Fair enough question, so let me take a stab at it. There are a couple of core concepts that delineate a pagan from a nonpagan.
The first concept is that, generally speaking, pagans are those on the ‘alt-path’, as they are not beholden to any of the three Abrahamic solar deities or their institutions. These folks are ‘othered’ right from the start in our culture as the judeo-christo-muslim is considered normative.
Paganism is an umbrella term for the original religions, and encompasses all faiths with the exception of the three mentioned. Each one of us has ancestors who we’re pagan (as the spirituality of all people was originally pagan), and many of us still have relatives who are.
There was a time we were hunted & killed for our knowledge and skill sets because others found them threatening, but in the Western world today, this is largely not the case. Pagans are today a minority in the Western world (only).
The second concept is that pagans today inherently know @ energy, they perceive it & utilize it for the benefit of themselves/others/their communities/the planet. The energy manipulation very real, and is what we call magick (delineated from ‘magic’ which is slight of hand trickery). As science progresses, physics is increasingly able to validate our interface with an energetically interactive & intelligent universe.
While these are the main two identifiers, there are smaller ideas/experiences that we collectively share.
Generally speaking, we understand that energy/life force is everywhere and in everything. This extends beyond our physical world and our physical bodies. As such, we perceive ourselves as eternal, part of a collective energy, and many of us believe in reincarnation (because we have memories and evidence of prior incarnations).
Pagans revere nature and it’s natural elements as we revere each other and our Source. We find the energy of creation within all natural things. We celebrate nature with the changing of the seasons and indeed honor the seasons themselves. It is because of these things that many pagan groups are defined as ‘earth religion’s.
Unlike those of organized religion of today, pagans are exclusively led by inner guidance. In this culture, there is no external authority structure or institution to tell pagans what to believe/how to think. Therefore, we key into the divine via our personal intuitive compasses, each individually. We use no intermediary to commune with ‘all that is’ but some of us are known to use aids for divinatory purposes (famously tarot cards, runes, pendulums, etc). Our learning then is wholly authentic and genuine, is deeply personal. We also realize that what fits one may not fit another and hold no judgement about that.
Some pagans have an structured faith system (Wicca, for example, is a pagan earth based religion..or Hinduism, Taoism..), but most do not. Yet each pagan identifies as pagan/heathen based upon the concepts mentioned prior.
Pagans are not evil nor aligned with the devil. Both of these constructs are based in other religions and are not applicable to paganism. Sin is another Abrahamic construct that is foreign to pagans. We do not find that there’s a boogeyman-type of scapegoat or entity that tricks people into being irresponsible any more than we find that there’s a constructive reason to emotionally manipulate people into submission via threat of consequence or bribe of reward. We do not find natural things ‘dirty’ nor do we perceive people to be inherently ‘impure’. We find these characteristics part of the culture of the unhealed religions. Strip all of the fanfare, ego & motive out of institutionalized religions, and paganism is what you have left.
Some pagans worship no deities, but most generally do. Some worship only one (that being the ultimate source of creation itself, or prima causam/first cause..larger than any one religion or planet) but most worship, or at least work with, a series of benevolent nonphysical deities or entities. It is because of this that pagans/heathens are seen as polytheistic.
Pagans are quite well known for walking the path between worlds and working alongside beings that others are unfamiliar with. Most, but not all pagans find some or all mythical creatures to be real on some level, work with totem animals, spirit guides, familiars, & natural energies (like water, air, fire..) to assist us in our paths.
Most of us align with benevolent energies of love/light and life itself but there are a few bad apples who have given us a bad name. The rest, and primary cause of our ‘othering’, is the result of the bastardization we endured as part of the control dramas of the religious structures that we would not submit to. In many ways, pagans, the tools they use, their lifestyle, and beings they work with, have been literally demon-ized by those in power.
Seldom if ever do pagans bow to anything/anyone. We perceive that deity wants us to handle our own dramas without hand holding, without need for grooming them, and without fanfare. We are expected to be strong and self sufficient, and we will be know by the fruits of our labor.
Pagans perceive themselves and our physical world as part of, not separate from, the divine itself and as such perceive all things and acts to be holy & have inherent value. We have no cause for being body phobic, ashamed of our sexuality or sexual preference, and do truly perceive all genders as being inherently equal. We do not see natural drugs or alcohol as wrong any more than polyamory, tattooing or allowing one’s hair to be long (as dictated by the ‘harm none & do as you will’ ethic).
The moral code of pagans is rather intuitive…do to others as you’d have them do to you and harm none. Honor is held in great esteem, as we feel everything/everyone is connected. Therefore, what one does for others is truly something you do for yourself. We are held accountable mostly by our own conscience, but also by our peers and our deities. We are in service to each other and to our Earth.
Pagans do not prosylitize. We find the behavior abhorrent and figure if you have to advertise something then you’re trying to sell a product. We do feel that spirituality is not something that should be for sale and those who peddle it are seen as snake oil salesmen. We feel indoctrination is about as close to wicked as things can come, and to state a need for an intermediary between ourselves and our Source is a perversion of truth.
This is not a complete list of characteristics, but it’s a start. Apologies for the random nature of the list, but I was hoping to help you capture of feel of our world.
Brightest Blessings to you and yours,
The Peninsula Pagan