Before we get started here, let me just clarify something. No one pagan can speak for all of paganism. We’re just too diverse a group for any one person to know of every single...variation, for lack of a better word. At best, we can speak for our particular group, or only for ourselves. We’re not really organised as a single, unified faith. There’s no “holy book” and no “set of rules” to follow that will “save your soul”. We don’t even all believe in the same god or gods. Some of us don’t even believe in any gods at all, while others believe in ALL the gods, or see the gods as personifications, or representations for the natural phenomena that we observe. My aim here isn’t to explain every single aspect of paganism, but to provide a general overview of the main facets.
One thing that we all have in common is respect for life, and for the land. A pagan feels very much part of nature in sharp contrast to Christianity, where humans are set apart from and superior to nature. In very general terms, we don’t see ourselves as the “crown of creation”, to borrow a Christian term most of you will be familiar with. The very concept is alien to the pagan view of the universe. Many of us view ourselves of students of nature, learning from various animals. We view our species as being on an equal footing with them, part of the same greater whole. We’re merely a different expression of that same whole.
Now, some pagans personify that “whole” as Gaia, she who is the earth. Others go a little further and view us as part of “Akasha”, who is the entire universe. They view the other gods merely as conceptual constructs, representations of that entity. Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, would then be the intellectual aspect of Akasha. The gods that you choose to follow would then be those you feel you can relate to. If you view the world in a more intellectual, analytical way, then Athena would be a good goddess to “follow”. I’m just using examples here. Not all, or even most pagans follow the Greek gods. Some choose their gods from other mythologies. The names you give the gods and the aspects you choose to honour is really irrelevant. It comes down to what you’re comfortable with. Athena’s not going to incinerate you if you choose to honour Diana instead.
Now, In Wicca, you have two gods. The God the Goddess, roughly represented by the sun and the moon. They represent the primal masculine and feminine forces. I think I already mentioned that we pagans are pretty close to nature, so most of what others would view as our “religious observances” are tied to the cycles of nature. Full moons, equinoxes, solstices, and the turnings of the seasons are all significant events to us. During harvest time, we celebrate the bounty of nature through having feasts and the like, while in spring, we celebrate the fertility of the land. And quite often our own fertility as well. We honour the dead as autumn turns to winter and remember those whom we have lost.
Because our “faith” is so closely tied to nature, we take a very keen interest in it. We recognise that we’re a part of it, and that therefore we have a responsibility to live wisely within it. We recognise the right of other creatures to also exist and share the same space we do. We recognise that their lives are also important and that there’s no real difference between us, except the obvious difference in species. As I mentioned earlier, many pagans “learn” from animals. A lot of us take inspiration from our animal cousins, and how they function in their own societies. For example, we look at the wolf pack, and see their cohesive structure, how they cooperate with each other and care for each other, how they work to raise their whelps and how they play and socialise. Many pagans recognise elements of their own behaviour as reflected in how animals behave. Some are gregarious like wolves, or loners like the leopard. By observing nature, we learn to understand ourselves. You’ll find that a lot of pagans (including yours truly) follow careers in the environmental, zoological or botanical fields, and many are activists for conservation.
Which brings us to paganism and science. Many pagan paths do come with creation myths. Others don’t. Wicca doesn’t as far as I know (perhaps a Wiccan can correct me if I’m wrong). Pagans aren’t really as concerned with the origin of the earth or of our species, nor as much about where we’re going. We tend to view the present as the most important point in time. Most of us believe in reincarnation, but that’s secondary to our existence now. Because we’re less concerned with origins and destinations, very few, if any of us have any issue with evolution, or the big bang or any other scientific theory. The gods, like us, are part of the universe, and this world. We also realise that we’re...small. Very “local”. We’re part of THIS world, and out there beyond the sky, there could be billions of others. That’s also not really something we’re concerned with much. For the main part, we pagans have little quarrel with science except when the science turns destructive toward the land. Then we’ll definitely have a problem with that particular application. As a group, we pagans are pretty unhappy with acid mine drainage, and global warming and the like. We recognise that these things happen, and that we as humans are responsible for it.
You see...personal responsibility is very much part of being pagan. We know the gods (for those pagans who believe in gods) won’t step in and save us. We’ve not waiting for some apocalypse to come and smite the “defilers”, or save us from harm. We live in this world, and therefore it is our responsibility to care for it. So we know that we can and do affect the environment. It is our responsibility to live in harmony with nature, and therefore every effort must be made to keep the environment from harm. The Wiccan rede “An it harm none, do as ye will,” is something most pagans agree on, and it places responsibility squarely on you as the individual. It is your responsibility to ensure you do no harm. If you happen to do harm, then you personally have to face the consequences. We don’t really believe in divine reward and punishment, but we do believe in karma. What you do today will affect you tomorrow, is what karma comes down to. If you do stupid and irresponsible things today, those stupid and irresponsible things will come back and haunt you tomorrow.
I know Christians love to point to the Wiccan rede and scream about how that view “encourages immorality, and encourages loss of self control” and the like. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, DO NO HARM. It’s not a licence to do whatever you want to. It instead puts ultimate responsibility on you to make sure that whatever you do isn’t harmful. Under this rede, racism and sexism and homophobia are all big no-nos. So’s murder and theft and rape. Some pagans interpret this “rule” as a call to be vegetarian, because eating the cow harms the cow. Yes. It does harm the cow. However, the wolf also hunts the cow. Is the wolf then wrong to hunt the cow? No. Because the wolf must also eat and raise her whelps. The key here is to take no more than you need. Taking this view, most pagans will refuse to hunt if they can buy their meat from a a stockist of organic foods. Because we view all of nature as sacred, and we’re part of nature, we’re also sacred. That means we should look after ourselves too. That’s why most pagans tend to have healthy lifestyles.
Now, you’ll rarely see a pagan speaking out on these forums, and you’ll never find one actively trying to convert another to their point of view. It again comes down to personal responsibility. We view every person’s spiritual path as their own responsibility. We each choose our own path. If John Atheist feels it necessary to deny the spiritual, then so be it. If Mary Christian wants to follow Jesus, then that’s also fine. Perhaps jesus exists, perhaps he doesn’t. If he does exist, then good for Mary Christian. But even if he did, we’d still view him as merely one more god among many others. We probably wouldn’t abandon those gods we choose to honour in favour of him unless we felt we could relate to him and his way. At the same time...we’re also aware that we don’t have anything in hand to prove to atheists that we’re right. Nor do we feel the need to. They’re responsible for themselves as we are for ourselves. Their views don’t threaten us in any way, because for most pagans, it’s their own personal experiences and feelings that count. Ask a pagan to prove that their view is universally correct, and you’d probably be laughed at, for the simple reason that we recognise individual paths, and as such, we know that our individual path isn’t necessarily yours. We don’t believe in universal spiritual paths, and so the best any given pagan can do is invite you to try it out for yourself. If it works for you, then great! If it doesn’t...we’ll just shrug and bid you good luck on your own journey forward. Just because our path didn’t work for you doesn’t invalidate it for us. It just means it didn’t work for you. No more and no less.
It really is bewildering to watch Christians and atheists beat each other into the ground about this. Sometimes even a little bit amusing. As pagans though...the level of hate and derision that goes back and forth is really an unhealthy thing. It saddens us to a certain extent because if individual atheists or Christians came to us expressing their happiness in the paths you follow, we’d be happy with you and celebrate with you. All this hate and anger is...just adding to the overall negativity in the world around us. It’s difficult for us to understand all this anger about religion (or lack of religion) because in many ways, we live within our “religion”. Nature is right there outside your window. We can interact with it whenever we want to. We can actively work within it, and for it simply by gardening, or recycling, or admiring a beautiful waterfall. For many pagans, that’s as far as it ever goes, while others might employ techniques of meditation to commune with nature and its spirits, or to fill themselves with nature’s energy. We see nature and the universe as a natural instead of a supernatural thing, and life as something to be lived instead of something to be saved from. Death...well, why would we be afraid of death? All things die, and we don’t know what happens to them. Perhaps they reincarnate. Perhaps not. As I said earlier, it’s really irrelevant to us as we focus on the journey more than the destination. If death is the end...well, then we’ll be dead, and won’t know it, so it all becomes a bit of a moot point in our view.
So there you have it. That in a nutshell is what most pagans can agree on. At least, those that I know. There may be Dianics or other groups who may view things differently, but I believe that would be because of their more specific views, while what I tried to provide here is more generalised, aimed at people who don’t know much about paganism. I hope this was helpful to those who find spiritual things interesting.