It’s not easy being pagan.
Deidre Marsh, a College senior, founded Penn Wheel a semester ago in order to build a community for earth-based religions and paganism. But even in a school of over 10,000 undergraduates, Marsh has been unable to find anyone else who shares her religious beliefs.
Marsh defines herself as an unaffiliated pagan, meaning she believes that “rather [than] having to go to church to talk to some spiritual entity, it’s everywhere and in nature.” Marsh observes the sabbats, or holidays, of the Wheel of the Year, which consists of the four solstices, equinoxes and the midpoints between them.
Paganism is a nebulous term for a diverse set of beliefs. “The pagans are really all about individual experiences,” Marsh said, pointing out that there are many different subsets of paganism, the most well known being Wicca, a 20th-century religion that draws from witchcraft and ancient pagan beliefs.
Most pagans, in fact, are often interested in pre-Christian or native religions, with an emphasis on the importance of the natural world. Some beliefs include polytheism, the belief in multiple gods, and animism, the belief that non-human entities have spirits.
While the individualistic nature of paganism is welcome for those avoiding organized religion, it can also make coming together as a group more difficult.
“There hasn’t ever really been any kind of group gathering on campus, at least in my time here. I suspect partly because ‘pagan’ is really a broad umbrella term for lots of different spiritual traditions, and it can often be misunderstood,” Stephen Kocher, the associate chaplain, said.
Lauren Brunsdale, a College freshman, was the only student who contacted Marsh about Penn Wheel. Brunsdale does not identify as pagan, partly because “when I hear the word pagan … I associate it with witchcraft.”
Brunsdale said that after the death of a friend, “I was looking for a religious output but wasn’t raised religious.” She was interested in exploring “individual spirituality without organized religion,” which was promised by Penn Wheel.
However, it was difficult for her to find a similar spiritual community at Penn. “I know what I was searching for, [but] it was really difficult to find,” she said.
At Drexel University,where junior Caity Wallace is a student, the pagan community is more active. Wallace helped found the Drexel University Pagan Alliance in 2012. There are 7 members of DUPA, and Wallace estimates that there are around 15 to 30 pagan students at Drexel.
“College-aged Pagans can go through school thinking erroneously that they are alone … [and] not learning and growing as Pagans,” Wallace said in an email. “Thankfully, some schools are starting groups, but it’s only a beginning.”