Cyberspace is a technological doorway to the astral plane. Cyberspace is what happens when you join the soft-ware and hard-ware together and then activate it [...]We literally stand in a place between the worlds, one with heightened potential to be as sacred as any circle cast on the ground. 1
In response to global warming and the rapid decline of Earth’s ecosystems, will we witness the emergence of a new "environmental generation"? Is this a generation that’s alive now? What are the kind of things that might define a "generation"? In this article I briefly investigate the burgeoning contemporary nature spirituality of the next generation by focusing on Neopaganism—one strand of what Bron Taylor has termed "dark green religion"2. Though initiated by an older generation of New Agers, the further-ranging implications of Neopaganism are already indicated by the growing predominance of a net-based spiritual nature sensibility among non-Neopagan users.
If we think about what generations are, and what defines them, it becomes clear that today generations are interest-affiliated rather than age-dependent. Despite marketing labels such as "Generation Y" and "The Millennials", an older generation continues to avariciously expand into the territory of ‘youth’. The integration of ages through consumer products, cosmetic procedures, social networking etc, means little distinction can be drawn between the interests of say, "Generation Y" and that of their parents. Age boundaries are inviting frontiers to markets rather than impassable barriers. These markets then focus on shaping consumer and prosumer networks. Yet if generations are interest groups, it doesn’t mean they’re no longer useful as markers of change. Therefore I will continue to discuss generations as interest groups, rather than in age-related terms.
New Earth Spirituality
Contrary to the popular belief of a ‘secular Britain’, we live—like medieval peasants—in a fundamentally religious society.
One identifiable long-term trend that could be described as a "generational trait" has been the rise of millennial spiritualism—New Age, Western Buddhism, alternative health, diet regimes, etc—belief systems that took root at the start of the twentieth century with the occultism of Yeats and Aleister Crowley, and became more pronounced in the twenty-first. Michael Barkun has used the term "improvisational millennialism" to describe how conspiracy theorists use ‘collages’ of information to "provide holistic and comprehensive pictures of the world"3. I suppose millennial spiritualism is my interpretation of the phrase, covering alternative religious practices in which the individual may pick and choose their belief system from wide historic and geographic sources.
To follow with some of the grossest generalisations: what all millennial spiritualisms have in common is a shift from publically-oriented religions to an increased, if not complete, internalisation of religious concerns on an individual level. A common thread is that modernity has brought about a state of apocalypticism in which a change of consciousness (The New Age) is battled on an individual level—this apocalypse is not metaphorical but a literal state of mind. Reality is on a spiritual level that can only be accessed internally, as the individual self is the locus of healing, restoring healthy harmony (good) against the decay of modernity (bad).
Whilst there are many facets to (post)modern spiritualities, the concerns that drive the majority of millennial spiritualities mean that in general they’re better described as nature religions, rather than say, Christian. This because rather than obscuring an ultimate reality, these spiritualities consider Nature—as in, the non-manmade world—to reveal an extra-cultural "natural reality"4. Severed from a ‘natural’ world of primal vital organicity, the Western world has fallen into decay, disease being the opposite of harmony (Nature)5. These ideas about Nature are in themselves nothing new, but the kind of Nature that is considered by millennial spiritualities today is something different.
As well as an increasing awareness of ecological crisis and disaster, the shift towards earth-based spiritualities is in tandem with the ‘network’ society that emerged alongside scientific developments in ecosystem relations. Systems thinking—that encourages conceptions of global ‘networks of data’—reveals that mapping social media and eg. computing weather patterns, have a lot in common. Though often the similarities become muddled, as evidenced by Adam Curtis’ botched hatchet job on cybernetic/ ecosystems thinking in his documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace6.
Though there are obvious precursors to Neopaganism such as the New Age — as well as multiple offshoots — I will spend the rest of this article looking specifically at this earth spirituality movement, because to me it signals a generational ‘break’ from older place-based and practice-based eco-spiritualities. Overall, Neopaganism presents ‘generational’ (interest-based) traits that we may find repeated in the future: in particular, the substitution of natural for virtual worlds, yet more collage-based individual worship, and of course the increased veneration of a specific type of Nature.
Neopaganism: What Is It?
When referring to Neopagans in this context I mean specifically cyber pagans who ‘interact primarily, if not solely, through the Internet and/or the World Wide Web’7 —not the more traditional (and numerous) outdoorsy-type Pagans that stem from the Pagan revival movement that began in the 70s and 80s. A modern spiritual movement, Neopaganism has been called a worldly "anti-authoritarian nature-oriented urban protest religion"8. As to the contested differences between the terms ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’: the first signals an institutional orthodoxy, the latter an individual heterodoxy. As Neopaganism seems to be in a transitional phase, the difference between the two terms is to a degree irrelevant in this context.
Neopaganism is closely affiliated with the witchcraft movement Wicca, though Wiccans have stronger offline practices. Neopagans often have animist, pantheist and polytheistic beliefs: individuals ‘hack’ pantheons of chosen gods out of the open ‘source codes’9 provided by a variety of cultures worldwide and worship them in cyber shrines—for example, a Neopagan might choose Lakshmi, Mother Earth and Thor as their pantheon and worship them in a cybershrine.
While many religions use the internet, there’s a difference between religious groups that create websites and distribute religious information—and an online religion like Neopaganism, where participants not only meet but worship in cyberspace. Aesthetically, Neopagan internet ‘shrines’ are filled with gifs and badly rendered images which gives them a dated (90s) feel10. This, and the Neopagan links with New Age, suggests an ‘older generational’ look that may deceive visitors into thinking that Neopaganism is a strange subculture that’s already past it. I would argue very much not so, for the following reasons:
As they are composed of a minority, Neopagan groups flourish online because individuals are connected across large distances. Most Neopagans meet in forums, chatrooms and Yahoo groups11, and use online shops to distribute pagan artefacts—such as athames or pentangles—globally. Therefore, as a movement it’s less likely to succumb to a communal sense of disillusionment and more likely to gain new members.
As a new web-based religion, Neopaganism is in the process of building an authentic culture by sharing incrementally modified web-based texts, not unlike the consuming appropriation-and-acquisition culture that circulates ‘net art’ and ‘internet poetry’.
Neopagans are unusual as a spiritual movement because they imagine a religious community online. Practitioners join online churches—Cybercovens—that are more akin to organisations built through similarities, rather spatially-oriented real life communities. In this sense they are very much like the definition of ‘generation’ that I outlined at the beginning of this article. Neopaganism, in the spirit of the new generation, is a decentralised religion, without a single leader or nucleus. This goes hand-in-hand with the desired structure of the Occupy movement and the kind of societal structure recently envisaged by Russell Brand.12
The strongest case for why Neopaganism isn’t already past it, and why it should be of greater interest, is that we are likely witnessing the emergence of what Taylor has described as a new global green ‘super religion’. In a time of environmental crisis faith in traditional religions has weakened—the anthropologically-centred belief systems of Christianity and Islam in particular have failed to promote an idea of environmental stewardship. The demand for green religions is only set to increase in the future.
As urban populations living in confined spaces intensify, so does a general sense of disconnect from nature. The popular turn towards Buddhism (traditionally a more nature-aware religion), organic and local food movements, vegetarianism, obsessions with pets, totemistic images of animals and soothing Zen-like Natural scenes in desktop backgrounds are just some of the trends in which Western consumers manifest a growing interest in venerating an idealised version of the natural world.
Unlike Christian religions (that only really ever appropriated Pagan rituals), Neopagans have a strong interest in nature. Neopaganism revolves around a seasonal calendar—‘The Wheel of the Year’. While traditional Paganism revolves around real-life festivals such as Samhaim, Yule and Beltane, Neopagans celebrate online—they may, for example be isolated either geographically or culturally.
The idea of a nature religion online might seem paradoxical, yet it links to the notion that ‘everything is connected’ in ecosystem theory, much like James Lovelock’s idea of Gaia (Earth as a conscious, self-regulating ecosystem).
Building on Romantic notions of beauty and Wilson Bentley’s carefully selected images of snowflakes, for Pagans ‘Nature’ is the source of all power, a sacred creative force that is manifested in trees, animals and plants and rocks.
Rather than the terrifying wilderness envisioned by the Ancient Greeks and Christians, or more recently by ‘dark ecologists’, this particular kind of nature is in general perceived as a benevolent entity. This is a continuance of New Age Nature—a caring, harmonious force best articulated by charismatic life forms and attractive natural formations such as crystals and minerals.
Going further, Neopagans reason that if everything is a display of this natural power, then we can find it in computers, and therefore cyberspace is an extended domain of this creative energy. The appropriation of the veneration of Nature into a virtual domain, which in many ways is already unconsciously widespread, has implications for the future of environmental activism and concern.
Cyberspace and Nature
Despite assumptions, cyberspace is the perfect venue for interrogating a benevolent form of Nature.
"Place", says the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, "is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other"13. It’s no coincidence that most Neopagans live in urban areas. Like the railway that Thoreau recognised as connecting the natural and artificial worlds, cyberspace is a walkway between the city and a global wilderness ‘space’.
In our interactions in cyberspace we can feel both independent from and involved with nature—the nice sides of it anyway. This is evident in Second Life, favoured by many Neopagans for virtual meeting points. Digital green grass, clear flowing rivers, flowering trees and stone circles become symbolic of the ‘extra-cultural’ pastoral Nature that represents God—particularly because of the creative work that generated these simulated environments.
Neopaganism isn’t the only trend that has recognised the growing link between cyberspace and contemporary attempts to connect with a ‘positive’ vision of Nature: consider the popularity of Lolcats, Buzzfeed lists of cute animals and soothing nature sound albums. Here decentralisation has removed the mediator—such as a Catholic priest—between the individual and God. Instead, the computer has become the intercessionary—like the common perception that ‘Google is God’, Neopagans end up worshipping cyberspace itself. (Surely in a time when Google is the first port of call for answers to questions, and social media platforms make and break social lives, this is a trait that we might label as ‘generational’).
Through their millennial collage-making of divine pantheons of Gods, for Neopagans the only thing that is authentic is the belief of the individual. Instead of adhering to set rules, Neopagans are bound together in cyberspace by ideas of creative ‘energy’, i.e. a benevolent Nature. This "feeling of energy" (Nature) is created by rituals enacted by individuals online or in forums as well as in offline rituals. Participants can light virtual candles, invoke spells or cast circles in Second Life.
Neopagan rituals using ‘energy’ are about harnessing natural powers and connecting with Nature. They’re also part of religions’ age-old interest in channelling nature through magical means. The Catholic Church used holy water, rituals and talismans as magical power, Protestants used prayers and Providence, Neopagans use virtual pentangles and spells to try and get what they want.
Neopagans’ channelling of Nature is reminiscent of the optimistic (and fallacious) medieval notions of human agency in the natural world—in particular a continued investment in the idea of sympathetic magic and the simplistic belief that the natural world is not only designed to cater to human desires, but to desires that remain solely in the realm of individual thought.
Invoking Nature online in these transcendent terms is pretty far off effective environmental activism and concern, that could involve donating money to conservation charities, putting public pressure on governments or supporting environmental science.
Conclusion: The Next Generation?
If religions are often practical answers to impossible problems, Neopaganism offers marginalised individuals a connection with nature that gives them agency in a time of global environmental crisis.
However, unlike virtual reality in The Matrix, especially when dealing with the complex properties of natural ecosystems, the internet is at best a weak electronic reflection of real life.
Whilst nature-oriented religions might encourage ecological awareness, Neopaganism indicates the mindset of the next generation may set to be damaging environmentally. This is because of blinkered interests despite increasing ecological knowledge, thanks to the New Age legacy of an idealised pastoral Nature that reveals a ‘truer’ spiritual reality.
As a result, complexity is sacrificed for holism, diversity for charisma. Visions of anthropologically-centred Natural paradises are at odds with the real life intricacies of varying ecosystem health and maintenance.
Neopagan communities are built on the conceit of similarities: they’re lifestyle enclaves, much like New Age and other online communities. These spiritualities lead to misplaced ideas about lifestyle choices and the privatisation of public concerns within the individual as protest.
Furthermore in the age of the ‘instant expert’, cut-and-paste religions problematically distort environmental facts. Going back to Barkun’s theories as the source of millennial spiritualism, the dangers of cut-and-paste is demonstrated by the popularity of climate change conspiracies. As Douglas Cowan (an excellent source for further reference) notes, Agehananda Bharati says that "conviction is no proof of anything: it’s merely an indication of the emotional intensity of the person who feels convinced"14.
If Neopaganism displays characteristics of the ‘next generation’, then this particular form of nature spirituality points to an increasing level of individualisation and atomisation among future generations that—worryingly for environmentalists—withdraws from public political resistance, environmental science and action.
This seems a shame when exciting—and urgent—developments in environmental science and ecological thought offers the next generation to step outside the obsessive meshes of the self.
- 1. Lisa McSherry (2002) quoted in: Douglas E. Cowan, “Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet”, New York:Routledge (2004).
- 2. Bron Taylor, “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”, University of California Press (2009).
- 3. Michael Barkun, “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America”, University of California Press (2013, second edition).
- 4. Steven Sutcliffe quoted in: Joanna Pearson et al (eds), “Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World”, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (1998).
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (BBC, 2011).
- 7. Lisa McSherry (2002) quoted in: Douglas E. Cowan, “Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet”, New York: Routledge (2004).
- 8. Gregory Grieve, “Imagining a Virtual Religious Community: Neo-Pagans on the Internet”, http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/G_Grieve_Imagining_1995.pdf.
- 9. Douglas E. Cowan, “Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet”, New York: Routledge (2004)
- 10. E.g. http://www.well.com/~mareev/portal/goddess/shrine/ and http://inanna.virtualave.net/menu.html.
- 11. E.g. http://www.jaguarmoon.org/ and http://tech.dir.groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Advanced_Advertising_Arena/c...
- 12. Ibid.
- 13. Yi-Fu Tuan, “Space and Place”, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2001, reprint).
- 14. Cowan’s selected of quote in: “Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet” New York: Routledge (2004).