Junior Ashley Atkinson considers herself a Pagan, but that does not mean she embodies the traditional stereotype of witches and devilment. Rather, being a Pagan to her means exploring the inner self and how she is connected to spirituality and nature. Through her research about Paganism at Knox, Atkinson has decided she wants to become a Pagan scholar and inform people about modern Paganism.
“Most of the time I feel like I’m telling people what Paganism is not,” said Atkinson. “I really want to be a Pagan scholar. I want to teach other people about this.”
Atkinson was brought up a Christian, but decided to practice Paganism for many reasons. She found Paganism’s acceptance of female deities, positive views on environmentalism, and reliance upon karma more stimulating than her traditional views. When she was in middle school, Atkinson began learning about Paganism and has since been developing an affinity towards researching Paganism as it relates to feminism.
Being openly Pagan has not been easy, however.
“My parents don’t really approve of it at all,” said Atkinson. “Most of my relatives don’t even know. It’s sad.”
Atkinson said many Pagans are afraid to be open about their choice because many people have negative preconceived notions about what Paganism is.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” said Atkinson. “Because [Paganism] is called evil in major religions people are scared to admit they are Pagan.”
Atkinson has encountered people who thought Pagans were like traditional ancient European witches, ugly women performing black magic and worshipping the devil. She has also been accused of being an atheist, which is not true. Though Pagans can describe themselves as witches, many non-Pagans are afraid of the term “witch” because it has a wicked connotation.
“People think we worship the devil, but that’s a Christian belief,” said Atkinson.
Atkinson has also been confronted about the idea that Pagans have orgies or consider themselves the brides of the devil.
“There might be people out there who do that, but I never have,” said Atkinson. “We don’t believe in hell or the devil or anything.”
Instead, Pagans worship gods and goddesses according to which beings they identify with. Atkinson said Pagans could worship any deity and often find themselves worshipping several from different religions. Atkinson takes aspects from several religions, including Shinto and Native American spiritual beliefs in practice.
“I still feel like I’m Pagan,” said Atkinson. “I think [worship] is influenced by culture and I think that’s fine.”
Also, Atkinson pointed out, most Pagans do not perform evil magic because they believe in karma.
“Even if we did bad things it comes back to us,” said Atkinson. The closest they might come to magic, Atkinson said, would be in their form of prayer.
Atkinson said there have been several cases of discrimination against witches, which makes it even more difficult for Pagans to be open about their beliefs. Paganism has factored in to custody battles where the Pagan parent can lose custody of their children.
“Because it’s called evil in major religions, people are scared to admit it,” said Atkinson. “There is persecution.”
During her time at Knox, Atkinson has done research on several aspects of Paganism, specifically how it relates to other religions and feminism.
“I keep coming back to these subjects no matter what I’m studying,” said Atkinson.
Atkinson has particularly latched on to the feminist qualities of Paganism. Because she is a feminist, and a woman, Atkinson particularly focuses on how goddess worship has developed.
“It’s important to have a divinity you see as yourself,” said Atkinson.
Atkinson has found several books about Pagan studies and discovered an entire field of research about the Pagan tradition. Additionally, she recently attended a conference about Pagan studies in Los Angeles, California at Claremont Graduate University.
“I have a place, it’s not just me,” said Atkinson.
At the conference, which has been held annually for five years, academics from several subject areas presented information about their research into Paganism. There were women’s studies, anthropology and sociology, history, music and folklore workshops held during the conference.
“A lot of it was centered around feminism, environmentalism and philosophy,” said Atkinson.
Atkinson is currently researching Celtic Pagan women and plans to continue her research in the future.