Paganism is an umbrella term covering an array of beliefs and practices, some of which are heavily informed by older civilisations, others of which are largely modern innovations. The trouble with the label is as soon as you say ‘this is Pagan’ there’s an implication of not-Pagan, which can be used to hurt and exclude. All too often what I see is people saying ‘I do this and I am Pagan and you do something different so you aren’t a proper Pagan’. And then we get bogged down in arguments, sucking up time and energy.
The logic of saying ‘you aren’t a true believer’ goes with recruiting religions based around authoritarian structures. These are, for the greater part not set up to be about spiritual experience, but designed to give power to a few. Most religions have aspects that are all about serving an elite, and every religion has spiritual people who aren’t primarily motivated by power. If you aren’t interested in controlling and manipulating people, why would it matter if what they do is not what you do? Historical Paganism was as much guilty of power wielding to herd the masses as any other set up, but we don’t need to recreate that aspect.
There are reasons we might want other people to agree with us. We may feel threatened by difference, and more comfortable when our beliefs and habits are reflected back by those around us. We may want to be in charge and so must get everyone onboard for our way of doing things. We may have bought into the idea of one true way – perhaps a legacy from the faith we were raised in. We may be so excited about our personal truth that we think it’s bound to work for everyone. While sharing ideas and experiences is good, dogma is suffocating, and if we feel the need to say ‘you’re not a proper Pagan’ it’s worth asking what our problem is, not theirs.
What is Paganism? It isn’t in books, it isn’t a single coherent tradition, it does not have rules. There’s no racial or cultural barrier to membership, there’s nothing to swear, nothing to sign. Dedications are a personal thing. There are no specific gods you have to worship. You don’t even have to believe in gods to be Pagan. What does that leave? How can we make sense of the term when there’s nothing familiar to pin it to?
Let me suggest a thing. Paganism is a human response to the experience of being alive that finds sacredness in being alive. It’s a response to the seasons, life changes, the moon and tides, the agricultural year, the land, the weather. It’s a response to living and dying and to the constant cycles of life and death in this world. Anything that comes from a human response to life, is inherently Pagan. So the urge to make light and festivity at the darkest time of the year – that’s a Pagan urge. The urge to dance and party in the summer evenings, that’s a Pagan urge too. Celebrating the harvest, singing about the dear departed, honouring relationships, respecting the land we live on – no one needs telling how to do this. Every last one of us could come up with a way of being Pagan in response to life with no reference to anyone else. Solstices, equinoxes, shifts in the season – these things are self evident.
How can we get this wrong? Because if we’re inspired by other people to celebrate our human experience of being alive, that’s fine. We can find inspiration in each other for sacred expression. If we get it from a book, that’s fine too. If we make it up, it’s still humanity responding in a spiritual way to life.
Look at it this way, and the only thing a person could do that could be readily labelled as non-Pagan is telling another Pagan that they’re doing it wrong. Perhaps we could all be a bit gentler with each other.