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Mike Nichols on Paganism

G&C: Being seen as an "authority" on Paganism because of the popularity of your numerous published works, what type of pressure does that place on you, both personally and publicly?

Mike Nichols: The word "authority" doesn't rest very easily on me, although I feel deeply honored that so many folks, both inside and outside our faith, have been kind enough to find my research and writing helpful to them.

One point of pressure is that many people just assume, or expect, me to be totally out of the broom closet, which I'm not. There are a number of reasons for this. I live in a very conservative community which has, at times, shown itself to be Pagan-hostile. I am married to a woman who is not Pagan (although Pagan-friendly) and my son attends a Catholic grade school (as I once did myself). Although the place I work is committed to diversity from an HR standpoint, individual coworkers exhibit somewhat less religious tolerance.

Another point of pressure stems from something that is more enjoyable, but just as frustrating. Occasionally, some group does me the honor of asking me to "represent" Paganism (or Witchcraft, or Wicca) on some panel discussion or conference. (Currently, I have the honor to represent Wicca on Kansas City's first Interfaith Council.) While I am pleased to serve our faith in this capacity, I am supremely aware that no one can adequately "represent" the great diversity of views and opinions found within modern Paganism. I try my best to make a distinction between what are my own beliefs, as opposed to what may be beliefs by other Wiccan groups, but it takes constant vigilance. Add to that the fact that it is almost impossible to come up with even the simplest list of beliefs that is accepted by ALL Wiccans or modern Pagans, and you see what I'm up against!

G&C: What is your "day to day" life like?

MN: A lot less counter-cultural than most people (including me!) would expect, at least on the surface. I have been married for thirteen years, and have a step-daughter of 19, and a son of 10. I live in suburbia in a white ranch-style house with a walk-out basement, and a second-story deck nestled high up against a large oak tree (making it seem more like a treehouse!), and drive a red PT Cruiser. Seven years ago, I left a career in Library Science (I was half-way to my MLS), to do computer and network support for a large telecommunications company head-quartered in Kansas City. Eventually, I was asked to become the manager of a group of PC and LAN techs, and now have a team of 15 who report to me --although I see myself more as an employee advocate than as part of "management".

My hobbies include kite-flying (my favorite is a dragonfly-shaped kite with a seven-foot wingspan), movies (I'm building up a DVD collection, heavy on sci-fi, fantasy, and musicals), and music, music, and more music! I especially love Sixties music, Ragtime, Celtic, and movie music. (This Friday, I'm heading to Sedalia, MO, to attend the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, and on Saturday, I have tickets to see the Monkees in concert.) I also play guitar, sing, write music, and in the past several months started performing with a band called Spellbound, doing Pagan-oriented Sixties-style pop.

In my ever-diminishing free time, I love to read (especially studies in folklore and mythology), do occasional guest lectures for local Pagan classes and student groups, and represent Wicca on the Kansas City Interfaith Council.

G&C: Having seen much of the "evolution" of Paganism, do you see the proliferation of "traditions", covens and solitaries as making acceptance and/or tolerance of this religion more difficult to the "majority religions"?

MN: Not really. I think the "majority religions" would find Paganism difficult to accept whether or not we have a proliferation of traditions. What they find hard to accept is our theology/philosophy, not our diversity. We represent a world-view which is radically different from theirs. Pagans value diversity in all things, in Nature, in our Gods, in our lifestyles, in our relationships, etc. In contrast, most monotheistic creeds promote a monomaniacal view of the world, where there is only ONE right way to be in the world, ONE true god, ONE accepted lifestyle, ONE sanctioned relationship, etc. Monotheistic faiths tend to, by definition, see anything Different from them as Wrong. It is not the fact that Pagans ARE diverse that bothers them, it's the fact that Pagans CHERISH diversity. And that is a philosophical difference with profoundest implications.

G&C: What do you see as the greatest "stumbling block" to Pagans striving for equality and an end to religious discrimination against them?

MN: Ah, now for the irony! In a society that does NOT value diversity, that expects all religions to conform to a template (churches or temples, a book of sacred scripture, a hierarchy of ministers, etc.), the fact that modern Paganism does not have these external trappings may be our biggest stumbling block to acceptance and equality. Does that mean that Pagans should begin to conform to these "standards" in order to gain "legitimacy"? NO WAY! President Bush thinks that in order to be valid, a religion must have church buildings. Should we go out and build churches to show him we are "valid"? NOT ON YOUR LIFE! To cave in to this kind of pressure would undermine the very lessons we would like our society to learn from us: that diversity IS good; that ALL the earth is sacred, not just certain buildings; that no one Book contains ALL Truth; that each of us can touch the numinous, not just the ministers; etc.

Interestingly, I was on a panel discussion at the recent Heartland Pagan Festival when J.D. Stevens posed this very question to the panel. I was astounded and horrified when one or two of the other panelists suggested that Pagans might have to make some concessions to what is "expected" of religions, and make some"sacrifices" in order to gain wider acceptance. No thanks. Count me out.

So where does that leave us? With a very hard row to hoe, to be sure. But caving in to demands of conformity is not the answer. We are going to have to muddle through some other way if we want our values to survive intact. Author Raven Grimassi made a wonderful point to me after the panel had concluded. He said maybe we are a little too obsessed with this idea of being "accepted". After all, the Pagan folk have always been with us. And they always will be. He is right.

G&C: What are a few of your best memories of practicing your faith?

MN: Most of the very best memories are too personal to go into here. On a level only slightly less than that is working with my old coven, New Gwynedd, which had the most amazing constellation of members, all of them into doing their own research, all of them complementing one another. And of course, all the memories of sharing my faith with others in both interfaith dialogue, and teaching my faith to students through the 20 years of classes I taught through the local free university system.

G&C: Do you see Paganism - or various traditions - as "difficult"? For, say, a teenager exploring Paganism, is it easier to have a certain "spiritual maturity" when it comes to understanding the true essence of Paganism and being able to make the practices part of one's own life?

MN: It doesn't take much spiritual maturity to simply replace Christian labels with Pagan ones and, unfortunately, I've seen that happen far too often over the years. They substitute "THE Goddess" for "God", or "Our Mother" for "Our Father", and "Coven" for "Church", and "Yule" for "Christmas", etc. But they don't change any of the underlying thought structures, or value systems, or world-view. Consequently, they remain Christian in their outlook, in their relationships, in their use of power, and in every other important way - despite the fact that they now meet at the full moon and invoke Diana. It is the underlying thought processes that are the most difficult to change, but it is the most important part of Paganism. And yes, changing those underlying values and assumptions requires GREAT spiritual maturity, and it IS difficult, not only for teenagers, but for anyone else who's new to the Craft.

G&C: What do you make of the alarming increase in Pagans selling their services on the open market at exorbitant rates? Is it a side effect of our consumer-based society, a necessary step to help an empty, grasping culture, an obligatory phase (on the part of the practitioners) prompted by the discovery of long-dormant abilities, or some tangled amalgam of all of the above? Do you see it as getting better or getting worse?

MN: I was raised in a tradition of the Craft that teaches it is wrong to charge money for practicing "the Art", or for teaching "sacred knowledge". I confess that is still my bias. On the one hand, I have heard very reasonable and articulate arguments as to why accepting compensation for one's gifts makes sense. On the other hand, I have too often seen people follow this line of reasoning, and watched how their practice changed when money became the ultimate goal. Is it possible to do it and remain spiritual? Possibly. But as for myself, I'd rather have one less thing to worry about in life.

G&C: There seems to be a trend for separation - ie. Pagan cemeteries, Pagan libraries, etc. - to serve as a method for peaceful, positive community coexistence. Do you see religious persecution as getting better or worse? Is religious tolerance being stressed enough as a key ethical concern?

MN: It's the old question of whether our country should be a "melting pot" (i.e. you throw everything into the pot and melt it down until it is all mixed, and every drop looks and tastes identical) or a "stew" (where individual pieces retain their distinctive flavor but mingle to create something more than the sum of its parts). I vote stew. And the way to achieve that is by maintaining a degree of separation, but allowing some mingling, too. Yes, let's have Pagan libraries, and other religious libraries. But let's also have public libraries where ALL religious traditions are represented.

Also, we need to move beyond the idea of "religious tolerance" and embrace the concept of "religious acceptance". Of course, that is admittedly difficult for any religion whose credal stance is that they have the only TRUE religion, and all others must therefore be wrong. For them, the prognosis for real acceptance of other faiths is indeed bleak.

G&C: Do you think that the overwhelming practical focus of today's popularly-received traditions is eclipsing the mystical essence of the religion? Or is it merely a matter of a new, dynamic religion "filling out", if you will, into every aspect of daily life?

MN: Gee, I'm sure glad you don't ask any tough questions. Well, I suppose it is a case of "something's lost and something's gained". I myself became a Pagan over 30 years ago and there was a much stronger mystical bent to it then. Witchcraft was seen as a "mystery religion" in the classical sense of being initiatory, and the inner workings and inner teachings were not shared with outsiders. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for the uninitiated to get their first taste of the Craft when someone says, "Hey, my Coven is having a Full Moon Circle on Friday night! Why don't you come?"

That's not to say that I think the mystical and practical should be kept in watertight compartments. On the contrary, I don't believe that is possible. I found myself becoming much more political, and much more of a social activist, the more I got into the mystical side of my faith. The two have always been intertwined, going all the way back to the politics of Leland's "Aradia". But I sometimes think that things work best when the mystical side is developed first, and the political grows organically from that. Rather than the other way around, as is becoming more common.


Mike Nichols' articles are available at many sites on the web, but most completely at The Witches Sabbats.

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