(RE)Defining Paganism Pt 1.4: Theism vs. Religion vs. Spirituality

I become so frustrated, sometimes, when navigating the ins and outs of Pagan groups and communities. It hardly ever matters if it’s on the web, or in person, the same issues crop up every time. Most notable, and probably personally annoying to me, is the lack of ability of Pagans to distinguish between tree different things: “Theism”, “Spirituality”, and “Religion”.

There seems to be an innate snubbing of the nose that goes on when concerning the topic of Religion itself. Even more so concerning the topic of Spirituality. It is almost as if the idea of Organized Religion is abhorrent to many in the Pagan Spheres that I’ve navigated over the last half decade. Ironically, there also seems to be a double standard and other groups will snub their noses at Spirituality, with phrases like “I’m Spiritual, not Religious” becoming jokes meant to degrade others based on their (lack) of adherence to an organized religious system – though most seem to, more often than not, consider themselves Spiritual over Religious, which is a bit of an odd thing, all things considered (especially with the strange disdain for those who choose “spiritual” over “religious”).

More concerning to me is that I increasingly seem to see Pagans refer to themselves not by Religious Title, but by the term “Polytheist”. This is not inherently a negative or odd thing, but it becomes disconcerting when those same Pagans seem to regularly insist on dong three things:

  1. Identifying as “Polytheist, not “Pagan” as a way to distance themselves from and “other’ the Pagan and related communities- usually with the assertion that Polytheism and pagan aren’t the same (an assertion which is correct at the base level, but not for the reasons they’re portraying);
  2. Taking on “polytheist” as a religious identifier when Polytheism (and Theisim in general) is not a Religion at all in the slightest (nor can it be);
  3. Classifying religions in absolutes based on (often inaccurately) assumed Theisms- and by this I mean that common classification is often that Abrahamic religions are Monotheistic, and non Abrahamic religions are Polytheistic, then there’s Atheism and Agnosticism, of course… And those religions and their practitioners cannot ever be anything else for some reason.

In terms of religious classification in absolutes, while they acknowledge Duotheism, Pantheism, and several other Theistic outlooks, they rarely get any air time- and when they do, it’s usually to insist that any recognition of more than one Divine figure is inherently a form of Polytheism when that’s not actually the definition of Polytheism at all. Regardless, the focus of absolute theistic classification seems to rely solely on whether or not there is “One” deity featured in your religion, or “More”- completely ignoring the minor differences in definitions.

All of it, however, still ignores or overlooks Theism’s true relationship with religion and spirituality. I’m beginning to think that it stems from an innate misunderstanding of what Religion and Spirituality itself actually is. And while some people complain about individuals that say things such as “I’m Spiritual, but not Religious”, there is still a difference (albeit, a rather subtle one) that most may not garner.

Spirituality is nothing more than the belief in and adherence to some sort of Divine philosophy…. Not necessarily a Theism, but it may be that they acknowledge the existence of Divine figures and hold a particular Theistic outlook, believe in an afterlife of some kind, or other generally other things commonly associated with Spirituality and Religion.

However, being Spiritual is not automatically the adherence to a Religion itself; a person who is a member of a Religion is obviously Spiritual in nature, but not all Spiritual people are members of a religion. You do not have to be a member of a religious system in order to be or consider yourself Spiritual and to believe in common aspects usually included in specific, organized Religions.

Religion itself is the doxy and the praxy; it is the rituals, spiritual beliefs, doctrines, and text, religious law, morality, and more which govern things such as our Spiritual lives, our interaction with the Divine, and everything in between. It is a compendium of rules and actions anchored towards a specific spiritual goal involving the entities of that religion, which Divine figures are worshiped, how they are worshiped, why, and to what ends.

So how does that all interact with Theism, exactly? Theism itself is an outlook concerning the nature of the Divine: How it exists, How many exist, and in what capacity.

Before we get too far into this, however, it’s been pointed out to me that my definitions of some specific Theisms do not line up with others. I want to clarify that- due to multiple reasons (such as changes in definitions over time and the true meaning behind a lot of the prefixes used in words denoting theistic outlooks, different communities defining things differently, and more)- I am specifically using the general dictionary and wikipedia for all definitions in this article; I’m going with the defined standards as opposed to community or fringe definitions.

Atheism tells us that there is no Divine whereas Agnosticism tells us that there may be a Divine, but that it is not for us to know; Deism tells us that a Divine exists, but that it is detached and does not interact with us and our world; Polytheismtells us that all Gods exist, whereas Henotheism tells us that all Divine entities exist- but that only one is worthy of or capable of being worshiped at a time; Monotheism tells us that only one Divine figure exists at all, and Pantheism tells us that all Divine figures are nothing more than facets or faces of a single organism or Divine figure.

There are many forms of Theistic outlook, and even inside a single Theism there may be variations of belief (key point: Polytheism, which may be categorized further into Hard, Soft, and Hard-Soft). It gets even more complicated when you consider the fact that Theisms may even be combined- such as in the case of Duo-Henotheism, or the belief in only two deities (usually one God and one Goddess) but wherein only one of those two is worshiped. Euthe-Monotheism is another combination- one in which the holder believes that only one Divine figure exists, and that they are wholly benevolent. Another example could even be Auto-Pantheism, or the relative belief that everything is part of the Divine and that Divine thing exists within oneself; that we are or contain that Divine, or have an obligation to become such.

But with Theism itself there are no doctrines that tell you how to interact with the divine, there are not afterlife theories, there is no doxy or praxy… It is simply the theory of “How” of Divine existence- making it a tad ridiculous to identify religiously via one’s Theistic outlook (#2).

Further than that, though, Theisms are all subject to the beliefs of the individual person. It is often an important part of a person’s view surrounding the divine, and often people will choose religions based on their own outlooks on such a matter- and what appears to be the dominant Theistic outlook within a religion… And yet despite assertions that they are, theisms are not intrinsically linked to any specific religion and a specific theistic outlook is not required to practice most- if any- of them.

That doesn’t, of course, ignore the fact that religions may focus on a specific group of Theisms or be structured in such a way that a particular Theism may seem necessary or important to the faith (an example being Wicca, which appears to be Duotheistic in nature due to significant religious and ritual emphasis on a God and Goddess, a Binary / Duality system, Heteronormnative Fertility rites, and more). These religions, however, very rarely cease to be viable if one does not hold the perceived Theism the religion appears to be structured around. There are still often no Religious ideologies which directly dictate the Theistic Outlook that a practitioner must have- and organized or not, Religions themselves are what tell us how to interact with the Divine and under what parameters… But they cannot actually dictate the intricate “hows” of Divine existence that Theism gives us. A religion which appears to be monotheistic will not suddenly fall apart as a viable religion if you approach it from a Pantheist perspective.

In fact, we know now that earlier practitioners of Judaism were not originally Monotheistic at all. Instead, early forms of Abrahamic religions were indeed Henotheistic- simultaneously acknowledging the existence of multiple Gods, but only worshiping one within their religious practice. It wasn’t until relatively recently in the scope of history that Monotheism became a common outlook among the bulk of some Abrahamic practitioners

We also know that despite having a large Pantheon, some Hindu denominations are followed by practitioners who carry predominantly Pantheistic and Duotheistic outlooks, believing that all the members of the Pantheon are different names for two specific Deities. Kemeticism- the religion of Ancient Egypt- is also not exempt. We now know that Kemet, too, went through several shifts in philosophy and held several over the course of its history which could be classified as Hard Polytheistic, Henotheistic, Pantheistic, and more.

You can be a member of an Abrahamic faith system such as Christianity, and have a Henotheistic, or even Polytheistic outlook. Likewise, you may be a member of a Pagan faith system, and yet hold a Pantheistic outlook, a Duotheistic, or even Agnostic one. You can even be Pagan and Henotheistic. Theisms are personal outlooks that cannot and often are not established by the Religious system of which you are a member, even if the majority of members may share a specific Theistic outlook on the nature of the Divine, or a Religion “works best” when practiced alongside a specific Theism.

This makes the earlier described action (#3) of classifying religions in absolutes based off of perceived Theism is an overly simplistic and arbitrary method of classifying religions when you get down to it- one which Pagans especially should stop participating in in terms of absolutes.

Concerning the use of theism to “other” yourself from the community… I don’t understand it. I guess I would understand it more if they were trying to distinguish between “Polytheist Pagans” and “Pantheist Pagans” or what have you, but it doesn’t genuinely feel as if that’s the case here. It seems as if they are taking it on- much like a religious identifier- as a way to distance themselves from a community they deem as “lesser” or “distasteful” in some way. In my (albeit limited) experience, the few people I’ve legitimately seen do this- save one- have had repeated instances wherein they have exhibited extreme cases of classism, elitism, and sometimes even racism… And if that’s kind of behavior you’re distancing yourself from the greater community as a whole because you want to participate in, then to that all I really have to say is “good riddance”.

Ultimately, however, I think that if it’s genuinely being done in an effort to further define the Pagan Umbrella into smaller and more cohesive units, to that I have to say “Thank the Gods, finally!”… But if only we could do it in a manner that doesn’t come with baggage and definitions already attached- because ultimately I’d rather throw a bunch of new terminology at the wall and see what sticks vs trying to cram ourselves into pre-existing terms which already have meanings attached, making them nonviable and sometimes flat out illogical as substitutes.tumblr_od9z4kycsq1urp3f5o1_540


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