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Paganism and Interfaith in the UK and Europe

The Long Journey to Inclusion

I begin this article with some degree of reservation. The reservation is rooted in my feeling that the words we use are often understood in very different ways from the way we intended them to be understood.

A circumscribed Neopagan pentagram, a symbol of faith for Wiccans – Photo: WikipediaPaganism – it is a word that can be understood in a number of different ways. Dictionary definitions vary quite widely from suggesting that Paganism is “the label used to identify those who do not believe in a divine” to “a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.” Both are extremely broad and neither really helpful in providing an understanding of ancient or modern Paganism.

But then, the modern Pagan community struggles to find a universal definition for itself, too. The organization of which I am currently president, The Pagan Federation, defines Paganism as “A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.” As someone who finds animism is an increasingly greater aspect in the experience of my beliefs and practices, I find our definition limiting, and I imagine people following their traditional, indigenous beliefs around the world might also struggle to recognize their beliefs in that definition.

An 1832 German Neopagan image of the three sisters, ‘Norns,’ of the Norse tradition, spinning the cosmos at the root of the World Tree – Photo: WikipediaYet, indigenous traditions, whether part of a continued practice, or a reconstruction or a modern, re-envisioned interpretation of indigenous traditions that may have diminished in the past, should be considered a significant feature in modern Paganism. The word ‘pagani’ has its origins in Latin and in Roman times when it meant country dweller and inferred that Pagans were ‘backward’ because they continued to follow their local, indigenous deities and traditions, rather than the beliefs followed by an urban elite. Even with the inclusion of indigenous traditions made clear, there will most certainly be modern Pagans who would say ‘What about…,” and introduce other elements into the complex task of trying to define Paganism.

A Heathen altar – Photo: WikipediaModern Pagans generally are fiercely defensive of their right to self-define as individuals. My feeling is that our extreme diversity is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because modern Pagans tend to be willing to embrace difference in others. A weakness because it is a natural feature of human experience to pigeon-hole others into a simple set of generalizations. We do the same with other faiths and spiritual traditions, too. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jew – all those labels cover a richly diverse range of beliefs and practices which we mentally simplify to these simple generalizations for our own convenience.

Paganism is an umbrella label that includes Wicca, Witchcraft, Druidry, Heathenry (based on Old Norse traditions), Shamanism, Religio-Romana (based on ancient Roman traditions), Helenismos (traditions from Ancient Greece), Kemeticism (traditions from Ancient Egypt), and a variety of other traditions. Possibly the three most widely practiced Pagan paths in England and Wales are Wicca, Druidry and Heathenry.

A second word that makes this article a challenge is ‘interfaith.’ A dictionary definition tends to bring up something along the lines of – relating to different religions or people of different religions. So it would be true to say we live in an interfaith world. The UK is an interfaith nation and Europe is an interfaith continent. All wonderfully true statements. But none of them get to the heart of the purpose for this article. My understanding is that the heart of the topic and request for this article focuses around interfaith from the perspective of dialogue and interaction between  eople of different religions, and the inclusion or otherwise of modern Pagans within that. I would also surmise that the request refers more to formal interfaith dialogue and interaction than less formal. But I find both to be particularly important where Pagan inclusion is concerned.

In the past, Paganism has been viewed with a great deal of suspicion. It was only in 1951 that England repealed the sixteenth and seventeenth century Witchcraft Acts which cast Pagans as criminals and charlatans who may or may not have been consorting with the forces of evil, a capital offence in some eras. Even today, ‘Pagan’ in the slang language of many young people means ‘liar’ and indicates a generally bad and untrustworthy person. For myself, a Pagan who adheres to a Pagan concept of honorable behavior, these statements and attributions to the label I identify with are difficult to understand. But they do further my understanding of the difficulty modern Pagans might have in engaging in interfaith dialogue and interaction, and the difficulty members of other faiths might have in understanding who modern Pagans really are.

In recent years, I am very happy to say that bodies that represent formal interfaith dialogue have been trying to embrace that challenge – understanding who modern Pagans really are. I feel it must be acknowledged that this development has shown a great deal of courage on the part of those taking up that challenge, many of whom may still retain some vestiges of the notion that Pagans are bad people who may be consorting with forces of evil. For those acts of courage, I extend my gratitude.

The Pagan Federation in Scotland has been particularly successful in gaining inclusion in interfaith interaction. I can also say that there have been individual representatives of other faiths who, at a local level, have been exploring dialogue and interaction with modern Pagans for many years. My feeling is that those explorations epitomize the core of true interfaith interaction, which is ultimately relational in nature.

Encountering the divine in nature is a theme throughout Neopaganism. – Photo: Greg HarderThrough these connections Pagans have been invited to join local interfaith groups, making it possible for others to explore interaction with modern Pagans. The historical frustrations Pagans experienced, being denied the opportunity to interact with representatives of other faith communities, have eased, and this has begun to dispel some of those suspicions about who Pagans really are. The frustration is diminished, although examples of modern Pagans being denied that opportunity still exist. With time, my feeling is that such obstructions to interaction will become a rare anomaly, thanks to the courageous open hearts of those who have been willing to embrace the challenge of understanding who modern Pagans really are.

Paganism and interfaith in Europe is at least as complex a subject as Paganism and interfaith in the UK. Different European nations have a different perspective on faith, one to another. In some nations, religion is considered extremely important, and often that translates into… one religion is extremely important, while other beliefs are viewed with varying degrees of suspicion.

In some European nations, religion is considered important, and the diversity of religions found in those nations is embraced as a good thing. In other nations religion seems to be considered as little more than the ancient Romans considered the pagani, country dwellers. So the inclusion of Paganism in interfaith within those varied European nations is a mixed bag, and generally one that sees Paganism failing to be included in any significant way and frequently suffering discrimination.

There are exceptions, however. In Iceland, for example, Norse Paganism is officially recognized as one of the religious traditions within the nation. There are pan-European interfaith bodies beginning to include Pagans as part of their interreligious dialogue. Little by little, the Pagan voice is being included. As greater numbers of people begin to gain some understanding of modern Pagans and Paganism, so too will there be a greater number of opportunities for Paganism to be included in interfaith dialogue and interaction.