When you think of modern Paganism and Pagan community, I think you cannot avoid how varied and divergent we are. People often describe “Paganism” as an “umbrella term”, which is a bit like saying “don’t worry, it doesn’t actually exist”. But where you draw the line between a something and a collection of somethings can actually be fairly arbitrary. That can be an assertion rather than a description.
In emotional, and broadly social terms, I would say that Paganism actually does exist though, but it is a broad and sprawling church without walls or priests. It is a persisting subculture, and no matter how many times it is colonized by would be leaders or representatives, no matter how many times it is carved up by specific identities and aspirations (and I think all these things are both natural and predictable), the substrate remains and goes on.
For a lot of people that substrate is not enough. It is not credible enough, or does not deliver what they are looking for. But for many others, though they might not be the loudest voices, it is both what they have, and what facilitates them finding their own spiritual path.
I remember during the early to mid 2000’s there seemed to be a big upsurge in people coming into Paganism, probably facilitated by the still growing internet of the time. It was an exciting time in that there was so much enthusiasm and openness. What I found sad was the way that some seemed to have that enthusiasm drained out of them by more cynical, controlling, critical voices. Over a period of under a decade it looked to me that those that sought to carve up Paganism and kick it “into shape” got more of what they wanted, and as they got what they wanted, they collapsed the phenomenon that they fed off. At least that’s how it looked to me, though there were probably other processes going on too.
While all such things went on, the “base line Pagans” just got on with stuff, as usual. Paganism below the radar is actually an enormous amount of what Paganism is.
There isn’t any one thing that constitutes the phenomenon of Paganism. Connection with Nature, the slew of influences flowing from a time between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and on to Romanticism and beyond to early 20th century bohemians, spiritual hunger divested of religious constraint, the 60s counterculture, occultism and its revivals, the output of Witchcraft “revivalists” and pop Witches, Druids in robes, love of standing stones and poetry, earth mysteries, the paranormal, divination. All of these and more have fed into modern Paganism, but none can define it. Paganism is a mysterious attractor and its aura shelters many. What it withholds is authority and definition and ultimate representation. When you can’t cope with that you take a holiday from it; it will still be there when you get back.
If you go to a good moot you will find a mix of people: different paths and none in particular, the intellectual, the sensual, the joking and the serious, the ambitious and the contented. In order to come together we do not need to be the same. We need good will, and to value each other and ourselves more than we value any idea in someone’s head.
We can learn from the beast that shelters us. One day we may even learn what the mysterious attractor is.