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 point out that Paganism itself technically isn’t a 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. It is Orthopraxic, focusing on “right belief”, has specific rituals, a key set of Deities and / or figures, and religious text that forms the foundation of its faith and belief… But “Christianity” itself 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).

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.

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

The next problem we face are the common definitions of Paganism. 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”

This 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 other Deities exist, but that you are decreed to worship only one (Henotheism), 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. There are many forms of Theism which may be found in any religion. 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, though.

Deistic and Theistic outlooks and views are nothing more than a view on the nature of the divine itself. Theism may form a foundation for a religion, but ultimately it has nothing inherently to do with any religion, only the way divinity and divine figures are perceived.

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… Or even Monaltrism, the belief that multiple Gods exist but only one is worthy of being worshiped.

Even then, not all religions- especially Pagan all ones- are founded on viewpoints or outlooks that are Polytheistic in nature. Honestly, this applies to all Theisms and Deisms in terms of religion.

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 and working with deities in any format is not a requirement to be Pagan, and certainly not all Pagans do so… And so there is also the issue that this definition (and any like it which attempts to classify Paganism by a Theistic or Deistic belief) erases those that do not fall under this theistic outlook of the Divine.

Then there is also 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”

Definitions like these are 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… And all of these barely predate Judaism by approximately 1,000 years give or take.

Of course there’s several indigenous cultural systems in place that predate Judaism as well- such as early South American practices- and then there’s the whole argument surrounding Proto-Celtic practices. But leaving indigenous faiths (we’ll get to that later), and the questionable Proto-Celtic traditions (which archaeologists still can’t agree on) out of the equation, we’re left with Kemeticism and Hinduism as both the largest and oldest surviving religions 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 they technically don’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 adamant about not being considered a Pagan religion.

And I’m sorry, but if you want to tout that whole “Pre-Abrahamic” definition, you gotta get rid of that Wicca and Neo-Wiccan stuff as well; 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”

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 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”

I would hope that it 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”

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

  • “Primitive, savage, and uncivilized“

In the last definition, I would hope that the issues 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.

  • “Morally and spiritually stunted or deficient”

This one 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.

Community definitions are usually focused on one thing: Nature and associated Theology- including Theisms and Deistic outlooks. However, our own community definitions are often just as inaccurate and problematic as the dictionary ones.

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

A worldview, for the group or person, is the fundamental theological orientation which encompasses the entirety of their knowledge and point of view- often from a philsophical perspective. A worldview can include natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.

Animism is a worldview that may occasionally also be used as a paradigm when spellcasting.  In its case, 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 determines their 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, and there are several hundred worldviews which may be utilized in a religious capacity.

  • Earth-based nature religion, or a practice or religion which places any emphasis on the Earth and Nature.

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 movements that spanned from the early 1800’s to the 1990’s.

Arguably the Spiritist, New-Age, and general 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. Margaret Murray herself was one of the primary peoples to spread these things, though her theories were denounced and she was proven to have falsified much of the evidence she used to support her claims.

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.

Likewise, since this article got a bit too big for its britches, I’ve transferred my definition proposal to another post as well. You may now find it here.


Edit [12/20/13]: Proposition of a new definitionI 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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