Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Characteristics of Paganism

I believe due to Paganism being relatively new to our sphere of knowledge concerning religions and also that many of us do not have any experience with it (whether by personal practice or by being exposed to it through an educational standpoint) it is difficult to say exactly what it is. As one website said, it is easier to describe the characteristics of Paganism then to tell you what it is. Through the understanding of these characteristics, maybe we can begin to know more about what Paganism is.

Through research on the Internet and by reading some books I have come up with a list, while not extensive, sums up some of the dogmas Pagans have in common. I use the word “dogmas” even though many Pagans will argue that there are no dogmas within their religion. I beg to differ. While looking up the textbook definition of the word, I came up with “An established opinion or principle held as true.” Almost all of the websites or books I read mentioned any of the following characteristics in some form, so I consider them as opinions that have been established within the pagan community. As I am not into some of the “fluffy bunny” wording of many of these sites, I have put some of their beliefs in almost categorical form. Characteristics of Paganism, from those that say they are pagan are as follows:

1. Polytheistic (some also follow a pantheistic view as well).
2. See life as a blessing, not a sin.
3. Male and Female Divinity.
4. Nature Centered.
5. No proselytizing to gain converts.
6. Seek inspiration in pre-Christian sources, folklore, and mythology.

Some other characteristics that I found interesting come from a book that is commonly known as the book that give a neophyte their first taste of information on the subject of Pagan religions. This book is Drawing Down The Moon by Margot Adler. For those that have never read it or have no intentions to do so, I will give you some background. First published in 1979, and in 1986 with a new edition, it claims to be the only “detailed history of Neo-Paganism in the United States” (at that time). In the new edition, it claims that the times had changed so much that a lot of the information is rather dated, seven years later, and some of it was left in its original form for historical value and some of it was updated.

26 years after that first addition, the language seems very outdated as do some of the ideas presented. As per the times it was written in, it seems like a cross between a manual for 1970’s militant women’s liberation and the flower-child generation. I’m not saying it is devoid of useful information, it’s just very dated and someone needs to write a whole new book. (I know I may get some angry letters from pagans with a few choice words to say of my interpretation of this book, but I can just add those to the letters, links, and choice words I have already have gotten from Christians.) Even with being outdated, some of the points of context within the book still do have some relevance today. Things mentioned that I took note of were as follows:

1. Self created and/or homemade.
2. Seldom have “masters” or those that tell them what to believe.
3. Their churches (whether few or many participants) are not “operations of high finance”.
4. They see separation from nature as prime source of alienation.
5. The sense of personal responsibility.

Many believe in a duality of the Divine, whether in a polytheistic or pantheistic outlook. We already know from our definitions yesterday, that a Pagan is a follower of a polytheistic viewpoint. But what is pantheistic viewpoint? Pantheism is the belief that the Universe taken as a whole is God. Now, not all Pagans believe in pantheism. An interesting way to shed light on this is to give the example of it in terms of Yin and Yang. Balance. Opposite forces working together. Male and Female sides of the same thing/idea/being/deity/etc. One human example of this could be the idea of the “tomboy”. From a Pagan viewpoint, they are saying that in everything, including themselves, God/Goddess/Deity exists.

The next characteristic is that Pagans view life as a blessing, not a sin. I think that this one goes along with the sense of personal responsibility characteristic from the Adler list. How so? Ever notice how some, but not all, Christians (and other religions as well) like to point out what you’re doing is wrong and that it is a sin? To whom is it a sin, I would like to ask? I see it as a way of strangers (or those that are acquainted) to tell others that they disapprove of things you are doing or saying or believing in. They think they need to dictate to you, their beliefs on what is right and wrong based on the dogmas of their upbringing. Heck, there are Christians/Muslim/Jews that will do this same thing to other Christians/Muslims/Jews; it doesn’t have to be from one religion to another.

This is where personal responsibility (I would also add respect) come into play. If you take responsibility for your own actions, some pagans say, then there is no need for the idea of “sin”. Yes, there is still right and wrong and laws are needed to dictate that. But there is a distinction between laws and possible culture taboos. In other words, who is anyone to say that some girl wearing a crystal around her neck is sinning against God? It’s a rock for Pete’s sake. If you take responsibility for your actions, you have a greater sense of accountability and maybe you will think about your actions before the thoughts of them leave your brain. To tie this all back with life being a blessing, Pagans tend not to focus on what other people are doing and live their life which will take them in a direction that makes them happy. To use a couple of clichés, they put an emphasis on living their life to the fullest with a live and let live philosophy.

No proselytizing to gain converts is another characteristic of Paganism that I saw mentioned time and again. You might disagree with this statement. You may have seen websites or bookstores or people wearing religious jewelry, whatever the religion. But this is not proselytizing. They are not actively seeking you out by these things. You saw them or went looking for them. Think of the definition of the words I am using. I have never had a pagan come up to me and say “I’m Pagan, ask me how!” but I sure have had literature from many other religions pushed in my face without regards to what I have already believed in. Again, to make clear a point I made yesterday, I might just believe what they are pushing, but that still doesn’t make me like them any more for being disrespectful and uninformed about what I believe.

One thing that I do find amusing is that many websites state that some of their inspiration for their religion is folklore and mythology. I can’t agree with the pre-Christian sources part, though. Ever read Key of Solomon? Definitely Christian era, although not necessarily a Christian text. (Most sources attribute it to the contact of Jewish kabbalists and Arab alchemists. Try looking up the KoS at Wikipedia over in my links section.) I’m not trying to say that Pagans practice what is presented within the KoS, but rituals (explained more in future blog entries) are similar in form, though definitely not content. Lets be fair now, Christians have their rituals, too. Folklore and mythology are a huge source of their belief system. Well, I should say what the general public sees as folklore and mythology. It can’t be mythology if you believe in it! (I am big into definitions. Look up myth/mythology. Words can have several different meanings. I have included a handy link to a dictionary for those who are lazy.)

Every site, book, and Pagan I have ever talked to mention the connection with nature whether it be that good ol’ fluffy bunny kind again or some actual intellegent musings. You don’t suddenly have to be a throw back from the sixties to talk about nature, people! I would think that most people have felt a connection with nature before, but this is more than just a connection. It is the belief that nature is not separate from humans. We are a part of nature. No seperation between the animate and the inanimate. As Margot Adler pointed out in her book, separation from nature as a prime source of alienation in today’s society. I would have to go back and point out that this separation is not a new-in-our-lifetime concept. Think about the start of suburbanization. The 1800’s view of the city as deteriorating morality. Think about all those people that thought of being out in the country as healthful. If can’t grasp my meaning, I suggest reading the first few chapters of Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson.

The last thing I will talk about today is the sense of these modern religions as being self-created or homemade as brought up by Margot Alder. Pagan religions have a feel of a little of this, a little of that. One might say that they leave out the parts they don’t like and embrace the parts that they do. Don’t get too smug, ye of other religions, I noticed this of many other religions as well. Think about it…… Don’t know what I am talking about? Denominations.* Getting back to the self-created aspect, Pagans do seem to have a sense of this works for me, so I will use it. But what of those that claim that their group/coven/church’s traditions go way back to before “the burning times?” I say prove it. Until then, I see it is another way of romanticizing your choice of religion. But I will get more into that aspect when it comes time to talk about the history of Paganism in general and Wicca.

*And of course let’s get bible reference in here – How many people these day (Christians, specifically) eat or do not eat what the bible mentions. Don’t tell me you follow the bible exactly or take it literally unless you really do. (Don’t tell me it’s impossible, either, as I have stayed with, but am in no way affliated with, a commune that comes pretty darn close. I also know a guy who chooses to eat in the way the bible lays out to bring him mindfully closer to his faith. Kudos to them!) Don't tell me you don't make things up either, as by ignoring a part of "God's Intruction Book" you, too, are making up your religion.

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