In the last few posts, I proposed a definition of pagan based on the notion of prototypes. In this definition, pagan does not refer to a precise, countable set of people in the world. Instead, pagan refers to a set of overlapping and related prototypes — witch, druid, indigene, shaman, earth-centered, local, and probably some others. Instead of saying definitively whether someone is or is not pagan, we can (more usefully) point out ways in which they do or do not fit, or aspire to fit, one or more of these prototypes.
With this definition in hand, we can now turn to an extremely thorny question: is paganism a religion?
This is an essential issue, because the answer has legal ramifications. In the US military, for example, only certain religious symbols can be legally placed on tombstones, and your religion determines where you are buried. If you don’t belong to a major religion, you probably can’t get your religious holidays off of work. You have to get a chaplain from a religion recognized by your state government in order for your marriage to be legal. Your child may have religious jewelry taken away at school. You may have to go to court to prove that you are mentally competent, so that you can retain custody of your children.
Whether paganism is legally defined as a religion is at the heart of this issue, because the US officially provides legal protections and freedom of religion. The US Supreme Court has defined religion as a belief or practice which holds a place parallel to God in the life of an individual — in other words, if it’s kind of like Christianity, it’s a religion. While this may seem vague and unhelpful, the court has refrained from being more specific than that, recognizing that the cultural definition of religion can change over time. And so far the courts have largely ruled that paganism is, indeed, a religion; but this is an ongoing battle.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather the Supreme Court of the United States not be the final arbiter on whether paganism is a religion. But if not the Supreme Court, then who?
One point of view is that pagans themselves should decide whether what they practice is a religion. As a pagan myself, I am sympathetic to this view, but ultimately I don’t agree with it. Here’s why.
Imagine that a chef is making a soufflé. Can he call it a “cake” if he wants? Sure — but that doesn’t mean anyone else will agree with him; and ultimately it’s the community of speakers that defines a word’s meaning. If he’s making a soufflé, then it’s a soufflé, regardless of what he wants to call it. He can make a cake if he wants, of course, but then it’s a cake, not a soufflé.
Similarly, pagans can (or should be able to) practice what they want, and believe what they want, but ultimately whether what they’re doing is religion depends on the meaning of the word religion, not on what pagans want to call what they’re doing.
So in order to find out whether paganism is a religion, then, we have to figure out what, exactly, religion is. But even before that, we have to iron out exactly what we mean by this “is-a” relationship. What does it mean to say that paganism “is a” religion?
In formal semantics, the “is-a” relationship is exemplified by basic examples like “Socrates is a man”. It means simply this: if you take the set of all men, you will find Socrates among them. A slightly more interesting case is “a dog is a mammal”: this means that if you take the set of all mammals, then every member of the set of dogs is also in the set of mammals.
Unfortunately, this definition of “is-a” doesn’t go far enough for our case. It says nothing at all about the relationship between the two categories. How do we know whether all the dogs are in the mammal set? For that matter, how do we know whether Socrates is in the set of all men?
The answer is that men have certain features that distinguish them from other categories. They are adult humans (which means they have a certain kind of DNA and have reached a certain age) and they have certain physical features that are, I trust, familiar to us all. Knowing this, we can give Socrates a DNA test and ask him some personal questions and, assuming he’s truthful, we will know whether he’s a man.
Of course, Socrates probably has other features that are not essential to his membership in the manly set. Maybe, for example, he is dead, or owns a bicycle. While interesting, these features are unimportant to the question of whether he’s a man. The key is that there are certain defining features that determine whether someone is a man (human DNA, age, and the Y chromosome), and once we know whether Socrates has these, we can tell whether he’s a man or not.
So the “is-a” relationship can be usefully defined in this way: if category C (e.g., men) is defined by a set of features c (e.g., is human, is at least 18, and has a Y chromosome), and category D (e.g., Socrates) is associated with a set of features d (e.g., is a human, is at least 18, has a Y chromosome, is dead, has a bicycle, etc.), and the set c is a subset of d, then for all D (Socrates), D is a C (Socrates is a man).
Ok, now let’s turn back to paganism and religion. It should be clear that in order to find out whether paganism is a religion, we have to know what the defining features of religions are. The defining features of manhood are human DNA, age, and the Y chromosome; what are the defining features of religion? And: does paganism have them?
What Is A Religion?
And here it gets very messy indeed.
It turns out it’s practically impossible to settle on the defining features of religion. Here’s what my favorite dictionary, the American Heritage, has to say about it (I have simplified slightly for discussion):
1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
2. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
This might seem good enough to get on with, but it’s demonstrably nonsense. Buddhism, for example, has nothing to do with believing in creator or governor powers, and it’s perfectly possible to be Buddhist without believing in anything ‘supernatural’ at all (even assuming you can find a good definition of ‘supernatural’). Perhaps Buddhism falls under (3), since the Buddha is widely regarded as a spiritual leader, but unless you define ‘spiritual’ carefully (and I for one don’t think you can), you end up with fascism being a religion, too, led by the prophets Mussolini and Hitler. The religions of many indigenous peoples don’t have much to do with creator or governor powers or spiritual leaders, either, but concern themselves more with day-to-day interactions with spirits, ancestors, and the like.
The problem here is that religion, like the words pagan and house and game, does not have a sharply delineated definition, but is associated with a prototype. And would anyone care to take a guess at what the prototypical religion is?
A Class of One
There’s basically exactly one prototypical religion in western culture: Christianity. The more like Christianity something is, the more likely people will be comfortable calling it a religion. All other potential “religions” are measured against it.
- Believe in Jesus? But you also believe all kinds of other weird things? Who cares! Jesus is the Man — you’re a religion, welcome to the club.
- Believe in exactly one God, and it’s the same God as the Christians believe in? Great! Come on in, Judaism, we’ve got T-shirts.
- Hey Islam — you believe in exactly one God, but it might not be the same God as ours? Hmmm, what else you got? Prayer, monasteries, hierarchical church structure? Sounds good, you’re a religion!
- Buddhism, we’re not so sure about you: you’ve got lots of gods, but none of them are Jesus. On the other hand, you’ve definitely got monasteries and churches and stuff, and it sure looks like you’re praying, so ok, we guess you can come in.
- Pagans? You have all sorts of gods, and we can’t get a straight answer on whether you’re hierarchical or have churches or monks or what. And you cast spells sometimes? Is that the same as prayer? … You don’t know? … Just go sit by the door.
The problem here is that it’s not clear why Christianity is a religion.
Suppose you were given a picture of, say, a machine, a widget of some sort, and told that it was a ‘scroovus’. And then you were given a picture of another machine, and asked, ‘is this a scroovus’? How would you know? You’d need to know what exactly made the first one a scroovus. What are the defining features of a scroovus?
Similarly with ‘religion’. With only one definite example of a religion, it’s impossible to know what the defining features of the class are.
A Question of Belief
That said, one thing that stands at the center of Christianity is the question of belief. If you believe in Jesus, you’re pretty much in the club, no matter what else you might believe. The question of belief is so central to Christianity that it is usually taken as a defining characteristic of religion itself. In fact, if anything is usually trotted out as the defining characteristic of religion, it is belief — especially belief in non-scientific things (i.e. the supernatural).
Why supernatural things? In ancient times, and in other cultures, there was and is no sharp dividing line between science and religion. But since belief is so central to Christianity, and since Christianity is the prototypical religion, belief is seen as central to religion; and since science does not rest on belief, a dichotomy has been set up between them.
But is carving up the people of the world based on beliefs a reasonable thing to do? More specifically: is paganism best defined by the beliefs of its practitioners?
As I argued in Prototypes of the Pagan, the answer is no. Paganism is a collection of prototypes — Druid, Witch, Shaman, Indigene, etc. — and most of them are not associated with defining beliefs.
The defining characteristics of, say, the Druid (spiritual and political leadership, tree reverence, standing stones) have little to do with belief. Sure, druids often believe in the supernatural, but that’s completely incidental; there are Christian druids, atheist druids, agnostic druids… Supernatural beliefs are not what make you a druid. The same goes for witches, shamans, indigenes, etc.
So asking whether paganism is a religion is a bit like asking whether swimming animals are mammals. Some of them could be, but they’re different kinds of categories, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.
If It’s Not A Religion, What Does That Mean?
If paganism isn’t a religion, what is it? And what are the legal and social implications?
Just because paganism isn’t a religion doesn’t mean it’s deviant, or wrong, or a cult or whatever. It doesn’t mean it has no place in society. It doesn’t mean it should have no legal status. It’s not just another kind of country club, or a hobby people do in their basements.
But it does mean we need to take a hard look at the whole idea of religion as a category in our language, law, and our culture. Is this something that’s useful to have? Or does it simply confuse the issue?
Perhaps what we as a society should be asking is:
- How do we protect people’s right to believe what they want, and to act on those beliefs?
- To use symbols they find meaningful?
- To take a step away from work and life to nourish the soul, whenever and however is necessary?
- To bind themselves in matrimony?
- To define and discover their own moral codes, and act on those codes?
- To protect these rights without prejudice or cultural blinders, regardless of supernatural significance?