Review: Paganism 101

So, yes: I’ve been exploring Neopaganism lately. As a religious worldview it has its issues, but I particularly like its non-dogmatic, freeform approach to spiritual practice and its emphasis on immanence: the divine and the magical is present in the physical world, so to be a Neopagan is to be attached to the world, to be part of a community made up not only of people but of all things living and otherwise.

Paganism 101 was, appropriately enough, the first physical book I read on the subject. Its subtitle is An Introduction to Paganism by 101 Pagans: the basic idea, since there are nearly as many ways to practice paganism as there are pagans, is to introduce readers to a wide range of pagan-adjacent concepts in the words of 101 different practitioners.

It’s a little more structured than that, of course. The book’s split up into twenty different topics in three sections: “Who we are”, “What we believe”, and “What we do”. Each topic has a leading article followed by between five and ten vignettes which provide further commentary.

This is a lovely idea. One of the things I really like about paganism is the wide variety of paths and practices available to you: the only right way to do things is the way that works for you (although there are more formalised, structured groups too). In practice, though, the pieces in the book vary wildly in quality, tone and register. There’s an excellent essay on Druidism towards the beginning of the book that engages comprehensively with the framework of thought that lies behind that particular path, and sets out how that framework affects its practitioners’ actions in the world (a concept that’s pretty important in paganism: spiritual intent needs to be underpinned by practical action). On the other end of the spectrum, there are quite a few pieces – mainly the shorter vignettes, it has to be said – that are frustratingly unspecific and yet liberally peppered with Meaningful Capitalisations.

The problem, I think, is that it’s really, really hard to talk about personal religious belief and practice in a way that doesn’t come out sounding like woo – whatever religion you follow. That’s because faith and belief are ultimately not rational things; they are concerned with things that are precisely indescribable. That is, in fact, the point. And paganism is a small and fragmented field: the subset of people prominent in that field, and willing to contribute to a book like this, is not necessarily going to correlate with the (very small) subset of people who can describe their encounters with the numinous in a nuanced and genuine way.

(This is not at all to say that I could do that either, by the way: I have listened to myself explaining my own thought processes and developing practices to other people and cringed.)

There are also a couple of ideological problems with the book which seem to afflict the pagan movement as a whole. The first is cultural appropriation, particularly of Native American beliefs and practices (let us maybe not lift sacred ceremonies from another culture with no understanding of their actual context? huh?); the second is gender essentialism (the supposedly empowering concept of the sacred feminine surely restricts gender roles just as much as the patriarchal religious structures it was conceived as a reaction to).

To be fair, though, if Paganism 101 sets out to represent the plurality of pagan thought, then it surely succeeds: its problems are really a reflection of the problems with paganism as a whole (or so it seems to me, a newbie!). There are things I found useful and interesting, and other things I found less so. I don’t know that I’d recommend it as an actual paganism primer – its frequent lack of specificity is too frustrating – but as a second or third book for relatively new pagans, I think it’s fine.

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