Every day, striking incidents are accumulating in the experience of overseas missionaries and North American Christians alike:

• The candidate for elder in an independent suburban church in the Midwest sat with the board for his interview. From all the church’s appearances—doctrinal statement, sermons, worship, teaching—he had no reason to doubt that this was a solid, biblical church. In discussing his qualifications, however, he discovered that he was chosen partly because his astrological sign was in harmony with those of the board members. They urged him to pray for a “spirit guide” who would give him wisdom in his new office. They said he could expect to benefit from “deep” teachings from the elders themselves. Now the man understood why a friend had earlier declined the position and had been reluctant to discuss it.

• The missionary with over 20 years experience in France finished speaking with several bon contacts (interested nonbelievers) in a crowd. He pressed one young man whose curiosity seemed especially piqued.

“What do you think about the gospel?” the missionary asked him. “Will you believe on Christ?”

“I don’t know,” he responded, “I would very much like to, but I will have to ask my priest.”

“From which parish are you?” the missionary asked.

The young man smiled impishly: “Parish? I’m not a Roman Catholic. I am a Celt—a Celtic pagan.”

• Deep in discussion with an elderly Belgian man, two young Christians made a startling discovery. They had covered a great deal of ground, dealing with the authority and reliability of the Bible, the existence of God, the creation of the universe—nothing out of the ordinary. Until, that is, the topic of atheism was broached.

Suddenly the aged intellectual, who up to this point had been rather patronizing toward these two “naive” enthusiasts, began to defend himself against the label of atheist.

“I do believe in gods,” he protested. “I am not an atheist; but neither am I a Hindu, Buddhist, or Moslem, and certainly not a Christian. I am,” and here he paused, eyes twinkling, “a pagan!”

The two young witnesses had some sort of response for almost any religious category—except this one. They were perplexed. Who in the twentieth century would claim such a label? What exactly was a pagan?

• The security patrols at a midwest seminary were running into some bizarre activity. At certain times of the year, a figure in a long, hooded robe would be seen moving furtively over the expansive fields on campus and fragments of rhythmic chant could be heard. The figure could never be tracked down, but in the morning a small animal carcass would be found.

Article continues below

A Renaissance Of “Ancient Ways”?

Such stories give the impression that profound changes are under way in the religious climate of the West. They suggest that new religious forces are nibbling at the foundations of a society and culture built largely upon a Christian world view.

Christians attend seminars on the New Age; we read of human sacrifice in a devilish Santeria cult in Mexico; we realize that a whole array of Eastern movements have firmly established themselves since the sixties; we hear of witchcraft in the high schools and armed forces, and among bored, affluent suburbanites; we read of the resurgence of the ancient Norse pagan cults, complete with animal sacrifice. Are these isolated incidents, or is there an underlying philosophy that links them all?

It seems that a foe thought to have died with Julian the Apostate is challenging Christendom once again. The Roman Emperor Julian was a classical, fourth-century pagan in an age of blossoming Christianity. He tried to restore paganism after Constantine’s official toleration of Christianity, but failed. Julian is reported to have died with the words: “You have conquered, Galilean!”

What Julian failed to accomplish by force may well be accomplished by the passage of time. Many in Europe and North America are turning to a spiritual and philosophical movement with roots in the “ancient ways” and a vision for the future, a movement loosely termed neopaganism.

The stigma of the term pagan is all but lost to many religious seekers. Indeed, to a spiritually disenchanted, biblically illiterate generation, the word has gained a new luster. The old gods, to what would have been the delight of Julian, are reappearing.

In the early Christian centuries, the term pagan was used to deride country folk who generally heard the gospel later than their urban counterparts and who held more tenaciously to the old ways. Now it encompasses a broad spectrum of religious beliefs, practices, philosophies, and rituals, most of which reach back into the mists of time. Neopagans may assume a variety of expressions or identities: participants in witchcraft (or Wicca, or the Craft), modern Druids, voodoo practitioners, scientists who worship a mysterious “life force,” or simply free spirits who fashion an amalgam of esoteric beliefs.

Article continues below

Amidst all this diversity, inclusivism is a given. Argues pagan writer Margot Adler, “There are a multitude of appropriate religious paths and never will there be a single religious truth. Just as a meadow or forest needs a multiplicity of species to be healthy, so the spiritual realm needs diversity.”

According to the neopagans, the exclusivistic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—are unnecessarily dogmatic in their insistence on one way, one truth, one God. Neopagans make much of this point. They are bothered by what they perceive as intolerance and a tendency to persecute dissenters.

They also complain about people’s immediate association of neopaganism (including witchcraft) with Satanism. Satan is a distorted creation of Christianity, neopagans believe, designed to scare pagans into the fold and give church authorities license to persecute witches and pagans into submission. Although Satanist groups exist, neopagans disown them. They say that “the Pagan Way,” when examined fairly, produces gentle, peaceful people who largely wish to be left alone. Their gods encourage love and harmony with self, others, and the environment. “Hurt no one” is the motto.

Neopagans’ diversity, secrecy, and abhorrence of hierarchy make it difficult to estimate the numbers of practicing pagans in the West. They care little about formal membership and record keeping. However, recent estimates by pagans indicate nearly 100,000 in the U.S. (as of 1989—up from 40,000 in 1982). Figures for Western Europe are not readily available, although the late European church leader W. A. Visser’t Hooft said neopagan accurately describes Europe’s overall spiritual state. It is clear that their numbers are growing, and they are assuming a higher profile in public consciousness as media coverage increases.

Communing With “Gods”

The basic unit of pagan worship is the coven (for witches), grove, or circle (most other pagan groups), consisting of 10 to 20 members headed by a priest or priestess. They meet twice monthly (at the full and new moons) and on the eight pagan holidays.

Pagans gather out of doors where sky, moon, stars, earth, trees, birds, and animals form nature’s “temple.” A secluded hilltop, clearing, or private garden are the preferred spots. A typical pagan “service” might include these elements (although there is considerable room for variation):

Article continues below

1. Creation of a sacred space, the circle. This is seen as a place between this world and the other where the worshiper communes with the gods. Those within it are also protected from the forces released in the ceremony. This step is called “closing the circle.”

2. Invocation of gods and spirits. Worshipers invite them into the circle, and thereby into fellowship with the participants. This is called “drawing down the moon.” As the worshiper participates, he or she is allegedly overcome by a sense of elation and possession by the particular god invoked, manifesting a range of expressions—from quiet introspection to ecstatic frenzy.

3. Evocation of “magical” forces. These the worshiper intends to master and use for some willed purpose. The energy or force is often “sent” where change of any kind is desired.

4. Opening of the circle. Here the circle becomes simple space again. Farewells are often taken with a “Merry meet, merry part, and blessed be.”

To become part of such groups often requires diligent work and research. The potential member must first make contact with a present member, be approved, and then go through a period of initiation (generally a year and a day). Depending on the type of circle, from three to as many as ten “levels” of participation are attainable as one achieves various states of “gnosis” or knowledge. The rule for organization is to stay small, local, and decentralized. Each grove or circle is autonomous. There is, however, a “friendly affinity” between circles, and considerable consensus on matters of worship, belief, and lifestyle.

The Origins Of “Magick”

Neopaganism has drawn heavily from recent traditions established by Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) and his “thelemic magick” (“thelemic” referring to volition, with the “k” added to the word magic to distinguish it from parlor magic) and Gerald Gardner (1884–1964) and his Goddess Witchcraft. These traditions were obscure until the sixties; since then, when they were appropriated as an exotic alternative to mainstream religion, they have become mere reference points as neopagans experiment with creating rituals for a pagan renaissance.

Tim and Morning Glory Zell, for example, began the Church of All Worlds in 1961, a neopagan group that drew heavily on the spirit of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. A protest against mandatory chapel attendance at Carleton College in 1963 resulted in the formation of the Reformed Druids of North America. In 1957, Frederick Adams founded Feraferia (from Latin words meaning “wilderness holiday”) after receiving a vision of the Goddess as the only salvation for a lost humankind. Hundreds of neopagan groups, large and small, have sprouted over the decades, forming a bizarre, exotic spiritual garden largely ignored by mainstream culture.

Article continues below

An informal neopagan network has also developed over the years. In Europe there is the Pagan Federation, based in London, which works as a liaison between government, institutions, and the public to present an accurate, favorable picture of paganism.

The Midwest Pagan Council addresses regional issues and organized the Pan-Pagan Festivals, begun in 1977, from which evolved the International Pagan Spirit Gathering (IPSG), first convened in 1981 in northern Wisconsin and reconvened at every summer solstice since. Headed by Selena Fox and Jim Alan, a small group of neopagans in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, started the Circle Sanctuary in 1974. It has grown into the largest of the neopagan and witchcraft networking organizations, offering a full range of services. There is a variety of smaller groups that springs up from time to time (like the Pagan Anti-Defamation League, or the Pagan/Occult/Witchcraft Special Interest Group). Often they flourish, then wither, or survive in some altered form. The neopagan scene, like its adherents, is fluid and ever-changing.

The dividing line between neopaganism and other, more familiar movements is constantly shifting. Neopagans are deeply committed to environmental causes and animal rights, for example. Some feminists are drawn to goddess worship and witchcraft. This does not, of course, imply that every feminist is a neopagan, nor that every neopagan is a feminist; several Norse sects, for instance, are overtly misogynist and racist. And there is plenty of overlap between New Age thought and neopaganism, although neopagans would argue that they are more coherently connected with a past, a tradition, and a philosophy than are New Age thinkers.

Indeed, Thomas Molnar in The Pagan Temptation (Eerdmans) develops the thesis that a current of pagan thought has always existed in the West, waxing and waning over the Christian centuries, available as an alternative whenever Christianity weakens. If Molnar is correct, neopaganism satisfies a spiritual ache that a purely rationalized, demythologized Christianity may not.

Article continues below

The goal of the neopagan is therefore much more ambitious than to reclaim in a literal fashion the old gods from the misty past. They believe that a mature neopagan world view can appeal to twenty-first-century people. And they are willing to draw from divergent streams of thought to make a persuasive case.

Critiquing Monotheism

At the center of neopagan philosophy is a thorough critique of Judeo-Christian faith. While Christians would say monotheism has always been central to Jewish and Christian understanding, neopagans would contend that Christianity is a pallid derivative of paganism. Paganism is as old as the earth, they say, and reaches back to the first human who looked to the starry heavens with awe. Hinduism, Taoism, American Indian shamanism, the Druid religions, tribal animism—all of these traditions and more, pagans claim, will inexorably re-establish their dominance. Tom Williams, priest of the Church of All Worlds, puts it like this: “Someday people may speak of the last two thousand years as ‘The Christian Interlude.’ ”

Neopagans also blame Christianity for providing a theological and ethical justification for the plunder of our environment. They point to Genesis 1:28 (“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over … every living thing that moves.…”) as an example of a text that gives carte blanche to a misguided culture to use Earth’s resources willy-nilly.

Neopaganism, on the other hand, supposedly has an inherent respect for nature. Her gods embody nature. Neopagans worship the natural. For instance, Norse mythology recounts the creation of the earth not ex nihilo (out of nothing), as Christian theology holds, but from the body of the god Ymir. From his blood came the sea and waters, from his flesh the ground, from his bones the mountains, from his skull the sky, from his brain the clouds, and from his eyebrows humankind. Thus creation is shot through with divinity. To dump mercury into a stream is to pollute the blood of a god; to denude an Amazon rainforest is to scar the flesh of a god.

Neopagans also roundly criticize Christianity for its alleged patriarchal spirituality. Witches in particular fight to replace the worship of God the Father with that of the Mother Goddess.

Article continues below

Radical feminists who ardently desire an expression for their spiritual selves have gravitated to witches’ covens over the last several decades. Here they find a model more readily identifiable with their aspirations. Whether she is called one of the names of the ancient past (Artemis, Astarte, Melusine, Aphrodite, Diana, Brigit) or just Great Goddess or Great Mother, she can supposedly imbue the worshiper with a sense of power and control over life.

According to this way of thinking, Christianity is too bound by patriarchal structures to be of any use to women. The church’s long tradition, founded on the reputedly oppressive writings of Paul, Peter, and a male-dominated Israel, is too monolithic to be changed. It must be replaced. Herein lies the appeal of neopaganism to some disaffected feminists. In fact, says Margot Adler, “The impact of feminism on the Craft in the United States has been enormous in the last few years. The impact of the mainstream Craft on feminism is harder to see. But each has been affected by the other.”

The New Myths

To their antipathy toward Christianity, neopagans add a call for a new salvation myth. The word myth, in this case, is understood as a system of symbols that express truth about the deepest nature of things, which would otherwise not find expression. In this way, a myth accounts for the origins of the cosmos, explains why things are as they are today, and supplies a culture with models for behavior, giving meaning and value to life.

Many neopagans would accept what the late comparative religions scholar Mircea Eliade said about myths: that myth is “regarded as a sacred story, and hence a ‘true history’ because it always deals with realities.”

Thus, for the ancient Greek and Roman, the pantheon of gods and goddesses, with their stories of crimes, passions, and creations, truly represented the way things were. The Persian god Mithras, a favorite of the Roman legionnaire, simultaneously embodied and transcended man’s bent to war. He represented in one mythological figure all of the glory, tragedy, death, and lust for blood experienced by the “lower-case” being, man. He served to explain and exemplify. As Mithras’s sword flashed in mastering and slaying the primordial ox (from which sprang all living things), so the legionnaire’s sword must flash in conquering his enemy.

Twenty-first-century people will obviously not accept a literal god Mithras. What will express truth to the West European trooper wielding a rocket launcher instead of a sword? What function do the gods serve for moderns? Here many neopagan thinkers adopt Carl Jung’s theories about archetypes. Archetypes, Jung argued, are collectively inherited, unconscious ideas, images, or patterns of thought. They are inner givens, primordial energies that form the very make-up of the mind and brain. We cannot help but “be” these forces, for they define us biologically and psychologically. In the past, the gods served to portray this inner reality in an objective, tangible fashion. Now we see them for what they are, as archetypes, as psychic factors writ large in human terms.

Article continues below

Once more we return to the familiar, age-old theme of man as god. The Whole Earth Catalog in its prologue even alludes to Genesis 3 (where the serpent promises Eve that she and Adam can be “like God”) when it asserts: “We are gods and might as well get good at it.” Where is the room for a saving, redeeming Christ in such a scenario?

The “Gaia” Nineties?

Neopagans attempt to buttress their world view by integrating concepts from the sciences into their apologetic, especially from physics, biology, and psychology. No longer is the pagan mind “benighted,” they argue, or pointing to the “silver bird” in the sky, or cringing in fear at a cigarette lighter. They believe that a kind of rapprochement has occurred between Eastern thought and Western science.

Neopagans find in one version of Big Bang cosmology—that the universe goes through endless cycles of expansion and contraction—support for their cyclical view of history.

Neopagans may also adopt a form of the Gaia Hypothesis. Gaia was the Greeks’ Mother Earth Goddess and as such serves as a symbol of one who watches over her brood. James Lovelock has articulated a strictly materialist view of the principle in his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, but neopagans have adapted it freely to express a spiritual side to Earth. They attribute consciousness to the planet, which is seen as a complex, single organism analogous to a human with a brain and nervous system. If any part of the biosystem becomes imbalanced, then “Gaia” works to bring the system back to homeostasis.

A form of scientific neopaganism has taken shape among a group of intellectuals called the Princeton Gnosis, in spite of their receiving considerable ridicule from the scientific community. Represented by a number of scientists (many of them physicists) from many places (though predominantly from Princeton University and the nearby Institute for Advanced Studies), their views are set forth in Raymond Ruyer’s 1974 book, La Gnose de Princeton. Indeed, the increasing complexity and ambiguity of subatomic science, with the blurring of distinctions between matter and energy, has led some to rethink old categories such as the division between matter and spirit. Molnar comments that some in physics “have turned full circle to say that matter is the only stuff in the universe, but, they add, it is so porous, so unpredictable, that we might call it ‘spirit’ and thus satisfy our religious cravings at the same time.”

Article continues below

A Religion Of Ritual

Neopagans also stress ritual and symbol. The ability of a sacred object or repeated set of sacred acts to make a change in a person or the world is discounted today. It is considered irrational and unscientific. The objective truth or rationality of a ritual is often irrelevant in neopagan practice, however. As one neopagan “theologian,” Aiden Kelly, has put it: “It’s a religion of ritual rather than theology. The ritual is first; the myth is second.… Taking an attitude that the myths of the Craft are ‘true history’ in the way a fundamentalist looks at the legends of Genesis really seems crazy.” What matters is whether the ritual feels right and is efficacious in transforming the mind and soul of the individual.

The ritual of “drawing down the moon,” for instance, transforms the priest/priestess and those in the circle so that they participate in the presence and power of the gods or goddesses they invoke. The ritual suspends profane time and re-enacts in sacred time some primordial deed or action done by the god. Thus by repeating this primordial act, the participants create a context in which the god/goddess can manifest himself/herself. Although the explanations of who and what the gods may be “in reality” may vary, the experience of them is the same, varying only according to the nature of the god invoked.

The moon itself is a powerful symbol for many neopagans. Among a host of its possible meanings and representations can be included the waters (whose tides vary with lunar phases), women (whose menstrual cycles follow the moon), death and resurrection (old and new moons), plant growth, weaving, or destiny.

Article continues below

Not unrelated to ritual and symbol is neopaganism’s attempt to “resacralize” the world. Christianity evacuated the sacred from the world, according to the neopagan. The sacred, the holy, was invested in a God set apart from his creation. Stones, trees, animals, places, and people, which under the pagan sun were sacred in varying degrees, were stripped of this quality by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus the tree and the goat no longer embodied a transcendent life force. They became soulless objects.

Neopaganism argues for a new vitalism. The same life force that animates the gods, the wind, the sun, and the sea animates us. We in the West, neopagans say, need to attune ourselves to it, direct it, and use it. They also assert that dualisms between matter and energy, mind and body, physical and spiritual, good and evil, are finally illusions. All is ultimately one (a form of monism).

Thus neopagans speak of the ancient energy, the spark of life that has been rekindled in this age after the Christian “darkness.” This is the spark of divinity that is in every man. As such, it is good, as are all the passions it inflames in us. The human passions are meant to be celebrated and indulged. The human appetites—for pleasure, goodness, sex, power, wealth—are good. Evil becomes that which inhibits the actualization of our full potential in any given area. As long as someone follows a few simple rules (for example, the Wiccan code, “If you harm none, do as you will”), then he or she is free to give rein to all instincts.

That gay and lesbian witches’ covens thrive and that some Norse circles openly avow Aryan racial superiority suggests the limitations of such an ethic. That there lurk in the dark regions of neopaganism sister cults of Satanism, Voodoo, Contomblie, and Santeria (which must, finally, be owned by the neopagan community) raises further questions.

So does the primary aim of the occult sciences: the control and manipulation of the all-pervading energy of the “Cosmos.” When in a circle, for instance, witches raise a cone of energy above their heads (from whence derived the caricature of the conical hat in witch lore), which the priest/priestess then sends to whomever or whatever it is intended to influence. One coven, for instance, sent such a cone of energy to influence a senator to vote against a particular piece of legislation.

Article continues below
The Fate Of Neopagan Faith

A final characteristic of neopaganism is its affirmation of fate. In Greek mythology the Fates loomed over the lives and destinies of all things; even the gods were subject to them. No one could escape their grasp.

Fate plays a similar role in neopaganism today. Since history is cyclical, the universe is caught in endless repetition. The wheel is the ideal image of this process. What has been will be; what will be has been. Human history is a spinning wheel.

Any individual meaning in life is thus ultimately nonsense. Meaning demands linear time, a place for a definite beginning (as in the Book of Genesis) and a consummation (as in Revelation). There is no escape from the wheel but to reach the center, the still point. There is no place for a definite, well-grounded hope in the neopagan system; all founders in a sea of determinism and repetition.

Innocence and guilt also dissolve in such a view. There is no fall of man; rather, we are justified as we live out our lives in harmony with our fate. We acquire innocence apart from any objective redemption or morality. Just as the cosmos, in the act of becoming, is innocent, so we, as we participate in and obey the process of becoming, are innocent.

Incredibly, neopagan thinkers are heralding the imminent death of Christianity and the dawn of a new age. They see their movement as able to pull together the scattered fragments of Western culture, religion, and philosophy into a coherent world view. Contemporary Christian thinkers are just beginning to come to grips with this resurgent movement and find themselves facing an energized foe with an aggressive agenda. Neopaganism seeks to make its impact felt in every area of Western life, as exemplified by the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) in European politics and the Princeton gnostics in North America, just to name two examples.

We need to be ready with a reasoned and confident articulation of the Christian faith, a faith we can expect neopagans to attack with increasing sophistication. May the Lord give us strength and grace to call men and women, as did Paul, to “give up living as the pagans do with their futile notions … alienated from the life that is in God.” We must call them to renounce their “former way of life,” and “lay aside the old human nature which, deluded by its desires, is in the process of decay … [putting] on the new nature, created in God’s likeness” (Eph. 4:17–18, 22, 24, REB).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.