Defining Paganism

Chas Clifton presents three posts discussing more comprehensive and technical efforts to define “paganism.”




I’m hopeful about this because my own efforts to define paganism have come up flat and dismal. As best as I’ve been able to tell, paganism has pretty much been defined by not being Christian and by deciding to hang out with other people who call themselves pagans. That’s not much to work with, and I’m ever increasingly disappointed by the fact that pagans seem to relish defining themselves against Christianity instead of on their own terms.

I’m pagan!

So we have two definitions of paganism to consider:

I offered the broad, relationship-focused definition that Michel York offered a few years ago in Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion.

An affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient and/or nonempirical.”

[…]“An affirmation” — Not a “belief” or a “creed,” but just an understanding by practitioners that this sacred relationship exists.

This is good, although I still regard paganism as more about practice than belief. Indeed, the focus on belief or faith in paganism is easy seen as a holdover from Christianity, or at best a failure to reframe religious discussion away from a Christian perspective. I suppose this is still covered, as action can be affirming.

“interactive and polymorphic” — whatever Pagans do, they treat as flowing both ways: “We need the gods, and the gods need us.” “We respond to the world, and the world responds to us.”  These relationships are polymorphic because they can take many shapes—not just formal worship, but all kinds of interactions.

“Polymorphic” is a potentially problematic word, as it has certain connotation ion the metaphysical that are not implied here. But in is meaning as “many forms,” I think it works.

“sacred relationship” — now here we hit rough water. The existence of “the sacred” or any “agent beyond the purview of science” is debatable in religious studies. One contingent sees the term “sacred” as meaningless (or of “mixed empirical utility”) and asserts that every action or attitude described as “sacred” can be explained within the the realms of human power games, economic games, gender games, etc. Or else it is just an accidental product of brain wiring of dubious evolutionary value.

But for now, let assume a sacred realm, as most religious people do, with which one can  have a relationship. That does not necessarily mean a theistic relationship. For more than anything, this definition treats “Pagan” as a way of being religious, not as a set of rituals or beliefs or creeds.

“Sacred” is another sticky wicket. I’m not sure that I agree with the notion of a sacred realm, as some pagans don’t support that. I’m inclined to see “sacredness” as a type of relationship or connection. I would also refer to definitions of religion focusing on “Ultimate Concern” here and suggest that sacred might be what relates to the ultimate concern. I think that Otto’s Mysterium Tremendum applies best here, though, and sacred is best understood as approaching something nearing the edge of our comprehension, that instils us with awe and somehow inspires insight.

“by the individual or community” — Solitary Pagans, you’re covered.

Our terms are not solidly set unless you’re in a tradition with strict boundaries.

“with the tangible, sentient and/or nonempirical” — this phrase covers “green religion” in Bron Taylor’s sense. Your relationship might be with Mother Ocean, as his is. Or a mountain? Or a work of art — all tangible. It may be with persons, human or other-than-human, but still characterized as sacred.

It might be with the “nonempirical,” those “agents beyond the purview of science”: spirits, gods, wights, whatever you want to call them. But the “or” still leaves room for non-theistic Pagans.

Nonempirical, or “not explained by modern science.” To which optimists might add, “yet.”

The second definition provided is brought to us from Sam Webster:

This definition, an historian’s definition, comes from doctoral student Sam Webster’s blog:

(January 2013) But, as an apprentice historian (I’m working on my Ph.D.), I am aware that Christianity destroyed the ancient religiosity of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, while Islam destroyed the Mesopotamian, the Persian, and many of the African branches. There is no historical continuity, but we do have books that inspired our rebirth in the Renaissance, and we have been growing and developing ever since. In fact, it is not respectful to call the ancient peoples ‘Pagan,’ lumping together the religious activities of vastly disparate peoples who never called themselves Pagan, nor saw themselves as a single religious tradition, however much they had in common. Religion wasn’t even a separate cultural category until Christianity impacted the Romans. But the main point is that the old ways need to be rebuilt, but in a manner in accord with contemporary needs and knowledge. Paganism will be something new and different, rooted in the ancient and fulfilling the needs of today.

And as refined in March 2013:

In short, the term “Pagan” only applies to that complex of religions that develop starting with the Renaissance and eventually call themselves Pagan. It does not apply to the ancients, or to cultures outside the European, Mediterranean, and Mesopotamian region. Neither the ancient pre-Christian religions nor those foreign to the aforesaid region call themselves “pagan,” and while they have much in common, they are each distinct and should be referred to by their proper names. Contemporary Paganism is derived from the occult revival that began with the Florentine Renaissance and is a uniquely modern phenomenon. We are a very different people from the ancients and do not share their worldview even as we reconstruct their religions.

I like this definition, too, because I agree with what Webster says about the ancient understanding of religion. The ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, etc, did not have a unique concept or even term for “religion.” They might have talked about rituals, or about “traditions” or mystery schools, but the concept of religion we have, or even of “culture” would have been foreign to them.

Clifton, however, goes on to consider the retroactive application of labels to past societies.

“Neolithic” refers to a set of cultural accomplishments and markers (e.g., pottery, agriculture, domestication of animals, some social hierarchies), not always developed in the same order. By analogy, why not consider “Pagan” to describe a cluster of attitudes, practices, and concerns?

And so here’s the real question. Does the first definition include the practices of ancient civilizations?

I, for one, think it does.

And as for the distinction between extinct ancient practices and modern revival efforts, I have considered this to be illustrated by the difference between “pagan” and “neopagan.” Neopaganism acknowledges that it is an effort to regain what was lost based upon the fragments we have left. And while even I use the terms interchangeably for ease of language, I think that this distinction can become important. This enables us to distinguish between religious traditions that have been interrupted and must be reconstructed and those non-Abrahamic traditions that have managed to survive in a continuous lineage.

So I’m leaning toward definition number one, with some concerns. It is a bit cumbersome, which I suppose is understandable since it is a technical definition. And I think that it is worded in a way that may be so open that it does lose some of its meaning: It doesn’t take much stretching to get this definition of “paganism” to apply to “Christinaity.” I suppose looking at it as a “phase” of religious development gets rid of this problem, but it introduces more: viewing paganism as a leftover stepping stone to a more developed and advanced monotheism.

There are still some issues to be worked out here, but I think it’s a good direction.


2 responses to “Defining Paganism

  1. Pingback: The Pagan Community | Blacklight Metaphysics

  2. Pingback: Understanding Paganism | Blacklight Metaphysics

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