Defining Paganism, last try

I, too, have struggled in the past with the definition of that squirrelly umbrella term, “Paganism.” I wrote about it here and on other forums in the past. I have joined in the yearning for a better term (something with more chance of actual adoption than “Canar” or “Zimmelblob.”)

Then I started thinking about it again, and realized it is actually simpler than I was thinking. We were all trying to be too specific. Here’s an actual definition, bigger than a sound-bite, but smaller than Drawing Down the Moon, that I believe covers all of us:

A modern Pagan (Neopagan) is a person who identifies as Pagan, and whose religious or spiritual practices have one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. Polytheism, including recognition of multiple deities and relationship to one or several of the deities of ancient cultures, primarily those of Europe, the Near East, or North Africa. This may include more or less reliance on ancient texts and intent to reconstruct what the ancients did. This does not require a specific approach to theology: Pagans do not agree on the virtues of pantheism, panentheism, henotheism, bitheism, etc. Only exclusive (i.e., intolerant) monotheism would be excluded.

  2. Belief in and relationship with spirits (similar to animism).

  3. Belief in and practice of magic.

There, that was easy (almost)! I am, of course, expecting someone to point out that defining Paganism partly in terms of magic is a classic ignotem per ignotius. Since the definition requires that the individual self-describe as Pagan, it sweeps away all of those “but that definition also includes Hinduism” objections. The most important point is that it is very hard to use this definition to say that a person is not Pagan.

The religious movements under this umbrella have been evolving rapidly and developing and refining their shared discourse. When I find myself being frustrated with aspects of this process, or thinking it is too slow, I just adopt a 20 km and 500 year perspective, and it gets all better.



About freemanpresson

Healer, Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, astrologer.
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8 Responses to Defining Paganism, last try

  1. henadology says:

    I don’t personally have a problem with a definition that includes Hinduism, Shinto, Chinese Traditional Religion/”Religious Taoism”, etc. I can see where it is difficult tactically, but it may be impossible to arrive at a good functional definition that excludes them.

    In the past I have tried to work a definition around the difference between prophetic, “message” oriented religions and religions whose Gods are, in effect, themselves the “message”.

    • I agree that a purely functional definition would be too complex and not stable (hence the quip about this one being shorter than DDtM). Also, any definition that excludes too much ends up looking agendadriven, whether it is or not-

  2. Nancy Meese White says:

    This makes sense to me Freeman, I’ve always called myself pagan because I follow different paths and change from time to time according to what I learn that fits me.

  3. On Patheos, there’s a discussion on polytheism in Paganism that also illuminates this:

  4. And, from the pet-peeve dep’t: If you are defining or just describing what “Pagan” means, do not use any of the following:

    – “Earth-based” or “Nature-based” (some of us are quite cosmopolitan,
    thank you).
    – The word “Europe,” anywhere in the definition (Egypt is in Africa,
    Canaan is in the Levant, and Mesopotamia is … further away.)
    – “The God and The Goddess”; “the Rede”; “threefold law” or any other
    Wicca-specific terms.
    – Negative definitions, especially contrasts to Satanism.

  5. Pingback: Pagan/Neo-Pagan Definitions List | The Lefthander's Path

  6. Defining ourselves as pagans is a difficult achievement in the current culture of this world. As part of what is effectively a diverse minority revivalist movement, questing for the ‘prisca theologia’ of our beliefs, we still struggle to understand and express ourselves, and to fund and promote our ideas.
    This in itself might serve as a ‘current definition’ of paganism!

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