30 Days of Definitions: Pagan and Paganism
I know I came up with the list, but I really picked probably the most controversial and non-universal word to begin this 30 Days of Definitions. So let’s pull some resources and lets see what others say about the word.
To start, let’s see what the online dictionary has to say:
1. one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans and Greeks: no longer in technical use.
2. Disparaging and Offensive. (in historical contexts) a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim; a heathen.
3. a follower of any of various contemporary religions that are based on the worship of nature or the Earth; a neopagan.
4. Disparaging and Offensive. an irreligious or hedonistic person.
5. Disparaging and Offensive. an uncivilized or unenlightened person.
6. Disparaging and Offensive. pertaining to the worship or worshipers of any religion that is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim.
7. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of pagans.
8. Disparaging and Offensive. irreligious or hedonistic.
9. Disparaging and Offensive. (of a person) uncivilized or unenlightened.
The first definition was heading somewhere to how the word is used within Pagan Communities, but then lost it with the addendum of “no longer in technical use.” Considering these polytheistic religions are very much in use, I think that’s a misstated opinion. Perhaps what Dictionary.Com wanted to go with was “not a wide-spread religion” or something. I don’t know, but it missed its mark.
The third definition is a popular one I see, but it has problems and is misguided (I’ll explain further on.)
The second, fourth, fifth, sixth, eight, and ninth definitions are historically accurate but most modern pagans would take offense to thinking that the word “pagan” was an offense.
Next, I went to a resourceful pagan blog to see how they defined the word. Gleewood has an article titled “What is Paganism?” Part of their definition of paganism is:
The first thing to know is that most Pagan religions focus on shared practice more than shared belief. Obviously, the two are connected, but this is a reversal from Christianity (which focuses on shared belief, with much wider variation in practices.) This means that you might have two people in a Pagan group who have quite different ideas about the nature of deity, what happens after death, or any number of other topics, while still getting a lot out of specific rituals, celebrations, or other practices of the path. (This is, in fact really normal and common.)
I use to agree with this premise, but the similarities between my practices can be very, very thin. I consider it a huge difference when someone eats an offering, opposed to letting it decompose outside. I consider it a huge difference of practice when someone invokes duotheistic deities, opposed to inviting a certain deity to join the ritual. How someone celebrates is also vastly different, since not everyone’s holidays revolve around the Earth’s cycles or Moon cycles.
I then went to the article my friend posted about paganism, entitled: “What is Paganism, Really?“:
We can now establish that Paganism may potentially be defined as:
- A group of individuals, religions, personal practices, or spiritualities that fall beneath the Pagan umbrella;
- A group of individuals, religions, personal practices, or spiritualities that do not fall into the category of A. an Organized World Religion or B. an Indigenous Spiritual System, and may share a few common theistic or other foundations among themselves and other religions (but are not necessarily all the same or related) so long as the practitioner chooses to identify as Pagan or is a member of a religion, practice, or spiritual system that identifies itself as Pagan.
This is the definition I agreed with for the longest time: that Paganism is an umbrella term for whoever wishes to be put under it. (As an aside, you should really read Sandra’s entire article “What is Paganism, Really?” since she deconstructs the popular definitions of paganism and explains why they’re problematic and/or wrong better than I could do.)
But I’ve beginning to have conflicts with that definition implemented in practice. My blogspot blog is a testament to how indirectly unwelcomed my beliefs are in an in-person pagan community. (There is also loads of racism and enabling problematic behaviors, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.) When I went to the first ritual at the UU Group, for example, they didn’t know what hard polytheism was. They didn’t know what a Recon Faith was. And more over, they (on a whole) did nothing to embrace my beliefs.
So I’m beginning to see paganism less and less as being about practice, since that is not as unifying as a factor as people think it is. For a while, I thought about paganism being more or less a term to describe a community of people. But Sandra addresses this very well in the same article linked above:
However, a community is a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests, which perceives itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists; in other words, in this aspect it is a group of people who share similar interests, goals, views, etc.
And in this way, paganism is not by default a community.
Yet by accident I found perhaps the best description of paganism I have ever come across: “paganism is a subculture.”
Wikipedia’s article on “subculture” defines that word as “a subculture is a group of people within a culture that differentiates themselves from the larger culture to which they belong.”
And there you have it. That’s why paganism is best defined as a type of subculture. It is not the primary definition for someone, or the primary culture of a person, but it can be part of someone’s social identification. And while that still hints at some shared “something”, that “something” is as simple as “we have no other place to talk to others about our faiths/spiritualitities/religions.”
Thus, in short: I see paganism as a subculture for people who identify with the subculture. This is why you will find polytheists who don’t identify as pagan, and why you’ll see Christians who do.