Internet - Pros and Cons of its Effect on the Pagan Community

    I wrote this article for Llewellyn back in 2004 for the 2005 Wicca Almanac.  For the most part we are still seeing this effect on Social Media sites and on blogs.  Prof. Sunstein has updates to his research which clearly substantiate this.  Consider it a learning curve for those of us who are independent thinkers.  Consider it a warning for those of you who have yet to decide to be your own person.


    Pagan community hit the ground running when publishers started putting as many books as the public could buy on the book store shelves in the 70’s.  It became big business with Occult topics being hot sellers.  The door to the age of information was opened and there was no turning back.

    The Internet was birthed by the military and some government institutions as a communication device.  Pretty much a tool that was used by the few, the late 80’s saw little general access ability and by the early 90’s, it was a very exclusive group who had access.  It was a high priced tool, which saw many hard core techies using whatever means possible to access the "net" to communicate with others.

    Something else was going on in the background, something totally unexpected.  Those who had been reading those books published on the Occult by the popular pagan press in the 70’s and 80’s were beginning to find each other via the Internet.  First it was chat rooms; then information was shared on websites.

    At one point in the late 90’s, the fastest growing type of website was ‘religious’ in nature and the ‘pagan’ sites were the most plentiful.   The 90’s saw the birth of sites by WARD, WLPA, and Witches Voice which became some of the most popular sites.  They were being visited not only by the pagan population but also by those who were shocked that such things existed as well as those who were just curious.  The Internet became the new publishing tool in electronic media format for the pagan population.

    Again, the movement hit a new level of communication and was off running.

    As a tool, both books and the Internet have provided sources of useful information.  And they have been sources of some pretty silly junk.

    Books helped to "spread the word" of the pagan movement.  Most memorable in my mind is Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, and Starhawk’s Spiral Dance.  Everyone who was anyone read those two books, had the "revised" editions when they came out, and would speak of them as "recommended reading" in chat rooms and on websites.

    The other books that made waves were Scott Cunningham’s books on Solitary Wicca.  Not since Lady Sheba published in 1971 had there been so much brew-ha-ha about a published work.

    Not until the Internet.   The age of electronic media was here, and it provided us with instant communication.  Whatever we could think of, whatever we could dream up to discuss was now being published on the Internet.  And it was accessible ‘instantly’.

    The use of the Internet as a communications tool is well documented.  Why pagans got involved so early is probably because many pagans are very technically inclined and they were out there with the first bulletin boards.  Once it caught on, and became cheap enough for everyone to afford, there was no stopping the rush.

    By the late 90’s pagans were finding other pagans on the internet.  There were whole areas in many of the ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) where pagans could have private chat, their own bulletin boards, list their websites and communicate via E-groups.

    We were also discovering a few other things.  There were a lot more pagans than we had thought.  Sit in any pagan chat room on Prodigy on a class night, and you would have 50-70 pagans sitting listening.   Most nights there were close to 20 or more regular chatters.  That was just one chat room on a specific ISP.  There were several chat rooms for pagans on Prodigy, and there were just as many, if not more, on IRC, AOL, CompuServe and in places like Excite.com or any one of the numerous web chats that appeared.  There were even chatrooms setups as part of private websites.

    But what was going on in these chat rooms and on these websites?  Well, for one, pagans were connecting with other pagans both nationally and locally.  This was the foundation from which many of our established groups formed.  Many local pagans would get together outside the chat rooms in what is now known as ‘Pagan Night Out’s” where they would meet at book stores or coffee shops and get to know each other personally.   The Internet led to real life for many.  The connections led to people getting to know other, working to form groups, some in real life, some in cyberspace.

    The movement built so quickly that holes in information were being filled in by those who were less credible.  It was spread in chat rooms, and it was spread on websites.

    The main attraction and the biggest problem?  Anonymity.   You could declare your paganism, your spirituality, your craft, your Trad yet not be readily identified.  We were secret while being public.   Information sites sprang up like tulips in May.  Everyone has correspondences charts, the Charge of the Goddess (and most didn’t know who wrote that particular version), many claimed to be Lord this or Lady that, and you could pick out the newbie violating copyrights by copying entire books to their websites or they just made it up as they went along.  Anything written to the web was declared as valid.

    Was this what we wanted?  We did want the freedom to express ourselves, and these websites gave us the ability.  It also perpetuated some myths, some misinformation and some out and out lies.  And no one was able to hold anyone accountable, because we were all masked with Internet nicknames and ghost ISP’s.

    There is a need for religion to grow, to evolve and become more than it was.  There is a need for religion to continually fill the needs of the people who believe in it, or it will cease to be a valid path to Deity.  But the myth-information that was developed in the 90’s is still with us today, cloaked in terminology such as ‘religious tolerance’ and ‘freedom of expression and religion’.

    We find Wicca on many web sites reduced to a ‘goodness and light’ theology, forced into monotheism based on the need to make "duotheistic" or "polytheistic" acceptable to someone who is unable to grasp the idea.  The need to retain ties to the former religion are stronger than the need to change or evolve that former religion so it does meet the individual needs.  Some are unable to walk away from the former religion completely.  There is the fear that the choice of a new religion might be ‘wrong’.   We end up with the ‘hyphenated-practitioners’ who have no idea what they are doing or that they are disrespecting several Deities in their attempt to keep themselves happy.

    Paganism has evolved on the web from a life style (from the Latin ‘Pagani – of the earth’) to a religion.  Tattoos have become the  "tribal art" for people who have no tribe, piercing are rights of passage for people who have no common community and we still do not speak a common language when it comes to defining terminology.  Everyone seems to be making it up as they go along.  The web has produced a ‘Cyber Community’ for people who want to ‘drop out’ from real community or for those who have no attachments to community in real life.

    There is much to be said for diversity.   While the web presents us with a plethora of different viewpoints it also allows us to justify our right to be anything we choose and this includes some things we are not.  There is dogma to many religions.  But do we ignore this dogma because someone has a website which says you can?  While being ‘pagan’ means you can choose for yourself whatever spiritual path you prefer, does that mean you can apply this to other religions which have set dogma, like Wicca?  Once these ideas are written to the web, and become perpetuated through repeated viewing in emails, bulletin boards and other websites, does this make it any more valid?  If you wish to walk your own spiritual path, you can make your own choices and they are valid for yourself.  But your choice to agree or disagree does not make changing an established dogma any more right.  The new idea becomes your own adaptation, your own standard.  It does not apply to another’s idea or standards.  Nor are you entitled to change another’s idea because it does not suite you.   Just because you have reinvented the hot dog, it does not entitle you to call it ‘Oscar Mayer’.   It is now ‘Your Hot Dog’, and it’s really only good for you unless you can convince others to adapt your version.  But it will never be ‘Oscar Mayer’.

    Then there is adaptation based on fiction.  We may like the philosophy we see adapted in a movie or book but can we actually live fiction?  We see the ‘Church of All Worlds’ has become a spiritual path based on a science fiction novel, and it has gained much support.  It has appeal to many.

    In the last British Census[1] we have 390,000 Jedi Knights in Britain declaring themselves as a ‘religion’.  While there are some who did this in jest, what about the rest?  We come to a dilemma.   Do we need to support their claim by acknowledging their right to ‘religious freedom’ and will we all be labeled as ‘religious intolerant’ because we refuse to validate their particular path?

    This brings up the issues of being ‘insular societies’ and what Cass Sunstein refers to as the echo chamber effect[2].    We choose to associate with  those who we feel best represent and uphold our ideas and we insulate ourselves from those who try to discuss anything other than what we firmly believe, no matter how rational, realistic or logical the discussion.  We see this in many e-groups and chat rooms where we tend to associate and discuss with those of ‘like mind’.

    We also "echo" the voice of our group, right or wrong.   How many times have we heard someone yell their "religious rights" were violated and 10 minutes later it is spread all over the web in every email group, every website and whispered in every chat room, till someone takes the time to investigate to find out that it was not the person’s religious rights that were being violated, but rather the individual was violating the laws and was looking for sympathy or free legal representation.  The entire community now has egg on their faces.  The community may have even spent money to retain lawyers for this person and upon reading the briefs the lawyers and the community realize they have wasted precious time and resources.

    We also ‘echo’ popular sentiment.  The article by Cass Sunstein shows a study that while one person may not agree totally with another, when there is more than one person expressing an idea or opinion, the minority will shift to the majority opinion.   If I believe that the God and Goddess are separate individuals in my view of Deity, but the majority of the list believes that God and Goddess are two facets of the same singular Deity, I will be more likely to express the singular belief than the duality belief when in with my own group.  This appears to have much merit in the Earth Based Spirituality groups.

    But it is not the way of all.  That one voice who does not agree does end up going somewhere.  There are individuals who will not shift their view to that held by the ‘majority’ and who have firm beliefs in what they do and what they believe.  There are groups that can express and discuss the individual ideas and beliefs, voice their opinions regardless of what the majority holds as personal truths, and can allow room for personal expression without swaying to and fro.   And to be even more interesting, these individuals and groups are not as scarce as you may think.

    Groups that encourage discussion of ideas that are truly diverse are all around the country.   These people are educated in the history and essence of our spirituality and the methods of the established spiritual paths.  They know what they speak of and find that diversity can be shared, discussed and established without polluting the origins of the belief systems that were put in place.  They also have shown how to evolve our spirituality into a belief system that meets our needs without having to lose the original ideas and ideals that started this movement in the first place.   And they know how to say, sorry, your ideas are nice but we will not validate them, and can accept this from others.  They retain their own personal choices without becoming part of the ‘echo’ effect.

    There is a difference between being ‘intolerant’ and refusing to validate what we see as being a ‘personal’ spirituality system.  We can tolerate your choice of spiritual path, but we can only validate that which we have personal knowledge of and what we have experienced.  I can not validate your particular spiritual path if I have not experienced your spirituality. This is because we all have our own path to Deity.  If someone comes to me with a spirituality that I have experienced, this I can validate.  It’s like asking me to review a book based on the title or even an introduction.  I can not review the book if I have not read it.  I can tell you what I think of the title, or even the introduction, but I can not write a review of the book without the entire book.  I need to ‘experience’ the book first before I can comment.

    In order for this community to expand and continue to grow, we need to realize the Internet that has given us much to work with and much we need to sort out.  People need to become totally immersed in their new spirituality without desperately clinging to the old.  We need to understand the basics of what has gone before us in order to keep the flavor of the old ways while looking to keep the religion evolving and changing just enough to meet the needs of the people who support it.

    We need to understand the difference between religious choice and religious tolerance.  We need to understand that we can expect tolerance of our choices but we will not necessarily receive validation.

    We need to avoid being insular.   We have the right to our own path of spirituality, but we should not force others to our choice, nor should they expect us to follow their beliefs just because we associate with them.  The idea of religious freedom is that all paths are the right path, and we are free to walk them as we choose.  That you and I should walk the same path for a while does not mean we are the same, it just means we are sharing the road.

    And finally, with all the information that is available to us on the Internet, of what value is this information to yourself or your community?  All information needs to be reviewed, and you need to take personal responsibility for deciding its true value.

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Boudica Foster is the pen name for Margaret Foster. All website material written, drawn or photographed is the work of Margaret Foster.