Defining Paganism and Neopaganism

Defining Paganism and Neopaganism September 19, 2012

I can’t believe I am diving into this linguistic swamp again, but here goes. Recently, I’ve been engaging in some online discussions with polytheists and the “Pagan enough” debate was aroused, of course, and it got me thinking.

One person in particular, L.S.,  insisted that the term “Pagan” is meaningless and should be abandoned — an argument that I find particularly frustrating as someone who identifies primarily as Pagan, not with any specific Pagan tradition.  Someone else wrote that “Pagan” is comparable to “Christian” in that both terms are “umbrella” terms.  (I would point out that there are also people who identify primarily as Christian, as opposed to some specific Christian denomination.)

Anyway, L.S., responded that, unlike “Pagan”, at least there is some agreement as to what the term “Christian” means, which he went on to define as someone “who believes in (follows the teachings of) Christ/Jesus”.  I pointed out that there are Christians who adopt other definitions.  Some insist (rather emphatically) that belief in the existence or teachings of Jesus is not what defines one as Christian, but rather a salvific experience of the grace of God through Jesus.  Also, I have encountered both Protestants and Catholics in my community, near Chicago, who use “Christian” to mean “Protestant”, which I find strange, but there it is.  Anyway, as a former Mormon, I assure you there is not a consensus about what “Christian” means.  L.S. responded, “it is pretty hard to refute that, at its most basic, Christianity places Jesus as a pretty important figure.”  The comments closed before I was able to respond, but it occurred to me that L.S. may have hit on something.

A lot of definitions of “Pagan” have been proposed, but every time there is someone who points out that one or more elements of the definition do not apply to them.  For example, Isaac Bonewits claims that the “core Neopagan beliefs include (1) a multiplicity of deities of all genders, (2) a perception of those deities as both immanent and transcendent, (3) a commitment to environmental awareness, and (4) a willingness to perform magical as well as spiritual rituals to help both ourselves and others.”  Well, I know the last one doesn’t fit me at least.  Anyway, L.S.’s comment that Christian means you believe that Jesus is “a pretty important figure” made me think: “And contemporary Pagans are people who think ancient pagans are pretty important people.”  Or to articulate it a little better: “Contemporary Pagans are people who look to ancient paganism for inspiration.”  Or perhaps even better: “Pagans look to pre- and non-JCI cultures, myths, and religious practices for inspiration.”  How about that?  I wonder if there will be many people who claim to be Pagans who cannot agree on that at least.  I think it has potential.

The discussion with the polytheists also got be thinking about the difference between hard polytheism and other forms of Paganism.   I think the growth of hard polytheistic and reconstructionist Paganism is a step away from real live nature, which is increasingly central to what Paganism means to me.  Polytheistic Paganism is sometimes called “deity-centered”, in contrast to “earth-centered paganism”.  And this is a distinction which many polytheists recognize and embrace.  In fact, I have seen many polytheists emphatically insist that they are not “earth-centered”.  This seems very strange to others, for whom “Pagan” equals “earth-centered”.

Please take note, this is not about me telling polytheists that they are not Pagan enough.  In fact, I think polytheists are well justified in calling themselves “Pagan”.  If there is anything that distinguishes ancient paganisms from most contemporary Western forms of religion it is polytheism — not any kind of ecological awareness, which is really a modern phenomenon.  So the question then becomes, how are we to distinguish earth-centered Paganism if “Pagan” is to be treated as an umbrella term.  I propose that the answer is that earth-centered Pagans (re-)embrace the term “Neopaganism”.

When I first came to Paganism, I identified intentionally as a “Neopagan”.  I emphasized the Neo- prefix because I recognized that the Paganism I identified with was something new.  It was created in the 1960s and 1970s in the America, and, while inspired by ancient motifs, was intentionally modern or post-modern.  I was less interested in reconstructing a pagan past, and more interested in constructing a Neopagan future.

Interestingly, it was the term “Neopagan”, not “Pagan”, that was first used to describe our community (by Tim Zell).  As Reconstructionism grew in the community, the Neo- prefix was dropped — I think appropriately.  If you are attempting to reconstruct a Pagan past, then you are more of a “Retro-Pagan” (thanks Pagan Princess for the term) than a Neo-Pagan (but I don’t expect that term to catch on).  Anyway, the term “Neopagan” has become something of an epithet, especially among polytheists, but I really think earth-centered Pagans need to reclaim it.

It seems to me that, unlike “Pagan”, Neopagan” is defined first and foremost by the belief that nature is sacred, which I will call for brevity’s sake, “earth-centeredness”.  The “center” here refers to the place which is most sacred (i.e., the axis mundi).  “Earth-based” and “nature religion” are close enough to be synonyms or my purposes.  This is often expressed in theological terms of immanence or pantheism, but there are not necessary. While polytheistic Pagans locate what is most sacred in deities (who may be a part of nature), Neopagans locate what is most sacred in nature (of which deities may be a part).  It is a difference of emphasis.  And I would argue that this earth-centered orientation is something new, something that was not characteristic of ancient paganisms.

This definition of Neopaganism I think has its support.  Helen Berger, author of the Pagan Census, writes in her book, Voices from the Pagan Census, in response to the question, “What is Neo-Paganism?”: “Neo-Pagans define themselves as practicing an earth-based spirituality.”  Or consider, Oberon (Tim) Zell, who invented the term “Neopagan”, and recently, at the 2012 Pantheacon, defined Neopaganism succinctly as “green religion”.  Every definition of Neopaganism I have read at least includes an earth- or nature-focus as one a few elements.  I therefore take the earth-centeredness of Neopaganism as axiomatic.

It is no coincidence, I think, that Neopaganism and the environmental movement grew up together.  The following events all occurred during a period from 1967 to 1973 (Neopagan events are italicized):

The founding of Feraferia (1967)

The founding of NROOGD (1967) (Sara Pike marks these first two events as the beginning of the Neopagan movement)

The founding of the Church of All Worlds by Tim Zell who later coins the term “Neopagan” (1967)

Lynn White’s publication of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” (1967)

Isaac Bonewits joins the RDNA which led the organization to to become more explicitly Neopagan (1968)

CAW begins publishing the Green Egg newsletter around which a Neopagan community begins to coalesce (1968)

The photographing of the famous “Earthrise photo” by the Apollo 8 crew showing the Earth rising from the horizon of the moon, which some theorize helped humans realize the fragility of their home (1968)

The height of the American counterculture movement (1968)

The Whole Earth Catalog is published (1968-1972)

The Pagan Way is founded, emphasizing the celebration of nature over occultism (1969-1970)

Mother Earth News founded (1970)

The first Earth Day (1970)

Significant expansion of the Clean Air Act (1970)

Tim Zell publishes his article “Theagenesis: The Birth of the Goddess” which articulates a Gaia theory several years before James Lovelock (1971)

A talk given by Julia Carter Zell (of the Church of All Worlds) at the WorldCon science-fiction convention in Los Angeles marks the beginning of the Goddess religion movement (1971)

Arnold Toynbee publishes “The Religious Background of the Present  Environmental Crisis” (1972)

The Council of Earth Religions is formed as one of the first attempts at Pagan ecumenicalism (1973)

Aidan Kelly publishes a Pagan calendar with the names which became the standard for the Neopagan Wheel of the Year (1973)

The signing of the Endangered Species Act (1973)

The release of The Wicker Man film (1973)

While many other religions, like Christianity and Buddhism, may be becoming more ecological, no other non-indigenous religion that I am aware of has earth-centeredness as its first principle.  Some polytheists seem to believe that what characterizes Neopaganism is some kind of theological monism.  It is natural that deity-centered polytheists would attempt to define Neopaganism in terms of its relation to deity.  But monism is not common a defining characteristic in Neopagans’ self-understanding, like earth-centeredness is.

Of course, someone can be Neopagan and something else, like a Wiccan, a witch, a Druid, a shaman, a Goddess worshiper, a ceremonial magician, a humanist, or a Unitarian, in which case earth-centeredness may not be their first principle.  But I would still argue that, if they identify as Neopagan, then earth-centeredness must be first principle of their Neopaganism.  For example, I am a Jungian Neopagan, but it is my Neopaganism, not my Jungianism, that makes me earth-centered.

It suppose it even possible to be a hard polytheist and a Neopagan.  But to the extent that the polytheistic focus on deities draws attention away from things like dirt, wind, rain, and that very real tree in your backyard, then I argue that it is drawing attention away from nature (regardless of whether polytheists insist that their gods are somehow part of nature).  Consequently, I believe those polytheists who distinguish themselves from Neopaganism are right to do so.

Is this me trying to establish a “Neopagan orthodoxy”?  Maybe.  Although, by “orthodoxy” I do not mean what is “right”, but rather an agreed communal meaning.  In other words, I am not saying there is only one right way to be Neopagan, and everyone else is wrong.  But rather, I am suggesting that this idea can be something around which we can consolidate our community.  Every community must engage in some form of boundary maintenance in order to create a sense of shared identity.  And I would like to see a consensus grow up around the proposition that “Neopagan” means you identify as “earth-centered” or practice a “nature religion” or something very close to that.  And, of course, it also means that you are “Pagan”, which according to my definition above, means you look to ancient paganism for inspiration.

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  • I really think you should put your americanneopaganism web page back on line in support of this. Personally it was that , that led me to your blog. The effort alone in creating it makes it note worthy.
    It was why I , at least, use the term NeoPagan over Pagan as self identification.

    • Thanks W. It’s definitely on the to-do list. I haven’t settled on a vision for the new website yet though. Any thoughts?

      • John as to the web site, given the volume and depth I think I would make it searchable, htdig perhaps. I also find your use of links to other blogs on the subjects here very informative and helpful, and of course a link to this blog.
        for what it’s worth Wayne

  • Thanks for writing this John….it has helped clear some things up in my mind. I’m not a believer in polytheism, but I do find a spirituality rooted in the earth attractive. I usually call myself a natural pantheist but I do find a lot to admire in paganism. Making a distinction between those who see paganism as primarily about worshiping deities vs those who see (neo)paganism as primarily about being earth centered makes a lot of sense. I might start referring to myself as a neo-pagan too now.

    • Thanks naturalpantheist. I think the advantage is that pretty much anybody who wants to be called Pagan would qualify — of course, then we run up against over-inclusiveness of those who do not want to be called “Pagan”. But then we have our own term for earth-centered practice, and it is a term that deity-centered Pagans don’t identify with anyway. And by distinguishing earth-centered “Neopaganism” from “Paganism” writ large I would hope to make the latter term more attractive again to those who now disassociate themselves from it because it is conflated with Neopaganism.

  • Well written and obviously well-researched. Both of these are things of which I approve 😉 I find the debate bouncing around the pagan blogosphere somewhat confusing. I came to paganism because I was looking for an explanation of things I already felt. I feel most of all that things are more fluid and dynamic than we want them to be. None of these perspectives of paganism are wrong- it’s a matter of finding what the best path is for the individual. That’s the key to paganism, at least for me. Finding an individual relationship with the things we experience as sacred. I’m going to have to weigh in on this one, even if only as a way of stating my beliefs for my own benefit.

    • “I feel most of all that things are more fluid and dynamic than we want them to be.”

      Yes, I feel that, and yet I know that these efforts to categorize are artificial. I have a quote hanging in my office by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (I’m a lawyer), which reminds me of this:

      “The training of lawyers is a training in logic. The processes of analogy, discrimination, and deduction are those in which they are most at home. The language of judicial decision is mainly the language of logic. And the logical method and form flatter that longing for certainty and for repose which is in every human mind. But certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man. Behind the logical form lies a judgment as to the relative worth and importance of competing legislative grounds, often an inarticulate and unconscious judgment, it is true, and yet the very root and nerve of the whole proceeding.”

    • “That’s the key to paganism […] Finding an individual relationship with the things we experience as sacred.”

      Well put. I would hope that is true of most religion today.

  • Lee

    A great post. I find the ‘label anxiety’ that the pagan community suffers from to be inherently fascinating and you’ve crystallised a couple of things I’ve been pondering. I bounce between various different modes of thought, but what you describe as ‘neopaganism’ is definitely where I initially found myself when first exploring spirituality, after growing up basically atheist.

    • I suspect that label anxiety is going to be unavoidable in any community that does not have a creed, charter, or statement of first principles. The UU has its 7 Principles/6 Sources, but even they have some label anxiety due to the diversity along the humanist–spirituality spectrum. The Pagan community used to be spread across a Wiccan–NonWiccan spectrum, but increasingly I think the line is being drawn between hard-poly/recon/deity-centered and soft-poly/pantheist/humanist/nontheist/earth-centered, but that may just be on the Internet.

  • This is a mostly great article, but I was disappointed by the concluding paragraph:
    >Is this me trying to establish a “Neopagan orthodoxy”? You betcha. And I make no apologies for it. Every community must engage in some form of boundary maintenance. And I would like to see some consensus grow up

    The reason I find this disappointing is because the language of “orthodoxy” implicitly validates the straw man of “Pagan orthodoxy” imagined up in Star’s articles, when you and her are talking about two different things.

    There are at least two quite different meanings of “orthodoxy”: a) a shared meaning; and b) a *correct* meaning which must be foisted on the poor ignorant, the denial of which is heresy. You seem to be promoting a), while Star seems to be fearing b).

    The ensuing language of “boundary maintenance” and “consensus” suggests you intend a) more than b), but it is not crystal clear, and in any case *people don’t read in the spirit of an article’s intent.* They latch onto a single line and react to the rest in light of it.

    I fear you’ve given reason to believe “Pagan orthodoxy” is more than just the imaginary specter that it is.

    • Excellent point, B.T. And I appreciate you articulating that distinction. While I don’t mind inflaming Star, it often seems that single statements are latched on to by her and taken out of context. I think I will add an addendum.

      • There should be a society for those of us who “don’t mind inflaming Star.” I’ll think about a logo …

  • Reblogged this on Brain of Sap.

  • A really interesting post, John!

    I really like your distinction between Paganism and Neopaganism as you draw it (and by that distinction, I am definitely and whole-heartedly a Neopagan, though I would consider myself a somewhat messy polytheistic Neopagan).

    BUT. I doubt very much that your proposal is going to catch on, for one main reason: Names are just as much about social perceptions as they are about helpful, practical definitions that give us clarity about shared group values. And to call someone a “Neo-“pagan implies to a certain extent that their spirituality is (a) derivative (of “real” Paganism, which gets to just be a thing, without a prefix), and (b) immature (because the prefix “neo-” puts an emphasis on its newness, and like it or not religious communities invariably have a habit of citing their ancientness as proof of their legitimacy, especially in the absence of doctrinal consensus).

    I think this is why there are some folks in the community who actually use “neopagan” as an insult, and don’t capitalize it the way they do the word “Pagan.” (It’s the same reason Retropagan probably won’t catch on, because that term implies a tradition that is derivative but backwards-looking, and nobody wants to be backwards-looking anymore than they want to be immature.)

    So….. I guess it’s just a matter of finding the right name to capture that earth-centered and very modern/post-modern aspect that you’re talking about. I know that’s nit-picking. 🙂 But it’s so very vital, precisely because essays like this bring such clarity to the conversation and we can’t afford to miss out on that because people are distracted by labels! 🙂 (Oh gosh, I think I just made an argument for more effective marketing. I feel sick….)

    • Alison, excellent point about the “social perception” of names. I think you may be right. While being “neo-” doesn’t bother me (having come from one of those religions that relied on supposed ancient connections for validation), I can see how it would could imply a lack of depth.

  • A historical note: The Council of Themis was an earlier attempt at a Neopagan ecumenical organization. It included at least Feraferia, CAW, and the OTA. Poke Runyon told the story of how the Council of Themis imploded in his podcast series on the history of the OTA (Ordo Templi Astartes).