What is Paganism?

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Paganism is a term that refers to diverse religious movements and traditions sharing certain characteristics. Many scholars of religion classify Pagan traditions as alternative and emergent religions.

Pagan traditions are alternative in the sense of being misaligned to dominant socio-cultural and religious narratives. In other words, they are “fringe” religions that appeal to atypical members of a population. Further, they are emergent in the sense of being symbolically and organizationally new. Although scholars do not agree on how old a religion must be in order to be considered “new”, we are usually dealing with religions that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Although these are helpful ways to conceptualize Paganism, many Pagan devotees object to their beliefs and practices being called a “religion” and often prefer the term “spirituality” as a signifier. Many of them are distrustful of organized religions and institutional hierarchies wishing to distance themselves from these. Moreover, although various Paganisms are emergent in having only recently become established in the West during the twentieth century, many Pagans wish to see their tradition as having ancient routes in “pre-Christian” Europe. We will revisit these claims shortly.

It is important to acknowledge the historical use of the term “pagan”. According to Pearson,

By the second and third centuries, the pagani were those who had not enlisted as part of God’s ‘army’, as militia Christi (soldiers of Christ) against the forces of Satan” (ibid: 18-19). By the fifth century CE, Christian writers used the term “pagani” to refer to urban nobility and academics who fore fronted Pagan resistance to Christianity” (1).

In recent popular culture, the term “Pagan” has come to refer to any person who is a non-Christian or even anti-Christian. This is only partly accurate given the religiosity of some Pagans is indeed a backlash to Christianity or is because of a disenchantment with the Christian faith. However, many other Pagans previously embraced worldviews other than Christianity and are not particularly hostile to the Christian religion. In its academic use, the Pagan is an individual who embraces a legitimate form of religion, such as Wicca.

There are a number of Pagan traditions, the most common being Wicca, Druidry, Goddess traditions, and the New Age. Dale Wallace identifies the following five characteristics to be most common to contemporary Pagan traditions (2):

[1] Paganism is a Nature Religion, where the Earth may be seen as Mother, or, for many, as Goddess.

[2] Paganism can be polytheistic, pantheistic, duotheistic, panentheistic and/or animistic.

[3]
Paganism is anti-hierarchical and opposed to any form of external domination. It is likewise resistant to central authority, and to dominant religious traditions that are seen to desacralize Nature through dualisms that separate spirit from matter.

[4]
Paganism resists patriarchal religious traditions through its assertion of the feminine aspect to divine reality.

[5] Paganism is illustrative of the magical worldview that there are unseen relations between all elements of the cosmos, and that an individual can, through various technologies, participate with, and engage in, these relations.

Collectively these traits suggest an incredibly diverse tradition. There is a certain femininity to contemporary forms of Paganism as, for example, most proponents of the Goddess movement and Wicca are female and celebrate female spirituality. The Earth and celestial bodies are often feminized and various female goddesses are embraced. This is often in response to perceived dominant patriarchal religions that undermine or relegate to secondary status the role of women in spiritual life. In line with [2], Pagans hold to various conceptions of Deity. The Druids are pantheistic because they believe the world and God not to be separate but connected. Some, like the New Agers, are panentheistic holding God to be both infused with the world as well as transcendent above it. Wiccans often embrace various gods and goddesses (polytheism), or duotheism by worshiping a God and Goddess. In light of [3], Pagans are anti-hierarchical and they generally do not perceive religious institutional hierarchies in a positive light. Hierarchy provides certain persons power over others, which can come to undermine spiritual autonomy that Pagans cherish. Pagan religions often encourage devotees to create their own spiritual realities by selecting preferred deities to worship, selecting what paths to venture down to attain enlightenment or union with God, decide what rituals to perform, with whom they are performed, and so on. Because of this autonomy and eclecticism, there is usually no central spokesperson to represent or speak for the tradition. There are also no prescribed prayers, creeds, clergy, or holy texts, which suggests a lack of any centralized control of religious life and practice.

The reverence of and respect for nature are perhaps the most common threads running through all the Pagan traditions. Pagan gatherings in covens, circles, and groves often take place in nature where various rituals purposed for channeling the Earth’s energy are performed. Ecological sensitivity is of paramount importance and Pagans often get behind initiatives attempting to spread awareness of the environment, environmental exploitation, and the need for preservation. The Druids oppose violence against animals, some of which on their view possess special powers (healing, vitality, and inner knowledge) that can be used by humans. Pagan holidays and festivities often center on the natural world, such as Sabbats and Esbats honouring the gods.

Finally, Pagans engage in various methods to communicate with the spirit world. The New Ager often consumes hallucinogenic herbs or plants as this is believed to provide her access to the spirit world. Entities from the spirit world, including angels and guides, can be interacted with to provide the devotee with knowledge or counsel.

References and Recommended Readings

1. Pearson, Jonanne. 2002. Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Fanham: Ashgate Publishing. p. 18.

2. Wallace, Dale. 2006. “The construction and articulation of a pagan identity in South Africa: a study of the nature and implications of a contested religious identity in a pluralistic society.” PhD Thesis, University of the Kwazulu Natal.

Jencson, Linda. 1989. “Neopaganism and the Great Mother Goddess: Anthropology as Midwife to a New Religion.” Anthropology Today 5(2):2-4.

Steyn, Chrissie. 1994. “The New Age Movement in South Africa.” Journal for the Study of Religion 7(2):83-106.

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