Many recent reports name Neo-paganism as one of the fastest growing religious populations in the world, but to speak of Neo-paganism as a single religious expression is misleading. Rather, Neo-paganism is an umbrella term for a variety of loosely connected contemporary Western religious systems. Key elements such as reverence for the earth and a focus on mystery teachings tie these systems together.
Many Neo-pagans follow a philosophy much akin to the Gaia hypothesis, a scientific theory from the mid-1970s that held that the earth behaves as a single organism. Therefore, spiritual expression in Neo-pagan religions is often channeled through environmentalism, outdoor worship, and natural crafts, such as herbalism and working with gems and crystals. Neo-pagan holidays are based around natural solar and lunar cycles. Mystery teachings represent the inner beliefs associated with pre-Christian European religions and are focused on the three great mysteries: birth, life, and death. In essence, mystery teachings trace the journey of the soul as it moves through the material world and prepares to pass into the spiritual realms beyond. These teachings often focus on natural processes as parallels for the soul's journey and use stories to illustrate its path. The various forms of Neo-paganism incorporate the myths and legends of the mystery teachings from whichever culture they are based upon.
The theological foundations of the Neo-pagan religions are diverse. Many are polytheistic, meaning that they believe in multiple gods. Asatru, for example, is a form of Neo-paganism based on the Norse pantheon of gods, including Odin and Freya. Other polytheistic forms of Neo-paganism include the Hellenists (based on Greek mythology) and those who follow Egyptian gods. As can be seen, many Neo-pagan religions are built around historical interpretations of various cultural gods and goddesses, while others are more general by placing two universal deities, the god and goddess, at the foreground.
While polytheism is probably the most common religious philosophy amongst Neo-pagans, some subscribe to more pantheistic or panentheistic philosophies. Pantheism is the belief that everything, the totality of reality, is god. That is, only god exists and all that exists is god. Panentheism, on the other hand, is the belief that a god interpenetrates every part of nature but is nevertheless fully distinct from nature. While not completely exclusive from polytheism, these philosophies are much more common in the feminist goddess worship circles that comprise a segment of Neo-paganism.
While the ideals discussed above serve to tie the Neo-pagan religions together, the most similar thing about them is their diversity. Neo-pagans do share the idea that no one path is right for every person. In other words, each person must find his or her own way. For that reason, even within a distinct and well-formed Neo-pagan tradition, the differences in the beliefs and practices of its members are likely to be vast. Add to this the immense number of traditions, coupled with the millions of practitioners who do not belong to any formal tradition, and it is nearly impossible to generate an overview of Neo-paganism that is general enough to be factual but detailed enough to be informative.
WICCA: WESTERN MYSTERY TRADITION
An easier task is to provide a more detailed description of a smaller subset of Neo-paganism. The most common Neo-pagan religion is known as Wicca, a word with etymological connection to the word witch. Many followers of Wicca see themselves as continuing the practice of a pre-Christian nature religion that went into hiding during the Inquisition, while others see their religion as a revival of those pre-Christian beliefs and point to the work of Gerald Gardner as the origin of their current practice.
Wiccan religious practice is based around a series of solar and lunar holidays. The solar holidays, called the Wheel of the Year, are Samhain (October 31),Yule (winter solstice, approximately December 21), Imbolc (February 2), Ostara (spring equinox, approximately March 21), Beltane (April 30), Litha (summer solstice, approximately June 21), Lammas (August 2), and Mabon (fall equinox, approximately September 21).