Perplexed about paganism

My son has a friend staying with us for a few days who describes herself as a pagan. She wouldn’t accept our invitation to attend church with us on Easter morning because of that belief. As a result, he didn’t attend either.

So I’ve been thinking about paganism today.

If I understand it correctly, that word can mean lots of different things to different people. I think that people in America today who choose that label to describe their religious convictions would generally believe that the Divine is in nature, that all things are indwelled by the Divine or are an expression of it. Most might limit that to all living things; some see the Divine in any material thing.

If I remember my Dark Ages college education correctly, we divided paganism into polytheism (many gods), pantheism (the spirit of all living things together compose the Universal Divine), and panentheism (the Universal Divine also is beyond the material world).

I suppose today’s pagans would be about as diverse as a paleopaganism like Hinduism, so I don’t want to give anyone a hard time about their paganism based my lack of understanding. These days, religious beliefs are collected, much like platefuls at a potluck. Something look good to you? Add a spoonful. When you reach the end of the table, what you have may not look very attractive or make any sense from a dietetic perspective, but you’ve got exactly what you wanted.

In fact, I guess that’s what perplexes me most about paganism: How is it you decided to believe what you believe?

I can’t see what would persuade a person to hold a pagan belief system and practice its rituals, other than finding it attractive. Is there evidence of any kind that leads a person to reach the conclusion that God is within us all? What more is there to it than deciding to hold an opinion?

And is there anything that makes it a better opinion than any other religious notion any other person might cook up in a fevered imagination? Perhaps someone out there can help me sort this out.

I don’t suppose it matters to me what someone else believes, as long as they don’t claim their beliefs are actually true, for themselves or anyone else. Beliefs based on opinion aren’t even true for the people who believe them; they are merely believed. There is no such thing as private truth. To claim a belief is true, you have to be able to demonstrate it is true. To say “it’s true for me” is to say less than nothing.

There is one, and only one, system of religious and moral truth that can be proven true beyond a reasonable doubt.

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About Mark Kelly

Jesus follower, Bible reader, husband/father/son/brother/uncle, rider, hiker, snapshooter
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8 Responses to Perplexed about paganism

  1. phaetalon says:

    Hi there –

    I have only recently come to WordPress via other community blogs, but I’ve been Pagan for a good 12 years, so I might be able to shine a light on it for you.

    To really understand it, you need to first suspend the idea that it is possible to prove that one religion is more right or more true than another.

    Religion cannot be an objective thing. What is right for you isn’t always right for someone else. I guess you could say it is a little like love.

    You wouldn’t demand that everyone love your family more than their own, right? You wouldn’t assume that your family is the correct family, and everyone else’s family is false or a matter of personal preference and opinion.

    Beyond whatever the bible says or whatever you have been taught in church, what makes you Christian right deep down in your soul is that you know that it is the right path for you. You have felt a connection to something larger than yourself. You’ve been claimed by your god, and there isn’t anything out there that is going to give you that same feeling.

    It is exactly the same for Pagans. There is something deep down in our souls that tells us that where we are is where we need to be. Our gods claim us in much the same way that yours claims you. It isn’t always something you can really describe, but it is something you can’t ignore, and you can’t deny.

    There are a lot of different Pagan paths. And you have them categorized pretty accurately. Polytheists worship old pantheons – some in the way of their ancestors, others creating new observations and rites to honour ancient gods.

    Some believe that the divine is in everything – plants, trees, rocks, people.

    Others believe that the divine energy in all things is what deity is, and that there is no personality beyond that.

    Now, to be fair, there are a lot of people these days who say they are Pagan simply because they have issues to work out with Christianity and the churches they grew up in.

    It’s a little like ending a long term relationship. Many folks will rant about how evil and destructive their old church was, and will crusade for making their new faith the ‘One True Way’. But most of the time that is just emotion talking.

    People need time to heal from emotional scars. They need to learn how to function alone again. Especially those who were once very devout Christians – many of them feel betrayed and hurt. They try to deny that there was ever anything that spoke to them and that it was all brainwashing.

    If they are lucky, they will move past this phase and come to understand that Christianity isn’t evil. It is just one path among many.

    I think I may have gotten a little side-tracked there. The point is that religion isn’t a contest. Pagans don’t believe that there is a prize at the end for picking the right one. Religion is, at its core, about spiritual fulfilment.

    If you don’t feel it in Christianity, then no amount of apologetics, sermons, fire and brimstone or stories about someone else’s wonderful relationship with Christ is going to make it appear. And, if you are raised in a Christian environment, it can be hard to find the place that is right.

    I believe that your soul will lead you to the right way. And whether it is right for your neighbour or your brother won’t matter.

    –Phae

    ps – sorry that got a little rambly there ;)

  2. Admin says:

    I appreciate the gentle spirit of your comment, Phae, but my distant ancestors were Celts whose worship at times included human sacrifice. I find it hard to believe a gentle soul like you would think such barbaric rituals were somehow right and true for ancient Celts and only atrocities for those of us who believe them so.

    If religion can’t be “an objective thing,” what objection can be raised against someone today who decides his soul is leading him to worship in that manner?

  3. phaetalon says:

    Well, sacrifice is a sticky subject for a lot of people. There are religions that still practise animal sacrifice, and what we learn from them is that sacrifice does not equal torture.

    In cultures that practised human sacrifice, it seems logical to me to assume that they didn’t find it barbaric at all. If you believe that blood is necessary for your people to survive, and you believe that it is your duty to spill that blood, then it would be logical to think that it is the highest honour to give your life up for your gods and your people.

    I believe that many religions that hold a warrior ethic (older sects of Christianity and Islam come immediately to mind), would tend to believe similar things. To the marines, it is an honour to lay down your life for your country. During the Crusades, Christian and Islamic soldiers fought and died for their god.

    That said, everything evolves with time. Christians used to burn heretics alive and practise ritual flagellation. Those things aren’t all that common anymore, are they?

    The point of sacrifice is to give up something in honour of yours gods. The form changes with the times. From human, to animal, to time and money.

    These days it is very common for Pagans to sacrifice of their time to help the homeless, the environment and wildlife protection societies (among many other causes).

    I do happen to know a few Heathens (Heathen is the term preferred by those practising Norse spiritualities) who practise sacrifice. From what I hear, a nice cut of steak given in honour of the gods does the job for a family of four – along with a libation of a nice single malt to wash it down.

    –Phae

  4. alexandt says:

    I’m going to disagree that there is one, and only one, system of religious and moral truth that can be proven true beyond a reasonable doubt. Additionally, many of the concerns you bring up are reasons why those within modern Hellenismos do not identify as “Pagan.” I’m presuming that you son’s friend identifies as an Eclectic Neopagan, or just Pagan.

  5. Admin says:

    Alexandt: You are free, of course, to disagree, but I would have thought you would offer some sort of evidence that the assertion is incorrect.

  6. Admin says:

    Phae: “Everything evolves with time. Christians used to burn heretics alive and practise ritual flagellation. Those things aren’t all that common anymore, are they?”

    I’m not sure you should argue that paganism has evolved over time. That seems to imply that somehow contemporary expressions of paganism are higher and better than “primitive” forms. Yes, there are still Christian sects that practice self flagellation, even crucifixion.

    Whether one group “evolves” over time is beside the point though. My question was whether any practice of a religion can be considered wrong. If I understand what you said in your first post, a follower of African Vodun cannot be criticized, much less condemned, for offering a sacrifice of a child’s vital organs. That practice occurs regularly in West Africa today.

    And, no offense, but I doubt the child considers it an honor to be gutted so a politician can assuage the gods and improve his chances for re-election.

  7. phaetalon says:

    Similar to your response about Christianity, I can say that there are some sects of Paganism that have evolved with the times, and others that have not.

    Normally, were I debating the subject, I would ask that you offer some verification of your claim that child sacrifice is regularly practised in Africa (since my sources say that this practise hasn’t been a regular occurance since early Islam came to the area), but I am not interested in trying to prove you wrong. Nor am I interested in you trying to convince me that people do not have the right to worship as they choose to.

    I guess this will end our conversation. It was nice talking to you. I hope that I at least shed a little light on modern Paganism in the world today.

    That is really all I was after. Have a good one!

    –Phae

  8. Admin says:

    Phae: I didn’t mean to offend you. Debate wasn’t my intention.

    Child sacrifice does happen. I was in Cotonou, Benin, on an election day several years ago. The news that day included an item about the bodies of several children found at daybreak, their vital organs removed. They were sacrificed in hopes of ensuring election success. Appalling. I can’t imagine anyone thinking an atrocity like that in the name of religion shouldn’t be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

    But I also realize that you established up front that following your path would require a person to “suspend the idea that it is possible to prove that one religion is more right or more true than another.” I don’t think most people can accept that, especially when they realize that it means evil religions are no better or worse than the most civilized.

    Thank you for dialoging with me. It has helped clarify things in my mind. I hope you take something helpful away from it too.

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