What paganism isn’t

In my last post, I talked about what makes a person or a religion pagan. In this post, I’d like to clear up some common misconceptions about paganism. Some of these may seem like common sense, but I promise all of these are things people have said to my face after finding out that I identify as pagan.

So, for the record, paganism is NOT…

… a Christian heresy. As I mentioned in my last post, the traditions that modern paganism draws inspiration from predate Christianity — some of them by several thousands of years. Paganism is older than Judaism, the oldest Abrahamic religion, and may even predate the concept of monotheism. (Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion, is believed to have originated about 4,000 years ago. Sumer and Egypt, two of the first civilizations, had established “pagan” religions about 6,500 and 5,000 years ago, respectively.)

To be a heretic, a person must 1.) believe in Christian dogma, and 2.) knowingly violate that dogma. Someone who is not Christian, practicing a religion that predates Christianity, cannot be a heretic.

… dark or scary. When some people hear the word “pagan,” their mind immediately goes to dark-robed cultists sacrificing babies in the woods. This idea dates back to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, when a wave of religious and moral panic swept the United States. Some of the things targeted as threats to Christian values were: Dungeons & Dragons, metal music, and yes, paganism. (Ironically, all things I absolutely love. Take from that what you will.) The misconceptions that began in the 1980s unfortunately still haunt modern pagan communities.

I hope we can all agree that occasionally rocking out and/or playing D&D does not make someone a bad person. Neither does being pagan.

In reality, most pagans are pretty chill people, and most pagan religions have some sort of code of ethics that forbids doing unnecessary harm to others. You’re much more likely to find pagans holding a healing circle in someone’s living room than performing dark rites under a blood moon.

That’s not to say all pagans are perfect, or that bad people can’t be pagan. Every group has a few bad apples, but the actions of these individuals does not reflect the attitudes or practices of the group as a whole.

… all about sex. Another negative stereotype is that pagans are obsessed with sex and/or perform deviant sex acts are part of their religious rituals. This misconception has unfortunately resurfaced in the last few years with the rise of far-right conspiracies like the Q-anon theory. (Which I hope I don’t have to tell you is bullshit.)

While it is true that pagans are much more open about sex than, say, Christians, most pagans see sex as just a normal part of human life. Even the groups of pagans who believe sex is sacred tend to keep it behind closed doors. Some Wiccan covens do include a ritual representation of the sexual union of God and goddess in their rituals, but it’s nothing more explicit than a knife being lowered into a chalice.

Pagans aren’t more or less obsessed with sex than any other group of people, but they are generally more accepting of it. Because sex has no negative moral implications in pagan faiths, practitioners may feel more comfortable or confident in their sex lives than those who believe sex is sinful. In my mind, that’s a good thing.

… a system without ethics. Some people are attracted to paganism because they come from a strict religious background and believe that pagans can do whatever they want without consequences. This misconception can lead to frustration when they learn that pagan faiths, like all religions, have rules.

As previously mentioned, most pagans have a clearly defined moral code. It may be as simple as “harm none” or a complex system of rules and rituals. Either way, the point is that pagans follow rules, even if they may not be exactly the same rules as other religions.

… only for hippies. On the opposite side of the pop culture spectrum from the “scary cultist” stereotype is the stereotype of pagans are tree-hugging hippies. While it is true that pagans tend to care deeply about the environment, to say that all pagans are hippies would be an overstatement. There certainly are pagans who fit this stereotype, but for the most part pagans look just like everyone else. Which is to say, you can’t tell their religion just by looking at them.

… New Age. Paganism and New Age spirituality are two different things that often get confused or conflated in pop culture. The two movements are actually quite different, although some pagans may also be involved in New Age practices.

Paganism is based on pre-Christian religions from Europe and North Africa. New Age spirituality was largely inspired by alternative spiritual movements of the 19th century, such as the New Thought movement, the Theosophical Society, and spiritualism. Core New Age principles include the Law of Attraction, the belief that all humans are spiritual beings, and the idea of universal life energy.

Some of these ideas are also present in some (but not all) pagan religions, but pagans and New Agers tend to take very different approaches to spirituality even when they have similar beliefs. I like to think of it this way: pagans take a “bottom up” approach, while New Agers take a “top down” approach. For pagans, spirituality is built on daily practices, rituals, and connections with the world and the people around us. New Agers have a much more cosmic mindset and tend to view everything through the lens of their soul’s journey. (Hence the popular New Age saying, “You are not a human being having a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being having a human experience.”)

Neither of these approaches is necessarily better than the other, but they speak to different personalities and different spiritual needs. In practice, they look very different.

If you’re interested in New Age spirituality, a series on paganism may not be of much help to you. Instead, you may want to look into books by authors like Deepak Chopra and Louise Hay.

… a way to rebel against your conservative family. In the 1990s and early 2000s, an author called Silver Ravenwolf made her name by publishing books about neopaganism marketed to teen girls. These books are extremely controversial among pagans, even today. Ravenwolf’s boooks are unfairly harsh (not to mention factually incorrect) in their depiction of Christianity, encourage readers to lie and manipulate people, and contain a lot of revisionist history. They also put paganism and witchcraft on the map as the hot new way to stick it to your parents.

I’m not saying you can’t be pagan if you’re a teenager or if you still live with your parents. (Hell, I was a teenager living at home when I first started reading about paganism.) What I am saying is that you should take an honest look at your motivations in practicing paganism. Are you genuinely attracted to pagan beliefs and values, or are you attracted to the mystery/edginess associated with it? If it’s the latter, there are lots of ways to explore the dark side without appropriating someone else’s religion.

… a trend or a phase. This is a new development that, honestly, I think is 90% Instagram’s fault. Certain influencers just make being pagan look so good. Capitalism has fully latched onto the pagan aesthetic, and you’ll find no shortage of retailers selling expensive knick-knacks for your altar.

For the record, I think experimentation is healthy. After all, the only way to find out if a religion works for you is to try it out for a while. But again, I think this comes down to intention. If you’re genuinely attracted to what pagan religions have to offer, then go for it. But if you’re more interested in posting cool photos of your altar setup, you don’t need to be pagan to do so.

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