The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

1998 Annual Meeting
Voyager Savants: Following Religions Across Space and Time

Session Title

`Diachronic and Synchronic Dimensions of Contemporary Paganism' 

Paper Title

`Paganism versus Neo‑paganism'



Contemporary Western paganism represents a re‑articulation of a non‑gnostic or even anti‑gnostic sentiment. Its rapid ascendancy appears to be a coalescing of folk practice, the magical traditions, reverence for nature, feminist and other dissenting critiques along with the search for new metaphors and frameworks within which to couch a revitalized religious expression. Having affinities with pantheistic, polytheistic and animistic elements of the broader cultic milieu, Western Neo‑paganism claims to be part of the wider, more traditional pagan spectrum. This paper seeks to understand these similarities as well as the contrasts between indigenous and ancient paganisms and the modern Neo‑pagan movement.


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The contemporary Western pagan movement represents broadly speaking a new religious movement - one which is to be found chiefly in the United States and Canada, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Germany, Australia and South Africa. There are also new pagan developments in France, Italy, the Scandinavian and Baltic states, if not elsewhere as well. It is frequently confused with or at least included within the general rubric of New Age by both scholars, the media and members of the general public and yet can be distinguished from New Age spirituality at the same time. Within the modern Western pagan movement, in fact, there appears to be a steadily growing self-distancing from the New Age movement per se. Nevertheless, the two movements are natural allies in terms of religiosities outside the traditional Western mainstream, and both appear to coalesce to a large degree from the counterculture cultic milieu and the emerging consumeristic supermarket of spiritual commodification in the West.

Vis-à-vis their host societies, such self-designations as `witch', `Wiccan' and `pagan' are ambivalent terms seemingly deliberately chosen as protest rejections of traditional values and orientations which are increasingly perceived as no longer appropriate in the contemporary world of macro-economic forces, social uncertainty and innovative cultural flux. Paganism itself, however, is an identifiable religiosity represented by a pre-Christian legacy, non-Western practice and indigenous presences within the Western world itself. In this paper, I wish to outline some of the salient features of both world paganism and contemporary Western paganism to compare similarities and contrasts and their possible significance. My methodology includes participation/observation at Neo-pagan venues in North America and Europe and among vernacular practice in India, Nepal, Thailand, China and Japan.

The hermeneutical analytic I employ understands contemporary Western paganism in three broad forms: reco-paganism, geo-paganism and Neo-paganism. The reconstructed forms of paganism, what I am calling `reco-paganism', include the Egyptian mystery schools, Odinic or Asatru tribes, the various Druidic orders and whatever other current attempts there are within the pagan milieu to re-create and re-interpret pagan traditions from the past. How accurate these re-creations and re-interpretations are in fact is something which is best left for the archaeologist and cultural historian to judge. But at the same time, these compositions remain valid and meaningful practices for their respective adherents which influence and structure their lives accordingly.

`Geo-pagan', on the other hand, is more akin to folk beliefs and practices and may be distinguished from the reco-paganisms as well as the Neo-pagan forms of Wicca and Goddess Spirituality as a more organic and spontaneous response to nature. It ranges between conscious, semi-conscious and automatic behaviors which are more directly focused on the earth as well as what occurs on the earth as part of natural spiritual expression. The geo-pagan goddess primus inter pares is the terra mater rather than an abstract, transcendental and cosmic entity. Of the three forms of contemporary Western paganism, the geo-pagan has the greatest affinity with what can be identified as the vernacular practices of world paganism in general.

The identifications of reco-, geo- and Neo-paganisms are, of course, ideal-types. In actuality, the contemporary Western pagan moves through an orbit which contains elements of all three general orientations. By far, however, the current Western pagan scene is Neo-pagan, an emerging religiosity which has identifiable practice, theology, ethical bias and sociological structure. In comparing contemporary Western paganism with generic paganisms more universally, it is essentially with Neo-paganism that I shall proceed.

This Neo-paganism I understand to be a bona fide and specific religion unlike the reco-pagan category and the geo-pagan behavioral response. It is to be understood primarily in the various forms of Wicca or the Craft and in the general rubric of contemporary Goddess Spirituality. In fact, these terms are often used interchangeably as does, for example, Gordon Melton in his 1978 Encyclopedia of American Religions. Neo-paganism is more bi-theistic than polytheistic. It has a recognizable, articulated congregational expression in its ritual circle. And it possesses a shared metaphor by which it interprets the cosmos, anchors itself to the cardinal directions, and grounds its ethical interactions with the world, humanity and the trans-empirical. While all of these have affinities with the religiosity of world paganism, they also contrast significantly in many respects.

World paganism is of course a catch-all term designating various indigenous religious expressions. It is not a specific religion in the sense that Neo-paganism, Druidism, Greco-Roman Mysteries or even Methodism and Baptism are, but it includes the folk and classical practices of the Chinese peoples, the Shinto of Japan, Siberean shamanism, African animism, American Indian beliefs, Yoruban and Latin American santeria and condomblé and so forth as well as the classical paganisms of the pre-Christian world in the West. In fact, world paganism must be ranked alongside the broad categories of religion as Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and even atheist and agnostic. As a general religiosity or ideological orientation, it ranks, according to the 1982 World Christian Encyclopaedia on which I base my figures, essentially fifth in number of adherents or practitioners. That is, in other words, approximately five to six per cent of the world's total population. For purposes of comparison, the Encyclopaedia rates new religions as followed by two percent of the world's inhabitants, while all other religions including Judaism, Sikhism, Baha’i, Jainism and Zoroastrianism collectively represent less than one percent.

These are of course broad approximations, but they provide us some perspective of the world's religious delineations, and they allow a recognition of pagan positional identity vis-à-vis the world as a whole - something which has been successfully marginalized and ignored by the Christian West, at least until recently. All the same, the numbers of Neo-pagans in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand comprise at present only an infinitesimal and relatively insignificant fraction of the six percent Encyclopaedia figure of paganism globally.

Before proceeding with the comparison between world paganism and Western Neo-paganism, there are two more distinctions I would like to clarify: one between paganism and gnosticism, and the other between `generic' paganism and `nominal' paganism. These are theological distinctions - ones which I argue have diverging orientational consequences. Most `officially' accepted religion throughout the world reveals a transcendental or gnostic bias: the world is an illusion, or at least it has less value than the spiritual as something other and `higher'. So-called mundane reality represents a fall from grace and/or something from which to be emancipated. Consciousness is not an emergent, and the absolute is a pre-given. Gnosticism entails the soma sema concept.

The pagan understanding of meaning and purpose contrasts with the gnostic. The spiritual is epiphenomenal, and divinity is understood as immanent rather than strictly transcendental. The pagan foundation is either geocentric or anthropocentric or both, and the world is something real as well as the matrix for evolutionary and spiritual growth. Consciousness is an emergent. Essentially, the pagan form of spirituality represents an organic, this-worldly approach - one which, at least seminally, is neither abstract or otherworldly. The pagan does not seek salvational transcendence and denies ultimate extinction. The otherworld is approached for aid and assistance rather than as a place or dimension of escape.

Within the broad domain of religion, a domain which includes the world's various religions, the underlying dialogue may be thought of as one between pagan and gnostic ideologies. Consequently, the world paganism I am considering is `generic'. It does not include such `nominal' forms of paganism as the Qaballah, Orphism, Pythagoreanism, Platonism and Neoplatonism, pagan by name, but supposing an abstract ultimate as the source of tangible existence. These are more gnostic with an incorporeal understanding of godhead as pure spirit.

Vernacular practices, especially in India and other parts of the Far East, are by and large pagan in the sense I have outlined. Veneration is undertaken for the attainment of health, wealth, fertility, the removal of obstacle and the lessening of difficulty. The average layperson does not frequent the temple for moksa or samadhî but to acquire tangible benefits and blessings in this world.

Neo-paganism in this sense is similar, although its theological underpinnings are, like Vedantic Hinduism, more gnostic than pagan. In her 1979 book, The Spiral Dance,[1] Starhawk's theological musing reflect the gnostic-pagan confusion. The Goddess, according to Starhawk, unfolds the cosmos as a mental projection. She does not give birth to the world as something originating within her womb, the geo- and generic pagan understanding, but rather as something ex nihilo. In this sense, Starhawk's deity comes closer to a feminized version of the Judeo-Christian God than to a pagan understanding of the Earth Mother. Using Melissa Raphael's terms, this amounts simply to putting Jehovah into a dress. In other words, Western Neo-paganism represents less a genuine theological-spiritual innovation vis-à-vis its host culture and instead a politicized gender protest. One could almost argue that it is a social movement garbed in religio-spiritual trappings rather than a religious movement per se.

This of course begs the question of differentiating between social and religious movements, which is one I do not propose to pursue here, but it also might be indicative of the current Western, perhaps even world, climate in which protest and change are played out in religio-social terms. If such is the case, it would force sociology to reconsider the entire thesis of secularization. In the global arena, such developments as Islamic revivalist movements or the Bharata Janata Party in India may represent further instances in which religion counters the marginalization that secularization theory predicts for it and instead comes to occupy the central stage in political decision-making. Neo-paganism is more regionally Western, but it is also very much concerned with social and political change and employs feminist critique and the re-evaluation of spiritual vocabulary as its tools.

The issue is clouded, however, because Neo-paganism and Western Goddess Spirituality speak in terms of geo-pagan organic holism and eco-environmentalism. I want therefore to explore the generic pagan and contemporary Western pagan distinction further to show the latter's, specifically Neo-paganism's, mixed rhetoric. The question whether a successful movement for change depends on ambivalent discourse in the face of a pluralistic and evermore multicultural world is one which I only wish to table and not attempt on this occasion to answer.

There are two key differences theologically speaking between generic, geo- and even most reco-paganisms and Western Neo-paganism: both relate to the respective ways of picturing the godhead. Traditional paganism is polytheistic. While it could be argued that there is a monistic pantheism which underlies its various pantheons, by and large this remains an unarticulated assumption at best. The pagan philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism perhaps come closest to being the fullest expressions of paganism's monistic bias, but again these are philosophies rather than vernacular and behavioral expressions of actual pagan practice.

On this front, Neo-paganism is different and represents a theological shift within the broader pagan understanding. While Neo-paganism may refer in its rituals to various gods and goddesses nominally, these are invariably reduced to the all subsuming constructs of The Goddess and The God. The Neo-pagan agenda is to recognize the feminine aspects of godhead. It appears to be less interested in affirming the multiple aspects of godhead as understood in traditional paganism. In this respect, Neo-paganism reflects the intervening influence of Judeo-Christian thought. In its socially motivated bi-theistic take on divinity, the Jewish and Christian God has become divided on a gender basis, and there is no pantheon per se.

The other, chiefly Judeo-Christian influence pertains to idolatry. Traditional paganisms tend to portray their various gods and goddesses in tangible, graphic icons. The idol is both a metaphor for deity conceived in more ineffable terms and also a locus for the numinous, immanent presence of deity. The physical embodiment of a venerated godhead does, of course, render traditional paganism more vulnerable to the vandalism and demolition efforts of, on the one hand, the early Christian Church in its rise over and replacement of classical paganism, and, on the other, in the attempts by modern-day pagans to re-establish shrines and temples of worship, the on-going iconoclastic sentiments within their predominantly Christian environment.

Consequently, the aniconic bias of Neo-paganism may be seem in part as defensive, but this only in part. Neo-paganism at the same time has inherited the biblical injunctions against idolatry. To bow or prostrate oneself before a murti or venerated representation for most Neo-pagans would be tantamount to self-conscious embarrassment - as it would be for most modern-day Westerners. While the veneration of saints by Roman Catholics appears to be the major exception to anti-idolatrous behavior in the West, this propensity has so far failed to have been carried into Neo-pagan practice.

In place of the idol as the locus or concentration or even simply metaphor of divinity, Neo-paganism instead reifies the whole of nature. In this respect, nature itself replaces the idol as embodying the immanent presence of the divine. This accords furthermore with the other political-social impulse behind the Neo-pagan movement beside its concern with gender and the societal implications of gender domination patterns, namely, its concerns for a planet which is environmentally perceived to be under threat from a biblically sanctioned and nihilistically permitted industrialized pollution and an ongoing destruction of sustainable resources. In this suit, Neo-paganism more fully reveals its affinities with traditional paganism: nature is something which is real rather than a fiction, the illusion of mâyâ, and, moreover, it is the tangible presence of the sacred. Nature itself becomes the Neo-pagan idol, a manifest reality which is to be honored and protected.

Traditional paganism has not had the ecological awareness that today's Neo-pagans exhibit. This non-awareness relates to either time or place: classical paganism flourished at a time preceding global consciousness and the consequences of imminent catastrophe infinitely less, while indigenous paganisms are for the most part marginal, third-world enclaves isolated from Western capitalistic consumerism and the emergent awareness of its consequences. But to the degree that Neo-paganism is nominally rather than generically pagan, I will argue that it is more a social-political movement rather than a development of the religious tradition that it claims to be following. In other words, it represents a new religious innovation rather than a continuation or resurrection of an older spirituality.

Other differences between the two can also be described. The act of worship in Neo-pagan congregational behavior is the creation of sacred space through the casting of its ritual circle. The act of worship in much vernacular practice, by contrast, involves the proceeding from one sacred place to the next, that is, the movement from one shrine or temple to another. Nor is this last generally congregational apart from the celebration of festival days. Both, however, recognize the significance of the concentration of the divine in particular places. Both inherently recognize the dynamics of pilgrimage and the acknowledgement of the geographic pattern of immanence in which some places are more sacred than others or at least are primus inter pares in terms of specialness.

There are also organizational differences. Traditional paganism is communal, something belonging to a community as a whole. Neo-paganism in the West is sectarian; it competes as one religion among many within the contemporary spiritual marketplace. Its organization is essentially that of the network. Vernacular paganism in the more urban setting is place specific. It depends on privately owned temples, shrine or botannicas. These become sources of income to those who maintain them. Within the current Neo-pagan milieu, organization is more often than not dependent on the energetic commitment and organizational skills of a dedicated few who provide the venue and communicational channels for the greater number of the others.

Along with its understanding of sacred place, paganism also has an understanding of sacred time. As does any religion, paganism produces its own distinguishing ritual calendar, that is, its understanding of sacred days or periods as well as the durations of preparation connected with them. On this score, Neo-paganism can be clearly distinguished from the other paganisms on the basis of its highly articulated eight sabbat calendar. The festival sequences of most traditional paganisms are less mathematically balanced - showing a more syncopated or rhythmic variety in distribution of holy days.

The foremost calendrical difference is probably the non-celebration of the advent of darkness over light in traditional paganism as opposed to the inclusion of the autumnal equinox as one of its eight sabbats among the Neo-pagans. This last stems essentially from the Neo-pagan inheritance of the largely Judeo-Christian equating of spirituality with the masculine, luminous and positive and the consequential association of the female with darkness, the physical and negativity. Traditional paganism keeps these various dichotomies fluid and constantly shifting. It also recognizes the light versus dark paradigm as an hermeneutical metaphor rather than a political-social hegemony which must be overthrown. It is for this and some of the other reasons I have given that I assess Neo-paganism to be more a protest movement than expressive of a genuine continuity with the tradition to which it claims. The comparative approach between diachronic and synchronic nominal and generic expressions allows this understanding and a more accurate assessment of Neo-paganism both vis-à-vis the broader pagan tradition and vis-à-vis the Judeo-Christian Western tradition within which it is emerging.



[1] Starhawk (Miriam Simos), The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979).