Pagans face an interesting quandary. One of the main aspects of the Path that we find attractive, even key, is the thing which makes the “mainstream” shun, mock, and otherwise revile it. Actually, there are several items which that statement could apply to, but I’m speaking specifically about the perceived “looseness” or individual nature of the various strands of religious experience that fall under the Pagan umbrella.
Our society inherited a set of assumptions about what a religion “is” from the various Judeo-Christian traditions. A religion must have strict rules. There must be a sharp line between what is deemed holy and profane. Beliefs must revolve around the words or life of particular individuals. These are just a few of the elements of what most people in our society view as essential to a “real” religion.
From this perspective, Paganism looks a bit silly. It looks, in fact, like a kind of spiritual anarchy in which the only standard is the set of personal prejudices the practitioner approaches the Path with in the first place.
I won’t deny that there is some truth to this. It only takes a few minutes in a chat room or an e-list to see the “free for all” attitude taken to an extreme. People often come to Paganism from extremely dogmatic forms of Christianity, and any suggestion that there might be something which is critical for defining what is or is not “Pagan” tends to sound a lot like what they’re trying to get away from.
The primary assumptions of both perspectives need to be reassessed. “Religion” need not look like the quasi-historical, book based religions we are used to, with clearly defined rules and concrete moral proscriptions. A general guideline or set of ethical behaviors does not have to degrade into dogma.
A big part of the problem is that “Paganism” is an umbrella term for a number of belief systems that have, in some cases, little to do with one another. Many of them do not preclude adherence to other systems. To a certain degree, the word “Pagan” has little meaning without a qualifier.
What amuses me about this is that it puts the term in almost exactly the same boat as the word “Christian.” While the common source material that the various Christian traditions draw from does create a certain specific language and one or two main things that few actually agree on, the various denominations diverge at least slightly in most cases, in others quite widely. There are, for instance, vast differences between a Quaker and a Southern Baptist. About the only thing they have in common is that they read from the same book.
Modern Paganism simply has more books, and more importantly, many Gods. While two Pagans might not have the same ideas about religion, if two devotees of Hecate are actually contacting and dealing with Hecate, their experience will be quite similar. It will be different the way two people’s experience of another person would be, rather than the way a Catholic’s experience of Mary is different from a Fundamentalist.
The key to making Paganism comprehensible as something other than another New Age trend, it seems to me, is emphasizing it’s polytheistic nature. Polytheism, by its very dynamic, includes many different ethical experiences and approaches.
From this reverence for many deities, we can start to imagine a more holistic, less dualistic ontology. The dynamic becomes less about the difference between the “Sacred” and the “Profane” but between the Part and the Whole.
This may not in itself make Paganism acceptable to those who see religion as a question of following God given rules and cannot see it any other way. But for the truly narrow minded, nothing will.