So, why I don’t capitalize pagan:

First off the term is a rubric that holds many multiple religions under its tattered umbrella. But it also is a useful adjective for aspects of many other religions or currents within them that don’t come under the umbrella. A number of bloggers these days promote the idea of something that is unified and is called Paganism, yet their boundaries exclude many, and often seem idiosyncratic. I can’t imagine how anyone for example could think Wicca and Asatru are two branches of the same religion. They are theologically, liturgically and ritually very different as well as having different ethical orientations. So why the pretense?

While there are many contending definitions out there, the best for pagan that I have come across is that of Michael York. This past summer I read a number of books on ‘pagan theology’, and his Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion was by far the best among them. He starts out with this  working definition: “We would be hard-pressed, however, to draw up a definitive list of necessary characteristics for any given practice to be assessed as pagan. At best, we can determine a range of possibilities {my emphasis} that we might expect to find in any bonafide pagan example. These include polytheism, animism, idolatry, corpospirituality, local emphasis, recognitions of geosacred concentrations, perceptions of soul duality, and either nature worship or nature as a chief metaphorical register expressive of the divine.” He goes on to find the following common features, though they may not all be there in any one: 1) a number of male and female deities, 2) magical practice, defined broadly, 3) emphasis on ritual efficacy, 4) corpospirituality and 5) an understanding of gods and human as codependent and related. “Individual pagan religions furnish frameworks and techniques with experiential encounters with the godhead for both improving ones welfare in this world and exploring the otherworld for spiritual renewal. In other words, they provide hermeneutical tools for interpreting the world and the supernatural and humanity’s relationship to both.”

After his survey, of various world paganisms, including Chinese folk religion, Shinto and Afro-diasporic traditions, he writes: “Among the features that emerge as noticeable are those of animism, pantheism, polytheism, immanentism, humanism, nature worship, numinousness, magic, organicism, fetishism, and idolatry. There is, however, no complete list of characteristics that can identify any specific practice as pagan. Most of the identities that we are permitted to recognize as pagan share in this pool, subscribing to some of its ingredients but not necessarily all of them.” He thinks the most constitutive ones are an attitude more this-worldly than transcendent and a recognition of divinity in matter, “whatever else it may be” (65).

Toward the end of the book, after exploring world paganisms, descriptively, behaviorally and theologically he comes up with this definition: “Paganism is polymorphic not only in its determination but how it perceives the divine….in sum paganism, represents a celebration of variety that challenges the very limits of human conception and imagination” (158).  Polymorphic is a particularly resonant term, I think, one that can well be kept in mind by polytheists.

Deity image at Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, Hawaii.
Deity image at Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, Hawaii.

York also (following Albanese) makes an interesting observation of there being two ideal types of religions: the pagan and the gnostic, with the corollary that many formal religions contain both. There is much paganism in Roman Catholicism, with its feasts, processions, anointing of the statues of the saints and its veneration of holy sites. Hinduism contains both, and Plato (though, he was pragmatically pagan for the masses) was primarily a gnostic. While nominally pagan the Neoplatonists were transcendental gnostics in practice. In this York makes a useful terminology of generic and nominal paganisms. “Paganism is an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangible, the sentient, and not empirical.” In this rewording, paganism is understood as endorsing the relationship between physical and supernatural realities as well as human (and possibly other forms of) consciousness.

While these are broad and inclusive definitions, they are by no means a ‘just because you say you are’ definition. They allow much diversity but are distinguishable from transcendentalist orientation, typical of Abrahamic theologies, the New Age movement, and of Vedanta.  Indeed, York sees four main religiosities worldwide: the pagan, the Abrahamic, the dharmic, and the secular. He has taken a certain amount of flack for his use of pagan for traditions that have eschewed the term as one imposed by westerners on them and pejoratively so, such as various practitioners of various American indigenous traditions, but it’s hard to see how any word for such a widespread religious inclination would be liked by all. Still something important to note. So we have a word that does mean something, but not in a hardened or ossifying way that allows no process or diversity.



  1. Pingback: Pagans Petition Chicago Manual of Style | Finnchuill's Mast

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