Wyrd Words: Pointless Arguments (Part 2) – “Defining Paganism”

Greetings, and welcome back to Wyrd Words. Keeping the Thor in Thursdays, every other week here on Agora!

Last time we explored the recent kindergarten-kerfuffle surrounding a recent theological blog feud. This is hardly the first, much less the biggest, debate to hit our community. So today I wanted to touch on a long standing debate that’s been consuming more of our time than Netflix releasing season 2 of “House of Cards.”

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“Defining Paganism”

This is an OLD debate that’s been going around for years, and it’s become a kind of Kobayashi Maru for Pagan bloggers, an unsolvable initiatory rite that we feel compelled to tackle anyway. This issue has actually gone on for so long, that it’s started spawning sub-arguments like a Moist Mogwai. Debates like “Are Christo-pagans Pagan?”, “Are Heathens Pagan?”, and “Does ‘Pagan’ Even Mean Anything Anymore?” all seem to stem from this one common primordial ancestor.

Now don’t get me wrong, I TOTALLY get it. I’m just as guilty of chasing this dragon as the next guy! When your Christian friend asks you “So what exactly IS Paganism?”, you want to have an answer. It’s happened to all of us, and it’s a legitimate issue. The problem is that “How do we define Paganism?” is the wrong question, and the debate is distracting us from more important issues.

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Like whether or not Twinkies make an appropriate sacrificial offering.

The Argument:

The whole debate generally centers around this idea that “Paganism” lacks clearly defined boundaries, making the term an inefficient descriptor. If nobody is sure what “Pagan” means, then saying “I’m a Pagan” doesn’t actually convey much information. There’s this social pressure to be able to describe your religion in 140 characters or less, like we have to be able to provide a concise soundbite if we want to play with the big kids in the schoolyard.

The problem is that nobody can manage to create a static definition of the community without excluding somebody. There’s always at least one group that doesn’t quite fit into somebody’s description, and that group often gets justifiably miffed about being left out. On the flip side, by the time we get a description that doesn’t exclude ANYBODY, we’re left with something fairly vague and we’re back to square one.

Why This Argument is Asking the Wrong Question:

This argument assumes that other religions already have defined borders, and that we need to draw our lines in the sand if we want to be taken seriously. From the outside looking in, we often see a codified, structured, religious community. The problem is that this idea of religious unity is usually a complete illusion that dissolves the moment you look from the inside.

For example, we often write about “Christianity” as some kind of unified force. Even if we consciously understand that there are approximately 41,000 different denominations worldwide, we often pretend that the differences are fairly minor and that we can safely group them all together. Now if you got a Roman Catholic, a Southern Baptist, and a Mormon into one room and asked each to define their religion, they would all probably be able to give you a nice rundown on their basic tenants and beliefs.

Now go ahead and ask them all to give you a definition for “Christianity.”

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This is what you’ll get

The same thing happens in Judaism if you ask an Orthodox Rabbi, a Reform Rabbi, and a Humanist Rabbi. (And they’ve had 4000-ish years to work on it!) Try putting a Shia Muslim and a Sunni Muslim together and asking them to describe their religion. It won’t get very far. Each sect can give you a competent description of its own beliefs and practices, but the moment you ask them to describe the overall religion, you’re either left with some vague notion of spiritual doctrine, or they end up excluding members of their own community. In the case of Christianity, the excluded member is frequently the Mormons.

Yet, somehow, many people in these groups can still manage to occasionally unite around a common (vaguely defined) descriptor. Even if the word itself isn’t very meaningfully defined, it can still act as a common symbol.

The Solution:

I know what you’re probably thinking. Great! You explained the problem, but that doesn’t really help much! So now what? I still have to give an answer to my friends when they ask me about Paganism.

I think the best solution to this problem is the simplest one, and it’s the one most of the rest of the religious world already uses. When I asked my roommate “What is Christianity?”, she solved this whole issue by giving a simple caveat. She said “Well, I’m a Baptist, and I believe that means…”

Crisis averted. She didn’t have to try and speak for a massive (and often contradictory) group of related religions, nor did she have to come up with a definition that had to exclude anybody. She quickly explained what specific denomination she belonged to, and what that meant to her.

In my work over at The World Table, I have often felt like I need to try and represent the whole of Paganism. Which is a ridiculously insane task, and probably impossible. So the next time somebody on the site asked me to define “Paganism,” I tried my roommate’s answer.

“Well, I’m a Heathen, and I follow the Aesir and the Vanir…” No complex definitions needed. I didn’t speak for anybody but myself, and I was able to give a detailed answer. That’s why I think “How do we define Paganism?” is the wrong question. “Paganism,” much like “Judaism” or “Christianity,” should come with a yellow sticker that says “Warning: Mileage may vary.” The question I think we SHOULD be asking ourselves is: “How do I define my OWN beliefs?”

We don’t need some all-inclusive definition, because we don’t need to speak for everybody.


Wyrd Words is published on alternate Thursdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

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About Alyxander Folmer

Alyxander Folmer is a student of Anthropology at ASU, focused on analyzing and building religious communities. He is a devoted Heathen, and married to a Rabbi in training. Interest in Pagan interfaith relations lead him to join the committee for the formation of the Pagan Chapter at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, where he hopes to utilize his training in community building and cultural exchange. The majority of his work can be located at http://www.heathenhof.com/


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