Defining Paganism IV: Is Paganism a Religion?

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?

The Stakes


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.

Who Decides?

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.

What’s What

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):

religion. n.
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?

Further Research

13 responses to “Defining Paganism IV: Is Paganism a Religion?”

  1. While I do believe that Paganism is a religion–while acknowledging the logic by which other Pagans view it more as a movement of religions–I am so relieved to have you put into words the ways that our subconscious reliance, in this culture, on Christianity as the prototype of RELIGION distorts our ability to think clearly about the subject. Belief, which features so heavily in Christianity, is not the most salient feature of Judaism, never mind most of the world’s other religions. I no more define my religious path by my beliefs than I do by a sacred book or a holy city, but getting some Pagans, never mind most Christians, to even see that belief may not be a defining characteristic of religious life is like pulling teeth.


    (I’m loving the series. Can you tell?)


  2. Thanks, Cat! You make me wish I had more posts in the series planned. 🙂 Unfortunately I think I’ve used up all my words on it.

    Ali is also unconvinced that paganism isn’t a religion; her argument is, I think, something like “well, if that’s not what religion means, it OUGHT to.” Obviously there’s something to be said for trying to redefine ‘religion’ to encompass things like paganism, but I still think I’d prefer to drop the concept entirely and start afresh with something else. How about instead of ‘freedom of religion’ in this nation, we have ‘freedom of culture’ and ‘freedom of belief’? Impractical, you say?… Well, yeah, probably. 🙂


  3. Well, given the fact that there is really a great deal of contention between religious studies scholars over how to define “religion” (and even more over whether or not there is a distinction that can be made, outside the context of any particular religion’s rule set, between “magic” and “religion”), I’m inclined to be liberal in how I interpret the term.

    This is even more true as, over time, I have come to feel that I’ve rather outgrown Wicca as a religious identifier. My training is certainly Wiccan, and many things from that strand of Paganism do still inform my practice and orientation. But I am also informed by Druidry, shamanism, and even bits and pieces of reconstructionist practices.

    I see it as an analogous situation to my teaching certification, actually. While my undergraduate degree is in English, my only graduate degree is in Clinical Social Work. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires a Master’s degree in order to grant professional (full) licensure; normally, this degree is met by obtaining a degree in the field in which you teach. However, in my case, I have taken a series of graduate level coursework in English, a comprehensive test of my knowledge of English, and I have proven that I am capable of the kind of focused learning that leads to a Master’s degree already; I do not need a full second Master’s degree for my certification.

    Nor does my husband need to have a Master’s in Biology AND Chemistry in order to teach those two disciplines.

    Similarly, I think one can reach a level of practice and knowledge in Pagan traditions in which it is just silly to think someone would need to begin all over from scratch in order to move fluidly between traditions. I do not describe myself as a Druid–though I sometimes think of myself that way–because I don’t feel like getting into fights with people who want me to sign up for their Druidry 101 course before I receive the title. But Wicca and Druidry are closely related practices, and I don’t feel like I’m being presumptuous to claim a level of basic skill and knowledge in the latter, after so many years in the former.

    What’s more, the term “Pagan” is an apt one to describe how my own practice has become, while quite coherent and deep (not “cafeteria spirituality” or fluff bunny, as those who are sycretistic are often accused of being) a blend of many Pagan practices with my individual, lived spiritual experiences. Just as some Christians identify as simply that, and not as Methodists or Mormons, I think there’s a place for us Pagans with complex, hard-to-map, but still related religious practices.

    That’s my reasoning, anyway. And I’m stickin’ to it, till the Pagan Pope makes me stop! 😉


  4. By way of introduction – I’m an orthodox christian, and I came here by way of , whom I found by way of , whom I don’t remember how I found.

    Anyway, as far as I understand, when Christianity was asserting itself as a “religion”, Judaism had recently defined the class by joining ethics (philosophy) with cultic practice (ritual), which two had previously been somewhat independent in the Greco-Roman realm. This posed similar problems for Christians and Jews because their ethics prevented participation in the civic rituals like good normal pagan citizens.

    It’s somewhat orthogonal to your civil and legal concerns, so I don’t know that it helps in that regard, as a train of thought.


  5. to specify, by “Judaism had recently defined the class [religion]” i mean that classically trained Jews (namely Philo) were talking about Judaism in these terms; Classical Philosophy, Pagan Cultic Practice, and Judaism all pre-existing the 1st century CE, of course.


  6. My question is, if Paganism is A religion, then which types of Pagans are real Pagans?



    Feminist Wiccans?

    British Traditional Wiccans?


    Kemetic Orthodox?


    Which ones are the “orthodox” Pagans and which ones are the “heretical” Pagans?

    Sorry, but because of this, I can’t go with saying Paganism is “a” religion.


  7. PS: I forgot to add that I do see a very disturbing trend in the pagan world of late – a movement towards orthodoxy, or what I call “Catholic Eclectic Paganism.”

    Basically, it is a movement towards having specific things one must believe to be a “real Pagan” like “the moon is always female and all lunar things are always female” and “the sun is always male and all solar associated things are masculine” etc etc.

    There is a lot more detail I could go into but I haven’t time right now – gotta get to work. Maybe I can describe it better later.


  8. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your comments; it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and now I fear the discussion has gone quite cold. 🙂 Anyway, here are some thoughts, for what they’re worth.

    I think Cat’s example, and the example of other people I’ve known, shows that ‘paganism’ is not a collection of religions, or a type of religion, but its own thing — a thing which is like a religion in some ways, and like a collection of religions in some ways, but quite unlike those things in others. I don’t think calling it a ‘religion’ is the best thing, because that hides its complexity and says, implicitly, that the most important things about paganism are those features it holds in common with other things we call religions. Maybe it would be better to say something like “paganism isn’t a religion, it’s a…” I don’t know, a devotion perhaps.

    Elizabeth — the origin and history of the term ‘religion’ is a bit confused, as far as my research showed, which is why I didn’t go into it here. I felt it was most useful to look at the word synchronically, i.e. how it’s used today. While the word originally certainly applied to Roman (pagan) practice, that’s far from its normal appellation now. It’s quite common to hear people saying today that what the Romans practiced wasn’t really religion, and ‘religion’ and ‘paganism’ set up as opposites.


  9. I believe paganism IS a religion and it included all of those other little ones, like Wicca, Druidism,etc… it’s just like Christianity and Catholicism, which are pretty similar with just a few differences…


  10. The thing is that Paganism is not a BIG religion,like Christianity, which might cause people to doubt whether or not it is a religion… I believe as long as you are happy with it, and your religion doesn’t cause you to harm others, all religions no matter how small or big they are should be recognized as RELIGIONS!!


  11. Karla, thanks for your comments. 🙂 I’m afraid I have to disagree with you; I still don’t think paganism should really be called a religion. I think the problem lies not with paganism, but with the word ‘religion’, which, as I tried to explain above, is a confused concept rooted in Western ideas about Christianity.


  12. i sorta agree w/ your point that paganism doesn’t fall under the definition of a religion as xtianity does . but for politcal and constitutional rights porposes we should be . just for the info , i’m druid and an ADF member. the way the current laws and prevelant definitions are used these days , i think this will be the only way we can get our constitutional rights. paganism can be and is a furball, but as prevoiusly stated thats part of our charm .and i also believe we can unite as a group under the pagan/heathen banner . this way we can flex our polital muscle as a group . people will listen to us better if we have a more united front . i do understand getting pagans to agree on anything is like herding cats . but we won’t be heard untill we get past all that . Kilm


    1. Kilm, point taken. And thus part of our work will be to broaden the definition of religion to accommodate paganism — although I worry somewhat that the definition of ‘religion’ will itself be widened until it’s effectively meaningless.


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