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Home > Article Library > Editorials > Neo-Pagan Unity Search

Neo-Pagan Unity:
Does it Exist, Should it Exist?

Copyright © 2003 by Faerie K
Previously published in Finnish in Pakanaverkko ry's magazine Vox Paganorum 1/03
Translated by Faerie K.


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Many books and articles discussing Paganism -- especially the part of Paganism called "Neo-Paganism" -- often describe an interesting beast called "the Pagan religion." At worst, you can find descriptions of "the Pagan religion (Paganism) and its many traditions", as if all of Neo-Paganism was in fact different manifestations of one religion or if all Pagans would fit within simplified definitions. These definitions are most often based on Wicca, or rather Neo-Wicca, especially when it comes to ethics, concept of deity and the religious calendar to follow.

This mysterious "Paganism (the Pagan religion)" is portrayed in such a manner that it seems as harmless and "normal" as possible. The practitioners of this "religion", in turn, are depicted as being even nicer than what so called major religions demand of their followers. That is to say, too harmless to persecute. However, this type of un-definition ignores the fact that there is no such thing as "the Pagan religion", none at all. There is a large number of widely varied Pagan religions and the variety of individual Pagans is even wider. Superficial definitions -- be it a definition of Pagan religions or "Pagan religiosity" -- will always leave somebody out. All too often this "somebody" is a Pagan religion, or even several of them.

Defining Neo-Paganism the Bonewits Way

Isaac Bonewits is one of the most quoted authors talking about Neo-Pagan unity. His "What Neo-Pagans Believe" --article has reached version 5.6.

In the introduction to his article, Bonewits says: "Clarifying our "doctrines" (the things we do and don't believe) without descending into "dogma" (the things we are ordered to believe or disbelieve by someone in a position of power over us) is a vital step in the growth of any new religious movement."

This might very well be the case. However, trying to unify the beliefs of too multiform a group of people may have the opposite effect: giving up the term "Neo-Pagan" altogether because it is viewed as far too limiting. One can see this kind of movement even with the wider term "Pagan", with some people choosing to prefer other terms when describing their religiosity. I consider one problem with this development to be the so called "standardizing Neo-Paganism into a kind of whole resembling Wicca." That is, taking the beliefs of one (albeit a large on in a Pagan scale) religion and expressing them as being held as a "norm" by all those who fall under the same umbrella term. Accounts of many people who have stopped using the term "Pagan" support this theory.

I would like to point out, that one definitely should not put the blame on this standardization development on Wicca, Wiccans or people practicing Wiccan forms of religion. The power behind the scenes is money. Of the different Neo-Pagan religions, Wicca is the one that gets noticed by the media and as such, it may be the only Pagan religion people interested in so called alternative religions have ever even heard about. Book publishers with the main goal of selling as many of their products to as many people as possible, are using the well-known name of one religion to their advantage and publish books on quite other forms of Neo-Pagan spirituality as "books on Wicca". At the same time there is parallel development going on: books describing Paganism as a religion (as opposed to being an umbrella term covering several different religions) are being put out, with these books actually portraying something that more or less resembles Wicca.

Publishers are able to sell books filled with simplified -- and even flawed -- information because their target audience, people who are newly interested in Paganism, do not as yet know enough on the subject to be able to tell the worthwhile books apart from the rest. How would they? Basics of Pagan religions aren't part of general education programs and many simply won't suspect that faulty information is being published. By the time the reality of the situation begins to unfold, the book publishers have made a nice sum of money, and the delightfully eager newcomers (this being said with no barbed tones or sarcasm what so ever -- newcomers tend to be truly genuinely delightfully eager and that's a quality I'd like to see even the oldies to maintain instead of the cynicism that all too often creeps in all too soon) have managed to instruct plenty of other even newer newcomers.

I'm beginning to slip from my subject badly, so I'll reel myself in and return at last to how Bonewits is defining the beliefs of Neo-Pagans.

Quoting his introduction again: "it's reasonably easy to list those ideas with which a majority of Neopagans usually agree or disagree, and thus sketch the outlines of our doctrines, just as the members of their faiths could for the Evangelical Christians, Mahayana Buddhists, Sikhs, or Taoists."

My comment on this is probably rather easy to predict: why is defining Neo-Paganism being compared to defining individual religions? The comparison seems especially flawed, when defining Neo-Paganism isn't being compared to "Christianity", but one branch of it, not "Buddhism", but one of its branches. This in spite of the fact that Neo-Paganism is not a religion, but an umbrella term for quite different religions and individual Neo-Pagans.

Bonewits seems to be well aware that his attempts at defining aren't welcomed by all Pagans. This is evident from his bitter words towards people who are opposing unification of beliefs, or "antagonists" as he calls them: "Neither do those antagonists who seek to disrupt our community from within by loudly demanding that we draw no lines that might ever exclude anyone, for any reason." However, it is quite a different thing to oppose setting boundaries because of principled "nobody should be left outside" kind of resistance and to oppose definitions due to the quality of the definitions offered. Bonewits does not seem to note that difference.

What Do Neo-Pagans Believe According to Bonewits?

There are 21 different points on Bonewits' list of Neo-Pagan beliefs. He describes, among others, concept of deity, how societal subjects are viewed, ways of life, etc. These points have been labelled in the following manner and order: Thou Art God/dess, Original Sanctity, Goddesses and Gods, Polytheism and Pluralism, No Gods of Evil, Nature Worship, Cautious Technophilia, Positive Ethics, The Good Life, Assertively Pro-Sexual Attitudes, Magic and Mystery, Ceremonial Art and Science, Connecting to the Cosmos, Born Again Paganism, Hope and Action, Mystic Vision, Community Responsibility, Spiritual Authenticity, Internal Religious Freedom, External Religious Freedom and Interfaith Cooperation and Self-Defense.

For this article, I have cut down Bonewits' 21 point list of beliefs with a firm hand, concentrating solely on points I consider most controversial. I have marked missing text within quotations written in italics with square brackets and dots [...], my own additional explanations within quotations are marked with square brackets. In addition, I've reorganized the points under few subtitles. The entire original text of "What Neo-Pagans Believe" can be read at Isaac Bonewits' web site:

Concepts of Deity and Other Matters of Belief

Neopagans believe that divinity is both immanent (internal) and transcendent (external), with immanence being far more important for people to pay attention to right now.

For some Neo-Pagans, seeing deity or divinity in themselves and other people is important. For some of these individuals, this kind of concept of deity is an integral part of their religion (say, Church of All Worlds, Reclaiming), for others it's more a way of overcoming the insistence of sin and human deficiency of their former religious upbringing. However, there are plenty of polytheist Pagans, who consider Gods as Gods and humans as humans, with Gods not being partly nor wholly the same as humans. Believing that Gods do communicate with people through inspiration, visions etc, doesn't necessarily mean that the Gods are viewed as "part of us".

This belief often develops among Neopagans into pantheism, panentheism, animism, or monism all of which are concepts accepted by some Neopagans. [Definitions of the words removed.]

Even though pantheistic and panentheistic concepts of god are rather common among Neo-Pagans, they do not encompass the whole field of Neo-Pagan beliefs widely enough to work as common denominators. With this definition, not only (hard) polytheists, but for example agnostic Pagans are left out.

Even when such a Being [Bonewits discussed Neo-Pagan belief on a "Supreme Being", mentioning that it resembles even among those who do hold such a belief the concepts of Tao or "Force"] is part of the picture, Neopaganism as a whole is polytheistic and focuses its attention on the deities associated with our planet.

Just a little earlier Bonewits defined Neo-Paganism with practically every other possible concept of god -- but now the most common concept is polytheism? I do note, however, that he didn't define all Neo-Pagans as pantheists, etc earlier on.

Within that overall polytheism, much of Neopaganism is "duotheistic" (with female deities seen as aspects of a single Goddess, and male deities as aspects of a single God).

From a polytheist's point of view duotheism is duotheism, not polytheism... In addition, the number of duotheistic Pagans may be relatively large due to the popularity of Wicca, but there are too few duotheistic religions for this concept of deity to be considered an integral definition of Neo-Pagan beliefs.

Neopagans believe that divinity is as likely to manifest in a female form as it is in a male form, and that the word "Goddess" makes just as much sense as "God."[...] Many Neopagans believe that feminine energies and values are more needed to balance masculine excesses of current cultures. Hence, the common emphasis on Goddesses in our myths and rites, and the presence of "Goddesses-only" worshipers as a significant minority of the Neopagan community.

For monotheistic Pagans, especially those who worship only a Goddess divinity isn't as likely to manifest in a female form as it is in a male form, nor do both make as much sense -- to them.

The emphasis put on Goddess in myths and rites depends on the religion in question and on the practice of individual Pagans. One can see emphasis put on the Goddess (what about polytheists with their many goddesses?), especially if one considers the definition of emphasis being the Goddess merely having an important role in myths and rites. However, a large number of Pagans do actually strive towards balance between deities of both sexes and their personal emphasis towards one or the other depends on their own relationships with different deities, not from their religious beliefs and practices being a reflection on the surrounding culture.

Neopagans do not believe in, respect, or worship any divine or semidivine figure of ultimate Evil, leaving such concepts to the dualistic monotheists. [...] Neopagans do not believe in, respect, or worship any divine or semidivine figure of ultimate Evil, leaving such concepts to the dualistic monotheists.

Ah, the good old SPD (Standard Pagan Disclaimer). The caricatured basic form of SPD goes something like this: "We're not evil and we don't worship Satan. We're not Satanists either!" At the same time it is implied that it's the Satanists who are the reversed-Christian Satan worshippers. Bonewits takes SPD one step further and doesn't leave Satanists' reversed-Christianity to be figured out by the reader.

As a point describing Neo-Pagan beliefs, this one is rather unnecessary. Knowing that Bonewits is an ex-member of the Church of Satan and that he opposes Satanists, one can assume this point being in the list of definitions only to take a stab at Satanists, with little care whether Satanists themselves care to be considered Neo-Pagans or not.

Most Neopagans believe it is necessary to respect and love Nature as divine in Her own right, and to accept ourselves as part of Nature and not Her "rulers." Many of us accept what has come to be known as "the Gaia hypothesis." [...] it states that the biosphere of our planet is a living Being who is due all the love and support that we, Her children, can give Her.

Whether Neo-Pagans are Nature Worshippers or not is a controversial topic and calling Neo-Pagans Nature Worshippers can at its best/worst create quite a flame war. Many Neo-Pagans consider respecting nature and worshipping nature to be different things, as well as seeing a difference between having a deity personifying nature or earth in one's pantheon (one's religion's pantheon, or one's own personal pantheon) and worshipping such a deity as the central god form of the religion. The latter is considered to be part of Nature Worshipping, while the former isn't.

Neopagans believe that with proper training, art, discipline and intent, human minds and hearts are fully capable of performing most of the magic and miracles they are ever likely to need.

Yes, except for those Neo-Pagans who do not have working Magick as a part of their religion, who leave miracles to the gods, or who do not believe in neither miracle nor gods.

Most Neopagans seem to accept the laws of magic, outlined in my book "Real Magic," as accurate descriptions of the way magical phenomena usually behave, though they might not say that they "believe" in these laws any more than a physicist "believes" in the laws of thermodynamics.

Somehow, this point always looks like a book ad to me...

We Are Kind and Open-Minded... Or Something Like That.

Neopagans believe that children are born holy, since they have no barriers of consciousness between them and their indwelling deities. So the concept of "original sin" the idea that all children are born innately evil and have to be cleansed by a magical ceremony before they can become good is alien to us.

I don't claim to be a very educated Pagan, but here is a concept I haven't really run into (or I have just not noticed it, internal filtering and so forth)... It seems that this point has been added only to show that Pagans do not have the concept of original sin. Simple "Neo-Pagans do not accept the concept of original sin" would have been sufficient instead of "creative" interpretation of the meaning of baptism and empty wordmongering.

Because of this reverence for children, Neopagans do not approve of any form of child abuse.

Believing in the inborn sanctity of children (or anything else, for that matter) is in no way or form an essential precondition for opposing abuse.

Neopagans believe that ethics and morality should be based upon joy, love, self-esteem, mutual respect, the avoidance of actual harm to ourselves and others human or nonhuman and the increase of public benefit.

The same is said by so many others, that this piece of text could originate from a party political manifesto or from the teachings of a non-Neo-Pagan religion.

Most Neopagans believe in some variant or another of the principles of "karma," and many Neopagans will affirm that the results of their actions will always return to them, sooner or later. [...] Thus we try to balance individual needs for personal autonomy and growth with the necessity of paying attention to the impact of our actions on the lives and welfare of others, including other living beings and the environment as a whole (Gaia).

A likely more fitting description of general Neo-Pagan ethics than speaking about karma or laws of return might be "be responsible for what you do". This especially because karma and/or everything returning has, with some (fewer) Neo-Pagans, taken the place of "you are going to Hell! deterrent". Karma and/or law of returns as replacement of Hell occurs usually in two main ways. The concepts are used in order to influence the behaviour of others and even as a direct attempt to scare, whether the others actually believe in these concepts or not. They are also used as justification (excuse, one might say) for not interfering with anything in any way. Taken to the extreme, this manifests as opinions stating that one isn't allowed to help a person laying dying on the street unless one can get a clear permission from that person, or that defending oneself isn't allowed because the attacker might get hurt -- both could cause something nasty to happen according to (this interpretation) of karma or law or returns.

These beliefs have led many Neopagans to become vegetarians, animal rights activists, pacifists and/or environmental activists.

In defining what Neo-Pagans believe in, this point is useless. None of the points mentioned need Neo-Pagan frame of beliefs to occur. Furthermore, a large number of Neo-Pagans are quite ordinary people when it comes to their diets and their activism.

Neopagans believe that human beings were meant to lead lives filled with joy, love, pleasure, beauty and humor.

Many Neo-Pagans believe, that all parts of life are parts of the life we get to live and life's experiences, not only the "nice bits", which is what Bonewits seems to be hinting at. With the possible exception of some fundamentalist or fundie paths, followers of a number of religions could say the same thing about their religious beliefs about human life.

A Neopagan may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgendered or undecided; may have wildly unusual sexual practices (including celibacy!) or be "plain vanilla" in their tastes. A Neopagan may be in a monogamous relationship, in one or more polyamorous ones, or have no romantic relationships at all. A Neopagan may live in an Industrial Age nuclear family or a traditional or untraditional extended one. As long as all parties involved are happy and healthy, Neopagans will generally approve (or at least not actively disapprove).

Bonewits calls this having assertively pro-sexual attitudes. Plenty of Neo-Pagans, in turn, would call it having a natural view of sexuality. This point seems to be included only to emphasise that Neo-Pagans do not have overall rules regarding sexuality -- unlike "some other religions".

The use of human or animal sacrifice, though a common accusation, is not part of Neopagan worship, though some meat-eaters may say a blessing over their animals before preparing them for cooking.

Use of animal sacrifice isn't part of Neo-Pagan worship... except for the Neo-Pagans who do have the practice as part of their religion. Some Neo-Pagans hunt and sanctify the catch to their deities, or offer their deities and celebration participants meat especially slaughtered for the occasion. It appears to be politically correct to say that animal sacrifice isn't a part of Neo-Paganism in any way. The facts don't count, as long as Neo-Pagans appear harmless?

We have no concept of "eternal" punishment or damnation, and do not accept the "right" of other faith communities to impose their opinions about this (or any other) topic upon us.

Why would a Pagan who does not believe in Hell be worried about somebody else's belief that she is on her way towards eternal damnation? Getting the subject stuffed down one's throat continuously does get annoying, but relatively few Neo-Pagans would be ready to deny the right of other religions to speak out. They understand that freedom of religion doesn't work if it is played only by the rules of one religion. When it comes to the lack of "eternal" punishment, pointing to the above-mentioned practice of using karma and/or everything returning as "substitute for Hell" might be enough of a comment.

Most Neopagans believe that healthy religions should have a minimum amount of rigidity and a maximum amount of flexibility.

Neo-Pagan religions include those that have quite firm a structure. Some might even be called rigid, at least by outsiders.

Neopagans almost all believe that monolithic religious organizations and would-be messiahs are a hinderance to spiritual growth.

Bonewits is quite likely using "monolithic" to mean "monotheistic" religions here. Quite a large number of Neo-Pagans consider monotheistic non-Pagan religions to be best suited for some people as well as a valid way of gaining spiritual growth for the followers of those religions.

Neopagans believe in freedom of worship and belief for all religious groups and individuals who are willing to grant us our freedoms in return.

Such nobility from Mr. Bonewits... You either believe in freedom of religion, or you don't believe in it. Freedom of religion is not about returning favours to "nice religions", nor is it approving religion-based discrimination.

Most Neopagans believe in cooperation and ecumenical activities with those members of other faiths who share all or most of these beliefs.

"We accept you, one of us!" (Freaks, 1932.)

Demanding sharing beliefs is understandable when cooperation is meant to denote practicing religion together. However, demanding unity of beliefs in other kind of cooperation, for example in interfaith dialogue and learning from other religions, would leave Neo-Pagans isolated from other religions. Actually, it would lead to some Neo-Pagan religions isolating themselves from all the other faiths out there. All those Neo-Pagans who are interested in other religions and value learning from and about them highly hardly agree with Bonewits on this.

When it comes to ecumenical, it isn't strictly speaking even possible between members of different religions -- ecumenical in religious context refers to "between different denominations of a faith".

Ways of Life and Matters Relating to Society

Ecological awareness is a sacred duty and human desires and convenience are not more important than the needs of every other species on our planet. [Relating to subscribing to the Gaia hypothesis.]

As has been noted previously, all Neo-Pagans are not Nature Worshippers, nor do they subscribe to the Gaia hypothesis. Calling ecological awareness sacred can also be downright insulting to those Neo-Pagans, who are ecologically aware, but not due to religious reasons.

Neopagans do not approve of drug abuse or addiction.

Many Neo-Pagans do not have a stand on this on religious grounds at all, other than "be responsible for what you do".

Most Neopagans believe that human interdependence implies community service. [...]gh spiritual means (and many do both). This is yet another reason why Satanists, with their glorification of selfishness as the supreme value, are not Neopagans.

This is yet another example of Bonewits' habit of defining Neo-Paganism by taking stabs at Satanism. That is, it is another manifestation of the "we are nice, go persecute those Satanists over there"-syndrome.

Neo-Pagans Are Like This -- But So Are Almost Everybody Else!

Neopagans believe in the importance of celebrating the solar, lunar and other cycles of our lives. / Neopagans believe that if we are to achieve any of our goals, we must practice what we preach.

Religions that do not have celebrations connected in one way or another to the cycles of the sun and the moon are rare -- not to mention celebrating the cycles of our lives. Rare are also religions that would have the principle of not practicing what is preached. When it comes to actual real life actions, there seems to be similar problems in actualization of the principles regardless of the religion in question.

Neopaganism, like any other religion, should be a way of life, not merely a weekly or monthly social function.

Exactly. "Like any other religion."

Closing Comments

From quickly glancing through the list, Bonewits' explanation of Neo-Pagan beliefs may seem pretty accurate, as is the image he paints on Neo-Pagan spirituality. Looking closer one realizes that the definition isn't as problem-free it first appeared to be. Some points define Neo-Pagan beliefs so tightly, that a large number of people self-identifying as Neo-Pagans no longer fit in. Some are so vague they include also non-Pagans. Some points seem to be included only to remind that Neo-Pagans are not Christians, while others appear to be there only for Bonewits to demonstrate his hatred of Satanism. These points do not in themselves tell anything about what Neo-Pagans actually believe...

All in all, Bonewits seems to have looked through the wide field of Pagan religions, searching for religions he doesn't like and religious practices he views as harmful to Pagan religions being as widely accepted as possible. The result is the aftertaste his article leaves in the mouth of the reader: Neo-Paganism is a harmless religion, with the people following it being socially aware but who are even in their awareness very moderate and tolerant. Well, towards only certain folks, that is.

Well, is there Neo-Pagan unity? Should there be?

In my opinion one of the most cherished features of Neo-Paganism is the diversity of the Neo-Pagan religions and individual practitioners of Neo-Pagan spiritualities. Sacrificing this diversity on the altar of being politically correct and having an easier definition of Neo-Paganism is a price I would not want to see Neo-Pagans being willing to pay.

The varied field of Neo-Pagan religions does not prevent lively discussions and exchange of ideas, but rather creates basis for a religiously multicolored mindset, where shared beliefs are not considered to be requirements for cooperation and communication. Diversity is a resource, which should better be used to our advantage than feared.

Unifying Neo-Pagan beliefs along the lines of the Bonewits' model would lead to a situation where we would lose one of the biggest charms of Neo-Paganism and what I see as one of the original reasons for the rise of the whole Neo-Pagan religious movement: the freedom for individuals to choose their own religion without pre-digested truths "given from above". Bonewits speaks against monolithic religiosity, but still appears to want Neo-Paganism to develop towards a more unified whole. That is, a new monolith.

Bonewits would probably classify me and my opinions as antagonistic; so be it. I prefer being an antagonist-Neo-Pagan than a Bonewitsian Neo-Pagan who can be digested without leaving neither scent nor taste. The way I see it, there already is Neo-Pagan unity -- but this unity doesn't exist because of shared, common beliefs, but in spite of it.

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