This might be controversial, but I feel like I’ve been getting to the point for a while now, it needs saying without reservations:
The most pagan thing I know is science.
Now on to the somewhat lengthy explanation.
The word “paganism” has been reclaimed by modern folks–witches, druids, non-indigenous shamans, Wiccans, and more–for a good while now. Long enough to admit it isn’t entirely true. We are not the pagans of old, and our religion has a passing resemblance to the Old Ways before Christianity. Though many reconstructionist movements seek to study the remnants of the past and piece together an ancient practice, not all the pieces will fit with our modern sensibilities and ethics. Large scale animal sacrifice isn’t in vogue any more than human sacrifice is (whatever form it took, voluntary or not). The orgiastic abandon of the Maenads come ear-marked with all sorts of modern ideas like consent, entheogens, skyclad, and so on.
These are all good things, in many ways inevitable. At least fifteen hundred years separate us from the ancients and we couldn’t recreate their world, regardless of our deepest wishes. Only the most dedicated of us would even want to. The realist comes to this conclusion gracefully and accepts that modernizing of the Old Ways, the alchemy of changing ways. We’ve become neopagans by necessity, because times flows every onward.
There seems to be some contention on this regard, albeit more specific. A recent Patheos post by John Halstead shed light on the situation: a split between “neopagans” and “polytheists” that goes beyond our own religion, digging deeper. Halstead posits that both “branches” are reactions to and against aspects of Christianity. Neopagans react against the -theism and polytheists react against the mono- part. In the end, we become referential to the dominant mythos in our modern world–a newborn faith, mindful of its roots, seeking its own identity.
In my opinion, we are indeed newborn and the identity we’ve emulated to this point is not the one our ancient forebears possessed. At least, not entirely. In many ways we swallowed whole the spiritualism and romanticism of the 19th century, the Freudian and Jungian paradigms of early psychology, the befuddlement of the New Age. They’re buried in our intellectual strata like glittering quartz crystals, stolen from a foreign landscape and incongruous to ours.
It is true that there is wisdom in other religions, older than ours. Taoist writings and Zen koans are valid sources of inspiration and insight, as is the Buddhist Eightfold Path. But those things aren’t the Old Ways we seek. Native American shamanism might share ideological roots with our Old World faiths, but they emerged from different landscapes and in response to different genius loci. Each of these things are precious threads of human experience; they might contain some universal language of faith, but they are not equivalent. They are unique. About time we realize this and move on.
We come to science, at last. To the story of Epicurus, Aristarchus of Samos, Socrates and his students, and so many others. The roots of our modern science and philosophy–a surprising amount that has survived with only minor scratches and revisions–lies in the Classical, pagan past. From here come the basic ideas of atomism, heliocentric orbits, politics and society, democracy, and more. These are the seeds that lay dormant in the long winter of European civilization, the ideas that “civilized” the wild hordes. In time, they would emerge in the thaw of ecclesiastical power and challenge the convictions of stifling orthodoxy. Often, these roots of our pagan past fought and won over the Church, spread to new minds and grew.
I know some pagans share the fundamentalist Christian view of the Enlightenment Period, believing it strips away our wonderment and belongingness in nature. They couldn’t be furthest from the truth. To the scientists we know remember and even idolize, the Enlightenment was divine illumination, an awakening of Nature to humans. They observed It with worshipful patience and gleaned the principles reality was founded upon, the complex interactions in the wondrous physical world. They began to know the mind of “God” (in the pantheist/pandeist perspective).
All along the ancients echo this wonderment. From the ancient world, they speak of Nature without Veils, whose mysteries are knowable. Here, our ancient past joins the ranks of Hindu Brahmans and Taoist monks, the revelations of the Buddha on the mind and void. This is our heritage, not the cast-offs of Christianity, repackaged as some mysterious past.
This is not to say I would put down what is today understood as neopaganism. Such value judgments have no place in a serious discussion of any religious philosophy. I am speaking for myself, using the first person pronoun (what “I know“). My sincerest wish is not to offend or impress, but to make a point about our theological origins and an aspect of our pagan ancestry that might sometimes get ignored.