The Definition of ‘Pagan’: Monotheism and Polytheism

This summer, I have spent more time doing pagan things – attending festivals and events, teaching and attending workshops, crafting and performing rituals – than at any other point in my life. During these experiences, I have come to believe that one of the largest issues facing paganism today is one of definition: Who are the pagans, exactly? Various answers to this question have been put forward over the years, many of which conflict and confuse, and none of which are adequate in my opinion. To my mind, much of the problem is that the definitions available to us now are descriptive but not circumscriptive. In other words, many proposed definitions do indeed describe features of the pagan zeitgeist(s), but do not succeed at instructively differentiating pagans from other groups whose lives might be described in similar ways.

It is for this reason that I find definitions of paganism that hinge upon pagans’ practice of “magic” unsatisfying, since folks the world over have been labeled as magic-doers, both pagan and non-pagan alike. It might be interesting to ask ourselves what it is about modern pagans that drives us to describe ourselves as magic-doers (a break with the generally negative connotation of the word “magic”), but that is a separate issue that, as of yet, I feel we are ill-equipped to answer.

Let me be clear that in my own personal and academic attempts to state what defines paganism I am not trying to define some ahistorical  type of religious lifestyle or worldview. For example, I am not taking up the (in my opinion mildly appropriative) methodology of pagan scholar Michael York in his work Pagan Theology, in which he treats paganism as “a general form of religious behavior” that is present the world over (Pagan Theology, viii). On the contrary, I am trying to define to whatever extent possible that cluster of practices and beliefs that is modern, generally English-speaking, and, from what I can tell, internally cohesive because of a general acceptance of Wiccanate liturgical forms as an appropriate ecumenicism. I am particularly interested in American paganism.

What has struck me recently is the rise of a new trend in defining paganism. That trend is to define as “Pagan” any and all polytheistic religious practices (á la York’s methodology) or to define modern American paganism as decidedly polytheistic.  Pagan religious practice is that which is polytheist, so the logic seems to go, as opposed to non-pagan religions, which are monotheist. To me, “polytheistic” seems to be the newest in a string of buzz-words used uncritically in attempts at definition, a string that includes “non-Abrahamic” and “pre-Christian.”

“Earth-centered,” seems to me to have been the latest of these buzz-word phrases. Surely it is not inaccurate to remark that pagan communities have been deeply effected by environmentalist movements; but does that make all of our theologies “Earth-centered”? What do pagans mean by “Earth-centered”, one might ask, and to this question one would surely receive the answer that it depends on whom you’re asking, since pagans mean a lot of different things when they describe themselves in this way. As with my rejection of definitions that hinge upon pagans as “magical,” I find this definition unsatisfying because it does not distinguish “Earth-centered” pagans from “Earth-centered” non-pagans. Sallie McFague, for example, is an example of a Christian theologian who can by some definitions be called “Earth-centered”: Her works include Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age; The Body of God: An Ecological Theology; and Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril.

It is also important to note that not all pagans identify as “Earth-centered” at all, while others engage in practices or adhere to philosophies that are inherently or implicitly otherworldly (i.e., technically “transcendentalist”) in outlook. Pagan Kabbalists fit this description, in my opinion, since the goal of their enterprise is to reach union with an otherwise unknowable, transcendent divine presence. The logic behind many ceremonial magic and alchemical practices, which come from a similar tradition, are often quite otherworldly in orientation – check out this modern image [below] that floats around theurgic circles for an iconographic example of what I mean: The depicted figure is literally crawling toward a world outside the Earthly realm.

Is this Earth-centered?

For similar reasons, I find attempts to define paganism in terms of polytheism to be less than adequate. First of all (pace York), there are non-pagan polytheists, and therefore to leave the definition at that does not prove useful. We must strive a bit further.

Such an attempted definition seems to overlook the fact that some pagans are themselves self-labeling monotheists, and that a great many pagans engage in practices and beliefs that are implicitly monotheistic. Those same pagan Kabbalists must be considered to engage in at least tacitly monotheistic belief, given that the worldview underpinning that tradition depends upon a logic grounded in large part in Abrahamic monotheism. Also, the Kabbalistic venture entails a quest for a singular divine transcendent force, thus Kabbalistic practice is either monistic or monotheistic as a matter of course. (NB: I realize that much of Kabbalistic philosophy is in large part Neoplatonic or Neoaristotelian, and thus in large part pre-Christian; however, Kabbalah as such has only existed since ca. the 1400s, was developed by monotheists, and is fundamentally contingent upon natively Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theological tenants). Additionally, ceremonialist pagans might remember that the basic technology of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram is an approximation of one’s self with a singular, ultimate (i.e., monotheistic) divinity during which time one assumes the power, en microcosm, of that divinity. Therefore, ceremonialists practicing the LBRP are in that moment tacitly monotheists.

Similarly, Wicca, arguably the linchpin of contemporary paganism, could be considered non-polytheist. Yes, many Wiccans identify with a myriad of deities; but let’s not forget that Wicca, too, has its origin in monotheistic traditions! Let us remember that (given the round thrashing of Margaret Murray’s theories have received, though this still often goes ignored or under-appreciated) traditional Wiccan theology has more to do with esoteric Christianity, the Freemasons, Aleister Crowley, and the 19th century revival of Renaissance occultism than with, say, a British folk tradition. Additionally, recent and influential literature has maintained Wicca’s fundamentally monotheistic undertones:

All religions are structures built upon reverence of deity. Wicca is no exception. The Wicca acknowledge a supreme divine power, unknowable, ultimate, from which the entire universe sprang.

The concept of this power, far beyond our comprehension, has nearly been lost in Wicca because of our difficulty of relating to it. Wiccans, however, link with this force through their deities. In accordance with the principles of nature, the supreme power was personified into two basic beings: the Goddess and the God.

Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A guide for the solitary practitioner p. 9 (my emphases)

Note that Cunningham grounds Wiccan theology in an appreciation of a singular divine force that is only perceived as multifaceted. Many of us might recall that Wiccan theology has been elsewhere summed up as “one light shining through a prism.” This monistic or monotheistic tendency within Wiccan theology is echoed in earlier literature as well. Patricia Crowther, an initiate of Gardner’s, coined the term “Dryghten” to refer to the “force” perceived by Wiccans; Gardner himself called this “force” the “Prime Mover,” a phrase taken from Aristotle. [See here.]

Though this assessment of Wiccan theology might be called “soft polytheism,” I find that terminology problematic because it is not similarly used to describe the not-dissimilar theological outlook of others whom are generally considered simply “monotheists.” The Christian Trinity and theologies concerning it could be considered a form of “soft polytheism,” for example, as could certain Sufi extrapolations of the nature of Allah’s 99 divine names that perceive the names as almost god-like aspects of one divine power.

Note also that in her essay, “Introduction to the Wiccan Religion and Contemporary Paganism” [here], Selena Fox states that, “Many [pagan] traditions are monotheistic in that there is an honoring of Divine Unity” – this is seemingly in direct contradiction to the definition of paganism given on the website of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group of the Academy of World Religions [here]: “an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient, and nonempirical” which is “[…] non-monotheistic, based on relationship rather than revelation and scripture, and often including an immanent dimension to landforms, plants, and animals.”

Other pagan groups can be called monotheistic: The Covenant of The Goddess, for example, exemplifies a form of pagan monotheism; the same can be said for the theological outlook of the Fellowship of Isis and other Goddess-movement related groups that venerate a single, female-gendered deity. Additionally, let us consider “henotheism,” which is the veneration of one deity above all others without an accompanying denial of the existence of other deities. Given this, quite a few pagans display quite “henotheistic” tendencies in that they might worship one “patron” god or goddess. Though many pagans would consider this a fairly nondescript form of polytheism, academics who question the validity of any division between monotheistic and polytheistic practices (academics like Johannes C. de Moor, author of The Rise of Yahwism) consider henotheism to be a prevalent sort of half-way theology that is part monotheism, part polytheism, and that (again) is not all that dissimilar from some Abrahamic theologies. Remember that the “First Commandment” from Sinai was to “Have no other gods before me,” a phrase widely taken as henotheistic in implication.

Given all this, I think it is important that we search for a more accurate way to define ourselves, hopefully one that is more critically useful and that can help to establish  more coherent self-understanding in our communities. Others might claim that this has all been a useless “semantic argument” on my part and that this has no bearing on real life outside of insular academic circles and my own argumentative head. To the contrary, I would argue that such issues of definition have significant implications on our abilities to grow in our spiritual traditions and on our abilities to manage ourselves in a pluralistic world. For example, consider the implications of a more comprehensible definition of pagan traditions on interfaith conversations: In as much as we as pagans understand our own religious traditions in more accurate terms, we will be able to engage with other faith communities in more integral, authentic ways. With self-understanding comes acceptance and credence – understanding and critical inquiry – from others.

Also, along with more accurate self-definition comes a greater ability to understand our own histories and theologies in a variety of contexts. Acknowledging Wicca’s theological debt to Renaissance Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophy might have the effect of inspiring new Wiccan theologians to plumb those traditions for new insight. Such recognition would also empower non-Wiccan traditions to extricate themselves if they so chose from generally accepted “genero-pagan” or Wiccanate theological opinions that are disharmonious with their own worldviews.

Finally, a more accurate understanding of paganism in general will allow for a greater understanding of various traditions and communities in particular, and especially the connections between such groups. Then, changes in the relationships between these groups will be more comprehensible to us as well as to sociologists and journalists attempting to track the growth and change of our communities at large. Thus, such efforts toward definition increase our standing and ability on all levels.

  • Wes Isley

    You raise a ton of great questions, many of which i’ve wrestled with myself. I’ve taken up with a loose group of people who could be generally called “pagan,” but we don’t have a group name and we don’t all share the exact same beliefs. But I have noticed that several people in this group do talk a lot about “God” or “the Divine” as if it were something easily defined and recognized–in other words, monotheistic. However, they certainly don’t fit the “Christian” label, and not a one is Wiccan. Like myself, others would probably resist any attempt to label their beliefs. I think the challenge is partly due to the decentralized nature of paganism (and I’m speaking very broadly), as well as the resistance to labels by those who once were part of a sharply defined religion.

    For me, at least for now, “pagan” is broad enough to capture some of what I believe without getting too specific and putting me into a box. And I like that.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    Selena Fox provides a very good example of just how misunderstood the term monotheism is, even by highly intelligent, knowledgeable Pagans.

    Monotheism has no other meaning that this: a rejection of all Gods except for one. Period. It’s like pregnancy, death, static friction, jumping out of an airplane, etc. Monotheism is one of those things that is not done by halves.

    This rejection of all Gods but one can be based on (at least) three different kinds of reasons (these are often not clearly distinguished in the minds of monotheists):
    (1) other Gods are denounced Devils
    (2) other Gods are declared to not exist at all
    (3) other Gods are not deemed worthy of worship, even though they might exist and might not all be evil

    But regardless of the reasons employed, monotheism must involve the exclusive worship of a single deity, coupled with the active and explicit rejection of the worship of any and all other deities. Otherwise it is not monotheism.

    Phenomena like henotheism, pantheism, and monism must be scrupulously distinguished from monotheism. Most (nearly all? all?) known examples of polytheistic traditions have (a) henotheistic cults, (b) a supreme deity, and (c) some form of pantheism and/or monism. Therefore if these characteristics are seen as “monotheistic” then polytheism itself vanishes altogether — except for the thoroughly modern, artificially constructed idea of “hard polytheism” which has no basis in ancient religious traditions.

    A good rule of thumb is to start with the assumption that Homer was a polytheist and not a monotheist. However, if one isn’t even willing to clearly declare that Homer was not a monotheist, then there is a real problem.

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    A great start for discussion!

    1) As a pagan who is also a Hermeticist, I must point out that much of the tendencies in modern paganism toward monotheism/monism can be traced back to the very pagan Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Pythagorean traditions. ["Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity", edited by Athanassiadi and Frede is a good resource for those interested in exploring this subject.] That is, these traditions were not made consistent with monotheism by members of Abrahamic religions (as many people think), but rather they survived partially because they already had monotheistic perspectives that could be drawn on by members of Abrahamic religions.

    And in a completely different direction, many modern pagans are not polytheists because they are animists, pantheists, panentheists, etc. For some pagans, their Holy Powers are the Elements, or the Ancestors, or Nature Spirits, or the Fae, or Nature, or Totems, or some combination of the above

    And of course, many pagans are polytheists who also honor some of those non-theistic Holy Powers. (I suspect that would be the majority of modern pagans.)

    2) I love your phrase “from what I can tell, internally cohesive because of a general acceptance of Wiccanate liturgical forms as an appropriate ecumenicism.” [I am stealing the word Wiccanate.] I find it very descriptive, and provocative, because it opens the question: Why do we accept “Wiccanate liturgical forms as an appropriate ecumenicism”?

    As someone whose practice includes a retro-pagan approach drawing from both Celtic and Hellenistic sources, I include non-Wiccanate forms in my personal practice. I also include Wiccanate forms, when practicing Modern Pagan Witchcraft. I experience power in both Wiccanate and non-Wiccanate forms, but I feel that Wiccanate forms are most appropriate for rituals that are both esoteric and small-group . Thus, I want to see an alternative–and explicitly exoteric–approach to public ritual.

    For over a decade, I’ve been lobbying for a more “folk-pagan” approach for public rituals–and trying to figure out what that would look like in practice. Over the last few years, as I’ve attended public rituals of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, I’m discovering treasures in ADF-derived liturgical forms. The current that is American Druidism has been both public and exoteric since the founding of the RDNA at Carleton College. [If the other strand of liturgical forms are Wiccanate, does that make these Druidicate?]

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    Apuleius,

    Are you willing to clearly declare that Plato was not a monotheist? I’m certainly not.

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  • Bookhousegal

    “”Various answers to this question have been put forward over the years, many of which conflict and confuse, and none of which are adequate in my opinion. To my mind, much of the problem is that the definitions available to us now are descriptive but not circumscriptive.””

    Actually, Pagan religions throughout history *are* precisely that on some very basic levels:

    Descriptive, not ‘circumscriptive.’

    That’s not a ‘problem,’ that’s our spirituality. :)

  • Bookhousegal

    Monotheism: basically, is trying to make all of reality fit the ‘News.’

    Paganism is ‘All The News That Fits.’

  • William Hood

    “Why do we accept “Wiccanate liturgical forms as an appropriate ecumenicism”?”

    “We” don’t. In fact, many of us occasionally feel marginalized by the insistence that we accept such a situation in order to be involved in the Pagan community.

  • William Hood

    Ian,

    Plato was not a monotheist. I said it!

  • http://greattininess.wordpress.com Johnny Rapture

    William Hood:

    I think you’ve just proven “the rule.” As far as I am concerned, contemporary paganism in America can only usefully be defined at present in terms of the “insistence” (to use your term, which may well be more appropriate than mine) of Wiccanate ecumenicism. It raises the question in my mind of why, if you reject Wiccan liturgical forms (as I do), do you (and I) continue to participate in Wiccanate events?

    I think that it is when another liturgical form gains enough currency that groups begin to move away from self-description as “Pagan.” This process is going on right now, IMO, among a lot of Recon groups – You wouldn’t find a bunch of Heathens casting a circle, for example, because they have developed their own liturgics and, along with it, theology and community.

  • http://threeshoutsonahilltop.blogspot.com/ Gorm_Sionnach

    What a strange concordance, I wrote a similar blog yesterday.

    I do enjoy the phrasing of “Wiccanate liturgy”, it is very apt and indicative of a large part of the “problem”.

  • Dana D Eilers

    Great! Let’s all critique what is bad, incorrect, inconsistent with our definitions. So, where is the new definition? Rather absent, I would say.

  • http://threeshoutsonahilltop.blogspot.com/ Gorm_Sionnach

    I think part of the point is that there is no definition which can adequately encompass all who are “Pagan”. I think the term has become all but useless, which is why various “Pagan” religions are no longer using the term to describe their beliefs, because the term really doesn’t mean anything.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were all definitely polytheists. In fact, Plato’s Academy was home to shrines and altars for many different Deities, including Eros, the Muses, Athena, Herakles and Prometheus.

    The idea that Greek philosophers were somehow monotheistic was invented by early Christians, specifically Eusebius, Orosius and Augustine. In his Preparatio Evangelica, Eusebius argued that Greek philosophers had helped to “prepare the way for the Gospel.” Having “prepared the way” though, it was now time, in Eusebius’ view, for the philosophers to submit to the authority of the Church or be put out of business.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    Paganism is simply what happens when human beings are free to pursue their spiritual inclinations in whatever manner they choose.

  • William Hood

    “It raises the question in my mind of why, if you reject Wiccan liturgical forms (as I do), do you (and I) continue to participate in Wiccanate events?”

    Ah, I see. Yes, that is a good question. I think ONE of the answers is that events aren’t necessarily advertised as being “Wiccanate.” There are many times I’ve gone to an event, joined an email group, etc. that claimed to be “non-denominational,” for lack of a better word, but ended up being heavily dominated by Wiccan norms. I don’t think it’s a case of purposeful dishonesty, it’s simply that the organizers of such events are ignorant of the growing diversity within Paganism.

    This leads to other specific non-Wiccanate groups having to create or stick with their own community and culture and eschew general Paganism, which I feel could ultimately lead to the breaking up of a general Pagan community. Therefore the same Wiccanate dominance of overall Pagan culture is exactly what will create two (or three or four, etc.) communities.

    I also agree with Gorm, that “Pagan” is a practically useless term, yet no acceptable alternative has been found so many of us continue to go along with the lesser evil of using “Pagan.”

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    Paganism is far from a useless term. It obviously refers to the beliefs and practices of anyone who looks to the ancient forms of religion that existed prior to the violent suppression of those religious traditions by the Christians and Muslims, and it also refers to those traditions as they existed prior to that suppression.

    That is how the term has always been used, and everyone knows that. Paganism is no more nebulous or definitionally elusive than Christianity (and that is something everyone also knows).

  • http://threeshoutsonahilltop.blogspot.com/ Gorm_Sionnach

    It certainly works in a historical context, it just has not played out that way in the modern “Pagan” community, because a good number of those are not practicing an ancient religion at all, at best are practicing reconstructed versions of those ancient religions, but then not all “Pagans” are Reconstructionists. What is the geographic extent of such a definition; is it only those in Europe or does it extend to the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Americas? Are Hindu’s and Shintoists Pagan? I certainly understand the term in the context of being outside the scope of the JCI religion, but once more that doesn’t actually say anything about the beliefs, other than they are not encompassed by the JCI world view?

    What if the pre-Christian religion was not violently suppressed? Some would argue that the term in and of itself was a pejorative; there are some Hellenic polytheists who are adamant about that. That the term was never actually used by those who were labeled as “Pagan” before the suppression/conversion to monotheism? Or do you favour the re appropriation approach of “taking it back”?

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    There is far more continuity between ancient and modern Paganism that you seem to be aware, Gorm_Sionnach. Although he has tried to give the opposite impression, Ronald Hutton has, in fact, admitted all along that Wicca, in particular, has a “distinguished and very long pedigree” (Hutton’s words) ultimately deriving from “certain types of ancient religion” from the period of late-antiquity.

    See, in particular, p. 337 of “Pagan Religions of the British Isles” (where the “pedigree” quote comes from), and p. 87 of “Witches, Druids and King Arthur”, where the “certain types” quote comes from.

    Hutton continues to argue that Wicca’s “distinguished and very long pedigree” in no way invalidates his ludicrous claim that “the paganism of today has virtually nothing in common with that of the past except the name.” I chalk this up to a very high tolerance for cognitive dissonance coupled with very little understanding of the issues involved.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    Oh, and it’s always amusing when modern day Hellenic polytheists fume about the term Pagan being “pejorative”. The term “Hellene” was, obviously, also a pejorative term when used by the Christians. In fact, being a “Hellene” was made a criminal offense punishable by death (preferably a horrible death preceded by prolonged torture).

    For that matter, the Christians also took the term “daimon” and turned into the pejorative “demon”. But the daimones themselves are not thereby turned into something evil just because the Christians said so.

    Christians had to invent a new term where none had existed before, because Pagans lacked any general term for “people who practice another religion.” That is because the whole idea of “other religions” was foreign to the ancient Pagan mind. Pagans could travel from Britain to India and not meet anyone who practiced “another religion” (just as Jason, Odysseus and Aeneas never encountered people who practiced “another religion” in their mythological travels). Instead they encountered fellow Pagans who all worshipped the Gods using different names and according to different traditions.

    Indeed, the Gods of different peoples were not necessarily precisely “the same” Gods, because Pagan pantheons are quite loosely defined and blurry around the edges, and change with time. Over the centuries, Goddesses and Gods come and go, change names, change attributes, etc. Whether the Gods next door are viewed as the same Gods by different names, or as different Gods altogether, all Gods were viewed as deserving of reverence and all traditions were given due respect.

  • http://threeshoutsonahilltop.blogspot.com/ Gorm_Sionnach

    Hutton categorically rejects such an assertion in that book, though I do not necessarily agree with his conclusions on the Celtic sources (he is not, after all a Celtic Scholar). There is however a considerable difference between folk survivals of (potential) pre-Christian beliefs and survivals of pre-Christian religions. Those folk beliefs and customs often have traces of framework or cosmology which need to be teased out, but for the most part are not the same as the pre-Christian beliefs because they were adapted to fit in the post conversion cosmology.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    Please note, Gorm, that I was quoting from Hutton and providing the page number and everything. Hutton has stated and repeated and reasserted that modern Paganism, and Wicca in particular has a “distinguished and very long pedigree” going back to the Hellenistic period. See my previous post for the reference.

    If you are going to claim that Hutton “categorically rejects” something, then perhaps you could be more specific about exactly what he rejects, and where exactly he has rejected it.

    As far as the cosmological beliefs of modern Pagans these have survived, intact, from those ideas found in Plato’s Timaeus, written about 2400 years ago. And the cosmology of the Timaeus is actually older than that, being already found in the teachings of the early Pythagoreans.

    The specific cosmological ideas I am referring to include:

    (1) that the physical universe is an orderly Whole, that is, a Kosmos.
    (2) that the Cosmos is blessed, divine, and ensouled.
    (3) that the Cosmos is a living being.
    (4) that this living being is conscious, intelligent, and purposeful in its actions.
    (5) that the Cosmos is populated by a variety of Divine beings including Gods and Daimones.
    (6) that the human soul is itself is a kind of divine being in it’s own right — that is, the human psyche (mind/soul) is of the same variety of being as the Gods.

    Other important modern Pagan/Hermetic concepts are also found in the Republic, Phaedo, Symposium and Meno — especially ideas related to reincarnation (metempsychosis) and the ascent of the soul to the Divine (a central concept of Hermeticism).

    The cosmology of Plato also serves as the theoretical foundations for Alchemy, Astrology, and, most importantly, sympathetic magic.

    In fact, the “sympathy” in sympathetic magic is derived from the Stoic school’s interpretation of Plato’s cosmology.

  • http://threeshoutsonahilltop.blogspot.com/ Gorm_Sionnach

    Well it could be pointed out that not all who refer to themselves as Pagans would accept those beliefs, but your point stands.

  • http://ianphanes.livejournal.com/ Ian Phanes

    Apuleius Platonicus wrote:

    “Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were all definitely polytheists. In fact, Plato’s Academy was home to shrines and altars for many different Deities, including Eros, the Muses, Athena, Herakles and Prometheus.”

    I noticed that you didn’t make the statement I suggested, “Plato was not a monotheist.” Rather, you made a statement on the lines of “Plato was a polytheist.” Many modern people assume that one cannot be both a monotheist and a polytheist, but I find that a questionable assumption.

    We have ask who they were referring to when they spoke/wrote about “ho theos”, and who they were referring to when they spoke/wrote about “hoi theoi”? They made a distinction, so I think we must assume that they meant something by that distinction.

    Would they have seen a contradiction between “I worship God” and “I worship the gods”? I don’t think so, but I’m biased, as I make both of those statements in my life.

  • http://druidjournal.net Jeff Lilly | Druid Journal

    Oh, c’mon, folks. I solved this whole issue earlier this year in my series of posts on defining paganism (Word Wrangling, Foundations of Word Meaning, and Prototypes of the Pagan). The meaning of “pagan” is a set of overlapping, closely related prototypes, including things like “polytheist”, “earth-centered”, “druid”, “witch”, “indigene”, and so on. The edges of the word are fuzzy (as with all words in all human languages), but the cluster of prototypes is specific enough that the word definitely has a meaning.

    I’m being a little snarky here. :-) Obviously I don’t think I wrote the last word on the subject. But given that the goal here is the same as mine — to give a descriptive definition — I’d be interested to hear what you thought.

  • http://inhumandecency.org/christine Helix (Christine Kraemer)

    > Descriptive, not ‘circumscriptive.’

    > That’s not a ‘problem,’ that’s our spirituality.

    Love this, Bookhousegal.

    I’m reiterating what others have said, but in explaining contemporary Paganism in an interfaith context, I tend to go for a Venn diagram approach: Pagans share a cluster of beliefs and practices, but not all Pagans believe or practice every element of that cluster.

    Here’s my elevator speech:

    Contemporary Paganism is a diverse religious movement whose members espouse some or all of the following religious views: They are polytheists (honoring many gods), pantheists (god is the world), and/or panentheists (god is in the world and the world is in god). Most worship a Goddess or goddesses as well as gods, honor the body and sexuality as sacred, and consider practices more important than beliefs. Pagans often celebrate the seasonal cycles and may use ecstatic techniques such as drumming, trance dancing, and chanting in their rituals. Some may also practice magick, which serves a similar purpose to prayer in the Abrahamic religions, but is generally more embodied in form.

    The next part of the discussion goes into “monism” or “animism,” but most of the time, I’ve gotten off the elevator by then. ;)

  • OwlofAthena

    Yes, I can confidently declare that Plato was NOT a monotheist.  The Good, is not GOD.  It’s an abstract, non-temporal concept.  Like a number.  Anyone who has spent a great deal of time studying Plato’s Metaphysics will tell you this.  Further, he wrote plenty about his belief in the Gods. Look at his writings on Atlantis for one example. 

  • OwlofAthena

    Yes, I can confidently declare that Plato was NOT a monotheist.  The Good, is not GOD.  It’s an abstract, non-temporal concept.  Like a number.  Anyone who has spent a great deal of time studying Plato’s Metaphysics will tell you this.  Further, he wrote plenty about his belief in the Gods. Look at his writings on Atlantis for one example. 

  • Debra Pico

    Just from a very innocent view I have always been “Pagan” Pagan is a reference to persons practices for as long as I can remember (Im 49 now). I attended classes in secret with my Mother at the Theosophical Society from a very young age while she was honing her Astrological skills. ( I say in secret simply because back then it was frowned upon)
    I grew up in a home that taught many things of many cultures up to and including what people term “Wiccan” (which bothers me to no end) Our teachings included things such as Meditation, Chanting, and yes even Prayer.
    I was taught things like Tarot, Healing by both mind and herbs….doesnt make me “Wiccan” or a “Witch” just Pagan.
    Why are so many people trying to tear apart and define what constitutes a “Pagan”
    It was the short sighted people of the day that called us “Pagans” 
    Today I still practice what I was taught, its who I am.
    I see our own Government fighting over peoples religion so my innocent question is why should it bother you what it means to anyone who calls themself a “Pagan”?
    In the grand scheme of things it doesnt affect any of you.


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