Authenticity and Racism in Contemporary Paganism

This blog entry is an effort to externalize my thinking on a possible relationship between the search for authenticity among contemporary Pagans and the problem of racism in contemporary Paganism. I include under the Pagan banner all people practicing a reconstructed or revitalized polytheistic animism, such as Wiccans, Druids, and Heathens. My own practice is a gnostic, hybridized Druidic Heathenry, and I'm a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, so my perspective and approach are rooted in these spiritual and intellectual traditions.

To begin, I want to problematize authenticity via the work of Regina Bendix, whose book In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies has influenced my thinking. She writes that:

The notion of authenticity implies the existence of its opposite, the fake, and this dichotomous construct is at the heart of what makes authenticity problematic. In religious discourse, identifying something as essential to a particular faith “serves to exclude other concepts, practices, even entire branches of [this religion] as inessential or even illegitimate” (J. Cohen 1988:136). Similarly, identifying some cultural expressions or artifacts as authentic, genuine, trustworthy, or legitimate simultaneously implies that other manifestations are fake, spurious, and even illegitimate. Disciplinary practice has “nostalgize[d] the homogeneous” (Kapchan 1993:307) and decried “bastard traditions,” thus continually upholding the fallacy that cultural purity rather than hybridity are the norm. It is no wonder, then, that the idea of cultural authenticity has become such convenient fodder for supporting some positions in the political debates on race, ethnicity, gender, and multiculturalism" (Bendix 1997, introduction).

Here Bendix specifically addresses the problem of the authentic in a religious context, and much of what she argues may be applied to Paganism's recovery of archaeological, historical, and literary evidence of pre-Christian religious belief so that it might be applied to contemporary religious practice. Some would call this recovery reconstructionism, but since I know this term has a specific denominational meaning among us, I'll avoid it here. Rather, I'll refer it to it as the backward gaze of Paganism. As a practicing Pagan, this backward gaze makes a great deal of sense to me. After all, humanity has a history of animistic polytheism, but much of what we know about it is fragmented. Recovering what we can helps us learn about the ways our religious forbears practiced, which helps us learn how to practice as well.

However, this approach also presents several problems. First and foremost, a backward gaze encourages us to privilege recovered information over gnosis. This can and often does create an environment where greater authority in Pagan religious discourse is granted to people who have mastered knowledge of various texts, where gnostic religious understanding is sidelined, and where Pagan beliefs and practices most closely associated with recovered information bear the stamp of authenticity. Second, it can be useful to remember that even the archaeological record is not a statement of fact about past events. Rather, it is a collection of physical artifacts interpreted by researchers. Historical and literary records are even farther removed from the events that gave rise to them, since these are often written by people in positions of socioeconomic or political security and not by everyday people who lived through the events described in histories or told the stories recorded as literature. So before the Pagan community ever engages with these sources of information, they have weathered a process of narrativization. After this engagement, these sources are further narrativized to suit the various interpretations of Pagans. In short, the backward gaze of Paganism encourages us to value second-hand and third-hand narratives about religous belief and practice over the lived experiences of our fellow community members.

This creates further problems for the Pagan community. First, it causes some Pagans to uncritically adopt pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices simply because they have archaeological, historical, or literary precendent. Second, it discourages the adaptation of recovered information into new religious beliefs and practices which may be more relevant to contemporary practitioners. Third, it occasionally grants authenticity and authority to recovered information by virtue of its perceived historicity and not its merit, which is why Max Müller's widely debunked writing on Aryanism receives the same treatment as the Heimskringla in some circles.

This is where my concern about racist Paganism emerges. In an environment where the text is privileged as the authentic and authoritative source of religious knowledge, newcomers have to cultivate an understanding of scholarship in a few fairly specialized areas before they feel a sense of belonging in their religious communities. This is hard to do in a world where we all have different competencies, and I would argue that three vectors for the adoption of racist ideologies emerge in such an environment. First, many newcomers don't know the difference between a helpful text and a problematic one, so they're left to read whatever they find and try to make sense of it. Second, when newcomers demonstrate an imperfect understanding of what they've read and meet with hostility, they become vulnerable to recruitment by racist Pagans who only require that they be white and believe in the Gods. Third, the notion of belonging itself is fraught in postmodern society, which entices many people to Paganism in the first place. Belief in a source of ancestral wisdom can be intoxicating to people unsure of their national, social, or spiritual footing, so it can be comforting to conflate animistic polytheism with romantic ideas about identity, and this can lead to ethnonationalist sentiments.

In his 2006 essay Fear of Small Numbers, Arjun Appadurai writes that while the lines between "us" and "them" have always been porous at national and cultural boundaries, globalization foments uncertainty about the identities and value systems presumed to be held in common among members of social groups. One response to this can be found in the fear expressed by majority populations of their minority counterparts, which can result in violent efforts to re-establish a sense of national or cultural purity (Appadurai 2006, chap. 1). As inclusive Pagans, we've watched this process unfold with increasing horror as concepts and symbols associated with our emerging religious traditions are utilized in the service of this violence around the world; in the use of Valhalla mythology by Brenton Harrison Tarrant before he murdered fifty Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, in the use of the Othila rune by white supremacists during the Charlottesville riot, and elsewhere. We are learning, as Christians have before us, that people who share our concepts and symbols do not always share our ideals. This has prompted various online organizations and bloggers to do the very work Appadurai discusses; separating "us," the inclusive Pagan community from "them," the racist Pagans. This boundary-setting work is necessary in the present situation, but it only addresses part of a complex problem. Another part may be found in the kinds of knowledge we value and the ways we relate to one another.

Ultimately, I would argue that Paganism's backward gaze privileges recovered information over lived experience, inhibits necessary religious innovation, and encourages identification with an idealized, narrativized past. By themselves these are issues worth addressing, but together they create an environment where racism can take root. We combat this by recognizing both the worth and the narrative weaknesses of recovered information and by valuing both the gnostic religious experiences and innovative religious practices of our community members. (This also has the added benefit of mitigating the "you're not a real Pagan because you don't know the lore" conversations, which can only be a blessing.) Will this result in fewer Pagan racists? Maybe. Shifting our focus to include gnosis and innovation permits flexibility in our traditions, and flexibility is the enemy of rigidity. It also opens the door to new ideas about animistic polytheism, which we need.


  • Appadurai, Arjun. 2006. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Bendix, Regina. 1997. In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.