Rambling thoughts ahead!
When I first started to practice, I was a bit of an odd bird in that I came to the real weirdos first. I was exposed to The Temple of Psychic Youth (TOPY) in 1982 when I got a copy of The Grey Book. A friend and I wrote to the Temple after being exposed to Psychic TV’s Force the Hand of Chance. One of the guys who turned me onto this was a ceremonial magician, later to become a Lodgemaster in the OTO.
This was an intriguing place to start, as TOPY was not espousing a religious perspective. They referred to themselves as trying to establish 'a modern pagan philosophy without recourse to gods or demons' (that's a quote from memory, so the wording may be slightly off). They also taught one method of magical working, a form of sexual sigil magic, and were from one perspective a deprogramming cult. The deprogramming was from cultural indoctrination and they owed a lot to ideas from William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Willhelm Reich, Spare, Crowley and many, many others.
The other things I was exposed to were Starhawk's The Spiral Dance and Carlos Castenada (the first three books were in our house, so I had read them before I found TOPY) and Crowley's Book 4. I lived out in the suburbs, and there wasn't much else to be found. Crowley was quite confusing to me at 15 (and I never became a fan), but I could work with the exercises in the Spiral Dance, the sigil method of TOPY, and various versions of exercises I picked up from Castaneda.
Here's an interesting side note about Castaneda. Castaneda had a really massive influence on a ton of folks in the '70s and '80s. Now opinion on him seems to have split into two camps: the folks that think he was a maniac and a fraud and those who think the books are all 100% true. I'm in the third camp (the third camp usually rocks, BTW!) in that I think he made a massive amount up, but I still find ideas from him useful. Had he simply said 'I dreamed all this' I would be totally down with his scene! Of course, he would never have been published, but that's another matter. I personally think he dreamed almost all of it up, and did so in an interesting fashion though he totally lost me later on. Retrospectively he does seem to have been pretty sketchy in myriad ways, at least at the end.
Now we jump from 82 to 87. In '87 I made a friend and joined the OTO through that meeting. My first initiation was performed by a guy so wasted drunk he literally could not stand up, and whose girlfriend fed him cues so that he could complete the ritual. Anyway, I stayed around for another few initiations which were run much better than that first one, but in a sense the scene had been set. I couldn't really grasp why the drunk guy who initiated me could really be in a position of power in an organization I should take too seriously.
But I remained interested in witchcraft and Wicca. Being in Berkeley, I ended up attending a Brigid Sabbat run by NROOGD as a Covenant of the Goddess event, I believe. Oh, that was odd. I rolled in there with my head shaved, in jeans and a leather jacket having no idea I was going to the Ren Faire. It was also very much like wandering into a sci-fi and fantasy convention, which I tried a couple of times as well, as I did like those genres a lot. I did not fit in, and while I had fun, it was not something that really called to me.
Which brings up another interesting point, which has to do with roots. I found TOPY through punk rock, which was basically a 'question everything, the over culture mostly sucks, and make it up as you go along' thing for me. TOPY was very clear about using bits and pieces from many different sources and never claimed to having any great secrets or owning any special aspect of magical transmission. To belong to TOPY you did the practice. Other than that, you brought whatever you were personally into to the table. This still makes the most sense to me, the idea of an affinity group based on deeds and interests rather than shared belief.
Also, as someone who considers themselves pretty much non-religious while also also in no way an atheist (atheism is a strange one to me, as it often seems to be more reductionist scientism as a religion in many cases. As a dyed in the wool spirit-worker, atheism is off the table) the religious structures of neo-paganism have never really gelled with me. I mean I interface with varieties of spirits, and some of those seem really, really large, but for me, the concept of worship as it is practiced in most religions I have come across just isn't for me. I have this feeling of awe and respect for the Field as a whole, but it clearly doesn't give a shit what I believe! I'm pretty sure it also doesn't care that I get giddy and emotional about its bad self at times, either. So I have a hard time conceiving of this as a religious experience in the way friends' experience of Jesus, Diana, or Thor is.
This entire ramble started for me when I read this quote from a very nice piece on Gordon White and animism at Glaucon's Journal, here.
"It seems to me that Gordon is responding to these epistemological anomalies by going back to the earliest of all religious ideas – that we are not the only ones in this movie.
As a philosopher, I bristle a bit at this. Why postulate the existence of other actors when simpler explanations might work? William of Ockham would not be proud. However, as Gordon states somewhere or another, humanity has preserved these ideas of non-human beings since our very beginnings. In fact, even the sophisticated and established theologies of today claim their existence. "
My first thought on reading the above section was 'but as a sorcerer doesn't Ockham's Razor suggest that perhaps the simplest explanation of what goes on here is the one that has persisted for a hundred thousand years? Does it not suggest that the animist spirit model is probably right fucking on?' That sure seems like the simple explanation to me!
Which brings me to a weirdly fucked up point. I ended up creating my own structural explanation of how things work in a magical sense that 'looks' more like it was written by Castaneda than by Crowley, Starhawk, or really most any other mainstream magical or pagan author or teacher I have read. (I must also admit that I live in a metaphorical cave, and so I am quite sure I have missed a vast amount of resources- reading on these things is not high on my list of priorities and hasn't been for close to 20 years!). Add in some Eliade, Ramsey Dukes and a less agro Nicholas Hall and you are almost at my doorstep!
So back to the initial articles in question. If 'paganism' is in decline, is it perhaps because more folks have moved into (or not even moved, just started in) other camps? There' are a lot options now, from non religious witches to Christian hoodooistas to anti-cosmic satanists to people practicing shamary in the city to just general odd birds like myself who don't really see the point of having codified religious structures in their lives. At one time, these all would have been umbrella-d into people checking the box marked 'pagan' (well, maybe not the hoodooistas, that would depend on the practitioner!). So perhaps instead of a true decline of 'fairly like minded people' what is really going on is a much larger field to play in. This seems like a good thing to me, rather than something to try and 'reverse'. Of course, I would think that!
I promised this one was rambling.
All the best-