Paganism: A Naked Rebellion

What is paganism, and how is different from regular religions?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Religion

Skeptoid #23
January 23, 2007
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Today we shed our arbitrary layers of corporate fabric and dance gaily through the forest glade wearing the suits we were born in — for the theme of the day is paganism.

Paganism is not well defined. The definition can be quite broad or progressively narrow. The broadest definition of paganism includes all religions but the Big Three: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. To a member of the Big Three, a pagan can be anyone who is not a member of their particular church. As you tighten the definition, you first eliminate the Dharmic religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Whittled down to just those who call themselves pagans, you have the Wiccans, Celtic Druids, witches, Goddess worshippers, and recreations of other ancient polytheistic religions like those from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Vikings. For this reason, the term neopaganism is really more accurate to describe modern pagans. Neopaganism typically does not include any Satan worshippers, which is a bit of a popular misconception. In this podcast I'm going to use the term neopaganism as if it's a religion by itself, which isn't really correct, but should generally emcompass the beliefs of most of those who consider their religion to be pagan.

Neopaganism is generally polytheistic, with gods ranging from divine beings to things in nature. Spiritualism and divinity are crucial aspects of neopaganism. Despite its separation from the world's major religions, neopagan faith is very much dependent upon supernatural beings or paranormal forces and energies. In some cases, neopagans have advertised their faith as a way to reject the inconsistencies and suspensions of science required by the major religions and yet still remain a spiritual person. However, this doesn't really hold water for me. The spiritual aspects of paganism are equally at odds with science. Pagan gods might be rocks or trees, or they might be Zeus and Athena, or they might be some other mystical force but they are still unmeasurable and undetectable paranormal entities. You can't have it both ways. If you maintain a belief in any spiritual entity, you are rejecting what science tells us about that entity.

Goddess worship is popular in neopaganism. The obvious question that the rest of us have is "Who is the goddess?" We've all seen the paintings of the dude with the beard, the white robe, and the Birkenstocks, but never of a goddess. The neopagan god and goddess are not necessarily specific beings. Many neopagans believe that whomever or whatever god is, is not necessarily knowable. But they also believe that the god has masculine and feminine aspects, which they call the god and goddess. Goddess worship is thus not the worship of a particular divine female being, it's a more general worship of femininity itself. Sometimes the goddess is linked to some of the ancient named gods like Athena, Ishtar, or Venus. Sometimes the goddess refers to divine spirituality that neopagans assign to maternity, fertility, and nurturing. Clearly the god and goddess concept is in direct contradiction with Christianity's Holy Trinity, so the absolute incompatibility of goddess worship and Christianity is an important distinction. This is another case where some neopagans try to have it both ways. But I'm not going to sit here and proclaim that this makes their religion invalid. Everyone is free to have whatever divine beliefs they want, and if they want to have a goddess that's compatible with Jesus or Mohammad, fine. It's no more or less valid than anyone else's concept of divinity.

One popular allure of paganism is its embracing of free sex and public nudity. I've always believed that more people secretly appreciate free sex and public nudity than are willing to admit it. Wiccans have even institutionalized nudity, calling it "skyclad."

Is there an obligation for those who are into skyclad self-expression and disestablishmentarianism to embrace the paranormal by joining a pagan religion? I don't see that there is. Go to Burning Man, if that's what floats your boat, or move to Los Angeles. You can have fun and indulge in individuality without adopting some form of supernaturalism. If the idea is to rebel against the straight lace church that your parents made you go to as a kid, rebel against it by recognizing that it's based on hooey rather than adopting some different but equally silly brand of hooey.

Another great way to buck the trend and be your own person is to use your own brain, by being rational and employing critical thinking, rather than using someone else's brain, and joining their organization, be it a neopagan religion, a radical environmental group, or a Republican campaign. Does the average modern Celtic Druid truly profoundly believe the doctrine of his religion, or does he just enjoy the company of a great group of people with a really neat philosophy? I'm all in favor of hanging out with great people with neat philosophy, even running around naked in the forest with them, but I don't need to adopt belief in occult magic and reincarnation — fundamentals of druid doctrine — to do it. It would be great if joining them would give me magical powers, but rationality and critical thinking tell me that it would not be so. This has saved me many full moons of streaking through forests hoping for enlightenment.

Self expression, iconoclasm, impatience with social convention, and free thinking are all great things, and something that more people should engage in. But switching from one brand of hooey to another does not accomplish any of them, and doesn't indicate that your thought process was truly critical and skeptical, and certainly not independent or unique.

So while you're casting off your robe, cast off some of that joiner mentality and seek your own answers using your own brain.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Baring, Anne, Cashford, Jules. The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of the Image. London: Penguin Books, 1993.

Johnston, Sarah Iles, editor. Religions of the Ancient World, a guide. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004. 17-31.

Magliocco, Sabina. Witching culture: folklore and neo-paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 23-92.

RF. "Comparison Chart of Wicca and Christianity." Religionfacts. Religionfacts, 30 Jan. 2007. Web. 17 Dec. 2009. <http://www.religionfacts.com/neopaganism/charts/wicca_vs_christianity.htm>

Robinson, B. A. "What do "Paganism" & "Pagan" mean?" Religioustolerance.org. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 27 Jul. 2007. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/paganism.htm>

Strmiska, Michael F. Modern Paganism in World Cultures: comparative perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Paganism: A Naked Rebellion." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 23 Jan 2007. Web. 22 Sep 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4023>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 39 comments

I for one refuse to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In all the pictures of him the noodles look too white, a sign of over cooking. I could not bring myself to believe in a pasta deity that was not al dente.

As for a false religion, not so much really. It's more your made up belief system rejects their made up belief system. The difference in subtle but important.

Craig, Washington DC
August 2, 2010 9:56am

Having seen depictions of the Flying Spaghetti Monster I have to say that the noodles look too white, a sign that they are over done. I simply could not worship a pasta based deity that was not al dente.

It's not so much that Judaism is a false religion as that it's made up story doesn't agree with your made up story. Objectively speaking there's nothing to favor your man made belief system over theirs.

Craig, Washington DC
August 3, 2010 8:11am

damnit... finally the chance of a lifetime!!!!

surely you are not saying that stearic hindrance is no better or worse than circumcision?

be very careful, on one side you get beaten up and your wife (sort of) holds some stone wrought tissue to your willie OR that idea as a philosophical paradigm of truth is more virtuous than say the way simple alpha amino acids bond with ribose along a saccharide sequence?

OY VAY HFCS!

truth is subjective and no, an ideal is not a fact.. pls... plz.. PLEASE stop blithering.

I have gone over subjectivity and truth with so many people. Each time they go through the comparative bit.

If religion is your gig you cant afford to be objective or comparative. Its why ecumenism will always FAIL!

Henk van der Gaast, Sydney
November 11, 2010 11:02pm

"You can't have it both ways. If you maintain a belief in any spiritual entity, you are rejecting what science tells us about that entity."

Today I learned that science has proven there is no God.

As weird as it is to me to be defending pagans, there is a difference between saying "we're special because science has proven our gods exist" and simply "this religion believes nothing which directly contradicts science."

"Clearly the god and goddess concept is in direct contradiction with Christianity's Holy Trinity, so the absolute incompatibility of goddess worship and Christianity is an important distinction."

I've seen Mary treated as basically a goddess, with a disclaimer that she technically isn't. Some very liberal Christians even intentionally play up her importance as a way to adopt the pagan the-divine-is-masculine-and-feminine idea. I've also seen people try to argue that the Holy Spirit part of the Trinity is feminine, though I'm pretty sure the pronouns disagree. It's the beliefs that you have to believe in Jesus, son of God, to get into Heaven; and that there are no gods but God, which make Christianity incompatible with other religions.

Finally, I get the impression your average pagan can't afford Burning Man or L.A.. After all, paganism is most appealing to people with a reason to want to rebel. As for hanging out with people who share "a neat philosophy," some end up pagan because their religion is the only way they know of to find people like that.

Kai, Washington
March 7, 2012 7:59pm

Neo paganism is a very recent phenomenom (by definition)..

Strangely.. its older than creationism and fundamentalism.

Still.. I prefer to think of you all as well dressed and healthy.

Mud, Out to pasture, Oz
June 24, 2012 6:42am

Kai: the Holy Spirit in the original Semitic is feminine. When translated to Greek (the Lingua Franca of its time) it lost the gender assignment as Greek doesn't do that. When translated again later, the feminine gender was not reinstated and so the Holy Spirit is described as masculine (by assumption) or left undecided.

Go look at the modern translations of the original books of the old testament.

Paul, Canberra
July 21, 2012 4:33pm

Paul, could you please elaborate as the "holy spirit" notion is a philosophical notion That is post Cyrus in the semitic world as far as I have noted to date.

On the flip side it only until we hit John of Patmos that Satan is a nasty critter. All other references has him as an attourney.

Now I get it!

Mud, Sin City, NSW, OZ
September 13, 2012 3:05am

I have known 'pagan' folks and am not impressed with their robbing and corrupting ancient religious concepts for their own ends.

Take the so called Druids. They were a secretive bunch and in the UK were practically eliminated by the Romans just prior to Boadicea's revolt. They did not write things down and it took an 'apprentice' decades to gain all of their 'knowledge'.

Yet here we are with 'authoritative' Arch Druids and Druids all claiming to have the secret knowledge of the ancients. BULL!

I used to have an interest in woo in the past and knew of a chap in Glastonbury who used to have a spot on radio and owned some Wiccan/woo businesses. He used to spout all this guff about the ancients and their beliefs, saying that they used hallucinogenics for worship and a kind of didgeridoo in the Long Barrows for a spiritual experience. He offered no proof as to how he KNEW these things when we have found no preserved didgeridoos or hallucinogenics, and of course the 'illiterate' Druids never wrote about it.

During that dodgy woo phase I found myself uncomfortable with people hijacking sites like Stonehenge - a place the Druids did NOT build - at midsummer and spout all kinds of nonsense, with ridiculous rituals by self-serving individuals.

All this love for nature and the Skyclad way never seemed to extend to the winter. When snow started to fall these people stopped living in their Yerts and tepees and went back to their brick houses.

Fair weather pagans, huh? lol

David Healey, Maidenhead, UK
September 17, 2012 12:38pm

You know being community minded and spirited has its advantages and especially when the offer of getting nude is about.

Sorry for starting with the normally ending aside..

David, given the way religion has reinvented itself over my lifetime, inventing a new one on a regular basis is probably not a bad way to meet and greet.

a) you might get a chance of getting a kid to read science books, history books and obviously math books once exposed to hints of nature, ancients and geometry.

b) as long as they dont self administer gaias deadly bounty or poison themselves with ritually "found food" (no manna, funny blackberries on chili looking plants nor collecting the ever wise offspring of seraphs [snakes] are probably not a good ideas wiccans and druids).

Are they actually religious? Or are they having good derivative fun like loch monster hunters with salmon lures?

I am an atheist but I enjoy some services (obviously not funerals)

You guys have procreation licenses in britain right? We like their sports teams to continue being competitive. Blue and free bowling is not an option in cricket. Maybe Scotland but not cricket.

Matinee Digress, Greenacres by the sea Oz
August 23, 2013 12:43am

the big three are just one -- abrahamic -- and satanism is just an offshoot of it
no other religions or teachings have the concept of the 'devil' -- demons, tricksters, unaligned, etc.
it's not black or white -- it's all shades of grey
.......ck

ckey, nm
July 13, 2014 1:32am

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