire book, suggest that indeed, as I argued, there are people all around the world who feel and act in the ways I conveyed in the book.

[EDW] What topics would you like to see tackled by future scholarship on the relationship between religion and the natural world? Are there any areas of that topic that have been seriously overlooked by prior scholarship?

[BRT] The quest to understand religion and environmental behavior has expanded dramatically in recent years but huge lacunae remain. There are scores of regions and religious traditions that have received no attention whatsoever.  But to me, the most important question is, what if any communicative strategies can mobilize people in general, including religious individuals and groups, to respond effectively to the accelerating erosion of Earth’s life support systems?  Answering this question would require an ambitious and well-funded group of interdisciplinary researchers.

[EDW] What projects are you now working on that we should look out for in future?

[BRT] I am working on an ethnographic and historical book about radical environmentalism in North America, as well as developing special issues of the JSRNC focused on the Green Man, and on Religion and Covid. I’m also working with others on survey research exploring religion and environmental behavior. Specifically, I have developed a survey instrument that examines how environmental attitudes are entangled within not only nature-based religions but also all of the world’s predominant religions. I hope to commence research using these surveys in diverse regions around the world. And I’m working to facilitate translations of Dark Green Religion into Russian, Mandarin, Italian, and Turkish, to complement the translation that has already been published as Dunkelgrüne Religion in German. I hope to eventually revise and expand Dark Green Religion, for there is so much more now worth discussing.

[EDW] Professor Taylor, thank you for taking the time to give us more of an insight into your life and work.

Friday, 19 November 2021

An Interview with Professor Helen A. Berger

Anyone familiar with the study of modern Paganism in the United States will know the name of Helen A. Berger, one of the foremost academic authorities on this new religious milieu. Since completing her PhD research on the early modern witch trials in the 1980s, Berger has devoted her career to the sociological analysis of modern-day communities whose practitioners call themselves witches. Her first book, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (University of South Carolina Press, 1999), was a landmark in the subject and was followed up with important studies such as Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (with Evan A. Leach and Leigh Shaffer, University of South Carolina Press, 2003), Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self (with Doug Ezzy, Rutgers University Press, 2007), and most recently Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans and Others Who Practice Alone (University of South Carolina Press, 2019). Currently a Professor Emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an Affiliated Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Berger is continuing to work on the modern Pagan milieu, exploring its relationships with far-right politics. She tells us about her career and her thoughts on the future of the academic study of modern Paganism.

[EDW] For those who might be unfamiliar with the topic, how would you define modern Paganism and Wicca?

[HAB] One of the problems with defining Paganism or Wicca is that there is no one organization or authority that sets the rules and definitions. This results in individual variation. Almost anything I say will prompt at least one person to say, “I’m a Pagan or a Wiccan and that is not true of my practice or lineage.” Nonetheless, there are certain practices and beliefs that are basic and adhered to by the vast majority.

Contemporary Pagans of all stripes now most often refer to themselves as practitioners of an earth-based religion. When I began my research thirty-five years ago they were more often referred to as magical religions. Both remain true today. These are religions that base their practices on pre-Christian religious or spiritual practices that have been updated and changed to fit more modern sensibilities. Gaps in the historical or archaeological record are filled in with aspects of other religions, such as Theosophy, Hinduism, or other metaphysical religions and practices. Sometimes elements of science fiction or other more modern literature or movies become assimilated into individuals’ practices. In all of these various forms the earth is normally viewed as sacred, something to be revered and celebrated. In many the earth is referred to as the Mother from whom one is born and to whom one returns in death.  Rituals typically follow a yearly cycle that is connected to the turning of the year and the seasons.

It is also common for Pagans to practice some form or forms of divination and magic, that is, using non-scientific means to create a change they wish to see. Magic is an important element of the practice for most if not all Pagans as it is a way of interacting with the otherworld, whether that other world is viewed as divinities, spirits, or forces of nature. In most forms of Paganism the focus tends to be on practice instead of belief, which makes rituals and direct contact with the spirit or otherworld central to the religions. Magic is more central to some practices than others, but I have yet to find a Pagan path where it is truly completely missing, even if it is referred to by another name.

Wicca is a particular form of Paganism and, at least in the US, the most popular specific form. It is an initiatory religion, which when I began my research required in most instances that someone join a coven and be trained by a High Priestess and High Priest. Even at the beginning of my research I met one Wiccan who told me she was initiated by the Goddess and had not been trained in a coven. Now it is more common for Wiccans in the US to be solitary practitioners and to self-initiate. Wiccans typically have three levels of training. The High Priestess and High Priest would decide when the person moved up the ranks. As more people practice alone, they determine their own ranking or avoid it all together. I recently did a short piece on Wicca for The Conversation and include the link here: https://theconversation.com/what-is-wicca-an-expert-on-modern-witchcraft-explains-165939

[EDW] During the 1980s, a key focus of yours was on the witch trials of the early modern period. Not only was your PhD thesis devoted to the witch trials of early modern England, but in 1986 you gave a series of talks on witchcraft in early modern New England for the Boston Public Library. You’ve written about how this latter experience led you to take an interest in living communities whose members self-identify as witches, especially Wiccans. Could you tell us more about how this new interest arose – and how it came to occupy such a huge part of your subsequent career?

[HAB] My life was changed by that lecture series on witchcraft in New England that I did for the Boston Public library in October of 1986. I still have a poster on my study wall that the library created to publicize the lectures. The library had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to have several lecture series open to the public on topics relevant to the Greater Boston area. For October they choose to have the series on witchcraft. At the time I jokingly referred to my lecture series as the Halloween special. Salem, Massachusetts or more correctly Salem village, now Danvers, is the site of the only large-scale witchcraft accusations in what was then the American colonies. There were scattered other accusations and hangings in other of the American colonies, but none involved more than single individuals or a couple of people. The actual trials took place in Salem, which refers to itself as “Witch City.” The local high school football team is named “the Witches.”

The library asked me to do five lectures starting with the first Thursday in October and continuing for each of the other Thursdays throughout the month. As I was thinking about topics that would be appropriate for a public audience I returned to New York City, where I grew up and where I received my PhD at New York University. I met an old friend, Paul Shapiro, at a local café in the East Village and was throwing around possible topics with him. He asked if there wasn’t something current that I could end the series with to bring the topic into the present. I told him about an article I had read in the Boston Globe about the Witches’ Anti-Defamation League led by Laurie Cabot that was protesting The Witches of Eastwick movie. The more we talked the more this seemed like an interesting end to the series. I had six months and thought I could easily do enough research to give a public talk. When I began researching in 1986, I found that there was very little research on modern day Witches other than Margot Adler’s book, Drawing Down the Moon, and one academic article.

I decided the only thing to do to fill in the gaps was to do my own research. But this was not easy as at that time most contemporary Pagans were secretive about their practice. I managed to put together a lecture using the scant published research augmented by my own very minimal research to create an hour-long lecture.

The audience for each of the lectures varied with some people who attended every week and others who came only for a particular lecture. One elderly woman with white hair always sat in the front row, listened intently, and asked interesting questions. I looked forward to seeing her there every week. At the final lecture, when I said what was then a surprising fact; Witches looked like everyone else. You could be living next door to, or working with, a Witch and not know it. She stopped me mid-lecture and asked, “are you saying there could be Witches in the room.” As the average age of the participants had dropped significantly for this lecture, I offered that I thought there probably were Witches in the room. She stood up, turned around with her hands on her hips, and asked, “are there any Witches here?” I think it is because she looked like the quintessential grandmother that a number of people raised their hands.

Because this was my last lecture the library was serving refreshments to give participants a chance to chat with me. When I went to talk to the group who said they were Witches, they invited me to join as a researcher a coven that was just forming. Another man invited me to an EarthSpirit event for Samhain* where I met Andras Corban (now Corban Arthen). I always say this subject came to find me, more than I it. I had become intrigued and just went for it.

I transformed myself from an historical sociologist to a sociologist of religion, updating my interview skills among other skills that were needed for this type of research. I never looked back. Thinking about it now, I marvel how readily those in the contemporary Pagan movement welcomed me in and how quickly I abandoned the research I had been doing for this unknown and, at the time, odd topic. It was the right thing for me to do. I helped to found a subfield and realized that working with living people is much more consistent with my personality and skills than historical research. Having a background in the history of the trials is nonetheless useful as it is a metaphor that keeps resurfacing within Pagan circles.

*=[EDW – Samhain is a Wiccan and broader modern Pagan festival celebrated on 31 October]

[EDW] The relationship between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives has been long debated among scholars of modern Paganism, culminating in the concerns raised in the first half of the 2010s about the numerical dominance of practitioners within the field. How has your perspective as an ‘outsider’ influenced your research, especially as you were conducting fieldwork among Pagans in the northeast U.S. states in the late 1980s and 1990s?

[HAD] First, although my primary research was in the Northeast of the US, I did do research in other parts of the country as well. I also interviewed Wiccans and other Pagans who travelled to New England to attend festivals and other events.

Turning back to your questions, being an outsider to the religion initially made me an outsider among contemporary Pagan researchers as well. Some kept me at arm’s length. I think there was a concern that I would be taken more seriously than they just because I was an outsider. Their concerns had a basis, although I felt then and now that there should be both when studying any religion or group. There were some things that only insiders were part of and could speak to, such as how it felt to be initiated or to feel the divine enter you as you drew down the moon.* At least initially, some of those insiders were very protective of the community, seeing it as being under siege and therefore off limits for criticism. This of course has changed. As an outsider I started with a different mindset and set of questions about why people joined, how they could take magic seriously, why they continued in their practice of a religion that certainly at that time many needed to conceal due to employment and safety concerns. Starting from ignorance or presumed ignorance has its benefits as people felt the needed to tell me in detail about the correct way to practice etc. I think I therefore learned a lot about how people were conceiving their practice.

*=[EDW: ‘Drawing Down the Moon’ is a Wiccan ritual in which the Goddess is invoked to enter the body of the High Priestess. For an extended discussion of its history see my chapter on “Drawing Down the Moon: From Classical Greece to Modern Wicca?” in the new Brill volume Fictional Practice: Magic, Narration, and the Power of Imagination.]

[EDW] Your first book, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States, came out in 1999, making it one of the earliest academic monographs to be published on the subject. Based largely on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the Boston area, it argued that Wicca and related forms of modern Paganism should be best understood in the context of late modernity. It came out at a key juncture for the field; not only was 1999 the same year that Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft appeared, but your book also foreshadowed a range of other ethnographically-based monographs on Wicca and related forms of Anglophone Paganism that were published over the next five years (by Susan Greenwood, Jone Salomonsen, Sabina Magliocco, Kathryn Rountree, Sarah M. Pike, etc). How did you set about conducting the research for this book and securing a publisher at a time when there was very little like it out there?

[HAB] Yes, my book was one of the early ones, which argued that contemporary Paganism, or as I and others called it then ‘neo-Paganism,’ was a religion of late modernity and that practitioners did form a type of community. The latter is still something that is debated. I think the definition used by many people of community is too narrow and that there are many different forms of community; some now are based on the Internet. Communities have always included more than just groups that meet regularly and face-to-face.

My research for that book began at the last lecture of the series I did for the Boston Library. As I noted in my answer to an earlier question, I met a group that was starting a coven that I was invited to join. I was also invited to an EarthSpirit Community open Samhain ritual at a church in Cambridge and introduced to Andras who then invited me to his classes and to attend other events. Each person I met introduced me to others, creating a snowball sample. Everyone I met was generous with their time and knowledge and open to introducing me to more people. There weren’t many people doing research at that time and I think that Witches and other Pagans wanted researchers to take them as seriously as other religions were taken. They very much wanted someone to research them, from the outside, as they had nothing they were embarrassed about.

Frederick Denny, the religion series editor for the University of South Carolina Press, came to one of the early papers I presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and asked to chat with me after. He asked if I wanted to write a book on the topic. Fred became a friend who worked with me as I wrote my first book proposal. Fred regularly went to meetings looking for new authors, people doing something interesting in the field. He launched a number of us in our academic careers, encouraging each of us to publish our work as a book.

[EDW] With Andras Corban Arthen, you conducted the Pagan Census between 1993 and 1995, which at the time was the largest survey of modern Pagans ever completed. The findings of this project appeared in Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (University of South Carolina Press, 2003), co-written with Evan A. Leach and Leigh Shaffer. Since then, you have also engaged in the Pagan Census Revisited of 2009 to 2010 and the Pagan Census Revisited II in 2014 with James R. Lewis. How did these projects take shape?

[HAB] The initial Pagan Census was Andras’ idea. He wanted to do a Census of all American Pagans to assess the numbers and to learn more about them. As I am a sociologist, he asked me to work with him on the project. We worked together on the questions. A colleague of mine suggested that we should include some questions from the General Social Survey (GSS), to permit comparisons between contemporary Pagans and the general American public. I searched through the GSS codebook and found the most appropriate questions I could and Andras and I chose from among those. These posed some problems as a Christian bias was evident in most of them. Andras understood the value of having a comparison with the general population, but we were both aware that it might make some in the Pagan community less comfortable. We came up with a solution of writing a note stating that some of the following questions were from the GSS and therefore were less geared directly to the Pagan community but were important for comparative reasons.

These questions were invaluable in the end as they permitted us to show both ways in which the Pagan community differed from, and were similar to, or the same as, other Americans. Some of those findings were no real surprise; for instance, more Pagans, at that time, self-identified as feminists than did members of the general population. What was surprising to me was how common paranormal experiences were in the general population as well as among Pagans. Other questions were targeted to Pagans and these too were very important. Our survey never did become a census but it was the largest survey of American Pagans in its time. Andras was able to gain the support of every major Pagan leader and organization, which was key to our getting so many responses

Initially we had visions of a random sample of people who belonged to a series of Pagan organizations. But that never happened. Pagans wanted to be counted and heard. They Xeroxed the survey and shared it with others, paid their own postage and sent it to me at my university. Someone put it on the Internet and it went viral. My initial response was to sit in my office with more returned surveys than Andras and I had sent out and cry. I had gotten some grant money for this and I thought I would have to return it. Leigh Shaffer, my colleague, the methods person in my department,  and office neighbour, stopped in and said “this is great.” “You have a snowball sample and it is even better than the original plan.” He then helped me rethink how to analyse the data from this perspective. We then involved another colleague, Evan Leach, to help crunch the numbers.

The survey is still online at the Murray Institute at Harvard University. They consider it the baseline for all subsequent surveys of contemporary Pagans. It served as the basis of the Pagan Census Revisited, which was a revised, updated, and somewhat changed survey that James ‘Jim’ Lewis invited me to do with him. That survey garnered even more responses than did the first and served as the basis for my most recent book Solitary Pagans as well as a number of publications by Jim.

[EDW] You were also responsible for editing the 2005 volume Witchcraft and Magic in the New World: Contemporary North America for the University of Pennsylvania Press. How did this book come about? Have you considered editing another volume since?

[HAB] I was asked by the acquisitions editor of the University of Pennsylvania Press to do this edited volume. I agreed immediately and then found out quite how much work editing a volume is. Will I do it again? Maybe, but so far I haven’t signed up for another. Nonetheless I am pleased with the volume and the essays in it. This, like all my books, still remains in print.

[EDW] The 1990s and early 2000s saw a growing number of teenagers identifying as witches and/or Wiccans, influenced both by literature aimed at that demographic and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. With the Australian sociologist Douglas Ezzy you embarked on a major study of this phenomenon, resulting in your co-written 2007 book Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self. How did this research get off the ground?

[HAB] Teenage Witches appeared to be everywhere in the 1990s and early 2000s, just as they are again now. It was intriguing. I was just beginning to do research on it when I ended up at a conference at the London School of Economics on new religious movements. I had not planned to attend this conference but an elderly and old friend of mine was very ill and I decided to come over to see him before he died. Michael York and his partner Richard invited me to stay at their flat in London. Michael was going to the conference and I just signed up for it at the last moment.

I would take a break in between hospital visits to listen to papers as a relief from the immediate sadness of my friend’s illness and impending death. One of the papers I heard was by Doug Ezzy. I asked for a copy, suggested we talk and proposed we join forces doing the research. It was rather impetuous on both of our parts. I enjoyed working with Doug, most of it of course was done on the Internet. We were able to meet in person twice while researching teen Witches.

Initially we were going to do research only in the US and Australia—two English speaking countries on opposite sides of the globe and the ones where each of us lived. I had a meeting scheduled with the acquisitions editor at Rutgers University Press at an upcoming academic meeting in the US. He was very interested in the project but wanted England included. I consulted with Doug and we decided to include England. We each then got grants to do the research in the UK and were lucky to meet up there.

As our interviews got transcribed we would share them and each read through them.  We did twenty in each country; Doug and I each did ten in England. I got two small grants that made it possible for me to go to England to do the research. Because Americans and British drive on different sides of the road, I did not feel safe driving in the UK. Instead, I got a British rail pass, which permitted me for a set fee to travel anywhere on the train, I think it was for two weeks. Michael and Richard very kindly and generously gave me their flat to use in London so that became home base for me. Michael was teaching at that time in Bath and Richard decided to join him while I was in residence.

I put a notice on the Internet site, Witchvox,* stating that I was looking for teenage Witches to interview. I asked friends throughout England to put up notices at metaphysical bookshops, their universities, and anywhere else they could think of. And once I had one interview scheduled I asked the person if they knew anyone else who was a teen Witch and would be willing to speak to me.

I recall that two young women came with an older man to the metaphysical bookshop to check me out before we spoke. As a small sized woman, I think I had an easier time of getting respondents than Doug. He did manage nonetheless to interview ten respondents.

Once we read through the transcripts we developed an outline for the book. Each of us took responsibility for a first draft of half the chapters, except for one that we divided in half because we both wanted first shot at it. After completing a rough draft of a chapter, we sent it to the other person for revisions, changes, and discussion. Each chapter went back and forth between us several times before we were both pleased with it. On the whole the process worked well, although there are some advantages to being able to meet in person more often. Today it would be easier as there is Zoom, although the huge time difference between Australia and the US would still create some problems.

*=[WRSP: Witchvox, also known as The Witches’ Voice, was probably the most popular website for Wiccans during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its use was gradually supplanted by later forms of social media and it closed in 2019.]

[EDW] The majority of U.S. Wiccans now operate as solitary practitioners, rather than as members of a coven, and your research on this topic has culminated in your 2019 book Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans and Others Who Practice Alone. Can you tell us more about the research that went into this book and the nature of solitary Paganism itself?

[HAB] My book, Solitary Pagans, grew out of the Pagan Census Revisited. I had initially wanted to do a book that focused on what had changed within Paganism between the two surveys, based on those questions that had been reused. But there wasn’t much change to be found there. Possibly if different questions had been asked we would have found significant differences. However, one thing stood out; solitary practitioners were now the dominant group. That was the one overarching change and it was major.

My focus was two-fold: to see how similar and dissimilar those who practiced alone or in a group were, and to try to assess how isolated solitaries really are. On the one hand, I found that solitaries aren’t really isolated. They join other Pagans on the Internet, phone, texts, go to open group rituals and some festivals or gatherings. On the other hand, there was a real difference both in political activity and the frequency of performing rituals and having metaphysical activities. In all areas those in groups did more. Interestingly, on many political activities solitary Pagans still did more than the typical American but not as much as those Pagans in groups.

[EDW] How has your work been received, both within modern Pagan communities themselves and among scholars of religion and related topics?

[HAB] On the whole, my work has been well received. My statistical data has been used by others in their own work. In the early days of my publishing, I felt that I was not completely trusted by those scholars of Paganism who were also practitioners. I no longer feel that way. I think that as their scholarship has gained more support, they no longer need to fear that mine will be taken more seriously because I am an outsider.

Within the larger discipline of new religious movements or sociology of religion my work has always been well received. I think to begin with some scholars of sociology of religion did not take Paganism seriously. They thought it would disappear—a youthful movement with no staying power. I recall a prediction being made that some aspects of the religion, like goddess worship, would be absorbed into more mainstream religions, but the religion itself would dissipate. At this point it is no longer a new religion. It has grown in the number of adherents and how open people are about practicing Paganism. The youth of the 1960s are now grandparents and I no longer hear anyone predicting the religion will just disappear in a few years. Questions are still raised about its staying power over a longer haul of a hundred or two hundred years, but it certainly has proven not to be a flash in the pan. I think once you conceive of the religion as one of late modernity and start thinking about the implications of that for the religion, it appears to be more stable and to have a longer trajectory. There are now new forms of community, of spiritual practice, and of connection that are consistent with the changes in technology, communication, and lifestyle in the past half century.

[EDW] As someone who has observed the Wiccan and modern Pagan communities in the U.S. over a thirty-year period – a span of time that has of course seen the Internet exert a significant influence over most people’s lives – what do you think have been the most noticeable, or most important, changes within those communities? How do you think these new religious movements will adapt going forward?

[HAB] Actually this past October I just celebrated the 35th year of studying contemporary Paganism. The most notable change I noticed is the growth of solitary practitioners. They have grown in number and in respectability within the religions. Thirty-five years ago, solitary practitioners were not taken very seriously. With the growth of solitary practitioners there has also been a growth in those who are eclectic practitioners; the two phenomena are related. The Internet has made it easier for people to learn about and practice Paganism, even in remote places. As more people are training outside of a coven, grove, or other group, more are taking the label ‘eclectic’ as well. And this is more common for solitary practitioners than for those in groups.

I think the Internet has probably helped to fuel the current teen Witch craze. The young don’t need to involve their parents in their searches or choices.

At the same time there has been an increased interest in ethnic Paganism—such as Heathens, Hellenic, and Druids. Although most ethnic Pagans are not right leaning, more are so than those who self-identify as Wiccans, Witches, or eclectics.

Those who entered the movement in the 1960s and 1970s are now old. Many of the Pagan umbrella organizations are being run by people in their seventies or older. These organizations have always played an important role in providing open rituals, newsletters, and festivals. They will in the next twenty years be in transition. Who will take over running them? Will organizations survive? If not, what will fill the role they have carved out? The religion is decentered, but it has had a number of different overlapping centers or organizations. I am thinking here of EarthSpirit, Circle Sanctuary, and others. I think that the next few decades will be a turning point for the religion in the US. I am interested to see where it leads.

[EDW] What areas of modern Paganism do you think could really do with scholarly research in future?

[HAB] Contemporary Paganism is a rich area for research. There are so many topics that need more study. To name a few:

1. TikTok Witches and the new generation of teen Witches

2. What happened with the last influx of teenagers? How many stayed and are practicing Witchcraft or another form of Paganism? How many left? And of course what resulted in their either staying or leaving? For those that left did they keep any of the practices from Witchcraft?

3. More is needed on Pagans in the military. I just wrote an article for the online journal The Conversation that was reprinted in The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/wiccans-in-the-us-military-are-mourning-the-dead-in-afghanistan-this-year-as-they-mark-samhain-the-original-halloween/2021/10/20/edbc0868-31b6-11ec-8036-7db255bff176_story.html) It was for Samhain. I was surprised how few people realized there were Pagans in the US military.

4. Research on Paganisms in prison. Which forms of Paganism are popular in prisons? Why? And how do these shape the prison experience? What are the differences in men’s and women’s prisons.

5. Ethnographic work needs to be done on solitary practitioners to learn more about their form of practice and their links to other Pagans.

6. The influx of conspiracy theories and far right ideology among Pagans, particularly but not limited to folkish Heathens.*

These are the issues most on my mind right now. But, there is so much more to look at as well.

*=[EDW: Folkish Heathenry describes forms of Heathenry, the modern Pagan religion revolving around the pre-Christian deities of linguistically Germanic Europe, that emphasise links between the religion and a perceived Germanic racial identity]

[EDW] Your work has focused heavily on modern Paganism, and Wicca in particular, but I wondered if you had a particular interest in any other religious movements? Have you also kept up an interest in the sociology of early modern witchcraft accusations?

[HAB] I have not kept up with the scholarly research on the early modern witchcraft trials. I have left that mostly behind. I still do read some articles and an occasional book on the issue and will be going to the exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem on the witchcraft trials there but the trials are no longer my area of research. I read about other religions as background to my interest in contemporary Paganism but there is no other religion that I study. I have focused completely on contemporary Paganism primarily within the US. As there is still so much that grabs my interest in contemporary Paganism, I doubt I will move on to another religion.

[EDW] What value do you believe that sociology as a discipline brings to the study of modern Paganism and to new and alternative religions more broadly? What does it offer that disciplines like history and anthropology just can’t?

[HAB] The borders between sociology, history, and anthropology are porous. At one time it would have been easy to say history studies the past, anthropology other cultures, and sociology the present day developed world, but that hasn’t been true for decades. I am no longer sure what tools, if any, are used exclusively by one discipline. Both sociologists and anthropologists do ethnography and look to history for context and placement of phenomena. Sociologists traditionally are more likely to do largescale surveys, but anthropologists are now doing them as well. To some degree it is the perspective used in analysis, but even that is murky as we read each other’s work and apply all those useful texts and concepts. Sociologists have traditionally had a greater concern for issues of stratification—social class, gender, age, race—but historians and anthropologists are concerned with those as well. Anthropologists remind us about colonialism and its influence on religion as well as other aspects of society, but most sociologists are concerned about that as well.

[EDW] I’m given to understand that your current research explores Pagan relationships and responses to the far right. How is this progressing, and do you have any other projects on the horizon?

[HAB] Yes, I am now looking at responses to the far right and more generally the degree to which those ideas are entering into contemporary Paganism. I feel as though I am still at the beginning of this project. I am excited about it. At this moment I do not have any other projects in the works but if I were to do anything it would be something about the new teen Witches. I am still fascinated by the young who join. If I were to do it again, I would really like to follow 20 young Witches from when they first started exploring the religion for a five-to-ten-year period. It would allow me to find out about those who dabble and those that stay. But that is only a fantasy at the moment. My actual work is on the growth of far-right ideas within contemporary Paganism. It has been most noted among folkish Heathens and is clearly the most pronounced there, but I am seeing some evidence that some of it might be seeping into corners of the larger Pagan community. I am still at the beginning of this research and am not sure where it will lead me.

[EDW] Thank you, Professor Berger, for this insight into your career and ongoing research.