The term "Pagan" comes originally from the Latin word "paganus", which appears to have originally had such meanings as "villager" or “country dweller." The Roman army used the term to refer to civilians.
The early Roman Christians used "pagan" to refer to everyone who preferred to worship pre-Christian divinities, whom the Christians had decided were all "really" demons in disguise, based on the habit of rural peoples holding on to their old faiths longer than city folks, as well as because the polytheists were unwilling to enroll in "the Roman army of the Lord.”
Over the centuries, "pagan" became an insult, applied to the monotheistic followers of Islam by the Christians (and vice versa), and by the Protestants and Catholics towards each other as it gradually gained the connotation of "a false religion and its followers.”
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the word's primary meanings became a blend of atheist, agnostic, hedonist, religionless, etc., or ignorant savage. Today, Paganism or Neo-Paganism is a collection of diverse contemporary religions rooted in or inspired by indigenous traditions worldwide. These religions are characterized by Earth-centered spirituality, belief in the interconnection of all life, personal autonomy, polytheism, and immanent divinity.
Neo-Pagans, for the most part, value diversity, good works, living lightly on the Earth, individual freedom, personal responsibility, community service, gender equity, and spiritual development.
There are many people who proudly call themselves "Pagan or Neo- Pagan," and they use the word differently from the ways that most mainstream Westerners do. To most of them, "Paganism" is a general term for polytheistic religions old and new, with "Pagan or Neo- Pagan" used as the adjective as well as the membership term.
The overwhelming majority of all the human beings who have ever lived were or are Pagans, and countless millions believe that there is an enormous wealth of spiritual insight and strength to be gained from following a Pagan or Earth based path.
The Modern Nature Religion
Many current Pagans in industrial societies base their beliefs and practices on a connection to Nature, and a divinity within all living things. Some believe that there are many deities, while some believe that the combined subconscious spirit of all living things forms a universal deity.
Today's Neo-Pagan religions may draw on ancient historical practices or be entirely new. In the case of the former, Neo-Pagans look to the beliefs, practices, gods, symbols, lands, music, and myths of a particular historical culture and adapt them for contemporary needs.
Elements such as reverence for the natural world, honoring of the ancestors, and responsibility to the community are retained. Pagan religions which are not historically based take their inspiration from visionary, artistic, and libertarian traditions to create vibrant spiritual systems centered in earth based values.
Characteristics of Pagan and Neo-Pagan Faiths
Some modern Neo-Paganism movements grew out of growing environmental awareness, though it encompasses some traditions from the Middle Ages and earlier. Consequently most Neo-Pagan religions are nature-centered.
Most Neo-Pagans rethink the way in which they relate to the Earth. Rather than seek dominance over the environment, Neo-Pagans work to live as a part of Nature, finding a balance between the self, the biosphere, and society. Part of this rethinking goes along with the resurgence of Goddess-worship, which is widespread in the Neo-Pagan movement.
Many Neo-Pagans look to the fertility Goddesses of old and find vibrant, dynamic models for ecological balance. The myriad of Goddesses from the p ast also provide Neo-Pagans with a vision of powerful feminine divinity which is missing from other Western religions.
Unlike many mainstream religious traditions, Neo-Pagans view Divinity as immanent rather than (or in addition to) transcendent. Rather than pray to some form "out there," Neo-Pagans view all living things as sacred. Diversity is seen as an expression of the divine order. People are viewed as essentially good and holy, although still capable of acting unethically.
Because of this, most Neo-Pagans view the relationship with Divinity as a deeply personal calling. It is up to each individual to develop a relationship with Divinity as s/he understands it. Because of this, there is no institutionalization within Neo-Paganism. There is no single holy book, common creed, or hierarchy of religious representatives.
This emphasis on personal exploration and development creates a highly dynamic culture of diverse people who share values of intellectual and spiritual freedom. Rather than conform to a specific set of beliefs or practices, Neo-Pagans participate in a vibrant marketplace of ideas, where people contribute and take away what resonates most deeply with them.
Community is created through regular gatherings and festivals, numerous publications, and an extensive Internet presence. While specific ethics are discussed at length within the Neo-Pagan community, the most common summation is "If it harms none, do what you will." This combines personal freedom with responsibility to the earth and to the community.
Neo-Pagan religions are dynamic, changing systems based on timeless values of faith, freedom, justice, honesty, responsibility, creativity, caring, courage, and respect. Neo-Pagans celebrate rituals to mark the Wheel of the Year, as well as life transitions such as marriage, moving, birth, or death. Some traditions celebrate rituals to comm emorate specific historic events, while others celebrate natural transitions such as lunar phases or the first snowfall of the year. Neo-Pagan religions are a way of life, affecting choices from how they pray to where they shop.
Neo-Pagans believe religion must connect them to their most deeply held spiritual beliefs. While some Neo-Pagan religions can be quite esoteric, most Neo-Pagan beliefs and practices are rooted in everyday, natural experience.