Identifying as Pagan is an important step for many Pagans. It is not long since this would be a brave thing to do, and some Pagans may still be concerned about the reactions of other people. After all, it was only in 1951 that the anti-Witchcraft law was repealed. Also, the Satanic Ritual Abuse myths of the 1980s and 90s created a dangerous environment for people to disclose their Pagan beliefs as this could result in people losing their jobs, their homes and having their children removed by social services. Those myths were finally found to be without substance through a government commissioned investigation. In very recent times Paganism has become more accepted by the wider public, for example The Druid Network was accepted as a registered charity in 2010, and the Pagan Federation joined the Religious Education Council of England and Wales as a legitimate religious group in 2011. Both the Pagan Federation and the Druid Network were accepted as members of the Interfaith Network in 2015. Nevertheless, there is still something of a ‘countercultural’ feel about Pagan identity, and some Pagans may enjoy being a bit ‘alternative’, in spite of the presence of Pagans in many ‘respectable’ social positions. However, Pagans are generally fully engaged members of wider society.
Many Pagans talk about the sense of relief that came with discovering that others shared the beliefs and feelings they already had, and speak of ‘coming home’. Many women in particular have found a Pagan identity, whether as witch, Druid, or goddess devotee very empowering in contrast to patriarchal tendencies in more established religions. The same is true for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, who often do not feel welcome in longer established religions. Young people are often characterised as searching for an identity of their own, and teenage witches and other young Pagans have found strength in identifying as Pagan (see Cush, 2007). This particularly helps those who feel a bit ‘different’ from what passes as ‘normal’ as Paganism celebrates difference. You can be proud to be different rather than anxious, and this can be a protection against bullying.
The Pagan view of a human being tends towards a holistic one rather than a dualistic body/soul divide. The physical body should be celebrated. Humans are interdependent with each other and the rest of the natural world rather than being separate. For some Pagans, death means our body returning to the earth and the molecules becoming part of the ongoing natural cycle. For those who believe in reincarnation, or the realm of the ancestors in which the spirits of the dead reside, an element of dualism seems to be introduced into the concept of a human being, but there is still an interdependence between the living and the dead, human and nature, and one may be born again in a physical form. At the deepest level, for Pagans who are pantheist, all beings, including humans, are part of the one divine energy that lies behind the physical world. This resembles some forms of Hindu non-dual philosophy, except that the physical world is perhaps given a greater value in Paganism.
Paganism celebrates individuality, and personal experience is the main authority. It is possible to be a Pagan by oneself, celebrating rituals in private, and not necessarily letting anyone know. However, most people find strength in belonging to a group of like-minded people, even if it is a virtual rather than physical community. Wiccans typically belong to ‘covens’ and Druids to ‘groves’ and enjoy meeting together for rituals and festivals. Increasingly Pagans are forming ‘a community’ in the sense used in contemporary ‘identity politics’, that can interact with other ‘communities’. Organisations such as the Pagan Federation can represent Pagans in the wider world, and campaign if necessary for Pagan rights.
In a sense, the Pagan belongs to a wider than human community, in that an important aspect of Pagan identity is to feel at home in the world, as a part of the living universe, not separate from animals, plants and other life forms, but as part of an interdependent community of all life.
Reconstructionists can be solitary or be members of formal temples structures such as Fellowship of Isis, or Kemetic Orthodox. Eclectic Pagans tend to be largely solitary practitioners.
As Paganism in the form described here is a relatively new religion, most adult Pagans were not born into Pagan families, but ‘found’ Paganism at some stage in their lives. However, as the decades go by, an increasing number of children are born to Pagan parents. These tend to be very cautious about putting any pressure on children to follow any particular practice or belief, as Paganism is an individual choice. Some Pagan groups will not accept members under 18, and the Pagan Federation only recently lowered its age of membership from 18 to 16. Nevertheless, many under 16s find Paganism for themselves, and many children in Pagan families will naturally be familiar with Pagan practices, beliefs, symbols and festivals as practised by their parents.
It is important that teachers familiarise themselves with the religious backgrounds of Pagan children and respect the beliefs and values of the family in the same way that they would for children from more familiar traditional faith backgrounds. ‘My mum’s a witch’ could be quite an unremarkable statement from some children, meaning that their mother practises modern Pagan witchcraft.
However, there have been concerns in recent years about beliefs in spirit possession and in witchcraft in the sense of malevolent sorcery, that can lead to abuse of children or adults believed to be practising malevolent sorcery or possessed by spirits. These beliefs are usually held by people who have migrated to the UK from nations and cultures where witchcraft is a label applied to practices believed be harmful. A government guidance document has been created to help teachers and those who have responsibility for children to address potential safeguarding issues connected with beliefs in spirit possession which can lead to child abuse: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/175437/Action_Plan_-_Abuse_linked_to_Faith_or_Belief.pdf
Modern Pagan witchcraft does not have any connection with beliefs in spirit possession of that kind, or with child abuse as a means to remove that possession.
As stated earlier, ‘Paganism’ is an umbrella term covering many different groups as well as non-aligned individuals. Major traditions include Wicca, Druidry, Heathens, Shamans and Goddess devotees.
Wicca refers primarily to the initiatory tradition of witchcraft founded by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, which focuses on the Goddess and the God, although there are polytheist practitioners. There are however other forms of Wicca, such as ‘Alexandrian’ Wicca, which refers to followers of Alex Sanders who were separate from Gardnerian tradition, or Dianic Wicca which is usually for women only. ‘Wicca’ is also used in a more generalised way to mean any contemporary practitioners of Pagan witchcraft, who may prefer the term ‘wiccan’ to that of ‘witch’ in order to avoid negative associations of that word. It also refers to those who have developed their tradition by drawing upon published works about Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca.
There are several different Druid groups, the most well-known in the UK being the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), the British Druid Order (BDO) and the Druid Network. There are also more political groups such as the Loyal Arthurian Warband, and the Secular Order of Druids, as well as non-Pagan Druids who are connected with Welsh cultural identity. Druids draw upon Celtic traditions, and celebrate nature, especially the local landscape and the sun. Some Druids focus on solar festivals. Most have a broader focus, picking up on the Wheel of the Year, which includes four solar festivals. Indeed, it could be argued that Druids and Wiccans both work with solar and lunar calendars, and have done so for some time.
The term ‘Heathen‘ applies to groups focused on the Germanic gods and mythology, which are sometimes called ‘Northern’ traditions, or Asatru. Again, there are several different Heathen groups. Heathenism differs from other forms of Paganism in that there is more evidence for the old tradition which was still practised in some countries into the second millennium – for example Lithuania was only converted to Christianity in the fourteenth century, and in that it is based on a distinctive pantheon of polytheistic deities. It is recognised as a state religion in Iceland. Heathenism is sometimes seen as coming under the umbrella of ‘Paganism’ as being nature-worshipping and polytheistic, although as Heathenry has a largely different origin and content from modern Paganism, around half of modern Heathens do not identify as Pagan, nor prioritise involvement in Pagan socialising over others.
Heathen movements started independently in England, Iceland, and the USA during the 1970s. The small population of Iceland has enabled the maintenance of a largely centralised Heathen community, but in the UK and USA there are a number of communities, based on geographical distribution and/or particular approaches.
Most communities are aware of the breadth of source material, but tend to focus on one cultural instance, such as the Norse or Anglo-Saxon. Ultimately these are jumping off points, as the aim is not static re-enactment, but a living and vibrant religious and cultural stream.
Like Pagans, Heathens are generally strongly in favour of protecting the environment and supporting healthy ecosystems, though otherwise they come in all political flavours.
Shamanism, in the contemporary ‘Western’ sense, often refers to those who explore ways to interact with the realm of spirit through one of a variety of indigenous traditions such as ‘Native American’, Buryat, Huichol or Sami, or drawing on Michael Harner’s contemporary ‘Core Shamanism’, which identified common practice among many of the world’s shamanic cultures. Others might draw on the Celtic Shamanism identified in the work of John Matthews. The term shamanism is an anthropologists’ term for a wide range of indigenous cultural traditions from around the world involving trance like states to interact with spirits. The word has its origins with the Evenki in the Tungus region of Northern Asia and Siberia whose word saman is used to identify their ‘shaman’.
The purposes for entering into a trance like state in order to ‘journey’ to the spirit realm or the otherworlds are many, and may include seeking personal revelation, guidance for healing the self and others, a means to combat possible spiritual attack, or guidance on potential courses of action. A shamanic worldview incorporates concepts of animism and shamanic journeys will usually include working with plant or animal spirit allies.
There has been criticism of some ‘Western’ shamanism, arguing that it is cultural appropriation. However, many indigenous shamanic cultures have also acknowledged and respected the work of Western shamanic practitioners in their use of shamanic techniques from other cultures as a means of identifying potential elements for a reconstructed shamanic tradition such as Celtic shamanism.
Goddess spirituality celebrates the divine feminine. Goddesses from ancient traditions such as the Egyptian Isis, the Babylonian Ishtar, the Sumerian Inanna, the Roman Diana, the Phrygian Cybele/Artemis, or the Welsh Rhiannon and Ceridwen, are worshipped but generally seen as different forms of the one Great Goddess, Mother of all. It is argued from the archaeological evidence in places like Turkey that Goddess worship is the oldest form of religion, and this is often connected with the idea of a golden age of peace and harmony under a matriarchal society. Although there is little evidence for this lost paradise, the myth can act as inspiration for a better future. Goddess spirituality is empowering for women, but there are also male followers. The Goddess is not just a female version of the God of theism, in that the Goddess is not a transcendent deity but immanent in nature, indeed, the Goddess IS nature (see Reid-Bowen, 2007). The physical body is valued as is everything connected with female sexuality. Adherents of Goddess spirituality celebrate the Wheel of the Year and rituals very similar to Wiccans and Druids, and there is quite an overlap between feminist Wicca and Goddess spirituality, as can be seen for example in the writings of Starhawk.
Although there have been disagreements and schisms, generally there is little tension between different forms of Paganism as it tends to be seen as up to the individual to choose the tradition that most suits them. There is a very positive attitude to plurality, not just toleration, but a positive welcoming of diversity that Prudence Jones (1996) calls ‘strong pluralism’.
Pagan relations with other religions and beliefs are complicated in that there is a general positive attitude to plurality and diversity but some tensions with both Abrahamic faiths and Scientific Humanism in particular, although those tensions are in decline due to interfaith activity and involvement. Polytheistic or pantheistic traditions such as Hinduism are usually welcomed under the Pagan umbrella as are nature-revering ‘indigenous’ spiritualities from all over the world. Buddhism has a long and diverse history, with teachings that are both world-renouncing and world-engaging, but many of its traditions have over centuries co-existed with, and incorporated practices from, indigenous religions which are similar to modern Paganism and its precursors. When it first became known in the West it was often portrayed as a rational religion combined with meditation, and the aspects involving ritual and magic were seen as a degeneration, but they are often intertwined in the East. Because of this historical portrayal, some of the perceived tensions between Pagans and Buddhists are reflections of those between Pagans and some Humanists (see below.)
Most contemporary Western Pagans were not born into Pagan families, but into Christian or secular (and sometimes Jewish) families. Thus their Pagan identity was constructed in reaction to and over against the inherited tradition, so there is a natural tendency to be critical of the rejected faith found in some Pagan attitudes in the early stages of their departure from the traditions they were born into. But this often seriously diminishes over time. As early Christianity defined itself over against the pagan ‘other’, so contemporary Pagans may sometimes define themselves over against a Christianity seen as dogmatic, life-denying, patriarchal and planet-destroying. However, interaction between contemporary Pagans and Christians, in interfaith settings, is helping to forge greater understanding and respect between modern Pagans and Christians.
Historically, interactions between Jews, Christians and pagans have been mostly negative. In Abrahamic traditions generally the word ‘pagan’ has pejorative associations of worshipping idols, immoral behaviour and meaningless ritual (‘do not babble as the pagans do’ said Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Ch.6, v.7). Christians and Muslims sought to convert the ‘pagan’ world. Christians remember the martyrs of the early church put to death by ‘pagan’ emperors for refusing to worship the emperor as god. Contemporary Pagans may identify with witches and heretics put to death when Christians were the ones in power.
Actual history is exacerbated by what Steve Hollinghurst calls ‘mythic history’ – the exaggerated or simply untrue accusations levelled by Christians and Pagans against each other. For example, some Pagans have used the now discredited theories of Margaret Murray to claim that many of those put to death as witches by medieval and early modern Christian authorities were actually Pagans, who had kept their pagan beliefs as an unbroken underground tradition during the Christian centuries. This claim is referred to as ‘the myth of the “Burning Times”. It is a myth that is now fairly harshly criticised in the Pagan community.
On the Christian side, some have updated the traditional view of pagans as idolatrous, immoral and possibly engaging in human sacrifice, to accuse contemporary Pagans of things like negative magic and child abuse, often linked to unfounded allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse. However, there has been a lot of work done from both sides to rectify such errors, as Steve Hollinghurst would attest, and many Pagans and Christians are learning to put their fears and prejudices aside.
Although there are distinct theological differences between Pagans and Christians, or the Abrahamic faiths more generally, there are also areas of agreement, and historically the two faiths have influenced each other. Both assert the importance of recognising the divine and the spiritual dimension to life. They share an understanding of the value of ritual, and even the same seasonal festivals. Contemporary Christians are developing a more feminist and earth-friendly approach, and can join with Pagans in environmental activism. They share an ethic that is based on love and caring for others. Even in theology, links can be found for example between Pagan ideas of divine immanence and the Christian concept of incarnation.
Interfaith meetings now take place between Christians and Pagans, and shared worship has taken place on several occasions.
The tension with scientific Humanism arises with the Humanist denial of ‘supernatural’ elements such as deities, spirits, ritual and magic. Humanists may view Pagans as living in a world of fantasy, whereas Pagans may see Humanists as denying the fundamentally spiritual dimension of nature and not understanding the power of myth and symbol. However, apart from some Humanists’ interpretations of Pagan practices, there is a great deal of agreement between Pagans and Humanists. They can and do join together in social and ethical action for the betterment of the world.