this node primarily describes what paganism
is *today*. for more historical
information, see the history of Paganism
the word 'pagan' came from the latin "pagani", literally meaning "country dweller". the name came about when christianity had gotten a firm hold on most of the "civilized world"--ie, in the large cities, among the aristocrats. but the country folk, superstitious and stubborn chose to cling to their old ways, their old lifestyles, and their old gods and goddesses.
paganism then came to mean merely one who was not christian, jewish, or muslim and maintained this definition for centuries. pagan was interchangeable with the word heathen at this time.
today, paganism has again evolved into something else entirely. paganism, or more correctly neopaganism is a ... well it's really more of a spirituality than anything else. it's a fairly blanket term to cover most goddess-based, polytheistic, magically bent, "witchcraft-ish, or otherwise nonstandard religions. while the religions within it, such as wicca, druidism, asatru, etc are religions PROPER, paganism is really more the sweeping spirituality atop of the specifics. many many people who will not claim wicca or any of the others as theirs still practice happily as pagan.
most, but by NO means all, pagans worship/work with a pantheon of various gods and goddesses, drawing from different systems the deities they get along with best, but focus primarily on the triple goddess/mother goddess/earth mother and her consort the horned god. asatru is the main "renegade" here, using the old high norse pantheon it its entirety.
however, deity worship is by no means necessary as it is spirituality and not a religion. people who work with energy, healers, spellcasters, 'witches', and most magic-users--the serious ones at least--almost always fall under the loose pagan heading.
paganism, if it had to be characterized, answers to these few things. the people tend to be very laid back in terms of people choices. they're not (usually) radical screaming liberals, but more of the ... well, they follow the general idea of the wiccan rede: "and harm ye none do what ye will", or in more modern (and e2'ish terms) If someone wants to do something and it isn't hurting you...DON'T BE A FUCKING DICK about it. ^_^ (this is completely unrelated to the religion, except for the open-minded aspects, but interestingly, among the pagans i know, the percentage of people who are bisexual, polyamorous, etc. is MUCH higher than the "rest" of society.) most pagans believe in some form or another of reincarnation. and of course, they believe in magic. the real kind. because that's what it is to us, is real, and our lives. we live and work both in the mundane world, and in a place of dreams and magic.
urg. this got long and rambling and still didn't explain it WELL. please, if you're pagan, or just well-versed in paganism, add some thoughts here to help clarify further.