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Defining Paganism

November 14, 2010

Many people have tried to “define” Paganism recently, as though the definition is in dispute.

If you look up “Pagan” in the dictionary, you will see a lot of definitions. Most of them are not useful.

Most are polemical,  or require non-Pagans to start a research project to figure out the terminology. Even most Pagans can see that the more benign definitions, like “earth-centered religion” or “animistic religion,” clearly don’t apply universally.

But one definition of “Pagan” is common to all: someone who worships multiple gods.

That’s really it, in my book.

Nothing about spells. Nothing about archetypes. Nothing about witches or healing or oppressed minorities or the divine feminine principle.

“Someone who worships multiple gods” is the definition used by anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and other experts. These are the people who know what they are talking about, and whose professions require them to term things clearly. When these people talk about “ancient pagan cultures,” they are talking about the polytheistic cultures that existed in many parts of the world before the coming of the various monotheisms.

I wish we could all agree on this simple definition and move forward.

I really don’t think this is so hard. The problem, as I see it, is that many people would like to use the word “Pagan” to mean something it doesn’t.

New Age is not paganism. Witchcraft is not paganism. The many non-devotional components of Wicca are not paganism. Ceremonial magic is not paganism.* Often, they may be components of someone’s pagan religion, but they certainly aren’t the same thing.

Now, the meanings of some words do change. I’m not debating to the contrary. Let’s be honest though: the meaning of “pagan” HASN’T changed.

Why? Because while many people know the scholastic definition of Pagan, the one used to describe ancient peoples as worshipers of multiple gods, no one knows what a (modern-day) Pagan is. No one in the general public, anyway: they probably know that ancient Romans were Pagan because they had a lot of gods, but I guarantee you if you start talking about any of the modern day Pagan religions (the ones with the magick and the Goddess and the vibrations), effectively no one will know what you’re talking about.

Whatever silly little additions we’ve tried to tack on to the definition of paganism haven’t been accepted by the culture around us. It’s at the point where you pretty much have to be (or have been in the past) a Wiccan to know what a Wiccan is in the first place, much less to know that most Wiccans also consider themselves to be Pagans.

Meanwhile, we have a simple, elegant definition, used by academics and other smart people and at least recognized by the public…that we just have to try and fiddle with.

We can choose to make up our own definitions of commonly-understood words, as we seem to want to do with “Pagan,” but we can’t expect to be understood outside of our tiny, tiny community. Why not just use words in the normal way? The scholarly definition of “pagan” is probably the most positive, unbiased definition that the general public is capable of understanding anyway. Why not use it?

If you worship a plurality of gods, you’re a pagan. If you, as a long-time Wiccan High “Priestess” recently told me, “have always had a problem with the concept of Deity,” you aren’t Pagan.

I say, as a movement, we should be past this. We know what we are, and accurate terms exist if we choose to use them. I think we’re looking to redefine the meaning of Paganism because we want a word that unifies us and “builds our community” or whatever. Newsflash: we don’t believe, act, or worship the same, so we aren’t unified. But that’s another topic.

Use Pagan if you worship multiple gods. If you only use the terms you personally “resonate” with, as opposed to accurate terms, remember that you’re quite possibly giving someone else (who doesn’t “resonate”) the wrong impression.

And if you can’t be understood, why bother defining in the first place?

TPH

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*As well, having liberal political views is not a necessary part of paganism. Having sex-positive views is not a necessary part of paganism. Positivity and “light” are not necessary parts of paganism. Pro-choice views are not a necessary part of paganism. Even acceptance of homosexuality is not a necessary part of paganism.

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