(RE)Defining Paganism Pt 1: Problematic Pagan Definitions

There are so many books, websites, teachings, and shows that will try to tell you what Paganism is in the most bare basic 101 sort of manner. Most of the time, these materials will tell you that Paganism is akin to what is actually now colloquially called “Neo-Wicca”; that it is teracentric, non-initiatory, with emphasis on good vibes and harming none, and a socio-political undercurrent of activism.

Now it can’t be said this definition, or others, are incorrect- just that they are not all correct in all the right ways 100% of the time. In other words, the development of the above definition (which is undoubtedly the most commonly found) is due largely in part to a variety of movements that cropped up only within the last Century- from 2nd wave Feminism, to the Spiritist and Occult movements, the New-Age, Hippie, and Goddess movements, and more… And while it’s true that Neo-Wicca is a faith that falls beneath the Pagan umbrella- and that the definition I focused on is true for Neo-Wicca itself and possibly a few other branches of Pagan religions- it is, unfortunately, still not true for Paganism as a whole.

You see, in the 13 years I was an active and contributing member of the Pagan community, I noticed that there is a large and glaring problem with the common definitions of Paganism. That problem is that there is absolutely no cohesive definition of Paganism to begin with- not even within the Pagan community. This is a problem which is made even more problematic by the fact that everyone within the Pagan community seems to follow a different definition- the most popular of which seems to be a toss up between “non-abrahamic” and “Earth Loving Nature and Goddess Worship”; here, especially, is where a lot of the inaccuracies sit and bring a grinding halt to the cogs that should be moving smoothly in the Pagan community.

Between various dictionaries and my own interactions with the Pagan Community, the list is rather extensive. I’ve ended up breaking it down into two groups: Dictionary (covered first), and Community (covered later).

Dictionary Definitions: One of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion. [It] is most frequently used in speaking of the ancient Greeks and Romans; A person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim (Abrahamic practitioners); of or pertaining to the worship or worshipers of any religion that is not Abrahamic in origin and practice; An irreligious or hedonistic person; Rural, agrarian people [Old Latin]; A person deemed primitive, savage, uncivilized, and morally and spiritually stunted or deficient; A pagan spirit or attitude in religious or moral questions; Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of pagans; The beliefs or practices of pagans; The state of being a pagan.

However, we as a community at large have already established that the dictionary doesn’t always define things correctly, and this is one of those instances where we seem to generally agree that this is the case. Most of those definitions are also problematic for many reasons and I want to look at them more in depth.

The “Polytheistic”  Definition

To put in very simple terms, Polytheism is the worship of and / or the belief in multiple deities. Depending on whether or not you’re a Hard Polytheist or a Soft Polytheist you either believe they are all distinct, separate, and completely individual beings (hard), or believe that to some extent the concepts themselves are all individual and the cultures just name them differently (soft)– though you can also fall somewhere between the two beliefs, definitely. These are relatively simplistic overviews of Hard and Soft Polytheism though.

The major problem with this in the modern usage is that Theism is not the same as Religion- and there is a significant disconnect in the Pagan community concerning what Theism is, and how it differs greatly from Religion and Spirituality. This conflation often creates problems when trying to classify any religion at all by Theistic outlook or when using Theistic outlooks as religious identifiers and titles.

There is also the consideration that this specific definition in this form speaks, more often and correctly, of the Greek and Roman cultural religions like Hellenismos and Religio Romana. By that logic, if Paganism is Greek and Roman Polytheism, then only these can be considered truly Pagan by this definition in its correct form- not the shortened form of the “polytheistic” definition which people prefer to use today. And where does that leave the rest of us, then?

The “Pre-Abrahamic” Definition

Definitions like these are problematic predominantly because Pagans like to forget their history a lot… And when I say “a lot”, I really do mean it as fabricating alternative history seems to be written into the very foundation of the community thanks to individuals like Gerald Gardner and Margaret Murray (whom- while creating and following perfectly valid religions- took more than a few unethical shortcuts in getting there… Mostly concerning historical interpretation and application).

Historically, Judaism is the first Abrahamic religion to exist. Because of this (often overlooked or blatantly ignored) fact, there aren’t many pre-Abrahamic Religions that actually exist. Only 2 exist, in fact… Now, there are of course some that are speculative and others which were in Proto form at these historical points, but there are still only two archaeologically and theologically cohesive Religions that predate Judaism. Those are indisputable Kemeticism (the religion of Ancient Egypt), and Hinduism.

To make matters a little harder, these barely predate Judaism by approximately 1,000 years give or take.

The large problem with Kemeticism (and really, any Reconstructionist or Revivalist religion at all) is that it is considered archaeologically “dead”. To be archaeologically considered “dead” means that the Ancient Egyptian culture itself no longer exists. Their culture, their cultural religion, and its subsequent systems are no longer “alive” today and are no longer practiced or remain the current cultural mode of that area. They did not survive as a cohesive, practiced religion and- for all intents and purposes- does not exist anymore. As a result it is impossible to practice their religions in the modern era as it was practiced by the Kemetics. Instead, we have had to sift through what historical information remains and utilize extensive archaeological research- plus supplementation with modern ideology and practice- in order to form a cohesive system. It is still, however, certainly not the full and original system of the Ancient Egyptians and we will never be able to obtain such.

Under this definition, however, Kemeticism could not truthfully be considered a Pagan religion since it technically doesn’t exist anymore and Reconstructionist and Revivalist versions of them are modern and well removed from their original forms.This leaves Hinduism as the only currently existing religion to truly be considered “Pagan” under this definition. The problem here, however, is that Hinduism has gone through great and extensive lengths to distance themselves from Paganism and is wholly adamant about not being considered a Pagan religion.

As a side note: If you insist on using the “Pre-Arahamic” definition then Wicca and Neo-Wicca cannot be considered Pagan either.  You cannot go on about how Paganism is “Pre-Abrahamic” if you’re practicing a religious system that wasn’t developed until the 1900’s and is less than 70 years old. Therefore if we were to adhere to the definition of “Pre-Abrahamic” correctly, in order for a religious system to be considered truly Pagan we are left with no actual Pagan religions at all outside of Cannanite and Sumerian faiths, and Kemeticism- the only three organized systems to predate Judaism.

There’s something else, though. That is that- though technically more correct as “Pre-Abrahamic”- most people actually say “Pre-Christian” which has its own realm of problems. While it definitely changes much in terms of how many religious could tentatively be classified as “Pre-Christian” (as by c. 100 AD many Cultural religious systems had become cohesive), it still doesn’t change a whole lot if you’re still basing it off of the religious development and introduction of “monotheism” and the worship of “the Christian God”… All of which has unarguably existed far longer than the Christian religion itself has.

The “Non-Abrahamic” Definition

This definition becomes a problematic definition in that Hinduism is not the only organized world cultural religion that has distanced itself from Paganism due to stigma surrounding it, their own identifiers, and other equally valid reasons. Other Indian and South Asian religions such as Bhakti and religious denominations of Buddhism have too, and so have countless more- including but not limited to the cultural spiritualities of indigenous peoples, such as African Diasporic religions, Indigenous traditional religions, the Shamanic practices rightfully belonging to the Mongols, Turks, and similar peoples,  and several others.

In forcing the Pagan identifier on these practices we begin erasing their own personal cultural religious identities, wants, wishes, needs, and preferences. Claiming that the definition is not problematic is forcing these religions to identify against their will and can be construed as another form of racial and ethnic aggression and oppression of non-white ethnicities and their practices.

Once again of course- though technically more correct as “Non-Abrahamic”- most people actually say “Non-Christian”. Like with the last one, this one also has problems when using “Christian” in place of “Abrahamic”.

If you use “Christian”, then- despite worshiping the same God- Judaism and Islam (both of which are Abrahamic religions)would undoubtedly qualify as “Pagan” as well. In the case of Judaism, its a laughable concept considering Judaism is the parent religion from which Christianity stems in the first place. Considering its close ties to Judaism and equal membership in the Abrahamic triad, the idea of Islam being Pagan is equally as laughable as well.

The ”Irreligious or hedonistic” Definition

I would hope that it should be pretty obvious. All people who are irreligious are usually just simply irreligious.  It means someone who does not belong to a Religion or is maybe indifferent to Religion and the idea of it.  Depending on the degree of their irreligious nature, these people might even identify as Atheists or Agnostics- though that is not meant to erase the fact that there are still irreligious or Atheistic / Agnostic members of the Pagan community considering the fact that being irreligious doesn’t necessarily mean that someone isn’t Spiritual, or doesn’t have a pro-divine Theistic Outlook.

Hedonism itself is simply the act of being devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification in one’s life. Most people, naturally, have Hedonistic beliefs and qualities to some extent. There are also certainly a few Pagan religions that practice, accept, or promote forms of Hedonism. However, that does not necessarily make a person Pagan.

The “Rural or Agrarian” Definition

This one is problematic because not only was it used by Romans to refer, specifically, to those groups of people considered “uncivilized” (in comparison to the Roman Empire), it also refers specifically to beliefs and practices of farmers and those who were further out and often lived lives that worked livestock and land- beliefs which still retained use of the “old Gods” in some format and which were often different than those held by the Roman Empire despite whether or not they lived within it.

Alternatively this definition is often taken to mean “of the land” and has strong ties to the whole “Earth Centered Nature Philosophy/Religion”. There is a lot that is problematic with the assertion that all Pagan Religions are Earth Based and Nature Worshiping, but it is a large topic for another discussion.

The “Primitive, savage, and uncivilized“ Definition

In this definition, I would hope that the issues with it would be self-evident at this point.

There is a vast number of connotations in the portion deeming it “primitive, savage, and uncivilized“– mostly in that those qualities are often attributed, negatively, to non-white ethnicities- especially those who are still Nomadic in nature, still existing Indigenous populations, etc. To continue to assert a definition like this is undoubtedly an act of racial aggression.

The “Morally and spiritually stunted or deficient” Definition

This one is, quite frankly, a personal idea and perception and should not determine whether or not a person is Pagan. It genuinely has no place as a definition.

A person may be religious, but if I do not agree with their religion I may easily consider them these things, which may not be correct simply because my morals may not be the same as theirs; morals are not universal or the same across all groups, religions, or even between individual to individual.

The glaring problem of conflating all Pagan Faiths with Wicca and Neo-Wicca aside, Community definitions themselves are usually focused on one thing: Nature and associated Theology- including Theisms. However, our own community definitions are often just as inaccurate and problematic as the dictionary ones.

I’ve seen thousands of definitions of “Paganism” from community members over the years, but they’re far too vast in order to list them all. Instead, I’ve selected what I feel to be some of the most common (and problematic) to break down in this article.

Community Definitions: An Animistic religion; An Earth Based Religion; A Nature Worshiping Religion; A Goddess Religion; A religion with a focus on “Harm None” and “Love and Light”, the Three Fold Law, and similar concepts

Animistic religion, or a practice which has an Animistic worldview.

A worldview is the fundamental theological orientation which encompasses the entirety of a person (or group’s) spiritual and universal knowledge and point of view- often from a philosophical perspective. A worldview may include such things as natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.

Worldviews are much like Theisms: Personal. And like Theistic outlooks, Worldviews my exist alongside and within religious systems, but are not mutually exclusive to specific religions and Theisms.

More specifically, Animism is a worldview that may occasionally also be used as a paradigm when spellcasting. In its case, it is the specific Spiritual, Religious, or other Worldview Ideology which states that: Plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena have souls (though usually it pertains mostly to plants, animals, rocks, and other natural non-man made objects); A supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.

This may, in turn, generate a set of emotions and values surrounding them- which may then in turn generate a series of ethics which determines their interaction with and treatment of these objects.

While some Pagan religions (such as Neo-Wicca and Druidism) may hold Animistic or similar beliefs, it is not indicative of all Pagan religions and practices. There are several practices who do not utilize and animistic worldview, and there are several hundred worldviews which may be utilized in a religious capacity. Thus they (like Theistic outlooks) are ultimately an inaccurate way of defining cohesive groups of religions- especially with a group so broad as Paganism.

Earth / Nature based, worshiping, or venerating religion

The “Ancient Earth Based religion” misnomer is a common misconception and stereotype due to the pervasiveness of Neo-Wicca and Wicca appearing as the “Public face” of Paganism (and not doing anything to change that, or not having any power to).

Without giving you an excruciatingly boring history lesson that would take decades to get through even in abridged format, I will say this: It’s wholly and completely, 100% incorrect. It comes, largely, as the result of the movements spoken about in the introduction of this post- all of which spanned from the early 1800’s to the late 1990’s and greatly impacted the formation of Modern Paganism- bringing many, many problems with it; this mess has caused a lot of problems for us today as we sift through and try to redraw the boundaries that got bulldozed over and trampled by the various movements which contributed to it.

By “problems”, I mean that there was a lot of obvious white-washing and cultural appropriation; misinformation abounded everywhere you turned; shoddy archaeology and falsified archaeological evidence was used to verify, support, and validate horrendously inaccurate claims;and so, so, so much more. These and several other things contributed to the image of Modern Paganism that we have today- including several pre-existing practices unrelated to Wicca being conflated with the tradition because they shared similar practices, the mispublication of quite a bit of information that lead to the creation of eclectic practices such as Neo-Wicca, and so much more.

But it’s incorrect for not only for the reasons already covered under the first few areas, but also because of the fact that- while there are some organized religions and spiritualities beneath the Pagan umbrella that do incorporate Nature worship or nature-based practices and beliefs- there is a large number of Pagan practices that have nothing to do with these things. In fact, the total number of nature-based practices that fall underneath the Pagan umbrella- though they certainly have a good number of members- is very small compared to the number of other available Practices that only incorporate a small amount of nature-basis or have no basis in nature or similar concepts what-so-ever.

Goddess-based or Goddess Worshiping

There are undoubtedly several faiths which place importance on and emphasis on Goddesses- often going so far as to worship Goddesses exclusively. Some that come to mind are the Divine Femininity movements, and paths such as Dianic Neo-Wicca. This is, however, largely a product of the same movements which contributed to the Teracentric definition- most notably 2nd Wave Feminism and a few key others.

It is not correct for all of Paganism- and like with Teracentric religions, those focusing on or exclusively Goddess oriented make up a much smaller percentage than those which are not.

“Love and Light” and “Harm  None”

More commonly than not I have seen these two phrases used to shame and degrade people who do not abide by the Tree Hugging, Eco-Friendly, Nature Worshiping and Goddess Loving version of Paganism thrown around by thousands of New-Age books on the market (leftovers from our predecessors who screwed everything up for us in the first place).

Just like with everything else, though, the phrase “your mileage may vary” is accurate here, too… And by that I mean that while yes there may be some religions under the Pagan Umbrella that follow tenants similar to these, it is not applicable to all Pagan religions. Indeed, there are several who do not practice by such tenants and who would (and do) laugh in your face if you dare to suggest it.

More importantly, however, concepts such as “Te Triple Goddess”, “The Three Fold Law”, “Harm None”, and even “Love and Light” are unique only to Wicca, Neo-Wicca, and their derivatives. They are specifically Neo-Wiccan and Wiccan concepts which have absolutely zero place outside of their respective faiths. Upholding all of Paganism to their ideologies and religious laws is incorrect.

The fact of the matter is that these definitions are no longer relevant and the problems they cause are greater than the worth of continuing to define Paganism by them.tumblr_od9z4kycsq1urp3f5o1_540


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