CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008


by Angela Coco (Southern Cross University, Australia)

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Preliminary version. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


A developed version of this paper entitled, ‘Pagans online and offline: Locating community in post-modern times’ will be published Sociological Spectrum’s special edition on Studies of Religion in the 21st century, 2008.


This paper examines the ways Australian pagans use email discussion lists as a means of fostering community amongst dispersed offline practitioners. Sociologists struggle with ways of characterising the pagan movement as it appears to lack the necessary identifiable set of uniform beliefs and organizational characteristics evidenced by other religions (Nietz 1994). Bruce (2002) argues that pagans are too dispersed geographically to acquire the status of a social force. While Berger (1999) states that paganism bears the characteristics of a late-modern religion one is left with the question as to how social solidarity amongst people gathering under the pagan umbrella might be achieved. New information and communication technologies (ICTs) accompanying globalisation are changing the forms of human association and have stimulated speculation regarding the extent to which they are able to mobilise groups and foster community. Theoretical models and metaphors for religion which are based on geo-temporal motifs may be inadequate to characterizing community in the networked society. It is suggested that ways of understanding religious movements in the 21st century might be facilitated by research methodologies that examine patterns in communicative practices. Wenger’s theory of ‘communities of practice’ (1998) is used to examine how pagans communicate both online and offline to negotiate and develop a sense of community.


Information and communication technologies (ICTs) like computers, the internet and mobile phones have enabled the development of a new public space in which novel norms, and forms of social organization and communication are emerging (Castells, Fernandez-Ardevol, Qiu, and Sey, 2007). People frequently create online groups around common interests rather than according to criteria afforded by geographic proximity or to structures provided by hierarchical institutions with their attendant authority/power structures and dogmas (Putnam 2000). Castells (1997: 361) maintains that networked grass roots interest groups such as feminist, religious and ecological movements will lead in the development of new forms of social organization and interaction. Neo-paganism is one such movement (Beyer 2003) that has embraced ICTs to facilitate communications.
Pagans see their role as providing a foil and corrective to the ecological, environmental and discriminatory evils wrought by Christian values enacted through political systems worldwide (Hanegraaff 1998: 77-78). They have been active in Australia at least since the 1970s (Hume 1997: 30). Pagans are diverse and eclectic in their individual beliefs and practices and may gather in small ritual groups (called covens) or practice alone (as solitaries). Nationally in Australia, they are represented online by several portals and websites including The Pagan Awareness Network (http://www.paganawareness.net.au/aboutpan.html) and Pagan Alliance (http://www.paganalliance.org.au/). Pagans’ presence in Circle (pseudonym for a city in Australia) became public with the first festival conducted in Summerland (pseudonym for a state in Australia) in 1997. Since then, despite their non-centralisation and avoidance of hierarchical organization, pagans in south-west Summerland have developed a community consciousness; a process facilitated by ICTs (Author 2007).
Investigating social forms has been a means of distinguishing between religions and non-religions. Religious forms have been identified by delineating their spatial, temporal and social dimensions (Beyer 2003: 53). According to Beyer certain places manifest religion and particular religious persons can be found frequenting them at identifiable ‘religious’ times (2003: 53). But what do we make of pagans who perform ritual in any suitable place, preferably outdoors (and sometimes online); who are at best flexible in their identification of religious times and many of whom do not rely on initiated status and labels to identify people as religious (Harvey 1997; Berger, Leach and Shaffer 2003). Nietz (1994) characterizes paganism as a quasi-religion because it lacks the necessary organizational and denominational features of religion. Others maintain that pagans are too dispersed geographically to acquire the status of a social force (e.g. Bruce 2002). Pagan organization has been characterized as a “Segmented Polycentric Integrated Network” (York 1995: 324 – 329). Further, York has sought to systematise a pagan theology composed of various indigenous and traditional religious beliefs and practices. Berger (1999) and Beyer (2003), however, identify these features as characteristic of late-modern religion.
Concepts like organisation, denomination, or established sets of beliefs and practices, have enabled sociologists to locate critical masses of individuals and their communicative practices for investigation. The concepts signal structures that encode specific modes of communication, for example, attending a synagogue, praying, preaching or conducting a healing ceremony. Since a critical mass of pagan individuals cannot be located by using these concepts, one might look to their modes of communication for signs of different norms and forms of religious engagement. Berger (1999) mentions a shared pagan community of interest which is facilitated by the use of ICTs. Locating the dimensions of this community is a means by which we could establish some of the forms of pagan religion.
Community solidarity develops through continuous and regular interaction between a group and individuals within it (Durkheim 1952: 381; Harrison and Stephen 1999: 229). In the 21st century a certain amount of this interaction may only be found online. If social organization reflects spatial organization and at the same time reproduces it (Durkheim 1976: 12), ways of characterising religious activity in the networked society need to move beyond geo-temporal motifs to take account of the new public space created by virtual interaction (Slevin 2000: 181 - 197). ICT theorists, after initial pre-occupation with the difference between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ communities now problematise the notions of community upon which these discussions rested. As Hampton argues, the idea of community has long been disassociated from geography (2004: 217). While ICT theorists have moved beyond the virtual/real dichotomy, seeking to theorise new forms of association that incorporate both realms, pagan scholars have yet to explore this territory. Cowan (2005), for instance, has explored the world of technopagans who perform virtual rituals, virtual spells and meet virtual others online. He predicts that groups with an offline component are more likely to endure.
In order to explore both online and offline contexts simultaneously, one needs to identify human activity shared by both domains. In this regard, a practice theory of culture is useful because it attends to communicative interaction which is a key feature of activity in both online and offline contexts (Baym 1998). Wenger focuses on communicative practices to provide a useful model for understanding communities that are not circumscribed by fixed symbolic or geographic boundaries, stable memberships, singular identities or unchangeable rules and dogma. Below I outline the main features of his ‘communities of practice’ model and discuss its usefulness for studying groups of individuals who interact both online and offline. Next, methodological procedures and theoretical assumptions are explained. This is followed by a socio-historical account of key events in the development of the South-west Summerland pagan community and an analysis of selected pagan interactions that illustrate how pagans connected online and offline contexts. Finally, suggestions for future research directions are offered.


Wenger (1998) studied insurance claims processors in their physical workplace. The processors developed practices and meanings that only members of that workplace would know and understand and as such they formed a coherent group that Wenger refers to as a ‘community of practice’ (CP). CPs emerge when individuals identify mutually felt concerns and share a vision of goals to be achieved. A CP’s coherence and continuance over time is sustained in the ongoing practice of communication which evidences three inter-related dimensions; mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoires of meaning (Wenger 1998: 73). Mutual engagement refers to the fact that the membership defines the community and members are continually engaged in managing the tension between harmony and conflict. As individuals do this work they negotiate and renegotiate ways of getting along with each other, part of which involves developing modes of mutual accountability. Wenger calls the establishment of modes of accountability the joint enterprise. Over time, agreements and processes become implicit in discourse; people know what the rules are, what values are operating, whose word is to be respected, who possesses what skills and so on. Wenger labels this third feature, a shared repertoire of meaning. The shared repertoire of meaning is the history of outcomes of mutual engagement processes that inform the community’s ongoing practices.
Communities of practice develop through two mutually constitutive action processes; identity formation and community building. For individuals, a significant motivation for practice is to cultivate one’s sense of belonging. This is achieved through three types of communicative processes; engagement, imagination and alignment (Wenger 1998, p. 73). Individuals may predominantly involve themselves in an engaged way negotiating the internal functions of the community on a regular basis, some may provide imaginative scenarios for revitalizing community practices and still others may be boundary riders, seeking to align aspects of the community of practice with ideals and practices of a broader culture or other CPs. Belonging has a dualistic and fraught nature, however, involving processes both of identification and negotiation (Wenger 1998, p. 208). Because individuals at one and the same time may belong to a number of CPs, they are constantly faced with the need to negotiate their role and the meanings multi-membership raises. Their success at doing this will determine the extent to which they identify with the CP and contribute their energies to its sustenance.
When considering online interaction, there are crucial aspects of individual identity not mentioned in Wenger’s schema, in particular, one’s name and physical appearance. In online environments one is not (and may never be) physically visible either in name or body (Donath 1999). Online participants deduce something of a poster’s identity by reading the clues in their email addresses, but there are also ways of concealing these if an individual wishes. Nevertheless, like participants in the Usenet groups Donath investigates, in pagan online groups people are assumed to be who they say they are. However, the structure of the internet and its linguistic mediation detract from readers’ abilities to connect personae to embodied individuals with resultant difficulties in developing trust and resolving conflict (Kolko and Reid 1998).
Both linguistic and non-linguistic interactions are important in the process of sustaining a CP (Wenger 1998; Cowan 2005). Through communication practices CPs generate artifacts which then serve as resources for further interaction. A CP in the networked society therefore, will evidence a mesh of online and offline interactions and activities. Pagan email discussion lists and offline gatherings can be understood as particular artifacts providing sources for interaction. This paper examines practices that obtained between online and offline contexts. It reveals how pagan community was developed as individuals connected with each other and identified common goals.


The material for this paper is drawn from an ethnographic study. I sought advice from key informants about approaching pagans generally for the purposes of research. My own 7 year experience as a participant in a wiccan ritual group afforded me some affinity with pagans. Methods involved approximately 367 hours of fieldwork offline. I participated in private rituals, celebrated at birthday parties, attended festivals and worked as a volunteer at the Magical Festival in 2001. Online, my methods included observation and content analysis of email list postings, almost daily, and irregular participation on two email discussion lists for a two-year period. This involved perusing between 10 and 75 online messages in one day. As well as impromptu discussions with pagans about technology and communication, I conducted twenty-two in-depth semi-structured interviews with individual pagans some of whom belonged to covens (pagan ritual groups) and some of whom were solitaries (pagans who practice alone and do not belong to a group). Interviews addressed topics directly related to pagans’ use of technology and the internet in the context of their pagan activities.
Research in online environments raises particular issues to do with researcher transparence, informed consent and anonymity (Sharf 1999). In order to ensure online transparency of my identity as a researcher I used my own first name and university email address and posted a message several times a year to inform any new people on the lists that I was there researching the community. Also, the extent to which a researcher can ensure anonymity and confidentiality to participants is limited (Mann and Stewart 2000: 57-58). In line with established reporting practices people’s names, the names of places and of the email discussion lists have been changed in an effort to minimize potential breaches of trust with the community.
To examine a system of action the researcher attends to instances of both participation and reification in the development of community culture (Wenger 1998: 52). The interactions examined below illustrate how email lists were integrated into pagan communications practices and facilitated the development of mutual engagement, a sense of a joint enterprise and a shared repertoire of meaning. To highlight the progression of events I take a socio-historical approach to data presentation and interpretation so that it is apparent to the reader just how and when people interacted and how reified practices developed and then were challenged, reproduced or forgotten. The Circle pagan community emerged through the coincidence of two factors; the creation of the first local email discussion list, and separately, within months, the initiation of a monthly informal offline gathering called Pagans in the Park (PITPark).
I begin with an account of the creation of the first email discussion list (L1) in Circle and its connection with offline activity and individuals. This is followed by an examination of new member’s reasons for joining L1 and an analysis of pagans’ modes of participation in the development of the emerging community. Then I explore instances of reification; firstly, the conflict over moderation in L1 that led to the creation of the second email discussion list in Circle (L2). As L1 and L2 grew, pagans began to use email lists to advertise public festivals and rituals, to secure support for initiatives and to organise informal gatherings like offline coffee get-togethers and birthday parties. The second instance of reification is chosen for what it reveals about the community’s sense of a joint enterprise and the depth of the shared repertoire of meaning that had developed within two years. This example reveals how email lists were used to address problems, in this case, failing support for formal offline pagan gatherings. These few examples are chosen as typical instances of many situations in which pagans, though separated by geographic distance, were able to use ICTs to meet and communicate regularly enough to develop a sense of community.


Late in 1999, Laura, a woman then in her late forties initiated the first pagan email discussion list (L1) in Circle. She had not long returned from the United States where she encountered the pagan movement and had joined an American pagan email list. Laura returned home wanting to locate pagan folk in Australia. Her reflection illustrates her wish to participate in a pagan group and how far she was prepared to travel to meet others face-to-face. She explained:
Laura – [I was thinking] Keep trying … [to find pagans in Circle]. … it was [tough] to find a group …this guy … came on [the American list] and he said, ‘I’m starting up a group down the [place 1 hour’s drive south of Circle] if anyone is interested?’ And then I thought OK. Well that’s too far from me, but maybe if I e-mailed him. He might know of some people in [Circle].
Laura went on to say that she began the email list because she felt that if she found it difficult to find pagans offline so would others. On the front page in yahoogroups, Laura described her email list as being set up for people who live in [Circle] and its surrounds or for people who have a connection with [Circle], for example, if they had previously lived there. In the meantime Laura joined a secretive local coven that was recommended by her Australian friend on the American list.
A feature of pagan culture is that individuals customarily use alternative names to their given ones. Such ‘craft’ (name given to pagan practice) names are often intimately linked to their spiritual persona. For example, a woman might choose the name of a goddess who possesses particular characteristics that she sees in herself or wishes to cultivate about herself. Other pagans recognise, use and respect a member’s alternative name. Laura posted an invitation in which she asked new applicants to give some personal details, including their craft name and the tradition in which they practiced and names of favourite books on Witchcraft. This strategy, as well as providing characteristics by which others might identify something they have in common, goes someway to ascertaining someone’s identity in the virtual environment, marking the person as a ‘genuine’ seeker and permitting entry to the pagan list.
Not long after her list started to populate Laura heard of a new offline gathering being initiated in Circle, Pagans in the Park (PITPark). PITPark was initiated by a now well known activist member of the south-west Summerland pagan community. Laura promptly advertised PITPark on L1 and went along to the next gathering where I first met her. She invited me to join L1 as she did many other pagans she met offline. Most of the people I interviewed had joined L1 during the first year of its operation, but their interviews revealed different ways of envisaging their engagement with other pagans.
I asked pagans what led them to join L1. Some indicated a need to connect with others, initially from home, while several set out deliberately to find pagans offline by using the online environment. Jenny’s excerpt below demonstrates how L1 served as an introduction and regular access to people with whom she could identify without at the same time having to leave her home:
Jenny - To me it was just ‘wow, some way I can meet people, what a great idea, this is fantastic, get me on this list’ [L1]. And the other great thing about it too was I didn’t actually have to go out of my house to somewhere to meet a bunch of strangers. I got up, I did my kids’ thing, I had my breakfast, I logged on! … I finally had an outlet to touch minds that were like mine …
Jenny’s experience reflects that reported by other homebound and unemployed pagans. L1 enabled them to manage the introductory stages of their relationships with other practitioners because it was anonymous and therefore less fraught. Turkle theorises the usefulness of the internet in this regard (Turkle 1995). Over time Jenny’s modes of participation in the community evolved. In 2002, she organised an offline Information Night which attracted people from one and a half hours north and one hour south of her home in suburban Circle. Three year’s after joining L1 she had met Laura and become an engaged community member offline as well as online; a pattern I witnessed with many other pagans.
Louise, a university student who had recently arrived in Circle from the United Kingdom, gave an insight into the ways the experience of participating in L1 facilitated the process of meeting strangers offline. She remembers (interviewee’s words are in square brackets):
Louise - … I kind of like remember walking into the park thinking like ‘I hope someone’s there who I’ve been talking to off the email list … I remember seeing four or five people sitting at that table. And I walked up and said high, high! [quietly] And I sort of sat down at the corner of the table … (my emphasis)
[and ok – hope there’s someone there from the list – this thought help you? What happened?]
Louise – … because people at Pagans in the Park, [they] usually [use] … their real name as opposed to their craft names which means you go ‘hello I’m Louise’, and asking if they’re on the list. Then them saying, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and then [you] saying, ‘oh yes I’m such and such a person’ [on the email list]. Because I hadn’t been on the list very long ‘Oh okay’ [they’d say] {laughs}. (my emphasis)
I observed that the opening greeting, asking people if they are on-list and to identify who they are on-list was a common way of opening discussion in all kinds of Circle pagan offline get-togethers. Once people established the online identity connected with a person whom they met offline, they had established some common ground for communication – a sort of shared repertoire of meaning developed online which they could build upon offline. The anonymous online naming, which online researchers report as inhibiting trust and commitment, turns out to be a communication facilitator for pagans’ transiting from online to offline meetings. These early practices reveal how individual pagans shared a goal of meeting other pagans offline and mutually engaged in communications that facilitated this goal. However, L1 grew to over 200 people and evolved into something more than the original meet and greet place initiated by Laura.


Conflict split Laura’s list early in 2001. It began over a discussion about a particular person in the offline community whom some of the posters knew offline and whom they felt indulged in practices unbefitting (some claimed unlawful as well) of the image of the pagan community they wanted to cultivate. Laura felt that the conversation on L1 was scandalous and could ruin the reputation of someone who was not on-list and therefore unable to defend themselves. As list moderator she sought to retain control over individual list member’s participation.
By this time L1 included people who, unlike Laura, were long-standing pagans and were also experienced in e-list moderation. Alan and Mike in particular did not cease the conversation, and upon repeated requests from Laura, shifted the conflict focus to a discussion about what they perceived as a lack of democratic principles and freedom of speech in L1 moderation. Laura simply restated in her ‘Moderators’ Statement’ that she would not enter into a ‘lengthy discussion’ and people who were unhappy with her moderation rules were ‘welcome to leave’. In effect some members were attempting to involve Laura in negotiations that could lead to developing a joint approach to managing difficult issues of group moderation.
In Wenger’s framework we could say that L1 reached a state of reification that some participants found stultifying. As a result, their participation changed from one of engagement, which involved both online and offline relationships in the developing community, to include imagination; suggesting a change to online group moderation practices. In effect, they were seeking mutual engagement, and attempted to negotiate the terms of their belonging. This negotiation is illustrated in the following excerpt from Mike’s post replying to mail from another member (noted by the >).
Re: [… L1] Moderators (sic) statement!
> To date I think [Laura] has done and is doing a great job of moderating this
> group on her own and
> has pretty much left things run there (sic) own cause (sic).
Yes, [Laura] has done a great job. The list is going very well. Note that
moderator power has not been exercised.
[Paul's] suggestion of multiple moderators does not undermine [Laura's] ownership
of the list but offers a positive suggestion as to how difficult issues of list
management can be made a little easier, other than the declaration of rules …
> This list is a "democracy" and not a "dictatorship" and like the rest of us
> the moderator is entitled to her opinion as well and to have her say.
Which we're not denying her.
But the post in question was not giving an opinion on the content of the
list, but was at a level above that. This [cut from Laura’s post]
Any kind of threat, aggression or slander towards anyone either on
the list or otherwise, will in the future result in the persons (sic)
immediate removal from the list.
[my emphasis, indented for clarity]
is not an opinion expressed in a democracy. And this
The list moderator has the final say in all matters. [my emphasis]
is dictatorship not democracy.
I'm open to alternate interpretations of course...
Mike lived in Circle and in his interview was clear about L1’s value to him. He had been participating in e-lists since 1992, and prior to L1 had experienced a sense of community on only one other list (of the 24 to which he subscribed). Mike’s perceptions about community were echoed by most other interviewees and a good proportion of the members who joined in the conversation on L1. Their ideas aligned with Wenger’s notion of a CP, that community is defined by its members rather than by a single leader. As Mike said, “it came down to the question of ‘is this our group – we who participate, or is this Laura’s group?’”


Individuals who were becoming disenchanted with L1 communicated via private emails. Several set up e-lists in case the outcome of the struggle on L1 was not positive. When certain posters persisted in asking Laura for an explanation, she unsubscribed the most vocal members and others left of their own accord. Alan and Mike were two of the people excluded. Within a week a new list, L2 was up and running with an almost identical name to L1. On the yahoogroups’ introductory page L2 is described as the only list founded by the Pagan community of [Circle] and for the Pagan community of [Circle]. It says its intended participation is pagans and their friends living in Circle and its surrounding regions.
Alan and his partner Madeleine were prime movers in the development of L2 and had been running their own ritual group for many years. They lived about one and a half hour’s drive north of Circle and Alan’s presence was much more frequent online than in offline gatherings. Alan and Madeleine had never met Laura. In the following excerpt, Alan describes the desired goals for L2. In terms of community identity it illustrates similar commitments to those of L1; a geographical base in a local region and the wish to keep it Australian.
Alan - I’ve seen it [L2] grow and it’s something that I really feel is a real positive thing for the whole pagan community. Being locally based, I’ve seen a few other [Australian] lists which showed promise to start with, completely wrecked by the Americans getting on them. … it sort of – makes the list so big that it takes you half an hour to go through and read all the posts and makes it not very interesting.
[You mean it’s locally based in terms of people who moderate the list, the local -]
Alan - Yeh yeh. And there’s no law or rule saying that if someone’s in [another large Australian city] they can’t be on it or anything like that.
To Alan and Madeleine and the other pagans who sought a place to communicate when they left L1, the idea of local community, in the sense of those people who could identify with Circle and its environs, was important to the integrity of the online list. Further, national identity affected the process of online pagan community building as the topics and issues discussed by people from overseas were ‘not very interesting’ to Australian pagans. In effect, the meanings and discourses they introduced could not be aligned with the shared repertoires of meaning that were developing in Circle. L2 was seen to be good for the whole pagan community, online and offline.
Paul, a solitary at the time, posted the excerpt below two days after Mike was unsubbed from L1. His mail illustrates the growing sense of community and suggests that expansion would be good for the broader pagan community, online and offline. All of the online communications relating to the issue of list moderation up to the split revealed an ongoing willingness to negotiate the terms of belonging rather than break with the group. Paul’s post also exemplifies a strategy for using the anonymity of the virtual environment for advancing good will and fostering trust. He backs this up by inviting offline approaches from L1 members.
Well guys, with much regret, and after much thought, I'm leaving the list
too …
… A democratically moderated list, that includes
most of the elders from this old list can be found at:
http://www.yahoogroups.com/groups/[name of list]
And that's where I'm headed …
[Laura,] if you'd like a list where you can state your reasons for this policy freely
and without fear of moderation, please feel free to join up and chat with us
at any time. Join up under a pseudonym if you want to make sure we're not
bitching about you behind your back …
People are, of course, more than welcome to be on both lists at once …
... I'm hoping that this will be a good thing for both
lists. It might clear some space for new voices to arise, both here and on
[name of new list]. I hope to bump into many of you at the various pagan events
held around the place. Please come up and say hi! ...
The initiators of L2 did not construe the break with L1 as a loss of the whole pagan community, offline as well as online. In effect L2 was seen as a community artifact providing a new interaction resource to accommodate wider interests of the growing CP. Some detractors rejoined L1 under different names; a fact of which Laura was well aware. For a short time, roughly six months after the split in L1, the online conflict was reflected in the offline community as well. Offline gatherings tended to be composed predominantly of people from either L1 or L2. Discussions at these events often turned to the matter of the online conflict. After about a year I observed that people were saying there was no longer any antagonism between members of L1 and L2 and many said they now belonged to both lists. Now (2007), advertisements for offline pagan events are posted simultaneously on both lists. Sometimes, similar discussion threads (often also initiated by the same person) run parallel on the two lists, particularly in response to world events like the Bali bombings (2002) that had a profound effect on the Australian psyche. Individual feelings, needs and actions are also communicated and responded to in the online environment.


In 2002 Alan complained on L2 that he had offered six weeks of free workshops in the craft, and was preparing a Halloween event in Circle and had received no interest in either of these initiatives from the community. (As Alan lives in a remote mountain range region his free weekly workshops were still considered expensive for a major proportion of people on the lists. The Halloween entry ticket was AUD75.) His post reveals a concern about his ongoing role (and therefore his identity) in the community. Alan threatened to leave L2 as he felt that his services were not needed or appreciated. Many people, including the poster below, responded that they had neither the time, nor the money to attend these events. The sample post also challenges Alan to align his interpretations about his role in the community with input from others.
I don't think it's fair of you to resort to put down's and aggro [aggression] towards
those on this list who, although it may seem a foreign concept to you, … we're seriously BROKE [have no money], man! And everyone I talk to about it from this list is in EXACTLY THE SAME BOAT! [in similar circumstances]
[Alan], this has nothing to do with any cliques, or enemies you may have made,
the enemy here is the almighty dollar I'm afraid ... don't take it personally …
Mutual engagement and the sense of a joint enterprise were revealed in the almost daily postings over the ensuing weeks as individuals imagined ways of stimulating renewed interest in important offline pagan events. The content of posts evidenced a shared repertoire of meaning around Alan’s skills and his behaviours as well as knowledge of previous community interactions and other individual member’s life circumstances off-list. Messages like the following encouraged Alan to stay, as they appreciated his work and felt that the events he had promoted for several years were worthwhile and they wanted them to continue. Many also offered suggestions that might help as illustrated by the excerpt below from Chrissy’s post. Chrissy lived in a country area about one hour’s south of central Circle. She has become a leading woman in the community, having initiated another yearly public pagan event.
I absolutely agree [Alan] the Halloween gigs are great.
This event has been one of the backbones for [Summerland] Pagans for donkeys [a long time] and it's always a great week-end. …
I do hope things pick up … Pagans should support Pagan gatherings, if we don't who will?
I wonder would anyone putting on events combine an event guide and make up one
advert [advertisement] and share costs to place in Insight or similar mag [magazine] throughout the year?
Like a Pagan/Heathen Event Calander (sic).
We have a few things each year going on … here in [Summerland] don't we?
Just a thought ...
In response to list deliberations, Alan, after a week or so, indicated that he had done some ‘soul searching’ and in effect devised a new interaction resource for the CP. He and Madeleine instituted a ‘[Summerland] Pagan Club’, the preliminary details of which were posted to L2 and subsequently discussed and refined by other members of the list. The club is a savings scheme whereby Pagans can contribute a small amount each week so that when events are imminent they have funds set by to pay the fees. At Jenny’s Pagan Information Night, held about a month later in Circle, a mix of L1 and L2 people were present. Alan and Madeleine attended and handed out a flyer outlining all the important details of the club. The scheme received hearty support and patronage from the offline pagan gathering. When large events occurred, L1 and L2 also enabled people to canvas a broad range of others at a moment’s notice to procure transport and share accommodation. Before internet communications, such support could usually only be obtained via one’s personal acquaintances and/or those in the geographical neighbourhood. The communications process that resulted in the creation of the Club and other support practices demonstrates how people regularly engage with each other online. The virtual space facilitates the imagining of new ways of doing things and the assumption of mutual accountability for the continuity of the offline community and support of individual identities within it.


The Pagan community in South-west Summerland bears the characteristics of an imagined community as described by Anderson (1983). Though there is a plurality of beliefs and practices, individuals are conscious of the group boundaries and can mobilise around values held by the collective. They now refer to themselves as the ‘south-west Summerland’ pagan community and have actively construed their identity as pagan people connected with Circle and its environs. Further, national boundaries are important. They are Australian pagans with interests distinct from those of pagans in other countries. These persons constitute a pagan community of practice that endures through individuals’ regular engagement in online and offline places. They are involved in a joint enterprise with the self-defined goals of meeting other pagans face to face and developing community identity.
In a sense these pagans seem to have devised a new form of religious community which embraces myriad small groups as well as solitaries. There is community for solitaries quite distinct from the normal accommodations made for individual spiritualities in other traditions like those of the monk or nun who are incorporated into religious ‘orders’ or some yogis who remain alone and officially unconnected to any religious social group. In this pagan community, authority continues to reside with the group, supporting Harvey’s early research (1997), a norm emerging in other groups facilitated by ICT communications. What is enduring is the practice of communing together, sharing knowledge, learning from each other and providing personal support. The people who identify and work towards specific goals are the members who constitute the community (cf Beyer). It remains for other pagan researchers to ascertain if there are online and offline aggregates of pagan groups and individuals that function similarly in different localities. Perhaps they define and gather around different goals and for different purposes.
Using a practice theory of culture enables one to locate religiously oriented community in the making/unmaking. Researchers can proceed unfettered by the geo-temporal constructs inherited from traditional definitions of religion and follow changes in a community’s self-definition over time. This study was conducted while the pagan community in Summerland was growing but once the need to meet other pagans and strengthen community subsides; that is, once paganism becomes part of the mainstream, if it does, we must speculate as to whether the community will identify new goals to provide its raison d’etre.


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Berger, Helen A., Evan A. Leach, E., and Leigh S. Shaffer, 2003. Voices from the pagan census, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
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Castells, Manuel, Fernandez-Ardevol, Mireia, Qiu, Jack Linchuan, Sey, Araba, 2007. Mobile communication and society: a global perspective, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cowan, Douglas E. 2005. Cyberhenge: modern pagans on the internet, New York, London: Routledge.
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Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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York, Michael 2003. Pagan theology: paganism as a world religion, New York and London: New York University Press.


Cyberproceedings Index