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?
In the last post I laid some linguistic groundwork by talking about what word meaning was, and what it wasn’t. In brief, a word is not a clearly defined area of conceptual space, but a set of prototypes: classic, perfect, typical examples of the class. For example, the prototypical house is a a single-family home, free-standing, with one or two stories and maybe a garage and some windows and a lawn. Not all houses are like this, of course, but if something is a lot like this, it’s easy to identify it as a house. Words can have more than one prototype associated with them (such as game), though usually the prototypes of a given word are related and overlapping.
Now we can return and ask: what are the prototypes that make up the meaning of the word pagan?
In the last post I posed the problem: what is the meaning of the word pagan today? It’s an issue much more difficult than deciding on the meaning of, say, cabbage, both because of the complex history of the world and because of the high stakes. Deciding who is a pagan, and who is not, has serious consequences for the cohesion of the pagan community, its self-image, how others perceive it, and the rights of its members.
So what is the real definition of pagan?
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.