Could neo-paganism be the new 'religion' of America?
Witchcraft and pagan spiritualities are on the rise in the United States — especially within mainstream youth culture.
- As Americans turn away from organized religion, pagan spiritualities gain popularity and visibility.
- Although it isn't a homogenized religion, groups identifying within neo-paganism share some uniting principles.
- Witchcraft, which is traditionally associated with women, finds strength and new life in feminist movements.
The witch is impossible to ignore. Pop into an Urban Outfitters and you're sure to find an array of tarot card packs, a beginner's guide to crystals, and a spell book or two. Over at Barnes and Noble, Arin Murphy-Hiscock's book, The Green Witch (2017) is among many "witchy" books being marketed to young women. On Instagram, a popular #witchesofinstagram hashtag is now widely used, and the account @thehoodwitch has a following on the platform of 434,000 followers.
Although neo-pagan, or contemporary pagan, beliefs have steadily gained popularity since their introduction in the 1960s, the past few years have seen neo-paganism and wiccan beliefs proliferate in mainstream American culture. While reports tell us that organized religion is going extinct in the United States, the rise in neo-pagan spiritualities suggest there might be more to the story of religion's role in American lives.
According to previous research, this probably isn't just a fleeting New Age aesthetic trend. Running three large, comprehensive religious surveys from 1990 to 2008, Connecticut's Trinity College found that the religion of Wicca grew a considerable amount over that period of time. Picking up the baton on this effort, the Pew Research Center found that 0.4 percent of Americans (around 1 to 1.5 million citizens) identify as neo-pagan.
As neo-paganism draws more attention and its associated symbols become marketable, there's a strong case to be made for recognizing the practice as a legitimate spirituality and understanding more than just its sensationalized aspects like spell casting, herbal charms, and divination techniques.
Tarot card decks are now often sold in popular retail chains.
Photo by Will & Deni McIntyre / Getty Images.
Neo-paganism has proved difficult to define as it is anything but a homogenous religion. Groups vary in size, structure, purpose, orientation, and ritual practices. Although the subgroup of neo-pagans that practice the Craft, or Wicca, and call themselves "witches" have attracted a majority of pop culture attention, it's important to understand that not all neo-pagans consider themselves witches. In addition to Wiccans, neo-paganism includes groups such as Druids, Goddess worshipers, Heathens, and Shamans. Although it's difficult to make generalized statements about neo-pagan practitioners given the lack of central leadership and dogma, there are a few uniting principals.
The central underpinning belief that unifies the varied groups is a deep reverence for nature. Often, neo-pagans adhere to animistic beliefs or the notion that inanimate objects such as trees, plants, animals, and natural phenomena are imbued with a living soul. Consistent with the view that all of the natural world is alive, neo-pagans revere the earth as a living being. Traditionally, neo-pagans follow a Wheel of the Year calendar with holy days, or "sabbats," that harmonize practitioners with seasonal cycles of the earth.
Additionally, neo-pagans also follow a cosmology that understands the universe as an interconnected whole. All beings are linked with all the cosmos as part of a unified living organism. Extending off of the neo-pagan theme of this interconnected universe is a magical worldview, which is most pronounced in Wiccan branches. In short, neo-pagans believe in a universe in which each part of the interconnected cosmos affects every other part. So many neo-pagans believe that magic can be used as an instrument to tap into and influence these links in the universe to bring about some shift in the physical world.
Although there is no single deity, or pantheon of deities, that neo-pagan groups all worship, the immanence of a divine presence that both permeates the natural world and transcends it is typically accepted within neo-pagan groups. While neo-pagans usually worship both a masculine and femine divine, according to Don Carpenter many practitioners put a special emphasis on the concept of the Goddess, or the divine femine, as a metaphor for the divine.
What's the draw to neo-paganism?
Given the intellectualization of the world and advances of modern science, it might seem a bit counterintuitive for magical and animistic spiritualities to suddenly draw in followers. If a sky god was beginning to seem a bit far-fetched, how is the sacred in the soil any more appealing?
Neo-paganism might well be a reaction against what Max Weber referred to as the "disenchantment of the world" whereby modern life and scientific advancement have drained a sense of the sacred from our lives. Neo-paganism's use of occult practices reveal sacred, even supernatural, interactions with others in nature, such as birds, rocks, trees, or possibly spirits. This might be something Americans, particularly young people, are craving. At a time when industrialization, toxic consumerism, and environmental destruction seem to be reaching an apocalyptic crescendo, Americans might also view neo-paganism as a sort of spiritual activism by drawing on a "sacred ecology" that seeks to bring a divine found in the earth itself into the lives of practitioners. Through a worldview that finds the sacred in the natural, material world, neo-pagan's notice, ritualize, and imagine magical interconnections between multispecies' lives.
Permaculture and the Sacred: A Conversation with Starhawk
There is also the tremendous power of the feminist movement. Its rejection of institutionalized, patriarchal religions might account for the specific cultural interest in the Wiccan branch of neo-paganism. By embracing and sacralizing a symbol of an evil, feminized "other" that we were warned of, scholar Howard Eiberg-Schwatz calls the tradition of American witchcraft in neo-paganism an aim at "debunking the otherness of others." According to the influential Wiccan priestess Starhawk, reclaiming the word "witch" is to reclaim a woman's right to be powerful and to celebrate aspects of the divine that have been traditionally associated with "the feminine," such as creativity, mystery, emotion, natural cycles, and regenerative powers. Rising from 17th century ashes and strutting into mainstream American culture, today's witch is an increasingly visible member of society who might be found sipping coffee out of a "witches brew" mug, flipping through a spell book and tending to an herbal garden.
What is deemed holy reflects the highest values of a society. Ultimately, the rising practice of American neo-pagan spiritualities asks us to consider what changes in cultural values occur when the sacred is found in the earth, symbolized by a great goddess.
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
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