The Pagan spiritual landscape can be confusing and hard to navigate for the novice practitioner. It took me years of practice to wrap my head around the ins and outs of the “big tent of Paganism” as author John Beckett calls it. Of all the books I have read on Pagan based spiritual practice (many of them designed for beginners) none really seemed to start with a basic understanding of the philosophical beliefs that underpin Pagan spiritual practice. John Beckett’s The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice touched on this issue in his discussion of animism as the underlying philosophy to his brand of Pagan practice. But after contemplating the wide range of Pagan beliefs and practices I feel that animism is only one end of a spectrum.
Anyone who spends more than a few hours learning about Paganism realizes quickly that there is a wide range of beliefs that fall under the broad category of Pagan spirituality. It made sense to me that this wide range of beliefs are underpinned by a range of differing philosophies. In my thinking animism represents one end of this spectrum and pantheism the other.
In the beginning of my spiritual exploration having a clear understanding of the underlying philosophical landscape of Paganism would have saved me a lot of time and effort. I wish I considered that the first step in my spiritual journey should have been getting clear about where I fall on this philosophical spectrum. Then, I would have been able to enter the realm of Pagan spirituality with a clear idea what I was looking for in a practice, tradition, and community.
This exploration starts with an understanding of the two main philosophies that under pin Pagan spiritual beliefs. These two philosophies are Animism and Pantheism as mentioned above. They are often mistakenly lumped together yet differ in an especially important way.
“One of the main differences is that while animists believe everything to be spiritual in nature, they do not necessarily see the spiritual nature of everything in existence as being united (monism), the way pantheists do.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism
Also, from Wikipedia I pulled the definition of both animism and pantheism:
Animism (from Latin: anima, ‘breath, spirit, life‘) is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Potentially, animism perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork, and perhaps even words—as animated and alive.
Pantheism is the belief that reality is identical with divinity, or that all-things compose an all-encompassing, immanent god. Pantheist belief does not recognize a distinct personal god,anthropomorphic or otherwise, but instead characterizes a broad range of doctrines differing in forms of relationships between reality and divinity.
Animism emphasizes that all physical things possess a distinct spirit and they all have agency. While they are independent of other beings they are all related through an original ancestor (or ancestors). Well, Pantheism claims that all physical things contain a spark of the divine and that all things are connected in the oneness of that divine energy.
In my personal experience, in conversation with other practicing Pagans, and in reading and listening to many personal accounts of Pagan spiritual practice. I believe that these philosophies represent two ends of a polarity. These foundational philosophies each align with a specific approach to Pagan spiritual practice. Animism being connected to a Reconstructionist/Hard Polytheistic approach to Paganism on one end of the spectrum. The other end connects Pantheism to a New Age style Pagan practice.
Reconstructionist Polytheists take their inspiration from historical sources, namely archaeology and mythology. While New Age Pagan practice takes its inspiration from science, namely psychology and quantum physics. Reconstructionist Polytheists aim to recreate (as much as realistically possible with allowance for the reality of living in the 21st century) actual practices and beliefs of ancient practitioners. Hard polytheism is “the belief that the gods are distinct, separate, real divine beings, rather than psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces” (Sourced from Wikipedia). Animism underpins reconstructionist and hard polytheist belief systems primarily because it was the belief system of most, if not all, of ancient cultures.
New Age Pagan beliefs rely heavily on the concept that “all is One” and, therefore, connected. New Age Paganism will usually acknowledge one presence (referred to as a variety of names including: the Universe, Spirit, Source, Creator, Energy, etc.) as an overarching monistic, divine intelligence. While some New Age Pagans believe in multiple otherworldly beings like Gods and Goddesses, spirits, Angels, etc. they tend to believe that all these otherworld beings, as well as all beings in this realm, are one, connected by a divine energy or as an aspect or face of one divine spirit.
My attached chart (at the bottom of this blog) illustrates this spectrum. I have placed some traditions and practices tentatively on the top of this chart. I say “tentatively” because the placement of these traditions and practices are debatable. But I feel that they are at least approximately accurate.
Understanding where your beliefs fall on this spectrum will greatly help you to navigate the vast, and sometimes overwhelming, world of Paganism. It will also help you confidently stand in your own belief system. And not be swayed by those who seek to convince you that their practices or beliefs are correct while yours are wrong. There is no right or wrong way of practicing Pagan spirituality. We should rely on our inner wisdom and follow the path that best resonates with us. It helps me to understand the underlying belief systems of different practices and traditions because it makes it easier to see how they align with my own beliefs. This knowledge empowers me to make choices about my spirituality that feel good and right for me. I hope that this perspective will provide you with the same sense of empowerment as you move forward on your own Pagan spiritual path.
In my next blog I will explore another spectrum that plays an equally important role in the development of a personalized Pagan spiritual practice.
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