The Faith of the Future: SFF and the Neopagan Movement in the United States

Guest blogger, Cait Coker, is an Associate Editor for Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. Her research focuses on the depictions of women and sexuality in science fiction and fantasy; her essays and reviews have appeared in The SFRA Review, The Journal of Transformative Works, and The Future Fire.”

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Neopaganism, or modern paganism, is a term used to distinguish itself from historic pagans. For instance, we know that ancient Greeks worshipped the classical pantheon of twelve gods led by Zeus–but so do people today, in Greece and elsewhere, in a religion called Hellenismos. People who try to identify and incorporate historical practices in their rituals are often called Reconstructionists. Asatruar are pagans who worship the gods and goddesses of Northern Europe, including Odin, Thor, and Loki. There are dozens more such groups all across the world, all worshipping different deities in different ways. And in America, a lot of pagans tend to be avid readers, and often writers, of science fiction and fantasy. Margot Adler tried to document the connection in her ethnographic study Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today (1979, rev. 1986), but truthfully the topic would need a book of its own in order to do it justice. It is perhaps enough to say that if SFF is a genre of ideas, then Neopaganism is a faith of ideas.

During the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, the growth of industrialization and technological changes sparked a reconsideration with how humans interacted with the natural world. For many, this inspired an interest in science and exploration, while others wanted to look to the past to reconcile what they felt to be an alienation of the spirit. The advent of the Spiritualist movement and other occult groups such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a member, inspired a number of writers and artists to ask questions about faith in a changing world. Some fantasy writers like Lewis Carroll and George Macdonald, who was a direct inspiration to C.S. Lewis, went in a different direction with what became known as Christian Universalism. In both cases the goals were founded in an interest in peace among humanity, the spirit of intellectual inquiry, and in finding inspiration from the natural world.

Through the first part of the twentieth century, these discussions continued to wax in interest and intensity, especially in the wake of not just one but two World Wars that left many disillusioned with traditional faiths. After the 1954-5 publication of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, many were struck by the ties that the Elves and the Ents had to the stars and to the earth. Some even began to incorporate his Elvish nomenclatures into their own practices–much his bemusement. In 1968, Tim “Oberon” Zell founded the Church of All Worlds, a group strongly inspired by the work of Robert Heinlein generally and by his Stranger in a Strange Land specifically. Members of this group were encouraged to read widely, both religious texts and science fictional ones; an early requirement was to even provide a weekly book report!

In the 1970s, the feminist movement in science fiction was concurrent to the women’s spirituality movement. Perhaps most famously, Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote her 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon as a fantastical Arthurian epic. It was directly concerned with the relationship between Christianity and Goddess-worship, which was presented as a form of Wicca like that taught by the priestess Starhawk in the book The Spiral Dance. Unfortunately, in the 1980s there was a backlash against pagan faiths and literal witch-hunts for Satanic abusers, perhaps best epitomized in the number of attacks on Dungeons & Dragons in the media. Yes, for a brief period of time, some people thought that pretending to be a halfling rogue and rolling a d6 meant that you also wanted to eat babies. Go figure. Sanity prevailed again by the 1990s, and tv shows such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took advantage of the possibilities of science fiction to talk directly about faith on a personal and an institutional level.

Today Neopagans are becoming increasingly more open in our society (we call hiding being “in the broom closet!”) but it also true that there remains a social stigma in many places. It was only in 2007 that the pentacle could be used as emblem of faith for headstones in military cemeteries. However, it is at SFF cons and other meetings that Neopagans tend to be most open about their beliefs–and have the best discussions! For whatever reason you want to name, it is a simple truism that science fiction and fantasy fans tend to be much more open-minded than non-fans, and more ready to discuss what they think–and what they believe.

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