Paganism — moving the religious dialogue further
by Jason Mankey
My name is Jason, and I’m a Pagan. The dozen or so times I’ve had to say that in public have always made me feel like I’m in the middle of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting; that my religious choice is some sort of debilitating disease that I have yet to come to grips with. Modern Paganism is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, but it’s also one of the most rudderless, lacking any sort of central authority or even agreed upon orthodoxy. There as many “Paganisms” as there are Christian denominations, and with more variances.
The words “Pagan” and “Paganism” are more umbrella terms than the names of an actual faith and its practitioners. There are all kinds of Pagans: Druids, Witches, Ceremonial Magicians, Reconstructionists, Asatru, and the list goes on, with all of those various groups having even more divisions*. As a Pagan it makes my head spin — and I’m right in the middle of it.
When inquisitive friends ask me about Paganism, I often grope for a usable definition. Due to the sheer diversity found within Contemporary Paganism it’s difficult to make blanket assumptions. Generally most Pagans believe in at least one of the following four things:
1. The sacredness of nature. Pagans generally revere nature, with many of us feeling that it’s sacred. This doesn’t necessarily mean we worship trees, just that we honor the Earth and want to take care of her. Many Pagan holidays are determined by the Earth’s annual journey around the Sun; the majority of us celebrate equinoxes and solstices as holidays, along with the “cross-quarter days” that occur between then.
2. Kind of-sort of-Polytheism. Pagans embrace various deities, the majority of them Middle Eastern and European. While not every Pagan is a “polytheist” believing in multiple deities, most Pagans are open to the idea that the individual’s religious experience is valid. If I say I’ve had an experience with the Greek God Pan, than I probably have. If my friend next to me says she’s had an experience with the Celtic Bridgit, then she probably has. I know “Atheist Pagans,” but it’s not a strain of atheism that belittles or refuses to validate my religious experience.
3. The Divine Feminine. Most Pagans honor a Goddess, or believe that “God” at least has a feminine side. There are some groups that take this a step further and only worship a Goddess or goddesses. It’s rare to find any sort of Paganism without a female deity within it.
4. The Western Tradition. Modern Paganism is generally filtered through Western religion and experiences. Most of its structure, deities, and language come from European sources. Paganism has always been adaptable enough to absorb influences from outside this sphere, but since the majority of its practitioners live in Europe/Australia/North America those outside influences tend to filtered through a Western prism.
Wicca (or Witchcraft) is the most well-known of these subgroups, mostly due its larger numbers within Paganism, and its occasional exposure to mainstream America in (mostly inaccurate) movies like “The Craft” and television shows like “Charmed.” I’m a Pagan of the Wiccan persuasion, but I tend to prefer the term “Pagan” in general conversation because it has less negative overtones than “Witch” (though not by much). Thanks to shows like “Charmed” and “The Secret Circle,” to a lot of people the word “Witch” conjures up images gorgeous late-teens to thirty-something young women in various states of belly exposure, usually wearing black. I don’t have a problem with this image (and have lusted after Alyssa Milano for two decades now), but it doesn’t describe me very well.
I own a few black shirts, but my black shirts are generally black because my favorite sports teams (the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins) use black as a primary color. I don’t dress as a Pagan (or Witchy) stereotype. For the most part, my wife and I live in the same world that everyone else does. We go to work (me in my office, her in a laboratory), we enjoy going to Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner, we meet friends for drinks at the local pub, we put up a Christmas Tree every year, and hunt for Easter Eggs. Other than my long hair, we are pretty typical.
There are of course some markers — we have more books than the average household, and statues of deity litter the top of our bookshelves and the mantle over the fireplace, but is a statue of Athena really all that threatening? I don’t think we’ve ever spooked a friend, relative or neighbor due to our love of statue collecting. I think the framed Led Zeppelin posters in our living room garner more attention than any of our “Witchy” stuff.
While Paganism is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the United States (with anywhere from one to two million adherents) it’s continually ignored in the media (except at Halloween). If there are two million Pagans in the United States, that puts us on near equal footing with the Jewish community in terms of numbers, and outnumbers America’s Muslim population by a significant degree. Despite all of that, even liberal websites like The Huffington Post continue to treat Modern Paganism like some sort of religious leprosy. (Buddhism has a link on their religion page because (I assume) it’s more socially respectable, even though there are probably more Modern Pagans. It’s not sour grapes on my part, just an illustration of the disconnect between Paganism and the larger culture.)
Over the next few months I’m setting up shop over here at iPinion to write about Paganism for a mostly non-Pagan audience. I’m looking forward to moving this country’s religious dialogue further along, and hopefully entertaining and educating while doing it. As we say in Modern Paganism, “Blessed Be.”
(Jason Mankey is a Pagan writer, blogger and lecturer. He currently lives in Northern California with his scientist wife Ari and two obnoxious cats. Fitting into the stereotype, one of those cats is mostly black.)
*I could give you an overview of all those various subgroups, but since you are reading this online I’m pretty sure you are capable of a Google search if you are really all that interested.