Welcome to Part II of our summer blog series about misunderstandings we have about one another's belief systems. Last month, Qamar Zafar illuminated the concept of love in Islam. This month, Church Lab dialoguer and Pagan friend Dash Kees helps us understand the shape of Paganism a bit better than we did when we woke up this morning. Check it out below!
Paganism is, by and large, a fairly misunderstood family of religious traditions. Because there are very few of us—a Pew research report from 2008 estimated that 0.4% of the United States population practiced some form of “New Age” religion, in which they included Paganism—it’s pretty easy for a person to simply never have met one of us. Or, to not realize it when they do. This is further compounded by the fact that not everyone has the freedom to share their religious beliefs, especially when they differ from those of your friends, family, and community; there are a lot of Pagans still living in the so-called broom closet.
All this is to say that it’s hard to narrow it down to one thing that I wished others would understand about modern Paganism. Further, there’s a lot of information online relating to some of the most common misunderstandings, such as whether or not we worship the Devil (answer: not generally), if we believe in magic and spells (answer: sometimes), and do we actually work with the gods of the ancient world (answer: some of us do, yes). So, herein, I’ve decided to try and share a different tidbit about Paganism, one that might be a little harder to find elsewhere online.
Typically, when one thinks of a faith group, there’s a sense of a unifying characteristic around which that community revolves. Christianity, for example, tends to share a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ whose sacrifice on the cross ushered in a new covenant between God and humankind as described in the New Testament of the Bible. Things get harder for atheist and agnostic communities, but I suspect that many could probably agree on a shared value for science, observation, rationality, and reason
Paganism doesn’t really have that, and this a hard thing for many to understand. Instead, it’s a group of traditions inspired by cultures of the ancient world, especially those of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Essentially: if Rome fought it, it’s a culture we’re probably fascinated by. But, this means that there are people in the community that believe in the gods of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, or Mesopotamia; the Aesir and Vanir of the Norse and Germanic people; or the Tuatha de Danann of Irish myth and legend. And new traditions continue to sprout and grow; the Wild Hunt—an online newspaper for the modern Pagan and polytheist community—posted an article in June 2018 about a revival of Gaulish polytheism, for example. And, there’s a growing community of Atheopaganism—atheist Pagans—who live a Pagan lifestyle and sensibility without, as Mark Green phrases it in the prior link, “supernatural credulity.”
Without that central, organizing foundation on which to build a community, there is sometimes very little that holds the Pagan world together. The Wiccans do their thing while the Celtic Reconstructionists do theirs; the Druids worship in their groves while the Heathens congregate in hofs. And, while there are differences between, for example, Methodists and Catholics, there are a lot of strong ties that bind them together. A practitioner of Kemetic Orthodoxy doesn’t even work with the same gods as a Gaulish polytheist!
So, when you meet a Pagan, understand that the point of view they share with you may not have much in common with the one you learn about from a different one. Our cosmology is often shaped by the “hearth culture,” i.e., the people whose culture and religious practice we seek to understand is a way to better understand ourselves, and that cosmology is going to result in different theologies, different ways of living our faiths, and maybe even different understandings about what it means to live a virtuous, righteous life.
In short: Paganism is a complicated community with different and sometimes contradictory beliefs and practices. But, we sort of like it that way; we tend to be fairly individualistic. If you search for more information online, you’re bound to run into many differences, sometimes even within a specific tradition. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.