Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Multimedia Mysticism: How the Digital Age has Affected Modern Paganism

The Pagan community has changed a lot over the decades, particularly in regards to how we organize and communicate. Once, news letters like Green Egg were the primary method of staying apprised of the goings on in circles outside of one's own local group/s. Communication was slow and existed in only one direction; information was much more difficult to come by. The very makeup of the Pagan culture- its traditions and perspectives- has evolved with the changing environment of the modern social arena.

What the Research Says
A lot of research has been done in recent years involving the effects of “Network Culture”. There are discernible trends found within the endless records of digital networks that have had a massive impact on modern culture.
One of the defining aspects of digital communications is its accessibility, versatility, and ability to be personalized. Old style media would present you with a prescribed narrative, in a fixed format, which the reader could then choose to accept or reject. Alternatively, modern digital media is information driven, as opposed to story driven. Users have the ability to deconstruct, fact check, and determine the validity of the information they are being presented with, all from the same terminal and within minutes using research tools like Google.
This was a massive shift in perspective, which drastically altered what we sought from our media communications. People want to hear about issues which interest them. They want it from sources they like, they want to be kept up to date in real time, and most of all they want to be in control of how that digital media is presented. Story driven narratives sum up singular events and attempt to reach a conclusion. Information driven networks are never complete. They are thus a process rather than a product. What this really comes down to is that the arrival of the Internet, social media outlets, and online news sources placed the user in control, allowing them to research as they wish.

Digital Pantheons
So what happens when the digital age hits a religious community? Most of the research here is done from a specifically Christian perspective. Lamberts Secularization of New Religious Paradigms concluded that digital communities “promote Dehierarchization, personal practice, pluralism, and relativism”. This was backed by the Barna Research Group a year later in a study which found that within religious communities there was a sharp decline in the number of people who believed church affiliation was important. This is WITHIN religious communities, meaning that these people were still believers (in this case mostly Christian) but felt that Church affiliation was less important than personal practice.

So what does this mean for us Pagans?
Obviously these traits were highly distressing to organized religions, but they hardly seem to troublesome to modern Paganism, right? Dehierarchization, personal practice, pluralism... These are many of the traits which Pagans often pride themselves on! It's easy to overlook the influence of the Internet on our traditions, when you try to judge those effects based on most modern practices, but it didn't always work this way. Even for those of us who weren't practicing back in the days before the digital revolution , all it takes is a simple look at our history to see how we've changed.
Most traditions in the 60's were initiation based, with information being much more restricted. Concepts like lineage and bloodlines were highly valued, and carried a degree of authority or clout in many circles. Most covens also had a significantly longer life-span. So what exactly changed? The 1970's and 80's brought about several new concepts and organizations. The first important shift came from authors like Raymond Buckland, who promoted the idea of self initiation and solitary practice. Texts like the infamous Bucklands Big Blue Book , encouraged the reader to form their own personal practice based off of their own research. At the same time, modern Heathenry was really bursting into the scene in America with the Ásatrú Free Assembly. The AFA was heavily research focused, as a reconstruction effort. By the early 90's there was a growing notion of Paganism/Heathenry as an information driven effort, where the individual practitioners had the power to declare their own beliefs and ideas.
So when the digital age hit the religious sphere, the various Pagan communities were already working on, and to some (debatable) degree prepared for, the coming changes. Because we were so few and far between, we latched onto this new method of interaction, and it has DRASTICALLY changed our culture.

Pro's and Con's
For better or worse, most parts of our community have fully integrated online resources. This comes with certain strengths and weaknesses. We can communicate and mobilize nearly instantly, and have a community which often promotes self reliance and critical thinking. However the majority of our covens/kindred/groves only last one or two years before collapsing. Unlike our predecessors from the 60's, many groups simply cannot be maintained long term. Sometimes people just move on to a new area, sometimes the group splits over some issue, or simply disbands due to lack of time or money.
One of the reasons I am a solitary Heathen, and the reason many of the Solitaries I know decide to remain such, is because of this extraordinary turnover rate. So how do we, as a community, maintain the advances we've made while addressing our potential weak points? Do we push from better offline organization, pushing for permanent locations and maintained memberships? Or do we accept this transient trait as an aspect of the community and simply integrate the idea as a strength rather than a shortcoming? Our communities are constantly changing, adapting, and growing. Our ability to change and integrate is a large part of our successful survival. Only time will tell what the answers will be, but progress can't be made by simply overlooking the issues at hand. As ever, open dialog is the key. 

Edited By: Jessie

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