“Pagan” A Bad Term? Unpacking Modern Terminology & Plurality Of Faiths

“Pagan” A Bad Term? Unpacking Modern Terminology & Plurality Of Faiths November 13, 2018
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I realize that it’s strange to be blogging at Patheos Pagan and tackle a blog post devoted to picking apart the terms “pagan” and “neo-pagan”, but I actually find it to be a relevant and interesting topic, if not a thorny one.

“Pagan” has long been used to describe any non-Christian or Christian derived faith that is either based off of, influenced by, or directly using ancient faiths and/or containing within it faiths and practices revolving around nature and agriculture. Examples include Hellenism, Religio Romana, Asatru, Celtic reconstructionism, Druidry, and any faith derived from Wicca as it has been published as a non-initiatory faith loosely based off of the initiatory lineages of Wicca (examples include works by Scott Cunningham and Silver Ravenwolf). Pagan religions can be polytheistic, henotheistic, animistic, pantheist, or even have elements of each. Some pagans are even self-described atheists or agnostics and simply honor nature. Some have witchcraft as their self described religion and consider themselves to be pagans as witches. The term “neo-pagan” has been coined to try and separate modern pagan faiths from ancient pagan faiths, which is a thorny topic for those whose practices are at least partially derived from ancient traditions.

If you dive down into any of those links and try to compare all of the different traditions there are a few things which become apparent:

  1. The term “pagan” is so broad that it’s become more and more difficult to accurately define it.
  2. “Pagan” has been used so often as being interchangeable with non-initiatory book type Wicca that some people immediately will assume that you are Wiccan if you say that you are pagan.
  3. We have so much variation in each of these individual paths to the point where there are multiple faiths within a single faith, making the “pagan” identification even more of a simplistic mask that hides a great deal of variance and complication. Hellenism is very much like this, and was like this in antiquity as well.
  4. “Pagan” vs “neo-pagan” is a meaningless distinction that mostly only reconstructionists and revivalists seem to care about (see point #2) since technically even recon faiths would be neo-pagan since none of us come from a non broken lineage or tradition, but if you want to go die on that hill go right ahead.

I myself typically do not describe myself as a pagan, but as a Greek polytheist or Hellenist instead. It’s a lot easier as far as describing what I do versus relying on an incredibly broad label to define what I am, especially to those who are unfamiliar with faiths other than Christianity. We’re a minority in a sea of a plurality of other minority faiths that can barely find enough in common to have any agreement on anything, and we honestly spend too much time tackling the same, tired topics over and over again (no, we’ve never had a centralized calendar, centralized set of traditions, or centralized texts so please stop asking!) to outsiders to bother with handling the rest.

There are also people who admittedly hate the terms “pagan” and “neo-pagan” because they are tired of being confused with non-initiatory Wiccans, tired of being lumped in with what they consider to be “New Age” philosophies, or tired of the gatekeeping and purity competitions that often happens in these communities if you either aren’t a hard polytheist, don’t deal strictly with just one pantheon, or are involved with either magical and/or mystical pursuits. This is especially prevalent in the reconstructionist communities and is a good chunk of why I now consider myself to be a revivalist versus a reconstructionist. When pagans use reconstructionism to try and compensate for a lack of centralized core set of traditions and practices, it gets ugly pretty quickly. We don’t need centralization in order to be legitimate (it actually delegitimizes us given the historical record), and modern interpretations and reinterpreting of ancient practices needs to be handled with much greater nuance and care than simply copy/paste or blind adherence to only traditions as practiced in Athens in the fifth century.

For outsiders coming in trying to understand the simple question of “What is paganism and how do I become a pagan”, I’m sure that all of this is extremely frustrating to try and learn and understand–especially to those who are used to Christianity, which even with its own branches has essential elements in common to identify themselves as being Christian. Paganism as an umbrella is nowhere near the same thing as Christianity as an umbrella, and the attempt to make comparisons where there are none I’m sure is a natural instinct to those who only know of their experiences and knowledge as a Christian. The learning curve is steep, room for confusion is high, and the potential to rage quit is probably even higher. Even more so given the fact that most people coming in from a Christian background unknowingly use Christianity as their template for how religions function, and then they come into a religion such as Hellenism and find that their world has been turned upside down. If we have no centralized faith or practice in Hellenism (and never did in antiquity either), how do we find anything centralized under the umbrella term of “pagan” or “paganism”? Answer: you don’t, so stop asking, stop looking, save yourselves from the madness and embrace the wild zen of what we all are collectively.

At the same time, those of us who DO come from polytheistic and/or pagan backgrounds need to realize that we have one thing in common: we are religious minorities struggling in a society that is codified, stamped, and molded into Christian mindsets and ideas. For those of us who were lucky enough to not come from Christian backgrounds, it’s a lot easier for us to come in with a blank slate and far less paradigms and expectations that need to be put into the shredder and then burned over a sacrificial flame. And our right to practice and exist varies according to locale and circumstance, and could potentially be threatened at any moment by hateful bigots–and unfortunately some of those bigots are coming from our own religious communities, and we need to guard against this. Regardless of our differences, we should come together and fight for each other because in the end, people won’t know the difference and they won’t care whether or not your faith is based on ancient texts or traditions rooted in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and other forms of ceremonial magic that came out in the late 19th century. There’s something to be said for embracing our diversity while recognizing that we’re all in that terrible boat together, and we don’t have to pretend to have similarities in order to accomplish that.

We can fight for human rights, the right to practice our faith, to stand against abuse in our communities, to not tolerate intolerance, and can accomplish all that without pretending we’re all the same. And it’s something we may have to do very, very soon given the current climate. We don’t have to agree, and we can sure as hell continue our own individual community in-fighting at the same time we’re doing it–I am a passionate champion of multitasking. So while the terms “pagan” and “neo-pagan” aren’t perfect ones, can frequently be bad or misleading, and on the whole can cause more internet arguments than they resolve, there’s also a bigger picture to consider: we must support and embrace our differences and each other in order for us to survive in this world, and I don’t mind standing under this imperfect and broken umbrella in order to accomplish that.

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  • Excellent post.

    In my commenting here on Patheos Pagan, for ease of identification and simplicity, I identify more as a Witch than Pagan (although I understand both can, and do, overlap).

    Narrowing it down to specifics: Left Hand Path, Non-Theistic, non-religious. I work from a very “introspective” approach that is solely focused on healing and completing something that I started back in the 1920s. (Very “self oriented”.)

    I tend to use the term Pagan when around the general population as it does not seem to “freak them out” like the term Witch would. So, it all seems to depend upon the “audience”. The more knowledgable the audience, the more specific I will be.

    There is a term, not often used in English terminology, that is probably the most accurate label for me: Ietsist (Ietsism). Yet since it is not common, I just stick with my aforementioned plan. /:)

  • Shawn Herles

    The term is a tricky one for me. On the one hand I am a polytheist and an animist, on the other I practice a form of witchcraft (Traditional Witchcraft, a term with it’s own problems) that takes it’s inspiration primarily from the early modern period in witch witchcraft and folk magic were bound up with Christian religious culture, and we don’t try to separate them, as for example using the Psalms for magic. So am I a Pagan, or something else? I don’t have an answer yet, and perhaps I don’t need one. But for the time being the term retains a certain conversational usefulness.

    The gate-keeping issue is also tricky. I have only experienced this a couple of times personally, and in neither case was spirituality or theology the issue, politics was. There are some who believe that Paganism means a specific political ideology with very specific stances on policies, and if you don’t adhere you’re not a Pagan. And there are more than a few blog posts and articles effectively making the same claim. I consider it a form of authoritarian political imperialism which is contrary to the polytheistic, decentralised nature of Paganism. And there was an article recently on TWH in which a practitioner of Latin American witchcraft was attacked for having a statue of the Virgin Mary on his altar, with some Pagans/witches claiming that was not Pagan. It can all get pretty frustrating at times, and more than once I have considered just not bothering with the Pagan community or identification, even if it’s only online.

    Still, whatever the problems I agree that for the time being having an a single umbrella identity is necessary as far as fighting for Pagan civil rights are concerned. But in the long run, as that becomes less of an issue, I suspect that the term will fall out of favor and Paganism will split definitively along various lines, with groups going their own ways.

  • thelettuceman

    If I may, this is something that I’ve often thought about.

    The term ‘neopagan’ or derivation of it is somewhat pointless to use – historically, ‘pagan’ was used always an exclusionary one, denoting either outside of the City or non-Christian. Academically, ‘paganism’ with a minuscule has been relegated to continuing this term as non-Christian (especially since the Academy continued on with Christian-oriented, Western colonialist tendencies). To call oneself ‘neopagan’, to me, shows that one is saying they are the ‘new not-Christian”, which is problematic because it innately ties one’s identity to Christendom .. something that many of us already struggle with trying to deal with. So in my position, not only is it a bad term, but it’s one that’s not at all conducive to fostering any semblance of identity that’s not in the shadow of Christianity.

    There’s also the fact that by continuing to use ‘paganism’ in its historic usage means to include (sometimes unwillingly on their part) groups which have rich traditions that aren’t in a state of revival, or aren’t wholly new religious movements. First Nations / Indigenous peoples, Chinese traditional religion, Hinduism, Shinto, etc., all have been classified, historically, as ‘pagan’; an attempt to other them from unequal representation in Western conversations. By failing to define what we mean when we speak to ‘Pagan’ in a modern sense we can open up a mess of issues when people presumptuously assume that other traditions are free to appropriate simply because ‘they’re all pagan’.

    When I refer to “Pagan”, I either do so as a majuscule, proper noun, or as “Contemporary Paganism”. There was no historic “pagan’ identity; their identity was the identity of the people who lived these lives which were inexorably linked to their daily existence. They wouldn’t have had much of a concept of “religious identity”. So we’re already dealing with a term that doesn’t have any reflection on historic principles or past practices and by identifying it within the scope of a New Religious Movement (or revival), we’re already speaking to something different. This is another reason why I don’t care for “Neopagan”.

    I further extend the definition, largely using inspiration from Michael York and Jordan Paper’s works on it, as restricted to the European-Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultural basin (from Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion), and either inspired by these cultural and folk practices (as Wicca or Druidism) or revivalisms of the cultures of this region (as in reconstructionist polytheism). If someone wants to self identify as a Pagan who doesn’t adhere to these views I cannot and will not stop them, but I’m not going to say that their traditions are Pagan if I’m asked by someone.

  • wizard today

    very good articles! thank’s.

  • Teresa Reitan

    I’m glad SOMEBODY has come out in favor of a kind of unity in our very diversity. The diversity is important because no two people apprehend the Divine the same, be It one among many, 2 with many names as in Wicca, or many as in hard or soft polytheism. A famous dead American patriot once said “We must hang together, or we shall surely hang separately.” We must be able to work together, especially in this political climate, where some want to bring back The Burning Times, and I say, Never Again the Burning Times! Who’s with me?

  • herbprof

    Watch this strange cultural/religious/Spiritual circle that developed from this one word, “Pagan!” The Roman’s made-up the term “Pagan,” so they could label, and rudely look down upon with fear, everyone else in the world but themselves! Yet they were the perfect copycats, they especially copied the Greeks, once they defeated them! And in a fit of total Paranoia went about most of the known world, doing their best to stamp out and control every Pagan culture they found, Nuts?… And every Witch and Druid who knows their Roots, knows what the Roman’s did at the “Battle of Anglesey!”

    And the Roman’s covertly copied Judaism (see reference) because they admired the Spiritual Power of their written “Words (no statue needed)!” Which eventually brought about Christianity (see references), which used exactly the same Roman term “Pagan!” To do what you may ask, “label, and look down upon rudely, with fear, every religion, and spiritual path in the world except Christianity!” Yes, they are just as Nuts, and Paranoid!… And yet most of them, if they knew their roots genetically and Spiritually?… They are descend directly from the Pagan Celts and Druids! And Thus Spiritually, Connected To All Those Brave And Innocent Pagan Souls, Slaughtered On Anglesey!

    How the Meaning of the Word “Pagan” Changed – ThoughtCo
    https://www.thoughtco.com › … › Ancient History & Culture › Mythology & Religion
    Aug 26, 2018 – In pre-Christian Rome, “pagan” was a derogatory term for villagers, but it acquired religious connotations when Christians came into the picture.


    CAESAR’S MESSIAH: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus

  • daniel schwendinger

    greetings, in the past few weeks, i think someone left the Hen house door open & alot of Hens r Cackling (lol)…”Can’t We All Just Get Along!?!”…it is said that we Choose our own Path…i didn’t know there were Traffic Cops!…i practice My Own Way!…if we can Share…fine…if not…i’m not going to Loose any Sleep over it…may the Goddess shine Her Light on All!…BB

  • Jennifer Searle
  • Jo Dea Donum

    I think that Pagans are those who live tribal lifestyles, celebrate the sabaths with their comunity in actual ceremonies at their actual outdoor temples, recreating some fire festival and doing a sacrifice. A Pagan is out there in Ireland, or In Denmark freely celebrating their ancestral traditions.

    Neo pagans do their sabaths celebrations in their apartments or backyards, in solitary ritual, within the guidelines of Buckland.

    Out of respect calling people Pagan takes away from that authenticity and blood relationship with ancestors.

    Pagans are authentic traditionalists while neo pagans are authentic contemporary practitioners. Both are valid, both are genuine in their own right. But each in their own corner.

    Out of respect for each other using the terms defined by the specific tradition would be best.

    I’m a proud neo pagan who celebrates the sabaths with a modern take to the path of witchcraft. It is progressive and empowering. I don’t have to be ashamed of it. But I love and respect the traditionalist approach and look at them with admiration and awe. But I can’t ever be a Pagan because it is a matter of where you live, how you live, and whom you live with.

    I’m open to keep learning about this but in 25 years of practice I see that this issue is only discussed by people who has a problem owning their neo pagan roots, accepting the diversity in their genes and passing through many books and traditions.

    The truth is simple be proud of your diversity and let others be proud of theirs.

  • Aidan Sumner

    I completely agree, people who beleive things like “diversity is a strength” aren’t pagans. Pagans are tribalistic, which means they have community based on kinship and common traditions.
    I am a pagan.