Pagans prioritise the experiential dimension of religion, and individual experience as a source of authority. Belief in the sacredness of nature often springs from numinous or mystical experiences which have happened to Pagans when in special places or as part of a ritual or of meditation. Such experiences are not just passing feelings but can be deeply personally transformative, if hard to talk about. Graham Harvey talks about the fundamental characteristic of Paganism being ‘enchantment’, the recognition of a world full of myriads of amazing life-forms, with whom we can develop relationships that recognise our mutual dependence. Paganism puts the wonder back into life.
‘Ultimate questions’ tend to be asked from within a Christian versus ‘Western’ atheist framework – is there a God, is there an afterlife, where did the universe come from, why is there evil and suffering? In both ‘Eastern’ traditions and Paganism, these may not be the most important issues. So on God, Pagans may have a variety of answers, including polytheism, duotheism, the Goddess, pantheism, nature as divine, or a metaphorical non-realist understanding of deity.
On the possibility of an afterlife, Pagans may believe in reincarnation, or in the otherworld of the spirits, or an Elysian fields or Summerlands kind of paradise, or a Valhalla, depending on their Pagan tradition, or union with the divine life-energy. Other Pagans believe there is no life after death and that we should concentrate on living this life on earth.
The origin of the universe is often something to be pondered, with no definitive answer. But such ponderings are not generally central to Pagan traditions. Some traditions, such as Hellenism and Heathenry might also include creation stories.
Many Pagans accept that life includes suffering as well as joy and we have to learn positive ways of dealing with this for all living things. Pagans may say that they accept the existence of a dark side of life, but this should not be confused with any idea of encouraging ‘evil’.
Pagans to date have not much engaged in systematic theology or philosophy, but a few people are trying to develop both, such as Michael York (2003) and Paul Reid-Bowen (2007). Although this enterprise is just beginning, some ‘answers to ultimate questions’ can be discerned. The sacred, holy or divine is not something separate from the physical world, but is immanent within nature, or more straightforwardly, is nature. The divine is either female as well as male (or genderless), or in Reid-Bowen’s analysis of Goddess-based thought, sacred nature is primordially female. If everything is divine, then everything is holy and the world is a place of enchantment, with sacred energy available to all.
Life on this earth is affirmed, and the body and sexuality are celebrated. The interconnection and co-dependence of all things, human, animal, plant, divine is a fundamental truth, giving a priority to relationality and relationships.
The diversity of life, and even the messy or painful aspects are to be accepted and made the most of. Experience is the main source of knowledge, and in Goddess spirituality, particularly the experience of women.
Pagan views of science are quite complicated, in that scientists (or rather ‘sciencists’, those who see scientific empirical evidence as the only truth) are criticised by many Pagans for having a limited materialist, mechanistic picture of life, denying the reality of the spiritual and the magical. The sociologist Max Weber famously claimed that science and modernity ‘disenchanted’ the world as experienced in medieval times, whereas Paganism seeks to bring ‘re-enchantment’ and to put the magic and wonder back.
Science is sometimes blamed for setting up a dichotomy between humans and the rest of the natural world, and thus seeing nature as something to be used and exploited by humans rather than recognising our kinship with all living things, and indeed all matter. On the other hand, there are Pagans who are scientists. Scientific thinking shares with Paganism an emphasis on the physical world available to the senses, and valuing human experience as a source of authority. There can be a shared wonder at the amazing diversity of life on our planet, and the patterns revealed by physics and chemistry. Where scientists are not too positivist, and where Pagans interpret such things as deities and magic more metaphorically or psychologically, there can be much agreement. It is often claimed that more recent science such as quantum physics is starting to sound more like a Pagan worldview than earlier Newtonian physics, but one would probably have to have considerable in-depth knowledge of both to come to a verdict on this.
Some practitioners of magic may integrate metaphors from modern science, such as particle physics and quantum mechanics as a means to explain how magic works, and also to bridge the gap between mysticism and hard science.