Paganism: a 21st century evaluation

By David Sutch

Pic by Beth Forster

How many Pagans does it take to change a light bulb? None: because Pagans don’t need light bulbs…or do they? 

How does the age old practice of Paganism translate into 21st Century Western culture? Is modern culture conducive to traditional Pagan beliefs and practices? Are we just overlaying Paganism with 21st Century values and attitudes to fit in with our 21st Century preconceptions? Has Paganism become a hybrid, rooted onto old stock in order to make it culturally acceptable?

There are probably many answers to these questions, but it is always good to question our motivations and to evaluate the impact the 21st Century is having on us as Pagans. The world we live in now is totally different from the worlds of our forebears, so change is inevitable as modern culture impacts on ancient belief.

It makes sense to begin with a simple definition of Paganism. At its root lies an undeniable awe of nature, its sheer energy and the dependency of humans upon on its fruits as the means to life. In the past, nature had the power to determine who lived and who died and consequently would have inspired even greater reverence. Paganism was necessarily organic in that human beings could not detach themselves from its impact and were ultimately dependent on nature for every aspect of their existence.

Compare our own dependency with that of our forebears. It can be reasonably argued that nature now has little impact on our lifestyles. We live in highly complex environments with the means for life piped and wired into our dwellings. Food is provided 24 hours per day in a supply only limited by the number of coins in our pockets. Dark nights are lit by an abundance of sodium and neon and our every need is provided by the consumer society of which we are an inevitable part; a far cry indeed from the worlds of our ancestors.

If we choose now to be Pagan, as we are no longer dependent on nature for our existence: why do we make that choice? Is it because we:

•    Lament the loss of a once-enchanted world that has been overlaid by the soulless practices of modern existence.

•    Have seen through the illusion of the material world and its emphasis on ‘having’ as opposed to ‘being’.

•    Seek different lifestyles away from the imposed norm of working long hours to afford material possessions we don’t actually need.

•    Choose to reconnect with nature and its energies towards a lifestyle which is meaningful rather than prescribed.

•    Are reacting to the wastefulness of modern society and its overuse of finite resources.

•    Value a reconnection with ‘life beyond the national grid’, towards developing sustainable lifestyles.

•    Recognise the need to develop communities of like-minded people to allow the regeneration of individual lifestyles which are both supported and productive.

•    Need to reconnect with our creative selves in order to relearn the skills we have lost to the state, with its relentless drive for control.

The point is we have a choice

We may agree, or disagree, with any or all of these reasons. We may seek to add more, or disregard them altogether. The choice is entirely personal but the point is: we can choose. Our distant ancestors lived their lives in the way they did because their goal was survival. It was not a choice but a need. In 21st Century western cultures, that need has largely been eradicated, replaced by choice, but the choices we tend to focus on are rather trivial and most likely, consumer-led. Shall I have the bread with the poppy seeds or the plain wholemeal tin? Am I prepared to pay for the pole and line caught tuna or shall I just go for the ordinary? Decisions, decisions!

However, we also live in a society where our choices are limited. We cannot just choose to go and live in a shack in the woods; there are planning laws against that. We cannot choose to work fewer hours, because we have so many things we need to pay for. We cannot choose to live outside the system and do our own thing because we no longer have the skills required to look after ourselves in any meaningful way. We do have choices, but only within a context and that context is the consumer society in which we live.

It’s a double-bind. We have choice, but the choice of living a distinctive Pagan lifestyle is often denied in order to reinforce the social value of conformity. You will conform; we have laws to make sure you conform and a range of social control measures to enforce those standards. However, this is the 21st Century, which is also the age of technological revolution and the age of instant communication. Deviant Pagan communities are not the aim here, but we actually can work towards the goal of Pagan communities supportive enough to resist the ravages of a society hell-bent on self destruction.

How fast can natural resources be used up in the pursuit of relentless profit? How much rubbish can we produce before we’re buried in our own waste?  What is the future for our children and our children’s children? Something needs to be done, but it won’t happen from the top down, it needs to work from the bottom up.

If we value nature and our part in it, we need to look to our own lifestyles and how they relate to the consumer ideal. We need to seriously challenge our own values and our part in the cycle of the perpetuation of a system which is now rotten to the core with its emphasis on overuse to fuel ever-increasing profit. The ‘health of the economy’ is a constant mantra, what about the health of the Earth and the people who populate it?

As Pagans, we already have a sense of identity and belonging: the rest isn’t rocket science. Work in any way you can to reduce your dependency on consumer culture. Take an active role in not encouraging waste. Break out of the cycle of want and learn to create for your own needs. If you can’t create for all of your needs, learn to share with others who can and develop a system of moneyless exchange. Reduce your needs to a minimum and rejoice in the fact you will be gaining greater control over your life. Take pleasure in how little you spend rather than how much. Above all, work on your connection with nature and re-enchant your inner world with the simplicity of union. The importance of this approach however, is not in isolation. The joy will be in community and the friendships and benefits it offers.

This may all sound rather prescriptive, but it will only ever be down to individual choice. We can choose to perpetuate a culture founded on excess and gross inequality, or we can work from the bottom up and do something positive. Never before have we been better placed to develop alternatives and there are many beyond those itemised above; we are 21st Century Pagans after all, and we are online. Technology has afforded us a loophole. Set up local and national groups using services such as Facebook and Meetup. This is easily done and the more people become involved the more ideas will come to the fore. We have the technology: use it wisely, before the social controls begin to creep in.

David Sutch is the founder of the Anam Cara School of Natural Magic and author of Natural Magic: A Guide for the 21st Century Practitioner. He lives on a narrowboat in the Midlands and runs workshops on tarot,  herbalism, natal astrology and practical techniques of Natural Magic as well as the all important Foundation Course for the Anam Cara School. More information can be found at