Contemporary Paganism is a general term for a variety of related religious movements which began in the United States in the 1960′s, with literary roots going back to the mid-19th century Europe, as attempts to revive what their founders thought were the best aspects of ancient pagan ways, blended with modern humanistic, pluralistic, and inclusionary ideals, while consciously striving to eliminate certain elements of traditional Western monotheism, including dualistic thinking and puritanism. Some of the distinguishing characteristics of contemporary Paganism include reverence for and a sense of kinship with nature, a positive morality which emphasizes individual responsibility, and a divine which takes the form of a plurality of both male and female deities.
Many people find that philosophical naturalism, while intellectually compelling, is emotionally or psychologically unfulfilling, because it lacks the symbolic resources of theistic religions. Paganism is well-suited to fill that void. But, on the other hand, much of contemporary Paganism is prone to irrationalism and superstition. Naturalism, with its commitment to the scientific method, can counter this tendency and help sift the wheat from the chaff of contemporary Paganism. Together, naturalism and Paganism can balance each other. Naturalism can keep Paganism true to the empirical world around us, while Paganism can enrich naturalism with symbolism and myth.
Humanism, naturalism, and paganism* have a shared history, spanning centuries. Both humanism and naturalistic science flowered in Classical Greece, for example. While they declined throughout the Christian Middle Ages, they enjoyed a resurgence during the Renaissance, which also saw a renewal of Pagan imagery and symbolism. Today, the religious or spiritual practices of Humanistic Pagans are inspired by the religions of ancient pagans, but blended with modern and post-modern values and knowledge.
Ancient paganism shared many of the values important to contemporary humanists, like inclusivity and cultural relativism. In contrast to monotheists, ancient pagans worshipped multiple deities of both genders and all sexual orientations. Because of this, it has been argued that polytheism is inherently more tolerant of other perspectives and lifestyles than monotheism. In addition, many ancient pagans adopted allegorical interpretations of their (often conflicting) myths, in contrast to the monotheists’ more literal attitude toward religious texts. It has also been argued that ancient paganisms were more respectful of the natural world than the monotheistic religions. While this can be debated, many of the ancient pagan gods of nature do lend themselves to contemporary understandings of ecology.
Humanistic Pagans do not seek to reconstruct the ways of ancient pagans, but instead draw inspiration from their myths and their rituals to create a religion that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying to modern people. While Humanistic Pagans are not convinced by the metaphysical claims made by other Pagans for the existence of deities or the efficacy of magic, we do find evidence for the capacity of myth and ritual to affect psychology. Myth and ritual have the power to shape human minds, and thereby to effect change through human hands. While some contemporary Pagans may think this attitude is disrespectful of ancient pagans, in fact, many ancient pagans embraced naturalistic or allegorical interpretations of the gods and myths, as has been shown by B. T. Newberg in his Naturalistic Traditions series, Luc Brisson’s How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, and Anne Bates Hersman’s Studies in Greek Allegorical Interpretation.
* A Note on Capitalization: “Pagan” is capitalized herein where it refers to the contemporary Pagan religious communities and practices. The word should be capitalized when used as a noun or adjective in the same way that “Christian”, “Catholic”, “Mormon”, “Hindu”, “Buddhist”, and so on, are capitalized. Where “pagan” is not capitalized herein, it refers to ancient pagans predating the modern era, like the ancient Celts, Egyptians, and Norse.