Unmasking paganism

Pagan religions are not easy to define. Perhaps that’s why their beliefs are often misunderstood. Members of this religion are hoping for tolerance.
Sunday, October 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:19 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Masks usually conceal identity. Those who wear them portray an image of something they’re not, keeping the truth hidden.

But those who attended the third annual Mid-Missouri Pagan Pride Festival on Sept. 19 wore masks for a different reason. The plastic white masks attendees wore over their eyes and around their arms had phrases written on them: “I could lose my kids” and “I could get beaten up.”

These masks were worn to make a statement.

Jessica Sims, who attended the festival, said she was wearing a mask on her arm in support of pagans who fear that making their beliefs known will bring negative reactions from colleagues, family and friends.

“I can sympathize with the people who aren’t here today,” Sims said. “If others found out they were pagan, they could lose their jobs or their kids.” Pagans have a history of persecution, said Melissa Minish, known as in the Pagan community as Raven Aurlineus, of Salisbury. “It’s something purely unknown, and people fear what they don’t understand.”

Steven Galbreath, co-coordinator of the local group Mid-Missouri Pagan Pride, estimated that more than 50 percent of pagans keep their beliefs hidden. “It’s hard to get accurate numbers because a lot of us don’t want to be identified,” he said.

Amanda Hazlip of Jefferson City said she also attended the festival in support of pagans who don’t feel comfortable openly expressing their beliefs. Hazlip is open about her beliefs and said her children, although still young, have started to experience some persecution.

“My kids can’t have play dates,” she said. “Some parents won’t let their kids play with my kids because of my beliefs.”

Hazlip’s husband is a Christian, and she said they sit down with their children once a week to discuss aspects of both religions. They believe this will help equip their children to make religious choices when they are older, she said.

What do pagans believe?

Paganism is difficult to define because it encompasses many beliefs. According to the Pagan Pride Project, a national nonprofit organization, pagans generally fall into one of four categories: those who worship deities found in pre-Christian, classical, Aboriginal or tribal mythology; those whose practice is based on shamanism or magical practices; those who create religions based on past pagan religions; and those who focus on the divine feminine.

But the first definition of a pagan, the organization maintains, is simply someone who identifies as a pagan.

“Paganism is really an umbrella term,” Galbreath said. “There are many different faith paths to take.”

Another important part of paganism, Minish said, is that it emphasizes the dualities in nature — such as light and dark, male and female. Although pagan religions encompass an array of beliefs, she said, they are united by the notion that there is a duality in all religions.

Mary Neitz, an MU sociology professor who has studied neo-pagans in the United States, said there are some who would disagree with Minish’s definition.

“Some pagans I know oppose dualistic thinking,” she said.

Some pagans celebrate eight holy days each year — four that fall on the two solstices and two equinoxes and four Earth-centered festivals. The pagan pride festival was scheduled during the autumnal equinox, and at the beginning of the day, organizers held a ceremony to celebrate the balance of day and night they believe happens at that time.

The root of misunderstanding

Pagan religions encompass many beliefs, but one thing those at the festival seemed to agree on is that their beliefs are often misunderstood and misrepresented.

Minish said sometimes people misunderstand the pagan celebration of the dark because they associate “dark” with “evil.”

“We don’t believe in a concept of evil,” she said. “For us, dark is a part of nature, found in death, rest and old age.”

At the festival, Minish handed out literature on pagan beliefs and common misunderstandings. One example is the concept of the devil — the literature states that the devil is only found in Christian texts and that pagans do not believe in or acknowledge a devil.

Others at the festival said they believe their religion is misunderstood because people are less inclined to be open-minded about something out of the norm.

“Anything that is different, people fear,” Sims said.

Why do people practice paganism?

Some people who practice paganism were raised in the Christian tradition.

Minish said that when she was young, she wanted to be a Christian minister but was told she couldn’t because some Christian denominations do not ordain women.

“I couldn’t see the sense in it — why women couldn’t be ministers,” she said.

Minish said she liked the balance between light and dark and male and female that the pagan religions celebrated. She said she felt more comfortable with a polytheistic religion that celebrated balances in nature than with the monotheism and male-oriented nature of Christianity.

Mary Amann said she was raised Catholic but felt more comfortable with pagan religions after studying them.

“I felt that in Catholicism, they look to the pope for their morality and beliefs,” she said. “Paganism encourages that to come from within.”

Others said they like the freedom paganism allows.

“I am a philosopher,” said Christopher Gould, who said he has been a pagan for 12 years. “Paganism provides me with a lot of thought material.”

Some look to religion for a sense of their place in the world, others for the comfort of knowing where they will go after they die. But Gould said he is still not sure of the ultimate answers to those questions.

“Personally, paganism has offered me no more answers than anything else I’ve studied,” he said. “But it’s allowed me the space and the tolerance I need to find my own answers to those questions.”

Jacqueline Lydie Kazil contributed to this report.

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