How do you define Paganism?
Cat: A complex question! There are two common definitions that you come across in the Pagan community(ies): 1. Any non-Abrahamic religion (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, Islam); 2. Any earth-based spirituality. However, both of these are inherently exclusionary to many people who identify as Pagan.
I firmly believe you can be a Christian witch or a Christo-Pagan, or combine Judaism with your Pagan beliefs and practices. I have friends who have had real religious experience and found meaning based on these kinds of practices, and it’s not up to me to judge whether it’s acceptable for them to combine these paths. The unfortunate reality is that we do not have a pure and unbroken Pagan practice throughout history, and there are some things that—even if you’re a Reconstructionist—that you just aren’t going to find a way to do from the ancient sources. If it has meaning and is important for you to also practice a form of Abrahamic religion that helps “supplement” your Paganism, or that you feel is important to you for whatever reason—go for it. In the end, it’s your personal religious path, and so long as you aren’t hurting yourself, others, or the natural world, go for it.
For the other, there are plenty of Pagans who just aren’t nature-based in their practice. And that’s perfectly fine. We emphasize nature in the Pagan community in a lot of ways, but it’s not the only thing out there. I’m glad that we try to be ecofriendly or green or whatever, but trying to force that kind of thing down someone’s throat is not a way to make friends.
In the end, this is just a long-winded way to say that I define Paganism as: “any strictly non-Abrahamic religion where the practitioner identifies themselves as a Pagan.” The reason for this is because you can have Hindus who are, themselves, non-Abrahamic, but who would balk at being called Pagan. Same with Shinto practitioners, Buddhists, etc. But there are some people who are members of those religions that would be fine with being called Pagan—or call themselves Pagan. In the end, it is up to the individual, in my opinion.
Kate: I define it very broadly. I see the term as a net that holds many different traditions and they may or may not have much in common.
The key factor that I see most traditions having in common is the belief in the spirit of nature. The idea that the world is full of energy and magic, you simply must look for it.
Tal: I define paganism as an umbrella term for a group of smaller religious traditions outside of the main world religions. I believe “neopaganism” is a more specific term to use when discussing the modern pagan community—I would define this as a group of modern traditions that are either reconstructions of pre-Christian religions, or influenced by pre-Christian systems of belief.
Aleja: I think of paganism as an umbrella under which fall a couple of overlapping circles, like venn diagrams. The largest groups are the neopagan witchcraft traditions, like Wicca, and the next in size are probably the reconstructionist or revivalist polytheistic traditions, like Heathenry, Hellenic Polytheism, Kemeticism (that is, Egyptian neopaganism – not the Pan-African traditions sometimes of the same name), and Celtic Reconstructionism or Gaelic Polytheism. Plenty of people just use “pagan” or “witch” as an identifier and may not belong to a larger tradition, preferring to just work eclectically. Animists are the last big category, I think, though there are also pagans who are animists who fall into any of the above categories, or those who combine animism with pantheism or panentheism.
I do mean just those animists and polytheists who aren’t following their own unbroken living tradition, however – Hindus, Buddhists, followers of Shinto and North American Indigenous spiritualities might be animists and/or polytheists, but most wouldn’t consider themselves pagan, so it would be rude for us to do so! Satanists and followers of African Diaspora Traditions may or may not consider themselves pagans or witches, so I think it’s up to them to decide, and we shouldn’t assume they consider themselves part of the larger umbrella.
How did you discover Paganism?
Cat: This is a bit of a complicated question for me, as my patron deity very obviously came into my life when I was quite young, well before I came across the term Paganism. But that’s a long story, so I’ll just go to the future part, when I learned about Paganism being something one could still practice in our modern world.
In high school, I was a member of an online roleplaying guild. I had a few friends in the guild that I talked to beyond roleplaying, and one of them introduced me to the term “Wicca.” Now, I was luckily (in some ways) not raised with religion, so I did not have any of the bias that sometimes comes with coming from that sort of background. I think my friend knew this and that’s part of the reason why she told me about it.
After learning about it some from her, I went about doing some of my own reading about it and researching into the idea. Llewellyn was the most popular Pagan publisher at the time, so I read several of their books. I believe one of my first Pagan books with Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner and its subsequent book Living Wicca: A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. I remember picking up several other books from the New Age section in high school and skimming through them, and while some parts piqued my interest, I wasn’t really jiving with Wicca as a whole.
In college, I began reading a lot more blogs on Paganism, about people’s individual experiences and paths. Even today, I love reading about people’s experiences as Pagans, their beliefs and practice. It’s fascinating to me. These blogs introduced several new concepts and terms to me over time, which I then perused at my own leisure, later steering my path to what it is today.
Kate: Tough question to answer in a few sentences. I guess the easiest way to frame it is that I practiced a type of folks magic before I discovered paganism. During my first year of graduate school, a friend mentioned to me that my practices looked a lot like witchcraft. I was intrigued by this notion and started doing research into witchcraft. This lead me to paganism and I have been wandering these halls since then.
Tal: I grew up with folk and fairy tales, and had a huge interest in classical mythology as a child. I also grew up around people who were openly pagan and animist, even though I myself was raised Christian. I never seriously considered paganism as a tradition that I could participate in until I looked into it on a deeper level in my college years. Celtic Reconstructionism and modern Druidry were my jumping-off points for this research, and the rest is history!
Aleja: I’m really not actually sure how I first encountered paganism as a thing modern, living people did (though I have been interested in non-Abrahamic mythology since I learned to read), but I know it was on the internet somewhere in 2001 or thereabouts. I’m pretty sure the first thing I found was witchcraft, likely Wicca, and in any case that’s where I first turned when I started to practice, around 2002-03. By 2003 I was sure that paganism and witchcraft were what I’d been looking for and missing. As I said before, I was raised in both the Catholic Church and my mother’s indigenous traditions, and I had a hard time reconciling them both. I’ve always been an animist, and I interacted with spirits as a child, and paganism let me keep the faint hints of fairy faith and Irish folktales I got from my Irish Catholic family, and still keep the animist worldview of my indigenous tradition. I saw it as a way to honor both sides of my ancestry. However, Wicca soon proved to be too ceremonial in nature for me, and while I kept the Wheel of The Year, I spent about a decade being a solitary animist pagan witch of no particular tradition, focused much more on local spirits than deities, and unconcerned with the larger pagan community.
Tune in next month for more questions and answers!