Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Paganism: A religion or a category of religions?

I submit that the term Pagan is more appropriately used as an umbrella term to describe a family of related religions than as a word to describe a singular religion. In this way, "Pagan" is parallel to "Abrahamic" rather than to "Christian."

1. If diversity and self-definition are so important to Pagans, is it really in our best interest to continue to pretend that we belong to the same religion? I think not. I think too much of our diversity is sacrificed in this strategy and I therefore suggest that we begin to acknowledge that "Paganism" may describe a family of loosely related religions but cannot be used to describe a singular religion without further marginalizing and compromising the religious experiences of Pagans whose beliefs are not recognized as normative or popular.

2. Secondly, emphasis on Paganism as a singular, though diverse religion may have unintended limiting consequences on further development of individuals' and groups interpretations of Pagan experience. For instance, already I have read that Pagans are earth-centered. (Many are not) or that Pagans cannot be pacifists (many are.) Drift toward orthodoxy is a danger in considering Paganism a religion rather than a family of multiple spiritual perspectives.

3. Finally, I am concerned that utilizing the term "Pagan" to describe a singular religion is an act of imperialism in that such use of the term assumes that practitioners of indigenous and/or ancient religions can be utilized and co-opted by Neo-Pagans with little or no regard for concerns of cultural context, history, or tradition.

Is "Pagan" parallel to "Abrahamic"?

Categorization of anything non-Abrahamic under the rubric “Pagan” is problematic inasmuch as it subsumes critical historical, cultural, and thea/ological differences under a definition of Paganism based not on who we are but on who we are not. Even more problematic is the assumption that Paganism is more than a category of religious perspectives but a religion itself. We have been defined against Abrahamic religion. I intentionally use the passive verb here to indicate definition by default. Although we have reclaimed a word used pejoratively to describe those who do not fit within the category of "Abrahamic" and that's fine. In fact, that's great. I have not given up on the idea that the word "Pagan" may very well indicate a commonality transcendent of specific religious categorization, but I do think we should stop saying that Paganism is a “religion” which assumes a common belief system, and come up with another, more careful term for what Paganism is and that acknowledges that it encompasses multiple religions. Paganism is a “_____”, comprised of multiple, diverse religions that often, but not always are characterized by “_____________”. I don’t have the words to fill in those blanks, btw. I’m still too early in the thinking stages and, as I’ve said, I’m just too unfamiliar with the depth of other Pagan spiritual perspectives to dare to fill in those blanks right now.

I suggest a shift from the use of the term Pagan to designate a singular religion to the use of the term to designate a family of religions. Abrahamic folks share historical and theological traditions. They are members of the same family of religions but not members of the same religion. In suggesting that the parallel term to Pagan is "Abrahamic", rather than Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, I am not looking to sacrifice solidarity but suggesting that we are more diverse than we have allowed and that those differences are more important than we have acknowledged.

If we were to look within just one of the Abrahamic religions, we see great diversity that already tests the cohesion indicated by the term "religion." Technically, Greek Orthodox, Southern Baptists, and liberal Christian Quakers are all “Christian” but they are practically so far apart in theology that it would be unreasonable for them to approach each other outside of a framework that immediately acknowledged those profound theological and historical differences. They do, at least, share a common emphasis on "Christ" although their definitions of that term vary dramatically. Do Pagans share at least one common definition that would place us all within one religion? I honestly don't think so although probably, we could subdivide several Pagan perspectives into a smaller handful of "religions". Perhaps, for instance, we might consider feminist, earth-centered Paganisms with historical roots in western Romanticism as a religion. If such were the case, then Kemetic Reconstructionists and Dianic Wiccans can coexist as Pagans much as Hasidic Jews and Roman Catholics share an Abrahamic identity without pretending they are in the same religion. Dianic Wiccans and ecofeminists, despite many differences in theory and practice might be classified in the same religion although of different denominations as are Roman Catholics and Baptists.

Who We Are or Who We Are Not

I am not Wiccan. This is a statement of fact but it is also often a defensive statement with all the snarly negativity that implies. There are lots of Wiccans and they have published, organized, and educated the non-Pagan public. As a result, "Paganism" in the popular media and public understanding is often synonymous with the most well-recognized and popular forms of Wicca. In my experience, this means that before anyone knows who I am, I have to explain who I am not. Sometimes, I find that folks won't believe me. They argue with me along these lines: "If you are Pagan, and Pagans are Wiccans, then you must be Wiccan. Further, if you disagree with what I understand to be Wiccan, then you must not be a Pagan." Irritating... but not Wiccans' fault...at least not entirely.

There are lots of times when I feel the urge to just give up. I'm so sick of being told that I'm not a Pagan that I've almost come to believe it. I know I am not alone. One can find a cautionary narrative in the history of first and second century Christianity. What we came to recognize as orthodox Christianity was no more than the outcome of a game of spiritual Survivor. Last person standing wins and the last person standing is the person with the most power and the best PR.

But Wiccans are NOT orthodox Christians. Every single Wiccan with whom I have worked or communicated would be horrified at the idea that they are seeking to create an orthodox Paganism. My Wiccan friends are not standing in for orthodox Christianity and I do not wish to play the role of the ill-fated Gnostics. However, I am concerned that although we lack the intention to repeat this scenario, an orthodoxy and orthopraxy may emerge not out of our intention to purge Paganism of difference but out of our unwillingness to honestly engage the differences-- thereby tacitly supporting the unquestioned philosophical supremacy of the most popular Pagan groups. I see casual statements about Paganism as a religion as well statements indicating a belief that one's personal beliefs are universal or nearly universal to Pagans generally evidence of this drift toward a popular orthodoxy.

I express this caution but I am not discouraged. Now is the time to ask the hard questions and to engage in the difficult discussions. Neo-Paganism is still in its infancy. Its admission into the world of ideas is still tentative. The academic world is just now beginning to take our scholars and our narratives seriously. We need not worry unduly that our inability to define Paganism as a religion is indicative of intolerance among us. We have always been more diverse than even we have acknowledged. We are simply emerging into that time in our history in which this discussion of "religion" became inevitable. As non-Pagan academics and thinkers become more and more aware of Paganism as a legitimate category of religious expression, we find that they are not yet clear on just how diverse we are. Too many of us remain unpublished, undocumented, unacknowledged (at times because of unequal access to publications and/or because solitary and isolated practitioners have a much harder time with networking). Therefore, those of us who don't fall nicely into the more popular categories can concede the success of better organized and publicized Paganisms and bow out, we can become defensive and bitter, or we can find a way to assert our right to the term within a more carefully defined and celebrated diversity.

Our ability to see differences and to develop a conversation based on those differences emerges as the internet brings solitary, isolated, and marginalized Pagans into contact with more organized, community-oriented Pagan groups. We are beginning to see which perspectives are privileged. We are beginning to see that some of our assumptions of what are Pagan "essentials" are not universal. I think that despite the discomfort of some of these conversations and confrontations, they are really to everyone's benefit. We are able to see, at the experiential level, the drama of our the-logical, philosophical, and practical differences. At times, the dissonance is jarring enough to promote questions: What does "Pagan" mean anyway? Who defines the term? Who frames the conversation? And more importantly, who is excluded from participation in that work? These can be uncomfortable and even saddening questions, particularly as we fear that the loss of the religious category might erode acknowledgment from the non-Pagan world, but I think the benefits outweigh the risks.

I see these questions and challenges not as a tragedy of disunity but as a more promising and honest context for promoting true and lasting relationships with each other based on mutual understanding and respect. While it is certainly more comfortable to believe that other "Pagans" are just like me, it isn't honest. I'd rather get to know other "Pagans" who do NOT share my religious beliefs, worldview, or assumptions as they are rather than imagine them as I'd like them to be. No true peace comes from gazing in the mirror and pretending you are the entire world.

So where do we even begin this conversation? Especially, how do those of us on the margins of Paganism/Neo-Paganism begin this conversation without coming off as merely angry with Wiccans for being more numerically successful than we are? This conversation cannot be about sour grapes. It has to be more than temper tantrums growing out of sense of being overlooked. The problem is not merely one of intrafaith dialog among other self-defined Pagans (although this is difficult enough), but identification in an interfaith world that continues to use "Pagan" inaccurately, dismissively, and pejoratively. The existence of a popular default hegemony of eclectic Wicca (which I see as imposed by non-Pagan popular media, publishing, and academic worlds still only providing token space and attention to Paganism despite our difference) silences meaningful and challenging interfaith discourse. In my interfaith work, I find that I end up having to both defend Wicca as “not Satanic” before I even get a chance to define my own in some ways very different spiritual path. It would be easier to avoid this defensive posture if we made it clear to non-Christians that though we maintain strong loving bonds with each other, we are not all members of the same religion any more than Muslims, Christians, and Jews are members of the same religion. Our ability to honor our differences without glossing over them or ignoring them could serve as a model for Abrahamic peoples whose differences have engulfed the world in wars for thousands of years. We can only have fruitful conversations when we are willing to meet others as they are rather than as we wish or imagine them to be. The hegemony of the popular is easier, but it is a poor substitute for true peace.

For related views, please see
The Great Tininess and Pagan Godspell


Morgaine said...

"We can only have fruitful conversations when we are willing to meet others as they are rather than as we wish or imagine them to be."

It bore repeating.


Karen said...


I realise I must have been really lucky to have spent my entire adult life hanging around with people who have understood "Pagan" and "Neopagan" to be umbrella terms under which many often overlapping belief sets cluster.

To be honest, I am rather weirded out that there are people out there who don't. I kind of thought we'd got past that - along with the whole "burning times" debacle - in the early 90s.

I have clearly had my head stuck in a comfy hole in the sand.

Hystery said...


I share your weirded out feeling. I've been relatively isolated as a Pagan until recently so my exposure to Paganism came primarily through academic Pagan authors who did not treat it as a "religion" but more as a philosophical/thealogical strategy. Paganism is for me far more of a methodology than a religion. My exposure to academic Goddess feminism was so clearly worlds apart from the Paganism(s)experienced by others that I had to assume that we weren't dealing with one religion but with loosely related spiritualities.

I felt a need to articulate this differentiation of terms because I have seen that lots of non-Pagans don't get that Paganism is not synonymous with Wicca (and this blog addresses both Pagan and Christian readers). Occasionally, I have encountered Pagans who are also not aware of this. Probably most irksome was a Wiccan woman who said that all Pagans were Wiccan, but that some Pagans didn't have the courage to admit it. I've also encountered my share of Pagans who have explained that I was doing my Paganism incorrectly. Ignorant Pagan fundamentalists are very similar to ignorant Christian fundamentalists and just as irritating. I think there are far fewer of them, but they do exist.

Anonymous said...

I often think about "Paganism" as a fandom and "Pagans" as an interesting collection of fans--the sort of thing you might find at a mega-story universe/franchise convention. Lots of fans hold enthusiastically to their own likes and dislikes. But all of them recognize that any and all fans are a bit distinctive from folks who aren't fans of anything.

Hystery said...

I like that!

My own perspective grows out of my background in the field of religious studies so I'm looking for a means of describing Paganism within the context of that discipline. However, I think that your illustration is quite helpful and helps me as I continue to consider the issue.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I must hang out with the wrong (or right) crowd as well...I don't know any Pagans (beyond newbies) or many non-Pagans (that actually have ever heard of Paganism) that don't know that Pagan and Wiccan are not synonymous.

Personally, I'm usually more annoyed at the number of (real) Christians that don't consider certain Christian denominations or individuals to be "Christian" (enough), and fellow Pagans that lump all Christians together as one big happy religion, when in reality, they are pretty darn diverse too.

Hystery said...

I think it is less the issue of not knowing that non-Wiccan Pagans exist as it is the unconscious privileging of the Wiccan position, or a privileging of what a person believes (often inaccurately) is the Wiccan position. The latter is more common among non-Pagan folks. I often encounter, "We believe this..." or "This is important to us..." or "Pagans do, or think, or believe such...".

It is so important for people to speak from their own experience and not to universalize their beliefs. This is also hard to do. It is so easy to get into the habit of thinking that what happens in one's own corner of the world is normative.

I absolutely share your frustration with Pagans and conservative Christians who think that Christianity is monolithic. That annoys the snot out of me.

Erin said...

Hi there,

Thanks so much for this post and this blog, more generally. Your posts are so clear, well-thought out and always very interesting.

I am a sociologist and researcher who is studying the various forms, experiences, beliefs and practices of individuals who identify as "Pagan" and your posts have been very helpful for me as I work my way through the density of perspectives.

At some point in the future, I may ask to cite your blog in my published work, as many of the issues/topics you address are the same ones I have been asking of the interview participants in my own research.

I hope to avoid the "ghetto-izing" of the vast field of Paganism into the watered down and Wicca-center version that you attribute to previous academics. I will do my best.

I look forward to reading more posts!

Hystery said...


I look forward to reading your work and am filled with curiosity about it. I am happy that I may have been helpful in some way as you engage in research about Paganism. My own Paganism is deeply dependent upon others' academic work. I gather this makes me far from representative of many Pagans whose spirituality is far more related to spiritual community. The only time I feel very much un-Pagan is when I am near other Pagans! I may not be a Pagan at all. Don't let me mess up your research. ;-)

Kidding aside, many blessings on your efforts. Let me know if there is any way I can be of assistance.

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