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Modern Pagans Excerpts and Reviews

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Continuing a 25-year publishing tradition of ‘cultural remapping’ … V. Vale offers us a spiritual solution with Modern Pagans. Paganism, in which the body and the Earth are admired and death is intrinsic, is thought to be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world . . . Vale has captured [it] with evenhanded, gracious keenness within the context of interviews with 50 practitioners of neo-ancient traditions.”

–San Francisco Weekly

This book does a wonderful job of capturing the contemporary Pagan movement in the voices of its own members, drawn out in skillful interviews…Check out the cool photos, too…Highly recommended.”

–Pan Gaia

Modern Pagans…is frighteningly fascinating. This is not your Harry Potter-Hagrid-Hollywood-Steven Spielberg-sugar-coated version of witchcraft, this is a warts’n’all look at the world’s fastest growing ‘religion.’ …212 pages of eye-opening, sometimes mouth dropping interviews and photographs. Wickedly good stuff.”

–Stillwater Gazette

This book is a compilation of about 50 interviews with exponents of modern day paganism, mainly drawn from the US and Canada, with some British contributors as well.

The people interviewed are a very interesting collection, and the book covers a wide range of pagan practices from witchcraft, Northern tradition, santeria, shamanism, Druids, Goddess worshippers and more. Please note that this book does not cover santanism/devil worship as that is considered to be an offshoot of Christianity and nothing to do with us, guv’nor. Honest. The interviewees are also a heterogeneous bunch and the book covers important topics such as child-raising, living arrangements, sexuality (lots of that!), music, and bereavement as well as the more “spiritual” side of paganism.

For those familiar with some of the New Age types who came from radical backgrounds but who dropped out once they got their gurus, this book is a refreshing change. The political engagement here is widespread. These people are in the thick of things, including anti-nuclear action, sexual politics (and do read up on the Radical Faeries–they make the old GLF look very tame!), anti-capitalist / anti-globalist activism, environmental action and so forth.

Unsurprisingly, given the emphasis on taking personal responsibility for one’s life, many of the people in this book are upfront anarchists. And their sense of commitment in terms of living their beliefs puts many more traditional anarchists to shame.

Now, as an atheist who remains unconvinced of the literal existence of any supernatural forces, I find this book presents something of a challenge. Admittedly, there is a recognition by many of the people that paganism has a spectrum of opinion on such things–from those who really believe that the ancient gods and goddesses (no patriarchal monotheism here!) exist and that we can communicate in a meaningful way with them, to those who are animist, seeing the divine in the everyday, in rocks, water, animals, and all creation to those who view such creations as simply human ways of visualizing natural forces.This latter anthropomorphic personification of natural forces (do read Terry Prachett–very popular with pagans apparently) seems endemic to religions inasmuch as humans relate best to other humans, and therefore any “supernatural” forces need to be couched, in some way, in some human terms, for us to get a handle on them.

The problem, as I see it, is that some people then treat these human creations as things in themselves (reification) which, given they are related to powers beyond direct human control, come to have power over people. Which gives rise to priests who try and “interpret” the god/s for their own benefit.

Against this, pagans tend (and one has to issue the usual caveat about generalizing here) to emphasize individual responsibility. Starhawk (wonderful woman by all accounts) also differentiates here between “power over,” “power with,” and “power from within” so that one should not seek power over others (or allow others to have power over oneself) but have power collectively and within oneself. Essentially, anarchism boiled down to its roots. But then that’s hardly surprising, given that Starhawk is very politically aware and active (she issued quite a few excellent anti-war missives and musing in the build-up to the war on Iraq). Other activists are also represented including Darryl Cherney, who was bombed with Judi Bari in 1990 whilst the two of them were heavily involved in environmental/labour activism in the US.

So many of the personal stories are empowering and uplifting that it is very tempting to think that maybe there’s something to all this. But from my perspective, the ideology/religion of paganism is merely the binding and veneer which allows these people to live lives less ordinary and to identify and bond with kindred spirits. That said, it’s a relatively benign form of religion which–if you’re into environmental activism, radical politics, good sex and cool TV–could well be just what you’re looking for.

The book comes with several comprehensive bibliographies and filmographies, allowing you to delve deeper into the subject.”

–Richard Alexander, Fortean Times

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