Lately I’m seeing a lot of people complaining that Paganism is inauthentic. These complaints aren’t coming from fundamentalist Christians or atheists. Rather, they’re coming from Pagans. Or from former Pagans or from people who can best be described as “Pagan adjacent.” They complain that Paganism is built on bad history, or it’s appropriative of other cultures, or various leaders did bad things, or that we’re all just playing dress-up.
Some of these complaints have merit, some are a stretch, and some are blown far out of proportion. I’m not going to link to any of them, because I don’t want to get bogged down in a line-by-line rebuttal. This post isn’t about what’s wrong with Paganism… though there are things that are wrong that we need to address.
Rather, this post is about how we can build a real, authentic foundation for our Paganism that will stand up throughout our lives.
What do you mean by Paganism anyway?
If you’re new to all this, go read The Four Centers of Paganism from 2014, which discusses how Paganism is a movement, and as such is very difficult to define. However, it can be described by the “centers” where people who call themselves Pagans find the Divine.
Last year I wrote What Makes Paganism Pagan? where I talked about the origins of the term and how it came to be used in our contemporary movement. I identified four “currents” that have brought the term “Pagan” to us. Most importantly,
It’s the organic religions arising from the lived experiences of people in the industrial and post-industrial West. It’s a reverence for Nature and it’s seeing the Divine in all genders. It’s the magic of the learned scholars and the magic of the ordinary folk. It calls us to remember that good religion is a living thing, growing and changing to adapt timeless principles to where we are here and now.
I’m not looking to build One True Paganism. Rather, there are things we can do to make our own Paganisms more authentic, however we express them.
Religion doesn’t have to be old to be real
This is my biggest annoyance both with those who are doing it wrong and with those who are complaining about others doing it wrong.
It’s a human tendency to value and even revere things that are very old. Truly old human things (as opposed to, say, mountains and stars) are rare. We’re especially fond of Golden Age myths, which say there was a time when – unlike now – all was right in the world.
But a religion doesn’t have to be old to be a real religion. What make a religion real is if people follow it.
Jediism didn’t exist before George Lucas and the first Star Wars movie in 1977. Today thousands of people follow it, not as a fandom but as a religion. Now, if you claim you’re a Jedi because you have a high midichlorian count, you’re making a materialist statement that is at best unsubstantiated and is almost certainly false. On other hand, if you order your life around the values and principles demonstrated by the Jedi in the films, you’re doing something people have been doing pretty much forever.
Mormonism is less than 200 years old and Joseph Smith’s story of the golden plates is almost certainly ahistorical. But Mormonism has 15 million followers worldwide – to say it’s not a “real” religion is ridiculous. Is Christianity not a “real” religion because it’s centuries newer than Judaism or Buddhism, and maybe millennia newer than Hinduism?
Religions aren’t real because they’re old. Religions are real because they bring meaning and comfort to their followers in the face of difficulties and a certain death.
Now, how do we make our Paganism work for us, without grounding it in false or inauthentic narratives? The simple answer is to ground it in our own first-hand experiences.
Begin with the land where you are
Science tells us that life began in the oceans, then 500 million years ago moved onto the land. We are creatures of the Earth, creatures of the land. When we say the Earth is our mother we are telling a true story. We belong to the land.
And if we belong to the land we can form respectful reciprocal relationships with the land.
This can take many forms, from learning the birds, trees, and herbs in your area to gardening and permaculture to pouring offerings to the spirits of a place. It begins with going outside and listening. Let the persons who share the land with you tell you who and what they are, whether you’re interacting with this-world persons or Otherworldly persons.
Or both. I like both.
Whatever else you may be, you’re also an animal. You have to live on the land, use the land, and eat other living beings that share the land with you, whether they’re plants or animals or both. Don’t just take from the land – be a part of the land.
Honor your ancestors
None of us got here on our own. We all have parents and grandparents and foster parents who literally brought us into this world and cared for us when we could not care for ourselves. We all have spiritual ancestors who inform and inspire us. Without them we would not be, or we would be much less than we are. It is good and right that we honor them on a regular basis.
Hang their pictures on the wall. Recite their names, tell their stories. When you run out of names – and the genealogy runs out for all of us, sooner or later – call them by place and time, or simply call to your “ancestors whose names I know not.”
Worship the Gods
Whatever else They may be, the many Gods are the mightiest of spirits who embody the greatest of virtues. To worship Them is not self-debasement and chanting sycophantic praises, but rather declaring that They are worthy of our honor and respect.
Sometimes a God chooses us. Other times we choose a God. Sometimes our worship becomes an ecstatic experience. Other times it’s as ordinary as saying good morning to your family. Sometimes the relationship is bound by oaths and divine orders. Other times it’s bound simply by our commitment do the right things regardless of the outcome.
A calling from a God doesn’t make you special and it certainly doesn’t give you any authority over others. Mainly it gives you more work to do. A fully-formed religion has room for both dedicated religious specialists and for those who simply want to honor the Gods and live ordinary lives.
But to make your Paganism authentic, simply worship the Gods.
Develop a magical practice
To be clear: not all Pagans practice magic. But I do.
Magic can accomplish what mundane effort alone cannot. It’s a tool, and a tool that many people use – including those whose ethics and goals are very different from my own. If they’re going to put it to use for their purposes, I’m going to use it for mine.
Magical techniques and systems are often tied up in specific cultures, which raises the issue of cultural appropriation. Just remember: tech is transferrable – culture is not. For example, burning sage is not cultural appropriation – people have used astringent smoke for cleansing and purifying in many cultures and lands throughout history. Burning sage in a Native American ceremony when you’re not a member of a Native American tribe is cultural appropriation and therefore inauthentic for non-Natives.
Learn the magic of the plants that grow where you live. Learn the magic of the sun and moon and stars. Learn the universal (or very nearly so) principles of association (“like controls like”) and contagion. Learn sigil magic, whether of the chaos magic variety (which is my favorite) or the more artistic variety taught by Laura Tempest Zakroff and others.
Ground your magic in your relationships with the land, your ancestors, and your Gods – not the other way around. Find what works for you – what brings results. Credit your sources, and don’t pretend to be something you aren’t. You’ll be fine.
Gather with others doing the same things
Religion is ultimately about relationships. Some of these relationships are with the land, some are with various spiritual persons, and some are with virtues and values. But other relationships are with our fellow humans. Whatever your authentic religion looks like, how does it inspire you to live in harmony with others?
It’s hard to follow any religion devoutly in our materialist, consumer culture. Our Christian friends have a church on every corner and a calendar set up by and for themselves. It’s much harder for everyone else. Having someone to celebrate with makes it much easier – and more enjoyable.
It’s also good to have someone to be accountable to – someone who knows you’ve made commitments to the land, your ancestors, and your Gods. Someone who will ask you how things are going… and who you can lean on when things aren’t going so well.
There is no way my Paganism would be as deep, as strong, and as meaningful without my fellow local Pagans, and without my co-religionists around the world.
Leave the world a better place than you found it
I could go on and on about worldview, theology, divination, oracular practice, and all the things that make my Paganism what it is. I’ve written posts on these topics in the past and I’ll write more in the future.
At the end of the day, whether your religion is authentic – whether it’s real or not – comes down to one thing: does it work? But authentic doesn’t necessarily mean good.
What is good is a topic that more properly belongs to philosophy, not religion. But I feel confident in saying this much: your religion is good if it inspires and equips you to leave the world a better place than you found it.
Not the whole world – that’s beyond the control of any human. But your little piece of it: your home, your community, your family. Your religious tradition. Your Paganism.
Some of the complaints about Paganism being inauthentic have merit and others do not. Arguing about them is of far less value than making sure our own Paganism is as authentic as it can be.
Ground your practice in the land where you are, in your ancestors, and in the worship of the Gods who call to you or who you choose to call to. Develop a magical practice that works for you. Gather with those who are doing the same things in the same way. And leave the world a better place than you found it.
Your Paganism will be authentic enough.