I am a Pagan. Paganism, sometimes called NeoPagan or contemporary Pagan religion, is my spiritual path. I have been walking this path for some 30 years now and I have seen a lot of changes both over those years, both in my religious community and in how the rest of the world perceives us. These days, a lot more people are aware of Paganism. They may even be familiar with the names of specific Pagan denominations such as Wicca, Druidism, or Asatru.
I still get asked about my religion, though. And on occasion if I happen to mention that I’m Pagan, it will ruffle the feathers of someone I’ve known and been friendly with for quite some time. People tend to have certain assumptions about what the word “pagan” means. Most often, they think it’s somehow synonymous to being an atheist – which it isn’t – or with being some kind of Devil-worshipper – which is actually kind of amusing because many Pagans don’t even acknowledge the existence of a Devil!
On the contrary, Paganism is an earth-based religion whose roots stretch back to pre-Christian times. It is a contemporary interpretation of the religious customs of some of our earliest ancestors. Many people come to Paganism because of the strong emphasis on nature and conservation. Others, because Pagan religions tend to be egalitarian and include both men and women among their clergy. When I describe my religion to people in those terms, most will say that they can relate. But words like “pagan,” “heathen,” and “witch” are still very emotionally loaded words even in the 21st century. And people tend to have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear someone using them to describe their faith.
Knowing a little about Pagan religions can go a long way towards helping you get past that emotional response to the words. Once you step away from the assumptions and the fear of the unknown, you’ll probably discover that Pagans are pretty ordinary people. We are just called to serve different gods and to walk a different path.
Pagan Religion: What it Is?
In the latter part of the 20th century, journalist Margot Adler toured the United States speaking to Pagans of every stripe about their religion. She concluded that while we have many diverse expressions for our religion, most Pagans have three things in common:
- Pagans are generally animists. That is, we see the world and things in it as living entities. That includes the obvious stuff – like people, animals, and plants. But it also includes things like rivers and streams, and the soil in which we grow our food.Sometimes it’s a bit of a metaphor, but science has shown us that the earth’s air, soil and waters are all teeming with microorganisms, And we know that even inanimate objects like rocks and my computer keyboard are made up of atoms that are constantly in motion. So in a sense, everything is alive. It’s just that Pagans place a special kind of emphasis on this knowledge.
- Pagans are also pantheists.This means that we see the Divine as part of Creation, and not separate from it. We believe that each plant, animal, waterfall, and star in the sky has a part of that Divine spark within it. And so do people. This is often summed up in the expression, “Thou art God/dess,” for we recognize each other as being both human and Divine at one and the same time.
- Pagans are polytheists. That means that we do not believe in a single deity, nor in a single deity and his evil rival. Instead, we believe in a number of deities – both Gods and Goddesses. The choice of which deities to worship is a personal one, though most of us recognize and respect the existence of deities to whom we don’t have a personal connection.For example, a Pagan who felt drawn to the pantheon of Olympian Gods and Goddesses might accept and respect the existence of the Japanese Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, without feeling a need to worship her. The same may hold true for the God of Abraham or for Jesus Christ. Although we may feel no need to worship these deities, we do recognize their importance to our Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends.
Paganism: What it Isn’t
Many people have a set idea of what religion is supposed to look like, but a lot of the assumptions that go along with that preconceived notion of religion can make to harder to understand Paganism and relate to your Pagan friends. Pagan religion exists pretty far outside the box that contains most of the major world religions. In order to relate, you have to understand what Paganism is not.
- Paganism is not a single religion but rather a broad category that encompasses many different earth-based religions. In general, we are also not a religion that has a central authority or official hierarchy. Although there are some registered Pagan churches and temples, Pagans generally walk their own paths alone or in small groups. We are not really an organized religion
- Paganism is not a revealed religion. So we don’t have a Bible or equivalent holy book. And we don’t have any commandments or specific rules about what we can and cannot do. Each Pagan is responsible for the way he chooses to worship and for his own choices in life. The guiding principle of Pagan morality is that we choose for ourselves, but we must also be willing to accept the consequences of our choices.
- Paganism has no concept of either sin or salvation. We do not believe that it’s possible to make a universal list of spiritual no-nos from which all of humanity should abstain. Going back to the point above, it’s for each of us to determine our own sense of right and wrong. What may be ethical for another may not be for me. I need to live by my own personal moral compass, not that of another. As far as salvation, if there’s no sin there is no need to be saved from it!
- Pagans don’t subscribe to dualistic concepts like God and the Devil or Heaven and Hell. While I do believe in an entity called the Devil, he certainly isn’t what Christians have made him out to be!I believe in the earlier Jewish interpretation, in which the Devil has a job given to him by God. He is the Adversary, whose job is to raise doubts and challenge us when we are making a tough decision. Not because he’s evil and seeks to condemn us to Hell. But because it’s his job to prompt us to take sober second thought before we act on something we might regret.As for Heaven and Hell. I believe in neither. I also don’t believe in a single life followed by an eternity in the afterlife. I believe in reincarnation, so there is no need for an eternal resting place. Life on earth is cyclical, so why should the lives of humans be any different?
- Finally, Paganism is a religion without converts. What I mean by this is that we do not believe we are the one and only way, or that our religion is superior to another. Although up till the end of the 20th century, most people who follow a Pagan path did come to Paganism after having being raised in another faith, this is not the result of proselytizing. Pagans tend to find preaching, proselytizing and testifying offensive – sometimes exceedingly so. Those who find Paganism usually do so in a very organic way. We have no need or desire to hunt people down and convert them, and we really wish the rest of the world felt that way too!