There is much debate within the Pagan community about how to define Paganism. This is due, in part, to the fact that Paganism has at least three “centers” or sacred foci. Each of these centers defines Pagan identity and Pagan authenticity differently. Each of these groups has a unique way of defining and relating to that “something” which is greater than ourselves. This makes defining Paganism in terms of a single set of principles impossible. Rather than one Pagan Umbrella, it is helpful to think of the Pagan community as three overlapping umbrellas.*
Earth-centered Paganism includes those forms of Paganism concerned primarily with nature and ecology, the more local forms of Paganism, and the many forms of neo-animism that view humans as non-privileged part of an interconnected more-than-human community of living beings. The identity of Earth-centered Pagans as “Pagan” is defined by their relationship to their natural environment. Authenticity for this group is defined by their ability to connect with the more-than-human world.
For Earth-centered Pagans, the Earth or nature is that “something” which transcends the individual. Earth-centered Pagans seek to enter into an intentional relationship with the natural world, and a sense of wonder and connection is what primarily characterizes that relationship. An experience of interconnectedness with the non-human or more-than-human world is a core virtue of Earth-centered Paganism. This sense of interconnectedness is sometimes called “re-enchantment,” and it refers to an expanded awareness of the interconnected nature of reality and of our participation in the natural world.
Neo-Paganism exists in the overlap between Earth-centered Paganism and Self-centric Paganism.
As it is used here, “Self-centric” is not meant in the pejorative sense of ego-centrism. The “Self” (which should always be capitalized) refers to that larger sense of Self that extends beyond the boundaries of the individual ego, the wholeness that gives rise to, but is more encompassing than, the normal conscious identity that we commonly call our “self.” This more expansive identity is sometimes called the “Deep Self” or the “Larger Self.” Jungian psychoanalyst, Edward Whitmont, calls it “the non-I in the depth within.” Self-centric Paganism includes many Jungian Neo-Pagans, “soft” polytheists**, and feminist Witches.
The identity of Self-centric Pagans as “Pagans” is defined by spiritual practices that aim to develop the individual, spiritually or psychologically. Paganism is, for some Self-centric Pagans, a form of therapy or self-help. Authenticity for this group is determined by one’s relationship with one’s Self. To put it another way, Pagan authenticity for this group is measured in terms of personal growth, whether that growth be toward psychological wholeness or ecstatic union with the divine.
For Self-centric Pagans, the Self is that “something” which transcends the individual. Self-centric Pagans seek to enter into relationship with the Self by disassociating from the ego-self and identifying with the larger Self. Insight is a core virtue for Self-centric Pagans, because insight is what enables us to distinguish the ego from the Self.
Self-centric Paganism stands in some tension with more deity-centered forms of Paganism.
The term, “deity-centered,” is borrowed from Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone’s Progressive Witchcraft (2004). Deity-centered Paganism includes many forms of devotional polytheism and “hard” polytheism**, and many reconstructionist forms of Paganism.
The Pagan identity of deity-centered Pagans is defined by a dedication to one or more pagan deities. Authenticity for this group is determined by one’s relationship with those deities. In some ways, deity-centered Paganism resembles other theisms, including charismatic forms of Christianity and the bhakti religions of Hinduism.
For deity-centered Pagans, the gods are that “something” which transcends the individual. Deity-centered Pagans seek to enter into relationship with the gods. Devotion is what primarily characterizes that relationship. Faith and devotion are core virtues for deity-centered Pagans.
Interaction among the Centers
These categories are not exclusive. They share overlapping circumferences. There is often tension between these three centers in Paganism. Neo-Paganism overlaps with both Earth-centered and Individuals who gravitate toward different centers may have widely different understandings of concepts like “god,” “spirit,” “magic,” “worship,” etc.
Some people who might otherwise fall into one or more of these three categories have rejected the label “Pagan,” because they perceive the label as having been co-opted by one of the other “centers” with which they do not identify. Thus, some polytheistic deity-centered practitioners may eschew the Pagan label because, for them, it is associated with Self-centric or Earth-centered forms of Paganism. Regardless of the terminology which individual practitioners prefer, these terms remain useful for understanding the commonalities and differences among Pagans today.
Three Classical Paganisms
The three centers of contemporary Paganism correspond to the different ways in which the term, “pagan,” has been used by scholars of classical paganism. When Earth-centered practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often the ancient pagans of the countryside that they imagine, the people who worshiped the gods and spirits of the local landscapes where they lived (many of the names of which have now been forgotten).
In contrast, when deity-centered practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often the worshipers of the more well-known gods and goddesses of the poets and the state (polis) religions with which they identify. The reason for this is purely practical. In order to reconstruct an ancient pagan religion, one must have sources. Folk religions leave little trace. In contrast, the religions of the state are better documented in writing and in monuments.
Finally, when Self-centric practitioners identify with the Pagan label, it is often the participants in the ancient pagan Mysteries, like the Eleusinian Mysteries, with which they identify. In fact, many Self-centric Pagans, like Vivianne Crowley attempt to draw historical and conceptual links between the classical Mysteries and present-day Pagan rituals.
Three Pagan Reactions to Abrahamic Monotheism
The term, “pagan,” has also been used historically to mean “non-Christian.” To a certain extent, contemporary Paganism is a reaction to Christianity, or more accurately, Abrahamic monotheism. To the extent that this is true, each of the three centers of Paganism represents a different reaction to Abrahamic monotheism.
Earth-centered Pagans reject the other-worldly focus of Abrahamic eschatology and the dualistic separation of matter and spirit. They reject the conception of divinity as transcendent and the notion that nature is fallen, and they reject the anthropocentrism of the Abrahamic narrative. Self-centric Pagans, on the other hand, reject the Abrahamic condemnation of the body, of sexuality, and of the feminine. They seek to reclaim all those aspects of the Self that have been repressed by Abrahamic morality. Finally, deity-centered Pagans, who value pluralism, reject monotheism and all it implies, including the notion that there is only one path to the divine.
A Fourth Center?
Some people have discerned a fourth center in Paganism: community. This may be due to the influence of Heathenry on Paganism.
Community-centered Pagans define their Pagan identity by belonging to the group that calls itself “Pagan.” Authenticity for this group is defined in terms of conformity to communal norms and participation in group rituals. For community-centered Pagans, the community (or “tribe”) is that “something” which transcends the individual. The relationship between community-centered Pagans and the community is ideally characterized by mutual fidelity.
* John Beckett describes this model of the Pagan community in The Path of Paganism (2017), where he presents it as his own. I first described this model when I wrote at Patheos in 2012, and Beckett, who was also a writer at Patheos, first borrowed the idea in 2013. Though Beckett credited me at the time, he did not when he later published his book in 2017. What happened in the interim was that I, and two dozen other Pagan writers at Patheos, left the forum in protest of the Evangelical Christian owners’ support of anti-LGBT organizations and the increased corporate control over the content of the writing at Patheos. Beckett, who chose to remain at Patheos, became one of its most vocal defenders.
** “Soft polytheism,” in contrast to “hard polytheism,” refers to a belief in deities as symbols of natural forces or archetypes of the Self. “Hard polytheism,” in contrast to “soft polytheism,” refers to a belief in literal deities with distinct personalities.