Interview with Dr Jo Pearson

Francis Breakspear

This week’s guest is Dr. Jo Pearson, who until the end of September 2002 is a lecturer in the Religious Studies Dept of the Open University in the UK and co-director of the BBB research group (see link below). For those of you who don’t know, the OU is largely based around online and distance learning, and allows people to follow university degree and postgraduate courses without having to live on a campus. Many OU students do their course in their spare time while still having jobs and family lives, and the OU is one of the largest universities in the UK, in terms of enrolled students. From 1st October 2002, Jo will be lecturer in the Dept of Religious and Theological studies, Cardiff University.


FB: Hi Jo! Can you tell us a little about the studies that brought you to this job?

JP: A difficult question! As a child, I was adamant that 'god' had to be both male and female and that it was stupid to worship 'him' indoors when there was the whole of nature out there. That was where divinity was to be found, as far as I was concerned. When I was 10, I announced to my parents that I wanted to do a PhD, but had no idea what in. I went and did a history degree at Lancaster, and then disappeared in banking in London for 4 years, during which time I started reading some books on wicca and magic.

Suddenly, it seemed clear to me that this was what I had been waiting for, both personally and in terms of the research topic for my PhD. I knew I couldn't do that type of research on a topic that wasn't close to my whole being. So I applied to Lancaster Religious Studies Department and was accepted. So started 5 years of upheaval - I truly believe that the PhD process is an initiation in itself, or a series of initiations! I resigned from my job, moved to the other end of the country, got divorced (and lost my cat), and got into a lot of debt! I also went through my wiccan initiations, and ran a coven - a lot of hard work. But I felt that what I was doing was vocational, so just kept holding on and trusting things would work out. Six months before I finished my PhD, I got the job at the OU and was able to write about paganism and magic for a new degree course (OU reference AD317 - Religion Today: Tradition, Modernity and Change) as well as establish the OU religious studies research group, ‘Belief Beyond Boundaries’, which was to explore these interests as well as other forms of 'alternative' spirituality. Now, I am about to move to Cardiff Uni, and hopefully I shall be able to develop courses there which reflect my interests. So it seems to me that I was right to trust this vocational thrust, despite the difficulties.

FB: Yeah, sounds like a real series of ordeals of whether you could trust the instincts! So you could be described as one of the new generation of academics studying in the field of paganism?

JP: Absolutely, though I was by no means the first and of course one has to be aware of what kind of 'paganism' one is talking about!!!

FB: Yes, and ‘academic’ is a bit of a catch-all term too.

JP: Sure - there are plenty of people doing valuable work outside the academy, and what I call 'paganism as an attitude of mind' is mostly represented in literature (see Swinburne, Yeats, AE, Blackwood, Machen, Cabell, Garner etc, etc.) Which then gets studied by the academy which, until now, has taken little if any account of the authors' 'paganism'. Also, we shouldn't forget the classics scholars who work on religion in antiquity, before and during the early years of christianity. But in terms of contemporary paganism, sure - there were a few people like Marion Bowman, Charlotte Hardman, Graham Harvey, & Malory Nye who had just started organising conferences on the topic, and Ronald Hutton was beginning to be known for his historical studies in that area. And Ken Rees had been teaching and researching in London, though not publishing much and was thus less well known. But really, there were very few people around, and it was difficult not to feel isolated. In Lancaster, no one else was studying this field, but they were happy for me to organise a conference in 1996-called Nature Religion Today, which attracted a lot of people. I felt this was a good way of carrying on the conference work, which the people mentioned above had been initiating, and I think people really did come out of the woodwork. Then Graham Harvey did another one in 1998 at Winchester, since when there was a bit of a break until my January 2002 conference at the OU.

FB: I know that it’s a difficult subject to work in, certainly in the UK, without getting disapproval or occasionally ridicule from other academics- why do you think that is, and is the situation getting any easier?

JP: I certainly found it difficult to begin with - people felt one couldn't study wicca as a Wiccan, which I argued against since Christians have been studying and producing Christian theology for centuries!

FB: Seems obvious, doesn’t it?

JP: Yes it does - I wonder sometimes whether English academia suffers from some kind of 'neo-phobia' (fear of the new)! But, if something attracts students, then universities will go for it! And I do think the situation has become easier. It was interesting for me to read your site’s interview with Owen Davies, since he was finishing his PhD at Lancaster as I started mine, and because I have had no problem getting academic posts, even at Cardiff where he seems to have had a few problems. I wonder if it is just a matter of timing - those few extra years might have made a difference. Also, perhaps religious studies has accepted modern magic/paganism/magic more quickly than history, though the History of Science Dept at Lancaster seemed to be fine with Paracelsus et al. The conferences have also helped, but also the fact that many of us studying paganism have gone to conferences with a wider theme and given papers on paganism - this has been useful, as other academics have seen that pagan religions need studying just like any other religion. As I said, I have successfully applied for jobs at 2 institutions - the OU and now Cardiff - both of which knew my specialism and had absolutely no problem with it. The OU has encouraged me to develop my interest and has been very 'open' to the conference we had, which, as you know, was attended by many non-academic pagans. There are also more postgraduate students studying for MPhils and PhDs in the subject area now, and that clearly helps - there is so much interest, and so many facets to study; we are only just beginning, and so I really think academia has welcomed this fact and pagan studies are breathing new life into a range of academic departments.

FB: That’s great to hear, especially the cross-disciplinary possibilities- the interview with Owen certainly showed the other side of the coin, or what it used to be like 5 years ago, so still a long way to go I guess. The OU still has a slight media image of being ‘not a real university’ and staffed by 1970s hippies with loud ties… but I’ve met people who’ve done their PhDs there (in all sorts of disciplines) and are now in very respected jobs and positions within their fields. Is it hard to get past that public image?

JP: No - I’ve not really come across it except in a Private Eye cartoon, which was very funny. The OU does a great job and is a very valuable institution - I think people appreciate that.

FB: As you mentioned, you recently hosted the conference at the OU under the Beliefs Beyond Boundaries banner; can you explain what BBB itself is about?

JP: BBB was established in December 2000 to investigate 'alternative' spiritualities, a problematic term since what are they alternative to? It is designed to question our assumptions about what is mainstream and what is marginal, and to create an atmosphere in which spiritualities/religions which are not always accepted as such can be explored in a supportive environment and discussed with the scholarly rigour accorded to other, perhaps more established religions. We aimed to have a couple of small seminars per year, which are very academic, plus an annual conference that is open to the general public- not in terms of the academic seminars being ‘secret society’ stuff; which they’re not- it’s just making the ‘public’ events more accessible in terms of focus, of course. But what will develop in the future is unknown - I won't be involved in BBB any more, though it will continue at the OU. We might however do some joint gigs (Cardiff and the OU) and I shall certainly be organising future conferences at Cardiff – ‘Magic and Religion’ is the first, which I am just beginning to think about.

FB: Our own Kate Hoolu was going to review the conference on this site, but was beaten to it by a very positive and sympathetic write-up in Fortean Times ( and then use their article search engine: I haven’t been able to link directly as at time of writing the FT have, perhaps fittingly, some unexplained website techy problems at their end; so keep trying). That kind of publicity must be very valuable? Was it reviewed anywhere else?

JP: I think some reviews are about to appear in specialist Religious Studies bulletins, but this takes time. Otherwise, I think reports appeared on pagan lists, written by people who attended, and these were also generally very positive.

FB: What events are there in the future for BBB?

JP: We had a day conference on Civil Religion in may 2002, and in 2003 there will be a big conference on the New Age. However, I’m not involved in that, so would have to get the info from my co-director, or see the website (link below). Otherwise, I’m planning a conference on Magical Women with a colleague from the OU Classics Dept, but that probably won't happen now until 2004 as we have to sort out the ramifications of me leaving for Cardiff. The web site address is www.open.ac.UK/arts/relstud/bbb also check out my OU web page a glorious picture of yours truly outside the witchcraft museum in Boscastle!

FB: And how do people find out more about courses at the Open University?

JP: just go to www.open.ac.uk and follow the links. And of course, keep an eye on the Cardiff web site to see what courses and events I’ll be planning once I am settled in my new post.

FB: This is the ‘Parkinson’ chatshow element of the interview: you have a book out?

JP: A few actually! Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World (1998, Edinburgh University Press); Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age (2002, Ashgate - this is the text book for the OU course mentioned above); and hot off the presses, A Popular Dictionary of Paganism (2002, Routledge/Curzon). I'm currently finishing the book based on my PhD, which is called Wicca: Magic, Spirituality and the Mystic Other - should be out next year. There'll also be a book from the January conference - The Development of Paganism: Histories, Influences and Contexts c.1880-2002, again next year.

FB: There are amazon links to buy these below, and we intend to review the dictionary on this site as soon as a copy arrives, watch this space. So the BBB is going well, and the OU pagan studies courses are up and running, where would you like them to be in five years’ time?

JP: Well, the courses have a life of 7-10 years, so I guess we're assured their continuance. Also, there should be a chapter on paganism in a revised OU course in about 2004. As for BBB, I guess that will become more new age oriented now that I’ve left, and I wish it well. I shall concentrate more on esotericism and magic, and I hope in 5 years time that I will have a well-established MA course on pagan religions and/or religion and magic, both of which would involve a significant element of hermeticism and kabbalah. One of the really encouraging signs is that more people are studying Wicca, magic, esotericism etc., at PhD level - I just hope more of them can get funding - and obviously apply to Cardiff so that I can supervise them!!!!

FB: Heh, heh…..thanks for doing this Jo, and I look forward to being at a future BBB event. I guess it’s way too early for full details of the Cardiff courses, but interested folk should look at www.cardiff.ac.uk -

JP: Yes, follow through to Depts/ Rel. and Theol. Studies, and then staff page, but I would suggest waiting until November 2002 at the earliest for anything on me and my plans


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Fill your library: Jo’s books can be bought via your local bookshop, or through Amazon here:

Nature Religion Today
UK US

Belief Beyond Boundaries
UK US

A Popular Dictionary of Paganism
UK
US

“Wicca: Magic, Spirituality and the Mystic Other”, and “The Development of Paganism”
are not stocked yet or pre-orderable via Amazon as they are still works in progress- but keep trying!

Other links mentioned in the interview:

Jo’s OU Home page:

Open University Belief Beyond Boundaries Research Group: www.open.ac.uk/arts/relstud/bbb

Open University www.open.ac.uk

Cardiff University: www.cardiff.ac.uk