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What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?

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Abstract This review essay takes a critical look at the new field of “pagan studies” by examining the Handbook of Contemporary Paganism. It demonstrates that pagan studies is dominated by the methodological principles of essentialism, exclusivism, loyalism and supernaturalism, and shows how these principles promote normative constructions of ‘pure’ paganism, insider interpretations of the data, and theological speculations about gods, powers, and a special “magical consciousness.” It seems thus that the methodological discussions in MTSR have little effect on pagan scholars. In the concluding discussion, I raise the questions why this is so, and how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion.

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44. FN1 1References without year (e.g., Berger; Ezzy) refer to articles in the Handbook of Contemporary Paganism. No independent entries are given for these articles in the bibliography.
45. FN2 2Earlier overviews of modern paganism, like Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon(1979/1986) and Graham Harvey’s Listening People, Speaking Earth(1997/2007) have been written from an insider point of view and for a pagan rather than an academic audience. The Handbook of Contemporary Paganismupdates earlier handbook-like anthologies on contemporary paganism, such as Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman’s Paganism Today(1996) and James R. Lewis’s Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft(1996). It reflects the professionalization of the field that all contributors to the current handbook are academics and/or hold a PhD while the two earlier handbooks included many contributions from non-academic pagan intellectuals.
46. FN3 3Melissa Harrington and Sylvia Shaw are examples of pagans who have become academics. Harrington refers to herself as a “native researcher” (2004: 79). Shaw dislikes the “colonialist” expression “going native,” but readily identifies her research as “partisan” (2004: 136). For a testimony from a scholar gone native, see for instance Salomonsen (2004: 47). The academics of this research tradition generally refer to themselves as “Pagan scholars.”
47. FN4 4I include Harrington’s article (2007) on the relationship between contemporary paganism and new age in my analysis even though it did not appear in the Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, but in the Handbook of New Age, the first volume in the Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religionseries.
48. FN5 5I suspect that main editor Murphy Pizza wields the pen here since she also insists on the existence of shared pagan values in her own contribution (499) while co-editor James R. Lewis’s article sets out to deconstruct the Druid tradition.
49. FN6 6A few studies have been done on pagans and the Internet by Cowan (2005) and Ezzy and Berger (2009). In a number of recent publications, Berger and Ezzy have furthermore opened up the field of (largely Internet-mediated) ‘teenage witchcraft’ (Berger and Ezzy 2007; 2009).
50. FN7 7So far, pagan use of fiction has been very preliminarily treated by Harvey (2000; 2006), but many scholars have pointed out that work needs to be done here. Chas Clifton remarks that “[t]he interaction between science/speculative fiction and Wicca and other forms of Paganism deserves further exploration. It is a book waiting to be written, possibly several books” (2006: 4).
51. FN8 8That is not to say that science does not know its own identity politics or boundary-work, as the present essay is a prime example of. On the notion of boundary-work, see Gieryn (1983).
52. FN9 9Interested readers can turn to Manning (1996).
53. FN10 10For a serious discussion of conversion to paganism, the reader can turn to Síân Reid’s strong article in the handbook and to Manning (1996). Both bypass the often repeated pagan studies claim that people do not convert but ‘come home’ to paganism (e.g., Harvey 1999; Harrington 2000) and insist that conversion to paganism is an instance of conversions in general.
54. FN11 11York and Harvey are also primitivists, but York’s primitivism (at least in his contribution to the handbook) differs from Greenwood’s and Harvey’s by locating the ideal condition of human life in the past (though it can be recovered) rather than among contemporary indigenes. See Geertz (2009) for a brief and recent discussion of primitivism, especially against Harvey.
55. FN12 12See Jensen (2011: 35-36) for a critique of the notion that sharing a ‘cultural essence’ provides one with a privileged epistemological position.
56. FN13 13For an overview of the particularly heated North American debates in the 1980s and 1990s, see McCutcheon (1999).

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Affiliations: 1: University of Aarhus Denmark University of Leiden Netherlands


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