What Is Paganism?

A number of years ago, I was discussing a Beltaine festival with somebody and another person pitched in with interest. Knowing that this third person didn’t know what Beltaine was, I explained to him that it’s a Pagan festival. To keep a somewhat longer story short, he thought I was talking about the motorcycle group called “Pagans”. He had no idea that Paganism is a religion. To be somewhat fair, I had no idea that there was a group of bikers by that name, either.

At other times, I have heard others respond to hearing the word “Pagan” with varied confused responses from “What’s that mean?” to “You mean those weird people who believe in fairies?”.

Let’s face it: The general population doesn’t typically know what Paganism is. Why should they? It’s a religious group that many don’t ever come across. In most of my years as a Pagan, I’ve been fairly (carefully) open about my religion. I don’t go into details and, when I do, what details are given are carefully chosen. If somebody asks about religion and I feel safe, I tell them. If they ask what that means, I do my best to explain it in a way I think they’ll understand. That’s not always particularly easy. As time lingers on, I’ve found that my worldview has changed in such a way that I sometimes have a disconnect with the Christian-centered mindset of most around me. Yes, that typically includes the atheists, agnostics, and some other non-Christian folk. Not that this mindset is entirely absent from me – it’s simply not as strong as it used to be, I suppose.

By this point in time, many Pagans are already familiar with some variation of the quote, “If you ask 10 Pagans what Paganism is, you’ll get 10 different answers.” There’s a good reason for this: Paganism is not a singular religion. There are a multitude of religions within Paganism, and numbers of differing traditions within many of these individual religions. Nope, not all Pagans are Wiccan. Nor do all Pagans practice witchcraft of any given tradition, though many do. (Witchcraft, though a related subject, is it’s own thing which is just as diverse in traditions as Paganism. It is also not just Wicca.) And, yes, there are also many eclectic neo-Pagans who don’t practice a specific religious tradition.

To explain to somebody new to Paganism what it is can feel overwhelming. I don’t want to misconstrue it as a singular religion or tradition. I don’t want to make generalized claims that are true to some aspects of Paganism, but completely false about others. I also don’t want to give so much information as to overwhelm anyone. It can be a bit of a tricky tightrope to walk for somebody who cares so deeply about honesty in their practices. Or, perhaps it’s my social awkwardness and anxiety that makes it so difficult for me.

This my best definition of Paganism: “An umbrella term which encompasses many different religions and traditions. Some of which are earth-centered, some not. Some of which are polytheist (a belief in many gods), some not. Some of which believe in fairies or other spirits, some may not. Some of which incorporate witchcraft, some do not. Some of which attempt to reconstruct ancient pre-Christian religions, some do not. Some of which were entirely created in the 1900’s, some not. Some of which are open traditions (anybody can practice), while some are closed traditions (must be part of a specific culture to practice).” On and on this attempt to define something so complex can go… It doesn’t quite feel like an answer, and yet it’s much more of an answer than many of the others I’ve come across.

It is said by many Pagans that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to practice. While technically true, this generalization does lead to a lot of cultural harm and misinformation within the wider Pagan community. (I wrote more in depth on this in a previous post, Paganism: Accountability Matters.) Personally, I hate using this phrase because it can be misconstrued so badly. I always feel as if I am doing a disservice to new Pagans if I don’t follow up with some sort of “yes, but…” explanation when they’re told to do “whatever feels right”. Unfortunately, lots of people don’t like being corrected when they are contributing to misinformation, cultural misappropriation, or other harmful ideas. Those exploring Paganism need to know early on to be wary of certain sources, and how to respectfully practice in a way that feels right to them.

All of that said, when done in a respectful and fully honest manner, there is no wrong way to practice Paganism. That’s the caveat that gets so many in trouble. Respect and honesty in one’s practice: It really shouldn’t be too much to expect. It’s okay to get something wrong – we all do. Owning up to our mistakes and correcting them is what matters.

Alas, I have gone off in a bit of a tangent. So, what is Paganism? It is many things. It is a religious community comprised of people from all walks of life. It is a desire to connect to spirituality in a way that feels right to each individual. For some, it’s also a desire to connect to one’s ancestry or culture. It can be neo-Paganism, Wicca, Asatru, Hellenism, Kemeticism, polytheism, pantheism, duotheism, animism, sometimes Indigenous and African-diasporic spiritualities (not all in such traditions are okay with being associated with Paganism), and over a thousand more religious traditions. Sometimes these traditions and belief systems overlap. Many Pagan religions (as well as non-Pagan ones) share much in common, and yet they are each different. They each draw from their own cultural sources, both ancient and modern. Paganism isn’t any one religion. It’s a plethora of religions and traditions which give life to our communities.

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