“… a religion of atmosphere instead of faith …”

The first instance of Cultpunk at a generational scale occurred during the late 1960s and ’70s, when utopian counterculturalists – mostly on America’s west coast – began inventing new religions under the neo-Pagan banner. These pioneers notably included Frederick Adams (himself a very early outlier, having founded his goddess-oriented religion during the late 1950s) and Church of All Worlds co-founder Tim (later Otter, eventually Oberon) Zell.

The matter of neo-Pagan belief in the supernatural – in literal gods and goddesses, magic, etc. – has always been more nuanced than most critics have realized. Here’s Margot Adler’s commentary on that subject from the first (1979) edition of her excellent survey, Drawing Down the Moon:

Like most Neo-Pagans, I never converted in the accepted sense. I simply accepted, reaffirmed, and extended a very old experience. I allowed certain kinds of feelings and ways of being back into my life.

I tell these stories in a book that contains little personal history in order to respond to the statement I frequently hear: I don’t believe in that! This is the standard response to many of the ideas and people with which this book is concerned. But belief has never seemed very relevant to the NeoPagan movement.

In my fifteen years of contact with these groups I was never asked to believe in anything. I was told a few dogmas by people who hadn’t ridded themselves of the tendency to dogmatize, but I rejected those. In the next chapters you will encounter priests and priestesses who say that they are philosophical agnostics and that this has never inhibited their participation in or leadership of NeoPagan and Craft groups. Others will tell you that the gods and goddesses are “ethereal beings.” Still others have called them symbols, powers, archetypes, or “something deep and strong within the self to be contacted,” or even “something akin to the force of poetry and art.” As one scholar has noted, it is a religion “of atmosphere instead of faith; a cosmos, in a word, constructed by the imagination …”

Another assumption, and one I was slow to drop, was that the Neo-Pagan resurgence was, fundamentally, a reaction against science, technology, progress. My own involvement had come through a kind of Luddite reaction, so I assumed it was typical. But in many interviews Neo-Pagans and Witches supported high technologies, scientific inquiry, and space exploration. It is true that most Neo-Pagans feel that we abuse technology; they often support “alternative” technologies—solar, wind, etc.—and hold a biological rather than a mechanistic world view.

The scholar Adler quotes here was Robert Ellwood, whose book Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (1973) offered one the the earliest and most insightful “outsider” perspectives on the neo-Pagan phenomenon. In his chapter “The Edenic Bower”, Elwood wrote that:

What neo-pagans seek is a new cosmic religion oriented to the tides not of history but of nature – the four directions, the seasons, the path of the sun – and of the timeless configurations of the psyche. They seek not that morality which comes of imposing the will on the reluctant flesh, nor the mystical trance which is the fruit of asceticism, but the expensiveness of spirit which comes of allowing nature and rite to lower the gates confining the civilized imagination. For them, this is the spirit called up by the names “pagan” and “polytheism. ” These words do not suggest for them, as they still do for others, images of unbridled orgies and grotesque idols reeking with the blood of sacrifice. Rather they suggest a romantic, living, and changing world continuous with human fancy and feeling instead of one dead and subdued; a religion of atmosphere instead of faith; a cosmos, in a word, constructed by the imagination (considered the surest guide to what is in the heart of things) instead of by the analytic intellect or bear faith, which seeks only the outer husks.

When respected and indeed deliberately heightened, imagination is a faculty not only of fantasy but also of tremendous power. It can make the emotions feel the gods within things, and the eyes see them, and divine forces go out into the world to sow love, or prophecy, or fear. Evocation, calling up the gods from within the self, is true magic. Magical evocation is propelled by unleashing the forces touched by one’s childhood wonder at sunsets, fairy tales, and dreams, forces too much pent up in the modern adult.  These are the powers called “anagogie” by Jung, a great favorite of almost all in the modern alternative reality tradition. 

These neopagan groups have in common a particular emphasis on the second of the three forms of religious expression, the “practical” – rite, gesture, ceremonial act. It is through corporate “work” that the magical cosmos is evoked; it is “made” by ritual actions that demarcate and celebrate it, and by acts done as if it were present.

From the Cultpunk perspective, both Elwood and Adler demonstrate that the “deep play” of Poetic Faith – easily taken to be a metamodern, post-2000 concept and approach – was, in fact, not only present but quite widespread during the 1970s.

My own theory is that as neo-Paganism moved closer to the commercialized “mainstream” of the New Age movement during the 1980s and ’90s, it became increasingly unfashionable to publicly express the sentiments expressed by Adler’s interviewees. Over time, that suppression created a kind of underground sub-subculture within the neo-Pagan sphere, as rationalists who embraced the ethical, ceremonial and other aspects of Paganism but rebelled against supernatural literalism learned to simply keep their actual beliefs to themselves … until the advent of the Internet allowed them to meet and communicate with each other.

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