The Many Faces of the Occult
Dec 23, 2019
Iqbal Ahmed’s film explores a rapidly-growing sector of spirituality.
The demographic trends tell an incontrovertible story: The American church is in decline. In 2018 and 2019, 65 percent of Americans identified as Christians—down 12 percent from the previous decade. While Christianity’s numbers and influence are waning, other demographics are gaining ground; by 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans, so-called religious nones, could constitute as large a percentage of the population as Protestants.
Occultism is also on the rise. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 0.4 percent of Americans, or about 1 million to 1.5 million people, identify as Wicca or Pagan—potentially outnumbering the 1.4 million mainline members of the Presbyterian Church. By 2050, the number of practicing pagans in America is projected to triple to 6.6 million, or 1.5 percent of the population.
To tell the story of the dramatic rise of neo-paganism in America, though, you quickly run into a roadblock. “No two pagans seem to agree on the same definition” of paganism, Iqbal Ahmed, who spent two years researching a large community of pagans in Southern California for his short documentary Pagans, told me. Because of this confusion, Ahmed said, “it’s no wonder that relatively informed laypeople might have still have misconceptions about paganism.”
In fact, Ahmed came to the world of paganism with his own set of preconceived notions. “Paganism conjured images of ’80s films about satanic cults,” he said. “I envisioned blood rituals, pentagrams, and hedonism.” Pagans, which is featured on The Atlantic today, aims to dispel some of this haze. By focusing on an intimate community of pagans who live within 200 miles of one another and often worship together, Ahmed’s film showcases paganism’s diversity of people and beliefs. “I found pagans of every ilk,” Ahmed said. Among his film’s subjects are teachers, social workers, and PTA members who engage in various pre-Christian practices steeped in ceremony and superstition.
Paganism is an umbrella term. It comes from the Latin paganus, which refers to those who lived in rural areas. As Christianity spread within the Roman empire, it was mostly practiced in the cities; in the country, people who believed in the “old ways” came to be known as pagans. Paganism, the catchall term, came to encompass many different cultures, including Greco-Roman, Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic tribes.
According to the Pagan Federation, modern pagans can be defined as followers of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion. While many meaningful distinctions can be drawn between its sub-sects, such as Wicca, witchcraft, Druidry, and Christo-Paganism, many pagans share core religious tenets. The most important principles are the responsibility for one’s own beliefs and the freedom to choose one’s own deity (and relationship to it). This is often expressed as “Do what you will, as long as it harms none.” Most pagans also revere nature, which they view as a manifestation of the divine—not as the fallen creation, as is the view of dualism.
“Paganism, by its very nature, is free and often somewhat amorphous,” said Ahmed. “There was never any judgment within the community. It was very much live-and-let-live.” Although Ahmed never met a “typical” pagan, he did notice some commonalities among the people he encountered in the pagan community. For one, many members of the community were disillusioned by institutionalized Judeo-Christian belief systems. “They found formal religion restrictive and had negative experiences with the Christian church in their past,” Ahmed said. All of the pagans that Ahmed met valued an à la carte version of spirituality. “They picked and followed specific aspects that worked for them,” he said. “The real breakdown of beliefs was really unlimited.”
Ahmed quickly realized that the freedom and multiplicity of belief systems did not undermine the serious nature of these alternative spiritual practices. “All of the pagans I met came very seriously to paganism itself,” he said. “No one casually appropriated these beliefs. Most became pagans due to a deep and underlying need to find a value system that more closely approximated their own previously unarticulated beliefs.”
“There was a sweet sincerity to what I saw,” he added. “There was a genuine spiritual connection throughout.”
Of the eight major holidays that most pagans observe, Ahmed was able to attend ceremonies for four: Yule (winter solstice), Beltane (festival of the fire), Litha (summer solstice), and Samhain (the witch’s new year). “Each holiday celebration that I saw had very specific rituals, whether through chanting, singing, processions, or other actions,” Ahmed said. “Most people who identify as pagans participate in some combination of these events, though many likely perform them privately.”
Pagans is a mesmerizing portrait of a little-known subculture. Ahmed’s respect and fascination for the subject are evident in the film’s cinematic imagery and attention to deep personal detail—an aspect of the film that was hard-won as Ahmed worked to gain the trust of wary participants over the course of years.
“Everything surprised me about this world—the people, the ceremonies, the humor, the authenticity, the search for personal ‘truth,’” Ahmed said.
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.