What is Paganism?

Herding Cats

Paganism is a highly variegated phenomenon, containing numerous different strands and a strong eclectic element.  Its external boundaries are likewise blurred: it isn't always easy to say who is a pagan and who isn't.  Paganism has no central authority or code of dogmas, and many pagans actively resist hierarchical religious structures (some others seem quite keen on them, but that's another story).  Marion Bowman of the Open University has written:
Contemporary pagans might be anarchic, left wing, liberal, conservative, monarchist, right wing, apolitical; individualistic, communistic, tribal, egalitarian, authoritarian, hierarchical; gender-aware, sexist; pacifist, militaristic; universalist, fundamentalist; smoker, non-smoker, 'stimulant' user, drinker, abstainer; vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian... organic/compassionate farming carnivorous, omnivorous.

....For some the prototype is a polytheistic, sacrificial, hierarchical, warrior-based, hunting, hard-drinking and carnivorous lifestyle with rather a patriarchal (indeed "laddish") bent; others look back to a Goddess infused, feminine oriented, peaceful, egalitarian and ecologically aware paradigm.
Some pagans would deny that "pagan" itself is a useful descriptive term (see here, here and here), though other pagans, the present writer included, would disagree with this perspective (see here, here and here).  At any rate, it looks like we're probably stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

It is sometimes said that paganism is defined by practice rather than by belief, and the principles set out below should be seen in that light.  They are fairly broad and general.  Even something as apparently crucial as the pagan conception of deity is quite malleable and open to interpretation.  It is also noteworthy that the principles below do not include such obvious "religious" ideas as a fixed ethical code or a firm view on what the ultimate fate is of the soul or of the universe.   Modern paganism is not, for the most part, characterised by such things.

The most that we can say is that any two or three of the following characteristics occurring together are likely to suggest that an individual or group may be - in some sense - pagan.

1.  A non-monotheistic conception of divinity

The most reliable generalisation that can be made about pagan ideas of the divine is that they differ sharply from the patriarchal monotheism associated with Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  They don't always differ in the same way, however.

For some, the defining quality of paganism is polytheism.  Yet many modern pagans do not believe in the objective reality of polytheistic gods, perhaps seeing them instead as symbols or psychological archetypes, a view which is consistent with philosophical agnosticism or atheism.  Among those pagans who have a more traditional belief in the gods, views differ as to whether they are separate and distinct entities or whether they are better described as aspects of an ultimate underlying God, Goddess or Ultimate Reality.

Pagan polytheism shades into animism, the belief that spirits or divinities are inherent in plants, geographical features and so on.  Other widespread pagan conceptions of divinity include the belief that everything equates with god (pantheism) or that everything subsists within god (panentheism).

Pagan views of deity typically incorporate a strong feminine element.  Some Goddess-worshipping pagans might even be characterised as monotheists, although their monotheism is quite different from that of the Abrahamic faiths.

2.  An attachment to the natural, physical world

For modern pagans, the divine is typically seen as being "down here" rather than "up there".  The sacred is found in the material world: it is not located in a separate invisible realm.

Pagans tend to revere and look for spiritual inspiration in the natural world.  The original 19th century pagan revivalists looked to nature as an antidote to the ugliness of urban industrialism.  Many of them were romantic conservatives who hated "science and socialism".  For modern pagans, by contrast, a love of nature is often bound up with left-wing environmentalist politics.

This outlook often leads to pagans placing a positive valuation on the material, the sensual and indeed the sexual.  This doesn't mean that pagans are materialists or hedonists, but it does mean that they tend not to be ascetics either.

There are a couple of anomalies here.  Firstly, ancient and indigenous pagan religions are often very conservative in areas like sexual morality.  Secondly, a major influence on modern paganism is a philosophical and spiritual movement known as the Western esoteric tradition (also known as occultism), which itself goes back to the ancient pagan world.  This tradition is characterised, in part, by a reverence for the spiritual above the material and a conviction that humans beings should seek to transcend their earthly, physical existence.  Some pagans have perceived that authentic paganism is, to a greater or lesser extent, incompatible with the influence of esotericism.  However, reverence for the spiritual is by no means incompatible with reverence for the divinity immanent in material things.

3.  The use of ancient and indigenous pagan traditions as sources of inspiration

Pagans typically draw for inspiration on the beliefs and practices of the world's traditional indigenous pagan religions.  The original pagan revivalists of the 19th century looked to the ancient civilisations of classical Greece and Rome for inspiration, with their rich legacy of mythology, art and literature.  Modern pagans might also look to contemporary pagan religions, such as Haitian Vodou.

Some pagans, such as Hellenic Reconstructionists, Kemetists and Ásatrúar, attempt to reconstruct ancient pagan religions in detail, placing great importance on historical authenticity.  Most other pagans place less of a premium on historical exactitude, and blend elements of historical pagan faiths with beliefs and practices of more recent origin, which they consider equally legitimate in spiritual terms.

4.  The use of practical supernatural techniques

Pagans often - though by no means always - use practical supernatural techniques such as divination, shamanism, spiritual healing and magic (or magick, a spelling coined by the well known esotericist Aleister Crowley).

Pagans who specialise in these techniques can be compared with the folk magicians and healers ("wise women", "cunning men", and so forth) who existed in the premodern world.  The practice of magic, divination, astrology, etc. can also be seen as part of the inheritance of paganism from the esoteric tradition.

A significant proportion of pagans identify as "witches" - appropriating a term which has traditionally been used to refer to malevolent practitioners of black magic.  The use of the term "witch" is often associated with practitioners of the pagan tradition known as Wicca, but there are many non-Wiccan witches as well.

For other definitional schemas of Paganism, see:

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