Paganism 101

Paganism 101 May 14, 2015
Alexander Hall, SPU, By Joel Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons
Alexander Hall, SPU, By Joel Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting Paganism to 18 Christian college students. Dr. Jennifer McKinney, of Seattle Pacific University (SPU), contacted me and asked if I would be a guest speaker on Paganism in the New Religious Movements section of her Sociology of Religions class. Dr. McKinney is the sort of amazing, brilliant person that makes me wish I hadn’t left academia. Of course I said yes!

Although I could give the presentation anytime this month, I scheduled my talk for Wednesday of this week for two reasons: Mercury goes retrograde next week and Wednesday is Saraswati and Hermes’ day. I figured I’d eek out every bit of positive communication juju where I could. There’s also no way to make the trip any easier: it took me 1 hour and 40 minutes to get to an 8am class. Good thing I’m a morning person!

All of the students had to prepare for class by reading Cherry Hill’s basic pamphlet on “What is Contemporary Paganism?” I also had them visit Patheos Pagan and pick one blog to read. I really wanted them to get a sense of the diversity of voices we have.

The Presentation

I began by talking about myself, my education, and my journey.

*The meat of the presentation began with what Paganism is NOT. It is NOT Satanism (that’s actually a form of Christianity). It is NOT monolithic. We talked about PaganismS and PolytheismS and theologIES. We talked about living traditions. Lastly, Paganism is NOT all other non-Abrahamic religions.

*We had to take a brief detour to define, in the simplest terms possible, what the differences between monotheism, polytheism (hard and soft), monism, and henotheism were.

*I emphasized the Big Umbrella and how individuals got to decide if they wanted to be under it or not. Just because I think a person fits doesn’t mean they want to join in. Self-identifying was one of my main points, actually.

*So who might be under the Big Umbrella? I talked ever so briefly about the Western Magical/occult tradition; Wicca and witchcraft, with a brief mention of shamanism; reconstructionisms (Druids, many Celtic and Norse paths); Afro-diasporic traditions; Polytheisms; Neo-paganism (with a nod to and separation from the New Age); humanistic and atheist Paganism; and where Eastern influences fit in. I failed to mention indigenous traditions, mainly because, in my experience, existing indigenous traditions outside of Europe don’t typically identify as Pagan. Now I wonder if this was a glaring oversight on my part.

This took up the bulk of my time.

*I talked about UPG, unverified personal gnosis, and where discernment fit in.

*Next up I introduced John Beckett’s idea of the Four Centers of Paganism. I talked about what focusing on Self, Community, Nature, and/or Deity might look like.

*Lastly, we talked about practice. I kept pointing out that Pagans put more emphasis on what we DO, rather than on what we BELIEVE. So what do we do? Prayer, offerings, ritual (raising energy, invoking a deity or spirit, possession, celebrating, etc), divination, service, creation, discernment, telling stories.

DCF 1.0


Few of the students asked any questions. But I did get some. I was asked:

*If we worshiped objects (idols). No, but I explained the difference between an altar and a shrine, how some objects are homes for deities, and that it’s all about excellent hospitality.

*If we had a belief in the afterlife and what that might be. Mostly there seems to be some sort of idea of reincarnation, but again, this is not a codified belief. Very few people spend their time focused on the afterlife, as we tend to believe that the here and now, that immanence and imminence of divinity is more important.

*If we were accepting of recreational drug use and if it is common. Um, ish? Yes? No? I said something vague here.

*If we had a sacred text. Nope! We are people of the library, not people of the book!

*The last question was the only one that seemed remotely sociological: How have I seen Paganism change in Olympia over the years? Sadly, I’ve only been here three years, so I couldn’t really say!

I handed out a list of resources, primarily websites, but also books. The books ranged from theology to sociology to other forms of non-fiction writing and some fiction. I figured the non-academic writing might give voracious readers a glimpse of the mindset and feel of Paganism and Polytheism without jargon or outside/inside arguments. I’ll post an annotated version of that list tomorrow!

What do you think? Did I miss anything major?




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  • Well, I think it sounds like I wish I’d been there!

    As for indigenous religions, I think you might have misstepped by not mentioning them at all, but the reason to mention them would be to say that generally the practitioners of said religions don’t consider themselves Pagan… so just a small misstep, in my opinion.

    • I think so too. I did talk quite about how people get to choose for themselves. And that Hindus, while joining in common causes in the US, don’t see typically count themselves as Pagan. And so on. But I definitely wish I has added a least a few sentences about indigenous traditions! Next time!

  • roberto quintas

    I may add: Paganism isn’t only the religion of country dweller, it is also the religion of the urbs. Paganism have a lot of Gods or even one God/ess, but in each case the divine has a deep root with the folk who whorship them.

    • I did not go into the roots of the word, nor talk about rural/urban issues. It was…. outside the scope of the talk, I think.

      • Most non-language nerds don’t really care about etymology anyway. I’m used to keeping things short & sweet, most people have short attention spans!

  • Looks like you dodged the need to tease apart pantheism and panentheism. I always hate when that one comes up 🙂

    • I mentioned it! I forgot to add that in. But no one had any questions about it. What do you hate about it?

      • Just that the concepts are extremely similar (or at least they are with the best descriptions that I’ve used for them). And, for that matter, they even sound the same making it sometimes difficult for people to actually even understand what you’re saying and which one you’re talking about!

  • Great job with that. The only addition I could see is the concept of personal responsibility – owning your own stuff. But there is so much to cover in a single lecture!

  • Tracy

    As someone reasonably new to paganism as a practice (I’m not even really using the “P” word to describe myself), I really enjoyed reading this blog (as I do all your blogs, Niki). It was informative and made me wish I’d been there. I’ve been reading you and T. Thorn Coyle and John Becket and others on Patheos and some books, but getting a Paganism 101 primer isn’t easy. Thanks for posting your reading list in today’s blog!

    • Thank you! Ask 10 Pagans what Paganism is about and get 15 answers. 😉

      • Tracy

        Haha. Much like Unitarian Universalism, my other path.

      • Slate

        It sounds like an excellent overview along with the prep work. Great job. I like to recommend the book, “Paganism 101: An Introduction to Paganism by 101 Pagans” compiled by by Trevor Greenfield to folks newly interested in the path. It really drives home that there are many many ways to be Pagan.

  • I’ve started a series of posts about exploring Paganism(s) – I’m trying to go for an approach that is less Wicca/generic “earth-based” than the usual Paganism 101 fare. (Not that I’m accusing you of doing that here!) Note- as an aside- I suspect a lot of Satanists would disagree that their religion/philosophy is a form of Christianity, from my limited knowledge.

    • I’m sure Satanists would disagree with me. But if you’re going to use Christian imagery, language, gods, and ritual elements (even if “inverted”) then I would say that it situates itself with in that tradition.

      I’ve been told that my presentation was already low on the Wicca. It may be the most ubiquitous of the traditions, but I really wanted to focus on the Big Umbrella.

  • The ‘Big Tent’ – and how that tent has grown over the last 50 years – of Paganism would be a daunting task in any setting, especially an academic one. Who the audience is, what their backgrounds in religious studies are, their own beliefs and practices, ethnicity, family history and even geographic localization enter into play. I was part of a panel of pagans addressing the traditions of Samhain at the University of Kansas, and we thought the discussion would be academic…until two busloads of Catholic students showed up unannounced to “pray for our souls”. Needless to say very little was accomplished in that kind of charged atmosphere, and the press had a field day. Lesson learned? Know your audience. Glad your presentation went well!

  • Chris Woodstock

    As a closet pagan working at a Christian university, I applaud Prof McKinney. Sounds like a great class Nikki, I wish I could have been there. I’m a new pagan, so from my perspective it sounds like you gave an excellent introduction including food for thought.

    • I wish you all the best on your journey! Being in the closet, about anything, is lonely and tiring.

  • Sounds fascinating! How positively/negatively did you feel they responded to you? I love interfaith work – I give talks on Paganism in schools alongside people of different faiths. It’s really rewarding.

    • I have no idea. I got only a few smiles. Most every else was stone faced. One woman came up and shook my hand afterward and thanked me for coming. Otherwise….. crickets.

  • Annika Mongan

    This is so helpful, thank you!