A longer version of this essay was originally published at Eric S. Raymond’s website Oct. 22, 2010.
The neopagan phenomenon is a loose collection of religious movements, experiments, and jokes combining some very new thinking with some very old sources.
This FAQ, originally prepared in 1992 at the request of a number of curious net.posters, offers a brief description of neopagan thought and practice.
II. What is a neopagan?
I used the term `religious’ above, but as you’ll see it’s actually more than somewhat misleading, and I (like many other neopagans) use it only because no other word is available for the more general kind of thing of which the neopagan movement and what we generally think of as `religion’ are special cases.
Neopaganism is `religious’ in the etymological sense of `re ligare’, to rebind (to roots, to strengths, to the basics of things), and it deals with mythology and the realm of the `spiritual’. But, as we in the Judeo/Christian West have come to understand `religion’ (an organized body of belief that connects the `supernatural’ with an authoritarian moral code via `faith’) neopaganism is effectively and radically anti-religious. I emphasize this because it is important in understanding what follows.
Common characteristics of almost all the groups that describe themselves as `neopagan’ (the term is often capitalized or hyphenated) include:
Neopagan religions are religions of practice, pragmatism and immediate experience. The emphasis is always on what they can help the individuals in them to do and experience; theology and metaphysics take a back seat, and very little `faith’ or `belief’ is required or expected. In fact many neopagans (including yours truly) are actively hostile to `faith’ and all the related ideas of religious authority, `divine revelation’ and the like.
2. Compatibility with a scientific world-view
This tends to follow from the above. Because neopaganism is centered in experiences rather than beliefs, it doesn’t need or want to do vast overarching cosmologies or push fixed Final Answers to the Big Questions — understanding and helping human beings relate to each other and the world as we experience it is quite enough for us. Thus, we are generally friendly to science and the scientific world-view. Many of us are scientists and technologists ourselves (in fact, by some counts, a plurality of us are computer programmers!).
3. Reverence for nature, sensuality, and pleasure
Most neopaganisms make heavy use of nature symbolism and encourage people to be more aware of their ties to all the non-human life on this planet. Explicit worship of `Gaia’, the earth ecosphere considered as a single interdependent unit, is common. Veneration of nature deities is central to many traditions. Ecological activism is often considered a religious duty, though there is much controversy over what form it should take.
By preference, most neopagans hold their ceremonies outdoors under sun or moon. Seasonal changes and astronomical rhythms (especially the solstices, equinoxes and full and new moons) define the ritual calendar.
Ritual and festive nudity are common; to be naked before nature is often considered a holy and integrating act in itself. Sex is considered sacramental and sexual energy and symbolisms permeate neopagan practice (we like to contrast this with Christianity, in which the central sacrament commemorates a murder and climaxes in ritual cannibalism).
4. Polytheism, pantheism, agnosticism
Most neopaganisms are explicitly polytheistic — that is, they recognize pantheons of multiple deities. But the reality behind this is more complex than it might appear.
First, many neopagans are philosophical agnostics or even atheists; there is a tendency to regard `the gods’ as Jungian archetypes or otherwise in some sense created by and dependent on human belief, and thus naturally plural and observer-dependent.
Secondly, as in many historical polytheisms, there is an implicit though seldom-discussed idea that all the gods and goddesses we deal with are `masks’, refractions of some underlying unity that we cannot or should not attempt to approach directly.
And thirdly, there is a strong undercurrent of pantheism, the belief that the entire universe is in some important sense a responsive, resonating and sacred whole (or, which is different and subtler, that it is useful for human beings to view it that way).
Many neopagans (including yours truly) hold all three of these beliefs simultaneously.
5. Decentralized, non-authoritarian organization
Neopagans have seen what happens when a priesthood elite gets temporal power; we want none of that. We do not take collections, build temples, or fund a full-time clergy. In fact the clergy-laity distinction is pretty soft; in many traditions, all members are considered `in training’ for it, and in all traditions every participant in a ritual is an active one; there are and can be no pew-sitting passive observers.
Most neopagan traditions are (dis)organized as horizontal networks of small affinity groups (usually called `circles’, `groves’, or `covens’ depending on the flavor of neopagan involved). Priests and priestesses have no real authority outside their own circles (and sometimes not much inside them!), though some do have national reputations and influence.
Many of us keep a low profile partly due to a real fear of persecution. Too many of our spiritual ancestors were burned, hung, flayed and shot by religions that are still powerful for a lot of us to feel safe in the open. Down in the Bible Belt the burnings and beatings are still going on, and the media loves to hang that `Satanist’ label on anything it doesn’t understand for a good juicy story.
Also, we never proselytize. This FAQ is about as active a neopagan solicitation as anyone will ever see; we tend to believe that `converts’ are dangerous robots and that people looking to be `converted’ aren’t the kind we want. We have found that it works quite well enough to let people find us when they’re ready for what we have to teach.
6. Reverence for the female principle
One of the most striking differences between neopagan groups and the religious mainstream is the wide prevalence (and in some traditions dominance) of the worship of goddesses. Almost all neopagans revere some form of the Great Mother, often as a nature goddess identified with the ecosphere, and there are probably more female neopagan clergy than there are male.
Most neopagan traditions are equalist (these tend to pair the Great Mother with a male fertility-god, usually some cognate of the Greek Pan). A vocal and influential minority are actively feminist, and (especially on the West Coast) there have been attempts to present various neopagan traditions as the natural `women’s religion’ for the feminist movement. The effects of this kind of politicization of neopaganism are a topic of intense debate within the movement and fuel some of its deepest factional divisions.
7. Respect for art and creativity
Neopaganism tends to attract artists and musicians as much as it attracts technologists. Our myth and ritual can be very powerful at stimulating and releasing creativity, and one of the greatest strengths of the movement is the rich outgrowth of music, poetry, crafts and arts that has come from that. It is quite common for people joining the movement to discover real talents in those areas that they never suspected.
Poets and musicians have the kind of special place at neopagan festivals that they did in pre-literate cultures; many of our best-known people are or have been bards and songsmiths, and the ability to compose and improvise good ritual poetry is considered the mark of a gifted priest(ess) and very highly respected.
“Steal from any source that doesn’t run too fast” is a neopagan motto. A typical neopagan group will mix Greek, Celtic and Egyptian mythology with American Indian shamanism. Ritual technique includes recognizable borrowings from medieval ceremonial magic, Freemasonry and pre-Nicene Christianity, as well as a bunch of 20th-century inventions. Humanistic psychology and some of the more replicable New Age healing techniques have recently been influential. The resulting stew is lively and effective, though sometimes a bit hard to hold together.
9. A sense of humor
Neopagans generally believe that it is more dangerous to take your religion too seriously than too lightly. Self-spoofery is frequent and (in some traditions) semi-institutionalized, and at least one major neopagan tradition (Discordianism, known to many on this net) is founded on elaborate spoofery and started out as a joke.
One of the most attractive features of the neopagan approach is that we don’t confuse solemnity with gloom. Our rituals are generally celebratory and joyous, and a humorous remark at the right time need not break the mood.
We generally feel that any religion that can’t stand to have fun poked at it is in as sad shape as the corresponding kind of person.
Editor’s Note: Misspellings have been corrected, but “neopagan” has been left uncapitalized in spite of this site’s preference for capitalization of the same.
The Author: Eric S. Raymond
Eric S.Raymond, often referred to as ESR, is an American software developer, open source software advocate, and author of the widely cited 1997 essay and 1999 book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. ESR describes himself as a neo-Pagan, though an atheistic one. An autobiographical account of ESR’s religious beliefs, “Dancing with the Gods”, can be found here.