Defining Paganism I: Word Wrangling

During the Festival of Lights that Ali and I attended this February, one of the big issues discussed during many of the presentations and workshops was the very definition of paganism. Pretty much everyone there, if you asked them, would agree that they were pagan, and not a cabbage or something. But it turns out it that if it had been a Festival of Cabbages, things might have been simpler.

Various definitions of pagan were offered. Here is a sampling:

Indigenous European. A popular definition — and one suggested by some of the event’s organizers — was that the pagan religion was one derived from and / or inspired by the indigenous religions of Europe (with ‘indigenous’ taken to mean ‘pre-Christian’). This definition would include various actual instances of surviving belief systems in the far reaches of Europe, as well as the revived or inspired-by religions such as Wicca, Druidry, Asatru, and the like, but would not include, say, Native American religion, Vodou and Santeria (which seem to be primarily derived from Roman Catholicism mixed with African and Native American beliefs), Buddhism, etc.

Earth-based religion. This definition includes any religion that takes the Earth and its natural processes and species as central and sacred. This would include the vast majority of (but not all) indigenous religions worldwide, but would exclude Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and some others.

Polytheistic. Some would call any polytheistic religion pagan. Under this definition, some varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism would be pagan, sort of, but Islam would not be. Of course, the definition depends on how you define ‘polytheist’ as well: according to some, Catholicism is polytheistic, but the Baptists are not.

Ritualistic. Some define paganism primarily by how it is practiced — certain kinds of rituals, holy days, and the like. By this definition, you can be a pagan druid as long as you observe the right holidays and perform the right kinds of rituals, even if you are actually a monotheist and your metaphysical beliefs have little in common with those of the ancient druids.

Non-Heathen. Despite sharing many characteristics of people described as pagan — such as having Earth-based, polytheistic beliefs inspired by indigenous European religions — many Heathen and Asatru practitioners object to the term pagan and would rather it not apply to them.

Non-Christian. The classic and longest-standing definition of pagan is the one used by the Christians of ancient Rome, who first used the term for “anyone not Roman Catholic.” There are a few possible origins of the term, but it originally meant “denizen of the countryside” (i.e. “hillbilly”), and came to be used as slang in the Roman military for “civilian”, i.e. someone not in the military. Most likely when the first Christians took up the term, they were using it to call attention to their own status as “Christian soldiers”; a pagan was a civilian, someone not (yet) in the Christian army.


So why are there all these different definitions? After all, people can agree on what a cabbage is — why not a pagan? Why not just pick one of these definitions and go with it, rather than wrangle about it interminably?

The Stakes

A lot is riding on this definition, believe it or not. Whether you call yourself pagan or not, and who else calls you pagan, matters. Not just metaphysically, but in the world social justice and cold, hard cash.

Legitimization of Paganism

Paganism doesn’t have much clout on the world stage. Those who know about us at all tend to group us in with the “New Age” movement (whatever that is) and its connotations of commercialism, idealism, naiveté, cafeteria spirituality, and egregious drug use. Even well-educated, relatively open-minded priests of other religions tend to define pagan as “someone who, for some reason, has turned away from the religion of their fathers, preferring to sacrifice innocent chickens.”

This is obviously not a definition of paganism that most pagans are comfortable with, even if it is often broadly correct (setting aside the animal sacrifice). So it’s in the interest of interfaith work to find a definition of paganism that is meaningful for people outside the pagan community — a definition that helps them see us as we see ourselves. Many pagans involved in interfaith work therefore prefer the European Indigenous definition, because this groups us in with other indigenous peoples (such as Native Americans and Aborigines), and thus accords us a certain amount of respect and sympathy. It also matches up well with how a lot of pagans view themselves — as people trying to revive ancient traditions that were nearly destroyed by millennia of Christian hegemony in Europe.

However, for others, this definition is too broad, too narrow, or simply wrong-headed. Heathens and Asatru might object to being grouped under the name pagan. Others would like for all Earth-based or polytheistic religions to be grouped together as pagan, setting aside details about the geographic or historical origin of the beliefs. And some say that the true forms of the ancient ‘indigenous’ religions of Europe are impossible to reconstruct, so that calling modern paganism indigenous is… disingenuous.

De-legitimization of Paganism

While some people want to legitimize paganism, others want to de-legitimize it — or at least, parts of it. There is a natural, but unfortunate, tendency for people to want to make their religion the right one — or at least more right than another’s. Thus — to take a small example — among the Celtic branches of modern paganism, some say that reconstruction of the original beliefs are impossible, and so true pagan belief can at best be inspired by the ancient customs. Meanwhile, others say that anyone not cleaving as close as possible to what is known of the ancient ways is playing fast and loose with religion, isn’t sufficiently “serious”, and thus cannot be practicing true paganism. Still other groups are fine with trying to reconstruct ancient practice, but not ancient belief; and some of these folks would rather not be associated with the word pagan, while others would say they are the only real kind of pagan, and everyone else is play-acting. The tendency among all these groups is to characterize the others as more New-Agey: fluffy, idealistic, cafeteria-style, or non-serious.

Rallying the Troops

Another serious issue here is the use of the term pagan to gather disparate groups under one label, in order to demonize or lionize them all. By calling pagans indigenous European, polytheist, or one of many Earth-based belief systems, paganism is lionized as one of the downtrodden indigenous religions — in fact, the first downtrodden indigenous casualty of the Christian and Muslim juggernauts that swept the world over the past thousand years. This is intended to appeal to the universal ideals of religious freedom, liberalism, fairness, and equality. On the other hand, some Christians (luckily a minority of them) use the word pagan to demonize any non-Christian belief, and thus appeal to the universal ideals of — well, of everyone being Christian. All of these usages gloss over important differences between religious groups, painting them with a broad brush for ideological purposes.

Creation of Community

Ultimately all of these definitions are about creation of community — both by labeling people as like-us and not-like-us. If both a Revivalist Neopagan Druid of Britain and a Lakotan Sun Dancer of South Dakota can be called pagan, what does that say about them? Do they have similar religious practices? Do they deserve equal protection of their religious beliefs? Public practice of ritual, whether it be for births, marriages, or stones in cemeteries? Social respect? How about government assistance? Tax breaks? UN representation?

And then there are those who resist attempts to define paganism at all. These folks gleefully repeat the joke that if you ask any three pagans what pagan means, you’ll get nine answers. They say that paganism resists definition because… well, for any number of stated reasons, usually having to do with a dislike of hierarchy, top-down imposition of order, authority, and so on. Many take the nebulousness of the label pagan as a virtue of the group.

I tend to think, however, that behind this attitude lie two fears. First, there is the fear of being wrong — of appearing uneducated, unthoughtful, or unconnected to what’s really going on. By being vague, you avoid any chance of being called out on your facts, or exposing yourself as a “newbie”. Second, there is the fear — conscious or not — that if we all sat down and tried to hammer out exactly what pagan means, we’d end up with dozens of different splinter groups, and the community would be destroyed.

So the stakes are high, both inside paganism and outside it, to find a meaning for the word, and draw boundaries around the pagan community. It’s understandable, I think, that the word has been so hard to pin down. If anything is likely to make one feel kindly towards cabbages, this is it.

In the next post I’ll shift gears a bit and talk about word meaning from a linguist’s perspective. Is there a real definition for pagan?

13 responses to “Defining Paganism I: Word Wrangling”

  1. I wish I had something articulate and insightful to add here–I don’t, except to say that I appreciate the clarity of your thoughts here, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

    If you were struck by the prominence of attempts to define Paganism, my own experience of Feast of Lights included a fair amount of wonder at the tension between how many people spoke at length of the importance of getting the Pagans–whoever we turn out to be–a “seat at the table”–but how little, relatively speaking, has been said on the subject of what we might have to say once we get there.


  2. Might I link to this series of articles from my own work-in-progress definition? Also I would be interested to read your thoughts on my own efforts…


  3. Cat — thanks! 🙂 Honestly I’m not really sure what gets said at the cool kids’ “the table”, but I hope that when we get there, we say something about poverty, discrimination, the problems of indigenous peoples, and the world’s ecosystems. Almost all the self-described pagans I’ve met, regardless of their own self-definitions, agree on these matters.

    Pax — absolutely!


  4. […] In response to a comment I left over at Druid Journal on the first post of a series talking about Defining Paganism, writer and blogger Jeff Lilly left some kind words over on my Definitions Page! Hey Pax! I really […]


  5. Jeff, great post!

    I read on one of the other blogs on my blogroll (can’t remember which one) something about the term “pagan” that I really liked.

    It was said (as an example) that paganism isn’t a religion, it’s an organizer term (though that was not the word used).

    To clarify that statement the poster said that (for example) Christianity is a religion, with sects (like Baptists and Pentecostals) that share core beliefs and have differing emphases.

    However Paganism isn’t a religion with different sects. It’s an organizing term that has many different religions that fall within it. Then, those religions, like Druidry, have varying sects (like OBOD, ADF and AODA).

    I think the ‘organizing term’ that Christianity would fall within would be ‘Abrahamic faiths’ or ‘people of the book.’

    Don’t know if any of that made sense. 🙂

    I think those that self identify as pagan do need to let go of using the term ‘paganism’ as a religion. It just confuses things. My $.02.


  6. Kay — an extremely interesting point! Once we’ve figured out what paganism means, how then do we decide whether it is a religion?

    I’m lucky enough to be almost-engaged to someone who has a degree in religious studies, and it turns out that the experts in the field are still debating about what, exactly, a religion is. The working definition for most of the field is that if the practitioners call what they do a religion, then it is a religion. When you get down to it, they say, who else has the right to decide? As a linguist, I’d quibble with that philosophy — in my field, word meaning is based on the usage of speakers, not (solely) on beliefs. But this is a fascinating (and extremely important) point and I’m thinking of tacking an extra post onto the end of this series to deal with it. Thanks!!


  7. […] Paganism II: Foundations of Word Meaning In the last post I posed the problem: what is the meaning of the word pagan today? It’s an issue much more […]


  8. Kay

    As a Christian I’d prefer ‘Abrahamic faiths’ to ‘people of the book’ because Jews, Christians and Muslims are actually people of many books. The Quran, the New Testament and the Talmud, to be specific. That we share some scriptures should not obscure the reality of scriptural plurality.

    I agree however that Paganism is an equivalent organising term. Insofar as Paganism is polytheism, monotheism and atheism would be of the same category level. But I realize this schema is limiting to all three streams just mentioned.


  9. […] the last few posts, I proposed a definition of pagan based on the notion of prototypes. In this definition, […]


  10. […] been struggling with my identity as a pag*n for a while now.  This personal fact, coupled with some excellent posts and kerfuffles the pag*n blogosphere regarding definitions, has led me to consider on more than one […]


  11. […] been struggling with my identity as a Pagan for a while now.  This personal fact, coupled with some excellent posts and kerfuffles the Pagan blogosphere regarding definitions, has led me to consider on more than one […]


  12. […] by trade as well as by nature who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, has written on several occasions about how language and labels function and evolve, especially when it comes to […]


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