Beyond the Bell, Book and Candle: Pagan Religion is Not What You Think it Is

I am a Pagan. Paganism, sometimes called NeoPagan or contemporary Pagan religion, is my spiritual path. I have been walking this path for some 30 years now and I have seen a lot of changes both over those years, both in my religious community and in how the rest of the world perceives us. These days, a lot more people are aware of Paganism. They may even be familiar with the names of specific Pagan denominations such as Wicca, Druidism, or Asatru.



I still get asked about my religion, though. And on occasion if I happen to mention that I’m Pagan, it will ruffle the feathers of someone I’ve known and been friendly with for quite some time. People tend to have certain assumptions about what the word “pagan” means. Most often, they think it’s somehow synonymous to being an atheist – which it isn’t – or with being some kind of Devil-worshipper – which is actually kind of amusing because many Pagans don’t even acknowledge the existence of a Devil!

On the contrary, Paganism is an earth-based religion whose roots stretch back to pre-Christian times. It is a contemporary interpretation of the religious customs of some of our earliest ancestors. Many people come to Paganism because of the strong emphasis on nature and conservation. Others, because Pagan religions tend to be egalitarian and include both men and women among their clergy. When I describe my religion to people in those terms, most will say that they can relate. But words like “pagan,” “heathen,” and “witch” are still very emotionally loaded words even in the 21st century. And people tend to have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear someone using them to describe their faith.

Knowing a little about Pagan religions can go a long way towards helping you get past that emotional response to the words. Once you step away from the assumptions and the fear of the unknown, you’ll probably discover that Pagans are pretty ordinary people. We are just called to serve different gods and to walk a different path.

Pagan Religion: What it Is

In the latter part of the 20th century, journalist Margot Adler toured the United States speaking to Pagans of every stripe about their religion. She concluded that while we have many diverse expressions for our religion, most Pagans have three things in common:

  • Pagans are generally animists. That is, we see the world and things in it as living entities. That includes the obvious stuff – like people, animals, and plants. But it also includes things like rivers and streams, and the soil in which we grow our food.Sometimes it’s a bit of a metaphor, but science has shown us that the earth’s air, soil and waters are all teeming with microorganisms, And we know that even inanimate objects like rocks and my computer keyboard are made up of atoms that are constantly in motion. So in a sense, everything is alive. It’s just that Pagans place a special kind of emphasis on this knowledge.
  • Pagans are also pantheists.This means that we see the Divine as part of Creation, and not separate from it. We believe that each plant, animal, waterfall, and star in the sky has a part of that Divine spark within it. And so do people. This is often summed up in the expression, “Thou art God/dess,” for we recognize each other as being both human and Divine at one and the same time.
  • Pagans are polytheists. That means that we do not believe in a single deity, nor in a single deity and his evil rival. Instead, we believe in a number of deities – both Gods and Goddesses. The choice of which deities to worship is a personal one, though most of us recognize and respect the existence of deities to whom we don’t have a personal connection.For example, a Pagan who felt drawn to the pantheon of Olympian Gods and Goddesses might accept and respect the existence of the Japanese Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, without feeling a need to worship her. The same may hold true for the God of Abraham or for Jesus Christ. Although we may feel no need to worship these deities, we do recognize their importance to our Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends.

Paganism: What it Isn’t

Many people have a set idea of what religion is supposed to look like, but a lot of the assumptions that go along with that preconceived notion of religion can make to harder to understand Paganism and relate to your Pagan friends. Pagan religion exists pretty far outside the box that contains most of the major world religions. In order to relate, you have to understand what Paganism is not.

    • Paganism is not a single religion but rather a broad category that encompasses many different earth-based religions. In general, we are also not a religion that has a central authority or official hierarchy. Although there are some registered Pagan churches and temples, Pagans generally walk their own paths alone or in small groups. We are not really an organized religion
    • Paganism is not a revealed religion. So we don’t have a Bible or equivalent holy book. And we don’t have any commandments or specific rules about what we can and cannot do. Each Pagan is responsible for the way he chooses to worship and for his own choices in life. The guiding principle of Pagan morality is that we choose for ourselves, but we must also be willing to accept the consequences of our choices.
    • Paganism has no concept of either sin or salvation. We do not believe that it’s possible to make a universal list of spiritual no-nos from which all of humanity should abstain. Going back to the point above, it’s for each of us to determine our own sense of right and wrong. What may be ethical for another may not be for me. I need to live by my own personal moral compass, not that of another. As far as salvation, if there’s no sin there is no need to be saved from it!
    • Pagans don’t subscribe to dualistic concepts like God and the Devil or Heaven and Hell. While I do believe in an entity called the Devil, he certainly isn’t what Christians have made him out to be!I believe in the earlier Jewish interpretation, in which the Devil has a job given to him by God. He is the Adversary, whose job is to raise doubts and challenge us when we are making a tough decision. Not because he’s evil and seeks to condemn us to Hell. But because it’s his job to prompt us to take sober second thought before we act on something we might regret.As for Heaven and Hell. I believe in neither. I also don’t believe in a single life followed by an eternity in the afterlife. I believe in reincarnation, so there is no need for an eternal resting place. Life on earth is cyclical, so why should the lives of humans be any different?
    • Finally, Paganism is a religion without converts. What I mean by this is that we do not believe we are the one and only way, or that our religion is superior to another. Although up till the end of the 20th century, most people who follow a Pagan path did come to Paganism after having being raised in another faith, this is not the result of proselytizing. Pagans tend to find preaching, proselytizing and testifying offensive – sometimes exceedingly so. Those who find Paganism usually do so in a very organic way. We have no need or desire to hunt people down and convert them, and we really wish the rest of the world felt that way too!

 

Paganism is earth-based religion. Most NeoPagan religions share these common traits.


Stereotypes, like the black cat familiar, are often all that a person knows of Paganism
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(Image from a public domain photo by pefertig/Pixabay)

 

Original content © 2016 Kyla Matton Osborne



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  • Comments

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        @patzanthony you got me giggling with that comment, Pat! You are so right! So many people, when they hear what Pagans do and believe, come to the realization that they are Pagans too and have been all along. I know it happened that way for me, all those years ago. It’s an experience a lot of Pagans refer to as “coming home.”

      2. Profile photo of Eva James
        Eva James

        You made me giggle with that response because I shared a photo on fb a few years back that listed all the good things like loving animals and nature. Not believing in the devil and many other things. At the bottom it said I guess I am a witch and a long time friend asked me if I had just figured it out. We both knew way back in school what we were and she just had to ask it. She then started following the page I got it from also. When we were in school that is what it would have been called if we had talked about it.

    1. Profile photo of Andria Perry
      Andria Perry

      I am good old Southern Baptist who believes in God the father and Jesus the son of God.

      To each his own! And I will not preach to you.

      I do believe in reincarnation, sometimes when we go to heaven our spirit will be sent back as someone else. The eternal resting place is for the body and not the soul.

      I tweeted this article

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        I won’t preach to you either, promise! I very much agree we can live and let live. Incidentally, one of my dearest friends, when my kids were little, was an older lady who ran the school library. She was a born again Baptist. And although our paths are very different, we agreed on a great many things!

        I’m actually surprised that a Baptist would believe in reincarnation. I’ve had some tell me it’s considered a bit of a heresy….

        Thanks for the Tweet!

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        And here I thought it was a pretty run of the mill look at Paganism! I have a couple of more focused topic ideas that I want to develop. Hopefully, they’ll work out as well as this one did 🙂

        Thanks do much for sharing.

      2. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        It sure does help! The more people see and read, the more they’ll see we’re just regular folks. Pagans are different, but not in a bad way 🙂

    2. Profile photo of Nona
      Nona

      I think at the end of the day I’m closer to Paganism than Christian in faith.
      Though, truth be told I’m too lazy to “practice” any religion.

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        You raise an interesting question, Nona. And actually, it’s one of the ideas I’m thinking might make a good topic for a follow-up post on Paganism. With the rather loosely organized nature of our religion and the overall openness with regard to how one worships, exactly what qualifies a person to claim the title of Pagan? And what types of practice, if any, are required? I have a few interesting tidbits from personal experience that I hope will make good reading 🙂

      2. Profile photo of Nona
        Nona

        @ruby3881 I look forward to those follow-up posts. I have friends who are “very” Pagan, and follow rituals and such. I have more laid-back Pagan friends, closer to how I act.

        For myself, I have an altar. Occasionally I’ll burn candles with a purpose in mind and meditate. That’s about as far as I’ve gone.

        I’ve not (and probably never will) “come out” to my family as far as Religion. For most strangers or coworkers think I’m Agnostic at best, or Atheist at worse. (One lady starts any conversation that includes her beliefs with “I know you don’t believe in God but…”) and I just don’t have the desire to explain it to her. lol

      3. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        I think what makes a person “very Pagan” is the way she lives her life. If you walk the walk every day, then you may well be getting more out of your religion than those who are doing all the rituals. In any religion, you will find different ways to practice. And you will also find some folks who go through the motions and have all the “right” trappings, but who really don’t “get” the path they are trying to follow.

    3. Profile photo of Olivia Morris
      Olivia Morris

      Kyla, this was an interesting read. Thank you for that. I’m not a Pagan, will never be a Pagan, but that’s me and that’s you . We are both here now, let’s make the best of it…
      p.s. I won’t preach either unless you ask me to…

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        I would never ask you to preach, Olivia. I dislike being “talked at.” But I am always open to friendly discussion about our various beliefs and practices, whenever it comes up among friends. I have one friend who is Messianic, and we occasionally PM each other with a question about the other’s religion. I’ll never be Messianic and she’ll never be a Pagan, but we have a lot of the same very deeply held beliefs and we each respect the other’s dedication to her faith.

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        I appreciate you sharing, Olivia. When someone can read about Paganism even though it’s very different from her own path, and then make a point of sharing the post as well, it shows that she is a kind spirited person with an open mind. I feel blessed to count you among my friends 🙂

    4. Profile photo of Sandy KS
      Sandy KS

      I have been raised in the Christian faith. I went to a Lutheran Church with my dad and stepmother since the age of five. With mom it was any church near by she could attend. Since most of the time. She did not have a running vehicle.

      As I was growing up. I was able to attend many different churches based on the Christian’s faith. We attended one where peopel talked in tongues, believed once you die you stay in your grave til Jesus comes back. When you will come out of your grave to fight the battle of good versus evil. As Jesus reclaim earth. To ones that didn’t celebrate birthdays or any holidays.

      I have always liked studying religion. Especially religions not my own. I think I have always had a curiosity about pagans. That also has to do with my upbringing. As pagans were witches, they knew things before they happen, their dreams came true etc. Not saying they are, just saying what I was taught. I personally don’t know any pagans. If i did i would have many questions to ask.

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        Well actually, you do know a Pagan. And that would be me!

        I think we’ve discussed before how my exposure to Christianity was similar to yours. When I was a child, we went to the church that was handy although it wasn’t the denomination either of my parents followed. At some point, my friends and I organized a sort of ad hoc religious exchange so we could visit one another’s churches and see what each one was like. I believe that gave me the same kind of curiosity that you have. I never tire of hearing about others’ faiths!

    5. Profile photo of @stbrians meshack bwoyele keya
      @stbrians meshack bwoyele keya

      You have explained in depth about Paganism @ruby3881. Don’t you think this is just like a silent opposition to other religions? I read about a pagan who ate fish and it was as if a bone stuck in his throat. The man saw himself in the hell he never believed in. Then he saw himself in heaven and saw a supreme being – not many deities. He was told to go back and he entered his body through the toe a changed man. I do not know where I read this but maybe you know as you are well-read, ma’am.

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        @stbrians Would you think that me choosing to eat bread while you eat fish is an opposition to you or the fish, Meshack? The fact of the matter is that there were Pagans on this earth long before there were Christians or even Jews. And in fact, we know that the God of Abraham is but one of many deities who were worshipped by the ancestors of today’s Christians and Jews. Even the Bible speaks of other deities. The First Commandment specifically recognizes their existence. They were there before Yahweh and did not end when he was declared supreme.

        Our faith teaches that all paths lead to the center. There are as many ways to worship as there are people on this planet. That your neighbour is not called to worship the same deity as you should not trouble you any more than if your neighbour chooses a different career or to paint his house a different colour from yours. Seek peace my friend, not unrest.

      2. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        To be honest, @stbrians, I’m not really sure I can relate to that comment. I was never taught to fear the dark, and as my religion is not a revealed one or one that depends on salvation, I feel no need to escape darkness.

    6. Profile photo of Sharon Epperson
      Sharon Epperson

      I have a cousin that is Pagan, but never really understood what it was. Now, I have more insight about it.
      I am a Christian, but I like learning about other religions. I am looking forward to talking to and getting to know other people and learning about what they believe.

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        I think that interfaith dialogue is a wonderful thing, mostly because it teaches us that we have more in common than not. Whether Pagan, Christian, Muslim, atheist or something completely different, we are all human beings first!

    7. Profile photo of Gil Camporazo
      Gil Camporazo

      It is good you have brought this up. I have a limited knowledge about Paganism. What I thought before, Paganism is more on rituals and festivities. We understand that the all the festivals we have had in our country is Paganistic in origin. What do you think?

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        There are certainly a number of Pagan rituals and ceremonies, Gil. But the beliefs that are at the heart of Pagan religion are closer to being universal than those festivities. There is a great deal of diversity not only in which holidays a given Pagan will mark but also in how the rituals are done.

        As to your holidays being of Pagan origin, I would not be surprised! There was a thriving culture in the Philippines before Christianity, right? That would have been a Pagan culture, I should think.

        In the West, many of the Christian holidays and their traditions have Pagan origins. Everything from Easter eggs to Christmas trees, to even the story of Jesus’ birth has an oldr Pagan origin. Noah too, was Pagan before his story was incorporated into Judaism.

    8. Profile photo of Olivia Morris
      Olivia Morris

      I guess I shouldn’t have said preach as it has connotations that I did not mean. I guess I meant more of a dialogue. Yes, we need to learn how to respect everyone that comes into our lives as important and worthy. No one that I know of is God himself/herself. We are together one family……the human one.

    9. Profile photo of Gina  M. Menorca
      Gina M. Menorca

      As my forefathers have instilled me with my faith and religious belief. I have vowed to never change my religion. But, I’m very interested in paganism. I always read books on Wicca. I love the mythology, the stories of God And Goddesses.

    10. Profile photo of Gina  M. Menorca
      Gina M. Menorca

      I love the book of Scott Cunningham. Simple and easy to understand. Very captiviting. It started when I meet an old foriegn lady. A french. she approach me in the park and she said that I was a gypsy princess.

      1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

        Scott Cunningham was very popular here in Canada too! I used to have several of his books. I think he wrote about a dozen before he died…

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