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on March 22, 2005
Michael York's book attempts to resurrect a category of cross-cultural religious understanding once thought to be irredeemably imperialist, archaic or Eurocentric. In examining Paganism, he is not concentrating on contemporary forms referred to as Neo-Paganism, but rather drawing thematic continuities to forms of worship across times and spaces. From Greco-Roman times onwards, York sees Pagan gods as essentially having an kindred affinity with Humans--different in degree rather than in kind. Fundamental "animism, polytheism, idolatry, corpospirituality, local emphasis," geosacrality, apotheosis, devotional reciprocity, regeneration, circular history, vitalism, phallicism, and most of all, celebration---these are the salient forms York finds in Paganism as a root religious type. Earth and Nature are the sacred texts for Pagan religions.

There is typically an "otherworld," but not a transcendent one. Rather, for York, Otherworlds in Paganism are earthly paradises, or at least realms that intersect with with this world and immanent, sometimes co-terminous, even "co-dependent" with this realm. Again, often a difference of degree, rather than kind. The flexibility and innovations of dioscuric triads and Shaman-Tricksters are common as well, and York connects this theme again across spaces, from the Norse trickster Loki to Hermetic Sacred Magic in the Western Tradition. Behaviorally, York draws on Peter Berger to claim that natural, spontaneous worship directed in this world is characteristic of Paganism, as well as the idolatrous bhakti devotions of vernacular Hinduism. Even Thai Theravada Buddhism is examined for its devotion to relics, veneration of images, and tradition of geolocal domestic spirit houses.

A number of different religious expressions are examined for these forms of devotion. Chinese folk religion (including but not limited to ritual Taoism), Japanese forms of Shinto, and vernacular (but not speculative or Brahmanical) Hinduism. Afro-Carribean and contemporary Western Paganisms are also examined as part of these ways of approaching sacrality.

This not to say that all Paganisms are the same. York makes sub-typological distinctions, such as geopaganism, recopaganism, and neopaganism. York actually places Neopaganism on the fringes of the typology, due to its alleged lack of actual polytheism. And he is careful to include significant doses of humanism, from Epicurus to Confucian ideology, that accompany different forms of Paganism. York also does not shy away from the "darker" aspects of Paganism. For if Paganism works by enhancing/restoring environmental equilibrium, sometimes both offensive and defensive modes are needed. Contrary to what some would argue, this makes Paganism more of an ethical religious stance for York than the transcendental or gnostic religious modes, as he later points out.

The first part of the book is largely devoted to fleshing out the typology, while the second section covers examples from these many cross-cultural traditions that exemplify parts of the typology. Thirdly Paganism is contrasted to what he calls 'gnostic' modes of religiosity or 'transcendental' modes, although all of these are found as modes within individual large religious traditions. Yet York sees 'world-denying' religions such as Christianity, Zororastrianism, and speculative Buddhism as more properly transcendental or gnostic religions. Some of these non-Pagan modes are found within the heritage of Western occultism. For example, York considers Platonism, Theosophy and New-Age more gnostically oriented than Pagan.

Its a bold book, and one that has merits. Some volumes work by claiming large amounts of ground, which is then refined and modified/challenged over time. This may be one of those volumes. There are some vocabulary archaisms, such as the terms "primitive," "cult" and "Lamaism," which communicate some of the unease associated with what some may see as imperialist throwback. I think there is significant merit in York's argument, although I see concerns as well. But York is to be commended for his boldness in articulating a major field of study. In closing, it is perhaps important that York himself closes with a mention of Pagan ethics, naming "honor," "trust," and "friendship" as an ethical triad. Paganism, after all, since it is at heart concerned with relationality and relationships, is an ethical religious stance before it is anything else.
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on April 3, 2004
This is a fine study of the ideas that lay behind ancient Paganism, and how they relate to and resemble the ideas of modern Paganism.
York proposes a model of Paganism which is pluralistic and polytheistic, nature-focused, human-focused and that seeks a good life on earth more than it does a specific sort of good afterlife.
He begins by examining some of the most well-preserved of ancient forms, those of China and India. He finds in traditional Taoist Paganism his first and most complete model. In Hinduism he has to choose among the many forms to find the (still fairly prominent) presence of Pagan ways. Having isolated the pagan remnants in those ways, he goes on to other world religions, including Japanese culture, European Catholicism and North American First Peoples. York makes fairly good use of material from the african world, including santeria, Lucumi, and the like.
After pointing out the Pagan ideas in the various world paths, he examines the neopagan movement, and reaches interesting conclusions.
I'd recommend this as a fine contribution to the development of Pagan theological thinking.
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on October 11, 2010
I purchased this book initially because as a Solitary Eclectic Wiccan I have found precious little material exploring Wiccan theology and wanted to condense my own ideas with the help of some good reference material.

This book does help me in that regard, but not as much as I had hoped. I would say the vast majority of the book deals with what Isaac Bonewits referred to as "Mesopaganisms" and their comparison/contrast with "Paleopaganisms", with Neopaganisms being the extreme minority of the topics under discussion. There, he uses somewhat odd definitions and lumps all of Witchcraft into the same framework as Wicca, which isn't accurate or fair, but may be a useful enough construct to form sweeping theories with. Basically the most of the text is dedicated to creating definitions.

That said, the book gave me lots to ponder that wasn't on my original shopping list so to speak, and the final, shortest, chapter DOES handle theology more directly. The presentation is generalizing and nonspecific but still helpful. I was most taken by his idea that the New Age movement, which he characterizes as Gnostic, is essentially at odds with the Witchcraft religions in their basic worldviews (Paganisms envisioning the world, the Gods, and the human race as codependent, while Gnostic philosophy sets apart the idea of the One from all lesser emanations; in the one, Nature is sacred, while in the other, Nature is illusion). He surmises that these two incompatible philosophies form loose alliances due to the shared experience of Christian condemnation.

All in all I recommend this book for advancing Neopagans who are looking to help firm up their definitions of broad terms and identify themselves with the religious movements around the world that share common themes with their own.
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on August 7, 2005
There are plenty of books about theology. But not all that many on Pagan theology. That means that a book like this one could be pioneering, but it might also be trivial.

In spite of all that has been written about monotheistic theology, I find the concept of a "perfect Creator," let alone a just, good, omnescient, or omnipresent one rather silly. In my opinion, real Goddesses and Gods are perfections of attributes. Now, is that what most folks think? Is it what the author of this book thinks?

Well, it isn't something everyone agrees on. As York says in his preface, the associate provost of Boston University finds neopagans "confused, deluded, frivolous, and devoid of intellectual seriousness." Hey, that's what I think of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims! Anyway, the provost's point is that Pagan religions offer no ethical guidance. And there is something to that. Pagans often try to learn how to contribute as best they can in areas they feel are of value. Monotheists worry more about what it is they ought to value. But to claim that monotheists offer ethical guidance is something of an exaggeration, as is the suggestion that Pagans offer less ethical guidance.

So I can see why York wrote this book. He's quite properly defending the claim that Pagan religions are serious.

York begins with a chapter on Paganism as religion. He starts by leaving out the monotheists, the Buddhists, and even the Hindus (huh?) as Pagans. And he discusses folk religions of China, Japan, and elsewhere. The focus is on supernatural aspects.

Next comes a chapter on Paganism as behavior. That means the commitment that Pagans display. But just what is that commitment to? There is some description of some Gods and Goddesses, but I don't think York really answers this question well. There is also some description of ritual. But is ritual a mere display of commitment? Or does it have an independent significance in making one a different person? At least, this chapter devotes a great deal of space to Hinduism. As well as Buddhism and monotheism.

At the end of the book, the author has a chapter on Paganism as theology. He tells of the difference between Paganism and Gnosticism. And he addresses the charge that Pagan religions can be reactionary, fascist, chauvinist, and racist (actually, this charge can be made against monotheistic religions as well).

This is a pretty good book. But I think we're still awaiting a serious and pioneering work on the topic.
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on April 29, 2016
Mr. York lives in an academical world completely away from any real contact with any pagan tradition. His mind is full of the complexes that afflict the "modern citizen" away from the depth of any pagan cosmovision. The thesis of paganism as a "world religion" comes from a monotheistic background. Paganism is related to the earth, to holy places, to the sacredness of life, to a certain type of people, to diversity and many paths are its beautiful fruit. If you want to know about paganism, this is not the book for you. If you want to fly in intellectual dry speculations, buy it!
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on September 4, 2014
I was assigned this book for a class, but I really enjoyed reading it. I loved wandering through all the different cultures and their beliefs.
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on August 18, 2006
I strongly encourage anyone interested in this topic to give this book a try. An excellent monograph on the subject. The author has something interesting to share, and does it in a succinct way. Not a casual read, but very good nonetheless...
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on September 12, 2003
Michael York includes Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Yaruba, and just about everything else in his definition of "paganism." From reading the text its pretty clear that the working definition of "paganism" is "everything not Jewish, Christian, or Moslem." At one point he's even lumping Mormons and Adventists, non-main-steam Christians into "paganism." Very few practicing Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists or Mormons would accept that definition. I was left wondering if he has a clue what he's talking about. The back cover promises, "audacious redrawing of traditional religious boundaries," and York delivers that. So audacious is his redrawing that very few of the groups about which he writes would recognize or accept his audacity. At one point he says that contemporary western neo-paganism is less polytheistic than the Christian trinity. Who is he to redefine the ancient Hindu religion as "pagan"? Or Buddhism? No, I don't think it's scholarly, its not spiritual, and not much of anything else either. For [$$$] it's way over priced.
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on March 22, 2005
As a general overview of (neo) pagan beliefs, the book is basically accurate. However, the author clearly has no understanding of American religious beliefs, history, or American culture in general. Conceptually, the book is often astoundingly wrong--see the other Amazon reviews--and the book lacks even the basic facts about paganism or any religion in the United States. The author has not consulted the readily available scholarly work on neopaganism in the United States, and he seems unfamiliar with pagan authors as well.
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