Offering a comprehensive definition of paganism is not as simple then as it might appear on first blush. Given the constraints of language it is impossible to explain paganism without referring to the advent of Christianity. Without the rise of the Christian religion, no other faith would be referred to as “pagan.”
Understandably to many pagans, that fact alone is offensive, but given how the words are used in our language, it is fair to say than any religion that is not Christian is pagan. (Presuming you approach the subject from the dominant Western perspective of Christianity.)
In order to blunt that potentially offensive definition, the best we can do is settle on the fact that a pagan, or more accurately, a neo-pagan, is someone who is inspired by the old religions that existed before Christianity. It’s best to regard the distinction as chronological rather than qualitative.
Further Clarification of Terms
Also, to further clarify terms, I will use “pagan” and “neo-pagan” interchangeably. There are those purists who would prefer the word “pagan” to be used only in reference to the old religions, and “neo-pagan” to refer to the renaissance in pagan spirituality evident from the 17th century forward, but for the purposes of this text, I find that distinction overly confusing.
We must also consider the matter of capitalization. Many pagans feel that the word should be capitalized to accord their spirituality equal respect with other religions like Christianity that are consistently capitalized in written texts. Personally, I find this to be a trivial matter, and will, again use both forms interchangeably.
Finally, it’s important to consider the use of the word “religion” itself. To distinguish paganism from other faiths, it must be emphasized that pagans recognize the ascendancy and divinity of nature.
We are discussing a strongly earth-based spirituality. Pagans often have a problem with references to their belief structure as a “religion.” The world implies a degree of organization, structure, and dogma that simply isn’t present in the pagan world.
For this reason, many practising pagans prefer to have their path described as a “philosophy” or a “way of life” rather than as a “religion.”
At best, “pagan” is an umbrella term that refers to any one of a number of belief systems that reach back beyond Christianity to an older way. My use of the term “religion” in referenced to paganism is purely utilitarian. I do not mean to suggest that any of the spiritual paths we will discuss is chiselled in stone. Again, all pagan faiths accommodate the sanctity of the individual journey as it is shaped by a person’s life experiences.
In fact, language is one of the greatest challenges in discussing paganism. For instance, it would be fair to say that witches are pagans, but not all pagans are witches.
These distinctions rapidly deteriorate into a slippery slope of misunderstanding and obfuscation.
Some General Statements About Paganism
The pagan world view has been described as one that relies on a belief in magic, which is a common if fuzzy understanding for the layperson.
This is true, in part, because paganism has proven to be an excellent source of plot material for epic fantasy fiction. This fact does not, however, negate the accuracy of associating magic with pagan spirituality.
Most pagans do believe in the practice of “magic” as a further means to refine their understanding of and relationship with nature.
Using this as an example, some general statements can be made that are valid for most pagan belief systems.
Pagan beliefs extend to the time of the deities that were revered before the rise of Christianity.
Paganism is polytheistic, worshipping many gods and goddesses rather than one.
Pagans believe in the existence of a number of magical creatures.
Pagans believe in the presence of spirits in our lives with whom we may communicate, which is in keeping with veneration of the ancestors.
Paganism is pantheistic, regarding all of nature as inherently sacred. The landscape itself is considered to be divine.
Paganism is animistic, holding that all beings and even inanimate objects have souls and are connected by spiritual and universal energy.
Pagan communities celebrate rites of passage in life including, but not limited to baby blessings, marriages (more commonly called handfastings) and funerals. Groups also have initiatory rites.
With some variation in the names of the associated events, the pagan calendar follows the Wheel of the Year, which includes:
It is common for pagans to have some form of ritual dress, often long robes, and to use ritual adornments and tools with symbolic significance.
These may include knives, staffs, and wands among others. Many pagans have body modifications like tattoos and piercings that are also an expression of their spirituality.
Paganism is not, however, a one-size-fits-all endeavour. Many pagans live as solitary practitioners in harmonious relationship with gods and goddesses of multiple traditions with whom they feel a close affinity.
These spiritual seekers find comfort and guidance in rituals, symbols, and objects of their own making and design.
Myths About Paganism
Pagans want to amass material wealth. – False. Pagans regard the emphasis on consumerism in the modern world to be evidence of spiritual poverty.
Pagans engage in sexual debauchery. – False. The Pagan moral code is often stricter than that practiced in secular society.
Pagans worship Satan. – False. The deities worshipped by pagans predate Christianity and the Christian Satan by thousands of years.
Pagans practice black magic. – False. Pagans do not believe in the use of magic for ill intent, nor are they in favor of animal sacrifice.
Truths about Paganism
Pagans teach that knowledge and wisdom is an inherent part of all humans and must simply be accessed by lowering our barriers through spiritual practice including meditation.
Pagans are pantheistic, regarding the entire universe as a manifestation of deity.
Pagans are polytheistic, worshiping more than one god.
Pagans venerate and work to conserve nature.
Pagans are inclusive of both the male and female spirit.
Pagans emphasize individual and social responsibility.
Pagans are community (clan / tribe) minded.
Pagans are accepting of private, sole spiritual practice.
Pagans emphasize harmony and balance.
Pagans believe that no quality when displayed in excess is a positive.
Pagans are tolerant and do not judge.
Pagans have no concept of sin, but they do recognize wrong that arises from bad choices and poor actions.