Friday, May 14, 2010

What Is Paganism?

A few people I've talked to online are interested in what Paganism is, because they don't know much on the subject. A few questions were asked, and this is how I answered them.

1. what leads a person to paganism?

Paganism is a broad term, the definition is "someone who does not worship the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim god(s)." Within Paganism, there are many different traditions, but generally Paganism has been associated with Pantheism, which means worship or belief in more than one god. A better term would be Earth-centered religions, which contrasts with Judeo-Christianity's human-centered religion. Pagans generally believe that all life, and the Earth itself, is to be revered, celebrated, and cherished. Pagans believe that human beings are not any "better" than animals or plants, we are all just different expressions of life, and therefore all beings on this earth should be treated with respect. Judeo-Christian religions believe that humans are "special" and set apart from the rest of this world. So therein lies the difference.

Personally, for me, after I left Christianity, I just read up on many different religions and did not find one particular one that meshed with my beliefs, although Native American religion was pretty close. I joined a community interested in things like Shamanism, ritual, yoga, and meditation and basically went from there, taking bits and pieces of each tradition until my beliefs were better defined, then I started leaning more toward one or two.

Judeo-Christian religions emphasize dogma, but Paganism doesn't, therefore someone who is interested in spiritual concepts but believes in mystical experiences and an all-encompassing worldview, rather than dogma and black and white views of good and evil/truth and untruth, will be more drawn to Paganism than other religions.

What tradition you follow will depend on your interests. For example, some people, like me, work within dreams and trances, so Shamanism appeals to me. Others like formalized ritual and group practice, so Wicca is more their style. Some people are drawn to a certain culture and their values, for example the Greek philosophy, culture, and concepts, and they are more likely to work with Greek deities. Some people are drawn to the warrior mindset and like working with Norse deities. A lot of people love worshiping in nature, and they might be drawn toward Druidism. People drawn toward African religions love using song and dance in worship. People drawn toward Shinto love contemplating life through stillness and reverence.

2. Does it involve god worship in the sense of the major monotheistic religions, or is the concept of worship different?

It depends on who you talk to. Most Pagans don't "worship" deities in the sense that they debase themselves in front of deities or think of deities as entities "outside" themselves. Most pagans that I know describe deities as aspects of themselves, or spirits, like different facets of the same jewel or different branches of the same tree. Generally Pagans don't tend to plead or beg with deities, rather they rely on their own transformation to bring about positive change. "Worship" is generally interchanged with "celebration" to describe what Pagans do. Most Pagans celebrate life, not "worship" per se, although some do, it just depends. People who have contact with spirits or deities generally do so in order to seek advice or personal transformation. Their relationship is not like master/slave, it's more like teacher/student, or very respected family. The idea is to learn from deities or spirits, not to let them control all aspects of your life. For many Pagans, the deities are simply different aspects of life, and by becoming more aware of them, we are both celebrating, learning, and transforming.

3. Is the faith comparable to how people speak of faith in God or is faith in pagan gods less literal?

"Faith" is a word that most Pagans won't use, simply because "faith" as defined by Christianity is belief in things not experienced, and most Pagans believe in things they do experience and are skeptical of things they are told by authority. Through ritual, trance, meditation, dream, etc... people "meet" deities or spirits and learn from them directly, instead of being told what they should believe, so there is very little "faith" involved. To contrast it with Judeo-Christian religions, Pagans don't believe things because that's what they are taught by authority is true. They believe things because it is in line with their personal experience.

Some see deities as separate entities, some see spirits as different forms of consciousness, some as concentration of energy, some as their "higher selves", some as symbols, some as expressions of one larger spirit which is called God, etc... There are many, many different views on the subject. Some would say that all the views are true, they are just different ways of looking at the world. So it varies tremendously. Each tradition will have its own view, but many are flexible to include other views. Paganism is generally very flexible and open to personal interpretation.


  1. Very informative post! Thanks.
    However, it makes me sad that Paganism is portrayed in opposition to Judeo-Christianity. I don't personally find that to be true...there are many Christian mystic traditions that emphasize personal experience. There are ways of reading the Bible that leave a path to Paganism very open. I know it's hard when your personal experience with a religion encountered a lot of dogma, but that's not the entirety of the religion. As a Hindu/Pagan/Vodouist, I find the Torah/Bible very illuminating, but I have to put aside other people's interpretations and come to my own conclusions. Christianity is much more complex than mainstream American cultural dogma. You can be Christian and Pagan or whatever; in many parts of the world, it's very common to be multi-Faith. We Americans can learn from that.

  2. Nicely worded. Though I have to disagree with Saumya. Your opposition is correct. The two thought processes just don't lend to being used 'in concert'. It's orthodoxy vs orthopraxy. Roughly translated "Right thought vs right practice". One is about believing what you are told, and the other is about believing only what you know to be true.

    I know there are plenty of people that consider themselves to be involved in "Christian mystic" traditions, but in the end, they still are coming from the Christian side. I've always been extremely skeptical of anyone that tries to call themselves 'pagan' and then tries to throw in an Orthodoxy tradition.

    That's not to say that there aren't a lot of good things that can be learned from the Judeo-Christian belief- Far from it! It's just that if they're coming from that direction, I would debate their status as a 'pagan'.

  3. well again by definition pagan is "One who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, especially a worshiper of a polytheistic religion." (american heritage dictionary) so no, you can't be both pagan and christian. however you can be christian and mystic. just because you call yourself christian doesn't mean you have to adopt everything in the bible, in fact most wiccans don't adopt everything in nature (for nature has its very cruel side. the rest of nature does not adhere to "harm none"). vodou or voodoo is a perfect example of religious synthesis as it adopts some parts of christianity and some parts of african religion and some parts of native american religion.

    can you believe that the bible is the literal truth, the only right way, and inspired by god and still adopt non-christian religions? i don't think so, besides the overturning of pagan symbolism to have meaning in christianity. however there are many christians who adopt some of the church's teachings and some of the bible but acknowledge that the rest is not relevant to them, and these people have an open enough mind to perhaps adopt another religion as well.

  4. I have to somewhat agree with Saumya, the Christian tradition has been largely absorptive, look at Easter and Christmas, both are attempts to merge Christian traditions with Pagan ones. However, I do appreciate the contrast between the two, since many people in the culture are Christian, it's a point of reference in differentiation.

    I started out an a similar way to you, which I describe in my Crisis of Faith: . After good exploration of what's out there, what came before us, what makes sense, we came come to different points of view. I appreciate the road as much as the destination, if we ever get to a solid conclusion. In the best case, I think belief systems should be flexible, changing, adaptable. We should continue to grow in the depths of our understanding. Maybe that's why there's so much variation in what you're trying to express. Two different Pagans are are two different points of understanding.