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Why Modern Paganism is Good For Today's Families

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This blog is part of a two-part series discussing the rise and role of modern paganism in today's families. Part I tells the author's story, while Part II expands into the history and principles of some practices.

I grew up in an atheist home. It was a happy, kind-hearted and good-humoured one, with parents who loved each other as much as they loved their kids (and who still do). We had our own traditions: summer trips to the cabin, car wash blitzes on the driveway and sledding in the winter. Suckers for a hard-luck story, we fostered stray animals -- abused pups, orphaned ducklings, one-legged pigeons, you name it.

My dad -- a self-proclaimed redneck -- was a man ahead of his time. Despite living in Canada's Evangelical Bible belt, he had the guts to speak up for gay rights at a time in our province when not many voices were. He was unflinching in his pro-choice stance and raised two daughters who never believed that a woman should "obey" a husband. Love and respect, absolutely. But obey? Fat chance.

My mom was the same way. I remember her getting mad because evolution wasn't being taught in our public school, the instruction having been opposed by religious lobby groups. Despite this, my family wasn't anti-religious. We were just indifferent-religious. Even looking back, there was nothing that religion could have added to my family life. We were good without god.

My husband grew up in a Pentecostal home. The churches he attended were hardcore: talking in tongues, faith healings, the Rapture, river baptisms, trembling hands raised to sky, the works. As a child he experienced more than one "End of Times" countdown where he would stare up in terror, waiting for the sky to open up. He had recurring nightmares of being sawn in half by atheists, who he was taught were agents of the devil.

He was also taught by the church that dinosaur bones were put there by god to "test" people's faith, and that gay people were an abomination. He spent most of his childhood at church functions, and his parents divorced when he was a teenager. By the time we met as adults, he had become a fierce atheist. In fact, our mutual non-belief was something that attracted us to each other.

While my husband and I believe that Christianity and today's other dominant religions are a positive part of many people's lives, we don't believe these faiths have a monopoly on creating the foundation for a strong family unit or creating "moral" children. In addition to my husband, I have known many people, clients and friends alike, who feel that organized religion has been a divisive force in their family.

Some resent, as did my husband, that much of the family's "down time" was devoted to church going. When he was young, church was held on Sunday mornings and evenings. The problem was, Battlestar Galactica aired on Sunday nights. As a kid, he wanted nothing more than to hang out with his family, watching Starbuck and Apollo battle the Cylons. I have to laugh when he talks about the various "illnesses" that would strike him around six o'clock every Sunday night. It's funny, but also sad. To me, an hour of Sci-Fi spent with family is worth more than a thousand sermons from a stranger.

Others have experienced religious-based ostracism or shunning from the family unit because of their sexual orientation or choice to leave the faith. Still others cannot reconcile their personal values with religious doctrine that, indirectly or directly, supports sexism, misogyny, violence and which acts like a lead weight on the advancement of science and medicine. Some simply resent the fact that they missed the magic of believing in Santa or going trick-or-treating with friends. The reasons are many and varied.

Even though I grew up in an atheist home, I was always drawn to religious places and rituals. Churches, ceremonies and customs -- I loved them all. I was the kid who peeked through the church window to watch people take the Eucharist. I was the kid who, when she got a box of Smarties, ate the red ones last.

There are many people like me. People who love ritual and long for spiritual expression, but who can't get on board with Abrahamic religious dogma or scripture. There are many people like my husband, too. People who were indoctrinated into religious belief as a child, but who have rejected that belief as an adult. And these are the folks who are increasingly turning to modern paganism.

I was several years into my couples mediation practice when I found myself -- and many of my non-religious clients -- longing for a spiritual focus for their homes. Some romanticized the vogue journey of self-discovery in Elizabeth's Gilbert's EAT PRAY LOVE. I had more than one client say she was ready to leave her family and head to Bali where she would scale a mountain and find her own guru or Yoda (or at least someone wearing a robe) who could tell her what life was all about.

I just turned kind of bitchy. Despite having a happy marriage and family life, I longed for a sense of meaning and ritual. I found it, too, by revisiting an experience in my past. When I was 20 years old, I had visited Rome where I was quickly schooled in the ancient gods and goddesses, and even met a pagan priestess who was keeping the "old ways" alive. It was the first time I was exposed to a spirituality beyond the monotheistic, androcentric variety. And I liked it. It meant something to me.

The experience sparked a lifelong interest in Roman classics and mythology; however, it wasn't until midlife that I found myself embracing modern paganism -- specifically the New Vesta tradition -- as a form of personal spirituality, one that resonated with me and reflected my humanist values. Cliché? Midlife crisis? Maybe. But a real experience nonetheless.

In antiquity, Vesta was the goddess of the home, hearth and domestic life. Residing in the household fireplace and symbolized by a flame, she warmed and lit the home while providing a "spiritual focus" for the family. At each meal, offerings of salted flour or libations of wine or olive oil were sprinkled into her flame. This ritual did more than symbolically "feed" her spirit. It nourished and strengthened the family bond while bringing tranquility to the household.

Modern followers of Vesta typically have a Vestal candle on the table and make similar offerings. It is a simple family ritual that makes the home a sacred space, and that reinforces a sense of family solidarity. As well as meal-time offerings, New Vesta adherents usually have a lararium or family altar located near the entrance to the home. Mementoes of family members -- living and dead -- are kept here, as is a Vestal candle. The position of the lararium -- near the home's entrance -- serves to "bless" the comings and goings of family members, and to serve as a visual reminder than home really is where the heart is.

Despite having been brainwashed to fear and loathe pagans, my husband did a bang-up job of accepting this tradition into our home. Why? Because it didn't raise any of his "religious red flags." It didn't ask for money or reject science. It didn't require us to outsource the morality we imparted to our son, and it didn't involve him being indoctrinated into supernatural belief. It wasn't angry or judgmental and it didn't put anything -- man or god -- above our own marriage and family.

Obviously, this is only a superficial look at New Vesta, which itself is only one expression of paganism. Contemporary paganism is an umbrella term for many beliefs, which are as diverse as they are rich. There is insufficient space here to do justice to the practices that many people hold dear.

My purpose here has been to give you a snapshot of what modern paganism looks like in our home. There is no dancing naked in the woods at midnight. There are no human or animal sacrifices in our basement. There are no mystery chants, secret rites or orgies. There is just a family who really loves watching Battlestar Galactica re-runs and who is doing its best to tread lightly upon the Earth while being decent to our fellow travelers.

I think it is time to challenge the stereotypes surrounding modern paganism and its various beliefs. It has so much to offer, from its fascinating history and cultural influence to its contemporary efforts to create a better world. And that's something I'll expand upon next week.

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    Wikimedia Commons
    Like many religions, pagans employs certain symbols both as representations of their faith and as images and objects that contain power in and of themselves. The pentacle is probably the most common in paganism, often depicted in art and jewelry. Some say its five points represent the four directions plus the sacred spirit.
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    Wikimedia Commons
    As Harvard's Pluralism Project notes, it is difficult to determine the number of pagan adherents around the world as estimates vary widely. The number may be anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million, or possibly more. Most pagans don't exhibit their religious identity outside of the ritual space (unless they wear clothing or jewelry depicting pagan symbols such as the pentacle.) According to The Pagan Census, modern pagans are distributed fairly even throughout the U.S., with a slight majority on either coast. Men and women of all ages, races and backgrounds practice paganism, though the census said the community tends to skew toward white, middle class women.
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    Getty Images
    Contemporary paganism is widespread and somewhat scattered, hence the difficulty counting adherents. Modern paganism does not descend from a singular ancient religion but rather many ancient indigenous and folkloric traditions, and there is no central text to refer to that can shed light on doctrine. There are, however, subtle distinctions that delineate Celtic and northern European sects, Baltic and Slavic sects, Greek and southern European sects, American neopaganism, and other groupings around the world. Some covens (organized groups of pagans) worship specific deities, such as Diana or Odin. Others practice ancient Druidism, such John Rothwell ("Arthur Pendragon") pictured, while some focus on activism, such as the Reclaiming tradition.
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    In general, pagan worship centers around earth and spirit, as opposed to specific structures imbued with sacredness (ie. a church, Mecca, the Vatican, etc.) Forests, hilltops, urban warehouses and individual's homes can operate as ritual sites, especially because many pagans take measures to "create sacred space" for rituals regardless of where they are. That said, some natural or ancient sites, such as Stonehenge or Machu Picchu, may hold particular importance for some pagans.
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    Triple Goddess
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    The triple goddess in modern paganism embodies the maiden, the mother and the crone. These three aspects are meant to encompass the full power of the goddess, reflected in the moon's cycles. The waxing moon represents the maiden; the full moon represents the mother; and the waning moon represents the crone. Pagans will often hold gatherings or do personal meditation to observe these moon phases. In addition to the goddess, some pagans worship a masculine divinity, occasionally in the form of the Horned God or the Green Man. Many also revere the natural world as divine, as well.
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    Sabbats - Quarter Days
    Wikimedia Commons
    There are eight sabbats that make up the pagan "wheel of the year," though not all pagans observe all eight. Each sabbat corresponds with different seasonal events of the year. Pagans celebrate the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and autumn equinox (or "quarter days") to mark the deepest part of the season and the lengthening or shortening of daylight.
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    Sabbats - Cross Quarter Days
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    The other four sabbats, or "cross quarter days," are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Imbolc falls in early February and celebrates the onset of springtime, encouraging the sprouting of seeds and new life. Beltane is an early summer celebration in May, often seen as a fertility festival. Lughnasadh falls in August and is the first of several harvest festivals. Samhain coincides with the western Halloween and is a holiday for paying tribute to the deceased. It is often seen as a time when the veil between this world and the afterlife is thinnest.
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    Wikimedia Commons
    Pagans often construct altars for rituals and to keep in their homes, and these may act as offerings to specific deities or to 'the goddess' more generally. Each object holds certain meaning, such as rocks to symbolize earth, seeds to symbolize intentions and new life, bread to symbolize bounty, and so on.
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    Wikimedia Commons
    Pagans occasionally employ tools in rituals and personal practice that may either function in ritual procedures (such as an athame, pictured), aid in divination (such as a pendulum), assist in cleansing (such as water or incense) or pay respects to a specific deity (such as a statuette). Other tools may include drums, candles, ribbons, cauldrons and more, depending on the specific ritual or practice for which they will be used.
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    Wikimedia Commons
    Fire plays a prominent role in many pagan rituals and in personal practice (through candles and incense.) During some rituals pagans circle around a large fire, which is seen to hold transformative power. Fire may also be used in cleansing, divination, trance and ecstatic dancing.
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    Wikimedia Commons
    The anatomy of any pagan ritual will vary from group to group, but Reclaiming -- one of the best-known American pagan groups -- identifies several key components. Typically rituals begin with grounding and cleansing, then move to the 'casting' of a circle. Leaders and/or participants will often invoke deities, then guide one another into trance or magic work. At the end, participants often share food and drink before closing the ritual by devoking and opening the space once again.
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    Magic in paganism and witchcraft is primarily about change and transformation. By some accounts, magic allows practitioners to remove the barriers of what they think is possible so that they can manipulate the physical or spiritual world. Most groups shun what is sometimes referred to as "black magic" and instead employ magic crafts that encourages practitioners to draw health and fortune into their lives and the lives of others. Some magical activities include chanting, trance, craft work and more elaborate manipulations of objects.
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    Invoking Deities
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    One of the key elements of pagan rituals and personal practice is the invocation of specific deities. The chosen deity may correspond to a certain sabbat (such as Brigid for Imbolc). The invocation is intended to invite the god or goddess to assist the ritual or so the participant may come to know the divine through embodiment.
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    Personal Practice
    Wikimedia Commons
    The Pagan Census found in 2003 that just over 50% of respondents said they were solitary practitioners. This means they do not belong to a coven and may not have been 'trained' by a larger spiritual organization. Solitary practitioners observe rituals and practice magic on their own, or perhaps occasionally in small groups. Even for those involved in covens, personal practice is seen as key for developing magic skills and deepening spiritual connection.
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    Pagan Leaders
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    Modern pagan leaders are often hard to identify due to the dispersed nature of the faith. Individuals may be trained and ordained by specific seminaries or by independent groups (such as Reclaiming). In general, pagan sects are non- or semi-hierarchical, but certain individuals may hold sway in the community due to their large followings (Such as Starhawk, pictured) or their influence through authorship.
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    Wikimedia Commons
    Along with legal marriage and domestic partnership, some pagans practice handfasting, a ritualistic but not legal form of marriage. According to BBC, handfasting rituals are believed to predate Christianity and was certainly present by medieval times. During the ceremony, the couple will tie their wrists together with ribbons or twine to represent their union.
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    Wikimedia Commons
    Paganism is by no means an adults-only tradition. The 1999 Pagan Census found that just over 40% of participants reported that they had children. The growing number of children in the pagan community has lead some groups to open their rituals to families and youth, adjusting some practices that may not have been appropriate or accessible for young people. In some traditions pagans pass on traditions and lore to children through trainings and camps, a form of spiritual education common in many religions. In her book, "Circle Round", pagan leader Starhawk outlines practical tools and lessons for conveying pagan traditions to children, as well as for raising pagan families.
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    Getty Images
    Though not a rule for pagan communities, some groups make activism and community work central to their practice. Some of the causes promoted by pagan groups include environmental protection, gender and racial equality, LGBT rights and the preservation of sacred indigenous sites.