Defining Terms of Belief
A Critique of Belief | Neurotheology - is God in our Heads?
The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith | The Biological Basis of Belief
Why do we have Beliefs? | Why are Beliefs held so Dearly? | The Stages of Belief
The Contradictions of Atheistic Assumption in the Social Sciences | Science as Religion
Joining and Leaving a Minority Religion
Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion
On Medieval Heresy | The Perceived Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion as a Tool for Social Control
Recent years have seen an increase in both awareness and uptake of the many and varied religions often referred to under the umbrella term of 'Paganism' or 'neo-Paganism'1. Perhaps the most well-known of these religions is Wicca, which has received a great deal of (largely erroneous) media coverage, especially in fictional television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, and films like The Craft. As the author of this Entry is a follower of Wicca, it will be the primary subject under consideration. This is not intended to imply Wicca is better than or greater than other neo-Pagan faiths, but rather because the author is only vaguely familiar with non-Wiccan neo-Pagan paths, of which there are many.
What is neo-Paganism?
Neo-Paganism is not a religion, but an umbrella term for a number of religions which share some common basic principles or objectives. The vast majority are earth-based religions, honouring Divine beings embodied in the earth, sky, sun and moon2. Many are based on ideas which have been passed down by oral tradition from pre-Christian Europe, although it is not uncommon to find influences from other pre-Christian religions across the world, such as those practised by native Americans and Australian Aboriginals.
Most neo-Pagan faiths also include the practising of magic3, which can be used for any purpose, although most also have laws which impose ethical guidelines on the use of such power.
There are many reasons, although some are more common than others. The most common are examined below.
Discontent with Mainstream Religion
Many neo-Pagans have at one time or another been followers of other religions, such as Christianity, which are referred to as 'dogmatic' - they have teachings (such as the Bible) which are considered to be true and unarguable. Questioning them is usually only permitted as a way to greater understanding and acceptance of them, and very few authorities in such religions would consider disposing of parts of their teaching if they were proven to be incorrect, as, it is argued, it is impossible for them to be incorrect.
Whether they be dissatisfied with the content of the teachings or the approach to personal acceptance and interpretation of these teachings, many Pagans seem to be Christians who have left the Church, preferring the emphasis on personal harmony with the Divine and the lack of dogmatic teaching, or former atheists or agnostics who were raised in a predominantly Christian environment and went looking for something else4.
Other common points where neo-Pagans disagree with the majority of mainstream religions are in morality, ethics, rules of behaviour and tolerance of other faiths and ways of life. Out of respect for the ability of all people to make their own choices, the vast majority of neo-Pagans freely accept diversity of religion, homosexuality, single parenting and other such lifestyle choices often disapproved of by mainstream dogmatic faiths, although it must be noted that progress in the mainstream faiths is being made in these areas.
It is a sad fact that many people also come to neo-Paganism, especially Wicca, possessed of misconceptions about it. They are usually teenagers, and have usually picked up their ideas from television programmes such as Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both of which portray supposedly Wiccan characters doing things which are most definitely not part of Wiccan belief or practice5. Such people, who are sometimes referred to as 'fluffy bunnies'6, will usually fanatically adopt Wicca, or at least the appearance of it, start dressing in black and wearing a pentacle7 necklace, and loudly proclaiming to anyone who will listen that they are now a powerful Witch8. This kind of behaviour is the despair of most Wiccans and other Pagans, and unfortunately often leads to bullying from both Pagans and others.
However, it can be argued that such people are not yet actual Wiccans, and this is generally what they will realise after a period of time. At this stage, one of two things happens - they pass over Wicca as just another fad, and become agnostic or atheist, or convert to a more mainstream religion; or they investigate Wicca or another neo-Pagan faith further, discover the real face of the real religion, find it to be compatible with themselves, and adopt it with a great deal of wincing about their former behaviour.
A Sense of Rightness
This is a reason why all religions gain converts - when someone is experiencing a lack of spiritual contentment and goes looking for answers, they will (hopefully) come across a faith which they find they can believe in and understand without any difficulty. For some people, that faith is one of those categorised as neo-Pagan. Their reasons for choosing it over a more mainstream faith, which they are more likely to encounter first given the current cultural situation, are likely to be very tightly linked to those seen under 'discontent with mainstream religions' above.
There are many different reasons why people choose a neo-Pagan path over a mainstream one, and for most people these reasons will be very complex indeed, possibly involving bad experiences with other religions or simply an inability to accept what they are being told. However, it is clear that many people who become neo-Pagan of whatever flavour ultimately do it because it is a haven for free thought, personal development and an expression of joy in life.
Not all forays away from the mainstream are either happy or permanent. The next entry adds a personal slant to the above, and looks at the causes and consequences of Joining and Leaving a minority religion.