“Oh My God! Just realized I’m Pagan…”

“(Pagans) are not out to convert anyone, and we don’t sacrifice much beyond vegetables,” he said, adding that the one and only commandment of paganism is to “Do no harm.”

* * * * * * *


Rise in Paganism in Southeast Valley Mirrors U.S. TrendNancy Puffer, The Republic

Advocates of paganism say it is on the rise in the “Southeast Valley, mirroring a nationwide trend of growth in nature-based religions. Many local followers have been celebrating their beliefs and seeking the same acceptance and respect as any other religion.

Heather Frazier, owner of A Magickal Moon store in Tempe, which serves the pagan community, says acceptance is definitely growing as more pagans buck stereotypes and blend in with the mainstream.

“More people that are coming into this store are just everyday people who just happen to be witches. They’re not the ones that are trying to get attention by (saying), ‘Look at how I’m dressed,’ ” Frazier said.

Heather Tanner, a 34-year-old eclectic pagan from Gilbert, believes that all religions, including paganism, share the same ultimate goal of honoring the divine and spreading good in the world.

“Just because someone has a reverence for nature and a disdain for organized religion, they aren’t evil or misguided; they are just following a different path up the mountain,” Tanner said.
Although there is no organized ultimate church body or authority, all pagan groups follow a religious calendar called the Wheel of the Year, which celebrates the cycles of nature. Paganism is generally defined as a belief that celebrates the Earth, living creatures and nature and usually involves the belief in more than one god.

The next major holiday is Samhain (pronounced SOW-uhn) on Oct. 31, a day to honor the deceased, which Szymanski describes as similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead. Sacred Spiral Pagan Church holds public gatherings at Falcon Field Park in Mesa to mark each of the eight Pagan Sabbaths or holy days.

While public perceptions may be mixed, policymakers demonstrate a growing acceptance of paganism. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officially recognized the pagan pentagram, a five-pointed star inside a circle, right side up, as an emblem of faith along with 38 other symbols approved for use on government-issued tombstones and memorials. Earlier this year, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs set aside outdoor worship space for its pagan cadets, and the New Jersey State Board of Education officially became the first state to recognize all eight pagan holidays on its calendar.

Historically, many pagans feared practicing their religion openly due to persecution and intolerance, leading to centuries of worship behind closed doors. But attitudes appear to be changing.
Frank Ray, 43, of Chandler, a facilities manager for the city of Phoenix, says he feels no need to hide his beliefs.

“If someone asks, I answer,” said Ray, who was raised Catholic, but later found a better fit in nature-centered religion. “I would just sit for periods of time and really commune with wherever I was. It was magical. It was here that I found ‘my church’ and my religion.”

Daphne Prator, 43, of Chandler, a hospital health-unit coordinator, is more guarded.

“As open as I am with like-minded people, I do not often go about professing my beliefs,” said Prator, who has encountered negative reactions. “So I try to educate them, or I just smile and tell them it’s OK to disagree.”

Numbers on the growth of paganism in the East Valley are not available. But nationally, the growth is reflected in nationwide polls. In the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, published by the U.S. Census Bureau, 340,000 people openly declared themselves as pagan in the U.S., an increase of 143 percent over the previous reporting period in 2001. That doesn’t include those who openly identified themselves as Wiccan, the largest pagan subgroup, whose numbers rose by 155 percent, to 342,000, in the same seven-year period.

“It is the fastest-growing religion in this country right now,” said Rosemary Szymanski, 63, a retired schoolteacher and president and high priestess of Sacred Spiral Pagan Church of Arizona in Mesa. “In the last, I would say six years, it’s really, really, grown big in this area.”

At the root of any intolerance, Szymanski feels, is fear and ignorance; misconceptions about pagans as dark Satan worshipers who engage in animal sacrifice and need to be eradicated. To the contrary, she said, pagans believe in God. They do not believe in the concept of hell or Satan, and they do not sacrifice animals. To stay morally in check, they honor the rule of karma.

“We believe there is both male and female in the divine, that everything in nature is sacred, and we are all part of one universal force,” she said, noting that, like Christianity, paganism has many subgroups such as Druid, Wicca, shamanic and eclectic practitioners.

“We celebrate those eight, and in addition to them, we celebrate the phases of the moon,” Szymanski explained.

Nick Carr, a 30-year-old network engineer from Chandler, found a welcoming place to celebrate the Sabbaths at Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Chandler, which welcomes people of diverse faiths, including Earth-based traditions.

“(Pagans) are not out to convert anyone, and we don’t sacrifice much beyond vegetables,” he said, adding that the one and only commandment of paganism is to “Do no harm.”

“To me, it is such a beautiful religion,” said the Rev. Kyle Hutchinson, an ordained interfaith minister from Mesa with strong pagan roots. He recently opened the Earth Spirit Center for Healing in Queen Creek as a sanctuary for people of all faiths to find acceptance and resources for spiritual growth.

“In my eyes, the root of (paganism) is having a deep appreciation and love for all that is around us with understanding that we are all interconnected spiritual beings living on this planet. People often call it a nature-based religion, and that is true,” he said.

In January, Hutchinson plans to open Earth Spirit Church in the five-acre Queen Creek facility, offering sermons, ceremonies, and rituals.

“I hope that this could be the start of a bridge between the beautiful and rich spirituality that paganism offers to the more conservative and dogmatic religions,” Hutchinson said.

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The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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