Social Darwinism; Detachment from Community Accountability in Modern Pagan Culture


“ Social Darwinism characterizes a variety of past and present social policies and theories, from attempts to reduce the power of government to theories exploring the biological causes of human behavior. Many people believe that the concept of social Darwinism explains the philosophical rationalization behind racism, imperialism, and capitalism. The term has negative implications for most people because they consider it a rejection of compassion and social responsibility.” – Robert C. Bannister, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.


“The core idea of Social Darwinism is that the wealthy and powerful enjoy the privileges they do because they are more fit in terms of the traits favored by natural selection. The poor and powerless have less fit traits and therefore it is best to let them perish since their elimination will represent natural selection favoring fitter traits and the spread of fitter traits is a form of progress. This line of thinking about moral issues, politics, and social policy was used to justify colonialism, extreme laissez-faire capitalism, and aggressive militarism. In any military conflict the fitter army would prevail and this would constitute a form of progress. It also justified withholding assistance from the poor and restriction of immigration to the U. S. from regions of the world deemed to have less fit populations.” – William Irons, Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University

The idea that the strongest survive is nothing new, it is actually one of the founding principles of America. Those who are strong enough, fit enough, smart enough or skilled enough are the very people who survive the conditions and situations they are subjected to. America is not alone in the legacy of this principle, we can look to the colonization of countries throughout the world and see how this fundamental concept has influenced the actions of people throughout history. Whoever is strong enough gets the rewards, whoever is weaker has the responsibility for failure and their ultimate demise.

The roots of some of our most horrific historical moments come from a place enmeshed with the idea that we are somehow not accountable for the needs of others, and we are rewarded with the riches and privileges we can take. Capitalism as a system relies on this fundamental principle, and all things are born from that pivotal point.

It is not a far stretch to see how this connects to the notions that strips people of their humanity, making them only a representative of something other than their person. People become objects void of human compassion, empathy and protection. Individuals become a reflection of what they represent or possess, detached from our ability to see ourselves within the same reflection. This detachment allows for the horrors of rape, murder, disempowerment and oppression in the most horrific of circumstances, and a complete disconnect from the experiences of another human being in the best scenario. From either side of this spectrum, social Darwinistic approaches push us to become voyeurs to the pain of others while we separate from the ability to recognize the harm. We become a part of the complexity of a system that watches people perish in front of us while we excuse and dismiss the devastation of the outcome within our society.

We as a society have pushed against the views of Eugenics and other popular theories that fall under the umbrella of Social Darwinism, but we often dismiss how these types of theories are conditioned into the way that we relate with one another today.

The inherent belief that power or riches dictate strength or the ability to exist in the current social climate, and that those without power will inevitably cease to exist in the current dynamic, is dangerous and yet ever present in all facets of our interlocking communities.


A Dot in the Corner of the Big Picture

Paganism is a microcosm of greater society. The intersecting elements of larger societal culture have overlapping connections with the smaller sects. Pagans are not devoid from the structures, principles, thoughts, conditioning or history of macro society or culture; We still live within the constructs that exist outside of our spiritual realm and community.

Gated_Community WikimediaWe see these things within our own community; they surface in the ways we are conditioned to respond to the needs of others, how we engage with issues of equity, and how we conceptualize our personal and collective responsibility for the success of others. Some practitioners within the modern Pagan movement are more community minded individually, yet we find that the Pagan “community” does not share like values in how we acknowledge, support, advocate or commune with others that differ from our individual paths. Many of the big issues that have happened within the Pagan community have shown this very dynamic, where infighting sprung from competing values and a lack of flexibility around supporting the common good. People are apt to tokenize issues and people to a cause instead of looking at the humanity each of us possesses, and the differing needs that come as a result.

We have too often seen people labeled and sorted into categories that do not reflect their human aspects. Classifications that then come with judgements or belief systems that extend to ideals of inclusivity, or the opposite, for reasons that are laced with our perception of normative values and expectations.  We also see the separation between how people connect their spiritual place in the world and what is often referred to as “politics”, making a definitive line between personal needs and the needs of others. I have personally heard these statements made by Pagans in relationship to social justice issues, including but not limited to matters of racial inequity, mass incarcerations and other issues of systemic injustice.

The question then becomes, what is the responsibility of the average Pagan practitioner to support the highest good of all within community? How are we responsible for the collective outcome? And how do we bridge the gap between our individual paths or relationships with our Gods, to a more community minded perspective that has a sense of accountability for the resources and supports of others who are trying to thrive? And what about those who are not a part of the Pagan community? Do our resources stop at the barrier of our bubble?

These questions are challenging within any community. Paganism is no different. We are so focused on our individual needs, our normative views, and wrestling with our understanding of intersectionality and privilege, that we often struggle with a collective community minded view. Instead it becomes about me and mine, and you and yours need to figure it out for yourselves; And as individuals, groups and organizations within the community fall flat we tend to dismiss their failures as an individual issue of strength, value and worth.

It is with the lingering shadow of theories such as Social Darwinism that we allow racism, sexism, ageism, and elitism to continue to thrive within our community, and in general society. It is within the awareness of these harmful dynamics at play that we might be able to make decisions to build a healthier community. Movements to support marginalized communities inside of the Pagan umbrella have become stronger over the years, and I have been lucky enough to participate in some of that coalition building. As I have experienced more incidents of racism and discrimination within the community, I have come to understand more that our societal problems do not dissipate when the pentacle is put on. I, like many others, have been “sized up” within the community to judge my worth based on ethnic purity, my education, my profession and especially my initiatory degrees within what would be considered an approved or accepted tradition. The moment I was told I was unable to join a specific group because I was not of “primary” European descent, I began to really question how we individually and inclusively use the tools of oppression within our own groups and within the many cultures of Modern Paganism. In this specific situation I questioned what method was used to determine primary European descent status, and whether my blond hair and blue eyed son would be welcomed; There was no clear answer for either question. It became increasingly clear to me that values of worth meant something different in this context.

It is important that we no longer use the oppressive tools handed to us to oppress one another, and instead uplift and empower each other to find the paths that help us to thrive and connect us to a healthier togetherness.

Competition At The Table

Carnegie believed that the inequality that inevitably resulted from industrial capitalism was not inherently bad. Competition in society, as in the natural world, sorted people out according to their abilities. But this inequality did not preclude everyone, from millionaire to industrial worker, from playing a useful part in the collective task of human progress. “ – Peter Dobkin Hall, School of Public Affair, Baruch College, City University of New York.

This statement about Social Darwinist Andrew Carnegie really brings to light some challenges and questions I have about the underlined dynamics of our community and how we assess the value of others and our collective responsibility to one another. Are we purposefully participating in a culture that perpetuates the competitive nature of capitalism to distinguish between those who are viable within our community and those who are not? Does the Pagan community thrive on competition, power struggles, worth based assessments and perpetuated challenges to somehow filter out the weak? Who are the weak? Why are we resistant to look at how we are “playing a useful part in the collective task of human progress” and the value in collaboration based community?

I do not know the answers to these questions in totality, and yet some of the dynamics that perpetuate these issues are clear. If we are too busy competing with one another, we are not seeing one another for the qualities that we possess but we are focusing on the things that are not present. We are essentially exploiting the weaknesses in the landscape of our community, and that is a reflection of capitalism at its finest.

So what does this mean for the modern Pagan community moving forward? I am one of those who feels like spending the time to explore the hiccups in community can result in an awareness that allows personal and societal growth, but I am a Social Worker so that makes sense.

Allowing social and cultural capital to be as important as any other foundational concept could serve our community in many different, productive and supportive ways. Our community looks at a person through the lens of what we find to be valuable, important or meaningful to us. This can be a narrow glimpse. We forget that sometimes an individual’s value will sit right outside of the box we’ve created, thereby dismissing the usefulness or importance of their contributions. We have a pattern of dismissing the capital of others that do not give us an immediate sense of connection to our own normative values. Instead of “not ready”, “incapable”, “too young”, we can look at how people are growing, innovative, creative, and the bearers of new thoughts and approaches.

We should not confuse having healthy boundaries with the shedding process that is often used to eliminate people who we assume are not suited for our covens and groves. Instead of eliminating people based in perception, we should consider how we are able to encourage, inspire and uplift others in our community. And we need to stop assuming that when someone goes away it is because they were not meant to be here. It is in that same thread of thought, whether conscious or unconscious, that we see a lack of diversity within the Pagan community yet cannot understand why. It is this same stream of behavior that creates a culture of acceptable sameness and rejects those things that are outside of the realm of our comfort; we actively and passively are pushing away people that do not fit and often forget to evaluate the impact. It is within that same cultural norm that we lack accountability for the roles that we play and the outcomes that are generated as a result.

Conclusion… Sort Of….

Patterns, beliefs, behavior and our reality lay the framework for culture. Unchecked patterns of behavior denies everyone the ability to dig deeper and reflect on how our contributions harm one another.

The bottom line is this, we are still accountable. If we are comfortable categorizing and then dismissing the importance of Black people, trans people, people of color, disabled people, younger people, or any other marginalized group of people in our circle, the problem is us and not them. If we are not evaluating the needs of the greater society and dismissing the injustices around us, the problem is us. And we are accountable for that.

In a true community, we are connected to all things, and they are still connected to us. A survival of the fittest foundation within our community relies on the power of privilege. We can replace that with a different foundation, one made of equity and love, if we are willing to do the work.


17 thoughts on “Social Darwinism; Detachment from Community Accountability in Modern Pagan Culture

  1. You’re a Sibylline Prophetess and just haven’t said so and have been holding out on us, aren’t you, Crystal? 😉

    This post comes at an opportune time for my own dealings and discussions within various pagan communities.

    On the one hand, I’ve had a very difficult discussion with a number of people (including several involved with Gods & Radicals) on my blog these last two days over the acknowledgement of disabled people within anti-capitalist and other movements, and on how we have not been made to feel safe, especially in the prognostications of the dark future that often accompany some of these discussions. While ultimately a good conversation and one that I think is and will be productive, it has certainly not been without difficulty and discomfort, and feathers other than my own have been ruffled in the process.

    On the other hand, in the college pagan group that I advise, we’ve just had to dismiss a member whose situation is really unfortunate and with which most of us empathize deeply, because he’s in the broom closet, lives at home with religiously-conservative parents, and would like to do more but is afraid to, and we’re the only outlet he has for this in our locality; but, he stalked one of our members (and didn’t realize that his behavior was actually stalking), has badgered others to teach him magic who said they don’t teach it and wouldn’t teach him, and various other “not cool” things. During the time that the decision was being made on whether or not to allow him back after apologies and admissions of wrongdoing would be made, he bothered me regularly (and insistently and whiningly) on “When are they going to decide, or are you just going to keep me hanging or write me off entirely?” On one side, he deserves compassion and empathy because of his situation; on the other, though, someone who does not respect boundaries and doesn’t realize what stalking is, or does not respect a “no” answer, is not someone that we should have in our community making members not feel comfortable enough to attend meetings.

    It’s always a struggle, isn’t it? Crikey…

    But, as ever, thank you for being in the thick of the struggle and offering your wisdom and support in doing so, and I’m glad to see you writing here as well as all the other places you do! Thanks for the wonderful work you do! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. In a healthy society, his developmental delays in understanding boundaries would either be addressed with therapy that would be available to everyone, or never have happened because his family wouldn’t have produced developmental delays through abuse or neglect. It’s so sad that the unhealthy society has everyone needing to protect themselves from the unhealthy people it produces, but part of what’s producing them is lack of community. We need to break that stand-off, somehow. Universal health care would probably be a good start.


  2. Excellent post, and providentially timed as well. I’ve just been having an argument with someone on my blog about why dismissing “armchair occultists” as having a “mental illness” comes across as extremely insensitive, offensive and disparaging toward people with actual mental health issues, as well as toward Pagan laypeople in general. I don’t think this person is going to understand where I’m coming from on this, but I do think it ties in with what’s being discussed here. Thank you for posting this.


    1. I am not sure I agree with that sentiment. A highly educated clergy has advantages to offset the costs. This is particularly true, in my opinion, for those of us in reconstructionist movements and groves.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. The distinction is in training and dedication. Some of us have been doing this for decades, do it everyday, and give our lives to it. Others don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there is something to be said for specialization. I can buy my cousin the general handyman a sixpack to get him to fix the broken tap on my kitchen sink, and he can handle that no problem, but when the water main blows I’d better call a professional. I can doctor my own menstrual issues with herbs and natural remedies but if I had uterine cancer I would go to the oncologist. It’s like that. On the other hand, I see no reason why a trained clergyperson should be given any more or less respect for their work than that professional who’s fixing the water main (and neither should the oncologist.)

      Liked by 2 people

    3. I have to disagree; clergy and laity have existed since long before Social Darwinism. They existed in ancient pagan times for completely practical reasons and were especially practical in the model of nation-wide, state-sanctioned cults. These cults were community-based and geared toward accomplishing goals for their entire nations. The idea of eliminating any difference between clergy and laity is a much newer concept that seems to have originated with the Greek mystery cults, which were among the first to impose a universal magical/gnostic standard upon their practitioners (rather than a social standard) and which were more private and in some cases even anti-social. The fact that so much of modern Paganism is structured more by the mystery cult model than the state cult model has caused great damage to our community by establishing this idea that every Pagan needs to be a super-advanced occult scholar and guru, which is frankly unrealistic and which only alienates Pagans who could be helping our community as non-clergy. I would encourage you to read this post to learn more of why I think this way, but basically, the idea that distinguishing between clergy and laity “has no place in Paganism” is the actual Social Darwinist element here. It effectively enforces a standard upon everyone that is much too high, impractical and unrealistic, and which is itself more divisive than simply accepting that some people aren’t meant to be clergy but can still have other helpful roles to play in the community.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “The question then becomes, what is the responsibility of the average Pagan practitioner to support the highest good of all within community?”

    I think this is one of the most difficult questions to answer in any faith community. It may be even more difficult in the Pagan community because so many of us are solitary practitioners either by choice or geographic isolation. Perhaps, there should be a discussion about what the Pagan community expects of its member with respect to supporting the larger community. While we are at it, we should probably figure out a way to reach out to those solitary members.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So long as “the community” is the measure, that broad, fuzzy, faceless, unaccountable movement, we’ll be stuck. Groups can be held to account, leaders of groups that are authorized by them to speak and act can be held to account (yes, I’m talking ‘clergy’), but individuals can be jerks, ‘teachers’ and new agers can bounce all fuzzy-tailed around the community with impunity.

    So, I’m making a radical proposal – read Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, a classic of second-wave feminism, and get organized, build structures with accountability in them, and hold leaders to account.


  5. I’ve come to the realization lately that my reading something and going “duh..shit that was good” and then saying nothing because my mind is still fumbling fumbling might not be that useful for a writer who works really hard on something and then sends it out into the world so just saying, Thank you for this, while my mind continues to go, “wow”


  6. Other marginalized groups in our community worth considering: older people (anyone over the age of 50 really;) and as aediculaantinoi pointed out, disabled people, especially those with mental illness. We disregard and disrespect what they have to say and we do not make adequate provisions for those who are differently-abled. It’s a gaping hole in the Pagan community and we lose a lot of people because we can’t be bothered to attend to it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Being born in Germany I received an intense education of the horrors committed during WWII and their roots in ideas of Social-Darwinism, so I was sensitized to the dangers this idea carries. Today you can see movements similar to this in different countries targeting different groups of people.

    Being gay I find it my responsibility to raise awareness for segregation of all kind, because discrimination and exclusion of one group is never the end of it. This doesn’t even has anything to do with being wiccan… I just feel it needs to be done. People need to see the wisdom that can be created by living in diverse communities and by true communication between the “strong” and the “powerless”.

    And what is truly missing in this (otherwise) great text is how we treat all the other beings, we share the planet with, meaning speciesism. This also stems from the same idea that we were somehow fitter or would have earned the title crown of creation somehow, while our very lives depend on millions of microorganisms living in and on our bodies and we need to ingest plants and animals in order to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on Loki's Bruid and commented:
    “Our community looks at a person through the lens of what we find to be valuable, important or meaningful to us. This can be a narrow glimpse. We forget that sometimes an individual’s value will sit right outside of the box we’ve created, thereby dismissing the usefulness or importance of their contributions. We have a pattern of dismissing the capital of others that do not give us an immediate sense of connection to our own normative values. Instead of “not ready”, “incapable”, “too young”, we can look at how people are growing, innovative, creative, and the bearers of new thoughts and approaches.” – Crystal Blanton


  9. Great article, thanks for writing it.

    I would offer an additional idea: throughout the article words of Capitalism and general Merchant terms are framing the discussion. Our current vernacular seems to be full of these words and phrases. I am under the impression it is because we have shifted our general society to a Merchant Class and point to Darwin to justify it. “Social Darwinism” is a popular and common idea, but is doesn’t have to be – particularly when describing a “Magickal Society” like the Pagan Community.

    If we think of our Community as a Biome (something found in ecological sciences) we can then view everyone as contributing (or not) as they are “gifted” with their talents and abilities. Capitalism is fairly recent and seems to be “trumping” religion here in the USA: everything is figured in values both exploitable and disposable. It is unfortunate we are viewing our Merchant perspectives as if they are the most important and dominant of concerns. Is it possible to speak about our community without using Merchant (or even military) phrases and buzz words?


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