What’s It Like To Be Pagan?

Jia Tolentino interviews Brian, a clergyman at the Summerland Grove Pagan Church in Memphis:

What do you mean when you say you work with [gods]?

I pray to them, I offer them time, I meditate on them. When I say that I work with a god, I mean that I engage in a practice of reciprocal gift-giving. I develop and maintain a relationship with my god by giving gifts to them and thanking for the gifts they give to me.

That’s a really nice, simple way of putting it. Do you feel that you also atone for yourself to them? Is there an analogue to Judeo-Christian punishment and repentance within paganism?

With paganism being so varied, there’s no set code of ethics. Most pagans tend to believe that people know what the right thing is. They don’t need a father figure to say, “Don’t kill people, and don’t steal.” Most pagans believe in a variation of the Hindu belief in karma, and the variation comes from the fact that pagans tend to believe that what you do will come back to you not in the next life but in this one. …

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions of paganism?

Here’s the biggest one: that we’re anything but normal, that we’re evil, that we’re devil worshipers, that we’re going to steal your baby in the middle of the night. I mean, we all have day jobs and families. I’m just about to start a family. My wife is due in March. …

What’s something that you believe that could apply to anyone?

I really try to accept people for who they are. I very much believe in an individual’s decision to lead their lives for themselves and find meaning however they want, and that process is a beautiful thing. That’s one of the reasons I became a minister, was to help people find what gives meaning to their lives.

And this is true for any religion, but I should say that it’s very difficult for a single individual to be representative of paganism as a whole, because our faith structure is a postmodern one. Paganism—neo-paganism—only really broke on the scene in the ‘50s when England repealed its anti-witchcraft laws. So, fairly uniquely, paganism has always been defined by ease of access to information, which led us to emphasize diversity over orthodoxy, and promote tolerance, and acceptance of people walking their own paths.