What is Paganism, really?

There are so many books, websites, teachings, and shows that will try to tell you what Paganism is. Most of the time, these materials will tell you that Paganism is akin to Neo-Wicca; earth centered, non-initiatory, with emphasis on good vibes, harming none, and with a socio-political undercurrent of activism. 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.

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, not true for Paganism as a whole.

For starters, I want to begin with the common definitions of Paganism, because here especially is where a lot of the inaccuracies lie that contribute to further problems that I’ll discuss.

The dictionary lists the definition of Pagan as:

  1. One of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion. [It] is most frequently used in speaking of the ancient Greeks and Romans
  2. 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.
  3. An irreligious or hedonistic person.
  4. Rural, agrarian people [Old Latin]
  5. A person deemed primitive, savage, uncivilized, and morally and spiritually stunted or deficient
  6. A pagan spirit or attitude in religious or moral questions.
  7. Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of pagans.
  8. The beliefs or practices of pagans.
  9. 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. Let’s look at those reasons now:

The “Polytheistic” definition is problematic simply because Polytheism is the worship 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. I included much more outlined definitions in my rebuttal of Krasskova’s article about “Polytheist Values”.

I am a Polytheist… Kind of… But, believe it or not, there are many types of theistic viewpoints that range from “every Deity is the face of a single entity” (which I feel is a form of Monotheism, or is at least closely related to Monotheism), to “The belief that the physical universe is equivalent to the Gods” (Pantheism).

It also ignores the fact that Theisms an Deisms are not religions. Deistic and Theistic outlooks and views are nothing more than a view on the nature of the divine itself. It has nothing inherently to do with any religion, only the way divinity and divine figures are perceived.

Theism and Deism are individual outlooks- not entire religious outlooks.

Now, don’t get me wrong… Religions may have fundamental foundations in a particular theism or deism. But an individual does not have to hold that specific foundational deism/ theism to be a member of the religion and oftentimes a shift in deistic or theistic outlook does not affect one’s practice.

A good example of this is Christianity. Christians do not have to be monotheists. There are several other theistic and deistic outlooks they might hold that do not conflict with their base religious teachings- theisms like Henotheism, or the worship of and devotion to a single deity but the acknowledgement of the existence of others, too.

Even then, not all religions- especially Pagan all ones- are founded on viewpoints or outlooks that are Polytheistic in nature, and so this definition erases those that do not fall under this theistic outlook of the Divine even if there wasn’t the inherent “outlook on the divine, not a religion” issue of using theism and deism as qualifiers for something to be Pagan.

Then there is the consideration that this specific definition in this form speaks, more often and correctly, of the Greek and Roman cultural religions. If Paganism is Greek and Roman Polytheism, then only these can be considered truly Pagan and where does that leave the rest of us?

“Pre-Abrahamic” is problematic because Judaism is the first Abrahamic religion. If taken literally, the oldest existing, solidified pre-Judaic cultural religions are Hinduism, Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian) practices.

Of course there’s several cultural systems in place that DO predate Judaism as well, but for the most part Kemeticism and Hinduism are both the largest and oldest surviving ones that had a significant, developed structure at the time. That aside, however, all pre-Judaic cultural religions which could be considered “Pre-Abrahamic” have one thing in common: They’re all DEAD.

Every one of them (with the exception of some indigenous practices- but we’ll get to indigenous practices in a second) are considered archaeologically “dead” cultures. This means that the cultures themselves no longer exist in the format they did when their subsequent cultural religion was practiced; 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.

These religions, for all intents and purposes, do not exist anymore and as a result their practices in the modern era have had to be reconstructed through extensive archaeological research and piecing back together what evidence remains. Therefore, under this definition they could not truthfully be considered Pagan religions since- outside of reconstructionist and revivalists faiths- they technically don’t exist anymore.

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 adamant about not being considered a Pagan religion.

And I’m sorry, but if you want to tout that whole “Pre-Abrahamic bullshit”, you gotta get rid of that Wicca and Neo-Wiccan shit, too.

You can’t go on about how Paganism is “Pre-Abrahamic” if you’re practicing a religious system that wasn’t developed until the 1900’s. I don’t care how “ancient and mysterious” the practices claim to be, how much heritage is supposedly behind it, or whatever lies the founder of the religion managed to pull out their ass when trying to validate their spiritual practice.

If it didn’t survive, 100% unbroken, into the modern era (like Hinduism and Judaism, etc) then it’s not some mystic “Pre-Abrahamic” religion. If we were to adhere to the definition of “Pre-Abrahamic” in order for a religious system to be considered truly Pagan, we are left with no actual Pagan religions.

“Non-Abrahamic” 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 reasons. Other Indian and South Asian religions such as Bhakti and Buddhism; East Asian religions such as Confucianism and Taoism … All of these and several others have too- including 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 oppression against non-white ethnicities and their practices.

”Irreligious or hedonistic” should be pretty obvious as those who are irreligious are usually just simply irreligious. Today, we often call those people simply Atheists or Agnostics depending on the varying degree of (a lack of) religious philosophy or belief- though that is not meant to erase the fact that there are still irreligious or Atheistic/Agnostic members of the Pagan community.

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 and there are certainly a few Pagan religions that practice, accept, or promote forms of Hedonism. However, that does not necessarily make a person Pagan.

“Rural or Agrarian” 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”. I’ll explain exactly WHY that’s wrong later, but for now it’s just important to point out that this is wrong on.

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

There are a vast number of racist 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.

“Morally and spiritually stunted or deficient” is, quite frankly, a personal idea and perception and should not determine whether or not a person is Pagan. 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 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 and so I promote the idea that we, as a community at large, begin to implement a new definition that would suit us better as our community grows, expands, and evolves.

But how do we really do that if we don’t know what Paganism is? You start with what Paganism is not, of course, and what it is not is an actual religion any more that “Christianity” actually is.

Ok, so Christianity is technically a religion. It’s a subset of the Abrahamic faiths having come after Judaism, but established before Islam… But “Christianity” is an Umbrella term for a wide number of denominations that adhere to a basic set of tenants- though their practices and interpretation of those tenets and their base teachings may differ.

And really, Paganism is much the same. It’s a little different due to the fact that there is no true core set of beliefs, texts, and practices that define all Pagan religions, but Paganism itself is still an Umbrella Term and cannot, quantitatively, be considered a religion in and of itself.

Think of umbrella terms like a house.

So using Christianity as an example, the “Christian” umbrella term would be your house. It is the house itself, and the denominations that stem from it or are a part of that umbrella would be the rooms within your house; Catholic would be the Living Room, Protestant would be the Bathroom, Mormonism can be the bedroom, so on and so on.

All the rooms in the house are their own little rooms; they can be blocked off, closed off, boarded up, repainted, redecorated, expanded upon, and the house can be added to or subtracted from, etc. (symbolizing that religions may grow, fade, change, etc., over time)… But all the rooms are all part of a bigger collection, a bigger picture- and that’s the House in its entirety.

Paganism just happens to be your neighbor’s house next door, and as an umbrella term Paganism covers a wide range of practices, beliefs, and spiritualities, too, and these practices and religions, etc., are extremely varied.  Each practice, group, practice, spirituality, or religion follows their own philosophies, has their own practices, their own rules, morals, structures, etc., just like the various denominations under the Christian umbrella, except (like already stated) without having the whole semi-unifying beliefs thing going for them like Christianity does.

Some may be Earth based, some may not be (in fact, most practices actually aren’t terracentric, but we’ll get to that later); some are Reconstructionist and Revivalist traditions like Kemetic, Celtic, Nordic, and other R/R faiths based on the old, now archaeologically considered “dead” cultural spiritualities of open religions and cultures from times past; others are  wholly modern practices such as technopaganism, Modern Literary Paganism (pop culture), etc. It also includes established and organized religions created under the Pagan umbrella, such as Huntwitch, Wicca, Fleurism, and others…  And, despite popular belief, it may also include various forms of Satanism and Abrahamic influenced practices (by choice of the individuals identifying; again, I’ll get to that).

So if Paganism itself isn’t technically actually a religion, then why do people use umbrella terms as religious identifiers? Well, that would be because it not being a religion with a specific and identifiable set of beliefs, philosophies, etc., doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t still be used as an identifier.

As a religious and personal identifier, using “Paganism” is simpler and says “I don’t belong to any of these established denominations or religions, but what I practice may still fall under this umbrella and I choose to recognize that so I’m just going to call myself Non-Denominational Pagan, or just Pagan for short.

There’s also cases where explaining your beliefs is just too bothersome at the time, so you use it as a substitute. Thus an Umbrella term may also be used as a simplified identifier.

Back on topic of what Paganism is not though, we know that it is also not always a theistic religion, let alone one which adheres to a single specific theistic outlook on the Divine.

Not all Pagans are Polytheistic, Monotheistic, Pantheistic, Deist, etc.; not all Pagans worship both a God and a Goddess, or a God, or a Goddess, or even believe in the existence of Deities or various accompanying entities; some Pagans worship just Gods; some Pagans worship just Goddesses; some don’t worship any at all.

Wikipedia, for once, does a great job and provides two article detailing basic theistic viewpoints here and here. Keep in mind that these are not the only types of theistic viewpoints. As we spoke about before when talking bout the Polytheistic definition of Paganism, there are many forms of theism and, truthfully, worshiping, believing in, or even working with deities in any format is not a requirement to be Pagan, and certainly not all Pagans do so.

Not all Practices under the Pagan umbrella are inherently religious by nature, either. There are  and there are Atheistic Pagans, Secular Pagans, and even Agnostic pagans, and their practices may reflect their individual theism.

It is also not always an Animistic religion, or a practice which has an Animistic worldview.

Animism is a worldview that may occasionally also be used as a paradigm when spellcasting. A worldview, for the group or person, is the fundamental orientation of an individual which encompasses the entirety of their knowledge and point of view. A world view can include natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.

In the case of Animism it is the spiritual ideology or worldview which states that:

  1. Plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena have souls- though usually it pertains mostly to plants, animals, rocks, and other natural non-man made objects;
  2. 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 determine interaction with and treatment of these objects.

While quite a few indigenous practices and even 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.

It is also not always and Earth-based nature religion, let alone a practice or religion which places any emphasis on the Earth and Nature in the first place.

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). It comes, largely, as the result of the New-Age and occult movement that spanned the 1960’s to the 1990’s.

Arguably the New-Age and Occult movements began much earlier than that, but thanks to esoteric authors and the rise of Pagan and Pagan-related practices in the 50’s and slightly earlier, it really started to gain steam in the 1960’s. A lot of things cropped up and came into play that both directly and indirectly contributed to this movement, and which the movement directly and indirectly became affiliated with.

In the 60’s we saw the birth of both Second-Wave Feminism and the Hippie Subculture which lent greatly to the image of the Sacred Feminine and a nature-basis; in the 70’s the socio-political aspects of Paganism emerged and it became associated heavily with various forms of activism; in the late 70’s, through the 80’s and 90’s, you also had a significant surge in the rise of Reconstructionist religions, and a lot of cultural spiritual practices and systems being brought back.

You also had- under all of this- the prominence of authors like Margaret Murray and their claims about pre-Christian “Goddess Religions”, the Matriarchy/ Matriarchal Society myths, “The Old Religion” myths, and several other things- all under the guise of history, science, and anthropology though now we now know them all to be false today – circulating very heavily.

There was a lot of white-washing and cultural appropriation, misinformation, and several other things that contributed to the image 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.

And then, of course, there was (and always has been) the battle against the mainstream- and with that, Christianity. In this case, the battle to de-demonize Witchcraft and occult practices (the practice of which is actually still illegal in some states today despite religious freedom and a lack of carrying out the punishment for those laws), and these socio-political issues at the time and their new association with Paganism brought some of the perfect opportunities to do that by giving us a new “face”- one of peaceful earth centeredness with a focus on the Goddess.

Basically, it’s wholly and completely, 100% incorrect, and the entire movement created a giant mess. 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 movement.

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 also 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.

Beside that, while we’re on the concept of inaccurate conceptions about what Paganism is and is not, I want to have a really quick discussion about a few things… Over here, though, because this article’s long enough as is.

Moving on: We have now established what is not inherently or necessarily considered Pagan- and doesn’t inherently or necessarily fall into Paganism are beliefs that:

  1. Are Indigenous spiritualities belonging to Indigenous peoples (Native American or African Tribal Spiritualities, etc.)
  2. Are world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.)
  3. Are Abrahamic (Judaism, Islam, Christianity)
  4. May or may not incorporate, include, contain, or revolve around the Occult, Mysticism, Estoercism, the practice of Witchcraft, etc.
  5. May or may not even be religious or spiritual at all, or have any inherent theistic foundation.
  6. May or may not be Earth-centered or contain a nature-basis.
  7. May or may not contain Abrahamic influences (despite clear cut and established Abrahamic religions not being Pagan)

We can now  establish that Paganism may potentially be defined as:

  1. A group of individuals, religions, personal practices, or spiritualities that fall beneath the Pagan umbrella;
  2. A group of individuals, religions, personal practices, or spiritualities that do not fall into the category of A. an Organized World Religion or B. an Indigenous Spiritual System, and may share a few common theistic or other foundations among themselves and other religions (but are not necessarily all the same or related) so long as the practitioner chooses to identify as Pagan or is a member of a religion, practice, or spiritual system that identifies itself as Pagan.

This definition is, basically, still pretty close to the original definitions. But the big difference is really in that the newer definition

  • Does not contain all of the erasure, generalization, and racism of the originals.
  • Only includes those who wish to be included by placing emphasis on identification over theism or practice (and therefore maintains the rights of those religions and individuals- who do not wish to be included- to not be generalized and lumped in as well).
  • Allows for future expansion and acceptance of practices and religions that may wish to consider themselves Pagan as our community and it’s umbrella grows.

Under this, Paganism is an umbrella term which doesn’t inherently cover everything, but allows for people who are not inherently covered to still opt into being a part of it (simply by identifying as such) while simultaneously not erasing anyone underneath it and generalizing practices like most other definitions are wont to do (and generalizing is generally considered unacceptable as it leads to the erasure of valid practices).

I fully believe that individual capability and rights to identify as Pagan must be upheld- especially with a history of some faiths to force the identifier on individuals and entire systems, and double especially when it is taken into consideration that there are, today, several Pagan religions that do not share any common ancestry, practices, spiritual foundations, etc., but who feel that rightfully they are a Pagan religion too.


Edit [12/20/13]: I got this reply from a member when I posted this article on the CC Forums / No, you cannot “pick-and-choose”

About Anna B.

Anna was a practicing Pagan of almost 13 years before stepping down from the community- though she continues to write on subjects closely related to the Pagan faith and her own religion and occult practice.
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5 Responses to What is Paganism, really?

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