By Vexen Crabtree 2015
|Links: Pages on Paganism, Other Religions|
|Area of Origin||The West|
|Founder||19th Century romantic revival of interest in Celtic, Greek and pre-Christian spiritualities|
|Numbers in the UK (Census results)|
|2001||30 569||2011||57 000|
|Numbers in the UK||1996||20 0001|
Paganism encompasses a range of religions, belief systems and practices2,3,4,5: these include Asatrú, Celtic revivalism, Druidism, Goddess Spirituality, Heathenism, Paganism, various magical groups, some of the New Age, a few occult groups, Sacred Ecology and Wicca. It also covers the interest of previously-uninvolved Westerners in Shamanism, Native American and Native Australian spiritualism, and other primitivist belief systems. The Pagan Federation defines a Pagan as "a follower of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion"5. In general, followers and fans are called Pagans with a capital "P" in order to differentiate them from "pagans", a historical religious term to mean anyone not a member of the traditional monotheistic religions. In the USA the term neo-Pagan is used for the same purpose.
General modern Paganism "is not a doctrinaire movement" and it is based "on experience rather than on blind faith"6. The various forms of Paganism tend to share an individualistic approach, are spiritually and magically oriented, reject monotheism7, involve a goddess of some sort ("a religion without goddesses can hardly be classified as Pagan"5), and veer away from commercialism. They claim ancient and timeless "wisdom" and draw upon elements of religions from around the world, especially Western esoterism, romanticised versions of native beliefs and Indian spirituality, and share a creative use of myth and a seasonal cycle of festivals8. Also normal are a positive and moral approach to environmentalism and feminism (or at least gender neutrality) and a generally liberal approach to human (and animal) rights in general. They do not consider the world to be bad nor ourselves to be inherently sinful9.
The resulting kaleidoscope of beliefs and practices are mostly indulged in quite lightly, all described and merged using mystical and airy language which, however kindly it is meant, tends to lack any philosophical cogency and sits, generally speaking, within the realm of the mythical and the irrational. Concerns abound from Christians and other representatives of world religions who are clearly worried about the new competition from this popular and young suite of newcomers to the world stage, however, it must be noted that "most people's prejudices [towards Paganism in general] are based on misrepresentation by the media"8 and some people still confuse Paganism with Satanism10. Critics of Paganism can also be found amongst historians, skeptics, scientists and intellectuals based on the negative effect it can all have on common sense, and, complaints also arise from the natives and other genuine gurus of the traditions from which Paganism has drawn. Despite those problems and the addiitonal one of "Pagan" not referring to any particular belief system, "there is both official and academic recognition that Paganism is a serious religion"8.
Love for and Kinship with Nature: rather than the more customary attitude of aggression and domination over Nature; reverence for the life force and its ever-renewing cycles of life and death.
The Pagan Ethic: 'Do what thou wilt, but harm none'. This is a positive morality, not a list of thou-shalt-nots. Each individual is responsible for discovering his or her own true nature and developing it fully, in harmony with the outer world.
The Concept of Goddess and God as expressions of the Divine reality; an active participation in the cosmic dance of Goddess and God, female and male, rather than the suppression of either the female or the male principle.
Those Pagans expressing some dissent from these principles are mainly Heathens [...] and some magicians who are more concerned with self-understanding and less with deities. [...] Many Pagans believe in the 'threefold effect', that whatever they do, whether for good or for bad, will be returned to them threefold.”
“Wicca is a Western mystery religion12 invented and founded by Gerald Gardner in the UK in the 1950s, followed shortly by the very similar Alexandrian Wicca in the 1960s, although the two strands are now very closely intertwined13 and Wicca is decentralized. Wiccan practices centre on ritual, nature veneration, natural cycles, and magical and spiritual learning14. Much of it derived from pseudo-folklore. Its festivals are held on the eight yearly Sabbats. Divinity in Wicca is seen as both male and female (typically as the Horned God and Mother Goddess14), as are the general forces of nature which emanate from the male and female principal15,16, and these two sides complement one another13,17. Groups of adherents are called covens and as with other mystery religions entrance to Wicca comes by way of initiation, a process which requires study and the gaining of the trust of the others. Covens aim to have thirteen members, which are then traditionally seen as "full", and growth comes by way of splintering13. Solitary practitioners are called hedgewitches. Compared to other new religious movements in the West, adherence to Wicca takes up a surprising amount of dedication and time13.”
“The New Age is a wildly varied collection of practices and beliefs rather than a structured belief system, and as such it is difficult to define18. Popular elements include alchemy, alternative psychotherapy techniques, animism, aromatherapy, astrology, channeling, crystal work, divination, Gnosticism, karma stuff, lightwork and colour healing, magic, mediums, psychic powers of every kind, reincarnation and past life regression, sacred geometry (leylines, pyramid power, magical shapes), Spiritualism, Tarot card readings, Taoism, Yoga and many other splintered movements and zany practices19,20
It derives from folklore, superstition, pre-modern magical beliefs and elements of Hinduism and Buddhism. The peoples of mythical places such as Atlantis and Avalon rub shoulders with the gods, goddesses and other spiritual beings from ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, Celtic, Nordic, Saxon, Teutonic and Native American belief systems21. New Agers themselves emphasize the 'arcane' nature of their 'ancient' and 'secret' wisdom22. Some of it comprises of practices that are commonplace in the East (such as meditation) but which are simply called 'new age' when they happen to be practiced by Westerners. Much of the Indian influence on the New Age derives from diluted practices and ideas brought from India by the Theosophists.”
Pagans and New Agers share a large number of cultural interests and there is a significant overlap between the two communities23. Some scholars class neo-Paganism as a whole as part of the New Age as a whole, where some are sure that they are independent developments24. For example, Nevil Drury say Paganism is New Age, but Aiden Kelly differentiates them25. Pagans themselves despise being described as New age as Pagans consider themselves "less consumer oriented and less mainstream than New Age" whilst New Agers tend to focus on "light" and "healing" and other intensely saccharine concepts, all mixed in with a very open form of popularism26,23. Despite those differences, in 1995 the researcher Michael York found that at a Newcastle conference, Paganism in Contemporary Britain, the attendees were not only well educated about the New Age as a whole, but, they expressed opinions that it was worthwhile and good - no-one there said otherwise10.
“Shamanism is a timeless and ancient style of religion27, involving beliefs and practices that predate history, although the word itself comes from the Tungus people of Siberia, Russia28. Shamans still operate today in North America in some native Indian communities and amongst some Australian aborigines.29 The oldest evidence of Shamanism comes from European cave paintings, the oldest of which are over 30,000 years old30. It is based on animism - the belief that spirits are everywhere, indwelling not only all animals, but objects too31. Shamans are tribal spiritual leaders who are believed to be skilled in harnessing animal spirits as allies in order to look after the local community32,33 and to be able to act as "mediator between the human world and the world of the spirits"34. They attempt to ascertain the causes of calamities and to improve the luck and enterprise of the tribe. In trances and altered states of consciousness, often brought about through the use of psychoactive drugs, deprivation and mental illness (or episodes are sometimes simply faked), shamans attest to a world full of animal and ancestor spirits.35
In the modern, developed world, new forms of shamanism have arisen as part of the general growth of neo-Paganism. Enthusiasts reconstruct, re-read and re-interpret shamanism, turning it into a general spiritual enterprise divorced from its original context and meaning. It "has spawned numerous related books, workshops and training sessions, some of which incorporate practices and paraphernalia from a variety of native traditions"36, although many are critical of this modern reconstruction and the connection between modern and ancient shamanism can often be described as "tenuous" at best37. Arthur Versluis writes with scorn of "some modern authors who give workshops" but says that "to be a shaman is not merely a weekend of entertainment"38. The pagan scholar Nevil Drury starts his book Shamanism by saying that "it is a fantasy to endeavour to transpose the world of the shaman to our own contemporary setting"39 and despite hundreds of years of shamanic experience, spiritualists nowadays report a completely different spirit world. So someone's making a lot of stuff up. Either way, our knowledge of physiology, delirium, neurology and science is simply too great, and the history of charlatans, cold-readers and other chauvinistic spiritualists is too long, for shamanism to ever seem authentic again.”
Druidry is generally thought of being representative of a Celtic religion in prehistorical England40,41,42,43, but whose adherents were barred from writing down their beliefs, and, whose beliefs were only passed down to initiates44 or encoded into folk tales40,45. Much of the Druidic/Celtic lore is based on influential forgeries from the 1780s-90s by Edward Williams (also known as Iolo Morganwg)46 and others47. They probably did believe in reincarnation, like other Celtic communities around them48. Modern reconstructed Druidism is part of the neo-pagan range of religions, with no real historical ties to ancient Druidry49. There has been a lot debate over the legitimacy of modern self-proclaimed Druids50,51.
Modern Druids most identify as polytheistic52 and the major movements involve Shamanism40,53, love of the Earth and nature40,53,52, animism (the belief that natural objects have spirit)52,53 and pantheism52 (that all the natural world is itself god), adoration of the Sun41,54 and belief in reincarnation48 which in some groups is taken so seriously that they routinely spend time at meetings channelling voices from the dead55.”
There has been an explosion of interest in unusual, novel, untraditional, magical, counter-cultural and Earth-centered religious movements. They have some common features56 and share a number of common pull-factors attract people to new religious movements56.
Anti-consumerism and anti-materialism.60
Golden-age romanticism. Some groups promote pre-industrial or historical moral eras and attract others who think that the modern world is "lost".61
“For many Pagans, pre-Christian Europe is regarded as a Golden Age, and they seek to recover, ractivate or capture the spirit of [it]. While some Pagans seek to reconnect with Norse or Saxon traditions, or revere ancient Greek or Egyptian deities, for many Pagans it is Celtic deities, Celtric sacrad places, and the Celtic calendar that provide the means to tap into that bygone age [... and] to bring about the re-enchantment of the contemporary world.”
"Contemporary Celtic Spirituality" by Marion Bowman (2002)62
The loss of magic and fantasy in traditional religions.64,65,17. In their Introduction to Paganism the Pagan Federation states boldly that "divination and magic are accepted parts of life" for Pagans5.
The rise of individualism66 and protections for freedom of belief means people are free to pick-and-choose which religion to embrace.
Religious groups that arise from a particular cause will attract those interested in that cause. Two of the most popular amongst NRMs are:
Environmentalism is commonly proclaimed by all kinds of pagan, Celt, pseudo-Native and New-Age groups, and they attract many people who are similarly passionate about protecting the planet.66,67,68,69,70
Pagans are especially into environmentalism, preservation, sustainability and other 'green' endeavours. Prudence Jones writes that "by experience we know that we can be transported into rapture by the beauty of Nature. [...] For Pagans the divine, transcendent powers seem to be present within Nature itself, and by deliberate ritual and contemplation the devout Pagan can make contact with these"(1995)71. A study published in 1986 brokedown the reasons that American Pagans gave for becoming involved, and the positive and green stance on environmentalism was amongst the top 6 most commonly given motivations66. Researchers William Bloom and M. York state that this has also been a strong trend within the New Age; according to York a New Ager "through interdependence and interpenetration, accepts responsibility for the planetary state"72. Author Kenneth Rees imagines that we might expect to find that one hundred percent of all Pagans are environmentally-conscious and "professing a green spirituality"73.
“As we can see, the state of Paganism in the UK has been changing in the last ten years or so and in several key areas. Ecologically, although Paganism has always had behind it a romantic view of the land and has always been 'green' philosophically, it has now also become more clearly an activist movement in this area, working more on the front line and becoming more coherent about the link between theory and action than it ever has been before. A few Pagans do not want this progression into activist ecology as well as into fights for animal rights, but they remain a minority and many Pagans are involved in such activities as collecting money for buying woods and planting trees.”
For detail, see:
Many of these topics are already discussed in the section above on the causes of Paganism.
Most religious traditions have subjugated womankind76,77,78. The religious restrictions and taboos on womankind have ranged from the openly oppressive and inhumane, to subtle limitations. Women have been barred from leadership, prevented from religious learning and even from secular education, forbidden to hold power, denied fair inheritance and land ownership, denigrated, physically dominated, and sometimes even forbidden to speak79. All in accordance with holy texts, religious laws and guidelines. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam have been the worse; but also Hinduism and Buddhism have played roles in the long-term subjugation of women. In Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "The Woman's Bible" (1898) she bemoans that "all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her, and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible"80. The much more neutral scholar of comparative religion, Moojan Momen, normally writes positively on nearly all aspects of religion, but when it comes to women, even he is forced into a multiple-page criticism of the historical role of religion81. Although some of this stems from ancient cultural sources before it happened to be codified in world religions82, organized religion has clung on to patriarchalism long after secular society has liberalized. Feminist groups have frequently been anti-religion simply because it is religion that has presented itself as the most consistent oppressor of womankind. The problems from traditional religions are not just historical: even today, religious organisations and powerful international religious lobbies hold back gender equality across the world83.
There is good news. The most readily accepted cure for both intolerance, religion and superstition is widely shown to be education. The position of women improves as education improves and as traditional religions lose their grip on society. Modern society has come to either ignore their traditional texts (as most Christians do) or to abandon religion (as many Westerners have done). Also many new religious movements and alternative religions such as Paganism, Wicca, the New Age and even Satanism practice full gender equality. As long as traditional religions continue to decline and secular society and new religions both grow, the situation of women continues to improve.”
Feminism has always been a significant feature of Paganism and Wicca84. As the decades wore on, feminism and gender equality became an increasingly pronounced stance rather than an implied one85. The presence of feminism in Pagan groups is one of the six reasons that American Pagans gave for having become involved in Paganism, according to a study published in 198666.
Most forms of Paganism and the New Age are accepting, tolerant and respectful towards other's beliefs and practices5. There is very little in the way of an impulse towards correcting others, telling them they're wrong and criticizing their beliefs. Even if two believers' theories about important aspects of their crafts are contradictory and impossibly conflicting, there is rarely much in the way of hatred, or even dislike, between them.
“Pagans believe that no one belief system is correct and that each person should have the freedom to come themselves to the path of their choice. [...] For all Pagans there is no place for either dogma or proselytising.”
Academic researchers have been pleased to note that although some of the these new religious movements emerged from within an anti-Christian milieu many groups simply never took up an aggressive stance, or, if they did, they mostly quickly moved on (within a few decades) to a neutral and tolerant stance. Pearson (2002) puts it like this: "Wiccans and Pagans have been, and are at present, involved in the development of interfaith meetings with members of other religions, and [...] no longer requires legitimization through false histories or hatred of the Christian Church"87.
It seems natural and ascendant that modern religions such as the various forms of Paganism and New Age-style belief systems should abandon strict claims about their exclusive access to truth. In a world where fundamentalism seems forever on the rise many new religious movements represent a better side of religion, free from powermongering and free from the urge to enforce its doctrines on people for their own good.
Paganism in general, in all of its forms, has been reviled by organized Christianity and the popular press. The Church can no longer get away with orchestrated violence, and, the growth of tolerance and human rights has meant that Paganism, from the 1980s onwards, became increasingly accepted as something that couldn't be beaten into invisibility. There is now "both official and academic recognition that Paganism is a serious religion"8 and the 1990s saw the start of a genuine era of actual tolerance.
“In December 1994 Leeds University students chose a Wiccan witch to be their chaplain and in the same month the 1000 or so members of the Milton Keynes Wicca group were given land on which to hold open-air ceremonies. [...] There is a Pagan Prison Chaplain.”
You might expect the establishments surrounding student life to be liberal - but the spread of acceptance has cast itself deep into what have previously been bastions of conservatism:
“Much blether about devil-worship, 'political correctness gone mad' and the destructive effects of unchecked individualism greeted the announcement on July 16th  of an official association for pagan policemen, to take its place alongside the existing Muslim Police Association and a recently created equivalent for Sikhs. [...] Despite the difficulties of definition, paganism has slowly been winning recognition from the authorities. [...] Pagan prisoners are now allowed to have religiously-themed possessions (wands, for instance), and in 2006 the Home Office approved a pagan oath for use in the courts 'By all that I hold sacred...'). [...] Britain has a way to go before it catches up with countries more recently Christianised: Asatruarfelagid, Iceland's pagan organisation, for example, was officially recognised in 1973, and is a beneficiary of that country's religious taxes.”
Bias still exists. For example, few administrators thought anything of it when pagan websites were categorized by Internet filtering software as "Satanic/cult" and thusly widely blocked89. But battle by battle, the era of human rights has trumped such accidental (and deliberate) bias.
Wiccans and Pagans parents stick to the idea that children must choose a religion, and that it is morally wrong to bring a child up "as" the parent's religion. Until the child is old enough to research religions and pick one, they are not a member of a religion. "The children of Wiccan parents tend to be encouraged to learn about many different religious traditions, beliefs and practices, and the mythology found in comparative religions and civilizations".90
Wicca, and forms of modern neo-Paganism grew up amongst the belief that they represent old religion, natural wisdom and that their rituals are survivals from a hidden rural past. The Pagan Federation's Introduction to Paganism webpage still states confidently, but wrongly, that "Paganism is the ancestral religion of the whole of humanity"5. This started with a campaign between 1890 and 1914 to promote a romantic version of the ideal English countryside, complete with ancient May Day celebrations91. Soon, it looked to all that such things were remnants from our pagan past. Wicca in particular, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, promoted the idea that there was once a historical, European-wide mystery religion comprised of witches organized into secret covens, that met at night and in the woods13,15,92. Archaeological evidence began to look like it supported the idea of a universal, ancient mother-goddess religion. Academia was giving serious consideration to the idea that that Witch Hunts of the Inquisition of the Catholic Church was genuinely trying to stamp out the remains of an underground pagan religion93. The witches involved passed on secret, ancient wisdom, that was normally to do with healing, botany, magic and other esoteric and occult knowledge. Modern Wicca, they held, is a modern revitalizing of this ancient religion (complete with occasional pseudo-archaic English usage), and this historical story was once widely adopted amongst neo-Pagans of most kinds, not just by early Wiccans94 and it still is believed by some pagans today95.
But extensive and careful research has now found these ideas to be false96 and based on the evidence, historians are now sure that our modern rituals and pagan religions are modern inventions93,97. The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor explains that the archaeological evidence for a universal mother-goddess had proven to be inadequate - most sites have no sign of religion, or of motherly figurines, and most decorative and non-functional artefacts are concerned with sex - with the sex act itself, especially phallic symbols and depictions of human sex98. "Historical European witchcraft is quite simply a fiction", writes the religious historian R. Briggs (1996)99 and "any links between Wicca and the Great Witch Hunt of early modern Europe, for example, are now seen in terms of self-identification rather than as historical facts" according to Joanne Pearson (2002)100. The earliest comprehensive historical investigations have been conducted by the academic Ronald Hutton, an expert in the relevant prime sources. In 1995, he found that even though Druidry is well-documented from the 18th century onwards, the modern forms of it were still recreated as a new, pagan, "revival" - even though for the previous hundreds of years, it was all but a simplified version of Christianity2. He wrote that modern pagan Shamanism is "self-consciously a creation of the past two decades, drawing upon tribal models, often from native America, fused with ancient European imagery"2. Hutton's full findings were published as "The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft" (1999). Talking of Paganism rather than just Wicca, he adds a note of humour in one of his conclusions: "The Paganism of today has very little in common with that of the past except the name, which is itself of Christian coinage".
Wicca was at risk of falling into fundamentalism: Would Wiccans accept these historical facts, or would they disregard the evidence and descend into dogma and ignorance? Thankfully, influential historians such as Prof. Ronald Hutton became well respected, honoured and trusted within Pagan and Wiccan communities, for his honest and clear presentation of the historical facts. Wiccans, (followed by Druids and Pagans) in general gracefully and commendably changed their beliefs101, ,102, and have ever since remained on the liberal, peaceful and good-natured path, a fact documented by Ronald Hutton in the book mentioned above.
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