Scott Reimers over at Patheos wrote a fascinating post recently suggesting that ‘Pagan’ was an unfortunate name for our religion (or family of religions) and that we should change it. Why? Because, according to Reimers, it’s not really a word for what we are so much as a word for what we’re not:
The ONE defining universal trait among Pagans is that WE ARE NOT CHRISTIANS… If you think about it, the major reason that “Pagans” hang together is because it’s so nice to interact with people who don’t assume that we should act a certain way to be the right flavor of Jewish, Christian or Islamic.
He goes on to argue that this is unhealthy for our community:
Our very title pushes us toward fear and separation. Christians verses Pagans. Us verses Them… It is time to change this. It is time to intentionally adopt values that are universal, re-title ourselves and grow past identifying ourselves as Pagan.
He suggests instead inventing a term — “PagAND” — which emphasizes the value of tolerance among all pagan branches and other religions:
Rather than trying to figure out what we all share, I advocate that in tolerance, we agree to celebrate NOT SHARING. Let’s make the conscious decision to defend everyone’s right to practice our own weird faith… this time including the Christians… [This would be] the difference between focusing on excluding others and declaring that we are a part of a group with an intentional focus on living the wonderful principle of tolerance.
But is this really what we’re about? Do Wiccans gather in their covens and praise the God and Goddess of Tolerance? Do Druids in their sacred groves perform the ancient Celtic rites of tolerance? Which Earth spirits bestow tolerance upon us?…
Tolerance is a magnificent thing, as far as it goes; but it’s only a tiny part of who we are.
In fact, who we are is a lot more — a whole hell of a lot more — than not being Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. To be Pagan is something profoundly different than being Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic. It is not defined by what it is not! It is its own thing. It has its own aesthetic, its own soul, its own calling. “Pagan” does not mean “not Christian”; it has a core essence of its own.
And in fact it’s the perfect name for us. Why? First, because we, as a community, reclaimed the word Pagan and made it our own; and second, because we have already given Pagan a new meaning — a meaning which reflects perfectly our ethos, beliefs, and practice in a profound, organic way, and which lends itself to the strengthening of our community.
Pagan did indeed start with negative connotations. There are a few possible origins of the term, but in the beginning it 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.
But this is not how we use the word today. We, the community of Pagans, took the old word and gave it a new meaning. How did we do this? Did the Secret Elders gather at Stonehenge sometime in the 1980’s and lay down a new definition? Of course not. We did it the proper way, the old fashioned way, the way languages have forged words for tens of thousands of years. Regular people, talking together, passed the word around in conversation, using it naturally, as people will. They used it sometimes one way, sometimes another. And over time, a new meaning began to converge from this usage — a meaning created organically, by the community.
But like all things organic, it’s not a simple thing to pin down.
The Forest of Meaning
Word meaning isn’t really like how you were taught in school. The edges of words are not rigidly defined. Dictionary definitions are, at best, signposts in a tangled wood with overgrown paths.
Take something simple, like game. What is a game, really? Anyone can name examples of games — poker, Monopoly, Pac Man, baseball. But what do they all have in common? What is the core essence of gameness? It isn’t competition — consider solitaire. It’s not recreation — professional players aren’t out there to relax.
Really, there is no core essence of game. Instead, the meaning is composed of a set of prototypical games — card game and board game and computer game and ball game. These prototypical games have some things in common — they are usually done for recreation, they often involve more than one person in competition, using some sort of plaything, etc. — but these things are not enough for a necessary and sufficient definition of the word.
Given an activity like solitaire, we judge that it to be a game without much difficulty, even though it involves just one person and no competition. It’s close enough to the prototypical card game that we can easily stretch the game concept to accommodate it. Similarly, patty-cake is also called a game, even though there is no competition and there are no cards, balls, computers, or boards involved. The fact that there are two players and it’s done for recreation is enough for us to draw the association.
So in natural, organic human language, we should not expect words to have simple, clear definitions. A word is a knot, a tangle of prototypes in the forest of meaning.
The Pagan Knot
Like game, the meaning of Pagan is composed of a tangle of related prototypes. You know what they are:
- Witch (female, works with herbs, magic, and the moon, individualist, holds hidden power)
- Druid (religious and political leader of the ancient Celtic religion, associated with the sun, trees, and standing stones)
- Shaman (associated with the spirit journey, communing with animals and ancestors, powers of healing and divination)
- Indigene (endangered by European and Christian expansion, with rich cultural and spiritual life, passed down for untold generations)
- Earth-Centered (reveres the Earth, or Nature, as divine)
- Local (sees spirit in the local landscape — mountains, fountains, rivers or trees)
The point is that there is no central defining trait of Pagan; it is an organic knot of interrelated prototypes. Any individual Pagan will match some of these prototypes, and not others, to various degrees.
In fact, the desire to hammer down the meanings of words, to draw sharp lines around concepts and say for sure who belongs in the club and who doesn’t, is antithetical to the Pagan aesthetic. The very idea that a “religion” is defined by what you believe is a concept borrowed from Christianity. Leave the hard-and-fast black-and-white definitions to the dogmatic monotheists and church authorities. The tangled, organic nature of the meaning of Pagan reflects our worldview better than any other word could.
Pagan arose naturally within our community, and its meaning reflects that source. That’s why it’s perfect for us. Let it remain organic; let it remain a tangle of brambled semantics. Let the central meaning, the core essence, woven through these knotted prototypes, remain a Mystery.
- “What we see is the emergence of a genuine religious tradition.” The Singularity: will robots save our souls? (Personally I don’t think so. I think the brain is more like a radio than a computer.)
- I got tremendous help with Mere America from Kara-Leah, who is starting a writing mentoring program. Bad news: rewrites ahead.Good news: rewrites ahead!
- A neat article full of good environmental news from the past year. I only partially agree with the slams on Earth Day that open the article, but the good news is good indeed.
- Thoughts on forgiveness from White Cat Grove.