Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.
— Monique Wittig, quoted by Margot Adler
Neo-Paganism has its roots in the Wiccan “revival” of witchcraft in post-war England. Wicca’s founder, Gerald Gardner, and subsequent Wiccan leaders, like Alex Sanders and Robert Cochran, claimed to have been recipients of an ancient tradition of witchcraft which was passed down, largely intact, over centuries. However, the perceived legitimacy of these claims has diminished over the decades since. The debunking of these claims was already well under way in the late 1970s and continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Today, most Neo-Pagans acknowledge that Gerald Gardner and those who followed him invented Wicca by drawing on the sources available to them, including speculative writings on witchcraft by Margaret Murray and Charles Leland, esoteric rituals from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the writings of Aleister Crowley.
The real origin of Neo-Paganism, however, can be found not in occult societies of England, but in the American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Neo-Paganism may be said to have coalesced in 1967, with the organization of three deliberately constructed religions: Frederick Adam’s Feraferia, Oberon Zell’s Church of all Worlds (CAW), and Aidan Kelly’s New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn (NROOGD). Rather than claiming authority by virtue of appeals to the past or claims of revelation, the founders of these religions claimed legitimacy by virtue of the efficacy of the techniques they offered for achieving connection with nature, religious ecstasy, and psychological integration. What all of these Neo-Pagan founders had in common is that they invented their respective religions consciously, deliberately, and more or less transparently. These writers drew on sources available them, including British Traditional Wicca, but also studies of classical religions, anthropology, psychology, and even science fiction — the Church of All Worlds is named after a church in Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.
This is not to say that the founders of Neo-Paganism were not inspired … whether it be by God, the Goddess, the Collective Unconscious, or artistic genius. In fact, all of the individuals named above had visionary experiences which helped to define the religions they created. For example, Frederick Adams had a visionary experience of the “Mysterious Feminine” in 1956 while reading Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return, after which he founded the Fellowship of Hesperides, which evolved into Feraferia. And, in 1970, Tim Zell had a visionary experience which led to his theory of “Theagenisis”, which anticipated James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis. Being an invented religion does not mean that Neo-Paganism is not inspired; rather, it means that Neo-Pagans acknowledge that these founders drew from their environment and their own experiences to create a coherent religious system, rather than having the religion revealed to them as a complete package.
In 1872, William Ingham wrote in his “Lectures on the evidences of natural and revealed religion”: “An invented religion may serve the purposes of a philosopher; but dying men and women call for a revelation and a ‘living God’”. Ingham was writing from the perspective of a believer in revealed religion. But for many Neo-Pagans, it is the so-called “revealed religions” that fail to communicate the presence of the “living God” (or living gods). Many Neo-Pagans experience traditional institutionalized religions as ossified dry canals. For them, the living spirit of divinity is better communicated through ritual forms that are consciously constructed with the spiritual and emotional needs of contemporary people in mind.
In Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith, Carole Cusack analyzes several invented religions, including the Church of All Worlds. She writes:
“The notion of ‘invented religions’ is deeply provocative, in that it contradicts the traditional understanding of religion as a phenomenon that traces its origins to divine revelation (as in the case with Judaism, Christianity and Islam), or with divine origins so far in the past that individual founders are unknown but venerability is assured (as in the case with Hinduism), and asserts that teachings that are not only new but are admitted to be the product of the human imagination deserve that most lofty of designations, ‘religion’.”
Cusack goes on to state that those religions that announce their invented status
“are openly defying the web of conventions that surround the establishment of new religions, which include linking the new teachings to an existing religious tradition, arguing that the teaching is not really ‘new’ but rather a contemporary statement of a strand of ancient wisdom, and establishing new scriptures as authoritative through elaborate claims of external origin, including translation, channelling and chronicling of visions. Invented religions refuse such strategies of legitimation.”
Wicca began as one such religion which claimed to be a continuation of “a strand of ancient wisdom” and was based on new scriptures (the Book of Shadows) which claimed authority by virtue of its antiquity. In contrast, Neo-Paganism has no scripture, per se. It is sometimes said that, if Christians and Jews are the “People of the Book”, Neo-Pagans are the “People of the Books”. Neo-Pagans may draw on ancient pagan writings, but they give equal importance to modern writing and to their own creative writing. The invented nature of Neo-Paganism means that Neo-Pagans are less likely to be caught in the trap trying to legitimize their spirituality by historical claims which may be undermined by modern historical scholarship. It is no coincidence that many Neo-Pagans were raised in religions which based their claims to legitimacy on appeals to the past. For many such people, these claims proved to be unfounded, and so they were drawn to another form of religiosity that was based more on personal experience than historical claims.
Admittedly, there is plenty of nostalgia for the past in Neo-Paganism. Many Neo-Pagans still believe that there was a time, i.e., before the advent of Christianity, when people lived more in harmony with nature. The most glaring example of this is the myth of prehistoric matriarchy, which has been criticized by many scholars. Another is the belief in a universal “Old Religion” which survived into modern times. However, according to Margot Adler, Neo-Pagans were coming to be recognized as more of a spiritual truth than a historical reality as early as 1979. Yet another example is the still persistent myth that agricultural peoples in general are more ecologically wise than their urban counterparts. These are the myths of city dwellers, whose nostalgia is for a past that never existed.
The point is not that Neo-Pagans do not have their own unfounded historical claims, but the legitimacy of Neo-Paganism is not dependent on these narratives. Rather Neo-Pagans legitimate their religion by pointing to the fact that “it works”. Paul Chase writes: “Neo-Pagans invent significance to fit their own interpretations and theological needs, claiming that the value of a symbol is not so much its historical reality as its usefulness as a spiritual tool in the present.” Neo-Pagans adopt the pragmatic attitude that people should believe and do whatever works for them, i.e., whatever helps them to live wisely and well.
Melissa Raphael explains:
“In finding a myth of the Goddess to live by, there is only one criterion in such a choice: does it work for you? … The rule of the Goddess is that there is no rule and that therefore the only authority on which Goddess religion is based is derived from confidence in one’s own experience. … The Goddess is not an object of faith but of immediate, self-authenticating experience.”
Neo-Pagans follow the injunction of Harold Laski in “The Dangers of Obedience”: “to accept nothing which contradicts our basic experience merely because it comes to us from tradition or convention or authority.” According to Laski, “the condition of freedom … is always a widespread and consistent skepticism of the canons upon which power insists.” Neo-Pagans hold true to this principle by constantly questioning their own beliefs and their own institutions. In fact, the impermanency of Neo-Pagan institutions is likely a function of this commitment to prioritizing experience over history.
The invented nature of Neo-Paganism has another consequence for its practitioners. Because Neo-Pagans acknowledge that the founders of their traditions invented their traditions, individual Neo-Pagans themselves feel free to add to or redact from the tradition as they feel appropriate. In fact, the term “tradition” is something of a misnomer when applied to Neo-Paganism, because Neo-Pagan beliefs, practices, and rituals are in a constant state of evolution through individual improvisation.