If you want to study Paganism in more detail, this book is the place to start. Based on a course in Paganism that the authors have taught for more than a decade, it is full of exercises, meditations, and discussion questions for group or individual study.
This book presents the basic fundamentals of Paganism. It explores what Pagans are like; how the Pagan sacred year is arranged; what Pagans do in ritual; what magick is; and what Pagans believe about God, worship, human nature, and ethics.
What is Paganism?
Paganism, also called neo-Paganism, is a new religious movement whose adherents are found throughout the world. Paganism is an umbrella term that describes a variety of denominations--known to Pagans as traditions--which for the most part organize themselves and operate without a centralized religious body or a standardized dogma. While variety of belief and practice is a source of pride for Pagans, it can sometimes be a source of confusion for others. In the pages that follow we present what we believe to be the fundamentals of Paganism. We explore such questions as why Paganism is called an earth-centered religion, how many Pagans there might be in the United States, what Pagans are like, how the Pagan sacred year is arranged, what Pagans do in ritual, what magick is, and what Pagans believe about God, worship, human nature, and ethics.
Over the years we have met thousands of Pagans throughout the United States. We have watched the Pagan movement grow from a fairly small, insular movement to one that may now number more than a million in the United States. We have spoken to numerous Pagans individually, participated in discussions and debates about the nature and future of the Pagan movement, and helped organize local and national Pagan events. For more than a decade we have explained and taught Paganism to many people in a variety of likely and unlikely places. We''ve taught Sunday school at Christian churches, given the main address at Unitarian churches, attended interfaith councils, taught world religions classes, demonstrated Pagan ritual for Mensa, given retreats, spoken at festivals and conventions, and provided newspaper, radio, and TV interviews on the subject. For most of these years we''ve also offered private class instruction in Paganism at beginning and intermediate levels. It is from this source of accumulated personal experience that we have collected and developed the concepts we present in this book. While elements of the topics covered here can be found in other books on Paganism, the beliefs we identify as fundamental to Paganism and how we interpret them are uniquely our own.
We have on occasion been asked to name the most important belief or concept of Paganism. This is difficult given the many traditions within the movement. However, if we could reduce Paganism down to its essentials, we believe its two most central concepts are interconnectedness and blessedness.
The belief that every part of the universe is profoundly interconnected shapes how Pagans view the nature of the Divine, the sorts of relationships possible with the Divine and the universe, and forms the Pagan approach to prayer and magick. Most Pagans believe that all parts of the universe, whether "animate" or "inanimate," are connected at very deep levels that extend beyond the boundaries of space-time as we know them. Because of this interconnection, many Pagans believe they are able to interact with the universe and the Divine as co-creators. This concept is further explored in chapters 5 and 6.
The belief that every part of the universe is blessed in its nature, and that there is nothing wrong with the universe or with you, means that the purpose of Pagan spiritual practice differs from that of religions focusedon issues of purification and salvation. Paganism takes the position that human beings are unflawed in their natures, are not spiritually doomed or damned, are born with all the tools and skills necessary to live ethically and spiritually, and are naturally oriented toward their own greatest growth and development. No part of Pagan belief, practice, ritual, or sacrament is designed to "save" Pagans from a flawed or corrupt nature, or to avert supernatural punishment arising from such supposed flaws. Elements of this concept are developed throughout the book, particularly in chapter 7.
By contrast, most world religions today teach the opposite of one or both of Paganism''s central themes. They teach that the elements of the universe are separate from each other and that there is something fundamentally wrong with all of us. They may teach separateness by asserting that the universe contains distinct bits of matter not connected at deeper levels, that each of us is irretrievably separated from others and the Divine by nature, or that the universe is split between what is spiritual (and therefore good) and what is physical (and therefore bad).
Most world religions also teach that human nature is flawed, and that there is something fundamentally wrong with all human beings that must be corrected in order to reach that religion¿s idea of salvation or enlightenment. This wrongness may be called original sin or ego or desire or free will or any other of a number of names, but the existence and overcoming of this inherent wrongness is the basis of the spiritual practices, sacraments, and ethics practiced by their members. In such religions, the wrongness frequently doesn''t end with human beings but extends into the entire physical world so that we are seen to be surrounded by wrongness, to be spiritually unsafe, and are encouraged to feel that life is a very dangerous undertaking. The concepts of separateness and wrongness are so ingrained in each one us and in our culture that most of us are often not even aware they color our perceptions, life experience, and spiritual growth.
Paganism soundly rejects both of these concepts, and unequivocally affirms the interconnectedness of all parts of the universe and the inherent rightness or blessedness of the universe and human nature. Certainly Pagans believe that humanity can improve itself, but Pagans do not equate the human ability to make bad choices with a flawed nature.
Joyce and I believe that the concepts of interconnectedness and blessedness are what link together most of the divergent paths and traditions within Paganism. Yet they are not the only common threads Pagans share, as you shall see throughout this book. However, if you come away from here with no other knowledge of Paganism than the concepts of interconnectedness and blessedness and what Pagans mean by them, then you will have gained something of value.
General Characteristics of Paganism
In addition to the two central themes of interconnectedness and blessedness, what other characteristics common to Paganism as a whole can we identify?
Paganism is a religion. As in other religions, Pagans seek answers to ultimate questions such as what is the meaning of life, what happens after death, is there a God, what is our basic nature, and how do we interact with the greater universe. Pagans seek these answers in the context of a religious and social community. Pagans gather in churches, homes, or outdoors, and meet in groups that may be called, among other things, circles, covens, churches, or groves. Unlike members of some religions, however, Pagans generally do not actively proselytize. They do not send out missionaries, hold revivals, or try to gain converts. Almost none of the Pagans we know "converted" to Paganism in the traditional sense. They became Pagan by deciding that Paganism reflected what they already believed and then adopted the word "Pagan" to describe themselves.
Like other religions, Pagans have clergy who perform religious functions such as marriages and funerals. Pagans also observe a sacred year and have religious holidays and other celebrations. Most modern Pagan traditions are described as "earth-centered." Pagan holidays often fall on dates that mark the change of seasons or are otherwise seasonally important. We take a look at the Pagan sacred year and how it is celebrated later in this chapter.
Paganism is a modern religion. Paganism is a new religion, even though it may borrow concepts and practices from any spirituality, including those now fading or extinct. Paganism is classified as a new religion by social scientists who report that Paganism exhibits all six features of new religious movements. These are (1) a pronounced religious individualism, (2) an emphasis on experience instead of belief and doctrine, (3) a practical perspective on matters of authority and practice, (4) an acceptance and tolerance of other religions and worldviews in general, (5) a holistic worldview, and (6) an open, flexible organizational framework.1
Pagan traditions also meet the test of a religion as applied by the U.S. courts. Characteristics that courts look for include historic longevity, number of devotees, the existence of clergy, religious literature, ceremonies, and holidays. The federal courts correctly recognized Wicca, the largest of the Pagan traditions, as a religion in the case of Dettmer v. Landon (1986).2 In this case, the court found that Wicca exhibits the characteristics of a religion as outlined above.
Paganism has no central hierarchy or dogma. Paganism is a religion that as a whole has no central hierarchy or dogma, though individual traditions may adopt an internal governing structure and specific beliefs. Some Pagan paths have a specific ethnic focus, such as the Asatru, African, and Celtic Traditionalists. Others pull together many Pagan and non-Pagan religious beliefs and practices and blend them into a unique religious expression, such as the Eclectic and Blended paths. (We look at a variety of these traditions later in the chapter.) Most Pagans enjoy spiritual diversity and would not think it appropriate for all Pagans to believe the same things, practice in the same ways, or be organized under the same structure.
Paganism stresses personal responsibility. Most Pagan traditions stress personal responsibility and put the burden of developing spiritual practices, beliefs, and ethics on to the individual. Even those traditions that offer established beliefs and methods encourage their members to test ideas so that members build the mental mus
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