The Three (or more?) “Centers” of Paganism

The Three (or more?) “Centers” of Paganism May 23, 2012

This post is part 2 of a 3-part series.  In the first part, I discussed how I had come to realize the ego-centrism of my earlier view of the Pagan community.

Celebrating Nature, Working Magic, and Honoring Deities

Imagine that the Pagan community has not one, but multiple “centers”.  Imagine each of these “centers” defines Pagan identity and authenticity differently.  To begin with there is what I will call “earth-centered Paganism”.  I realize this is a problematic term, because “earth” is a cultural construct and means different things to different people, but it remains a useful category, I think.  Earth-centered Paganism would include those Paganisms concerned primarily with ecology, those more local forms of Paganism that I would call “backyard Paganism” or are sometimes called “dirt worship”, and many forms of (neo-)animism which view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of beings.  The Pagan identity of earth-centered Pagans is defined by their relationship to their natural environment.  Authenticity for these Pagans is defined by one’s ability to connect with the more-than-human world.  Of course, there are many whose spirituality might be called “earth-centered” by this definition, but who reject the label “Pagan”.  Some of the rejection of the Pagan label by those who might otherwise be called Pagan is due to the association of the label with the other two groups (with whom they do not identify).

The second group is what I will call the “Self-centered” Paganism.  I don’t mean this in the pejorative sense of ego-centrism, and for that reason I have capitalized the word “Self”, by which I mean something which transcends the ego and even the individual.  This analogy may be helpful: as the Vedantic Brahman is to the Atman, so the Self is to the ego.  “Self” can be a misleading term, but I think it is actually appropriate for that reason, because the danger of Self-centered spiritual practice is always that it will become ego-centered.  (My own spiritual path partially overlaps with this kind of Paganism.) Self-centered Paganism includes Jungian Neopaganism, many forms of Wicca and feminist witchcraft, and more ceremonial or esoteric forms of Paganism.  The Pagan identity of Self-centered Pagans is defined by spiritual practices which aim at development of the individual, spiritually or psychologically.  Paganism is, for some Self-centered Pagans, a form of therapy or self-help.  Authenticity is determined by one’s relationship with one’s Self, with that larger sense of Self which extends beyond the boundaries of one’s ego and one’s individual person.  To put it another way, Pagan authenticity for this group is measured in terms of personal growth, whether that growth be toward psychological wholeness or ecstatic union with a divine “One”.  As with the earth-centered category, there will be many whose spiritual path might be described as Self-centered, but who do not identify as Pagan.  This would include many ceremonial magicians, as well as a large segment of those who practice various “New Age” spiritualities.  For some reason, this group seems to have the broadest or least-exclusive sense of what Paganism is.

The third group is “deity-centered” Paganism, a term which I adopted from Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone’s book Progressive Witchcraft.  Deity-centered Paganism includes many forms of polytheistic worship, many Reconstructionist or Revivalist forms of Paganism, including those which are closer to Heathenry, and those which borrow techniques (i.e., aspecting) from African-diasporic religions.  The Pagan identity of deity-centered Pagans is defined by a dedication to one or more deities.  Authenticity is determined by one’s relationship with those deities and/or one’s relationship with the reconstructed practices of ancient pagans who worshiped those deities.  As with the other two categories mentioned above, there will be many people whose spirituality might be called “deity-centered”, but who do not identify as Pagan.  They would include some polytheists who have rejected the Pagan label, many traditional or indigenous (small-p) “pagan” religions, and actually the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheisms as well.  Again, the reason why some deity-centered polytheists reject the Pagan label may be because they associate the term with one or both of the other groups mentioned above (with whom they do not identify).

The 3 "centers" of Paganism
The 3 “centers” of Paganism

In the image above, the green shaded area represents Paganism.  (Note, the overlapping area of the three centers is not intended to imply a central or “core” Paganism.)

These three groups correspond to three chapters in Graham Harvey’s book, What Pagans Believe, which describe Pagan practices: “Celebrating Nature”, “Working Magic”, and “Honoring Deities”.  Of course, there will be some overlap between these groups.  Some “Goddess-centered” forms of Pagan worship might overlap with both deity-centered and Self-centered Paganisms, and maybe also earth-centered Paganism.  Some more literalist forms of animism, which might be called “spirit-centered”, might overlap with both earth-centered and deity-centered Paganism.

My own Paganism, overlaps with both earth-centered and Self-centered Paganism.  I am coming to realize that my own spiritual path is not as unified as I thought.  I feel drawn toward both these forms of Paganism.  And while there are ways to reconcile each of these “centers”, there is also a certain amount of tension between them.  Reconciling those two “centers” is one of the goals I have for this blog, but one which I admit I have not given much attention to up to this point.

Take a recent online discussion I participated in about the personification of deities.  I found myself defending personification of the gods to Pagans who I think would tend to fall into the earth-centered category.  This was somewhat ironic, I realized, because I do not personify natural phenomena (“the gods without”).  But I do personify those archetypal forces within myself (“the gods within”).  When I was defending personification, I was speaking primarily from the perspective of a Self-centered Pagan — but I was speaking to earth-centered Pagans.  Personification of gods, I realize now, means very different things to these two different groups — and it means something else to deity-centered Pagans.  And this is just one topic.  Gods, spirit, magic, re-enchantment, connectedness, worship: these are just a few examples of concepts which would mean very different things to each group.

Three Classical Paganisms

It is curious that these three groups would ever have come together under one “Pagan umbrella”.  Part of it is historical accident.  But I also think that it has something to do with how the word “pagan” has been used to mean different things before the Neopagan revival of the mid-20th century.  It is interesting, for example, that these three groups correspond roughly to three different “paganisms” that were written about a century ago by classicists and students of philology.  When writers talked about “paganism”, they almost always meant Classical, or Greco-Roman, paganism.  But different writers had different ideas of what Classical paganism was.

Some authors tended to emphasize the paganism of the poets and the state cults.  This was the paganism of pantheon, the twelve Olympian deities we are familiar with, and writers like Homer and Virgil.  This form of Classical paganism corresponds to the deity-centered Paganism of today.  (The view of Classical paganism from the perspective of the poets is the one most people are familiar with.  Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths are all representative.  The focus on the state cults and the Olympian gods among academics can be seen in Lewis Richard Farnell’s five-volume The Cults of the Greek States.)

Other classicists tended to elevate the mystery religions over the Olympian cult as paganism par excellence.   For them, the Eleusinian or Dionysian mystery cults were in some sense morally superior to the religion of the state and the gods of Olympian myth.  Many such writers treated the mystery religions as an intermediate phase between paganism and Christianity because the mysteries were also concerned with personal salvation.  This form of Classical paganism corresponds to the Self-centered Paganism of today.   (Nietzsche is often misinterpreted as elevating the Dionysiac mysteries over those of the Olympians, of whom Apollo was representative, in his book The Birth of Tragedy.  Jane Ellen Harrison elevates the mystery religions of the Greeks above the worship of the Olympian gods in her book, Themis.)

Still other academics believed that true paganism was to be found neither in the myths of the poets, nor the state cults of the Olympians, nor the ancient mystery religions, but rather, in the local cults of the simple folk of the countryside.  They believed that the worship of these people tended more toward animism than polytheism.  Rather than personal deities, they worshiped the landscape around them.  This “folk religion” is the most difficult to reconstruct because it left neither written record nor architectural monuments.  This form of Classical paganism corresponds to contemporary earth-centered Paganism.  (Jane Ellen Harrison also elevates the aniconic worship of chthonian nature spirits above the worship of the Olympian gods in her book, Themis.  For more on Classical folk religion, check out Martin Nilsson’s Greek Folk Religion and Jon Mikalson’s Athenian Popular ReligionA good discussion of the difficulties of reconstructing “folk religion” outside of the Classical context can be found in William Dever’s Did God Have a Wife: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel.)

I said above that the remarkable congregation of earth-centered, Self-centered, and deity-centered Pagans under one “umbrella” may have something to do with how the word “pagan” has been used differently even before the Neopagan revival of the mid-20th century.  Graham Harvey observed this in his book What Pagans Believe.  He writes, “The shifts in the meaning of the word ‘Pagan’ match trends within the [Neo-]Pagan religion.”  When earth-centered practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often the pagans of the countryside (the “folk”) that they imagine, the people who worshiped the gods of the landscape where they lived, in contrast to the cosmopolitan gods of the city-states.  Harvey writes:

“[The] emphasis on the original meaning of ‘Pagan’ — ‘as an inhabitant of a particular place’ — has encouraged a new focus on locality in modern paganism. A classical pagan was someone who belonged, some one who celebrated where they lived, someone who knew their local shrines, springs, hills, trees and neighbors, and could trace their decent from local ancestors.”

In contrast, when Self-centered practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often with the participants in the ancient pagan mysteries that they identify.  In fact, many attempt to draw historical and conceptual links between the Classical mysteries and their present-day rituals.  In Witchcraft Today, Gerald Gardnerdevotes a chapter to drawing connections between witchcraft and the ancient mysteries.  Or consider Vivianne Crowley’s essay, “Wicca as a Modern-Day Mystery Religion”, where she writes that “the approach to the Self is made through an external expression of the inner psychological process–religious ritual”.  Jung, who is so influential among Self-centered Pagans, was particularly interested in the Mithraic mysteries, and Richard Noll makes the claim the Jung’s philosophy was an attempt to revive the mystery cult with himself as its object.

Finally, when deity-centered practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often with the worshipers of the more well-known gods and goddesses of the poets and the state cults that they identify.  The reason for this may be purely practical.  In order to reconstruct an ancient pagan religion, one must have sources.  Folk religions leave little trace and the mysteries were largely secret.  In contrast, the gods of the poets and the state were well-documented, both in literature and in epigraph.

Three Pagan Reactions to Monotheism

The term “pagan” has also been used historically to mean “non-Christian”.  To a certain extent, I think it can be argued that contemporary Paganism is a reaction to Christianity, or more accurately, Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism.  But, to the extent that this is true, I think each one of the three “centers” reacts differently to JCI-monotheism.  For example, earth-centered Pagans reject the “other-worldly” focus of JCI eschatology and the dualistic separation of matter and spirit.  They reject the transcendent conception of divinity and the notion that nature is fallen.  And they also reject the anthropocentrism of the JCI narrative.  Self-centered Pagans, on the other hand, reject the JCI condemnation of the body, of sex, and of the feminine.  The seek to reclaim all those aspects of the Self that have been repressed by JCI morality.  Finally, deity-centered Pagans, who value pluralism, reject monotheism and all it implies, including the notion that there is only one path to the divine.


For me, this tri-centered model helps to explain much of the identity crisis which is haunting contemporary Paganism.  When some people decide to step out from under the Pagan umbrella, I don’t believe it is because of snobbery.  Rather, it is because of a perception that the term “Pagan” is associated with one or two of the other groups with whom they do not identify.  Thus, polytheistic deity-centered practitioners may discard the Pagan label because it is associated with Self-centered forms of Wicca, while earth-centered animists may reject the Pagan label because it is associated with deity-centered polytheism.  For some reason that I haven’t figured out yet, it seems the Self-centered group is less likely to use the Pagan label in these exclusivist ways.

Where do I fit in?
Where do I fit in?

I also feel this is a truer representation of the Pagan community than my previous models because it does not privilege my own brand of Paganism — or any single form of Paganism for that matter.  I suspect that most self-identified Pagans could find themselves comfortably somewhere within this scheme.  Finally, this model helps me to explain my own divided Pagan identity — how I feel kinship with some Pagans (Self-centered and earth-centered), but not others (deity-centered), and how I feel my spiritual focus divided between two centers that may or may not be reconcilable.  But that is the subject for part 3 of this series.

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  • Excellent breakdown. This article belongs in the Pomegranate.
    One critical typo: “because it does privilege my own brand of Paganism” –> I think you mean “does not privilege.”
    I find myself very much in the Self camp, with a blend of Earth, and only a pinch of Deity.

  • This is really an insightful and excellent analytical schema. Nicely done!

    I personally find myself mostly deity-centered, according to your model, but I have some overlap with Self- and with earth- as well…But, I know I’m not in the “middle” section of the venn diagram either, because deity really does have the heaviest commitment in my own work. Hmm…I wonder if there is room for further gradations within the central triangle of the venn diagram? Or, if I’m at the vertex of the triangle that is closest to the deity-centered section?

    • The multiple “triangles” was an accident, but I did notice it when I did the drawing. I considered something along the lines “gradations” like you mentioned. It would be interesting to explore.

  • Henry

    I’ll echo and say this is definitely very insightful. I’d say for me I’d find my self right smack dab in the middle, as all three ranges are equally fundemental to my practice. So I find no division, as it were, or irreconcilability. I find myself outside the purview of Modern Paganism mainly due to that view I have puts me at odds with all three subgroups you mention.
    In answer to the question in your heading, perhaps three centers at first glance, but it seems seven areas of overlap. The important one to be reached is the very center, that fourth center where the three spheres are reconciled. The hints to how to get there lie in the old theogonies and cosmogonies.

    • Henry, that’s interesting. To find yourself at the “center” of this diagram and yet outside of the Pagan “umbrella”. Your comment also made me realize I should have made the green circle smaller so that the overlapping areas were not completely included within Paganism. But I can’t think of a way to draw it that would describe your situation. I would like to hear how you reconcile all the tensions created by these different foci. I myself am trying to reconcile two of them and that is hard enough (the subject of Part 3 coming up).

      • Henry

        Here’s the quick and dirty version:-)
        DT Strain hit on part of it. It also involves the “Dreaded ‘H’ word”, Hierarchy. Hierarchy in it’s sense of Sacred Order. As an animist, all things are alive and have a spirit, soul and consciousness. Couple that with an evolution theory, in answer to the question “where do ‘gods’ come from?”. My answer is they evolve. And so that’s were the Self centered aspect enter in. To become even more conscious, and aware of the other beings, and in so doing, as Humans, also assist those also on the evolutionary path. Just as those ‘above us’, when we strive to contact them, also aid us. Thus was the sacred order put forth in old lore, to wit: “a rock becomes a plant, a plant an animal, an animal a human, a human a god.” Such for me satisfies the earth centered, as all are kin on the path ‘upward’, it gives reason why I should work to open my consciousness and awareness to other beings, and why I also seek fellowship with the ‘larger, cosmic gods’.
        each has their place in the scheme of things and so cooperation on all levels is beneficial to the whole.

        • That’s interesting. Mormons also believe that humans can become gods. They call it eternal progression. Since I left the LDS Church, I tend to react negatively to notions of hierarchy in spiritual discussions. I’m planning a post entitled “Jacob’s Ladder and Sarah’s Circle”, which comes from two hymns in the UU hymnal, and which are metaphors for two mores of spirituality — one linear and progressive, and the other cyclical and alternatingly progressive and regressive. I’ve always assumed that the latter was more Pagan, but your comment makes me wonder about that.

      • Henry

        John wrote:
        “I’ve always assumed that the latter was more Pagan, but your comment makes me wonder about that.”
        Actually they both are ‘pagan’, and pretty old concepts found in the vedantic corpus of texts, one in particular gives a fairly good description, namely the Vishnu Purana, and the subject is also treated and made reference to in sections of the MahaBharata, especially the cyclic, since there’s never been a ‘beginning’ and will never be an ‘end’.There are traces of the same in other cosmogonies as well, like neoplatonism and the pre christian and post christian gnostic sects. As far as regressions go, some hold that as a possibilty, but I am of the school that holds there are no regressions, just a longer stay in one realm.
        And yes, there’s a lot of negative baggage with the dread word hierarchy, yet they are really a naturally arising ordering. Folks tend to think in terms of hierarchial derived privlege rather than hierarchially derived responsibilities, and duties.

  • I have heard some naturalistic interpretations of deities as a focus of attention on the “ruling powers” of the universe. If the specific deities are more the “personified language wrapping” of the concept, and the deeper concept is about those ruling powers, then might a humanistic or naturalistic pagan actually still be considered in the core? Secondly, if this is so, what then would be the difference between “earth centered” and “deity/ruling powers centered” spheres? Might the latter be more focused on the fundamental forces and properties of the universe which affect all of life, while the latter is focused on life and our interconnectedness with it? This is all taking it to a bit more abstract level, but I’d be interested in hearing responses on those thoughts. Thanks for the article!

    • DT: That sounds like a good way to reconcile at least two of the spheres, and one that I had not considered — by equating the “ruling powers” (i.e., fundamental forces? gravity, EM, etc.? natural selection?) with the earth. But I don’t know how you develop a relationship with the “ruling powers” the way many earth-centered Pagans feel they relate (enmeshed) to their natural environment or the way deity-centered Pagans relate to their personal deities. How would the Self-centered path be integrated (if at all)?
      What’s a little difficult about this model is that it groups together people who would not see themselves as related. For example, a naturalistic pagan of the “ruling powers” stripe might find themselves in the same overlapping area as literalist animists who worship spirits of trees and rocks.

  • Nice! This is not a way I’ve considered these questions before now. I really like the concept of overlapping circles… that seems valid to me. (The trick, of course, is not to slip into thinking that the central intersection is the defining or best position to be in. You’ve said it–but I wonder if others will notice that, or be caught up in the pretty graphic and not read the fine print. Just a thought.)

    I particularly liked the consideration of the ways Paganism acts as a reaction to what you term the JCI religions of modernity, and especially the idea that each of these centers might be reacting a little differently. Certainly, your observations seem on target to me; as I looked at your descriptions of the different centers, I had to admit that the deity-centered Paganism was the center that I identify with least (though certainly not “none”). And when you said that “Finally, deity-centered Pagans, who value pluralism, reject monotheism and all it implies, including the notion that there is only one path to the divine,” sure enough, I found that that was the least resonant of the responses to the world of JCI religion for me.

    Which makes sense: as a Quaker and a Pagan, I find myself often thinking of our understandings of the gods as metaphor (which is not to say that the gods are metaphorical, just that we can’t understand them otherwise), and settling on a somewhat monistic point of view.

    So, from where I’m sitting over here in the cheap seats, what you’re saying makes sense.

    • Cat: Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve considered blacking out the center and doing other things to avoid the centralizing tendency — I think it’s unavoidable when you use circular models. Thanks again. By the way I love your work at Quaker Pagan Reflections.

  • Hey, I just realized the design above makes a trinity knot.

  • Henry wrote:
    >Thus was the sacred order put forth in old lore, to wit: “a rock becomes a plant, a plant an animal, an animal a human, a human a god.”

    What lore is that? Source?

    • Henry

      the phrase itself is oral teaching. a sutra if you wish. The thread itself as I mentioned can be found with Pythagoras and also Plato as metempsychosis or palingenesis. Think Plato addresses it at the end of ‘The Republic’. You can also check out transmigration as another related term. It’s also a feature of the orphic mysteries if I remember rightly.The Celts also held a similar belief, in as much as they actually entered into contracts that extended to a future existence.Think Julius Ceasar relates that. The most concise elaboration of the theory is found in the vedic corpus as I mentioned.See the idea of samsara. As I mentioned there are different schools of thought in how this evolution precedes, some include the idea of progression and regression based on merit, others that one chooses ones next incarnation, and other like myself consider only progression.

  • I cannot thank you enough for bringing clarity to my muddled mind over these “centers.” Twenty + years into my Pagan career & I can finally breathe a sigh of relief. I will not bore you with the details of all that this article has done for me personally — I just wanted to offer my gratitude for a concise, intelligibly articulated & exceedingly helpful piece of writing.

    Thank you.I will share it with others.

    • Moma Fauna: Thank you for your comments. I struggle with these questions so much, it’s good to know I’m not alone. By the way, feel free to “bore” us with the details. I love to hear other people’s stories, especially those who have more years into this than I do.

  • A very interesting scheme. I find your triad more fruitful than the binary splits that seem to be promoted a lot of late like the neopagans vs. recons one. I’m situated pretty much in the center of the overlapping circles, though with a little more emphasis on the earth-centered. What I find particularly helpful here is its illustration of tensions that occur within my own practice and also in interrelating with others who might have a somewhat different orientation to these three. I might feel impatient with friends who are primarily deity-centered for instance, and yet deities are important to me too.

    • Finnchuillsmast: Thanks. Thinking about these issues in this way has been helpful for my impatience with others as well becuase it removes me from the presumptive center of the Pagan universe. It has also helped me to understand some of the “tensions”, as you say, in my own practice as well. But that’s the subject for my next post.

  • I was wondering if you’d discourse on the place you see for ancestor worship in your scheme?

    • Faoladh: That’s an interesting question. I suppose it might relate to deity-centered worship most likely. There is that theory which dates back to the Stoics I think that the gods originated as historical figures — I can’t recall the name of the theory at the moment. Perhaps it could be related to Self-centered worship, though, to the extent that we continue to carry our ancestors in our selves.

      • Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. In addition, the ancestors can be seen as earth-centered in that it is through them that we have the world in which we live (and they were seen as chthonic by most ancient peoples, as well).

        And you are thinking of Euhemerus.

        • Yes, euhemerism — thank you. I thought of the notion of the dead as Demeter’s children in Greek thought to relate ancestor worship to earth-centric practice. I don’t know if we (even Pagans) relate to the dead this way so much now though — perhaps because inhumation is not practices exclusively in our culture now.

      • Henry

        and so humans become gods…
        It’s still practiced in India and of course the Catholic Church still venerates humans via sainthood. There isn’t much difference between ancestor worship and deity worship. The latter is more or less the next stage of the former.

  • M. Jay Lee

    I have to say I don’t really like the label “Self Centered” for the non-deity, non-earth focusd paganism. This term puts the focus on the individual and implies that this type of paganism is about the self – self exploration, understanding, development and empowerment. Your three categories may very well typify modern paganism (if we are still allowed to use that word for this diverse movement), but I think it misses what I believe is the central purpose and focus of traditional religion in general, which is community. I believe that religion evolved to bind individuals into a cohesive team, into a community. I believe that traditional religions were not either earth, deity, or self centered, but were community/group centered and the focus of religion depended on what was needed to support and maintain a given community/culture. I know that you are describing not traditional religion but modern paganism and I do believe your spheres are largely accurate. But they also highlight for me what is missing from modern paganism and why modern paganism, even the most hardcore reconstructism, is very much a modern creation.

    I would prefer to replace the term Self Centered with Human Centered. For me human centered still encompasses a focus on “self exploration, understanding, development and empowerment” without seeming to exclude community, a focus on building and connecting human community. I am not sure where I fit in the overall pagan community. I would like to put myself in a human centered sphere that overlaps with earth centered and deity centered. The kind of human centered paganism I am interested in would emphasize our humanness — we are mortal and fallible, susceptible to self-delusions, we are not gods, we are not gods in training – and would seek to build right relationship with self, community and the earth. I see deities as being very potent symbols and metaphors representing the sacredness of the world and our relationship to it, and I think deities as in the past could play an important role through art, song, story and ritual in building this right relationship. This kind of deity centeredness is very different from the worship of a race of personal, conscious superbeings, which is what deity seems to mean to most pagans. This probably disqualifies me from any claim to an overlap with deity centeredness within the wider world of paganism.

    • M. Jay. I too am conflicted about the “Self-centered” label, but mostly because of the negative association that term has in our culture — ironically, since our culture is so self [small “s”] -centered.

      I have to admit though that the implication “that this type of paganism is about the self – self exploration, understanding, development and empowerment” is exactly what I meant by the label.

      You’re absolutely right that I left out community-centered. That is a glaring error and one that probably reflects my own personality more than anything else. I had assumed that community is what grows out of the shared foci. I had not considered that some Pagans might be truly community-centered. I know many people attend Christian churches and other religious communities primarily for this reason. But for some reason, this seems less likely in the case of Pagans. Perhaps because, if community is all you are looking for, then many Christian churches etc. do it better.

      Your theory of the evolution of religion sounds very Durkheimian — religious is about creation of society. I am curious why you feel that Paganism is an exception though.

      • M. Jay, your right on the money with regard to traditional paganism being community-centered. It is indeed strange to think of modern Paganism as in any way community-centered. It is constantly tearing itself apart, what with recurrent obsessions over what to call ourselves, exactly what traditions to follow, radical individualism, exactly which deities or pantheons to focus on, whether those following different cultures and pantheons can work together, etc. Perhaps we could say modern Paganism is characterized by a high prevalence of what economists call “creative destruction”: the elimination of the old to make way for the new.

        • Perhaps this is the by-product of a self-consciously created religion. All religions are “invented” to a certain extent, but contemporary paganisms tend to be more self-conscious about it — expecially the more neo-/non-recon paganisms. And perhaps this is what inhibits true community.

          • Fionnlaoch

            What I find actually inhibits our Diverse Pagan/pagan community is the fact that there seems to be so little willingness to actually sit back and listen to another’s views if/when they do not entirely correspond with your own.
            I am finding this Blog very helpful and insightful. As I have only just recently found the blog and replies, I am sorry for what may seem like a very long delay to a post.
            I find myself somewhat it the center in amongst the 3 overlapping circles but more toward the diety/earth centered border as opposed to the self centered border. As for how I can reconcile these it is simple.. My friends call me a celtic Christian, while I am also a student of the Druid arts.

      • M. Jay Lee

        There are many great things about the liberal tradition with its live and let live attitude of free-spiritedness, openness to new ideas and experiences, and appreciation of diversity, but I have come to believe that it makes a rather thin religion. I think the problem is the emphasis on individualism. According Jonathan Haidt liberals see the basic unity of society as the individual, while conservatives and traditional peoples (basically everyone except western post-Enlightenment liberals/intellectuals) see the basic unit of society as groups (family, tribe, etc). The focus on the autonomous individual is really something new in the world and is alien to traditional (and historical) religions. The negatives of Individualism are in my opinion magnified in modern paganism because after all paganism is very much a reaction and rejection, even a rebellion, against “mainstream” religion and culture – against Judeo-Christian religion, capitalistic materialism and even science. The types of people attracted to paganism tend to be very independent minded and in general eccentric. I certainly fit this description.

        What I am talking about is not beliefs, but the underlying paradigm, the window through which the world is experienced and interpreted. It is the kind of things you don’t even notice until you do and then you see it everywhere. Our reasons (modern western people) for doing religion are fundamentally different then for the ancients. For us in general religion is about our individual relationship with sacredness as we each individually define this and our quest for self fulfillment. We do of course enjoy coming together with others who share our perspectives to exchange ideas and to practice when we have enough commonality to make this feasible. Our togetherness is more of a network of individuals sharing our personal interests. It seems to me that in traditional societies and especially in ancient polytheistic and animistic societies, religion is about insuring the survival and prosperity of the family and community. This is such a big difference that it really colors everything.

        • M. Jay: Any ideas on how we can bring our modern individual Paganism more into alignment with ancient communal Paganism?

  • I just came across this article, “How Pagan is Our Paganism”, by Druid Emma Restall Orr. She identifies 5 “aspects” of Paganism, which overlaps somewhat with my scheme. She identifies (1) “spiritual Paganism”, by which she means something like what I call earth-centered Paganism; (2) “religious Paganism”, by which she means deity-centered Paganism, (3) philosophical Paganism, by which she means something like naturalistic Paganism; (4) “psychological Paganism” by which she means what I call Self-centered paganism; and (5) “political Paganism”. Interestingly, she prioritizes her spiritual (earth-centered) and religious (deity-centered) aspects. She claims that, without these, there is no Paganism. In fact, she goes so far as to claim that these other aspects are not “truly Paganism” because there is no relationship to what she calls “spirit”. Of course, Orr’s analysis seems to privilege her own brand of Paganism, which so many other seem to do.

    • Henry

      heh, I suppose she makes a good point since a lot of folks consider Modern Paganism a ‘religious’ umbrella, when it seems to me to be more and more a social/political one.

  • If the centralizing tendency really bugs you, you can try using an elliptical Venn diagram instead:'s_four_ellipse_construction.png

    Or, if you want to leave those three as circles, you can make the green area a noodle:

    Sorry, having a math teacher moment, don’t mind me.

  • M. Jay Lee

    >B.T. Newburg wrote: “M. Jay: Any ideas on how we can bring our modern individual Paganism more into alignment with ancient communal Paganism?”

    That is a really tough question. I think the first step to building a more community-centered paganism is to become more consciously aware of the importance of community. We are individuals with rights, but we are also members of groups with duties and obligations to these groups. IMO religion is (or should be) that part of life that focuses most especially on building and binding community. I think this should always be a prominent goal of ritual. I think music and dance especially in a religious context are really powerful and ancient techniques for transcending our individuality and building togetherness.

    Most traditional religions (from ancient polytheism to Christianity) put a lot of emphasis on the education and socialization of children into the group. It seems to me that this aspect of religion has been almost completely ignored in paganism (and in pantheism). I see a community-centered paganism putting a lot more emphasis on childhood education and rituals associated with life transitions especially the transition from child to adult. Whether or not we have children, children are the future and are therefore a very important part of the community.

    I think the biggest change toward community-centeredness would occur with the establishment of actual physical temple communities (churches). Christians invest a lot of time and money in creating their church communities, including taking on significant debt in order to buy land and build their churches. When people invest in community in this way, they have a stake and they want and expect this investment to continue paying dividends to future generations. There are really huge ramifications to building established religious temple communities that would force pagans to settle down, to form and commit to traditions, to become more about we than I.

    I know we, naturalistic pagans, our really far away from all this. You need a certain critical mass before you can build a temple, but I think this should be the goal. I really think that a naturalistic pagan/pantheist religion has a lot of potential to become a major religion with a real presence in real communities, but we need to moderate our ultra-individualism and get over our anti-religion, anti-establishment phobias.

    • To follow along on your thoughts M.Jay, we would also need to overcome the traditional prohibitions against proselytizing and paying religious leaders. I don’t mean we should be knocking on doors like Mormon missionaries, but the conversation needs to move from whether to “come out of the broom closet” to how to perfect our “elevator speech” (that 30 seconds you have to explain to people what being Pagan means).

      And I applaud your other recommendations. As a Pagan parent, I admit I need help figuring to how to communicate a Pagan paradigm to my children.

  • Hi, John.

    I was very interested to read this article, since it chimes with some thoughts that I’ve been having for a while, and have now started to put down in writing:

    I think you’re right that the correct model for characterising Paganism needs to focus on the shifting interplay between different, broadly defined centres, rather than the model of an “ideal type” (whether nature-based religion or anything else) which different variants of Paganism are judged to be more or less close to or distant from. My own typology is different from yours, but it is not incompatible, and of its very nature the Pagan community is diverse enough to allow for a multiplicity of different descriptive models.

    What worries me is what might be a growing tendency for the label “Pagan” itself to be jettisoned. I think that living with the inherent instability and diversity of the “Pagan” descriptor is an important challenge for our community – the project of trying to cut narrower distinctions and define ourselves and others in or out of the community makes me a little worried. The fact that “Pagan” is such a broad and variegated concept is something to be celebrated and preserved IMO.

    I was also interested to read your previous articles on the nature-based ethos of Paganism versus the legacy of esotericism. You may be interested to read my thoughts on this:

    • Thanks for your comments underwater Moon. I’ve tried my own lists of Pagan attributes, like this one here:
      Every one of these is arguably so full of exceptions and qualifications as to be more problematic than useful. I think probably the best of these is your #3 (“use of ancient and indigenous pagan cultures as sources of inspiration”) and my #1 (“look to pre- and non-JCI cultures, myths, and religious practices for inspiration”). I discussed this element in more detail here: — but there’s even exceptions to that definition. It sometimes seems that all that we’re left with is: Pagans are those people who call themselves “Pagan” — regardless of their reasons for doing so. That’s why I moved to trying to describe different sub-cultures which exist (partially) under the “Pagan” moniker instead of a single definition of “Pagan”.

    • I also think a big problem in this discussion is that the “Pagan” label is used (1) by those like myself (and you?) who identify primarily as Pagan and (2) by those who identify primarily as something else and/or see “Pagan” only as an umbrella term. I suspect that, although there is still quite a bit of diversity, there is more agreement over the term among those who choose it for their primary identifier. That’s why I am rather ambivalent about the growing dis-identification with the term. I feel like, the more people that dis-identify from “Pagan”, the easier it will be for those who “remain” to define the term. But I may be dreaming.

      • Thanks for those links – interesting. When economists are asked to explain what economics is, they sometimes just say “economics is what economists do”. Maybe Paganism is just what Pagans do.

        The point about primary and secondary descriptors is interesting. I’ll have to think some more about that.

      • Fionnlaoch

        What people are really forgetting is that the term pagan actually meant country dweller not as a religious aspect but someone who did not live in or near a city.

  • Thank you so much for this article, it’s made all my struggle over where I sit within Paganism all fall into place. I see now that I am primarily deity-centred, with a healthy dose of self-centred practice, and a smattering of earth-centred practice. In using your diagram, I see that I am no less a Pagan as the next individual, and that takes such a weight off of my shoulders. It feels wonderfully liberating.

    • Thanks for that Sharyn. That was precisely what I hoped it would do for other, as it has done for me.

  • This is so excellent, I went back and added a reference to it in my 2011 essay “Defining Paganism, last try (pingback is above, thanks).” I think our schemata are very similar, but you managed to find more fundamental descriptors for the parts.

    I’m in your mirror-image spot, in the intersection of Self- and Deity-centric. In my schema, I would be a polytheistic (high) magician; but adding in my animistic basis, I actually fall into the center of my own classification, a telling point that you addressed earlier..

  • Check out Freeman Presson’s post here [ ]. There is some interesting overlap between his scheme and mine.

  • Here’s an interesting tripartite division of Neopaganism into (1) Archetypal-Paganism, (2) Polytheistic-Paganism, and (3) Humanistic-Paganism.