Who are the pagans and what do they believe? 

In Defense of Paganism

I have great respect for the power of words. Used skillfully, they can uplift or demean. They can soothe or agitate. They can generate consensus or divide. They can hurt or heal. Used consistently over a period in skillful hands, they can reduce a segment of any population or belief system to objects of derision, scorn, exclusion and persecution. The use and misuse of the term pagan over the last several thousand years to describe any deviation from the reigning orthodoxy has to be one of the most pervasive, powerful, and destructive uses of this process.

What is paganism, and why does it seem to be so threatening? Why is it that the religious belief systems that have most influenced our culture (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) have systematically defined pagans as subhuman and dangerous? Why is it that the Oxford American Dictionary defines pagan as heathen, and heathen as "a person who is not a believer in any of the world's chief religions …" and "an unenlightened person, one regarded as lacking culture or moral principles"? And why does any of this matter to us?

Paganism is a loose conceptual structure that includes a wide variety of practices (Shamanism, Native American spirituality, Wiccan, etc.), but has certain universal features. Among these are a circular, creative view of life; a belief that all things (including trees, rocks and wind) have a soul or spirit; that seasonal changes and life creative processes are to be honored; that all things are interconnected and interdependent; that illness is the result of some imbalance in the web of life; that the mind, body and soul are co-existing elements of life; and that health, healing and harmony are the result of the holistic practice of life. It is "earth-based" (all spirit is revered in earth, wind, water, fire, creatures) as opposed to sky-based" (there is a god and he is in heaven),

Above all, it celebrates the sacredness and equality of all life. A pagan, then, is one who believes and practices these principles.

With this redefinition of paganism, it becomes easier to understand the powerful reactions of many of the world's Western religions. Most are based on a hierarchy, which includes a god at the top (Allah, Jahweh, God), the religious elite next, the common masses next, and at the bottom, the rest of creation. Hierarchies are concerned with power, control and exclusion, and with the purity of the truth as defined by the particular organization. All who are not true believers are at best misguided, not chosen, or not saved or, at worst, the enemy. Paganism is creatively interactive with beliefs growing out of a personal relationship with all creation, which makes it suspect and even dangerous (especially when it elevates the natural world to a status equal to humans).

These major religions define truth as that which has been revealed to them by a god, and this truth is often seen as the final revelation for all time. This truth is consolidated into written form (the Bible, the Koran, etc.), and considered sacred. Paganism promotes the exploration of truth, through personal contact with the universe, and celebrates this process through ritual, dance, song and the telling of stories. The belief in direct spiritual access for all and the possibility of ongoing revelation constitutes a major threat. This proposition is so disturbing to many within mainstream traditions that even some of the offshoots of major religions have been persecuted for daring to suggest this possibility ( e.g., Quakers).

Most Western religions can be characterized as masculine in nature, which means that they are often paternalistic, exclusive, competitive, linear in thought, fearful of the role and function of women, and they view nature as a threat force to be subdued. Paganism is feminine in nature, which means that it is generally interdependent, inclusive, circular, or iterative in thought, celebrates the role and function of women, and views harmony with nature as a highest value. These differences have been so alarming that these religious groups have throughout history generated the slaughter of millions of both men and women as "Infidels," "witches" and "pagans," and they continue today to disenfranchise their female members.

So what? Why this comparison of "dueling conceptual models"? Because we human beings are in trouble. Our spiritual model for living on this planet has brought us to a place where we are severely endangering our environment and our own existence. We need a different model, a different spiritual attitude. One that incorporates the best of both models. A passionate embrace of the masculine and the feminine. One that honors all creation as sacred. One that is inclusive instead of exclusive. One that honors science and mystery, and that believes the universe is interconnected. One that honors tradition and the ongoing evolution of truth.

Paganism offers some balance for the grandiosity of human nature and offers hope for the possible salvation of our planet. Maybe it is time to cease labeling this tradition as "lacking in moral principle" and take a look. Can Christians, Muslims, Jews and pagans be seated at the same table? If not, none of us may have a table at which to sit.

George Nixon is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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