Armchair Paganism

From my office.

First of all, if you’re a regular reader, let me apologize for the delay in posting.

This was going to be an excellent long-form post about how to be an Ethical Warrior.  After two rewrites, one total revision, and one loss of nearly 8000 words, I’m wondering if the Spirits are trying to tell me something.

So let’s instead talk about something just a little fluffier.  (Not bunnies.)

What is armchair Paganism?

As near as I can tell, armchair Paganism is named after “armchair occultism,” which is a pejorative term for a person who reads a lot of books on magic, but never actually practices the stuff he reads.  (Armchair occultists are stereotypically male.)

I was inspired to write this post by a couple of things.  First, this excellent blog post from Bekah Evie Bel, about taking a step back from ritual practice.  Second, this excellent post from Solaris Moon, about how to be an authentic witch.

Let me say that I totally agree with Moon, in that actions speak louder than words, and it’s your actions that make you Pagan.  So to Bel, I would say that you’re not really an armchair Pagan.  You’re authentic, you have a practice, you’re just stepping back.

It is totally normal to step back and take a break from the Spirit and Unseen world now and again.  In fact, I’d say that’s a healthy thing to do.

But if the most Pagan thing you do is read and like a Pagan meme on Facebook, you should probably take a minute to think about what Paganism means to you.

The “death” of Paganism

There has been a spate of posts lately about the death of Paganism.  That membership is down, people are not showing up, that people are leaving, that organizations and festivals are falling short of sustainability.

Or that Paganism is just fine, thank you very much.

In my local group, we’ve sustained some heavy losses from drama, poaching, and gossip.  Not that losing people is the end of the world – if people want to participate in those behaviors, they are enthusiastically invited to do so in someone else’s group.  People like that don’t make for a healthy community.

But It seems like there are some deeper issues in our local groups, which make it look like Paganism is on the decline.  Some of those simply come down to:

  • People don’t know how to be Pagan
  • People don’t want it bad enough
  • It’s enough to feel Pagan, if you’ve got the gear and the right Facebook photo

Now, I don’t think Paganism is dead.  It’s a young path, and it’s evolving.  Folks are calling upon and building practices around ancient spirits and deities.  New spirits and deities are being discovered.  People are figuring out the best and most effective practices, or at least sorting out the good stuff from the bullshit.

Plus, there’s a lot of fragmentation.  The Norse-based traditions (Asatru, Heathenry) are developing robust communities.  So are Celtic, Hellenic, and Wiccan groups.  And if some of the secret occult groups I participate in on the Internet are any indication, there are hundreds of people around the world for any given mode of practice.  To paraphrase Gordon White, the coven model is no longer the only way to get training and information.  Now it’s about community.  And even community can span the globe.  You can literally find a group to practice whatever Pagan path you want, in seconds, with a Google search.

There’s another part to this that bears mentioning.  We tend to compare Paganism to established religions like Christianity.  (Or at least I do.  Maybe other people don’t.)  The Catholic church has a whole city of carved marble and stained glass, and a secret vault with all sorts of treasures.  Go to any town, and you’ll find awe-inspiring stone-and-glass buildings dedicated to some branch of Christianity.

In Paganism, we can barely find a place to meet regularly without getting kicked out.  Our songs and chants haven’t developed a lot of depth and complexity.  No one is carving awesome marble statues of our deities.

So what gives?

I think it’s just that Paganism is young.  (And broke.)  We just haven’t had the talent, population, length of time, or finances to invest in impressive architecture.  That doesn’t mean we’re dying.  (Though, like a 22-year-old having to choose between their cell phone bill and rent, it might feel like dying.)

People don’t know how to be Pagan

One of the reasons Paganism looks ill, is that a lot of people just don’t know how to do it.  So they tend to read, but they don’t do.  This applies mostly to newcomers.

I remember the first ritual I ever did, I was about 19 or 20, and it was on the December full moon.  It was well below freezing, and a breeze glittered across a layer of crusty snow.  I was scared.  And cold.  I was visiting my parents’ house, and as I went to cast the circle, visions of portals to hell and ghosts and demons pouring out into the world filled my imagination.

(That didn’t happen.  In the range of rituals I’ve done, the most effective part of my first ritual was just getting over my discomfort – which is no small thing.)

There’s a lot of fear, I think, in doing your first ritual.  It’s much easier to do ritual with a group first.  On the one hand, you’ll have experienced Pagans to help in case of demonic possession.  But also because it’s comforting to have another person with you when you try something new.  It’s all OK.  I encourage you to try your ritual anyway.  In all likelihood, the most that will happen is you’ll alter your mind-space a little.  More likely, you’ll get that buzz that happens when you face a challenge and overcome it.

Or, it might not be about ritual, but rather not knowing how to participate in a Pagan social group.  You might be hanging out with these cool Pagans, but you don’t know the lingo, or you don’t have a lot of experience to contribute to the conversation.

In a social group, it’s OK to let people know you’re new (once or twice).  You can also ask questions, like “I’m not familiar with that term, could you explain it?”  Or you can relate the topic to your own experiences, like “You’re talking about calling spirits, one time I swore I could feel my deceased grandma at Thanksgiving, is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?”

I mean, we were all new and fumbling around once.  Some people don’t remember it well and look down on newcomers.  Or, they do remember it, and cloak themselves in the comfort of their experience.  But for the most part, we want more Pagans!  And if there are things you want to do or talk about, talk to your local leaders about it.  I would love to hear from some of our locals if they wanted to set up a full-moon circle group.  I’d even lead it, if they wanted to arrange the time and place.  And I totally don’t mind answering questions (though I prefer questions like “What’s happening when we’re calling the four quarters?” instead of questions like “What do I do to be a witch?”).

Also, if you don’t do a lot of work, you end up with only one or two Pagan stories.  And that gets old if those one or two stories are all you talk about.  Even if it’s only to have fresh material, it’s a good idea to get up out of the armchair and do some Pagan stuff.

People don’t want it bad enough

A younger gal – who is no longer in our group – said once, “I know a great idea for a fundraiser!  We could do a bake sale!”

To which we replied, “That’s a great idea!  Go ahead and set up a time and place, let us know what you need.  We’ll help any way we can!”

She replied “Oh, I don’t actually have the time to organize it, I just thought it would be a good idea for you to do.”

What I took from that exchange, aside from being offended at someone dumping their work on me, is that this gal didn’t want a fundraiser bad enough to do the work herself.  And I think that’s a systemic problem in Paganism right now.

If you’ve been around the community for any length of time, you’ll hear old-timers like us talk about walking uphill both ways in the snow with offerings of whiskey and money to our local occult shop, where we volunteered full-time just to get a book recommendation or an invite to the local circle.

But most of that is obsolete now.  With a quick search on Google, you can find pretty much any Pagan ritual you want to perform.  You can find info on most deities from most panthea.  You can even find pirated books (illegally), or electronic versions of out-of-print texts (legally).

But the one thing that hasn’t gone away, is the need to get past your hangups and do the fucking work.  I had to get past anxiety and depression, step way outside my comfort zone, and be the weirdo walking around the woods at night.  You might need to go find a book, read it, and bring questions to ask your local leaders.  You might need to take a chance and do that ritual you’ve been thinking about.

More than that, though, I think your local elders would appreciate you showing some hunger and enthusiasm for being Pagan.  Some ideas on how to do this include:

  • Doing stuff on your own, and bringing questions and comments about your experience
  • Offering to organize events, and asking your leaders for help
  • Offering to help set up, tear down, or otherwise pitch in with the work of hosting events

That’s not a comprehensive list, but it should give you an idea of some of the things you can do.  It’s really not enough to say “I want to do that, but…” or “I meant to do that, but…”  You actually need to go after your Pagan practice with some enthusiasm.  I mean, it is your practice.  No one else can (or is willing) to do it for you.  (Not that they can.  I’ve found Paganism to be highly personal.)

It’s enough to feel witchy or Pagan

This happens when you buy the tools, dress in the costume, and/or post all the magicky Facebook pictures – without actually doing any Pagan stuff.

I have mixed feelings on this.  On the one hand, if I were to put a number to it, I’d say around 100% of witches and Pagans like feeling witchy.  For older Pagans, that might mean Bewitched and The Addams Family, for younger Pagans that might be Harry Potter and Charmed.

There’s nothing at all wrong with wanting to feel witchy.  Until it actually interferes with actually being witchy.

If you find that you own 4 or 5 athames, a handful of wands, and shelves full of dragon/fairy/angel statues, but you haven’t actually used any of them in a ritual, you might want to think on that.

If you’ve “liked” and “shared” 30 or 40 witchy memes in the last month, but you haven’t done a single ritual or meditation session, you might want to think on that.

Now, to be clear, I am in no way judging you or your practice.  I have no idea what it’s like to live your life, and it is totally OK if these things are enough for you.

But I’ve got to be honest – I don’t find them fulfilling.  Sure, I like to feel witchy, and I like to watch shows about magic, and I like to reflect on a well-worded meme on magic or spirituality.  But I need meditation.  At least 10 minutes every day.  If I don’t, my brain gets foggy and I’m more easily distracted.  Likewise, I need regular ritual.  I leave daily offerings for the non-physical entities I work with.  Sometimes I do daily rituals, for inspiration or help with long-term issues.  Sometimes I scale back a bit, and only do weekly or monthly rituals.

What I find is that, if I treat my practice like a relationship, or friendship, with the Unseen World (spirits, guides, deities, etc.), my practice is a lot richer and more helpful.  My magic works better.  My life is more rewarding.

So, take some time to think about your practice.  But let’s not lie to ourselves.  If you’re just doing things to feel witchy or Pagan, that’s OK.  It’s what I would call armchair Paganism, but if it works for you that is totally fine.

If you want an authentic practice, though, you’ll earn a lot more respect from other practicing Pagans if you get up out of your armchair and do Pagan things.  (Unless it’s meditation.  Then you can still sit in your chair.)

What not to do

So far, I’ve been talking about different reasons people might find themselves being an armchair Pagan.  Hopefully, without any kind of judgment.  (Except that, as a Pagan, I think it’s important that whatever you’re doing, it’s because you’ve chosen it deliberately, and I think a lot of these things happen without intent.)

But there are things that armchair Pagans do that are offensive and antisocial.  And it seems like there’s a disconnect, that people don’t realize why it’s offensive to more experienced Pagans.  Here are a few.

“My opinions are just as valid as yours.”  I’ve heard experienced Pagans gripe about hearing this from newcomers.  Specifically, newcomers try to hijack a teaching group and promote their ideas as equal to the teacher’s.  I think of this like being on an airplane.  You are just as valid a human being as everyone else on the plane.  You are entitled to your own hopes, fears, and dreams.  You don’t, however, get to fly the plane, unless you’ve got the training and experience of a pilot.  Likewise, if you’re taking classes from an experience Pagan, please be mindful that their knowledge and experience is deeper than yours.  (Special note: do not let this be an excuse for a Pagan leader to abuse you.  Also, don’t think of this as condemning “beginner’s eyes,” which can be a very good thing.)

“I want to be a witch.  What do I do?”  This kind of question comes across as minimizing and trivializing the amount of work that goes into practicing witchcraft.  (Or Paganism.)  If you get a flippant response – something like “Go read a book or ten,” that’s why – the person feels like you’re making light of the work and devotion they’ve put into being Pagan.  A better approach would be to ask, “I’m a total beginner, but I’m really interested in Paganism – what are some good books to get me started?”  Or, “I’ve been casting the basic circle from Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, but I’m just not feeling like I’m getting good results.  Can you help me out?”  The difference is – in the second questions, you’re showing that you’ve already done some of the work, and I can trust that you’re taking this stuff seriously.  And that you’re not just using me to get what you want.

“I might be at that event, I dunno, I’ll have to check my work schedule.”  If you want to have Pagan events, please RSVP as soon as you know you can commit, then follow through and show up.  We’ve canceled events because no one RSVP’ed, only to have people ask where we were.  We’ve held events for two people, because 6 RSVP’ed.  We’ve put out polls to find out events people want, put time and money into organizing them, only to have no one show up.  If you want to have Pagan events, it’s important that you commit to them and attend.  (At a minimum.  I guarantee your organizers will not complain if you offer to help set up or clean up.)  Showing up and participating shows your leaders that you care, and that you’re hungry for Pagan events.

Dump your complaints/personal drama/workload off onto your group.  I’ve seen people come to events and do nothing but gripe about their autistic kid.  When we’ve offer solutions, they dismiss every single one as impossible.  That gets old – we’re here to talk about Pagan stuff, not your drama.  I’ve also seen people show up and complain about how we don’t do enough Pagan stuff, then turn around and complain about how we’re asking them to do too much Pagan stuff.  Don’t do that – it’s a Pagan group, you can expect to do and talk about Pagan stuff.  And lastly, avoid asking to have a whole bunch of activities, but then foist the workload onto the organizers.  Often, Pagan leaders don’t have a lot of extra time or money.  Candles and incense cost money.  It takes time to write a custom and meaningful ritual.  Pagan leaders often spend a lot of time and money in order to help create a community for everyone to enjoy.  They can feel hurt if you take those events for granted, or if you ask for events without offering to help organize.

What to do instead

If you want to be an authentic (or at least a non-armchair) Pagan, here are some thoughts on things you can do.

Do Pagan stuff.  I mean that literally.  Get out of your chair and cast a circle.  Try a ritual from that website or book you’ve been reading.  Grab an Athame and channel energy through it, then channel energy through your wand.  See if you can feel the difference.  Experiment with raising energy by dancing.  Then by chanting.  Do a chakra exercise.  Meditate.  Commune with Nature.  Stop reading.  Stop thinking.  Stop fantasizing.  Go out and DO.

Ask for stuff, and offer to help make it happen.  Your local Pagan leaders are probably hungry for people who really want to be Pagan.  With your actions, you can tell them how much you value the things they offer.  You can say, “I really enjoyed that ritual, thank you for doing that.”  You can say, “I’d like to see more Full Moon rituals, can I create an event on the Facebook page to set one up?  Would you be willing to help me lead a ritual?”  Being a witch – or a Pagan – involves taking ownership over your life.  Which in turn involves becoming an active participant.  Show some curiosity and some enthusiasm about your local events.  Offer to contribute to keep them happening.

Do some soul-searching.  You might need to take some time – and by time, I mean like days or weeks, not minutes or hours – evaluating your practice.  I know that in my life, sometimes I imagine that I’m doing more than I actually am.  Then, when I look back, it might be a couple weeks since I’ve done something Pagan.  You might find that liking and sharing memes is enough.  Or, you might find that you thought sharing memes was enough, but you can’t recall the last time you cast a spell.  It doesn’t matter what you decide.  Just be intentional, and avoid deluding yourself.  Give yourself permission to be where you are.  And if you want more, go after it!

Final thoughts

I don’t mean for this post to be pejorative or judgmental toward armchair Pagans.  My hope is that it explains things – some of the reasons people might not be participating at the level that experienced Pagans might prefer, but also some of the reasons experienced Pagans might feel a disconnect with less-active Pagans.

But I’m interested to hear your thoughts.  Do you think practical Paganism is losing out to armchair Paganism?  Is it enough for you to feel witchy, or do you need to be witchy?  How do you show enthusiasm for your group?  Are there things that you do that are Pagan that don’t match up with what experienced Pagans in your group do?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments!


About the Author

I live in the sagebrush desert of southern Idaho, in a little town perched above a deep, rocky canyon. I've been pagan for a little over two decades. I've dipped my toes in Wicca, Rosicrucianism, Yoga, Reiki, and Qabala, only to settle into an Earth-based Neopagan Buddhist path. My credentials (if you care about such things), include an MA in English, an apprenticeship with Jason Miller, and a few publications here and there. I run a small Pagan group with my lovely wife, where we encourage people to show up, do pagan stuff, and live empowered and ethical lives.

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