Values, beliefs, practices

What makes you a Pagan? Is it what you believe, what you do, or something else?

Some other religions

Because Christianity is strongly creedal (uniting around a set of beliefs), people tend to assume that all other religions must also unite around beliefs.

However, in Hinduism (a religion which has many similarities to Paganism), there are many different beliefs, ranging from monotheism to monism to polytheism. Rather than uniting around a specific belief, groups of Hindus unite around devotion to a specific deity, guru, or practice.

Unitarian Universalists unite around values, not beliefs. They affirm that a free and responsible search for meaning is up to the individual, and they do not have a creed. That doesn’t mean you can just believe what you like; it means that you have a responsibility to discover your perspective on truth.

Jews don’t ask what you believe; they ask if you’re observant – do you observe the mitzvot (commandments)? The degree to which the commandments are carried out, and how they are interpreted, depends on whether the person is an Orthodox Jew, Reform Jew, or Liberal Jew. But being a religious Jew (as opposed to a cultural or ethnic one) implies some level of observance.

Pagan traditions

It has often been said that Wicca is an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy. In other words, most Wiccan rituals include standard practices such as sweeping, casting a circle, consecrating water and salt, calling the quarters, raising power, cakes and wine, and closing the quarters and the circle. However, the beliefs of individual Wiccans can and do include animism, polytheism, atheism, duotheism, polymorphism, and pantheism.

Beliefs also vary within Druidry, so I would argue that what makes you a Druid is performing Druid rituals.

Reconstructionists tend to place greater emphasis on having polytheistic beliefs, but even within that, there is some variation; and the key feature of belonging to a Reconstructionist path is that you work within the mythology of that tradition.

So it appears that what makes you a Pagan is that you identify as Pagan. It could be argued that participating in a Pagan tradition, and being recognised by other members of it as a Pagan, is what makes you a capital-P Pagan rather than a small-p pagan, but that distinction gets a bit blurry when you start talking about solitary practitioners, and people who identify as Pagan among Unitarians in the UK (where there are no CUUPs chapters). Personally, I want to include these two categories as Pagan.

It is possible to identify a few beliefs that most Pagans share, but they are not defining characteristics of Paganism, partly because members of other religions also have these beliefs, and partly because not all Pagans have them. Most Pagans believe in reincarnation; most believe that the Divine and/or deities is/are immanent in the world; most believe that the Divine and/or deities include(s) both male and female. Many Pagans embrace an ethic of environmental sustainability. That’s about it for common beliefs though, so it’s almost impossible to use belief as a yardstick of who is or isn’t Pagan.

Pagans often have a lot of values in common, such as feminism, personal autonomy, making up your own mind about ethics, environmentalism, and so on, but these are not required features of being a Pagan.

Many people have tried to define Paganism as a specific set of beliefs, but you can always find someone who says “I don’t believe that” and yet is still a Pagan. So defining membership of Paganism in general, or any particular Pagan tradition, by beliefs is bound to fail.

Defining Paganism by its values might work better, but it would take a long time to figure out which Pagan values are core values, and which are not. The excellent Pagan Values blogging project, started by Pax, at least describes some Pagan values, but I think it’s fair to say that there is not really a consensus as to what values are specifically Pagan. It’s great that a conversation about Pagan values is happening in the public sphere, though.

You might define Paganism as being about old mythologies, but then what about people who work with newly discovered pantheons? I think being interested in gods and goddesses is a good description of most Pagans – but it depends if you want to include pantheists (who might not be interested in specific deities) under the Pagan umbrella, or not.

Even the proposal to define Pagan traditions as orthopractic is a bit problematic. If someone decides not to cast a circle for their ritual, does that suddenly make them not Wiccan? Not in my book – they probably had a valid reason for choosing not to. I think a shared set of practices is a better basis for describing a religion than either beliefs or values, though.

SENZ umbrella testing - photo by Eelke Dekker

Will the “Pagan umbrella” survive a storm?
(photo by Eelke Dekker – Wikipedia)

It’s unlikely that anyone will ever come up with a really watertight definition of Paganism that satisfies everyone. I think you can define individual traditions a bit more easily, because they tend to have internal rules about who counts as a member. The problem with the Pagan umbrella is that if you pull it down on one side to give shelter to one group, you end up letting the rain in on another group that is excluded by your new definition.

You can describe Paganism as generally including a particular set of values, beliefs, and practices – but it’s very hard to extract a definition from that description.