For most Americans, Labor Day marks the end of summer. But some will observe the season's decline next week with an ancient harvest festival called Lammas. These people view the changing seasons as spiritual events, and the Chicago Tribune newspaper calls their religion Paganism - the fastest growing faith in North America.
For many, Paganism conjures mysterious, primitive, and anti-Christian images. But at an introductory pagan course in Seattle, it fits into the 21st century lifestyle of more and more Americans.
Pagan chanting sounds like something from an ancient, exotic ritual, perhaps for sacrificing an animal, a virgin, or the like. Actually, it is "Ceremonial Magick," intoned in Greek by a young, bearded man with his long, dark hair tied back. "Hello, I'm Robert," he said, "and I'm a former pastor of Our Lady Of The Earth And Sky here in Seattle, and we're teaching a class today called Skiing the Magical Bunny Slopes, which is an introductory course on Magick, Wicca and Neo-Paganism.
In the small, carpeted basement of a New Age bookstore, Robert and two female instructors are circled by a dozen young Seattlites, mostly white women, who are curious to learn about becoming Pagans.
Paganism refers to the ancient religions of indigenous Peoples, from Indian Shamanism to Celtic Druidry, in which multiple gods personify nature. Pagans believe that human life closely connects with the environment, and they emulate natural cycles through rituals of chants, dances, and symbols of nature.
Twenty-year-old Pleni Speenya is one of the few male students in the paganism class. His path to Paganism began like many of his classmates' he doubted the Christian faith in which he was raised, and so began exploring other religions for answers.
The answers came to him in a late-night discussion with a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, and a Pagan. "I was listening to their different conversations and stuff," he said, "and I noticed that the Pagan tended to touch upon a lot of the things that I found disagreeable with Christianity, and he started to put answers to it that I agreed with, answers that I was like, yeah, you know, I mean, I previously believed these things, but I wouldn't say that because it was against Christianity and I was supposed to be a good Christian and so of course I'd have to hush-hush about that kind of stuff, you know. Everything just started fitting into place, and it was like I found something I had been looking for this whole time."
Pleni Speenya and his classmates find something in Paganism that they haven't been able to get from their parents' churches. But the religions they're shying away from actually share roots in the faith they now seek.
Ted Fortier is an anthropology professor at Seattle University. He said, "Mainstream religions are built on pagan concepts - the estrus cycle, the Easter cycle itself, the renewal of the earth, the ideal of what dies rises again to new life and that humans have some kind of agency in this. The pagan roots, the earth roots, are very ripe and important in contemporary Christianity and contemporary Buddhism, all the great religions."
Paganism and mainstream religions have other things in common, including denominations. One such pagan denomination is called Wicca. Professor said, "It's a very simplified paganism. Wiccans usually are associated with gardeners, and it certainly has a lot to do with environmental consciousness and raising the role of women up in the world as well. Wiccan religion looks at the goddess as being the important deity."
Saying something like "Goddess bless" may sound peculiar at first. But in Wicca and Paganism in general, female as well as male deities are revered. Some men may find this aspect uninviting, but Pagan church organizers, such as Libya Vogt, promote their faith to men and women equally. She said, "I think it does attract men. I think it attracts men who are comfortable in their masculinity. I think that traditionally a lot of Western religions have been very male-focused. Maybe something that our faith allows is, it encourages a connection with the feminine."
It is difficult to determine how many Pagans there are in the United States. Many keep this religious association private to avoid prejudice. People often assume Pagans are evil and dangerous, associating them with secret societies and Satanism. But Professor Fortier says Pagans are ordinary people. He said, "It could be the grocer, it could be the banker. They come from all walks of life. I know many practicing Catholics, for instance, and other denominations who regularly celebrate the phases of the moon in Wiccan ceremonies or Pagan-type ceremonies."
The class ends with a benediction, and the dozen students have taken a step closer to becoming pagans. As one of the world's oldest and fastest growing religions, Paganism, it seems, still speaks to those searching for something to believe in.