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Religion Library: Paganism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Carl McColman

With no single sacred text, no unifying teacher, avatar, or prophet, and no pilgrimage site revered by practitioners the world over, Paganism - as a type of human spiritual activity - is as diverse and varied as the biosphere itself.While most Pagans regard this decentralized diversity as a strength, it leads to significant problems for anyone wishing to understand Paganism as a whole. These problems include two key contested issues: the question of identity (what separates "Pagan" religion from all other expressions of religion or spirituality) and the question of historicity (what is the difference between the Paganism of the distant past, and similar religious activity today?).

The question of identity begins with controversy concerning the concepts of nature and of religion. Does, Paganism, as a "Nature Religion," include any practice that reveres the physical world in any form, or is it more properly understood in a more exclusionary way - only consisting of religions with clear ties to agricultural, fertility, polytheism, goddess worship, or prehistoric practices?Contemporary 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 do reject the term "nature religion," choosing to emphasize the historic or ethnic roots of their religious practice.

Equally contested is the use of the world "religion" to describe the practices typically included under the aegis of Paganism. Some of these practices are explicitly magical rather than devotional or ceremonial in their orientation.Since Pagans have no central authority, no sacred text, no uniform ethical code, no systematic beliefs, and not even a consensus regarding cosmology and theology/thealogy, perhaps a descriptor other than "religion" would be more accurate: spirituality, spiritual practice, magical practice, or something along those lines.

In other words, so-called Pagan Religions might exhibit some qualities normally associated with religion, but in other important ways might more properly be seen as something fundamentally different from religion as it is generally understood. All this is to say that part of the challenge in understanding Paganism is deciding if, in fact, Paganism is a religion. If Paganism is not a "religion" in the sense that Christianity or Buddhism is, then does Paganism deserve the same protections afforded to all religions by the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

Part of the challenge in studying Pagan identity is trying to understand and respect the diversity within the Pagan community. Paganism, Witchcraft, Wicca, Druidism, Shamanism, Hellenic or Egyptian Religion, Asatru, Odinism, Heathenism - each of these concepts are understood in many different ways, by practitioners, outside observers, and detractors. For example, many practitioners have strong (and varied) beliefs regarding the difference between Wicca and Witchcraft - some regard Wicca as a dilution of "true" Witchcraft, while others see Wicca as a religion whereas Witchcraft is limited to magical practice. Similar tensions exist between the understanding of Paganism and Witchcraft, or between Paganism and Heathenism.

This leads to a number of important questions about the relationships between religion, folk practices, and the validity of new spiritualities.When no verifiable lineage or tradition exists, is it valid to speak of a "spiritual" or symbolic tradition (as Philip Carr-Gomm, the current chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, claims is the case for the relationship betweenthe druids of antiquity and their modern imitators)?


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