The United States has evolved into a nation in which religion has become more diverse, causing adherents of emerging religions to be subjected to continuous challenges to the legitimacy of their religious practices as these practices vary greatly from those of traditional religions as members of the general population, chief executives, legislators, the decision makers for government agencies, and judges are poorly informed or misinformed (Barner-Berry, 2005, pp. 81-82). As Contemporary Paganism is a religious movement that is rapidly expanding, attracting many women who have become disillusioned of the patriarchal system presented by traditional religions, such as Christianity, these challenges have increased as Pagans have had to respond to challenges concerning the preferred places of worship, the training and status of clergy members, and the objects used in worship and on Pagan religious holidays (Barner-Berry, 2005, p. 81).
While the Constitution of the United States makes provisions for freedom of religion as stated in the First Amendment, religion was not specifically defined. This opened the door for challenges from the religious right to assert their beliefs as being superior to alternative belief systems (Barner-Berry, 2005, p. 82). Early challenges led to the establishment of the parallel belief test to be applied in the determination of the legitimacy of emerging religions by questioning “whether a given belief is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God…” while also requiring sincerity (Barner-Berry, 2005, p. 82).
Even though men are not excluded, the majority of the adherents of the Paganism and Wiccan religions are female, which, when combined with redefining the gender roles within the religion, indicates Paganism and Wiccan as “explicitly feminist” or “linked with feminism” (Oboler, 2010, pp. 162, 167). Paganism and Wiccan provide women with an equality that was unattainable within traditional religions who often teach that women are somehow less worthy than men. Oprah Winfrey embraces the premise of ‘new spirituality’ in which male and female are equal and gender does not dictate the roles of the individual (Cotten & Springer, 2009, p. 56). As Paganism and Wiccan are considered to be aspects of New Age religions, Oprah has emerged as a female minister of sorts whose messages of female empowerment increases the authenticity of Paganism among adherents, particularly among whites who may view Oprah as the “wise black matriarch” who provides white people with redemption for misdeeds through the message of love and self-acceptance (Cotten & Springer, 2009, p. 59).
Feminism in general has introduced a prehistory in which a matriarchal society was in place while some associate this notion as a myth that contains psychological and spiritual power (Eller, 2000, p. 4). The myth of a matriarchal prehistory serves as an inspiration for Paganism in which women are no longer oppressed by men and have the ability to worship in a manner that is consistent with their personal beliefs as an aspect of the feminist spirituality movement as the concept of a matriarchal prehistory becomes more accepted in the feminist and cultural mainstream (Eller, 2000, p. 5). However, the myth of a matriarchal prehistory was first revived by Johann Jakob Bachofen in 1861 as a method of presenting patriarchy as an “evolutionary advance,” indicating that the concept of a matriarchal prehistory was inferior (Eller, 2000, p. 5).
For those who observe traditional religions, the concept of Paganism is disturbing as it offers a contrasting view to their beliefs. The attempts to discredit adherents of New Age religions reflect intolerance toward those who believe differently and have resulted in numerous challenges through the court system. For the women who embrace Paganism and Wiccan, they find acceptance and validation through their womanhood amid these challenges in a religion that is continuously evolving to enhance the position of females in religion and in society. Perhaps someday the differences between religions can be minimized and peace among all can be attained. However, for that to happen, the misogyny practiced by a society that is heavily influenced by patriarchal religions will have to end.
- Barner-Berry, C. (2005). Chapter 4: Paganism as a Religion. Contemporary Paganism: Minority Religions in a Majoritarian America, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 81-112.
- Cotten, T. & Springer, K. (2009). Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture, Part 1 Oprah the Woman, Oprah the Empire, Chapter 3 New Age Sould: The Gendered Translation of New Age Spirituality on The Oprah Winfrey Show. University Press of Mississippi, December 2009, pp. 54-69.
- Eller, C. (2000). The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future. The New York Times, pp. 1-7.
- Oboler, R.S. (2010). Negotiating Gender Essentialism in Contemporary Paganism. The Pomegranate 12.2 (2010), pp. 159-184.