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.

 photo twinkiesacrifice_zpsf15b31cd.jpg

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.

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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/

  • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

    Yes! I’ve always seen ‘Pagan’ as a big umbrella term for a whole range of vaguely-related ‘denominations’. It’s a great way to come together as a unified force when working for religious rights, church/state separation, interfaith etc. but we can get way too hung up on the details. I like the idea of having a small caveat of ‘I’m a [x] and I think [y]‘ rather than trying to define Paganism in stone for all time.

    There’s a real issue with labels as well. I get the point of having an ‘elevator pitch’ to describe your religion/philosophy/whatever but sometimes things are just too complex to distil into one word. And sometimes people get so attached to that word that it becomes not just a description but an identity, and then you get arguments over who is in the cool kids’ group.

    By the way, Twinkies are always an appropriate offering. ;)

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      The caveat of ‘I’m an [x] and I think [y]‘ is actually part of the core philosophy behind The World Table. Which is why it’s so funny that it took my roommate’s explanation to actually make that clear to me, when I’d been working at TwT for months! :P (I’m afraid I can be a tad thick at times)

      (By the way, Twinkies are always an appropriate offering. ;) )
      - YES! Twinkies for the Old Gods! Woo!

      • xJane

        Haha, I love your stick figures. I was just talking to a [Celtic-Wiccan] friend of mine about the appropriateness of bloting with champagne (since the purchaseable mead near me sucks and if I don’t want to drink it, I can’t imagine the gods would want to!) in celebratory thanks.

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          Good mead is a rare find!

  • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

    Excellent post! I pretty much disagree with all of it!

    The construction of I am an X and that means Y is awesome for those who have a concrete tradition for which there is an X and a Y. But, if you’re like me and you lack that foundation (or you’re constructing it yourself) this sort of statement becomes much more difficult. Instead, we exist outside the lines — blurry though many of them are — between the traditions within Paganism and when asked about our practice, we’re left to stumble through some sort of vague, meaningless construction of words that rarely produces a grammatically appropriate phrase let alone understanding.

    That is why I seek to better understand Paganism and what it means in a modern age. Not because I want to try and force a definition on others or exclude them based on our differences, but because I have no other definition for myself.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Hah! Awesome intro :D
      Good to hear from you David!

      I think the solution still works, you’d just have to format it differently.
      Instead of “I’m a Heathen, and I believe …etc” you could just say “I’d call myself a Pagan/ Techno-Pagan / Eclectic, and I believe…etc”

      The idea wasn’t to avoid the term “Pagan”. How many “non denominational Christians” have you met out there? I’ve met TONS, and while that phrase doesn’t MEAN very much, it allows them to identify with a community and still leaves them with the opportunity to define their personal beliefs independently from any official source.

      My point was that “Pagan” doesn’t need a static definition. There doesn’t need to be a universally accepted “THIS IS WHAT PAGAN MEANS”. It can be a community identifier (Like a flag, or religious jewelry), and still allow those that use it to create independent descriptions of their own beliefs.
      You don’t need to explain what the entirety of “Paganism” is, in order to explain your own spirituality.

      I hope that makes sense… I just got off of work and I’m about half an hour past when I should have been in bed!

      • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

        Stupid night shifts. It makes 100% sense and applies only like 10% to what I’m trying to describe.

        My point is: I have no practice to describe to someone; I do not have a religious identity to offer as the [y] part of the construction.

        I am Pagan as a choice because polytheism makes better sense to me than anything else and because the ethics of diversity, plurality, and hospitality are far more important to us than they sometimes appear to be elsewhere.

        Granted, as I’ve been told by many others many times, this is my problem and while that’s so, I don’t think it’s a problem that can be solved alone. To simple tell solitaries to “do the work” inevitably results in “I’m trying but would really like some help/guidance/support/etc.” But, I digress.

        What I seek is something that combines the bottom-up approach that you describe (Paganism as a construction of various traditions as Treeshrew stated elsewhere) but includes a top-down understanding of a common root and motivation for the work done within those traditions (Paganism as an umbrella term) that can begin to reach toward a sum-greater-than-its-parts that might actually, one day, be used as a more concrete definition.

        Frankly, I’m not sure we even can do this work yet. I think we’re in the important phase of figuring out what it is that we all do (creating the [y]‘s within the community) and figuring out what that means to us.

        But, for people like myself who are better minions than masters, this part of the journey is a little frightening and largely worrisome because it’s very possible that when the work reaches it’s conclusion, we won’t have the wiggle room to fit in between the lines as we do now.

        • xJane

          I sympathize. I know atheist-Quakers, atheist-Pagans, and other combinations of seemingly-contradictory terms. Again, define what it means to you: for a long time I was a non-theist who identified more with the Pagan religious community than any other—but I wasn’t “Pagan”. I think, when someone asks, they’re generally asking to get to know you better (rather than to place you in a neat box).

          • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

            But I don’t know me yet. Makes it harder….

            • xJane

              heh, fair.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    It is simple enough to define the umbrella of “Christianity” – To live according to the message of Christ (usually as revealed within the Bible).

    The various denominations may argue about what bits to include in their officially sanctioned scripture, and what those bits mean, but we can still connect them all with a basic unifying concept.

    Same with other religions.

    This can even be done with various “Pagan” religions. Wicca, for example, has its roots in the writings of Gerald Gardner.

    The question I have is “what unifies these disparate religious groups enough to warrant giving them an overarching designator of ‘Pagan’?”

    I always boil it down to a “man on the street” level. If you speak to the average man on the street, and ask him (or her) if they know anything about Christianity, they’ll likely be able to give the basics. Same for Judaism and Islam.

    It may not be phrased well, but there will be some roughly appropriate stereotype. If there isn’t, it would not be too hard to suggest one.

    Now, try that “Paganism”. “Paganism” is stuck with “Non-Abrahamic” as a unifying stereotype. Well, it was, until people started incorporating Abrahamic aspects into their syncretism.

    There has to be a better definition for Paganism than “It means whatever you want it to.”

    Failing that, it ceases to be a religious grouping and becomes a sociopolitical one. But, even then, there is debate as to what ideals should be considered.

    • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

      I think we’re moving toward a better solution other than “Non-Abrahamic.” I’ve had a lot of conversations about this sort of thing, mostly with those identifying primarily as Polytheist rather than Pagan, in trying to get to something that fits a Pagan sensibility and provides the flexibility to apply or not to Polytheist individuals or groups based on their preference. Usually, these conversations have been not only polite, but actually constructive in producing an evolving top-down understanding of Pagan that I tend to try and use.

      I also think that John Halstead’s four “centers” of Paganism (I prefer “foci” (i.e. plural of “focus” (yes, I nest parenthetical phrases; I’m a programer, sorry))) give a nice framework within which a lot of work can be done, as does the common traits that Christine Kraemer includes in her Intro to Pagan Theologies book.

      But, these are not well-suited to an elevator pitch and the lack of nuance to

      be found in such a pitch is, after all, sort of the problem.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        My problem with people identifying primarily as “polytheist” is that is is a bland, academic term that says very little beyond a belief in the existence of multiple gods.

        Is a polytheist a polylatrist, a monolatrist or an alatrist?

        I’m a Heathen. That is a simple enough term to explain to my hypothetical “man on the street”, even if I have to use terms that make me cringe and are not entirely accurate – I believe in the same gods as the Vikings. (Urgh!)

        I fail to see how my Heathenry is any more closely connected to Hellenismos or Druidry than Christianity or Yezidi. They are very much distinct religions.

        • xJane

          And many Christians argue that the Saints make other Christians polytheists.

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          “I fail to see how my Heathenry is any more closely connected to
          Hellenismos or Druidry than Christianity or Yezidi. They are very much
          distinct religions.”

          - Technically, we’re not. However, we can’t pretend that the past few decades of close association and cooperation haven’t meant anything. Why are we closer to Hellenismos and Druidry than Christianity? The predominant Christian culture is exclusive, and would rather see us driven out. The Hellenic and Druidic communities are (Generally) our allies. We support one another due to common interests and social status.
          That’s HUGE. That’s something you don’t really see anywhere else. As was pointed out in an earlier comment, most other broad religious categories at least share a common(-ish) origin. We don’t, but we manage to support each-other anyway.
          When Wiccans got the Pentacle approved for military headstones, most of us Heathens cheered right along with them, even though we hadn’t gotten our Mjolnir yet. When we got our own symbol, many Wiccans cheered with us, even though their own fight was already done!
          THAT, right there, is my favorite part of this community.
          Just imagine if the rest of the world operated like that.

          Buddhists get a statue on state land next to the ten commandments, Muslims cheer for them, and Christian celebrate the added diversity.

          If I had one goal in life, one driving force for giving everything I’ve got for our community, it would be to see that mentality spread. We don’t have to be the same. We don’t have to agree on everything. We can still be allies, and cheer for the victories of others.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Have you heard that there are Hindus interested in reaching out to the pagan communities?


            I am not pretending that the last few decades have meant nothing. I’m not saying we cannot remain allies. I am simply suggesting that it might better serve the different religions to actually be distinct.

            • Alyxander M Folmer

              I heard about that. I think it’s AWESOME.

              • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

                At 2:23, the guy on the left seems to get quite sceptical of “neo-pagan movements” due to their shift of focus away from spirituality to “modern agenda”.

                This, I think is what a lot of other religions struggle to accept about modern “Paganism”. The lack of spirituality.

              • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

                I think it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. See p. 247:


                • Alyxander M Folmer

                  I’m not seeing a 247… It appears to start on 276

                  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

                    oops! p. 279. that’s what i get for trying to comment while holding a wiggling baby ;>

          • WAH

            Yep, and all of that can be accomplished without sharing an identifier or pushing the “one community” formulation.

  • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

    My problem with the inevitable ‘Paganism as a term is just like Christianity’ arguments is that it’s a demonstrably false comparison. I can provide a satisfying definition of Christianity in a relatively short statement: Christianity is a religion that is based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Similarly, Islam is a religion that is based on the life and teachings of Mohammed as revealed in the Quran. And even the most atheistic, non-practicing Jew would agree that the Torah is central to Jewish religion (they may have no interest in practicing that religion, but they wouldn’t deny that Torah is at the heart of it).
    On the other hand, there is no such easy way to define Paganism in a short statement, because it is essentially a collection of unrelated and distinct religions that are arbitrarily put together under the label of Paganism. I always make it a point to refer to things people place under the Pagan umbrella as religions, as in each individually as religions, because I think that when people refer to them as ‘traditions’ or ‘paths’ or, as someone in another comment here did ‘denominations’, that only serves to minimize the fact that these are separate religions and deserve to be treated as such. By minimizing this distinctness, it encourages Pagans to think that this is a huge buffet that they can pick from and take as they will without having to consider issues like appropriation or understanding things in the context of the actual cultures and religions from which they come. A meeting of a Wiccan, a Heathen, and a Hellenic polytheist is just as much an interfaith (and not intrafaith) meeting as a Wiccan, a Buddhist, and a Christian getting together.
    For all the attention that issues over divisions like ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’ polytheism get, I think that a major dividing point that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is that between eclectic Pagans vs. those who belong to a specific ‘pagan’ religion. The more and more that the former come to define Paganism in popular thought, the more that the latter chafe at and move away from the label of ‘Pagan’ because they don’t want to be associated with–and defined by–the former.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      I agree with everything you say here.

      I would suggest that, Paganism would be a far simpler term to define if it did not try to contain these many different and distinct religions within it.

      Keep Paganism as the eclectic and syncretic and allow the defined religions to be religions in their own right.

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        It’s a fine strategy, except those religions then lose the privileges and protections (especially legal) that have been built up for “Pagan” religions. If Heathens, for example, don’t mind losing that protection, or want to build it up for themselves, then it’s not really a problem.

        • Alyxander M Folmer

          That falls right back into the original problem of trying to define other people. Some of us Heathens LIKE being in the Pagan community. I’m not gonna say that Heathens SHOULD be, or NEED to be part of this community; but they certainly CAN be if they want to.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I’m not saying people should stop hanging out with people from other religions, or mingling their communities. I am simply talking about definitions. Words to enable easier understanding without having to give an entire lecture.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          What protections?

          I live in the UK. The first “Pagan”/polytheistic organisation to gain charitable status here was the Odinic Rite – a Heathen organisation – in 1988.

          • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

            For example: It is much more difficult for people to lose custody of their children in divorce proceedings in the US because they are Pagan than it was 20 years ago. This is because, for example, high-status groups like Harvard’s Pluralism Project list and describe Paganism as a major world religious movement, and resources like that can be used in court to defend Pagan parents.

            No time to provide a full list of resources, sorry, but this is the general sort of thing.

            • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

              Things like that should be able to be rolled into a single “Religious Freedoms” issue, regardless of whether the individual is Christian, Buddhist, Heathen, Jew… Whatever.

              • Alyxander M Folmer

                I agree. The problem is that the various Christian lobbies in the USA would never let that happen. They’ve cornered the market on the phrase “Religious Freedom” here in America.

                • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

                  I will never understand American culture.

                  • Alyxander M Folmer

                    That makes two of us :P

              • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

                Alas, if something is not considered a religion, it will not be covered under religious freedom. That’s the struggle in the US — and one reason small religious traditions might want to stay under the Pagan umbrella.

                • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

                  Like I said – it’s a numbers thing.

                  It’s a pretty crappy reason to stay together, in all honesty. But I do understand that logic.

                  • Alyxander M Folmer

                    We’ve all been pushed into the same corner, and given the same labels, for so long, that we’ve learned to get along(ish) and work with it.
                    We might not have started out together, but we’re definitely together now.

                    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

                      I don’t know. I’d say we are seeing a definite growing apart, at the moment. That is where these tensions and debates are coming from.

                  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

                    *nod* The label only has the power we give it. It might be better if we understood it primarily as a political or cultural label, since in my mind, that’s its best purpose.

                    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

                      Then it would work best primarily as a group identifier, rather than an individual one.

                      I think that culture and politics changes dramatically when you put an ocean between people, and that is where I lose a lot of understanding.

                      Over here, the concept of a “recognised religion” is a tricky, since our entire social set-up is different, and religious rights are a lot broader.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

                      Understood, and agreed about it working primarily as a group identifier.

      • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

        It would be simpler to define, but that’s not a good enough reason to lose all the benefits that we would gain from a diverse, plural community.

        • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

          Ah, but what’s inherently more diverse (analogy time): having a plate with a steak, a baked potato, a slice of bread, and some steamed broccoli, or having a plate where those things are all puréed together and plopped on your plate as an indistinct mash? From my observation of Paganism, I think that it tends to produce the latter. The only way to get the former, in my mind, is for each religion to stand on its own two feet (which does not exclude working together when called for on things like protecting the rights of minority religions).

          • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

            But, even when not puréed, the food items are all together on the same plate “working” together to make the meal. That’s what I want Paganism to become. Not separate courses of a meal, but a meal together.

            • Alyxander M Folmer

              I was going to chime in, but you just said what I was going to!

            • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

              The meal analogy falls down somewhat, I fear.

              Why not put a side of Christianity on that plate?

              And some Hindu sauce, perhaps?

              It is not about segregating, but defining.

              To put it into the conference context. Why have a “Pagan” religious conference, instead of a religious conference?

              • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

                Because I think those who use the term Pagan are doing something vastly different from those other communities that you mentioned.

                Specifically, the vast majority of Pagans with which I interact are looking for spiritual inspiration in cultures that, with a few exceptions, were largely destroyed and/or assimilated into Christendom between the years of (roughly) 700 AD through to the 17th Century. I think, therefore, that a Pagan conference can discuss and explore themes relating to that search for inspiration in ways that a more general religious conference could not. The exceptions tend to be those who work from cultures of the Middle East that were annexed/assimilated in to Islamic culture (as opposed to Christianity) in one form or another.

                To try and stall the inevitable followup – it can be argued that the general purée of eclectic Pagans (of which I am a member) aren’t doing much in the way of historical research or seeking guidance from ancient primary source material in the same way that reconstruction traditions do and that, as a result, the specific way in which spiritual inspiration is sought, found, and realized is different.

                But, this begins to get into what I have experienced as two primary means by which this inspiration manifests: (1) the desire to recreate, revive, or reconstruct — through meticulous research and practice — the traditions of these lost cultures and apply them in the modern world; and (2) the creation of new religious movements that seek inspiration from the traditions of the ancient world but to (heavily) modify them for the differences between that world and our own.

                Can I claim that there are no exceptions to this? Certainly not. Does this mean that all people who practice devotionally to Odin are Heathens? Probably not, but it preserves a relationship between the two likely different practices based on the shared inspirational source.

                • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

                  I think the differences are significant enough that the various different groups (Heathenry, Kemetism, Hellenismos, Wicca, etc) can be counted as distinct religions, allowing Paganism to be more readily described as an eclectic, syncretic belief system that draws inspiration from many sources.

                  Certainly, other than the fact they have a “broken lineage”, I don’t think that Heathenry and Hellenismos (for example) are any more closely related to each other than they are to Hinduism.

                  • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

                    It’s not the broken lineage that creates the interconnections, but rather the shared spiritual inspiration and scholarly efforts used to recreate the traditions that existed before the break. There’s an ecosystem in which our traditions exist that, to me, creates our community. Removing traditions from that ecosystem weakens it.

                    Sure, different traditions are different; that’s a tautology. I guess it remains to be seen whether they’re too different. I maintain that they are not.

                    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

                      They are still making different things.

                      They are different religions, not different denominations.

                      I guess my stance comes from looking at this from a theological angle.

                      Religions are (or should be) generally defined by their pantheon, and the denominations within the religions defined by the different ways in which they interact with those pantheons.

                    • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

                      I only look at it from a theological angle; I have no personal practice (which is why this matters so much to me). I also agree with your that religious should be generally defined by their pantheon, but I suspect we differ drastically on which powers exist within those pantheons. For me, though, the Pagan pantheon includes the gods of the cultures that we’re recreated based on the criteria above. All of them. Together. That doesn’t mean that they’re all archetypes or that I see the Pagan pantheon from a monist point of view, I think I tend toward panentheism and polytheism more than monism (though monism has its place) but only my construction of our pantheon is based on my similar construction of our community.

                    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

                      That’s where we differ, Heathenry has the distinct Germanic collection of gods (and monsters); Hellenismos is based around the classical Greek pantheon; Kemetism around the Egyptian gods…

                      I would agree that Pagans pick through the different pantheons to get their personal pantheons, but there are plenty who will pick from any pantheon, including the Abrahamic one. That’s where I differentiate Paganism (as eclectic and syncretic) from the more fixed pantheons of other religions.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          What benefits? The only benefit I can see is numbers.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      - I can provide a satisfying definition of Christianity in a relatively
      short statement: Christianity is a religion that is based on the life
      and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Similarly, Islam is a religion that
      is based on the life and teachings of Mohammed as revealed in the Quran.-

      And that’s part of the “illusion of unity” I was talking about. For example: Quakers (long labeled as a “Christian” sect) do not necessarily believe in Jesus (or his divinity).
      Unfortunately I can’t give a similar example for Islam, which is mostly due to my own lack of formal education on the subject. I do know that there are HUGE differences between the sects there as well.
      That said, I agree with most of what you said in regard to Paganism. We ARE a slightly different case that religious communities that spawned from a singular origin. However, I think that we’ve started to build a community that can allow us a similar type of infrastructure. We’re not there yet, but it’s not impossible.

      • xJane

        Sufism. (Often a “mystic” religion—based in Islam, would consider itself Islamic, would likely not be considered Islamic by other Muslims. Doesn’t necessarily believe the Quran to be the Word Of God or Mohammed to be the final prophet.)

      • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

        I’d say that my suggested definitions are more careful than that, though. I never said that great differences don’t exist among the various sects of Christianity or Islam. I just said, for example, that Christian religion centers around the figure of Jesus, leaving out what specifically various sects might believe he did, taught, and was. My definition can easily include Catholics, Mormons, Pentecostals, and Gnostic Christians. You could even flip it around to a negative statement: If Jesus had never existed Christian religion could not exist; the same goes for Mohammed and Islam, Buddha and Buddhism etc. There’s an easily pinpointable–is that even a word?–moment in time that birth those religions. For other religions there is often an ethnic group, a culture that is the heart of those religions: Shinto and the Japanese, Heathenry and pre-Christian Germanic religion.

        However, I think that we’ve started to build a community that can allow us a similar type of infrastructure. We’re not there yet, but it’s not impossible.

        For me, though, I don’t want to see a Pagan community that builds infrastructure; I want each religion one might consider to be Pagan build their own infrastructure and organizations. That’s the only way I can see them truly thriving without dissolving into meaningless eclectic Pagan mush–my meal analogy didn’t come off really well. I fundamentally believe that the entire notion of a Pagan community actually stifles diversity far more than it encourages it–or perhaps I could put it this way: Pagan community is great at encouraging each individual to completely do their own thing by taking a little bit from here, some from there and mixing it all together; but it isn’t so good for distinct religions with defined parameters. The success of Heathens is, I think, case and point. Heathens have achieved far more by going off and doing their own thing rather than depending on the Pagan community.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren


          Did you know that, in the US, there are groups building Hofs? I know of one guy who has actually made it his life’s work to travel to various Heathen groups and actually help them build their hofs.

          It is something I am keen to see more of.

          • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

            I think it would be awesome for every city to have Heathen Hofs, or elaborate temples to the Greek gods etc. We can only hope that one day that will be the case.

            • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

              We need to work towards that goal, if we want it to happen. I know I am.

              At the moment, I am in the initial phase. Which basically means conversations like these, mostly on Facebook.

            • Alyxander M Folmer

              That would be the kind of infrastructure I was talking about. ;)

  • http://www.celestinetarot.com/ Celestine Angel

    Agree with everything you say here.

  • xJane

    Absolutely. I’d even wager that within sects there’s differentiation. I’m Heathen and I follow the Aesir, some Jötunns, and the Vanir (more or less in that order). I’m a huge fan of my patron, who manages to get Aesir status by virtue of marrying—briefly—a Vanir (explain that one, I dare you!) and think it’s unfair to paint all Jötunns with the same brush.


    And this is certainly the case within Christian sects. Just ask the Pope and any Catholic-who-uses-birth-control.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      Totally! I somewhat oversimplified for the sake of a 1000 word article. “Baptist” or “Asatru” still leaves plenty of room for variance. Most of those folks who vary from the “norm” within their sect can still give you a fairly concise rundown of their beliefs. (usually because they’ve had to defend them from their fellow believers)


  • Ian Corrigan

    Saying “I’m Pagan” is like being told that dinner is “Bread, Soup and Meat”. You’ll have a very general idea of what’s coming but no specific idea of what you’ll actually get.

    • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

      This troubles me; it hurts a little, too. But I can refute it. In fact, I sort of agree with it. I think that’s what hurts.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      I think it makes a perfectly acceptable descriptor, so long as it’s not the ONLY descriptor. “I’m a Pagan who believes X-Y-Z”.
      “We’re having Bread, Soup, and Meat; and I think rye is the BEST bread, and chicken soup is my favorite!”

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      It’s not even as precise as that.

      It is more akin to saying that dinner will consist of some kind of food (but not haddock; haddock is what the neighbours are having.)

  • Henry Buchy

    that’s why there’s adjectives….

  • Traci

    Your cartoons totally crack me up, that’s all I know! :)

  • Mother Wolf

    Whenever this question comes up, I’m always at a loss for a unifying description for Paganism on the lines suggested by Leoht: that Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus. But David said something that really struck me as a unifying theme: neo-Paganism is based on the beliefs and practices of those religions that dominated civilization before the rise of the Abrahamic religions. NOTE: not re-creating those religions but based on them. I’m not an expert, so I can’t say that all who claim the label “Pagan” fall under that category, but all the religions I’ve encountered seem to.

  • Hrafn Skald

    A step in the right direction.

    IMO, the next step is to ditch the word Pagan and simply say what faith/tradition/path we belong to.

    The problem with Paganism as a term goes further than within Christianity, as in Paganism there is everything from the eclectic to the historical, pantheism to polytheism to animism, a wide variety of pantheons, very different ways or worshiping and living.

    When a group doesn’t worship the same entities, doesn’t practice in the same ways, doesn’t have the same views regarding how to live life, how can it be said to be a single religion or even a coherent group of religions? The only things pagans share is their differences from non-pagans, which is too problematic to use.

    Paganism as a grouping is too vague to define in any meaningful way, and should me discarded.


  • Lokadottir

    the twinkie made me laugh. I’m in high school and I often sit in the cafeteria and think “I can’t offer tater tots to Odin!”
    If you do it’s fine of course. It just sits with me wrong.

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