Authenticity, Identity and Acceptance
Isaiah Berlin, wrote: “Conformities are called for much more eagerly today than yesterday… skeptics, liberals, individuals with a taste for private life and their own inner standards of behaviour, are objects of fear and derision and targets of persecution for either side… in the great ideological wars of our time.”
The re-emergence of Paganism in the earlier part of the 20th century was one of the most important changes in the religious landscape of Western culture as it overturned the trend that started in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages when Abrahamic-based faiths overwhelmed much of Europe’s indigenous beliefs.
As the followers of the Old Ways we need to realise that a difficult path still lies ahead, that discrimination is rife and is in part due to false images of Paganism that continue to circulate – fuelled by media controversy and clichés, and certain forms of religious and political fundamentalism.
Whether we as contemporary Pagans see ourselves as a people returning to ancestral practices, or as a people creating a modern(ised) form of Paganism, we constantly have to deal with questions of authenticity and identity.
Unlike most other religions, as Pagans we have no sacred text and no single umbrella organisation under which we can unite. Also, we have no single belief structure, and our spiritual activity is rather diverse. While many Pagans regard this diversity as strength, it does lead to significant problems for any outsider wishing to understand Paganism as a whole.
As a community we try our best to be accepting of all beliefs and spiritual paths, but we should not be so naïve as to think that just because we are accepting that organised religions will welcome us with open arms from an exile that they imposed upon our pagan forebears.
In reality much of organised religion would very much like to see Paganism fade away as just another passing fad. Granted there are some individuals within organised religion who are enlightened enough to accept their way is not the only way, however, these people generally belong to organisations whose leaders do not endorse such openness. So, we are, for the most, being accepted at grass-root levels.
One of the many reasons why discrimination against Paganism continues, is that contemporary Pagans tend to question the most cherished assumptions of Western society, religion and culture. For Pagans, as an example, rationality is a useful tool but not the yardstick against which all should be measured – if it were, magic would be impossible to find in our personal lives and in nature.
Contemporary Paganism is fluid and because of this fluidity Paganism has shown itself to be bold, visionary and a hands-on religion/spirituality. Paganism not only allows freedom choice but also freedom of thought, and both freedom of thought and of choice tends to be less-than-welcome in many other religions.
Pagans see Divinity as able to manifest both in the natural and “supernatural” realms and able to take many forms, which may be acknowledged by either an individual or a community. Some of today’s Pagans reject the term “nature religion”, choosing rather to emphasise the historic or ethnic roots of their religious practice. But concentrating on historic and ethnic roots is in itself an almost impossible task for Paganism has many roots the world over and stretches through time beyond memory or record – and this too can make dialogue with many other religious groups, with their established history and fixed customs, rather difficult.
Sketching the historical development of Paganism, in its many forms, is probably an impossible task, as it refers not only to a particular religious tradition, but also to a particular “religious type”. The Pagan-type involves religions that are magical, polytheistic, and/or animistic, and often anchored in agricultural or fertility rituals. In this sense, every culture has some form of pagan religion in its background.
The modern Pagan movement, the revival of Paganism that emerged in Europe, draws largely from Indo-European and Egyptian religions. The Indo-Europeans were the ancestors of virtually all European cultures, but not only did the earliest Indo-Europeans bequeath a common root language, but they also generated common religious practices.
Like the gods and the myths, our knowledge of the ritual practices of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is rather sketchy. Scholars cannot identify words for “religion” or “temple” within Proto-European language, but words do exist for concepts such as prayer, holiness, cosmic order, consecration, sacred meals and libations, and sacred groves or enclosures.
Also, the diversity of ancient Paganism meant that many different gods and goddesses were revered, each with his or her unique sacred stories, unique sacred sites where prayer or sacrifices occurred, and unique holy or festival days. As the evidence from Proto-Indo-European language indicates, different gods from different mythologies may have emerged from common Indo-European religious practices.
As distinct cultures emerged in Europe – Celtic, Norse, Greek, and Roman – each featured its own set of sacred stories and of gods and goddesses, often directly linked to a particular place or aspect of nature. Within each culture were numerous tribes, clans, or states, each again with its own unique religious make-up. This meant that even the gods and goddesses themselves evolved according to the needs of the people within certain regions.
The Pagan Renaissance grew out of a variety of sources that coalesced between the 1930s and 1950s to produce the first generation of “public Witches” and other Pagans. As I see it, three major strands of belief and practice were merged to form contemporary Paganism: the ecstatic and shamanic practices of the paganism of the woods and groves; the temple religions of later Paganism; and magic.
When no verifiable lineage or tradition exists – which is the case the greater majority of Pagan paths – is it valid to speak of a spiritual or symbolic traditional link to the pagans of the past? Are we as contemporary Pagans not mere imitators? – something we are often accused of being.
Equally contested is the use of the word religion to describe the practices included under the aegis of Paganism. There can be no denial that some of our practices are magical rather than devotional or ceremonial in their orientation. Contemporary Pagan religions might exhibit some qualities associated with religion, but in other ways might properly be seen as something fundamentally different from religion as it is generally understood by other religious groups and believers. Since Pagans do not even a consensus regarding cosmology and theology, perhaps a descriptor other than religion would be more accurate: spiritual practice, magical practice, etc.
Also, the framework of contemporary Pagan “belief systems” or traditions is rather “polymorphic” ((from the Greek meaning “having multiple forms”); making it virtually impossible to find a single unified religious composite. For this reason, many, as already mentioned, do not consider contemporary Paganism a religion.
Part of the challenge of Paganism is trying to understand and respect the diversity within (and without) the Pagan community. Paganism, Witchcraft, Wicca, Druidism, Shamanism, Hellenic or Egyptian Religion, Asatru, Odinism, Heathenism, etc – each of these concepts are understood in many different ways by practitioners, outside observers, and detractors. But all are Paganism.
Also, instead of a professional clergy, many Pagan groups have an egalitarian priesthood, open to most practitioners who assume ritual or organisational leadership positions. Within most groups issues such as credentials or the ability to minister to non-group members is not an issue, and most Pagan clergy exercise their ministry in collaborative community with others who function as their peers. And this leaves us often with the question of which Pagan leaders are truly and widely representative?
As a Pagan I embrace the concept and practice of individualism, and I hold on tightly to the idea of personal responsibility. If I do wrong towards another, then I must deal with it – doing wrong comes about due to a lack of understanding of the self, and is not the action to be blamed on some bogeyman. The sense of intellectual, spiritual and personal responsibility is not found in many of the larger religions, and individual spiritual paths is not something that can be handed off to someone else as is the case in Abrahamic-based religions. In Paganism, each of us is responsible for our own spiritual growth – another factor which seems contrary to many within other religions.
Also, the use of fear in religion creates a situation where the sense of personal responsibility is weakened, and fear also creates an opening for those who use religion as a means to control. So as a Pagan, personally I do not fear the Divine, in fact I seek out the positive aspects of my concept of the Sacred – love, wisdom, understanding and balance. And these concepts are not based on fear.
Due to the wide variety of beliefs and viewpoints regarding questions of identity and authority, contemporary Paganism does qualify as a post-modern religion as it eschews any claims for overall or objective truth, in favour of truth as residing in personal experience or in socially constructed contexts.
For any observer or newcomer wishing to learn more about Paganism or to have even-tempered dialogue with Pagans, the most fruitful approach is simply to embrace the “ambiguities” found within the Pagan community, while also acknowledging that about any statement that can be made about any given religion/spirituality is subject to personal interpretation.
In the Webster dictionary under paganism, there is a line that may give a clue to what Neo-Paganism means today. The line reads: “state of being – as in attitude or outlook”.
“State of being” – I like that.