The word “pagan” carries undeniably negative connotations. Dating back to the initial spread of Christianity, pagans were those who continued worshipping a pantheon of local deities and were thus considered to be barbarians bound for eternal hellfire. Religious leaders to this day use the term to call out people of any faith whose greed or worldly lust cause them to stray from the flock.
For droves of practicing pagans around the world — numbers of which are difficult to measure — these connotations present a public relations nightmare, making it difficult to share the reality of their faith when confronted with de facto bias.
Nonetheless, many pagans are excited to talk about their spirituality and answer questions from curious friends and acquaintances. But insulting them with jokes about witches on broomsticks isn’t going to help facilitate dialogue.
HuffPost Religion asked prominent pagan leaders and writers for tips on what people can do to when they meet someone who identifies as pagan or find out their cousin/nephew/colleague/friend practices earth-based spirituality. Here’s a helpful guide on what not to do, say or ask — and some respectful alternatives.
When someone first tells you they’re pagan, don’t make it awkward.
“Mostly, people should avoid making a face, averting their eyes, laughing uncomfortably, trying to say something cute or clever, or ending the conversation abruptly,” pagan leader Laurie Lovekraft told HuffPost. “All of these things have happened to me.”
Then, don’t ask them questions like:
Are you a good witch or a bad witch?
First of all, not all pagans identify as witches. Second, that would be like asking someone if they are a good Christian or a bad Christian. If you’re wondering about what kind of magic they practice — if they practice magic at all — then try asking them about their beliefs and what kind of rituals they partake in.
Do you worship the devil? Or alternately: Are you a Satanist?
The answer is no. As pagan author Sam Webster said in an email to HuffPost, “Satan is part of the Christian pantheon, and not any Pagan pantheon. He’s [Christianity’s] problem and not ours.”
So you’re Wiccan?
Just as not all Christians are Methodist, not all pagans are Wiccan. “Paganism is not a single religion, but a family of related religious paths,” pagan author John Halstead said in an email to HuffPost. “Consider the differences between a Catholic, a Baptist, and Mormon — Pagans are at least that diverse. In addition, many Pagans follow an eclectic or non-traditional path, which means that their Paganism may be unique to them.”
Is that like Harry Potter?
While many people would probably love to imagine that a place like Hogwarts exists, with witches and wizards flying around on hippogriffs, that is sadly not what life is like for real pagans.
Do pagans go to church?
Pagan “churches” do exist and often have the same rights and protections under the law as other houses of worship. “Some, but not all, Pagans are members of Pagan churches and/or take part in festivals and other events sponsored by Pagan churches,” Rev. Selena Fox, who leads pagan church Circle Sanctuary, told HuffPost in an email.
Why do you worship trees?
To a pagan who holds nature at the center of their spirituality, this question might sound glib. Try another route and ask them to describe their beliefs about the sacredness of the earth.
Are you going to turn me into a toad?
No, but you might seem like one if you ask them this silly question.
Do you sacrifice babies?
Crazy as this might sound, it’s a common trope of pagan narratives. Anyone who saw the recent horror flick “The Witch” got a gruesome reminder of that.
Webster explained that this stereotype is indicative of deep seated fear and distrust people feel toward pagans. “For as far back into human history as we can see, ‘those bad people over there’ were always accused of sacrificing babies,” he said. “We wouldn’t do it any more than you would.”
You hold orgies, don’t you?
Another common stereotype is that all pagans are lusty and promiscuous. Yes, some pagans incorporate sexuality into their rituals, and some pagans are polyamorous. But many are not. As Webster put it: “Although some traditions hold private worship sky clad (naked), most wear robes and a lot of our worship is standing around in a circle and singing.”
Instead, try asking them:
Can you tell me a little about paganism?
If you don’t know anything about paganism, then ask! It’ll show that you’re truly interested and give you an opportunity to learn about an often-misunderstood faith.
What drew you to paganism?
This will help them feel safe to talk about their spiritual path. And their reasons might highlight what they find most meaningful about the faith.
How do you practice paganism?
Now that we’ve got orgies and baby sacrifice off the table, get to know what rituals, holidays and traditions pagans actually practice.
Are you a polytheist? Which goddesses or gods do you work with?
Many but not all pagans are polytheist, meaning they honor a variety of different deities from religious traditions around the world. This question will show that you’ve done a bit of your homework and encourage them to share about their personal practice.
What pagan organizations have helped you, others and society, and how?
Many pagans are deeply committed to civic engagement and work hard to promote religious freedom, environmental reform, women’s rights and more. On top of that, answers to this question might give you insight into your local pagan community — a perfect chance to stop by a public ritual and see for yourself what it’s all about!