Paganism covers a huge variety of faiths, describing someone as a Pagan is a bit like describing someone as a Christian, and much like Christianity, Paganism encompasses a huge variety of religious practices which share some common traits.
Common pagan faiths in the Western world include druidry, Wicca, shamanism, Odinists, Celtic traditions and even some worshippers of pre Christian roman gods.
Outside of the Western world many indigenous peoples still follow their old faith rather than any of the main world religions such as Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism. Despite this very diverse history most if not all Pagan faiths have several key traits which they share.
Reverence for nature
For the vast majority of Pagan faiths the concept of respecting the environment is key. The concept of being part of a natural cycle of death and rebirth is very strong in pagan faiths. Many pagans try to live their lives in a way that causes a little impact to the environment as possible; others strive to learn about their environment and the plants and animals within it. The idea of the planet as mother earth (sometimes called the Gaia concept) is strong within paganism. Linked to this is the pagan attitude to death, as death is seen as part of the natural cycle pagans see it as unavoidable and not to be feared, in fact many pagans see death as just a transition from one state to another and many pagan faiths do believe in reincarnation. Burial traditions vary greatly with some faiths believing in cremation and others seeing burial as the correct funeral.
Most pagan faiths recognise a number of deities and are therefore polytheistic. As mentioned the concept of an earth mother or deifying the planet is strong. Pagan deities are as often female as male and paganism promotes equal rights with women taking a key part in many pagan ceremonies and goddesses worship being a central part of many festivals.
Little if any written tradition
Most pagan faiths have very little if any written tradition and tend to be free of dogma and the trappings of an organised religion. The concept of the 3 fold law is central to many modern pagan beliefs; this states that your actions have repercussions for good or ill to the value of three times the initial action. For example an act of kindness will eventually repay the giver threefold. Pagans’ tend to be liberal in their outlook following the principle of do want you want as long as it does harm others or the environment.
Pagans have no public buildings set aside for worship but use areas of natural beauty which help them get closer to nature, so areas such as cliff tops, woods, caves etc are used. The fewer signs of human interference the better the place is for worship although ancient stone circles are sometimes used as are such areas with parks or peoples gardens. Men and women worship together with women often leading the ceremonies. Worship can take many forms from quiet meditation to ritual. Rituals normally begin by a circle being marked on the ground and the four elements being invoked. The ritual can then contain meditation, prayer, chanting, signing, and poetry, dance, sharing of food or drink. The ritual will then end with the circle being symbolically broken and the gods/ goddesses and the four elements being thanked.
Pagans have a strong tradition of not trying to convert people to their faith, believing that people choose the faith of their own free will so are happy to educate people about their beliefs or that people are called to the faith by the gods or personal experience. They are tolerant of other faiths but have suffered a great deal of persecution in the past and many Christian countries tortured and murdered pagans in the middle ages. Many fundamental Christian groups hold strong and somewhat distorted beliefs on pagans. Estimates suggest up to 200,000 people see themselves as pagans in the UK making them a considerable religious group out numbering more well known religious groups such as Mormons and Rastafarians in the UK.
“Due to persecution and misrepresentation it is necessary to define what Pagans are not as well as what they are. Pagans are not sexual deviants, do not worship the devil, are not evil, do not practice 'black magic' and their practices do not involve harming people or animals.”