Where "pagan" was once used as a pejorative term, many who adhere to a pre-Christian, earthbased spiritual path now use it with pride.
As such, the annual Vancouver Pagan Pride Day is scheduled for this weekend, when followers of a variety of ancient traditions will gather to celebrate their beliefs.
The event at Hawthorne Park in Surrey is free for the public, and will feature classes, performances and rituals, as well as a healing tent and entertainment for all ages, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow; Saturday, Aug. 18.
For Burnaby resident Anthony Andersen, a follower of the Asatru tradition, the festival is a chance to meet other pagans and share his beliefs with those who are curious about what it means to be a pagan.
"We definitely want to inform people because there's a lot of mis-information out there about paganism, such as witchcraft," he said. "We want to inform the public and anyone who attends about what it actually is and what the various branches of paganism actually are."
So what is the biggest myth about pagans?
"That we're all cloak-wearing hooded people who go out at night and sacrifice animals," Andersen said. "That's probably the biggest pet peeve I have about the misconceptions of paganism. We don't do any kind of black magic or sacrifices or anything like that."
Modern day paganism is an umbrella term for earth-based religions that include spiritual or religious practices honouring classical, aboriginal, or tribal deities, and includes religions based on shamanism or "magickal" practices.
According to Kerr Cuhulain, Preceptor General of the Order of Scathach, a modern order of Wiccan knights, and organizer of this year's Pagan Pride event, paganism is the fastest growing religious community in North America.
"It's about empowerment," he said. "People standing up and taking charge of their lives. If somebody comes to me and says, 'What's the word of God?' we don't say, 'Here's the book,' because we don't have one. We don't have scripture. I say, 'Sit down and listen.' We teach people who come to our path to develop their own relationship with it, whatever that looks like."
Cuhulain said personal responsibility is paramount.
Rather than looking for guidance from a sacred text like the Bible or Qur'an, which direct followers on what to do or not do, pagans must make their own decisions, he suggested.
"It's a matter of taking personal responsibility. If you are doing something that turns out to affect someone adversely, you own it. It's not based on guilt, it's based on responsibility. It's a slightly different way of looking at the world."
This movement towards paganism in North America is not surprising considering its close ties to the sacred feminine and reverence for nature, says Donald Grayston, a retired religious studies professor from Simon Fraser University.
"I think part of it is a response to feminist and the environmental movements, and part of it is a negative reaction to Christianity, which (pagans) perceive as oppressive and patriarchal and anti-feminist and very careless about the earth," he said.
Cuhulain suggested many people are looking for a means to security in an insecure world.
"A lot of people, particularly young people, find that in fundamentalist Christianity because fundamentalist Christianity is aimed at giving you security," he said. "It gives you, you know, 'Believe this and you will be saved. Do this and you'll go to heaven. Believe this and you'll be right with God.' And so people say, 'Oh, that's so simple, I can do that.' And they do."
While he himself grew up with the influence of Christian grandparents, Andersen said he was never moved to commit to Christianity. "It never really felt real to me," he said.
While his attempts to pray were unsuccessful, he said he feels a "definite connection and a tangible pull" when he honours his ancestors or celebrates earth deities.
"It's something that you try out a little bit, and if it's for you, if it feels right, it's kind of like falling in love," he said. "You just know."
Since becoming a pagan in his late teens, Andersen says he feels not only spiritually fulfilled but also credits his satisfying family life with his spiritual choices.
He and his wife met through an online dating site and connected when they discovered they are both pagans.
She is a Wiccan, and as a family they celebrate common pagan rituals, such as those associated with the solstices and certain lunar events.
Though there are organized rituals and celebrations throughout the year, many pagans celebrate on their own, often in their own back yards, or in public parks. Andersen said having a public event such as the Pagan Pride Day is an opportunity that doesn't come around very often but one that he looks forward to.
"One of the things I enjoy most about Pagan Pride Day is that we put up all our posters, we try to get as much word out as possible, and then if a bunch of solitary members come and find a group that they work with, then perfect: mission accomplished."
Pagan Pride events first began in the United States in 1992, and the Pagan Pride Project that coordinates events worldwide was founded in 1997.
According to the website, the project is a non-profit that exists "to foster pride in pagan religions and eliminate prejudice and discrimination based on religious beliefs through activism, charity and community."
For more about Vancouver Pagan Pride, visit www.vancouver paganpride.wordpress.com.
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