A New Look at the Pagan Umbrella

Who is Pagan exactly? It’s a question we’ve struggled with for decades. Often this questioned is answered by how people identify themselves. But Cara Schulz has taken a different approach. She looked around and tried to find which essential common factors existed in the Pagans she knew. And she came up with an intriguing theory.

Maybe she’s wrong. Maybe she’s right. Maybe you like the theory. Maybe you hate it. But you have to admit it’s fascinating to consider in all its implications.

Let me make four statements about Pagans, in general, and see if you agree with them.

Pagans …
Celebrate the Wheel of the Year and subscribe to left leaning politics.
or
Don’t celebrate the Wheel of the Year and subscribe to left leaning politics, but they probably aren’t very involved in the Pagan community.
or
Can even be atheists IF they subscribe to left leaning (especially environmental) politics.
or
If you Celebrate the Wheel of the Year, but don’t subscribe to Left leaning politics, you are on the fringe of the community, but still included.

When a subset of atheists (and I have nothing against them at all) are under a religious umbrella, you get the idea that religion is not the most important unifying feature of a group. The people who are active and thrive within the community are those celebrate the Wheel and are culturally left.

However, you are not part of the Pagan community if you …
Don’t celebrate the Wheel of the Year and don’t subscribe to left leaning politics.

Take a minute to consider this theory. Think about all the Pagans you know. Don’t think of how they identify, but how they really are. How many of them fit this reality map? Is it possible that though this may not be how we want to be, is this the way we really are?

Seriously take a moment to let this sink in. Let it marinate a minute. Go back and read Cara’s original post and the comments attached.

Now if this theory is valid, if it holds water, if this dog will hunt, then that brings up some important points to my way of thinking:

Most cultures attached to religions are dependent upon and secondary to the religion. If Paganism is primarily cultural/social/political, then in honest interfaith dialogue is Paganism as an identity useless?

If you identify as primarily religious, and secondarily a cultural Pagan, does that put you on the fringe of the Pagan community?

Is our cultural emphasis, rather than religious emphasis, the key factor in Paganism steadfastly remaining an amorphous, undefined community?

We talk about orthopraxy being preferable to the dogmatism that can come from orthodoxy, but is it time to recognize that the myth of orthopraxy (i.e. the Wheel of the Year) can be just as dogmatic?

Is more useful for us to abandon the shallow, inaccurate “Pagan umbrella” and chose rather to represent ourselves more authentically? Is the umbrella more honest and powerful than separate allies working towards agreed goals?

Does taking honest stock of our differences and recognizing them openly make us weaker, or stronger?

I’m trying to reason out the answers to these questions. I will likely find new questions. What I do know is that this image disturbs me, and it mostly disturbs me because I think it might be right.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/EdAHubbard Ed Hubbard

    Wow, this will be another round of discussion of this. as one who celebrates the Wheel of the Year, I can see the definition. But as far as left leaning politics, not me. I am not right leaning either, as I am a radical technologist in my political outlook. Now again there will be many of the right (hate the term) who have Pagan beliefs who will likely scream over this. But it is a useful model to begin with.

  • http://profiles.google.com/cprsource Peter Dybing

    This is interesting but seems to reflect a thinking/belief modality that I as a Pagan do not subscribe to. There is no need for a dialectical thinking on these issues. Right vs. left, the wheel vs. not, reflect a world view that is not part of my Pagan belief. Yes, I find it hard to understand those in the community who support conservative causes when it is clear that conservatives are currently highly influenced by draconian religious groups. Yet, this does not prevent me from viewing my Pagan conservative  sisters and brothers as  ”Pagan”  The old and tired model of black and white thinking does not serve our community well.  

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      But right there you’re promoting orthodoxy, aka right VS wrong thinking.

      • http://profiles.google.com/cprsource Peter Dybing

        I see no right or wrong in this, only evaluate how helpful such modalities are. Those who wish to adhere to such modalities are free to do so. They are not “wrong” in approach. My opinions are not “right” either, just my opinions.

        • http://twitter.com/Will_Dees Will Dees

          Agreed. The late great Isaac Bonewits often spoke about his opposition to dualistic thinking, i.e. “wheel of the year or not,” etc.  There’s always a 3rd option, and setting up boundaries of left vs right, wheel vs no wheel, etc is limiting. 

          Let the Christians have their “either/or” mentality. As pantheists/polytheists/religious minorities of whatever flavor, we should be more comfortable with a wider variety of expression. 

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            So how do you participate in the discussion? Other than saying the discussion is wrong?

          • http://twitter.com/Will_Dees Will Dees

            if someone identifies as pagan, then I consider them pagan. Just let people come as they are.  Not my business telling other people who they are or are not.

            Now, a ‘pagan’ is probably going to have a nature-centered religious belief, and I think that’s the only identifying mark of a pagan–and not solely worshipping the deity of a specific non-pagan religion (I’ve heard of Christo-Pagans, but I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole :P )

            I imagine that the only people who are going to self-identify as pagan are going to generally be pagan. A Christian *most likely* isn’t going to do that.  But setting up rigid categories of “you either believe x,y, and/or z or you’re not in the club” is neither helpful nor positive. We don’t need an Inquisition.

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            No one is suggesting an Inquisition.

            So if an atheistic Satanist who is ultra-conservative and against enviromentalism chooses to identify as Pagan, they are?

            In that case, the label Pagan still has no meaning. It’s useless, because it inherently has no meaning.

          • http://twitter.com/Will_Dees Will Dees

            repeating this bit because it was apparently skipped over: 

            “Now, a ‘pagan’ is probably going to have a nature-centered religious belief, and I think that’s the only identifying mark of a pagan–and not solely worshipping the deity of a specific non-pagan religion (I’ve heard of Christo-Pagans, but I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole :P )”

            I think that having a nature-centered belief system is one of the few definable absolutes of a pagan belief system. A conservative Satanist (a phrase which makes no sense, btw, as Satanists veer towards the Other, and not tradition) who abhors environmentalism is not a pagan, IMO, and most likely would not self-identify as such.  If they did, I assure you my eyebrow would raise in skepticism. 

            Satanists use the imagery and mythology of Christianity–they invert it, but they’re still operating on that paradigm (Satan is a deity from a different religion, and, when taken in the theistic sense he’s the sole deity; in the atheistic sense, he’s a symbol of individualism).  So your example basically fails on both points I suggested as identifying traits of a pagan, which it seems you ignored completely.

            Paganism is, to me (UPG alert) a wholly different way of looking at the world. I think that yes, if someone calls themselves a pagan then we can accept that, as it’s unlikely anybody NOT a pagan would consider themselves pagan. With all the religious diversity accepted in this community (the variety of pantheons worshipped), I think it’s OK to accept a cultural diversity–you may be completely and utterly different from me in outlook on life, but we’re still pagan. 

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            But we’re not all nature-based. You can’t use broad generalizations. You can talk in terms of majorities, but there is no one-size-fits-all factor.

          • http://twitter.com/Will_Dees Will Dees

            Interesting. What non-nature based pagan belief systems are there? 

            Always interested in learning something new :)

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            Some Recons. Some magical orders. I think T. Thorn Coyle led a panel on this. Lon Milo DuQuette was one of the participants who did not identify as earth-based.

          • Anna Korn

            If you are capitalizing Christian and other religions’ names, will you PLEASE do the same for Pagan? One of my pet peeves….

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

            Not all of us think of paganism as a religion.  I see it as an umbrella, and so I don’t capitalize it.  I also don’t capitalize monotheism or polytheism or animism or any other umbrella term.

            I do capitalize Wicca, Druidism, Asatru, and other pagan traditions because they are proper nouns, not umbrella terms.

          • http://twitter.com/ouranophobe Áine

            “there is no one-size-fits-all factor.”

            … but isn’t that the foundational premise of this theory?  That either the “Pagan umbrella” fits all “sizes” of Paganism, or it’s basically a meaningless term?

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

            You missed the word “factor.”  The umbrella is large enough to include all of paganism, but not based on any single factor.

  • David Pollard

    For nearly every non-monotheistic faith in the world, theology takes a back seat to practice. So trying to define Paganism by the theological “consistency” of it’s adherents is not going to be very effective. Saying that we follow a “wheel of the year” (all be it the wheel may look a bit different in different places) puts us on common ground with other “non-Neo” forms of Paganism like Hinduism and Shinto.
    On politics however, living in the South, you will find LOTS of Pagans at festivals who subscribe to quite conservative (even Libertarian) economic policies. However I would agree that nearly all Pagans share liberal/Progressive political views on Social Issues, ie church-state separation, the inclusion of GBLT in all aspects of society, and reproductive choice.

  • Kathryn Hinds

    The first questions Cara’s theory brings up for me are:
    *Do* all Pagans celebrate the Wheel of the Year?
    What is the working definition of “Wheel of the Year” here?

    If the answer to the first question is yes, the answer to the second question becomes particularly interesting and important. What is generally understood as the Wheel of the Year is originally a Wiccan construct that combines the equinoxes and solstices with the Celtic fire festivals. This particular cycle of holidays has been adopted by a great many Pagans, but there are certainly many traditions to which it would not apply–Norse, Kemetic, and Hellenic spring readily to mind….

    I’m also not sure it’s true that “most cultures attached to religions are dependent upon and secondary to the religion.” If this were an essay that I was grading, I would comment, “This assertion needs evidence to support it.” :-)   My own sense, from my reading of history, is that religion is embedded in culture in a variety of complex ways. Even the practices and beliefs of the monotheistic world religions have been hugely influenced by other aspects of culture, and religion has been coopted to support aspects of culture that have nothing to do with the actual teachings of the religion. For example, Muhammad praised the learned women of Mecca and exhorted all his followers, men and women both, to seek learning, “even as far as China.” If cultures such as that of the Taliban were truly “dependent upon and secondary to the religion,” would observant Muslims throw acid at girls to stop them from going to school?

    Admittedly, this example is problematic in that many followers of the Taliban and their ilk are unable to read the Qur’an and haditha for themselves, so they may not actually know the authentic teachings of their religion–but this is certainly not a situation unique to Islam. The majority of people in most societies generally, it seems, do not have a deep knowledge of religion, for a gamut of reasons ranging from illiteracy to simple disinterest or laziness. This makes it easy for those with power to manipulate religious belief for their own purposes. Rule by divine right, anyone? Or how about the hundreds of years during which Christian nations and individuals maintained that slavery was perfectly acceptable because it was in the Bible? The examples are numerous, and could be drawn from a great many times and places. The confusion of religion, social mores, and political/economic interest with one another has been a fairly constant feature of human history–but I think I’ve digressed from the discussion you proposed, so I’ll end now!

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Of course not everyone who identifies as Pagan celebrates the Wheel of the Year. Cara’s assertion is that the majority do, and that looking at Paganism it’s a clear common factor in who is perceived as Pagan and who is not.

      When I’m speaking of culture attached to religion, I mean religious culture. Can you be a cultural Christian participating in Christian culture without identifying with the religion? I’m betting most of the people who listen to Casting Crowns identify religiously as Christians. In the same way, how many atheists make the trek to Mecca for cultural reasons? Judaism may be the closest example, but even then, how many non-religious Jews celebrate Sukkot?

      • jdhortwort

        “Can you be a cultural Christian participating in Christian culture without identifying with the religion?”
        Yes. My mother did until the day she died. She did not go to church, she did not have a high opinion of of what she called “rainy day Christians” or tv evangelists, etc. She did adhere to the basic tenets of charity, “do until others…,” concepts of heaven, major holiday observances, etc that seem to make up the basis of Southern Christian faith.

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

          So she identified with the Christian religion, but not any denomination? I’m looking for an example like being a fan of Christian bands while not believing in Jesus Christ, or being an atheist and serving as a deacon.

          • Anna Korn

            Lots of Jews don’t seem very religious, but many of them do participate in cultural festivities like Sukkot or lighting the Menorah. I even know Pagans who do these things to participate in Jewish culture, even though they are not religiously Jewish.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            There was an atheist archbishop in the Anglican church in England–I can’t remember if he was of Canterbury or York, but when York Minster was struck by lightning and burned in the late 80s/early 90s, some said it was because of that!

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

    Left/Right politics have nothing to do with Paganism. Nothing whatsoever.

    Personal freedom, on the other hand, has everything to do with Paganism. A major problem that mucks things up is that “lefties” tend to think that they have a monopoly on being the true defenders of personal freedom, and so do “righties”.

    • http://roguepriest.net/ Drew Jacob

      I think that’s disingenuous. If you stood at a Pagan Pride fest and polled people, I think you would find that the majority have left-leaning views. And if you spend time hanging out with a group of left-leaning people, they are going to make comments, jokes and statements that will be very uncomfortable for anyone right-leaning.

      In that regard, the Pagan community – although very welcoming in general – does indeed tend to filter away people with conservative politics, and reinforce a left-leaning core group. Pagan religions and progressive politics are closely linked.

      • PhaedraHPS

        I wouldn’t go so far as to say “closely linked” but the overlap is noticeable, and, as you observe, casual comments and jokes usually assume a left-leaning audience. Not always, but an awful lot.

        This may be because the American founders of many contemporary forms of Paganism came to their majority in the 1960s, and brought their politics with them as they built a religion that was to their liking. Thus, if you are at all left-leaning it is very easy to support your positions religiously.

        In other words, you young ‘uns are just following in the footsteps of a bunch of old hippies. Like me. ;-)

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

        It’s not disingenuous at all. I am very left-leaning myself, and I feel very comfortable around the typical Obama supporting progressive Pagan crowd, and I feel very uncomfortable around most, but not all, rightist Pagans.

        But there is no deep connection between the contemporary “left”, such as it is, and Paganism. Leftists are far more likely to Atheist or Christian than Pagan, and many leftists, even if they are not particularly militant Atheists or Christians are often very hostile and even insulting to Pagans and Paganism. Look at the reaction among “progressives” to Christine O’donnell’s “I’m not a Witch” brouhaha. And also look at the way that Paul Krugman and other lefties use “voodoo” as a synonym for evil nonsensical bullshit. And also look at the way most lefties fall all over themselves trying to convince everyone that Sharia (which unambiguously means a death sentence for all Pagans and LGBT people and slavery for all women) is really no big deal and nothing to worry about.

        Historically, going back to the Enlightenment, one can make an argument for a connection between Paganism and the anti-clerical left. But the anti-clerical left is dead, and all that remains of it are the New Atheist blowhards, who are far more hostile to Paganism than they are to Christianity (because they consider belief in Magic to be the root of all evil).

    • Anna Korn

      Bravo!

  • http://roguepriest.net/ Drew Jacob

    Cara is mostly correct. However, I think she also has strong feelings against atheists being part of a religion, which I feel are unfounded.

    Atheists, in the strict sense of the word, don’t believe that gods exist. Some atheists however still practice religions, because of the many wonderful positive things religion offers besides belief in the gods.

    A few religions, such as Buddhism, even officially teach that their gods may not be real. Others, like Hinduism, often treat cultural traditions as more important than personal belief, so you can still practice it without believing the gods are real.Many branches of neopaganism take the same approach. So does Seancreideamh (Irish polytheism). So does the Heroic Life. 
    The reality is, atheists can be religious and some religions gladly accept them.  
    From both what she’s written and comments in our personal conversation, that reality really bothers Cara. And I think that weakens her analysis here.

    That said, I would say her diagram is right on.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      There are a lot of changes happening regarding atheists and religion, and some of the most dramatic are happening in Pagan communities. Non-theistic nature religion is just one example, and the push for humanist chaplains is another. It’s a huge topic.

      • http://roguepriest.net/ Drew Jacob

        Yes. And personally I would say that ancient polytheistic religions tended to lean toward inclusion of atheists. When you think about Classical Greece, religion has a strong social/cultural role and carrying on the traditions was likely more important than personal faith. Likewise, priests & philosophers taught that the myths were metaphors, which opens the door to viewing the gods as metaphorical as well.

        In other words, Pagan traditions that fail to be atheist-inclusive may be taking a step backwards. 

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

          Not all priests and philosophers. I’ve been reading Iamblichus, whose family had been in the priesthood for generations, and he certainly does not lean that way. I don’t think Eleusis or Delphi would have been considered inclusive of atheists. There are just as many ancient arguments for the existence of the Gods as there are for their being metaphors.

          • http://roguepriest.net/ Drew Jacob

            Yes, and that’s my point. There were multiple theologies, no one of which had dominance; to me that’s the great strength of polytheism. Once even a few priests present the myths as metaphorical, the idea is out there.

            That said, I’m not sure you’re reading me right – are you saying Iamblichus believed that he could climb the mountain named Olympus and knock on a physical door to see Zeus? That Hades was a rapist? And that crickets are tiny, shriveled up human beings?

            Because if he didn’t believe those things, then he did not take a literal reading of the myths. In general, viewing the myths as literally true was mocked in ancient Greece and Rome, from all that I’ve read. Sort of the opposite bias of Evangelical Christianity. 

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            Regarding the myths as literal truth, and believing the Gods exist are two different things.

          • http://roguepriest.net/ Drew Jacob

            Yes. That is why I said doubting one opens the door to doubting the other, not that they are the same.

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

            There is a great deal of difference between interpreting myths with layers of meaning and “doubting” them. Are you familiar with poetry? Are you familiar with something called “the imagination”? Are you a robot?

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

          “priests & philosophers taught that the myths were metaphors”

          Please produce a single instance in which an ancient Greek philosopher or priest ever said that the Gods are not “real” but only “metaphors”. And please note that I am only asking for one single example of what you imply was a widespread phenomenon.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-H-Halstead/1170545330 John H Halstead

            “Now these things never happened, but always are.”
            (i.e., myth never happened, yet it happens every day)
             – Sallustius, writing on myth (4th c. Rome)

            Xenophanes is quoted arguing against the conception of gods as fundamentally anthropomorphic: “But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.”

      • http://www.blackpagan.com/ blackpagan

        Pantheism with a pagan flavor. 

        Just wanna plug the blog at humanisticpaganism.com for a minute (with which I’m not affiliated) as there has been an ongoing and interesting discussion there recently on erasing the false dichotomy between science and religion.

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

          But that’s still a theism.

          I agree. Fantastic blog.

    • Templearckanum
      • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

        Consider this a spam warning. You only get one.

    • Templearckanum

      I know that atheists tend not to take the ontological approach and ask themselves if they assume too much about what a god or goddess is. They follow religious notions of what a god or goddess is blindly, but will question every other aspect of that religion that they disagree with.

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

      It’s also worth pointing out that many traditional paganisms were atheist, in the strict sense of the term.  Most of the Native cultures in what’s now the United States did not include any concept of gods.  Ancestors, yes.  Nature spirits, lots of them.  But no gods.   The same is true in much of Africa and Australia.

      Most of the atheist pagans I know are animists, and they are much more nature focused than I ever will be.

      • Adon

        Wrong.
        First of all, how can animism be equated with atheism?

        Second, the line between deities, nature spirits and divinized ancestors  for most indigenous cultures was very thin. In many religions, one word was used to describe all the unseen forces including spirits and deities.

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

          The strict definition of “atheism” is not believing in or worshiping one or more gods.  I am close to multiple modern pagan animists who explicitly state that their paganism does not include gods.  They tend not to participate in group rituals because most group rituals in modern paganism are gods-focused.  I think they would be more likely to participate if they knew that ancestors and nature spirits would also be included in a meaningful way.

          To continue to discuss the role–or lack thereof–of gods in various indigenous cultures would require a great deal more detail than is appropriate here.  If you ever happen to be in Champaign, Illinois, I’d be happy to meet you for coffee to discuss it.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I like and respect Cara a great deal, but I think this particular discussion is premised on a few things that don’t necessarily hold up.

    I think that Cara is mistaking a demographic reality for a definitional reality.  Yes, a lot of people who identify as Pagan observe the (eight-spoked) Wheel of the Year; and yes, a lot of Pagans tend to be more politically progressive.  However, neither one of those things defines “Pagan” in any comprehensive, or even superficial, fashion.  They are several options among many that can be a part of one’s own Pagan path, but they’re by no means required.

    This would be like saying that in order to be Christian, one must go to church on Christmas and Easter and hate gay people and abortionists.  Yes, many Christians do go to church on Christmas and Easter particularly, but not all–in fact, I’ve known some who go pretty much every week on Sunday, but they often don’t go on those two “big” days because the place gets crowded with the once-a-year churchgoers.  Also, many Christians do hate gay people and abortionists, but many don’t, or they have more nuanced views of those particular groups of people apart from sheer and outright hatred.

    If one then went on to say, in the Christian example above, that “If a Christian goes to church on Easter and Christmas, but doesn’t hate gay people and abortionists, they’re probably at the fringe of the community,” etc., as Cara’s article did with her two main characteristics of Paganism, you’d see how rather inaccurate it is to take a demographic reality as a definitional one–probably for any religion one could name.

    No matter how open the modern Pagan communities are, there are certain people who are going to feel excluded from them for some reason or other, and will choose to focus on that exclusion and highlight it, rather than to just accept that there are differences and get on with whatever the beneficial interactions with the larger community are going to happen to be.  I think highlighting “cultural” versus “religious” emphases is also not that useful in this discussion, since you can’t really remove one from the other in many cases–there are cultural Jews who are atheists, and there are even cultural Christians who are atheists (they’re called Anglicans!–just joking, though I know many who fit that description)–and whether it is “right” or “good” to have people who are atheists be participants in a religio-cultural community or not is really not a question people in a religion of practice and experience should be too concerned over, at least in my understanding.

    No, I don’t celebrate the Wheel of the Year, though I do have a yearly cycle of festivals that is important and complex (but many of the most important ones aren’t on that eight-spoked “Wheel” model), and that is a major dividing line between me and many other types of Pagan.  Yes, I do have left-leaning politics, but I rarely if ever bond with people in the larger Pagan community over those matters; and, in fact, on a great many of them, I’d clash with them more often than I’d concord with them.  I can choose to make these things a huge issue, and I can choose to couple these characteristics with my definitions of a community, but why?  There is no necessity to do so, and thus I don’t think it is at all useful.  These particular characteristics can be coupled with definitions, but because they don’t have to be, I don’t see why there is any insistence–or, that there should even be a suggestion–that they must be.

    Let me close by saying:  if other Pagans are making Cara feel bad or excluded because she’s a Hellenismos practitioner (i.e. non-Wheel of the Year) and she’s more conservative than liberal, then other Pagans should feel ashamed for doing that, as Cara is engaged in some very important work that benefits lots of Pagans (e.g. the Pagan Newswire Collective, Pagan Pride Day, etc.).  If Cara, however, is feeling excluded and has drawn up this working definition in order to definitively prove how “un-Pagan” she is…then, why?  Since you’ve drawn the “umbrella” in this example, why must you make it not cover you?  That just leaves you all wet, and do you really want that?

    • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

      This, 100% agree!

    • Cara

       I don’t feel bad and I’m not left out to get wet.  Heh.  There wasn’t a motive other than pondering what makes a Pagan a Pagan?  What are the ties that bind a community together?  If Pagan is an umbrella term, what does it cover?

      Unlike Christians we don’t have a dogmatic tie – Jesus is the son of God and their Savior – so what is it?  What are our points of commonalities?

      I’m not a fan of using negatives as points of interest (Well…we aren’t Jews, Muslims, or Christians…)

      You’re right that I’m using a demographic reality as a definition because I find demos of a group to often be the most revealing of definition of a group.   And that’s what we are looking to define here – a group, not a religion.  A group isn’t what it says it is…it is what it is (Any fans of Parmenides here?).    In other words, the group is defined by the points of commonality of the individuals.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Fair enough–thank you for clarifying!

        I wonder if the ultimate, lowest-common-denominator thing that brings us all together is that we’ve self-selected as Pagans, no matter what anything else might be in terms of our own definitions or theologies or interests or involvements.

        Unfortunately, that’s not very interesting, but it’s probably about as close as we might get…!?!

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

          But that does nothing to explain exactly who Pagans are and what makes someone Pagan.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            True–but, I don’t know if we’ll ever really find anything out by trying to isolate any individual characteristics in that manner, as those will always leave some people out or not account for certain things.  If we have a simple demographic study, that might be one thing…

            But, what makes us “Pagan”?  That we are–isn’t that enough?  No one who doesn’t want to be Pagan is Pagan, and everyone who would like to be is, and I think that’s great.

            Considering that many people in other religions, and even in political groups, nationalities, and other such groupings of people often can’t even decide whether those who aren’t of their group are even human, I’m very happy not being too neat about who is and isn’t “in” and in holding up some things over others in terms of defining what is constitutive of one’s Paganism.

          • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

            “I’m very happy not being too neat about who is and isn’t “in” and in
            holding up some things over others in terms of defining what is
            constitutive of one’s Paganism.”

            But we already do this. How many describe Paganism as joining in a circle to celebrate the wheel of the year, or in raising energy on the full moon? PantheaCon may be the one large Pagan event where Wiccanate Paganism isn’t the wall-to-wall norm.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            Forgive my befuddlement–as to your question, I’m not sure if one “should” describe it that way, or if one “shouldn’t”…?!?

            You have cited one of the reasons that I do like PantheaCon; but, most of the “opening/closing,” and many of the other aspects of the festival, do still somewhat assume default Wicca of some shape or other.  (It’s why I don’t go to the opening/closing any longer–I was asked to do something in the closing the first year I went, and no one seemed to get it nor respond to it, even though I was told I should do whatever I’d do for my own tradition at that point.  So much for that…!?!)

          • http://hellenicpolytheist.wordpress.com/ Pythia Theocritos

            This is one of the main reasons those pagans on the “fringe” of the pagan community tend to shy away from it labeling ourselves as part of the pagan community. The assumption that we are all liberal, feminist, pro-LGBT, Caucasian, Wiccans gets tiresome and the demand that we ALL “respect” the religious path, sometimes rampant culture appropriation, and willful ignorance found in the greater Neo-Pagan community while also facing the expectation of conformity is the reality those outside of the “pagan poster child” norm face.

            Most “community projects” supposedly aimed at the pagan community are really aimed at the “core group” that make up said community. When the primary way of becoming a contributing member of a pagan organization is attending celebrations and rituals, and none of those rituals or celebrations are actually IN your religion; how are you supposed to feel?

            If you can’t have a political or social conversation without someone calling you a fascist, homophobic, or a “like a Christian” where does that leave the ability to converse?

            Despite what we may want “pagan” to mean we have to look at the reality of what it actually IS as of now.  From there we have to unpack of knapsack of the pagan community and face up to what we are and who can we be.

            Personally, I would prefer that “pagan” simply represent a religious group as I don’t like to mix politics with my religion, or anyone elses, but before we can focus on what we can be, should be, will be; we need to focus on who, and what, we actually are in our entirety.

          • kenneth

            It’s hard for me to see this as a dilemma anymore. What makes someone Pagan? I would have to conclude most of it rests on self-identity. If your belief systems are not clearly defined as Abrahamic or as some other well-defined world religion, if they share some theological commonality with known pagan paths and if you want to identify as pagan, you’re in. If not, it’s no great loss to either party. 

            If someone, or a whole trad of someones on a pagan-ish path says they don’t want to be thought of as pagan, I don’t see a problem. That doesn’t mean we can’t work together where we see a shared political goal. Hell, some of the best work that gets done on freedom of religion and church-state separation is done by an alliance of Quakers, Baptists, atheists AND pagans! In the 95%+ of day to day life where we don’t have common interests, why try to force it? 

  • Natalie Reed

    What about just broadening the base and saying that Pagans are those who honor the pre-monotheistic faiths of their ancestors? This term would then include those who do not follow the Wheel, but who I think still are often considered or identify as Pagan (Egyptian, Shinto, Native American, Hindu, etc). It would likely not include Satanists, who follow the Judeo/Christian mythos.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Because not all do. Some Pagans are completely “new” in most every sense, and even reject the Paganism of the past as barbaric.

      We cannot ever say “All Pagans are X” but it may be possible to say that the reality of our community is that the majority of Pagans have these factors in common.

      • Natalie Reed

        But does it not in some way connect to the faith of ancestors even if those ancestors are only spiritual in nature? I guess I have not had any contact with Pagans who do not connect with the past in one way or another. I think we can agree that there were barbaric practices – no more than any other faith system (was Christ not a human sacrifice?)

    • Cara

      Most Native Americans and Hindus have fairly strong negative reaction to being called pagan, but I get where you are going and that’s as valid a proposal as any other.

      • Natalie Reed

        Thank you Cara – I have always been curious as to why the negative reaction from some Native Americans, or other indiginous faith practitioners to the term “Pagan”, especially when it seems that in nearly every respect they are practicing a faith not so far removed from modern Paganism. Having attended a few Native American rituals (though I am certainly no expert), they were so clearly related to modern pagan practice, I could not help but think they sprang from the same, universal ancient indiginous practice.

        • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

          It’s likely because the term “Pagan” was used as a pejorative term to denigrate native faiths, culture and practices for most of last century.  Then, from the sixties onward, people who were hungry for a tribalism of their own appropriated first nations’ religious rites.  Left a bad taste.

  • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    I think that in defining “Pagan” under this umbrella we’re mostly stating characteristics of neo-Pagans and Wiccans who are educated in liberal arts and who attend religious events, and who read these Pagan oriented news blogs.

    It doesn’t really describe those of older continuous traditions or syncretic religions, those who are educated in skilled trades, and who don’t interact with the Pagan news sources or larger events.

    My definition would be thus: 

    1. A Pagan is someone who honors nature and / or older forms of Deity or spirit.  This includes spirit beings, ancestors, elements or other non-corporeal entities.  Some actually worship them, or revere them, while some don’t believe at all.

    2. A Pagan recognizes some type of universal force or energy, commonly called “magick”.  This includes or is not limited to divination, manipulating energies for a cause or purpose, and spiritual attunement.  A Pagan often believes he or she has the ability to interact with said forces, or at least an awareness of them.

    3.  A Pagan often, not always, celebrates holidays related to the cycles of nature, farming or seasons, or those which have cultural relevance, such as birth dates of ancestors.  (Not necessarily the “Wheel of the Year”; When doing the News for Pagans, I was surprised to find how many harvest holidays in Asia there are in January and February.  Well, duh, that is when their rice crop comes ripe.)

    4. A Pagan usually, not always believes that life is continuous, and that there is some type of afterlife.  This is not usually based on reward and punishment, but on learning and evolving.

    5.  A Pagan often, not always has a goal of attaining some type of spiritual betterment, such as enlightenment or attunement.

    Please put the qualifier in front of each statement “Some but not all”. 

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      I think a lot of people are missing the point that Cara’s argument is not to define Paganism as who we want to be or how we would like to imagine ourselves, but by looking at what we really are. Her diagram is reflective of the reality of our community, not the ideal.

      • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

        And again, I’d say Cara is defining a narrow group of Pagans, those who are educated in college with a liberal arts curriculum, who read these news and commentary blogs, who attend festivals and Pagan Pride events, and who celebrate the neo-Pagan holidays.  My definition encompasses everyone who self-defines as Pagan or whose religion or belief system is usually broadly defined as Pagan.  The Pagans who live in Polynesia fit most of my criteria.  The Shamanic tribal people who live in South America fit most of my criteria, as do the Shinto, the indigenous European Pagans (eastern and western), West Asians who aren’t Muslim, etc.  Most of ‘em have an awareness of natural forces, celebrate natural events, believe in an afterlife, and so forth.

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

          But how many of them identify as Pagan? You’re imposing a label on them they likely would not choose themselves.

          Everyone can say they are funny. Does this mean everyone is funny?

          • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

            Up until the 1970s, the label Pagan was only used by Christians, Jews and Muslims to define those of indigenous religions.  People who were of pre-Christian faiths normally didn’t use it at all.  Most folks defined as Pagan have their own cultural name for themselves.  I didn’t use that label myself, until encountering neo-Pagans in the 80s.   It’s pretty much an invented term, credited to Mr. Bonewits.  Yet it’s a good a word as any for an umbrella term.

             It’s like the word “Indian”.  The folks here in MI called themselves “Anishnabec”.  Some have rejected the label.  Does that mean they’re not now defined as Indians by the overculture? 

            Does that mean that the Sami, the Tongans, the Cymru, the Jeju and the Ifa folks ain’t really Pagan?  Some call themselves by that term.  And some don’t.

            If you wanna define the umbrella as American neo-Pagan, then yeah, the umbrella likely applies.

            Now, on to the argument that liberal politics are “progressive”… progressive means making progress, moving forward, no?  >;-)

  • Anna Korn

    Your sampling may be skewed. Strange as it may be to the rest of us, our community does contain social conservatives, Republicans, and right-leaning Libertarians. It contains a lot of folks with those values who may not have classified themselves on a political scale–the Johnson for Prresident supporters, for instance. Then there are some real right wingers, mainly in Asatru. Some of these people are scary mercenary soldiers and white power types. Don’t fool yourselves. If you don’t pick these people up, then your sampling is skewed… Just as Helen Berger’s is in not detecting older members in covens and other groups in her census. The spectrum is quite broad, even if it is thin on the extremes.

    • Cara

       Well – I’m a Conservative and I wrote this.  My sampling does include right-leaning Pagans.  But I’m not looking at this in a purely political way, but a cultural and social context.  (Which we tend to express through politics)

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    The author seems to be equating “Pagan” with “Wiccan”.  As you can see by her mention of Heathens building strong communities that are separate from the Pagan world.  I’m not sure about that strict separation, and then what do you call the whole group of new religious movements that include Heathens, Wiccans, Kemetics, etc? 

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Some people are choosing to identify as polytheist rather than Pagan. It specifies a particular type of religion without the cultural overtones.

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

        The problem with using polytheism as an umbrella term is that it explicitly excludes anyone whose cosmology includes spirits but not gods.  Which excludes some of the experienced members of my pagan community.

        • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

          Right, it can only be an umbrella term for polytheists. It’s very specific, and I think that’s why it’s gaining popularity.

  • Jason White

    Cross posted to Cara’s original post:

    I increasingly feel that “Paganism”, the word itself and the implications it holds, is a problem within our larger community. Personally, I think we as a community should think of our faiths as “Pagan religions,” to clearly spell out that “Pagan” is a faith grouping in the same way that Dharmic or Abrahamic are. Our touchstone, similarly, should be neither orthodoxic nor orthopraxic, but instead rely on orthogenesis (orthography?) –our shared origins in the ethnic faiths of Europe and the Near East. I realize this post is about the demographics of the “Pagan” community, but I can’t help but feel like the way we commonly define the umbrella leaves out those that aren’t comfortable with ambiguities –or worse, allows the umbrella to be accidentally hijacked by it’s largest group.

    If our faith group doesn’t have clear boundaries, then the word “Pagan” is meaningless. Every faith that might be “left out” has it’s own larger name for it’s family of faiths, along the same lines of orthogenesis/orthography. Native American faiths, African faiths, African Diasporic faiths, Dharmic faiths, Chinese faiths, etc. all deserve recognition of their origins and independent theologies — as well as our support/alliance as minority faiths with similar theologies.

  • Matthaios

    One of my first thoughts to this umbrella that guys like Gerald Gardner would not be considered Pagan. If I remember correctly, he was what many of us would now consider “conservative” and prior to about 1957 (according to Fred Lamond), Wiccans only celebrated the four cross-quarter Sabbats.

    I’m inclined to think that a Pagan is one who identifies as Pagan.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Right, I think it’s commonly accepted that Valiente introduced the solstices and equinoxes to Wicca. Of course, there are many traditional Witches and Wiccans who will insist they are not Pagan. I know a few who feel that way.

  • Kenny Klein

    When I came into the modern Pagan community, in the late 1970s, the term Pagan commonly meant Wiccan, Druid, or some other identifiable tradition. Most Pagans I met were in covens or orders (groves were something new, and I was close friends with PEI as he was creating ADF Druidry). There was a strong sense of Pagan religion or spirituality, and few people I met identified as Pagan if they did not have that sense of spiritual involvement.
     Things changed drastically by the ’90s, with the coming of eclectic/solitary Paganism (eliminating any type of standard or codification from Pagan beliefs), Pagan festivals and gatherings which began by the Millennium to overlap with such non-Pagan events as Burning Man and Rainbow (which seem identical to one who is not involved with the community), and the ease of finding Pagan communities and events by Internet. These factors seem to have opened the term Pagan to interpretation by people coming from many views and orientations, many of whom saw Paganism as simply a community of party goers, fire dancers/drummers, or hippies. The spiritual focus became less and less evident at festivals and events; ritual, once the unifying factor in Pagan worship, became in many cases a “scripted” event akin to a New Year’s celebration or a child’s birthday party (in the sense that “scripting” made ritual similar in feel each time, but hard to identify as a spiritual activity in various cases). 
    Currently the term Pagan has become so widespread, and so diffused, that I believe it has lost any meaning as an identification for a spiritual community. The original Paganism that came to North America in the 60s and 70s, Wicca and Witchcraft, are often sneered at by modern Pagans (in my very real experience), and the other original (American born) Paganism,  Dianic Witchcraft, seems to have taken on such an amorphous political cast that in many cases the spirituality is lost: Goddess Worship becomes a political statement and nothing more. (All of this in my own experience as a Pagan elder, teacher,author  and entertainer who has been involved in Pagan festivals, events and community for 30 years). 
    In the end, I feel that the term Pagan is a meaningless identifier unless combined with some qualifying term, such as Wiccan, Druid, Witch, or even, in my Girlfriend’s case, Pirate… these show some sense of Pagan meaning a spiritual or community identification, rather that simply “Pagan means what I want it to mean.” And yes, there are those who will respond “Pagan can be what the individual wants it to be,” but I counter that in that case, the word, and by default ALL words we might use, become meaningless. For Pagan to have a role in conversation, it MUST have a common definition. Sadly, it no longer does.

    • PhaedraHPS

      When I came into the community in the mid-eighties, we did have a class of people who were generally referred to as “party Pagans.” They were the ones who came to the festivals because being Pagan meant sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, nothing more.

      In those days, the religiously-inclined Pagans seemed to have more of a sense of history than you find now. There was a bit of an SCA vibe perhaps, but at least in the Chicago community, scholarship was genuinely valued and scholars were respected. Now, people who study occult history are old-fashioned oddballs, and who the heck is Gerald Gardner, anyway?

      In those days, a Solitary was most often someone who either wanted to be
      in a group but hadn’t found one yet, or had been in a group but had
      relocated or otherwise was not able to continue with their group. A few
      people didn’t want to have anything to do with groups, but, as we might
      remark, that often had as much to do with their own disfunctions as with any
      group disfunctions. Ah, well.

      Ok, this is starting to sound like “you kids, get off my grove” but there is no doubt that as the community has become larger, it has also become more diffuse and much more shallow. It may be the inevitable result of the popularization of anything.

      I don’t begrudge people looking to be Beltane/Samhain Pagans; providing ritual for them was my first vocation. I have some reservations about Internet-only Pagans, and (for lack of a better word) aggressively solitary Pagans. (“I don’t need nobody else to tell me what to do!”) I don’t know how that creates or maintains any kind of community. It’s sham community.


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