Pagan advocacy club fights religious intolerance and ignorance


By Dulce Ros |

Dakota Niswonger waits for everyone to get comfortably seated and signed into the mysterious, medieval-style log book.

“This is a safe haven,” the charismatic president of Pantheon, Flagler College’s official Pagan club, reminds everyone. “One where you can freely state what you believe in.”

Attending a meeting is like stepping into a different world, one where gods and goddesses, magic, and spirits are not relegated to fiction. Just like the other religious clubs on campus, there is an air of sacredness despite the casual school setting.

As the atmosphere relaxes, each member recounts their stories, personal beliefs and practices. Discussions revolve around pagan depictions in popular media including what is merely a stereotype versus what is accurate. “There is an idea that paganism is one religion when really, there are so many different ones,” said Rachel Bynum, debunking a popular misconception.

Using the examples from film and TV clips, such as “Thor” and the Netflix original “Salem,” members point out the discrepancies regarding auras, magical objects and symbolism. “In popular culture, Hollywood will depict Satanism in a way that others assume it is the worship of the Christian Devil, but a lot of Satanists don’t actually worship the Devil, and if they do it is not the same figure,” said Matthew Thornton.

Other weeks, Dakota invites a speaker to come up and answer questions regarding their particular religious paths such as Wicca (a religion that operates through covens,) connection with nature and witchcraft.

One of the main roles on the new club is to assist students to continue practicing their religion. Just like Christianity, Islam and Judaism, pagans pray, meditate, have special holy days and ask higher beings for help. “Daily I ask for guidance,” said Niswonger. “I acknowledge the household spirits in my dorm. For me a ‘deity,’ for the sake of argument, is what I view as an elder spirit.”

Many of their rituals involve incense and candles, so members work together to come up with alternatives such as electronic candles or herb infused spray bottles. In addition, regular excursions are planned for students who lack transportation and need a natural place to meditate and hold ceremonies.

As much as it is concerned with facilitating student lifestyles, the primary purpose is to break the stigma and bring awareness to paganism as a peaceful, and legitimate, belief system. The perceived secrecy and elusiveness of Pantheon is not purposeful, but rather an indirect response to the omnipresence of Christian culture on campus, Niswonger said.

Reactions regarding paganism range from acceptance to fear to confusion. 

“It doesn’t matter what form of paganism it is,” Niswonger said. “If you are not part of the three Abrahamic traditions, you can’t connect with people the same way you can if you follow those beliefs. Your religion becomes a bit of a secret.” Even the original name, “The Pagan Advocacy Club,” had to be changed to something less controversial, he said. Pantheon members recalled incidents where they were afraid to set up shrines in their dorms for fear of being reported to security.

However, by using events as a platform, the club hopes to educate people about their religion. One of the most popular events the club has held so far was tarot card readings. Held during the “Great Hall Dining Event” and Club Night, students flocked to a long line to consult with their cards of destiny. Eyes focused and mouths agape, students were entranced as club members shuffled, flipped and explained the significance of the mysterious figures from their deck. Responses were largely favorable. Members then answered any concerns and thoughtful inquiries regarding their lifestyles and ceremonies.

A recent discussion between the club and Wake Bible study proved to be successful for both sides. Ana O’Donnell, a member of the Bible Study, said “I love the part about the ancestor connection [in witchcraft].” Kobe Elixson added, “There’s something about the passion of each faith that is really interesting.”

In addition, the publicizing of rituals allows non-practitioners to observe the lifestyle. “The Spring festival will help people see that we’re not cutting a goat open. Once people see what we’re doing, it’s not crazy loony stuff,” said Adria Makute, a Lithuanian pagan. “The lifestyle is not about evil … but about balance and clarity.”

Though it is still in its fledgling stage, the club continues to flourish because of its strong leadership and dedicated members who

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