Updated: Jul 14, 2019
When you hear the word “Pagan,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it positive or negative? If you come from a Christian background, you might have some misgivings about the word, perhaps even equate it with other terms like “heathen” or “godless.”
Paganism is a term that first arose among the Christian community of southern Europe during late antiquity as a way of identifying religions other than their own, or the related Abrahamic religions; e.g., Judaism and Islam. In other words, Paganism as a title was intended only to reference the non-Christians and the non-Jews. Ultimately, Paganism came to be equated by Christians with a sense of hedonism, representing those who are sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, unconcerned with the future, and uninterested in sophisticated religion. Outside of Christian circles, the term Paganism typically refers to a group of contemporary religions based on a reverence for nature. These faiths draw on the traditional religions of indigenous peoples throughout the world.
Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick in their A History of Pagan Europe classify pagan religions as characterized by the following traits:
Polytheism: Pagan religions recognize a plurality of divine beings, which may or may not be considered aspects of an underlying unity.
Nature-based: Pagan religions have a concept of the divinity of Nature, which they view as a manifestation of the divine, not as the fallen creation found in dualistic cosmology.
Sacred feminine: Pagan religions recognize "the female divine principle," identified as "the Goddess" beside or in place of the male divine principle as expressed in the Abrahamic God.
Despite the above traits commonly associated with Paganism, it’s important to note that Paganism is not intended to differentiate the polytheistic religions from the monotheistic. Pagans would have not considered it important to differentiate themselves based on the number of gods they worshiped. Followers of the ancient religions did not necessarily have anything against Christianity based on its preference for a singular deity, and in many cases pagan sects had a primary deity at the center of the religion, beneath which subordinate deities were also worshiped. Modern Paganism, also known as Contemporary Paganism and Neopaganism, is a group of new religious movements influenced by or claiming to be derived from the various historical pagan beliefs of pre-modern Europe.
If you do some poking around in more contemporary expressions of Paganism, you will find that some of the central values include:
Love for and kinship with nature
The recognition of the divine in nature is at the heart of Pagan belief. Pagans are deeply aware of the natural world and see the power of the divine in the ongoing cycle of life and death. Most Pagans are eco-friendly, seeking to live in a way that minimizes harm to the natural environment.
Personal responsibility for beliefs
Pagans advocate a positive morality, in which the individual is responsible for the discovery and development of their true nature in harmony with the outer world and community. This is often expressed as, “Do what you will, as long as it harms none.” The most basic tenant of Paganism is that it is your own responsibility, not the responsibility of any government, institution, church or other people, to choose what you believe in regards to spirituality, values, ethics, the nature of Divinity, etc.
Recognition of the Divine
A common Pagan belief is that everything in the universe is sacred. For some pagans, all parts of our universe are considered divine and as such, sacred and worthy of our deepest respect. Pagans believe that the Divine transcends gender, acknowledging both the female and male aspect of Deity. Paganism strongly emphasizes equality of the sexes. Women play a prominent role in the modern Pagan movement, and Goddess worship features in most Pagan ceremonies.
We should be grateful for our Pagan friends for maintaining and promoting an integral connection between spirituality and nature. In my own personal spiritual growth and the work I do with others through my spiritual direction practice, I’ve been exploring the area of ecopsychology.
Ecopsychology seeks to reshape modern psychology by showing that it cannot stand apart from an intimate human connection with the natural environment. The premise is that we need that connection with nature to do well mentally and physically, and flourish as individuals and as a species. Ecopsychology offers three primary insights: there is a deeply bonded and reciprocal relationship between humans and nature; the illusion of a separation of humans and nature leads to suffering both for the environment and for humans; and the recognition that the connection between humans and nature is healing for both.
It might be assumed that Christianity and Paganism would be at odds with each other, but in my view, Jesus embraced many of the values espoused by Pagans. Jesus taught people to be a “neighbor”– to care about the needs, hardships and struggles of other human beings. Caring for the planet is one of the most important ways of truly being a “neighbor.” It doesn’t take long to discover that environmental degradation has a disastrous impact on the health, well-being and survival of countless people around the world. The opening scene of the Bible is a picture of wholeness and harmony between God, the natural creation and human beings, and Jesus alluded to this imagery when he envisioned the reality of the “Kingdom of God" on earth.
There is also a category of Pagans identified as "Humanistic Paganism," which is a unique Pagan orientation for those who are uncomfortable with or skeptical of the supernatural or metaphysical elements of contemporary Paganism. Humanistic Paganism is Paganism that is firmly rooted in the empirical world.
A person may be drawn to Paganism by its down-to-earth orientation but turned-off by other aspects of Paganism, such as the belief in instrumental magic (the belief that thought can cause change in the physical world without corresponding physical action), New Age trappings like crystals, or the literal belief in gods as sentient beings. For some, this kind of Paganism too closely resembles the other-worldliness of the transcendental religions they left behind. These Pagans may find a home among Humanistic Pagans who share a love of the myth and ritual of Paganism, but not what they see as its irrational credulity and superstition.
15 guiding principles of Humanistic Paganism are:
Ethical behavior does not require a religion
All living things have a unique spirit or soul
The equality of genders, races, and all humans
Care must be taken in using nature's resources
All earth's life is connected and interdependent
The Gaia Principle is an important, basic, truth
The cycles of nature teach us what is important
Balance must be maintained for all life to flourish
Our health depends on the environment's health
Our individual actions can and do have consequences
Evolution is an ongoing process that occurs in all species
Birth, living and death are natural cycles shared by all life
Respect for ourselves requires respect for the earth
All human cultures have value and can teach us
Gods & Goddesses can be seen as metaphors
It’s unfortunate that our religious, spiritual and philosophical differences wall us off from each other. If we took the time to truly know one another, we would find profoundly meaningful things we share in common with each other.
For further investigation: