What Neopagans Believe


Neopagan Polytheology 101

(Version 5.6.5)

Copyright © 1974, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

Introductory Warnings

I have rewritten this essay many times over the last thirty-plus years, both as “What (Do) Neopagans Believe(?)” and as “What (Do) Neopagan Druids Believe(?)” — the latter title because I wanted my tradition of Druidism to be rooted in those opinions held by most other Neopagans. While fully aware that there are some in the Neopagan community who resist vigorously any attempt to codify Neopagan beliefs, and that some Neopagans — and many Mesopagans — may disagree strongly with one or more of the following statements, I think it is an accurate synthesis of the majority view in the Neopagan movement. I am also making clear in this version what ideas Neopagans generally don’t believe, an increasingly important element in our interfaith dialogues with non-Pagans.

Clarifying our “doctrines” (the things we do and don’t believe) without descending into “dogma” (the things we are ordered to believe or disbelieve by someone in a position of power over us) is a vital step in the growth of any new religious movement. True, I’m something of an “(anti-?)authority figure” within the Neopagan community, yet I have no ability to force anyone to believe or disbelieve anything. Neither do those antagonists who seek to disrupt our community from within by loudly demanding that we draw no lines that might ever exclude anyone, for any reason, ever. The Neopagan community has the right and the duty to define itself and such definitions are made by the majority of our members and leaders — and have been over the last thirty years. Those who insist on waiting to define who and what we are until some mythical 100% consensus can be achieved are being deliberately ingenuous — they know full well that the more people who are involved in an attempt to achieve consensus about any topic, let alone a religious one, the less the chances are of ever succeeding.

Not everyone in the Neopagan community will use the term “belief” in reference to these concepts and many of these concepts have a wide variety of accepted interpretations within Neopaganism. Even so, it’s reasonably easy to list those ideas with which a majority of Neopagans usually agree or disagree, and thus sketch the outlines of our doctrines, just as the members of their faiths could for the Evangelical Christians, Mahayana Buddhists, Sikhs, or Taoists. Do such declarations create “reality” or reflect it? Yes.

By the way, if you’re completely unfamiliar with the terms “Paleopaganism,” “Mesopaganism,” and “Neopaganism,” you can read “Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso- and Neo-” for a quick overview. Definitions of other terms used in this essay will be found in my Pagan Glossary. My own interpretations of, and extensions to, the basic Neopagan beliefs listed in this essay will be found in my other writings on this website as well as in future books.

Thou Art God/dess

Neopagans believe that divinity is both immanent (internal) and transcendent (external), with immanence being far more important for people to pay attention to right now. This principle of immanence is frequently phrased as, “Thou art God” or “Thou art Goddess.” (The former phrase was taken originally from Robert Heinlein’s classic novel, Stranger in a Strange Land,  and the Neopagan organization it inspired, the Church of All Worlds.) Deities can manifest at any point in space or time which They might choose, whether externally (through apparent “visitations”) or internally (through the processes known as “inspiration,” “conversation,” “channeling,” and “possession”). This belief often develops among Neopagans into pantheism(“the physical world is divine”), panentheism(“the Gods are everywhere”), animism (“everything is alive”), or monism (“everything that exists is one being”) all of which are concepts accepted by some Neopagans.

Original Sanctity

Neopagans believe that children are born holy, since they have no barriers of consciousness between them and their indwelling deities. So the concept of “original sin” — the idea that all children are born innately evil and have to be cleansed by a magical ceremony before they can become good — is alien to us. Babies arrive in a morally and ethically neutral state, although the reincarnationists among us would claim that tendencies towards certain types of behavior may be carried from previous lifetimes. Because of this reverence for children, Neopagans do not approve of any form of child abuse. Some members of our community may perpetuate the abuse they received growing up in a dysfunctional mainstream culture, but unlike in many other faith communities, such mistreatment is not religiously justified nor excused.

Goddesses and Gods

Neopagans believe that divinity is as likely to manifest in a female form as it is in a male form, and that the word “Goddess” makes just as much sense as “God.” Women and men are spiritually equal, and “masculine” and “feminine” attitudes, values, and roles are of equal importance, regardless of the physical gender of those exercising them. Many Neopagans believe that feminine energies and values are more needed to balance masculine excesses of current cultures. Hence, the common emphasis on Goddesses in our myths and rites, and the presence of “Goddesses-only” worshipers as a significant minority of the Neopagan community.

Polytheism and Pluralism

Neopagans believe in a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, as well as “lesser” beings, many of Whom are worthy of respect, love and worship. We have a wide variety of non-exclusive concepts as to the nature of these entities. While some of us believe in a “Supreme Being,” we don’t anthropomorphise Him/Her/It/Them — i.e., a Supreme Being is not perceived as even remotely humanoid — a concept like the Tao or the “Force” is perhaps closer to an adequate concept. Even when such a Being is part of the picture, Neopaganism as a whole is polytheistic and focuses its attention on the deities associated with our planet.

Within that overall polytheism, much of Neopaganism is “duotheistic” (with female deities seen as aspects of a single Goddess, and male deities as aspects of a single God). A significant minority of Neopagans worship only female deities. Along with polytheism comes a logical tendency towards pluralism, leading thoughtful Neopagans to reject dualistic or “binary” logic systems that paint the universe in terms of black vs. white, in favor of multivalued or “fuzzy” logic systems that accept the astonishing complexity and ambiguity of life, the universe, and everything.

No Gods of Evil

Neopagans do not believe in, respect, or worship any divine or semidivine figure of ultimate Evil, leaving such concepts to the dualistic monotheists. “The Devil” is a character in Christian and Islamic mythology, a blasphemous parody of ancient Paleopagan deities, and an entity we have not the least bit of interest in. Those who insist that our beloved deities are “really demons in disguise,” are simply exhibiting their ignorance, their dualism, and their bigotry, as their predecessors have been doing for centuries. Thus our community says to both the conservative Christian community and its shadow side, the modern Satanist movement, One cannot be a Satanist and a Neopagan at the same time, though it is, perhaps, possible to be a Satanist and a Mesopagan simultaneously.

Nature Worship

Most Neopagans believe it is necessary to respect and love Nature as divine in Her own right, and to accept ourselves as part of Nature and not Herrulers.” Many of us accept what has come to be known as “the Gaia hypothesis.” As first articulated by Neopagan polytheologian Oberon (then Tim) Zell (and later in secular terms by scientist James Lovelock), it states that the biosphere of our planet is a living Being who is due all the love and support that we, Her children, can give Her. Ecological awareness is a sacred duty and human desires and convenience are not more important than the needs of every other species on our planet. Please note that this last statement is not the extremist position that we and other environmentally concerned movements are often accused of having.

Cautious Technophilia

Most Neopagans believe in accepting the positive aspects of Western science and technology — most of us love our computers! — but also in maintaining an attitude of wariness towards the supposed ethical neutrality of that science and technology. We consider it important that scientists and engineers (like everyone else) pay as much attention to their methods as they do to their goals. Just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean we should do it. We have in the Neopagan community significant minorities of both anti-technology neo-Luddites and back-to-the-landers, as well as pro-technology science fiction fans and space exploration supporters.

Positive Ethics

Neopagans believe that ethics and morality should be based upon joy, love, self-esteem, mutual respect, the avoidance of actual harm to ourselves and others — human or nonhuman — and the increase of public benefit. Most Neopagans believe in some variant or another of the principles of “karma,” and many Neopagans will affirm that the results of their actions will always return to them, sooner or later. This belief that “what goes around, comes around,” whether thought of as karmic retribution or as an ecological principle, has a major influence on the ethical choices made by most Neopagans. Thus we try to balance individual needs for personal autonomy and growth with the necessity of paying attention to the impact of our actions on the lives and welfare of others, including other living beings and the environment as a whole (Gaia). This does not deter us from fighting for justice, freedom, and the rights of those who cannot fight for themselves, but it does require us to practice rigorous self-honesty before, during and after we are engaged in such fighting. These beliefs have led many Neopagans to become vegetarians, animal rights activists, pacifists and/or environmental activists.

The Good Life

Neopagans believe that human beings were meant to lead lives filled with joy, love, pleasure, beauty and humor. Most Neopagans are fond of food, drink, music, sex, and bad puns, and consider all of these (except possibly the puns) to be of spiritual value, at least when practiced among consenting adults and not taken to destructive excess. Neopagans may be carnivores, vegetarians, or omnivores, depending upon their individual religious beliefs, but we all approve of good cooking! Some Neopagans abstain from alcoholic beverages, especially if they are members of a Pagans In Recovery group, but most neither abstain themselves nor disapprove of others drinking. Neopagans are enthusiastic about many different forms of music and dance, especially tribal and ecstatic forms.

Assertively Pro-Sexual Attitudes

Many Neopagans consider sexual ecstacy as both a divine blessing and a major source of spiritual growth and enlightenment, though we vary widely in how, with whom, and under what circumstances we seek such ecstacy. Thus many Neopagans are actively involved in Tantric practices and disciplines, whether traditional, reconstructed, or recently synthesized. By and large, the Neopagan community is sympathetic towards many sexual minorities and alternative relationship styles which have been persecuted by monotheistic religions for sexist or erotophobic reasons. A Neopagan may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgendered or undecided; may have wildly unusual sexual practices (including celibacy!) or be “plain vanilla” in their tastes. A Neopagan may be in a monogamous relationship, in one or more polyamorous ones, or have no romantic relationships at all. A Neopagan may live in an Industrial Age nuclear family or a traditional or untraditional extended one. As long as all parties involved are happy and healthy, Neopagans will generally approve (or at least not actively disapprove).

Magic and Mystery

Neopagans believe that with proper training, art, discipline and intent, human minds and hearts are fully capable of performing most of the magic and miracles they are ever likely to need. Magical and/or miraculous acts are done through the use of what most of us perceive as natural (some say “divinely granted”) psychic talents, or occasional divine intervention. Most Neopagans seem to accept the laws of magic, outlined in my book “Real Magic,” as accurate descriptions of the way magical phenomena usually behave, though they might not say that they “believe” in these laws any more than a physicist “believes” in the laws of thermodynamics.

Ceremonial Art and Science

Most Neopagans believe that there is an art and/or a science to creating, preparing and performing magical and religious rituals. Our ceremonies are continually evolving as we search for the most intellectually satisfying, artistically beautiful, spiritually powerful, and magically effective rites possible. The use of human or animal sacrifice, though a common accusation, is not part of Neopagan worship, though some meat-eaters may say a blessing over their animals before preparing them for cooking. Animal sacrifice is often a part of some Mesopagan religions such as Santeria, Macumba, Voudoun, etc.

Connecting to the Cosmos

Neopagans believe in the importance of celebrating the solar, lunar and other cycles of our lives. We consciously observe the solstices, equinoxes and the points in between, as well as the phases of the moon. Such “rites of intensification” are human universals, as are the various ceremonies known as “rites of passage” — celebrations of birth, puberty, personal dedication to a given deity or group, marriage, ordination, death, etc. Together these various sorts of observations help us to find ourselves in space and time.

Born Again Paganism

Most Neopagans believe in some sort of afterlife, usually involving rest and recovery in an Otherworld before reincarnating. There is a common belief that we grow spiritually through each lifetime and will continue reincarnating until we have learned all we need to. This aspect of Neopagan polytheology has not been developed very far, perhaps because of Neopaganism’s emphasis on the joys and duties of one’s present life. We have no concept ofeternalpunishment or damnation, and do not accept the “right” of other faith communities to impose their opinions about this (or any other) topic upon us.

Hope and Action

Most Neopagans believe that people have the ability to solve their current problems, both personal and public, and to create a better world, even though we might not all think of ourselves as “utopians.” This vision, tempered with common sense, leads us to a strong commitment to personal and global growth, evolution and balance.

Mystic Vision

Neopagans believe that people can progress far towards achieving personal growth, evolution and balance through the carefully planned alteration of ournormal(culturally defined and limited) states of consciousness. Neopagans use both ancient and modern methods of concentration, meditation, reprogramming and ecstasy, including both shamanic and other trance-inducing techniques practiced by Paleopagan and Mesopagan peoples around the world. While some Neopagans may use caffeine, tobacco, sugar, alcohol, or other powerful mind-altering substances in their secular and/or religious lives, Neopagans do not approve of drug abuse or addiction.

Community Responsibility

Most Neopagans believe that human interdependence implies community service. Some of us are active in political, social, ecological and charitable organizations, while others prefer to work for the public good primarily through spiritual means (and many do both). This is yet another reason why Satanists, with their glorification of selfishness as the supreme value, are not Neopagans.

Spiritual Authenticity

Neopagans believe that if we are to achieve any of our goals, we must practice what we preach. Neopaganism, like any other religion, should be a way of life, not merely a weekly or monthly social function. So we must always strive to make our lives consistent with our proclaimed beliefs, difficult as that may be under our particular historical, cultural and economic conditions. Yet an insistance on such effort does not imply an expectation of impeccability — Neopagans know that mortals make mistakes, sometimes grievous ones. The emphasis is, or should be, on reaffirming our commitment to our ideals, not on punishing ourselves or others for past behavior (though we still have to clean up our messes and avoid making new ones).

Spiritual authenticity should not be confused with historical authenticity. Neopagans often make up and teach absurd tales about how their traditions began or continued “underground,” just as members of other religions have done in the infancies of their faiths. Neopagans, however, are not required to believe such nonsense and the community seems to be growing out of this phase much more quickly than mainstream faith communities have managed. As a result, an increasing number of tale-tellers have lost their followings as their students grew beyond their teachers.

Internal Religious Freedom

Most Neopagans believe that healthy religions should have a minimum amount of rigidity and a maximum amount of flexibility. Neopaganism is an assortment of organic religions, which are growing, changing, and producing offshoots, and (though we do have our “orthodox” types) most of us accept these as natural (if sometimes painful) processes. Neopagans almost all believe that monolithic religious organizations and would-be messiahs are a hinderance to spiritual growth. As a general rule, Neopagan groups score very low on my Cult Danger Evaluation Frame.

External Religious Freedom

Most Neopagans believe that it’s difficult for ordinary humans to commit offensesagainst the Gods and Goddesses,” short of major crimes such as ecocide or genocide. Our deities are perfectly capable of defending Their own honor without any need for us mortals to punish people (inside or outside of our community) for “blasphemy” or “heresy.” We have no divine mandates to force our beliefs down other people’s throats. Therefore, Neopagans believe in freedom of worship and belief for all religious groups and individuals who are willing to grant us our freedoms in return. Neopagans approve of the separation of church and state and, in the United States, disapprove of the efforts of the Religious Reich to impose their theocratic dictatorship upon all Americans.

Interfaith Cooperation and Self-Defense

Most Neopagans believe in cooperation and ecumenical activities with those members of other faiths who share all or most of these beliefs. It is clear that we have much in common with members of the liberal religious community, such as Unitarian Universalists, Reform Jews, Liberal Catholics, and others. Indeed, the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (or CUUPS) has become one of the largest and most active subgroups of the UU Church. However, most Neopagans also believe in resisting efforts by members of dysfunctional religions who seek to take advantage of our idealism. This is true whether they wish to exploit newer members of our community, to take members away from our community through deceptive means, or to parisitically ride upon our political and public educational coattails by falsely claiming to be “just like” us.

Comments and suggestions for improving this essay are eagerly awaited, especially from members of non-Druidic and non-Wiccan Neopagan denominations. I may not be able to respond directly to every bit of feedback received, and will ignore that from antagonists or other flamers, but will take into consideration all thoughtful commentary when revising this material the next time. Please note too, that this is a highly truncated version of an entire book on Neopagan polytheology, and does not claim to speak for Mesopagan or Paleopagan traditions past or present.

Copyright © 1974, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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