Many Neo-Pagans just call themselves “Pagan” without the “Neo-” prefix. However, this can be confusing, because the term, “Pagan,” has become an umbrella term that includes Neo-Pagans as well as many other kinds of Pagans. “Neo-Paganism” refers specifically to Paganism that is Earth-centered and eclectic.
All Neo-Pagans are Pagan, but not all Pagans are Neo-Pagan. Neo-Paganism is just one form of contemporary Paganism grouped under what is sometimes called the “Pagan Umbrella.” Contemporary Pagans are a diverse religious group with varied beliefs and practices that includes Neo-Pagans, feminist Witches, reconstructionist Pagans, devotional polytheists, occultists, and many more. What contemporary Pagans have in common is that they look to ancient pagan religions and contemporary non-monotheistic religions (like Hinduism and the African diasporic religions) for religious inspiration. But how they make use of these sources varies considerably.
“Neo-Pagan” is an inclusive term. It includes many Witches, Druids, Shamans, Animists, Goddess worshipers, religious humanists, and others. Neo-Paganism is distinguished from other forms of Paganism primarily by the centrality of the belief that nature is sacred, and for this reason it is often called an “Earth religion” or “nature religion.” This is often expressed theologically in terms of immanence or pantheism.
The difference between Neo-Paganism and other forms of contemporary Paganism is often a matter of degree. For example, while some polytheistic Pagans locate what is most sacred in their deities, who may be thought of as a part of nature, Neo-Pagans locate what is most sacred in nature, of which deities may be a part. The Earth-centered orientation of Neo-Paganism is something new, and was not always characteristic of ancient paganisms. This Earth-centered orientation is a function of the fact that the birth of Neo-Paganism in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with the birth of the environmental movement.
While many other religions, like Christianity and Buddhism, are becoming more “green” or ecological, no other non-indigenous religion has Earth-centeredness as its first principle. As Michael York explains:
“Even though such world religions as Christianity and Islam might cherish nature as a divine gift, they do not comprise nature religions. Instead, I argue that any religious perspective that honors the natural as the sacred itself made tangible, as immanent holiness, is pagan.”
Neo-Paganism can also be distinguished from reconstructionist forms of Paganism, which attempt to reconstruct the religions of ancient pagans from surviving historical sources.* Neo-Paganism is eclectic. It draws freely from many traditions, both ancient and modern, without concern for historical authenticity, to create a spirituality to meet modern needs. In the words of prominent Pagan spokesperson, Dennis Carpenter, Neo-Paganism is a “synthesis of historical inspiration and present-day creativity.”
Neo-Paganism can also be distinguished from devotional polytheistic forms of Paganism. Devotional polytheists experience Pagan deities as literal beings with distinct personalities. Neo-Pagans are more likely to understand gods and goddesses as metaphors for natural processes, as parts of our individual or collective unconscious, and/or as aspects of a greater divine unity.
* Isaac Bonewits described reconstructionist forms of Paganism as “Meso-Paganism,” in contrast to Neo-Paganism. Isaac Bonewits, “Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso-, and Neo-” (1979, 2007) [https://www .neopagan.net/PaganDefs.html]