The Pagan Path From Here
A couple of decades have passed since the following article was first written and, in that time, modern paganism has become more widely acceptable. Many points raised in the article, however, still remain largely relevant.
Have you ever wondered where we are all going? Don’t worry, you haven’t stumbled across the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website by mistake. The question relates not to the hereafter, but to the development of paganism in the here and now. There seems to be two basic schools of thought on this. One envisages a future where pagans are granted official recognition enjoyed by most other religious groups, along with the benefits and privileges that accompany this. The other school of thought remains indifferent to - if not actually disdainful of - any form of recognition and prefers a brand of paganism not subject to the approval of the Establishment.
The purpose of this brief article, however, is not to promote any one particular point of view but to look at the situation as it currently stands. In recent years, owing to a revival of interest in the Old Ways, many individuals have chosen to follow a pagan path. Sadly, many feel reluctant to be open and honest about their spirituality fearing discrimination and even persecution from employers, ill-informed social workers, neighbours, and sometimes family and friends.
Despite living in a more informed and hopefully tolerant age, outmoded ideas still survive and there are some who mistakenly associate paganism with sinister practices such as black magic and devil-worship. Demolishing much of this erroneous thinking can only be achieved through the slow process of changing public perception, and some pagans feel this process could be speeded up through collective representation. This means that the interests of pagans are better served by organisations that operate on their behalf and to which the media and official bodies can consult at the drop of a witch’s hat when seeking information. The media then has no excuse if it resorts to sensationalism, misinformation and possibly slander when dealing with coverage of pagan matters.
Nowadays there are a number of bodies representing the organised face of paganism, and membership of a group can provide many benefits denied to the solo pagan. However, there is still much progress to be made towards gaining official recognition at a Parliamentary level and achieving it seems to depend upon being able to present a cohesive system of paganism that can be defined and understood. In other words, officialdom demands a handle that it can reach out and take hold of. But herein lies the rub. There really is no such thing as ‘paganism’, because the term is something of a misnomer. How can this be when the term is common usage amongst pagans and non-pagans alike?
To answer this, we have to understand that the word paganism is a generic term currently used to describe a whole range of various paths from ethnic tribalism to Classical Greek philosophy, with a whole spectrum of pagan paths in between. The suffix ‘ism’ implies a set of cohesive and generally held ideas that constitute a recognisable system, such as Hinduism and Buddhism etc. Although modern pagan paths do not belong collectively to a religious system accurately described as paganism at all, there is a common denominator to which all pagan ideas can be reduced. One solution would be to take ideas common to all pagan paths and encapsulate them into a single system for official consumption. Give the system a working name, other than paganism, and the problem is solved.
Unfortunately getting pagans to agree on a suitable title, let alone on what might constitute some sort of creed, would be akin to herding cats. But even if achieving a consensus amongst pagans is possible, some pagans strongly suspect that officialdom has no intention of recognising pagan spirituality no matter what it calls itself. But assuming that such fears are unfounded, how would official recognition affect pagans? There are those who argue that official recognition does not imply any abdication of free thought or a requirement to introduce dogma into the equation. In that case it should not be a momentous task, at least in theory, to condense the essence of pagan ideology and present it as a neat package for the benefit of wider acceptance.
After all, the Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, have long been recognised as a legitimate spiritual body and yet the Quakers have no clearly defined theology. What they do in fact have is a concise booklet entitled ‘Advices and Queries’. This little booklet simply sets out guidelines that Quakers can easily identify with. Most Quakers, like most pagans, differ quite radically in their views and feel no need to establish a complex set of creeds. But Quakerism, like pagan spirituality, is not a path for the masses. If one intention of gaining official recognition is to increase the membership of pagan organisations then this most certainly will be a retrograde step. Too many individuals are products of our ‘instant response’ society in which the accent is on speed of delivery.
Many will approach pagan spirituality in the same way they approach a vending machine. Having pressed the button, the machine is expected to swiftly dispense the goods. But spiritual mysteries cannot be obtained like a bag of sweets. The truth is that many individuals would be better served by ‘instant gratification’ religions eager and willing to supply a palatable menu of creeds and dogmatic beliefs. We are left with a few questions. Would it be a major step forward for pagans to become officially recognised? Would this also bring with it a degree of respectability unacceptable to unconventional pagans?
Could it be that pagan spirituality can only break the religious mould by remaining indifferent to the powers-that-be, even at the cost of being considered irrelevant eccentrics at best and at worst persecuted for being different? If you don’t have immediate answers to these questions but feel it would be wiser to consider the issue in greater detail first, then do not be alarmed. Either you are a Quaker or a real pagan in the making.