The Contemporary Pagan Movement is hard to pin down by design. Paganism is a very big (and often literal) tent and those inside form and un-form groups freely. The Pagan belief in the supremacy of nature is general enough that it leaves room for specific faiths to emerge from specific beliefs. In a sense, what unites Pagans is also what divides them, a deconstructionist view of what it means to have religion in modern society. Most do not have a unifying text and do not have a central governing body. Modern Pagans flesh out modern faiths using the bones of ancient religions.
In the United States there are between 500,000 and a million self-identified Pagans, a small fraction of the number of people who identify as Pagans worldwide. The breadth of Pagan faiths is debatable — just because someone may call themselves the same thing, it doesn’t mean they share an understanding — but it’s hard to argue with those who want to join the faith. The core tenant of being a Pagan is being a Pagan. That said, here’s a guide to what that means for those within the religious movement.
Wicca is the fastest growing form of religious identification in the United States. But the label itself means something to different people — some Wiccan see themselves as witches; other witches see their practice a part of an ancient folk practice, unaffiliated with the idea of religion. Wiccans practice Witchcraft with a capital W — a distinguisher that marks it as modern faith.
It’s thought that Wicca was developed as a Pagan religion around 1950 in England by Gerald Gardner — a controversial figure seen as either the High Priest or a creep. Gardner’s idea of Wicca is a combination of pagan deities, rituals, folk magic, and ceremonial magic. A movement reflective of its times, Wicca reflects much of the counter-culture movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Feminism, environmentalism, self-development and a distaste for central authority are all pillars within the faith. Both men and women can be Wicca and typically address their deities as God and Goddess. While there are no central authorities in covens, membership is typically attained via an initiation by a High Priestess or Priest.
While some academics say Neo-Druidism is rooted in the seventeenth century, slowly became more noticeable in the early 1900s, and entered into more mainstream consciousness over the next century, the actual pioneer of this religious movement is contested. Some credit George Watson MacGregor Reid for combining ancient Druidism with modern ideas of faith to create Neo-Paganism; others consider Gardner’s friend Ross Nichols to be the first Neo-Druid and founder of the Order of the Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Regardless, popularity for Neo-Druidism has been slowing building — today thousands of people still gather at Stonehenge to celebrate and renew their faith. Since 2010 Druidry has been recognized as an official religion in the United Kingdom.
Many Druids believe that nature is fundamentally spiritual and that Druidism is the spiritual path allowing a connection to this cosmic force. The majority of Druids believe that the soul goes through a process of reincarnations and that lives alternate from existing solely in this world and existing in the Otherworld.
“One of the things that attracts people to Druidry is the sense that it provides a link with the past,” Philip Shallcrass, founder of the British Druidic Order, is quoted to have said. “For the Druid, the past is not a static thing that held fast within the dry and dusty pages of history books, but a living part of our reality; it is how we become who we are and a blueprint for what we may yet become.”
James Lovelock, a British scientist, environmentalist and iconoclast, came up with the Gaia hypothesis while working for NASA in the 1960s. The idea was that Earth is a living organism with a functioning self-regulating system which allows all other life to exist. This theory was further developed in tangent with his peer, the biologist Lynn Margulis, and named by The Lord of the Fly’s William Golding.
This hypothesis was essentially shunned from the scientific community from the beginning, since it basically goes against everything already established in biology and evolution. But the general public embraced the idea — joining Gaia groups; creating Gaia churches. The idea that the Earth was a powerful entity and the use of Gaia — historically, a powerful pre-Titan Greek goddess — appealed to those already connecting with the humanistic Pagan movement.
Lovelock has publicly said that this was not his intention: He was implying that Earth acted like a single, living being but was not actually a conscious and personal being. But people had already connected their spiritual inclinations with a more ecological perspective that pressed the idea that living “green” was a spiritual cause.
“Pagans were already discovering and uncovering the power of evoking and communicating with Nature as a living, personal, and autonomous being,” writes Graham Harvey in Contemporary Paganism. “The scientists’ Gaia resonated with Pagan inclinations about the nature of deity and seemed to suggest appropriate means of building relationships.”
Neo-Norse Paganism is reiteration of an ancient polytheistic religion, most commonly broken into two two branches of faith: Asatru and Odinism. This belief system also focuses on living in harmony with nature and follows gods like Thor. It is increasingly popular where it first began — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland — but is gaining steam in the United States as well, where it is now legal for Thor’s Hammer to be carved on military gravestones and inmates can receive special accommodations to perform Norse rituals.
Most adherents are nonviolent and inclusive — particularly followers of Asatru, which emphasizes less of a indigenous origin story than Odinism. But much like other religions, some people have determined their own interpretation of the faith to suit their needs. While nothing about Neo-Norse paganism speaks to race, the faith has appealed to those looking for a militantly racist religion — particularly in the United States where it has been interpreted by some as more “purely” white than Christianity.
This is a stark contrast to the 3,000 Asatru followers in Iceland, where their faith is the fastest growing religion in the country. They emphasize tolerance and individual liberty while being open to all ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and sexual and gender identifications.