Paganism is not a religion

Towards a new pagan manifesto…

First appeared in Kindred Spirit issue 145 Summer edition 2016

Paganism is not a religion.

Paganism is to religion as anarchism is to politics. It is anti-religion, the opposite of religion. Not religion’s friend: its enemy.

There is no such thing as a pagan priest. The words “pagan” and “priest” are a contradiction in terms. Paganism is what the people get up to when the priest’s not looking.

You probably already know the derivation of the word: from the Latin, paganus, meaning “villager”; from pagus, “province” or “rural district.”

It is an insult, the equivalent of calling someone a yokel.

It was also an army word. A paganus was a civilian or an incompetent soldier, a derogatory term applied by the professional soldier to conscripted peasants during times of emergency.

There were pagans long before there was Christianity. Probably it applied to villagers and their peculiar rustic practices when the city-dwellers were worshipping state sponsored gods like Jupiter and Mars in the official temples of Rome.

There were a number of archaic practices which survived into Classical times, and the country gods were a dissolute lot: Faunus, a nature god, similar to Pan, often depicted with an enormous phallus, and Bacchus, the equivalent of Dionysus in the Greek world, the god of agriculture and wine, of ecstasy and sensory disruption.

Were these gods “worshipped” in the way the state gods were?

No. There were rites. There were festivities. There were sacrifices. There were celebrations. There was plenty of drinking and dancing, and no doubt any number of secret trysts in the woods and groves, but you didn’t need a priesthood to intervene on your behalf. You just got on with it. The pagan gods were understood as the presence and personification of nature and its powers and anyone could get in touch with them in the spirit of wildness and ecstasy.

Alternative spirituality

As a catch-all term for the various expressions of modern alternative spirituality, the word is so vague as to be almost meaningless.

Does it apply to crystal healing or Angel healing? What about Wicca? Or Druidry? All of these are recent additions to the shopping-list of religious products in the spiritual supermarket. Both Wicca and Druidry, while they claim antecedents in the remotest corners of history, are modern inventions. Druidry has its roots in the romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, while Wicca is only a little over half a century old.

That’s not to say that they’re not valid as ways of engaging with the world, but, we have to be clear: we’re also not hearing some ancient revelation from the dim and distant past. These are modern people’s interpretations of what an earlier people might have thought. What we know of ancient Druidry, for example, is filtered through two sets of prejudices: those of the original Classical writers with their sense of moral superiority over the quaint or barbaric practices of a rival culture; and the fantasies of the modern antiquarians who have interpreted these scanty texts through the filter of their own Romantic imagination.

None of it is “true”. All of it is fiction. You can call it religion if you like. Really it’s a form of poetry.


Modern paganism is only the most recent convulsion of the protestant reformation. It stems from Martin Luther standing up against the Universal Catholic Church back in the 16th Century. Since then we’ve been inventing and re-inventing our religion in a thousand different ways. Some of us have divested ourselves of religion altogether. We’ve come to understand, as that great English Sage, William Blake, put it, that “All deities reside in the human breast.”

The idea that I have to go to Druid camp to learn Druidry from someone born in the same century as me is absurd and not a little annoying. The idea that someone can stand in the centre circle of Stonehenge and chant material he got from reading Crowley, is likewise aggravating. Maybe we need facilitators on these occasions. Standing in circle and opening the four quarters is a nice ritual touch as it orients us in our world; but it also reminds us that we are all created equal in the great circle of life. Anyone can enter the circle. Anyone can preach. Anyone can say a prayer. Anyone can let their voice be heard.

The idea that one man should speak for everyone is an insult.

So this is what paganism is to me. It is we the people burying our own dead in rites we fashion ourselves. It is we the people marking the great changes in our lives, from birth, to marriage, to death. It is we the people making our own peace with the Universe, creating our own gods, singing our own hymns. It is we the people seeking the mystery within ourselves.

And we don’t need priests to tell us what to do.

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