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«Abstract In the age of the internet, the types of place and group bounded fixtures that traditionally supported religious systems are changing. ...»

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Pagan religiousness as ‘networked individualism’

Angela Coco


In the age of the internet, the types of place and group bounded fixtures that

traditionally supported religious systems are changing. Questions are raised

as to how Pagans, whose spirituality is formed from personal experience,

may be able develop and/or access shared values and a sense of belonging.

‘Networked individualism’ refers to the notion that information and

communication technologies (ICTs) facilitate a new form of relationship between the individual and community in which a ‘communications hybrid’ between online and offline places is enacted. Ties to community have shifted from linking people in a particular geographic locale to linking people in any place thus enabling individuals to construct personal communities that supply needs for information, identity, a sense of belonging and emotional support.

Described as metaphysical seekers in the religious marketplace, Pagans express their spirituality in group or in solitary (individual) practices both of which are understood as subject positions available for the spiritual journey.

Further, Pagans access a wide variety of structured and semi-structured Pagan events ranging from social gatherings to public rituals, study groups, covens with well-defined procedures and roles, and festivals. These events, together with Pagan online discussion lists and social networking sites, provide opportunities to participate in ‘communities of practice’ that facilitate an overall sense of Pagan identity and belonging. Patterns of networked sociability evident in 21st century society generally support the highly individualised and syncretistic nature of Pagan spirituality. This paper traces and illustrates the dimensions of Pagan networking and suggests that Pagan religiousness/spirituality could be characterised as networked individualism.

Key Words: Networked individualism, Pagan, information and communication technologies, community.


1. Introduction Pagan religiousness as “networked individualism” ______________________________________________________________

Information and communication technologies (ICTs), consumerism and the role of media in cultural construction are key factors influencing the post-modern condition.1 These social forces enable access to a variety of worldviews and the coordination of social engagements across times and spaces previously inaccessible.2 Syncretism, self-development and the negotiation of a mediated community are typical features of the Pagan environment3 supported in both online and offline spaces.4 Pagans perform religiously both as solitaries (practicing ritual alone) and in groups.5 York describes Pagan social structure as a ‘Segmented Polycentric Integrated Network’.6 The Pagan network is a web of interactive nodes in online and offline places as well as individuals’ and groups’ meaning making activity in creating, linking and moving between those nodes. Such social changes have been accompanied by calls for a new mapping of the religious terrain.7 As religions move online, questions are raised as to how new forms of interaction between individual and dispersed believers may affect religion’s traditional role as a source of social cohesion.8 These concerns echo broader debates as to whether ICTs dis-embed individuals from shared cultural values or whether they have the potential to foster new forms of belonging and community structures.9 Evidence suggests that religions have led the way in developing innovative communicative practices using ICTs. 10 Unlike many religions influenced by established traditions, Paganism, a global small-group movement apparently originating from Gardner’s first publication in 1951,11 has emerged in the late/post-modern milieu and integrated new forms of ICTs as they have become available for the everyday user. According to Castells, the nature of social re-construction in the ICT enhanced era takes the form of networked individualism, a type of sociability in which there is appearing an altered relationship between individuals and community.12 This paper describes and illustrates structure in the Pagan movement and suggests that Pagan religiousness can be understood as networked individualism

2. Pagan social re-construction and ICTs The Pagan movement is considered to be part of the wider holistic milieu which fosters the ‘sacralisation of life’, a full individually created ‘subjective-life spirituality’. This subjective-life spirituality is supported by ‘secondary institutions’ in such industries as healing and alternative therapies.13 Parallel to these enterprises, Pagans establish ritual and study groups and regular events that are designed specifically to advance the movement. 14 Social change precipitates altered dynamics between individualising and communalising tendencies.15 Individualism refers to a person’s construction of meaning through their personal projects, while communalism Angela Coco 3 ______________________________________________________________

involves the creation of relatively small collective groups that develop a meaningful set of values, internalised by group members, and which inform their practices. Pagans’ individualism is developed in close connection with lived experience; their management of self ‘in relation’ to others.16 A change in priorities is evident in younger people’s and teen witches’ concerns with the values of caring and family life, and older people are prioritising health. 17 Supporting this emergent shift in values, there is a range of moots, groups and regular festivals in which fostering community is a high priority.18 Movements that use the internet as an instrument of social reconstruction may employ a different values logic from that underpinning late industrial society and challenge patriarchal hegemony and traditional administration models.19 The communal configuration of Paganism is comprised of virtual and face-to-face groups and networks, an example of what Wellman refers to as a new ‘communications hybrid’ between physical place and cyberspace.20 In geographically circumscribed locations, Pagans develop communities of practice; affinity groups in which diverse groups and individuals share in the goals of meeting each other and fostering community.

Both groups and solitaries, come together throughout the year for large festival occasions, coven rituals and study groups, and informal meet and greet and information sharing moots such as Pagans in the Park (PiTPark) and Pagans in the Pub (PiTP). Complementing these activities may be other ad hoc events, and regular events like the Pagan Ball held each year. These offline events are supported by an array of online communications places and networks involving email lists and discussion lists, Facebook, MySpace and web pages.

Pagans accommodate consumerism and the new media as a means of attracting new people to the craft.22 Two distinct types of festivals have emerged in Australia; those that are frequented by Pagans and serious acolytes and those that assume the character of markets where the general public wanders and purchases. The former, for example the Pagan Summer Gathering (PSG), are similar in profile to the festivals described by Foltz.23 They usually follow a seasonal theme in which further immersion in the craft and participation in rituals and workshops is paramount. Retail outlets, if present, are low-key and attract only a small portion of attendee’s interactions and attention. In markets however, there is a predominance of Pagan-run stalls from which the general public may purchase Pagan artifacts. Rituals and talks aimed at providing information to the un-initiated are usually conducted throughout the event but the majority of interactions involve consumption practices.

Pagan ritual groups may develop very different traditions and practices from each other, and none of these might match the practice of a solitary. Covens formulate their own structures, some following a strict hierarchical format and initiation process as laid down in the Alexandrian, Pagan religiousness as “networked individualism” ______________________________________________________________

Gardenarian or other traditions. Others loosely following the ritual structure published in works like those of Starhawk, Cunningham or Buckland and often establishing a flatter deliberative organisational structure. Study groups and public rituals enable people to gain reliable information about the craft.

They are often run by existing covens that periodically advertise open or public rituals to which the broader Pagan community is invited. Trusted individuals in the community may also provide ad hoc rituals and study groups.

PiTPark and PiTPub are the most loosely structured and regular events providing social and informal ways to meet Pagans. PiTP is an occasion to socialise with other Pagans over lunch and a non-threatening way to welcome new people. PiTPub, usually held in the evening, has some structure in that at a certain point in the evening when all have settled in with drinks and food, a dedicated Pagan gives some input on a Pagan topic of their choice and this is followed by time for questions and discussion. Of course all of these offline events are also means for networking and finding out about other Pagan activities locally and further afield.

There are then a variety of events and places, designed by Pagans, for communication online and offline which seekers may access as a means of pursuing their personal identity projects. The communications hybrid that is the Pagan movement is not necessarily anchored by regular, dedicated offline places for gatherings, nor is it an extension of a previously existing institutional framework or an instance of the shared interests of a particular offline locality.24 The mobile and changeable nature of gathering times and places is not contained by enduring, dedicated buildings which usually inscribe particular kinds of power relations characteristic of many religious environments. In order to describe the nature of Pagan religiousness as networked individualism, I offer just two examples of group organisation at network nodes (online and offline) and how they are created and connected by individuals’ networking activities.

3. Pagan religiousness as networked individualism Information used in this paper is derived from two stages of ethnographic work completed during 2001-2007 and more recent autoethnographic observations.25 The work was conducted in an area of Australia that I have called Summerland. Summerland is served by an urban centre pseudonomously entitled, Circle. Research methods included 20 interviews in which participants were asked about their networking practices. This number, together with extensive field notes was sufficient to achieve saturation of information. From 2007 onwards, Pagans’ online activities have altered from their dominant reliance on email discussion lists and networks are now Angela Coco 5 ______________________________________________________________

maintained and information shared through social networking sites like Facebook and purpose built email lists started by groups or individuals.26 Networked individualism refers to, ‘the … shifting of work and community ties from linking people-in-places to linking people at any place.

…This shift facilitates personal communities that supply the essentials of community separately to each individual: support, sociability, information, social identities, and a sense of belonging’. 27 There are two movements by which Pagan individuals personalise their communities; firstly by seeking already established gatherings, groups, discussion lists and so on, and secondly, by identifying a collective need and creating a group or event which attracts other individuals. The following excerpts illustrate the ways Pagans talked about their networking activities both as initiators and seekers.

The first example illustrates one way Pagan individuals use glocal connections, and may create local ties and groups where they can gain information, sociability, support and a sense of belonging closer to home.

Laura, who set up the first email discussion list in Circle in 1999, described how she first encountered Witchcraft when she was in America. She spent a lot of time surfing American witchcraft web sites and decided to search for ones at home. When Laura returned to Australia she sought an offline group

as well:

Keep trying, I’ll keep looking. And, I think I told you, didn’t I, that it was [tough] to find a group. And um, but anyway, this guy [Chris] came on [the Australian list] and he said, ‘I’m starting up a group down the [place 1 hour’s drive away] if anyone is interested?’ And then I thought OK. Well that’s too far from me, but maybe if I e-mailed him he might know of some people in [Circle].

So that’s what started the ball rolling and, he did, in fact e-mail me back and gave me a really good run-down of what the scene was like in [Circle]. And what groups to stay away from and which was the good one.

But, he told me about the [Coven] and that was the one I’d been trying to contact. He gave me the name and I rang - it happened to be around January, because that’s when they start to take new people in. Cause they were a training group.

So, he said, ‘yes, we’re having an open night, you’re welcome to come along just to meet us and chit chat’, so that’s what we did. And I still hadn’t started the e-list by this stage but that was slowly coming because I was then going through the mind, unconsciously in a way that... well, if it’s so hard for me how hard is it for Pagan religiousness as “networked individualism” ______________________________________________________________

everyone else? … And how can these other people find groups, and I really wanted to make friends, you know, within the Pagan community.

So….. I thought, OK. I’ll start my own list. Cause that’s what I do, if it’s not out there… Make it…. yourself! I mean I really didn’t think that I would get anyone on the - I mean I had no idea.

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