The devil, they say, is in the detail. With this book that is not so. Descriptions of the celebrations and ceremonies of druids, witches, heathens, magicians and other present-day pagans make the book a mine of fascinating information, but in all these details the devil is not mentioned, or mentioned only to be firmly excluded. Whatever the "contemporary paganism" of the subtitle may be, it is not Satanism.
What the author in fact calls it is "a polytheistic nature religion". Paganism is an umbrella term for various world-affirming traditions and activities that regard the physical body and mother earth as our true and only "home". Unlike most religions, which focus on the human spirit or soul, pagan rituals centre positively on the physical and the sensual aspects of life. The purpose of the religion is not to gain access to some other "higher" world but to attain harmony with all fellow-beings in this one; not to escape the body but to rejoice in it.
Graham Harvey's handling of his subject is descriptive and based upon the practitioners' presentations: "Whatever pagans do and say is what paganism is." This approach has two disadvantages. First, it involves a circularity: he defines pagans as those who do and say certain things, which things in turn define paganism because pagans say and do them.
To take a specific example. Other writers on the contemporary religious scene tend to include neo-paganism as part of the New Age movement, whereas Harvey vehemently denies this association. New Agers are accused of a "fluffy bunnies" vision of the world - all sweetness and light - while pagans know their world "warts and all" and accept the rough with the smooth. New Agers may outwardly celebrate the pagan festivals, but inwardly they are Gnostics. Their ultimate concern is spiritual rather than sensual and they seek to escape the physical world rather than be truly at home in it, as a good pagan would. This distinction does not bear scrutiny. Harvey admits elsewhere that there is a huge variety of views within and between the groups he labels pagan. So his drawing of such a hard line at this point seems arbitrary.
The second problem with this approach is a lack of critical appraisal. The fascism of the Heathens (members of the Odinic rite); the sexual rites of the Craft (witches); the dubious role of Aleister Crowley in the 20th-century revival of magic: these are recorded or hinted at almost without comment.
In consequence, despite the author's undoubted scholarship, the book reads like an apologia. Pagans are portrayed as good, ecologically minded and socially aware citizens, misunderstood and persecuted by evangelical Christians and others. Many undoubtedly are, but a more rounded account would have made the claim more convincing.
Revd Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies.
Listening People, Pagan Earth: Contemporary Paganism
Author - Graham Harvey
ISBN - 1 85065 1 6 and 2 4
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £.50 and £9.00
Pages - 250