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Paganism today

Paganism is a collection of diverse contemporary religions rooted in or inspired by indigenous traditions worldwide.  Pagan religions are characterized by Earth-centered spirituality, belief in the interconnection of all life, personal autonomy, polytheism, and immanent divinity.  Pagans value personal responsibility, gender equity, spiritual development, individual freedom, living lightly on the Earth, diversity, good works, and community service. 

    While the largest segment of the Pagan population is Caucasian, highly educated, and middle class, Pagans come from all walks of life.  Most are avid readers with interests in ecology, creativity, and personal growth.  Many work in scientific and computer-related disciplines.  Others work in the caring professions such as medicine and teaching.  Since Paganism is not an organized movement, it is difficult to determine the number of practitioners.  Estimates range from 100,000 to several million in the US alone.

    Pagan religions may draw on ancient historical practices or be entirely new.  In the case of the former, Pagans look to the beliefs, practices, Gods, symbols, lands, music, and myths of a particular historical culture and adapt them for contemporary needs.  Anachronistic elements, such as ritual violence, are rejected.  Elements such as reverence for the natural world, honoring the ancestors, and responsibility to the community are retained.  Pagan religions which are not historically based take their inspiration from visionary, artistic, and libertarian traditions to create vibrant spiritual systems centered on Pagan values.

Characteristics of Pagan faiths

Paganism as a movement grew out of the growing environmental awareness of the 1960s, though it encompasses some traditions from the Middle Ages and earlier.  Consequently most Pagan religions are nature-centered.  Rather than seek dominance over the environment, Pagans work to live as a part of Nature, finding a balance between the self, the biosphere, and society.  Part of this rethinking includes Goddess-worship, which is widespread in the Pagan movement.  Many Pagans look to the Goddesses of old and find vibrant, dynamic models for ecological balance.  The myriad Goddesses from the past also provide Pagans with a vision of powerful feminine divinity which is missing from other Western religions.

    Unlike many mainstream religious traditions, Pagans view Divinity as immanent rather than transcendent.  Rather than pray to something “out there,” Pagans view all living things as sacred.  Diversity is seen as an expression of the divine order.  People are viewed as essentially good and holy, although still capable of acting unethically.

    Pagans view the relationship with Divinity as a deeply personal calling.  It is up to each individual to develop a relationship with the Divine as s/he defines it.  Because of this, there is no institutionalization within Paganism.  There is no single holy book, common creed, or hierarchy of religious representatives.  Spiritual communion, even when in groups, is direct and immediate. Each congregation is autonomous, as is each individual within that congregation.  While leaders are respected for their wisdom or service, there are no charismatic gurus within the movement.  There is no one spokesperson for Pagans,  All Pagans value choosing one’s own path and beliefs and consequently do not seek to convert others.  Pagans self-identify; there is no one body or rite which confers membership in the Pagan community.   However, almost all Pagan organizations require members to abide by specific ethical guidelines and principles.

Pagan culture

This emphasis on personal exploration and development creates a highly dynamic culture of diverse people who share values of intellectual and spiritual freedom.  Rather than conform to a specific set of beliefs or practices, Pagans participate in a vibrant marketplace of ideas where people contribute and take away what resonates most deeply with them.  Community is created through regular gatherings and festivals, numerous publications, and an extensive internet presence.  While specific ethics are discussed at length within the Pagan community, the most common summation is “if it harms none, do what you will.”  This combines personal freedom with responsibility to the community.

    Pagan religions are dynamic, changing systems based on timeless values of faith, freedom, justice, honesty, responsibility, creativity, caring, courage, and respect.  Specific beliefs and practices vary as people adapt concepts to their particular needs. Pagans celebrate rituals to mark the Wheel of the Year, as well as life transitions such as marriage, moving, birth or death.  Some traditions celebrate rituals to commemorate specific historic events, while others celebrate natural transitions such as lunar phases or the first snowfall of the year.  Pagan religions are a way of life affecting choices from how we pray to where we shop.  Pagans believe religions must change to meet the needs of people on an everyday basis, while connecting them to their most deeply held spiritual beliefs. While some Pagan religions can be quite esoteric, most Pagan beliefs and practices are rooted everyday, natural experience. 

Some Pagan religions

Most American Pagans practice adaptations of ancient ethnic traditions, the most popular of which are Celtic, Greco-Roman, Native American, ancient Egyptian, Baltic, and Norse.

Asatru:  Norse Pagan religion based on the principles of courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, justice, self-reliance, and perseverance.

Church of All Worlds:  Promotes celebration and honoring of all life and the planet as a living divine organism, Gaia.

Druidism:    Many types of Druidism are practiced with varying emphasis on scholarly research into the original Druids who were the priest/ess and judicial class of the ancient Celts.

Reconstructionist:  Focuses on recreating as accurately as possible the religious practices of ancient (primarily Egyptian or Roman) religions. 

Witchcraft and Wicca:  Honoring of Goddess and God (some traditions honor the Goddess alone), use of magic, and healing all within the context of “if it harm none, do what you will.” 

Wheel of the Year

Most Pagan religions follow the Wheel of the Year for celebrations and holy days.  They celebrate the solstices and equinoxes, plus the “cross quarter days” of Feb 1, May 1, Aug 1, and Nov 1.  The names and exact dates of the holidays may vary and not all traditions celebrate all of the holidays.  Most also mark the different phases of the moon.

Recommended reading

Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler

Contemporary Paganism, Graham Harvey

Being a Pagan:  Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today, Ellen Evert Hopman

The Truth about Neo-Paganism, Anodea Judith

A History of Pagan Europe, Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick

Positive Magic, Marion Weinstein


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