I recently came across an article from the Evangelical Christian website Breakpoint titled Is New Paganism Actually Pagan? The writers ask what appears to be an honest question, even if the proper answer is “you’re not Pagan, why do you care?” The problem is in the subtitle: “the modern practice of this ancient belief embraces the innovations of Christianity.”
The article starts out with a fair description of modern Paganism, quoting several actual Pagan practitioners, including Ronald Hutton. But then it argues that “all the things that make modern Paganism appealing to modern people aren’t Pagan” and concludes by claiming “only Jesus offers the truth” – by which, of course, they mean their ideas about Jesus, as opposed to the ideas of Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and other non-Evangelical Christians.
As Pagans, the claims of other religions to exclusive possession of Truth are not our concern – except to dismiss them as arrogant and impossible to support. What is our concern is the claim that our Paganism is somehow inauthentic because it doesn’t exactly match the Paganism of our ancient ancestors, and the claim that the appealing parts of modern Paganism were cribbed from Christianity.
Neither claim is true.
A very selective reading of history – and of current events
The Breakpoint article tries to credit Christianity for “the idea of human equality and dignity” and away from wars and conquest. It is true that the earliest Christians emphasized equality and dignity, arguing that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female…” But once Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, that idea went away quickly.
Have these writers forgotten about the Crusades, the slave trade, the Inquisition, and the witch trials? The Hundred Years War and the near non-stop wars in Europe until the mid-20th century? Colonization and genocide in Africa, Asia, and the Americas?
Have they forgotten that the largest Protestant denomination in this country – the Southern Baptist Convention – was formed in defense of slavery?
The Breakpoint writers are accurate in pointing out that ancient Paganism was not a bastion of humanistic virtue (though it was far deeper than they admit). They are dishonest in failing to recognize that Christianity’s record isn’t significantly better.
The Enlightenment happened in spite of Christianity, not because of it
The Enlightenment happened in a society that was thoroughly Christian. That doesn’t mean it happened because of Christian religion, philosophy, or culture. Correlation is not causation.
Need I bring up Galileo? Or Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600 – only 16 years before Galileo was forced to recant his observations that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not vice versa?
The Christian (and especially Evangelical) denial of science continues in our time. Other Breakpoint writers argue against the well-established theory of evolution, and a significant number of Evangelicals believe the Earth is only 6000 years old.
The Enlightenment happened because the Church lost its ability to control the spread of ideas and because the spread of science encouraged people to look for demonstrable cause and effect. And, as philosopher Brendan Myers explained in his excellent book The Earth, The Gods and The Soul “people got tired of the austerities of Christian discipline and the misanthropy of the Doctrine of Original Sin.”
Though some Christians try to take credit for the Enlightenment, others view it as a mistake they hope to remedy. Protestant Dominionists and Catholic Integralists both seek to end liberal Western democracy and replace it with their version of a theocracy.
A number of scientists, artists, and other key people in the Enlightenment were Christians who took their faith seriously and still worked for knowledge, justice, and tolerance. So are many contemporary Christians, some of whom are our friends and allies. But to credit the Enlightenment and the promotion of liberal values to the Christian religion is simply inaccurate.
A good religion is a living religion
The charge that Paganism got its good stuff from Christianity is blatantly false. The implication that it’s not really Pagan because it’s not identical to ancient Paganism is a misunderstanding of what religion is supposed to be.
As modern Pagans, we are inspired by the beliefs and practices of our ancestors. But we are not trying to re-create the religion of Iron Age Britain, because we are not Iron Age Britons. Our religion must speak to us and the world we live in, here and now. Paganism is growing in large part because its emphasis on the sacredness of Nature addresses many of our spiritual and practical concerns in this era of climate change and species loss. It’s growing because it understands and promotes gender equality. It’s growing because its acceptance of magic is meaningful and helpful in an era where rights are being taken away.
Meanwhile, Christianity is in steep decline because more and more people do not want to be associated with an institution that denies science and promotes hatred of LGBTQ people and the subjugation of women.
What makes Paganism Pagan?
Paganism is a very broad movement. We can’t define it – we can only describe it. But in general, and speaking for myself, there are a few things that make Paganism Pagan.
Paganism is built on a foundation of animism: the idea that everything is not a thing but a person who we can relate to as persons, and who are worthy of the respect due persons. Christians like to talk about Imago Dei. They’re not wrong, they just don’t take it far enough. All species are part of the divine, not just humans.
Therefore, Paganism sees Nature not as “fallen” but as sacred. We come from Nature – the Earth is our Mother and is due our reverent and loving care. The pleasures of Nature, which among many include food, drink, and sex, are good and holy and should be enjoyed and celebrated, not repressed.
Paganism recognizes the multiplicity of the divine. We understand that many different Gods call many different people to worship and work with Them in many different ways. The world’s many religions are the result of the many Gods and our diverse experiences of Them. Whether a tradition’s beliefs and practices are “true” is far less important than how those beliefs and practices motivate their followers to live in harmony with each other and with the world at large.
This diversity extends to individual humans, and so each person has the inherent right to live their lives and to participate in society as they see fit, unlimited by anyone else’s ideas about race, color, sex, gender identity and gender roles, or any other element of identity or orientation.
Paganism is a magical religion. It recognizes that because everything is connected we can influence everything, even though we can control nothing. Because we have magic, we are never powerless.
Paganism is not a religion of rules. Rather, it is a religion of virtues. In difficult situations we do not ask “what is the rule I must follow?” but “what is the applicable virtue and how can I best embody it?” We recognize that sometimes virtues are in conflict and hard choices must be made. No one can make these choices for another.
There is much more, particularly when we move into individual Pagan traditions. But this is the core of what makes Paganism Pagan.
Keeping the sheep inside the pen
Let’s be honest: this article isn’t intended for proselytizing against Pagans. It’s intended to keep Christians who may feel an intuitive pull toward Paganism from exploring it too deeply.
Christianity in particular and monotheism in general require constant aggressive reinforcement. Without that reinforcement, people intuitively begin to see the beauty and sacredness of Nature. They understand that pleasure is good, not sinful. They experience the multiplicity of the divine and they begin talking about the God of this and the Goddess of that. They have a great need and so they seek out magic, and then the magic works. Paganism is an organic, intuitive religion.
Paganism isn’t a proselytizing religion. It’s not our job to tell anybody which God to worship and how to worship Them. But it is our job – my job – to be here for those who feel that intuitive pull toward Nature and the Gods of Nature.
Because for some of us, Paganism provides meaning and inspiration that no monotheistic religion can match.