What is Neo-Paganism?

“Earth-centered World” by Glynn Gorick

Neo-Paganism “is in its essence the worship of the pow­ers of this world, beautiful or terrible, but all in a circle un­der the turning sky above, which is One.”

— C.A. Burland, Echoes of Magic (1972)

Neo-Paganism is a new religious movement that began in the United States in the 1960s, with literary roots going back to mid-19th century Europe, as attempts to revive what their founders thought were the best aspects of ancient pagan ways, blended with modern humanistic and pluralistic ideals, while con­sciously striving to eliminate certain elements of traditional West­ern mono­theism, including dualistic thinking and sexual puritanism. The distinguishing characteristics of Neo-Paganism include a perception of divinity as immanent, a multiplicity of deities, both feminine and masculine, a commitment to environ­mental responsibil­ity, and a creative approach to ritual.

Religious studies scholars, Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin, gave the following description of Neo-Paganism in their 1987 survey of Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America:

“The unifying theme among the diverse [Neo-Pagan] tradi­tions … is the ecology of one’s relation to nature and to the various parts of one’s self. As Neo-Pagans under­stand it, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that the hu­man intellectual will is to have dominion over the world, and over the unruly lesser parts of the human psy­che, as it, in turn, is to be subordinate to the One God and his will. The Neo-Pagans hold that, on the contrary, we must … cooperate with nature and its deep forces on a basis of reverence and exchange. Of the parts of [human­kind], the imagination should be first among equals, for [humankind’s] true glory is not in what [they command], but in what [they see]. What wonders [they see] of nature and of [themselves they leave] untouched, save to glorify and celebrate them.

“What Neo-Pagans seek is a new cosmic religion ori­ented to the tides not of history but of nature—the four di­rections, the seasons, the path of the sun—and of the timeless configurations of the psyche. They seek not that morality that comes from imposing the will on reluctant flesh, nor the mystical trance that is the fruit of asceti­cism, but the expansiveness of spirit that comes from al­lowing nature and rite to lower the gates confining the civi­lized imagination. For them, this is the spirit called up by the names ‘pagan’ and ‘polytheism.’ …

“[Neo-Pagans] seek to restore a proper balance between masculine and feminine symbolization of the sacred. They seek to recover a sense of wonder and respect as reli­gious feelings toward nature in all its moods and to­ward the human body and psyche. Thus they want to find a new totality, perhaps in reaction to a schizo­phrenic culture. They look for it in a new cosmic religion that vehemently rejects the religious value of history, while it radically affirms the religious value of raising the level of consciousness through stimulation of the imagi­nation by ritually creating a suggestive and sacred mi­lieu.”

Updated 2019

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