Pagan Altar photo by Dominic Alves.
This is, hands down, the #1 best question you can ask about Paganism. It's the single most important piece of information to know about Pagans, and everyone should know about it. This may sound like hyperbole, but the Pagan community has always suffered from a lack of knowledge about their faith. The lack of understanding about what Pagans actually believe has caused massive amounts of bad press, 'satanic panic', and flat out abuse.
There's a simple answer to this question: "It depends on the Pagan." That's right - there's really nothing universal about the beliefs of the varied people that make up the umbrella term of Pagan. While many websites claim that all Pagans are earth loving, or that they all do magic or witchcraft, none of that is true. There are atheist Pagans, Christian Pagans, and even Pagans that don't call themselves by that name.
But wait! Don't all Pagans...
- - Love nature? Not all Pagan beliefs put an emphasis on nature, nor do all paths worship the earth.
- - Worship many Gods? Not all Pagans worship gods, and some worship only one.
- - Do rituals/spells/magic/witchcraft? Not all Pagans even believe in magic or witchcraft, and many don't use it.
- - Worship the Goddess? Plenty of Pagans only worship or believe in male gods.
- - Follow ancient religions? Most Pagan belief systems, especially popular ones such as Wiccanism and even Druidry, have nothing to do with historical religious or spiritual practices. However, some do - such as genuine Shamanism, and some reconstructionist paths such as Hellenism or Kemeticism.
- - Believe in reincarnation/karma/some other new age or pseudoscientific belief? I think you're getting the gist of it.
It gets complicated when you try to understand a person's belief by the term Pagan. The actual name of a tradition, such as Wicca or Asatru, is a much better term to use, as there are shared beliefs between the followers of those paths. Even the term Eclectic Pagan conveys the idea that the person uses different traditions in combination, instead of following one specific path. Of course, some terms are still misleading - a LaVeyan Satanist doesn't believe in Satan anymore than an atheist does, much less worship Satan. But at least a specific term allows an interested person to do research, and attempt to understand the beliefs of a Pagan.
So, if you are introduced to someone, and when asked about religious beliefs they answer "I'm Pagan", remember that you really don't know any more about them than if they had said "I'm not Christian/Jewish/Muslim." If you are really interested, ask them what tradition or path they follow. Otherwise leave it at that, but please don't assume your generic Pagan neighbor is doing animal sacrafices in their backyard just because some branches of Santeria do so.