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.