Engaging the discussion on How Paganism is defined

So in response to my last post Kullervo posted a response.  I feel I should respond to this in detail. I am also posting this as a blog post, rather than a reply in the comment stream, because I feel that this sort of a conversation and the points within are very important ones that we Pagans should be discussing and sharing with one another as so many of us seek community within the movement.  So here it is…


Kullervo’s response to Paganism: Defining Ourselves…

Unfortunately, I think there actually is no real “common theme” to the various religious traditions that get lumped under the umbrella of “paganism.” At least, no common theme that’s not so broad that it could be applied equally to every religion on earth.

The best you are going to get is a list of movements that self-identify as “pagan,” which makes me honestly wonder if it is a coherent and/or meaningful category at all.

What do Wiccans have in common with Hellenic reconstructionists, for example? Almost nothing. Even when they invoke the same deities, their understanding of the nature of those deities is so different that the similarity barely goes below the superficial/cosmetic level.

We could meaningfully talk about Western Polytheist Traditions, but that might conceivably exclude duotheist Wicca–and Wiccans are almost certainly the overwhelming majority of modern self-identifying pagans.

I honestly wonder if “paganism” as a category is not only artificial but actually detrimental to a lot of the traditions listed above.

Thank you Kullervo,

Thank you for your response, first of all, because it is good to know that this is a discussion people are interested in having.  While I may disagree with your points, your response has shown me that I need to dig a lot deeper within myself and into my topic and begun to give me clues as to where I need to dig and what needs dusting off and polishing.

In regards to your first two paragraphs, I already did a little more work on that Definition… although its rapidly turning into more of an encyclopedia entry rather than a definition… and I see I have more work to do.  Part of the point IS that at the heart of things WHAT we are doing as Pagans is A) not so different from one another that we do not share commonalities, and B) that what we are doing as Pagans is not so radically different from other religions.

In addition to common practices, there are those intertwined and overlapping values… things like Courage, and Honor, Truthfulness, Hospitality, and Piety among many others.  Shared and similar values are extremely important and can be a tremendous source of connection, strength, and community.  Here in the U.S. the Civil Rights Movement is but one example, among many, of that fact.

Within the interfaith movement that is Paganism there are also some very compelling shared interests.  Not only some of the obvious ones life Freedom of Religion, and Freedom of Speech.  What about the idea, common across the theological spectrum of Right Relationship, not only with ones Faith Community, but with ones larger Community, but also with the Spirits… of our Ancestors or the Spirits of the Earth and the World around us?  Especially in the West, where the Pagan movement is centered (although there has been growth in India and South America of Wicca, among other Pagan Traditions) the mere idea of acknowledging much less relating to Spirits (whatever your Tradition calls them) is a radical one and is a source not only of shared experience but often struggle for Pagans.

Why shouldn’t we come together, work around and discuss these common interests and values with one another?  Ancient Paganisms did not exist in some sort of vacuum, there was trade and travel even in the ancient world… and now in the 21st Century when we are all so much more interconnected and crowded on Gaea’s Green Earth, why shouldn’t we come together?

“What do Wiccans have in common with Hellenic reconstructionists, for example? Almost nothing.”

Well, I suppose that does depend upon a number of factors.  First off when you reference Wicca are you referring to the initiatory linneaged Traditions also known as British Traditional Witchcraft, the ones originating in the New Forrest region of Britain?  Perhaps you mean the broader Religious Neo-Pagan Witchcraft Traditions inspired by, among other things, the writings of Wiccan authors that is popularly known as Wicca?  Whichever of the two too which you are refering, even within the Gardnerian Tradition you will see a WIDE spectrum of theological belief as to who or what the Goddess and God, or the Gods, are.  (at least that’s what I understand from having had some discussions with a few different Gardnerians over the years…)

Hellenic recon also involves a wide spectrum of theoligical belief when it comes to who and what the Theoi are exactly, and how best to worship them.

As for what they have in common, how about some of those shared or similar values and interests?

We could, conceivably talk about Western Polytheist Traditions at least within the broader category of the Pagan Movement… remember I see Contemporary or Modern Paganism as an interfaith movement, but as you point out it would leave out some Traditions and Individuals within NOT only Wicca and Witchcraft, but within other Traditions… but I am not against groups and individuals within the Pagan Movement coming together to share and discuss common interests and beliefs.

“…and Wiccans are almost certainly the overwhelming majority of modern self-identifying pagans.”

Uhm, says who?!?

I am willing to grant that as one of the most widely publicized and known Pagan Traditions that Wicca (or more accurately Neo-Wicca, as the Wicca most popularly known at the moment  are the Wicca inspired Neo-Pagan Craft Traditions…..) is one of the first points of entry into Paganism…. but I have encountered PLENTY of recons who looked at “Wicca” and then moved onto something else more meaningful to them, and also a lot of folks who PREFER Pagan as a descriptor even though their holidays and ritual structure are of the “Wiccan” Sabbats, “Wiccan” Circle mold.

“I honestly wonder if “paganism” as a category is not only artificial but actually detrimental to a lot of the traditions listed above.”

Why would it be “detrimental”?  For that matter what injury does it do to come together over the points of commonality, our similar and/or shared values and ethics, and our common interests, as Pagans?

Peace,

Pax

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20 thoughts on “Engaging the discussion on How Paganism is defined

  1. “I honestly wonder if “paganism” as a category is not only artificial but actually detrimental to a lot of the traditions listed above.”

    Why would it be “detrimental”? For that matter what injury does it do to come together over the points of commonality, our similar and/or shared values and ethics, and our common interests, as Pagans?

    I read the above as the fear that by focusing on our commonalities and a broader category, that we will lose the differences that make our traditions unique. For example in the Christian community, there is a difference between being a Quaker and being an Evangelical. Arguably, they are both Christians and share the same values, yet there are large differences in their actual views and theology.

    Focusing on a broader category can be double-edged. Part of it allows us to become part of a larger community and gives us a larger voice when dealing with people from outside the community. We can point to a central point or central tenants of faith to start the discussion with people of other faiths. On the other hand, there is the risk that by saying “if you’re pagan you believe x” is that those pagans who do not believe x, (because of tradition or personal reasons) may feel ostracized and outside the norm. In other words, are we, by creating a common term of “pagan” merely creating a dogma?

    Another question that I’ve had while reading is this: what about solitary practitioners (whether by habit, choice, or necessity)? How are they defined, since they are by definition, not part of a larger worship community? They may not be a part of any one tradition either, though they may self-define as Neo-pagan, Wiccan, Hellenistic, etc. Yet, there is no central area where their views are collated.

    • “I read the above as the fear that by focusing on our commonalities and a broader category, that we will lose the differences that make our traditions unique.”

      …I have a lot of trouble understanding your point here. We are somehow going to abandon our various Gods and our practices simply by coming together in discussion and community?!? If categorized as a part of the Pagan movements is it really all that likely that Heathens are somehow going to start dancing around in robes shaking Sistrums and praising Isis?

      Although I should probably reference the importance of and concern with Orthopraxy (correct practice) that one finds across Paganism and within all of the faiths of Paganism and how it is much more important within the movement than Orthodoxy (correct belief).

      As for your observation about an outsider getting confused about which Paganism is which, well firstly there will always be those whose understandings of religions outside their own faith or tradition within a faith are going to be very hazy at best, secondly I specifically reference that Paganism as an interfaith movement in the first sentence so if they aren’t going to read or understand it then YES, they will need to be corrected.

      Peace,
      Pax

      • …I have a lot of trouble understanding your point here. We are somehow going to abandon our various Gods and our practices simply by coming together in discussion and community?!? If categorized as a part of the Pagan movements is it really all that likely that Heathens are somehow going to start dancing around in robes shaking Sistrums and praising Isis?

        No, not at all. The fear, as I read it, is that we are pushed towards a central fold. Many of the pagans I know /read and myself, are fiercely independent. They are independent in thought and in practice. There is something that feels inherently threatening about being defined as one category.

        Please mind that the following is purely an instinctive reaction: There is a fear that one will be pushed aside if one does not follow all the precepts of the definition. Thereby, one becomes pushed out of two societies. The one that was left voluntarily (large movements like Christianity) and the one which was joined voluntarily.

        My rational reaction is: yes, I self ID as pagan (quietly – I’ve been metaphorically “burned” at work for this before); yes, I agree with the definitions that you’re working with; and yes, it would be excellent to strengthen the bonds of the inter-tradition pagan community.

    • Just so you know, not all Quakers are Christians, although most are. In unprogrammed Quakerism, where I am active, there are Pagan Quakers, Jewish Quakers, non-theist Quakers, Buddhist Quakers, Christian Quakers, and more.

      It depends a lot on where you are geographically, and it depends a lot on the particular Monthly Meeting and Yearly Meeting: some are explicitly Christian; some are explicit about and dedicated to the theaological diversity among their members and attenders. So while yes, most Quakers are Christians, a significant number of us are not, and many of us are involved with the leadership of our Monthly and Yearly Meetings.

      (I could go way off on a tangent about how unprogrammed Quakerism, like many forms of Paganism, is more about orthopraxy than orthodoxy, but I will resist.)

      GamingGirl, one of the things I like about the Pagan Pride Project’s set of definitions is that they do address some of the concerns you raise, particularly about assumptions and about where diversity fits in.

      Something I think most of us need to remember is that most folks who are working on building the interfaith Pagan community/movement are *not* trying to build one based on lowest-common-denominator theaology. In my opinion, doing so *is* a bad idea, does degrade traditions, and also sets us up for “Witch wars.” The most successful organizations I know celebrate our commonalities and our diversity, and both help us come together in community — which is important spiritually, psychologically, and practically — as well as help us retain what makes different traditions unique, and thereby helps us strengthen them.

      I know for me, I’ve learned tons about myself and how I approach my own practice from in-depth discussions with people from other traditions. That’s a blessing. And we’ve certainly helped lift each other up and strengthen each others’ leadership.

      Another thing to recognize is that when trying to wrap their brains around anything about Paganism, most non-Pagans are first going to have to wrap their brains around the fact that Pagan religions are not analogs of their religion, with the names and genders changed. This is one of the biggest humps, in my experience. Sure, non-Pagans can get very frustrated when the diversity within even just US modern neo-Paganism doesn’t parallel that within modern Christianity, or even Abrahamic faiths. That’s okay.

      Just my two cents’ worth.

      • Stasa,
        (I have got to get a cut and pastable version of your name sometime…)

        Excellent point about Quakerism!

        “I know for me, I’ve learned tons about myself and how I approach my own practice from in-depth discussions with people from other traditions.”

        YES!!! So, true. And thank you for posting Stasa, your words articulate some very key things I need to be able to articulate for myself and my Work.

        Peace,
        Pax

      • In unprogrammed Quakerism, where I am active, there are Pagan Quakers, Jewish Quakers, non-theist Quakers, Buddhist Quakers, Christian Quakers, and more.

        Ah, most of the Quakers in my area seem to ID as Christian. I’ll have to see if there is an unprogrammed Quaker group in my area to find out more. (Alternatively, if there’s a resource or two on-line, I’ll have to take a look.)

        I know for me, I’ve learned tons about myself and how I approach my own practice from in-depth discussions with people from other traditions. That’s a blessing. And we’ve certainly helped lift each other up and strengthen each others’ leadership.

        It is indeed. Which I suppose is why I enjoy the discussions around here. They’re always challenging.

    • Hey Gamer Girl!

      I am working on the wording of something to address the Solitary and Seeker phenomenon in Paganism… check out the latest version on the definitions page and let me know what you think… this definition is, like myself, a work and Work in progress.

      Peace,
      Pax

        • Well, I think one of the things that helps is that I am fairly up front about the fact that I am crafting this definition primarilly for myself…

          Thank you for your lauding… laudation… well, anyway, Thank You!!

  2. I think including “belief” of any kind in the defintion is problematic. As Pax points out, even within traditions, beliefs will vary widely. Specific personal beliefs about the nature of the gods and spirits are an individual matter – an atheist who finds value in coven ritual and is committed to a personal practice, for instance, is every bit as much a pagan as the “hard polytheist” (they could even be part of the same coven without much difficulty) and I’d be uncomfortable with any definition that left one or the other out.

    When Pax asks, “Why shouldn’t we come together?”, what’s in question is who “we” are. I like having an umbrella term because it does seem to bring us together, and within our own communities we seem to have no trouble figuring out who belongs under the umbrella. If I see a flier for a “pagan” or “Earth spirituality” event, I have a pretty good idea of who will show up for something like that, and I’d be likely to go as well if it’s not too inconvenient. One of the things that bugs me about the “European indigenous traditions” term is that it looks to me like a disingenuous bid for inclusion, a stab at legitimacy that is denied NRMs. We’d rather be classed with the Native Americans than the Moonies, after all. I’m always suspicious of attempts to make paganism “respectable.” I’m all for gaining institutional rights such as are granted to the big religions, but not for fawning attempts to get to sit with the cool kids.

    I am curious how North American syncretist religions like Santeria or Palo are classified in the context of world religions. I think American paganism has a lot more in common with those than with the truly indigenous traditions. We combine elements of reconstructed or rediscovered ancestral religion with practices of classical and medieval origin and folk traditions that have been handed down. The NA syncretists such as Santeria do much of the same sort of thing, though their sources tend to be African and Catholic rather than European and Masonic. There’s plenty of cross-pollination there, too.

    Anyway, I don’t know if this helps the discussion any because I still haven’t come to any conclusions about how to define us, but we seem to know who we are anyway. Pax, I think you’re on to something by talking about relationship – that seems like a more frutiful path than looking for any commanlity of belief.

    • Hey Nettle!

      Good points, and great point on the diversity of theological belief/approach within the Pagan faiths! I really do need to address that too.

      I really empathize and understand where you are coming from in that 2nd paragraph! You make a lot of the same points that I am trying to address within my definition. I would take issue, though, with the idea the New Religious Movements are viewed as less legitimate; I would say that, among those who use the NRM terminology anyway, that they are viewed as equally valid religious movements to other Faith traditions.

      Admittedly though the perception of some forms of Paganism being somehow less legitimate than others is of concern as we are not always dealing with religious scholars who understand what NRM’s are or means.

      I am curious to know what you thing about my point on Orthopraxy vs. Orthodoxy as mentioned in my response to Gamer Girl?

      Peace,
      Pax

      • Hi Pax,
        I think there needs to be some explicit mention of the role of praxis in any attempt to define paganism, not only because it is one of the things that unite us but because it’s an approach to religion that seems to be hard for those coming to us from Protestant traditions to get their heads around. You don’t have to believe in anything in particular in order to be part of this community, but if all you do is hang around believing in things, then you aren’t one of us. I don’t mean that in a way that’s meant to exclude anyone, but it’s just a fact – hang out with pagans of whatever stripe, you’ll be doing stuff pretty soon, and if you don’t, then there’s no reason for you to be there. We are Earth-based in that what we do and what we get from what we do happens here and now; the gods aren’t waiting somewhere else for us to die before we can meet them – they are here within the very fabric of the Earth.

        Paganism is an umbrella term for a diverse variety of religions that engage in Earth-based religious practice with roots mostly (but not exclusively) in European indigenous traditions, classical and medieval philosophy, occult practices, and modern folk traditions.

        How’s that one do? I’m sure it won’t work for broad swathes of pagandom for one reason or another. And there are a whole slew of terms within that defintion that need defining themselves. My instinct is to say “Pagans! I know ’em when I see ’em” and forget the whole enterprise as legalistic drivel, but for some reason I’m finding the conversation interesting.

        • Feel free to check out the definitions page, much editing has gone on over there…

          I have tried to address the issue of praxis, although maybe I need to say more? I do need to address the fact that across the Pagan faiths there is no concept of the world as Fallen… Then too, I need to reference the importance of self-declaration within the Pagan movement…

          I am trying to figure out how to address the issue of Solitaries and Seekers, since you don’t HAVE to participate in one of the communities of worshiper’s inb a Pagan religion in order to be considered on of them… only I need to word it better/more clearly…

          Your posts have Really helped me and given me a lot to think about, thank you!

          “Paganism is an umbrella term for a diverse variety of religions that engage in Earth-based religious practice with roots mostly (but not exclusively) in European indigenous traditions, classical and medieval philosophy, occult practices, and modern folk traditions.”

          I LIKE IT!!! And keep working on it! I think it is very important for Spiritual people to question the ideas and definitions they have been given!

          Peace,
          Pax

    • “I am curious how North American syncretist religions like Santeria or Palo are classified in the context of world religions.”

      Classified by whom?, is the question.

      There’s an assumption that there is some over-arching classification system that is universally agreed-upon and held. And while Western academia would like to pretend there is, there isn’t.

      There’s not even universal agreement on what is secular ritual, what is sacred ritual, what is ceremony, etc. Ritual Studies is, at this moment, both a very exciting and a very frustrating academic field. 🙂

      “Anyway, I don’t know if this helps the discussion any because I still haven’t come to any conclusions about how to define us, but we seem to know who we are anyway.”

      Perhaps the discussion is more the point than conclusions are. 🙂

  3. The problem again with your definition is that it is so broad that it basically includes every religion. If “paganism” just means shared values, then Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims who share those values are also pagans. If it just means “people who share certain values and self-identify as pagan,” then practically it just means “people who self-identify as pagan.” Unless you can find a person or group that self-identifies as pagan whom you would be willing to exclude from the category because of their failure to hold to those values.

    And if the descriptor “pagan” tells us nothing more than how a person names themself, then it’s not really a useful category, because it is empty of meaning.

    All categories are to an extent artificial and arbitrary, but their usefulness has to be weighed against the confusion and misperception they can potentially cause. By labeling a bunch of individuals as a category, it makes us think of them as a category and assume a certain degree of sameness. It even pushes the members of the category toward imagining sameness and commonality that do not exist. Categories change the way we think about and act toward things, and to the extent that the misperception they cause and the changes they effect outweigh their practical usefulness, they are bad categories.

    With paganism, we have a serious case of putting the cart before the horse, and it is an object lesson in categorization gone awry. Since all these groups call themselves pagan or are called pagan by others, we assume–insist!–that the category must be a real thing of substance.

    What if it isn’t? What if it is a nonsense category? We no longer insist that Buddhists and Jains are “pagan,” so why do we need to assume that wiccans and asatru are also?

    • Kullervo, I’m kind of confused by your comment. Pax went to some length to address the issues you raised, but I can’t see in this comment that you are actually responding to what he wrote in his response — more just re-stating what you said before.

      You’re talking quite a bit about why definitions of Paganism/s are problematical, but you’re sounding very theoretical. What I am wondering is, how has this played out in your real-world experience, either as a solitary, or with other Pagans? (Or, if you’re a non-Pagan, in your understanding or lack thereof of Paganism/s?)

      And I’m wondering — why does it bother you so much that Pagans might want to come together in an interfaith movement? No one’s forcing anyone who doesn’t want to participate to do so; no one’s forcing anyone who doesn’t want to identify as Pagan to do so; no one’s pretending to speak for everyone. If it works for those of us who are working together, why is it a problem for others?

      (And it’s not like this is something new, either, or something being proposed just now — there’s an active interfaith Pagan community in the US.)

      There’s a lot in this discussion that would benefit from an oppression/liberation, or minority sub-culture, or anthropology of dominant/minority culture, analysis and critique. The emperor is not wearing any clothes, folks. There is no one, unified, universal, legitimate way of looking at religion, whether it’s in the US or the world. There are some different ways that are legitimized by different establishments — political, academic, etc. But they do not have a monopoly on the authoritative description of reality: they are merely certain ways of looking at, of perceiving, and of describing, reality.

      So, do we want Paganisms to be recognized by academia in certain ways? By governments in certain ways? By society at large in certain ways? Do we want to be able to find each other and work together? Do we want to be able to find common ground with, and work with, people in other spiritual-religious communities?

      Because those are some of the underlying questions to defining Paganism, and to why we have such strong reactions to attempts to do so.

    • Well, because if you put up a sign that says “Hey pagans, come hang out over here!” you’re likely to have Wiccans and Asatruar show up, but not Jains or Buddhists. So there’s something going on there. The Wild Hunt is “a modern pagan perspective” and we all read it because we’re modern pagans and find Jason’s perspective useful. This is something real that happens in the world, regardless of what we think of the word or the implied categories. It’s a word that has come about fairly organically – I don’t think there was some point when someone said, “Let’s all call ourselves “pagans” and hang out together!”; it just happened in the way that labels tend to just happen – there was this thing going on and it needed a name and the name stuck. The thing goes on. It’s a real thing that happens, not something that just gets chattered about.

      There are people in the Wild Hunt comment thread saying things like “As a theodsman, I don’t consider myself pagan…” which of course is his business how he wants to think of himself, but if he really doesn’t consider himself a pagan, why does he read the Wild Hunt? Because it’s sort of interesting to read about this group that he’s not a part of? I’m not sure why someone who isn’t part of the pagan community would care what we call ourselves. Someone who is part of that community, otoh, could have legitimate reasons for disliking the word – but it doesn’t make much sense to behave as though a category exists while denying its existence.

    • Kullervo,

      I’ve had a lot of trouble replying to your most recent post. Some of that is because you have cherry-picked apart my definition, completely ignoring parts of it to tear at the parts you find most upsetting or threatening. Some of it is because when I try to respond you largely ignore it and use it as a chance to restate much of the same things.

      Then too there is the fact that despite plentiful verbage, both philosophical and philological, your overall tone is rather hostile. You are ignoring what I am saying, you are ignoring parts of the definition inconvenient to your personal axe, and you are being rather abrupt about it.

      Those factors make it both difficult, and rather negatively motivate me, to respond.

      Pax

  4. I use the Pagan Pride Project’s set of definitions frequently when I teach and when I facilitate interfaith workshops. Is it perfect? No. Is it useful? Very.

    I’ve been out as a Witch (not a Wiccan) since 1991; I’ve identified as a Quaker since 1999. In the last 18 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes in how US society sees Pagans and Paganism, and how we define ourselves. In the 80s and 90s, the commonly-held definition of “Pagan” was “non-Abrahamic.” That’s still what a lot of people hold in their heads. I know that PPP got some grief for actually attempting a definition of Pagan/Paganism, but I find their set of definitions useful in a number of ways. One is in the aforementioned teaching and interfaith work: their set of definitions helps us make sense to non-Pagans without pretending we’re just like every other religion. (This was a common theme in the LGBTQ movement in the 80s and 90s.) My experience of the Goddess is most definitely *not* like most Christians’ experience of Jesus. Another is in building community: the PPP set of definitions helps us find each other, and helps us band together, both to build that nebulous thing called a sense of community, but also for practical reasons — legal defense, civil rights, etc. It helps us build something larger, together.

    I’m part of a graduate-level Pagan seminary; and I am part of a rich, dedicated, passionate, warm interfaith community that is bound together by our commitment to interfaith Pagan experience and ministry. Each of us is dedicated to her or his own tradition — and just in my classes, we’ve had Reconstructionists, Thelemites, Wiccans, Heathens/Asatru, feminist Witches, Eclectic Pagans, Reclaiming Witches, Jewish Pagans, and more. *And,* each of us is dedicated to this larger, interfaith, messy community/collection of communities/movement, because we as individuals, as well as our “home” communities, are strengthened by it.

  5. Pingback: Mijn blog » Blog Archive » Engaging the discussion on How Paganism is defined « Chrysalis

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