Other religions and beliefs
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.