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:

[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 ( 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.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

An Interview with Dr Jefferson F. Calico

This week’s interview is with Dr Jefferson F. Calico, an associate professor at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. Dr Calico completed his PhD research at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky in 2013, for which he conducted fieldwork among American practitioners of Heathenry, a modern Pagan religion whose adherents seek to reconstruct the pre-Christian traditions of Europe’s linguistically Germanic communities. This research provided the data for his subsequent book, Being Viking: Heathenism in Contemporary America (Equinox, 2018), which is one of two important works on American Heathenry that have appeared over the past decade, the other being American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement (Temple University Press, 2015) by Dr Jennifer Snook, who was previously interviewed here back in March. In this interview, Dr Calico discusses how he first came to be interested in Heathenry, his experiences conducting ethnographic research, and the impact of growing ideological polarisation on the U.S. Heathen community.

[EDW] For readers who may not be familiar with the topic, could you give us an idea as to what the modern Pagan religion of Heathenry is?

[JFC] Heathenry is a new religious movement/milieu that looks to ancient Norse and Germanic cultures for inspiration in creating contemporary approaches to life, spirituality, and the world.

From a historical perspective, the “modern Pagan religion of Heathenry” can be traced back to a particular set of people and religious awakenings in the early 1970s. I look at this historical process in chapter one of Being Viking:

For these early adherents, the religious entrepreneurs of Asatru, the Norse heritage, history, customs, and stories suddenly and powerfully took on more than historical and cultural significance. They awakened to a new life-way, a paradigm that could transform life, a roadmap for the creation of a new culture. The Christian age was over. The time had come for the old gods to reassert themselves amongst their human kin in the reconstruction of an ancient religio-cultural community. (Being Viking, 58)

Ideologically, Heathen and Heathenry or Heathenism are umbrella terms covering a diverse array of more specific approaches. That diversity encompasses differences in orientation along political/social lines (this spectrum is the one of which most observers are aware), but also differences in theological, cultural, ethical, and aesthetic opinions and approaches. For American Heathenry, I think that my book Being Viking and Jennifer Snook’s book American Heathens both describe some of that diversity among Heathens.

What makes it Heathen—rather than historical re-enactment or Vikings fandom for instance—is a shared spiritual core. This includes texts (the Lore), Gods, ancestors, nature spirits often called “land vaettir” (because Heathen LOVE to use words derived from Old Norse and other Germanic languages. Really, a Heathen gathering isn’t complete if someone doesn’t drop some Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon), concepts, runes, time, and rituals—derived from the pre-Christian cultures of northern Europe.

As I said to a writer from “How Stuff Works” [] Heathens look at these pre-Christian traditions of the past as repositories of ancient sacred wisdom and lifestyles that connected humans and their communities to the cosmos and to each other in ways that are holy and sacred. For Heathens, reconnecting to these spiritual resources—the ancient wisdom, beings, and forces—is a return to a fully human life – living “tru.” The old ways (Forn Sed or forn siðr) established relational networks to these resources and beings that nourished human life and produced thriving. In Being Viking, I devote chapter four, “Spears and Shieldwalls,” to a discussion of this Heathen concept of life. Rather than the “coming home” idea that been used to describe Pagan conversion, I would use “re-connecting” to talk about how Heathens relate to their religious system.

[EDW] Where did your interest in Heathenry come from and what led you to pursue your doctoral research on this new religious movement? Did you have a longstanding research interest in new and alternative religions?

[JFC] I can look back into my personal history and see how many moments played into my craft and practice. I have been interested in religion and culture for as long as I can remember and was encouraged to explore these aspects of life through reading, experiences, and friendships. Living in an Inupiaq community in northern Alaska opened my eyes to the importance of culture as a human phenomenon. Stepping into a classroom for the first time to teach world religions came to be a challenging and deeply creative experience for me.

Many of us have experienced paradigm shifting moments during our educational journeys— those moments of discovery that unfold for us along new and unexpected paths. These moments arise from all sorts of stimuli—disciplined reading, insights from our teachers, and from seemingly random “aha” moments, to name a few. In my own journey, one of those moments came for me in reading Carole Cusack’s Invented Religions (Routledge, 2010; [EDW: Professor Cusack was interviewed here back in 2014]). The cumulative effect of that book rescued me from a previously dismissive attitude about new religious movements and opened a new world of scholarly interest. I had entered my PhD program initially intending to pursue research on Islam. However, a conversation with my supervisor—strangely enough about the 1994 Olympics hosted by Norway—caused me to re-evaluate and drew my attention to the growing presence and influence of Paganism in the contemporary world. As I discuss in the introduction to Being Viking, an offhand question in a graduate seminar stirred my initial curiosity about Heathenry and led to it becoming a major interest. A chance conversation with a friend, Dr Thad Horrell, while walking to an American Academy of Religion (AAR) venue in San Diego led to a new line of inquiry and research that helped me to better understand the tributaries of American Heathenry. Rather than one over-riding passion, my interests and work have been nudged along by these sorts of important and transformative experiences.

[EDW] The study of modern Paganism (including the study of Heathenry) has tended to be dominated by practicing Pagans, but – if I understand correctly – you are not coming at Heathenry from a practitioner perspective. How do you feel that this status as an ‘outsider’ impacted your reception when conducting participant-observation with Heathen groups, and has it impacted your interactions with other scholars of Paganism?

[JFC] Look, field work is difficult. It raises all sorts of challenges. When engaged in field work, all of us who are doing anthropology and ethnography bring aspects of identity, personal history, and value/ideology differences that must be negotiated with our host communities and within ourselves. As a guest in people’s homes and religious events, researchers are being invited into sacred and intimate settings, so respect and trust is essential. I quickly found that methodology has ethical implications and in this regard Jone Salomonsen’s work on methodology was influential for my approach. The relationship with a host community and different individuals therein is a process, an ongoing effort to analyze, evaluate, and respond.  I do not think it is categorically different for “insiders” except that the issues and dilemmas themselves may vary. And the stakes are potentially higher for those who are devotionally committed to the religions they study. Insiders also experience a range of responses from their communities and face challenges in negotiating their presence and their relationships. I think—for some insiders—the relationship with their religious community is forever changed for better or worse by their research experience. I do want to push back against a dichotomizing assumption that “outsider” and “insider” are clearly definable terms. Both insiders and outsiders can and do take both emic and etic perspectives during the research process. The methodologies we employ for field work should weave us through both of these perspectives, thereby complicating the outsider/insider perspective. That said, the goal for both insiders and outsiders is always good research.

But yes as an outsider certain difficulties presented themselves from the outset. When I was attempting my first field experience with a Heathen group, my positionality (i.e., the institution with which I was affiliated for my PhD work) was an immediate red flag to my hosts. This was no surprise to any of us. There were good reasons for their hesitancy. Any religious group—and particularly Pagans who have experienced religious persecution from hegemonic religions—want to protect the integrity of their events, avoid persecution and exploitation. From my perspective, this was a challenge that I was committed to working through. And to their immense credit, the group did not simply cut me off. They were willing to enter into a discussion and negotiation that resulted in the leadership of that group getting to know me and granting permission to attend their religious event as a researcher. Several of those leaders went on to become friends and collaborators and are people whom I greatly respect. As I moved among Heathen religious communities and groups during field work, similar vetting processes took place repeatedly. From my perspective, the onus is on the researcher to establish and maintain working relationships. There are always people who are going to be suspicious and even hostile, and some people with whom work is not possible—but that’s okay. For the most part, I found that Heathen people were careful but hospitable and willing to take a risk with a stranger as long as trust can be established. I am grateful for the many Heathens who spoke with me about their religion and shared their thoughts and experiences.

Regarding the scholarly community, I feel strongly that we should avoid tribalizing our fields of study along lines of religious affiliation. As scholars who want to understand the world more fully, insularity is not a positive trait. Positionality is important and we need to be serious about how it impacts our work. However, it should not be a barrier to scholarly inquiry or participation in scholarly community. Any field of study benefits from participants from a variety of perspectives. Are there limits to scholarly inclusivity? Of course, some positionalities do create conflicts of interest. Work that promotes anti-social, racial, and religious persecution is to be shunned. But generally speaking, scholarly communities should strive to be generous in whom they include as constructive participants. 

[EDW] Have you observed changes in the American (or international) Heathen community since you started your research on the topic in 2010? Obviously, there has been growing ideological polarisation within U.S. society during the last decade; has this had a significant impact on Heathenry?

[JFC] The ideological polarization has dramatically affected Heathenry in the American context. We have observed a hardening of folkish positions* as well as the emergence of anti-racist and inclusive Heathen identities – these aren’t new by any means, but have attained a new degree of prominence. I think that the older generations of Heathens, even those who were anti-racist, were more likely to hold a “live-and-let-live” perspective. These early generations of Heathens were part of building the religion with few adherents, little infrastructure, and resource scarcity. This situation impacted their understanding of community. However, due to incidents of racial violence, change in the American culture, and growth of the Heathen community, ideological positions within Heathenry have also become more pronounced and Heathens are more willing to draw hard and fast ideological lines such as Declaration 127 ( I see Heathenry experiencing a couple of “reformations” – an earlier one that sought to weed out Christian influence in Heathen culture and lore, and a current one that directly confronts the legacy of racism and neo-Nazi ideology. As an example, consider the new edition of The Troth’s tome Our Troth ( which contains a new chapter dealing with the influence of Völkisch and Nazi tributaries on the development of contemporary Heathenry.  

The importance of the internet has only increased in the last decade. Heathenry has seen the emergence of more extra-organizational voices—influencers with their own social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Patreon. And on the far-right of Heathenry, ideologues have shifted toward alternative social media like Gab and VK as they have been de-platformed from mainstream social media sites. That is an important structural change. And these voices are often exploring new ways of being Heathen. Both ideological sides of Heathenry have seen the growth of new forms of (online) community that are not primarily religious in nature. More than just getting people together to do a ritual, Heathens are increasingly exploring cultural and lifestyle issues and thinking about how these work out in the contemporary world.

[* = EDW: Folkish Heathenry is a wing of the religion that generally argues that Heathen practice should be restricted to members of a putative Northern European/Germanic/Nordic racial group. Typically, it is characterised as being politically right-wing to far-right.]

[EDW] What has the response to your thesis and book been like? How have Heathens themselves responded to the work, and what was the response at the primarily Christian environment where you conducted your doctoral research (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)?

[JFC] It has been rewarding to find Being Viking showing up in bibliographies, presentations at the AAR, and being used constructively in the research of other scholars. I hope it will continue to be a springboard for further work. And I hope it contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of Heathenry as much more than a hot mess of far-right racism. I think my book has a lot to say for those who will take some time with it.

I chose to pursue my PhD in World Religions where I did for a variety of reasons.  One of the benefits of that program was being able to work very closely with my supervisor, Dr James D. Chancellor. He was an impressive and inspiring ethnographer and researcher, and a great teacher, who wrote an important work on the new religious movement known as the Children of God, or The Family (Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God, Syracuse, 2000).

Generally speaking, those of us who are researching and writing about Paganism and/or other socially controversial religious communities—and especially those of us who do intensive fieldwork with those groups—find ourselves potentially misunderstood by both our host and home communities. This experience of mistrust is an old story for all sorts of cross-cultural people. As Mary Douglas elucidated, doubts and suspicions about purity are frequently raised against boundary-crossers. Again, it is something that I find myself continually negotiating.

While the research for Being Viking began during my dissertation, it grew and expanded as I moved on from that degree program. So Being Viking is not a revision of my dissertation. It was a significantly different work. It reflects my own growth as a researcher and my continued interaction with the Heathen community. The book was guided by a completely different set of advisers and editors. Again, I can’t speak too highly of my editors Chas Clifton, author of Her Hidden Children (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006) [EDW: interviewed here back in 2012], and Scott Simpson, co-editor of Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Routledge, 2013), and the team at Equinox Publishing. They all made significant contributions to my life as a scholar. 

[EDW] What do you see as the areas of Heathenry that really require further academic research?

[JFC] How is Heathenry contributing to the re-emergence of polytheism in the West? And what is this polytheism like? How might it be like and unlike the polytheism of the ancient past and the polytheistic continuity of other world religions?

I am especially interested in how Heathenry changes the daily life and practices of people in the real world. How does Heathen practice and ritual create new networks—religious, social, economic—that build more sustainable ways of life? Scholars such as Barbara Davies and Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen are exploring these areas in their work.

As Heathen culture continues to change, scholars like Jennifer Snook are helping us to see into the diversity of the Heathen world, looking at how Heathenry manifests in different political spheres and flows into other subcultures. More work could be done on the permutations of Heathen identity.

We need to learn more about the influence of the internet on Heathenry. Scholars such as Ross Downing have just begun to explore the complex forms that Heathenry is taking online.  

Stephanie Schnurbein and other scholars have done a lot of work in uncovering and explicating the völkisch and Traditionalist tributaries to the contemporary confluence of far-right racism and violence. There is still work to be done in understanding this.

[EDW] Are you continuing to pursue research into Heathenry or are you switching focus to other topics? Have you any forthcoming projects that we should be keeping an eye out for?

[JFC] My ongoing research into Heathenry looks at how certain groups have propagated a white supremacist and nationalist agenda in recent years. In this vein, my chapter “Performing ‘American Völkisch’” is included in the recently published book Paganism and Its Discontents: Enduring Problems of Racialized Identity (Holli S. Emore, Jonathan M. Leader, editors, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020). I am also presenting work at the American Academy of Religion along these lines. At the 2020 AAR I presented to the New Religious Movements Unit on “White Nationalism and the Performance of Religion in Heathenism” which looked at Heathen internet memes and racist radicalization. For the upcoming 2021 AAR, I along with other scholars of Heathenry will be presenting to the Pagan Studies and the Religion and Ecology units on the impact of blood and soil ideology in Heathenry. Over the years, the AAR has played an important role in my research process and scholarly life.  I have valued and benefited from the hospitality of the Pagan Studies group and the New Religious Movements group as spaces to present research and to refine my work.

In addition to Heathenry, since moving to the Appalachian region, I have a growing interest in Appalachian religion. I am hoping to pull together a project on Paganism in Appalachia in the near future.

[EDW] Thank you very much for this additional insight into your work, Dr Calico, and I look forward to your future research on the Pagans of Appalachia!

Thursday, 15 July 2021

An Interview with Dr Kaarina Aitamurto

Today, I have an interview with Dr Kaarina Aitamurto, the head of training at the Aleksanteri Institute, which is the Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Helsinki. Dr Aitamurto is a specialist in the study of religion in Russia, with her current work exploring the role of Muslim migrant minorities living in that country. Her previous research project, which resulted in her PhD thesis, delved into the Rodnoverie, or ‘Native Faith’ movement in Russia, a form of modern Paganism that seeks to recreate the religious system adhered to by pre-Christian Russians. On that subject she is the author of Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism: Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie (Routledge, 2016) and, with Scott Simpson, also co-edited the important Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Acumen, 2013), both of which should really be required reading for anyone studying modern Pagan religion. We talk about these research projects and how modern Paganism first attracted her interest.

[EDW] Your main research has been on the Russian religion of Rodnoverie, or ‘Native Faith.’ For readers unfamiliar with this tradition, could you give us a brief overview of what it is?

[KA] The term Rodnoverie comes from the Russian words rodnaya vera (“native faith”) and refers to a religion that is based on pre-Christian Slavic spirituality. The question about the terminology is actually quite complex and there seems to be a recent tendency to define Rodnoverie more narrowly as a distinct form of Paganism that does not even include all groupings that subscribe to the Slavic tradition in Russia.

While the origin of the movement is still debatable, there were groupings and authors who had begun to explore Paganism by the 1980s and which were able to become public after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are many versions of modern Slavic native faith and continuous debates are conducted on who has the right to call themselves a representative of this tradition. Despite the differences, some common features can still be found. The ritual calendar is based on folkloric tradition with such celebrations as the midsummer festival, Kupala, and the winter solstice, Kolyada. In addition, some main deities, such as Perun, Veles and Mokosh, have their own days of celebration. The festivals usually take place in nature, in front of deity statues and around fire. The festivals are usually organised by the communities or umbrella-communities, of which there are a couple. Naturally, there are also solitary practitioners who do not participate in the communal festivals.

As in many other Pagan religions, there are debates both about what we can know about the pre-Christian tradition and how faithfully it should be followed today. Though the pictures from the festivals of Rodnoverie communities often resemble each other, the ritual practices – like the theology – are continuously developing and negotiated. An interesting feature (that I actually noticed only after starting to study Islam in Russia) is the central role of literature and reading in Rodnoverie. Although it is a relatively small movement,* there is much literature published on the topic. This is perhaps not so surprising, because some studies suggest that people with higher education and students are overrepresented among Russia’s Pagan community. The majority of Rodnovers also live in cities and scholars of the topic agree that there are more men than women in the movement.

*= there are no exact numbers but the estimations I have recently encountered usually suggest at least two hundred thousand people.

[EDW] Did you have a pre-existing interest in modern Paganism prior to embarking on your research with Russian Rodnover communities in 2004? What was it that sparked your interest in the topic and led you to conduct PhD research on it?

[KA] Back in the late 1990s, when I was thinking about a topic for my masters’ thesis, I found a newspaper article about Wicca, which it described as a feminist women’s religion. This intrigued me and I eventually based my thesis work on interviews with Finnish Wiccans. I became so fascinated with the topic that I decided to continue studying it in my doctoral thesis, although this time in Russia. The country was somewhat familiar to me, and I had already learned the Russian language at school. I was aware that there were Wiccans in Russia but there were hardly any references or publications on the topic.

I started my research through esoteric bookstores and stalls as well as inquiring if my Russian colleagues knew any Wiccan groups in Russia. Every way I turned there were hardly any signs of Wicca and questions about the topic usually led to ethnic Slavic Paganism. To be honest, I was initially a bit reluctant to change the topic of my research because it was the feminist aspect of Wicca that had appealed to me. In contrast, contemporary Slavic Paganism seemed emphatically patriarchal and conservative. Moreover, infrequently it was linked to intolerant nationalism. In many respects, this ethnic Paganism with its emphasis on warrior spirit and admiration of masculinity seemed to represent an opposite to the kind of feminist spirituality that had originally drawn me to Paganism.  However, gradually I became captivated by Slavic Paganism. First, I have always loved Russian culture and folklore so, of course, being able to gain a new perspective on it was fascinating. Secondly, it was intriguing to notice that Rodnoverie contained many similar features to the forms of Paganism I had encountered previously and which had initially drawn me to it: the emphasis on independent thinking and individual freedom, a connection to nature, the central role of aesthetics and play in religious practice.

[EDW] In your book, you describe encounters with Rodnovers who adhere to far-right political ideologies, a topic that you have written about elsewhere, as in your chapter for the recent Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Religion. Barring a few exceptions (most notably Mattias Gardell), such ideologies have tended to be avoided by a great deal of scholarly research on modern Paganism, at least in Western Europe and North America, but how significant do you think that they are for our understanding of modern Paganism as a global phenomenon?

[KA] While far-right and racist Pagans probably form a minority, and in some countries just a small fraction, of the Pagan scene, omitting these kinds of groups from the analysis of the global phenomenon would lead to both a biased portrayal and a partial understanding of it. The reasons why topics such as racism and nationalism are understudied in Western studies of Paganism are of course understandable. People often prefer to study things that they find fascinating and which they want others to know about too. This was indeed also my motive in choosing Wicca as the topic of my master’s thesis. Another probable reason is that there are still many prejudices regarding modern Paganism and that therefore many scholars feel it is their responsibility to evaporate rather than increase these. Having said that, the situation was almost the opposite in the Russian study of Paganism, especially in the 2000s; there, the majority of studies focused solely on ultra-nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism in Slavic Paganism. Admittedly, addressing these topics is important, especially considering what a huge problem racism is in Russian society. However, some studies also seemed to set out to demonstrate that there is not and cannot be reconstructionist Paganism without nationalist exclusions.

This kind of approach is anchored to the common misconception of religions as something that can be demarcated and revealed in some “pure” or “original” form. In reality, religions evolve, change and have countless interpretations. Christianity, for instance, can motivate both Crusades against “infidels” but also selfless acts of compassion. In a similar vein, Paganism can be understood and presented in several, even conflicting ways. In general, the attempts to find borders around particular religions often limit our understandings of them and exclude some aspect. A prominent example of this are the claims that some unpleasant phenomena are just misuse of religion for political purposes. I understand the desire to vindicate religions and their innocent adherents, but such an approach seems intellectually dishonest. It is true that some far-right groups use Pagan symbols and rhetoric very superficially, but none the less that is one of the manifestations of Paganism in our times. An interesting question is why one religious tradition, or the idea of it, gets translated differently in different contexts and by different actors.

[EDW] What has the response to your work been, both from Russian Rodnovers and other Pagans themselves, and from academics working on these subjects?

[KA] To be honest, I think I have been in a privileged situation because, as I mentioned before, so much of the early research on Russian Paganism took such a negative attitude toward it. Therefore, I have got the impression that many have valued my research as more neutral or objective. Of course, I have also received feedback regarding some mistakes or what someone has considered as misinterpretation, and I have valued this too.

In recent decades, the study of Paganism has diversified much and there are interesting studies on such varied topics as Pagan food culture or biographies of certain central thinkers. Although I am not very active in studying Paganism in Russia anymore, I have kept in contact with some of my colleagues and friends in that field. The situation in the study of minority and especially newer religions in Russia is quite delicate at the moment. For example, some prominent scholars have lost their jobs after publicly opposing the labelling of certain religions or groups as extremists (a label which, in Russia, results in them being banned). Despite this pressure, I greatly admire my Russian colleagues who have continued to write balanced analyses of contemporary Paganism. 

[EDW] With Scott Simpson, you also put together an important edited volume on Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, which came out in 2013. How did this project come about and where do you think the study of modern Paganism in Central and Eastern Europe stands at the moment? Do you think that there is sufficient interaction between those working on Pagan religion in these regions and those working on it in Western Europe and North America?

[KA] The idea for that book came from James R. Lewis and when I started to look for possible contributors, I met Scott Simpson online. Back then, there were usually one or two scholars of Paganism in Central and East European countries and it was wonderful to be a part of the process when the networks between scholars began to emerge. In ten years, the study of Paganism in Central and Eastern Europe has advanced in “leaps and bounds”. There are more scholars and active networks. The basic idea of our book was to outline the history and the current situation of Paganisms in different countries. However, now this field of inquiry has moved on from just offering descriptions of different geographical areas into focusing on different aspects of Paganism and using different case studies to participate in larger debates, whether it is, for example, politics and Paganism or the debates about indigenous traditions. There is also much more contact and dialogue between Eastern European and Anglophone scholars of the topic, although of course there could always be more international collaboration.

[EDW] Have you explored much of the Pagan scene in Finland? What does that look like?

[KA] I have not actively followed the Finnish Pagan community since the 1990s. I thus have a very partial knowledge of it and am hesitant to say anything general. In the 1990s, Wicca had a very central role in the emergence of the new Pagan networks in Finland. Back then, some of the main discussions addressed such issues as the division between eclectic and traditional Wicca or whether philosophical Satanism can be counted as a part of Paganism. Reconstructionist groups drawing on local traditions were rather few and for many the idea of ethnic Finnish Paganism was associated with certain earlier, marginal far-right groupings. Since the early 2000s, the interest in pre-Christian traditions in Finland has grown. In 2014, the first modern Pagan group to successfully gain formal registration as a religious organization was Karhun Kansa (the People of the Bear), which follows the Finnish pre-Christian tradition.

[EDW] Your work has since moved on to look at the presence of Islam in Russia. How is that progressing and what outputs can we expect? Do you see interesting parallels, or very distinct differences, between the place of Islam and Rodnoverie in contemporary Russia?

[KA] My study of Islam in Russia has turned into more of a mosaic or quilt patch than a coherent research project. When I started to work on this topic I focused on the “obvious” cases of Islamic organizations and mosques. However, it soon turned out that Islam as a lived religion cannot be captured by interviewing the muftis of established organizations and reading the literature, published by the Muftiates or publishing houses, which are connected to them. This is of course the case regarding virtually all religions, but I would argue that this is especially pertinent regarding the Muslim community in Russia. In line with the political authoritarianization, there is a pressure to channel all Islamic religiosity to the hierarchical, state sanctioned Muftiates. At the same time, migration has rapidly diversified the Muslim community in big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even though many local Muftiates make efforts to reach the new migrant community, they still often seem to represent a completely different world and are occasionally criticised for not always understanding the life or even the religious traditions of the migrants.

Although I had conducted some interviews with the representatives of migrant Muslim religious communities, I realised that I had very little understanding of how Islam configures in the everyday life of Muslims. Therefore, I was very happy to be invited to take part in the project “Migration, Shadow Economy and Parallel Legal Orders in Russia” that was conducted between 2016 and 2019. Religion was not the focus of the project, but in our interviews with Central Asian migrants living in Moscow we also included questions about religiosity. I am definitely not an expert on Islam among Central Asian migrants in Russia, but this fieldwork offered me a new perspective on Islamic religiosity in the European part of the country. I am at the moment in the process of writing an article on the basis of my fieldwork, but I think that in future, I will focus more on the publicly available material on Islam while also using the insights I have gained. A fascinating topic is, for example, how the established Muftiates and mosques seek to integrate migrants into their community and how they perceive them.

The reason why I have decided to relinquish or at least minimise the role of fieldwork and interviews is the precarious situation of Islamic actors or Muslims in general, especially of migrant background, in contemporary Russia. For example, although in our interviews in Moscow we asked about such sensitive topics as corruption and harassment by the police, often the questions that scared the respondents most were whether they attended mosques often and whether religious networks provided them support in their everyday life. This can be explained by the fact that under the auspices of its anti-terrorist policies the government has implemented ruthless repression of religious activists. However, I had already noticed that even some Russian representatives of the established organizations preferred to repeat the official rhetoric about the respected position of Islam in Russia rather than address certain challenges faced by the community. Therefore, I concluded that the ethical challenges of ensuring that no harm or discomfort would be caused to the people who are being studied might prove too demanding. Getting proper access to migrant communities is not impossible for an outsider and I have some brilliant Russian colleagues who have produced fascinating ethnographic studies among these groups in recent years. However, that would require much time on site and unfortunately, I do not have the opportunity for that at the moment.

In many respect, Islam and contemporary Paganism are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Paganism is connected to Russian nationalism and in this way to the “majority,” while Islam is increasingly often the target of nationalist rhetoric and Muslims are associated with negative portrayals of migrants. At the same time, Islam is one of the four so-called “traditional religions” in Russia, the representatives of which regularly appear in stately events and have meetings with the President, while Paganism can be argued to belong to the group of new religious movements, which are still often labelled sects. In their own ways, both religions are thus infrequently associated with social problems and consequently are in a precarious position. The similarities and differences in the challenges these two religions face and the way they respond to them certainly seem to beg for a closer look. In fact, just before the Coronavirus pandemic I participated in a conference panel in which we analysed the use of expertise in those cases where religious minorities like Muslims and Pagans have been persecuted for extremism. The misuse of anti-extremist laws is a very topical issue in Russia and I would like to address that in future too.

[EDW] Dr Aitamurto, thank you so much for this fascinating insight into your work. I wish you the very best in your future research.