Serious Religion or Fantasy and Child’s Play?

Michael York

Bath Spa University College


The contemporary Western pagan movement presented a high and often contentious profile during the Chicago gathering of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Anyone who witnessed the pagan procession which wound its way through the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton will not forget the spirit of delight and affirmation on the part of the pagans but, at the same time, the looks of shock, horror and disgust among the many non-pagans present in the hotel’s foyer. Those who looked on were encountered by the swaying bodies of joyous celebrants, sistrums rattling along with exuberant chanting, as the procession snaked its way down into and throughout the lobby floor. Not long after, the Greek Orthodox delegation departed from the Parliament proceedings in protest over the very presence of pagans.

In the eyes of the world’s major religions and its hegemonic consensus, paganism is generally seen as a frivolous non-religion – at best a celebration of fantasy and make-believe. It is, erroneously I might add, frequently identified with either satanism or atheism or even both as a mockery of genuine religious sentiment. But if we were to look at the full spectrum of theological discernment, we would find a legitimate place for the pagan perspective but one which has nevertheless been historically marginalised, successfully ignored and/or outrightly rejected.

The range and practice among today’s contemporary Western pagan adherents exhibits a close generic affinity with indigenous and ethnic religious beliefs and behaviours found not only among traditional tribal societies, but also in the more urbanised religio-cultures of China, Japan and the Afro-Atlantic spiritist world. Together, those faiths which may be recognised as pagan rank with approximately 5 or 6 percent of the world’s population  higher than the followers of the new religious movements of chiefly Africa and Asia – essentially 2 percent, or those of Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Bahai and Zoroastrianism who together represent less than 1 percent of the planet’s total inhabitants. For a rough comparative profile, Christianity is the identifying faith of one-third of the world’s people, while the three faith positions understood as Islam, atheism-agnosticism and Hindu-Buddhism each comprise another fifth of the total picture. This places the pagan coalition fifth in size with regard to the differentiation of general theological orientations. To date, the contemporary Western pagan numbers are numerically insignificant in comparison to the aggregate of those who participate in classical Chinese practice, in Japanese Shinto, the Afro-Caribbean faiths of Santeria, Macumba, etc.  and the tribal religiosities of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. But at the same time, the new paganism of the West is frequently cited as the fastest growing religion – particularly in the United States and Great Britain if not elsewhere as well.

What makes a religion a religion is in its elucidation of our relationship with godhead or the world or both. Every religion develops an understanding of what is meant by humanity, the supernatural and nature. And in different manners, each religion decides how each of these is to be valued or whether one or more even exists in the first place. For example, the transcendental religions either deny that the manifest world is real (for example, Vedantic Hinduism, American Transcendentalism) or that it has any true significance (e.g., the ancient Gnosticisms, Theosophy or the new age Church Universal and Triumphant). Nature is either an illusion (mâyâ) or an impediment, an obstacle, an obfuscation. If one can learn to penetrate the illusory façade of nature through gnosis or true knowledge, then one can be emancipated from the imprisonment contingent with tangibility.

But a contrary theological perspective holds that the ideal is but an epiphenomenon and that the supernatural is nothing more than a wishful fiction. Marxism and positivism are quasi-religious philosophies that belong here. So too, perhaps, is the much more ancient practice or belief of Epicurianism.  As more bona fide religious formulations, however, we also find here some modern forms of nature religion as well as the Buddhist vehicle known as Theravada. For Theravadin Buddhists, the gods may exist, but they are considered secondary and of lesser importance. From this particular kind of `nature is real’ perspective, the supernatural or numinal is ultimately meaningless, valueless and superfluous.

Religions, however, also take a position on humanity itself. While perhaps few religions deny that the human exists, we still have Vedanta which tells us that humanity is not what it seems to be. As part of the phenomenal world, it does not really exist; but as part of divine sentience, the human is Brahman or the very absolute itself. But short of the full ontological status for humanity, on the one hand, and the non-ontological status, on the other, many if not most religions adopt a hierarchical understanding of human worth. Some accept the idea of a privileged spiritual elite, a chosen peoples, the higher castes, the saved, the elect, the initiated, the brotherhood of faith and so forth. From this perspective, other human beings are of lesser importance as simply chattel, the `mud races’ or the damned. Human suffrage is not universal, and nearly every religion, whether pagan, Christian, Hindu or Islamic, has demonstrated adherence to particularistic views of human dignity and identity during at least some point in its outlook and trajectory.

But let us set aside for the moment the religious position of humanity as a whole, and consider the three poles of religious focus in themselves. We have seen that some religions deny or devalue one or the other, namely, the supernatural or the material. But other religions, accept the reality and worth of all three – even if one pole is still exalted in one manner or another over the others. Among those religions which are neither purely transcendental or purely materialistic, we find the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and we also find those which we identify as pagan. Each of these accepts the reality of the sentient or human, of the natural or material, and of the numinal or supernatural. But of course the Abrahamic and pagan perspectives on these are radically contrasting.

In looking at the pagan, and comparing it to the Christian, for example, we can accurately describe its overall attitude toward humanity as humanistic. While Christianity may occasionally demonstrate elements of humanism, we could not characterise it as a humanistic religion. Likewise, we could also accurately describe paganism by-and-large as naturistic. By contrast, while Christianity may revere the world as God’s gift and handiwork, Christianity itself could never be construed as a form of naturism. It is only in the realm of the spiritually non-empirical that we could consider both orientations as essentially supernatural. But once again, even here, the understandings of the supernaturally divine are radically different.  For the one, it is pantheistic, polytheistic and immanent. For the other, it is purely spirit, monotheistic and transcendent.

It is safe to say that as a general or overall theology, paganism is a combined form of humanism, naturism and supernaturalism. It is unlike both Gnosticism and Christianity in that it does not view life as a `fall’ or `loss’ of some original state of grace and that humanity’s principle effort is to return to an earlier condition. In other words, while it celebrates the great round of nature and the cyclical progression of being, it is ultimately linear and radiating rather than seeking the closure of some cosmic circle. On the other hand, our generically gnostic faiths seek a return to an Edenic state of atonement or a re-ascent of the ladder of being through an historically linear process. One is cyclic but linear; the other is linear but circular.

Implicit in all Levantine or Abrahamic worldviews is the disequal position of humanity vis-à-vis godhead. But paganism, like our more oriental faiths, recognises the essential divinity of the human. In Eastern mysticism, all is God – and this all includes humanity. In paganism, especially its more Occidental expression, its godhead is, as Joseph Campbell understood, fundamentally the exaltation of humanity. Both Eastern mysticism and Occidental paganism share an understanding that the divine nature of humanity is something nascent or largely unrecognised. Hinduism and Buddhism attempt to cultivate divine self-awareness as a means to escape samsara and obtain a final moksha, nirvana or release. Paganism, on the other hand, seeks divine self-awareness as a further development of human potential, as the very means by which to participate in godhead as an exercise in unending curiosity, ceaseless wonder and eternal growth. Rather than focussing on Weltschmerz, paganism is a religious affirmation of joie de vivre. It is a celebration of life, not its rejection, and this celebration embraces both the here-and-now and the hereafter. Paganism, therefore, is a religious orientation, a theological contender in fact, which cherishes both the world of sensuality and pleasure and the otherworld of discovery, challenge, delight and marvel. Rebirth is not something to end but something to welcome – despite the laws of pain and loss that are contingent upon materiality and incarnation.

As a religious perspective, paganism challenges human imagination to conceive and find the spiritual not as something fully separate from the physical but as something which is in – or even is – the mundane. Divinity for the pagan is to be found equally in matter and nature as it is in the human and non-empirical spiritual. In fact, among its chief metaphors, the earth or Gaia is understood as the first of all beings. She is the mother from whose womb the entire cosmos emerges. Paganism, therefore, eschews the medieval notion of creatio ex nihilo or the Brahmanic notion of a mind-born universe. It is instead the physical which is the source, the very matrix, of mind and spirit. It is honoured by the pagan, therefore, as a divine mother – respected, cherished, nurtured, cultivated. But the domain of the sacred does not remain confined to the tangible alone. In a pagan perspective, it extends to the intangible as well.

It is perhaps in paganism’s overall exaltation of the human, that its distinctiveness as a religion comes most into play. While paganism traditionally has shared the hierarchical carving up of humanity that we find in all religions, we must always recognise that religions – including paganism – almost invariably reflect the immediate cultural development of the social context. Ancient paganism belonged to imperialistic and slave-based economies. Its more limited appraisal of human worth and potential remained a product of historical progression in which parochial and ethnic exclusion was still by-and-large the norm. In its worse form, pagan-based notions of racism and eugenics have given rise to – and continue to give rise to – ethnic fascisms which strive for maintaining genetic `purity’ through genocide and `ethnic cleansing’ pogroms.

But there is nothing intrinsic to pagan theology which precludes universal franchise, cosmopolitanism or the pluralistic celebration of difference. There is no differentiation of the human on the grounds of atonement or karmic birth. There is no congenital incarnation of `evil’ such as the offspring born to human females and the Watcher Angels of Genesis which a gnostic mind-set might consider masquerading as today’s corporation heads, bank managers, governmental leaders and drug lords. In the evolving understanding of contemporary paganism, even religion is no longer inherently separative but is a matter of individual election. As a cardinal tenet of pagan humanism, any exercise of personal freedom is in itself a sacred act, and the resultant multiplicity of perception and valuation becomes an ongoing attestation of human fullness and variety.

As paganism continues to progress toward endorsement of the full human community rather only one part to the exclusion of others, it continues to confirm more freely its humanist inheritance. Pagan humanism is a celebration of interrelationship. From the pagan perspective, human-to-human contact, whether sexual, sensual, emotional, casual, educational, helpful or communal, comprises a sacred interchange. It is a – if not the – central feature of pagan religiosity. Humanitarian exchange, the expression of compassion, mutual assistance toward growth and well-being are the full consequence of pagan theological thought. This inter-human celebration extends to the erotic relationship as well. There is little if any puritanical or ascetic denial of the sexual and sensual. While there may be on occasion an incorporation of tantric practice as a means or technique in attaining an alternate state of consciousness, or of Epicurean moderation for a life of prudent, honourable and just pleasure, as a general rule paganism avoids any extremes of asceticism. Paganism represents to the fullest a commemoration of human life as and of the sacred.

But along with the human, paganism also celebrates the natural. Nature itself tends more often than not, and especially in contemporary Western paganism, to become reified as a deity or a concrete expression of the divine. Consequently, nature supplies not only many of paganism’s religious symbols and hypostases, it tends to become sacred being in and of itself. In some of its current Western manifestations, in fact, paganism becomes equated with nature religion – even to the exclusion of humanism and, more certainly, supernaturalism. But whether exclusive or inclusive, the naturistic centrality of modern paganism in the Western world firmly establishes the ethical focus of religious activity on the environment and ecology. Only sometimes short of Luddite extremes, Western paganism is largely anti-industrial pollution and against the depletion and unchecked exploitation of natural resources. The picking up of litter and the recycling of goods and materials become wedded to current expressions of much Western pagan spirituality.

All the same, in particular among its more indigenous and traditional forms, paganism incorporates a belief in supernatural agency beyond the confines of the empirical world and the laws of nature. In its fullest scope, the supernatural may be understood as a metaphor for what is beyond the norm, the extraordinary and/or miraculous. By its very definition, however, as something non-empirical, something which cannot be methodologically approached directly through the senses and under controlled circumstances, the supernatural can perhaps only be accessed through symbol and metaphor. But this world of metaphor becomes alive, an otherworld of enchantment and magic. For many pagans, this dimension is as real as the empirical. It is one which operates according to its own laws and principles - `transcending’, if one will, the established laws of science. The technique of `making’ the otherworld alive is, therefore, another central feature of pagan religiosity – whether through shamanism, ritual, meditative concentration, dance or trance possession. The quest for ecstasy is a major pagan preoccupation and enterprise.

Above all, however, paganism is a religiosity of intensely local expression. It is a celebration of one’s immediate environment – an honouring of the sacrality of time and place. Its preference for the tangible, the symbolic and the immediate leads directly to its traditional association with and as idolatry. The pagan idol is a supreme manifestation of concentrated sacredness. But pagan idolatry goes beyond the murti, revered icon or relic to that of sacred place. It forms paganism’s rationale for pilgrimage to holy shrines, sacred springs, rocks and trees, places of special aura and/or merit, locales infused with numinous spirit.  But while pilgrimage is a celebration of movement to the holy in incarnate form, paganism is also the celebratory cognizance of the here-and-now of community and home-base orientation to the geographic contours of the sacred within physical location alone. It honours both the sacred other and the familiar and mundane and ordinary as themselves the sacred. In its fullest sense, paganism is a perpetual endeavour to re-enchant one’s world – including home, temple and pilgrimage site. This quest for re-enchantment makes paganism an intense celebration of locality. It may affirm the universal, the cosmic journey and the otherworld deities, numina and spirits, but it always begins with and grounds itself within the regional and an acute awareness of local boundaries, centres and passage points.

As with any religion, paganism delineates a way of looking at the world and uses a particular vocabulary largely peculiar to itself in the process. Consequently, in describing paganism, we repeatedly encounter such terms as `celebration’, `nature’, `magic’, `enchantment’, `immanent’, etc. While some of these we of course encounter in other religions, like each individual religion, paganism exhibits a preference for certain terms for the sacred and evolves its own identifying vocabulary. But contemporary paganism is also largely iconoclastic. Its anti-position concerning traditional beliefs and practices develops for two reasons. One is as a reaction to the historical marginalising opposition to paganism itself. Because the very notion of `pagan spirituality’ has become successfully foreign or alien, its contemporary expression – such as in the Palmer House lobby – is now shocking. But this expression is not that of infantile or fantasy behaviour, but one of a joyous affirmation of a resurgent spirituality.

Pagan iconoclasm, however, is also a result of how it perceives the numinal – whether as the supernatural or the imaginal or both. If the aesthetic/ethical world of humanity and nature is part of the bedrock of pagan perception of the divine, the numinal comes into play in the same way that contemporary complexity theory holds that a whole is often more than simply the sum of its parts. This something more, this something extra, is that which is more than simply the world and humanity or the sentient. This is what we call the numinal. In itself, the numinal can only be circumscribably capable of being empirically pinned down. In other words, it is something which is fiercely independent and remains elusive to the prodding and poking of science. It is of the nature of freedom itself. Paganism’s celebration of the numinal becomes a celebration of liberty – a quest for emancipation from the restrictions of tradition and the status quo of parochial thought. Paganism, as it comes increasingly into its own, will dare to be different, and this difference will on occasion be shocking. But paganism as a viable religious option in today’s world is simply part of the process of cultural change and the re-establishment of an open and all-inclusive theological roundtable of exchange.

In a truly free and truly religious society, religions become competing agendas in an arena of opportunity that can only operate as respect for the game’s rules of freedom is maintained. As does any religion, paganism involves the aesthetic, the ethical and the numinal. Its ethics, however, are largely predicated on aesthetic norms of beauty rather than on the dictates of a deus ex machina or a super-theistic god. Rather than conceiving the world in dualistic, theistic or monotheistic terms, paganism operates within a largely pantheistic, polytheistic and animistic conception. The moral foundations upon which this cosmic arena rests, however, are the principles of honour, trust and friendship. It is in the keeping to these enshrined tenets of aesthetic behaviour that the individual participates in godhead. Deceit, betrayal and shame remove one from pagan divinity, not as the sinful are removed from the Abrahamic God, but as illness, ignorance, imprisonment and ignominy are violations of health, wisdom, liberty and worship. These are aesthetic violations foremost – ones which contradict the principle of seeking not to harm or reduce another against his or her will. Evil, for the pagan, is not intrinsic and inviolate. It belongs neither to the natural or the supernatural in a final sense but to malicious human behaviour alone – a behaviour that lessens human dignity and its participation in and as the godhead.