Monday, September 27, 2010

The extent of "Paganism"

This blog was inspired by a recent discussion I have been having on an interfaith forum.

The discussion focused around the need for a spokesperson to speak for Paganism. My position on the idea was that it was at best misguided and at worst, terrible. The crux of my opposition is that Paganism is so disparate, so varied that the idea of a spokesperson trying to speak for all, would result in a huge swath of those who find themselves under the umbrella ignored. The problem of course is that Paganism is an almost useless term when it comes to describing a belief system; because in its modern conception it means whatever one wants it to. The fact is that there are always outliers who throw a wrench into any kind of consensus among those who use the term.

Think about it, I mean really think about it; what do so called Pagan religions actually have in common? Nature worship; a vague concept in and of itself, but there are those who would not call their practices nature worship, I'm one of them. Polytheism; yes a lot of those religions under the umbrella are polytheistic, but some are monotheistic (admittedly rare), duotheistic, pantheistic, panentheistic, agnostic and even atheistic. Okay, no Pagans worship the Abrahamaic god right? Nope, there are both Christo-Pagans and Judeo-Pagans. Belief in or practice of magick; again many "Pagan" religions do not. Holy days which are based on the natural rhythms of the earth? Certainly more often than not, but again not every day is linked to seasonal patterns, they may in fact be based on a particular deity. Worship or belief in "the Goddess", certainly not, but indicative of the popular imagination and relative influence of eclectic neoWicca and "Paganism 101" books. A shared developmental history? True in some cases but not others, Asatru for example developed independently from "Paganism" and only later was placed under the umbrella. Of course not all Asatruars were happy with their inclusion, and so the use of the term Heathen came to prominence, as a way to differentiate between them and other Pagans. There is a similar push among many in the reconstructionist camp to do something similar.

The other consideration is that even if many "Pagan" religions share some of the above, they are also not the only ones who do so. Concern for the environment, different conceptions of deity, use of magic(k), seasonal holy days, etc. are found among many religions which do not fall under the umbrella. Yoruba and Santeria, for example may have many parallels to some of the "Pagan" religions, but are decidedly not classed as such.

What then is the use of "Paganism" as an umbrella term, when it does not really describe anything? We could certainly go back to more classical definitions; all those religions and beliefs outside the JCI model, but again that does little to impart meaning other than they aren't worshiping the god of Abraham (and then what about those poor Christo/Judeo-Pagans?) A friend of mine pointed out that even the old "getting Pagans to agree on anything is like herding cats" is not apt; cats at least are all the same creature. It is, she contends, more like herding cats, dogs and ferrets.

What then do "Pagan" religions really have in common with each other than they do not have in common with other religions? What do "Pagans" get from grouping themselves together, that other interfaith networking would not achieve?

Personally I think the existing structures and communities (web forums, mailing lists, conventions, PPD, etc.) more than anything prevent many from understanding how disparate "we" really are. Not that I am opposed to groups like the Pagan Pride Project, or interfaith online forums, I'm not. I am aware that differences exist, and are not mere quibbles or hair splitting; they are core beliefs which are not readily glossed over. I have participated in my local PPD for almost as long as I have been a polytheist, but I have not participated in their group ritual, because it is little more than a Wiccanesque framework with a variety of different deities called upon depending on the officiants that year. I do not blame them, but it is a ritual framework which is as foreign to me as a Catholic liturgy, and so I abstain from participation.

It has taken me some time to understand just why so many in the CR community are distancing themselves from "Paganism" as a label which describes their beliefs, but it has become fairly apparent.


P.S.: I would also like to point to an essay by Devyn Gillette and Lewis Stead, The Pentagram and the Hammer, which explores the differences between Asatru and Wicca.


  1. Pagan is a vague and confusing term, agreed. One of the prominent Canaanite paganism sites also has the ubiquitous "No We're Not Wiccans and Here's Why" section because that misunderstanding is so prevalent.

    What have been your observations and experiences overall with PPD events? Every time I think about going, I remember when I took my skeptical husband (then-boyfriend) to a paganish event under the naive impression that it would help him understand my own religion better. I spent a lot of time after that earnestly reassuring him that I wasn't drawing invisible circles with knives while decked out in Renn Faire garb and fairy wings in my spare time. Oy.

  2. The one which goes on in Toronto isn't a bad affair overall. There are usually a number of folks in ren garb, kilts and robes, but people dress how they will. My largest complaint is that the ritual format is in that generic Wiccan format. Swinging around a knife in order to get spirits and gods to listen to you never really registered as a sensible thing to do, but people are entitled to their opinions and practices. I rarely get odd looks anymore for sitting out (it seems more folks are doing so). The workshops can be interesting, except when dominated by Reiki, Crystal healing and the like. However the food is usually decent, the folks are friendly and the "bardic" is always a hoot.

  3. Interesting, I appreciate you sharing your observations about this type of event!