Defining Paganism

A light bulb
By RRZEicons (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
My long-winded and not entirely valuable post from last Monday morning was only the beginning.  I’ve been having this conversation with people on a few different sites, though primarily on threads in Facebook and in the comments of Jason Mankey’s post Running from the Word Pagan.  But, finally, in those comments, I feel like I’ve begun to understand things after realizing something:

I work primarily with powers from the Hellenic pantheon.  To be honest, I’m not sure why; perhaps just because their mythology was the one I encountered first.  Regardless, I would never want to be referred to nor would I accept the label for any of the reconstructionist traditions, like Hellenion, because what I do is not what they do.

Suddenly, when I looked at things in that light, I could see why someone who does not do things in a way that they associate with the term Pagan would not want to be called one of those either.  A simple concept, but regardless of how many times someone said the words to me and I heard the logic of them, I didn’t viscerally understand them until I could internalize things for myself.

That said, while I think I’ve got a better understanding for the points of view held by non-Pagan polytheists (hereafter: NPPs), I think we’re still lacking a meaningful definition for what is a Pagan.

Why define Pagan?

For me, it’s somewhat self-evident.  By defining the term we use to describe ourselves, we convey meaning about our identity to others.  The problem now, like I wrote on this past Monday, is that there are people who connect Paganism specifically to Wicca and Wiccanate traditions, who try to cram NPPs into the community regardless of their separation from it, and a host of other problems as well.

If we can’t even use the term to convey meaning to each other without a conversation clarifying that meaning, then I think it’s time to get to work to begin to do so.

Further, when you consider that there is no place in the world where Pagans represent a large enough part of the population that our faith practices are going to be readily available and understood by others, having a vehicle to share that meaning with others whose frame of reference is sometimes vastly different from our own is necessary.  Until we gain telepathy, language is the only such vehicle we have.

Where to begin?

Even leaving out NPPs, there’s quite a bit of diversity left within the Pagan community.  Further, as I mentioned above, I am a Pagan but I work with the same powers as some NPPs.  Similarly, in my personal experience, I’ve met people who work with the Norse pantheon but are Pagans, but I’ve been in conversation with many Heathens over the past few days who are not.  I struggle with how we can depict this nuance.

John Halstead at the Allergic Pagan has an excellent post wherein he works to define the Pagan community as having four centers  in an effort to do just that.  These centers are deity, earth, self, and community and are fully described within his post. This description of our commonalities, while I find it quite brilliant, doesn’t really define Paganism.  That said, as we work on a definition, I think his ideas should be reflected within it.

A Return to Where I Began

I still think that there’s value in starting a definition based on where many of our gods and goddesses come from but to try and be clear that not all Pagans work with deities in the same way or at all (e.g., naturalistic and humanist Pagans tend not to care all that much about them).

Even this, however, is not complete; it would, for example, leave out goddesses like Columbia and the Wiccan concept of Goddess and God, though many Wiccans do, in my experience, use ancient powers as stand-ins for their more archetypal figures (e.g. Cernunnos or Pan for the God).   But, if we consider that the majority of our powers were those of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Asia we begin to reach for something common and we can do our best to clarify these exceptions.

Thus, we have something that goes like this:

Paganism is a family of faith traditions that honors either a variety of gods and goddesses as the creative forces of the universe, the created universe and it’s systems (i.e., nature), or both.  The deities are most commonly those from the original cultures of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Asia but others have been conceived of more recently or are archetypal figures worthy of veneration (e.g., the Wiccan Goddess and God).

Immanence vs. Transcendence

One thing that a number of the NPPs I spoke with over the last four days have returned to is that they believe firmly that their deities are transcendental (i.e., separate and nonphysical).  Many Pagans believe similarly, but hold that there is also an immanent quality to them.  In other words, Pagans often think that the divine is both a part of and within its creation but also different from it.  The technical term for this concept is panentheism.

This separation also leads to another difference between Pagans and NPPs:  the Pagans seem far more likely to practice and believe in magic.  This appears logical; if you believe that a spark of divine force is present within yourself, that spark may be used to cause change in the world.  The Allergic Pagan post I linked above talks about this further under the heading of Thou art God.

Why don’t we add a bit about that to our working definition:

They view these deities as transcendent but also tend to apprehend that there is an immanent divine force as well. In this way, many Pagans are panentheists, though those who do not work with deities may find themselves more comfortable with pantheism or animism.  This belief in an immanent divine force is made manifest by the commonly–but not universally–held practice of magic.

We Seek; We Find

Finally, I think it’s important to try to show that we are a community of seekers but clarify that we do not proselytize.  This lets us include some details about the reconstructionist traditions but allows us to dovetail into some words about new ideas and faith practices.  Here is where I think it makes the most sense to make sure that we give the NPPs the separation that they require of us:

While the community is beginning to include the Pagan children of Pagan parents, it remains more likely that a member will have left the religion of their childhood (or lack thereof) and sought out a different one.  This search leads some to work towards the modern reconstruction of the practices found within the aforementioned cultures and others to create new faith practices befitting our times.

Pagans eschew proselytizing their faiths and members are often as free to leave as they are to join.  It has been particularly common for reconstructionists to leave the label “Pagan” behind as they seek to be more true to the culture they venerate.

Good Enough?

I wonder if those three paragraphs are it.  It feels right to me, but I’m just one person.  Part of me would like to include more about the earth-centric part of our faith traditions but I feel like if we try to cram too much into things it becomes less a definition and more a treatise.


  • William Hood

    I find this very good so far, I’m going to digest it more and think before I try to respond in more depth. Just wanted to let you know I’m checking it out. :-)

    • Great! Thanks for all your (patient) efforts on with respect to helping me better understand the situation.

  • Dave

    Not everyone who is a polytheist but not Pagan is a reconstructionist. I’m neither big “P” Pagan nor reconstructionist, I’m a little “p” pagan (meaning my religious culture is best understood as not Big Three) and an agnostic polytheist. I also started off interacting with the big “P” Pagan community, which I continue to do but remain steadfastly not big “P” Pagan, although I am exploring a big “P” Pagan tradition through a strictly cultural lens (adopting the custom without the presuppositions or cosmology per se).

    I also emphatically do not identify with the contemporary polytheist-but-not-Pagan community because I’m not a reconstructionist nor am I reconstructionist influenced. I’m a strict naturalist and agnostic polytheist – even in the face of what I interpret to be direct personal experience of the gods. The NPP’s, as you call them, do not represent me because, if for no other reason, they refuse to acknowledge my polytheism and we do not share religious custom in common. But neither do I adhere to the world view and general customs (although I am adopting some Pagan customs while retaining my own world view) of the Pagan community.

    My question for you, where do I fit into all of this? I’m beginning to think I might be better understood as still adhering to my birth religion (which was non-Big Three and de facto polytheistic) while adopting Pagan custom, through syncretism, out of the desire for religious community. It’s a hard thing to live outside one’s culture, friends are necessary.

    • William Hood

      “they refuse to acknowledge my polytheism”

      How so? Can you provide an example?

      • Dave

         Anyone who says that “actual” or “real” polytheism is solely synonymous with “hard” polytheism refuses to acknowledge that I am a polytheist. My experience of the polytheist community is that this is the standard expectation. There are a few notable exceptions but it’s very much the rule. At least that’s been true for me. I can provide specific examples but it’s so common I’m sure you know what I mean and I’d rather not “call anyone out”. They’re not doing it to be mean, as far as I know, but as a hard reaction against people who’ve been telling them that they’re “doing it wrong”.

        • William Hood

          Oh ok, yes, I’m aware of what you’re referring to.

    • You’ve hit the exact part of the definition that I was hoping someone would come and challenge me on.  I made the assumption that it was primarily the recon trads that had … become (bad word) … the NPPs. 

      The primary reason I specified the recon trads in the definition was to try and make it clear to people I’m working with that there are going to be people who work with Oden, Freya, Thor, etc. who do call themselves Pagan and (probably many more) who do not.

      I’m going to repeat back what you wrote in my own words to try and be sure that I understand your position before I start trying to think about this further.You came to Paganism and found that the culture and practices were somewhat attractive, but felt that, as an agnostic, the specific focus on individual, transcendent deities was not a part of your worldview.  As a result, you left the term Pagan behind but remain friends with and interested in Pagans and Paganism.  However, as an agnostic polytheist, you’re also getting push back from other NPPs who say you’re doing it wrong.

      Does that sum it up?

      Also, the NPPs that say your doing it wrong are the ones who are doing it wrong.  Douches.

    • There are probably two ways to go here.  One is to say that not every polytheist is a Pagan leave it at that.  Polytheist Hindus, for example, wouldn’t be Pagan.  Nor would, I feel, those who practice religious of the African diaspora (e.g. Haitian Voodoo).  Some cast a wider net over these and similar practices, but I worry that doing so smacks of cultural appropriation and tend to try and avoid that or to make it clear when it’s happening and why.

      On the other hand, your attraction to Pagan concepts makes you … adjacent to the community in some way.  Let me ask you this:  do you feel that this definition needs to include you? 

      Frankly, William isn’t included in this definition, I only mention he and other NPPs like him because people may see someone worshiping Odin or Zeus and immediately assume Paganism (I’ve seen this first hand).  In your case, you’re not doing that (if I understand you correctly) so I’m not sure that first-impression needs to be combated.

      Is that clear?  I’m I being a douche?

      • Dave

        I think there are related-but-not-necessarily-Pagan religions, primarily-Pagan-identified religions, and actively-non-Pagan-identified-but-still-probably-related religions. The first covers Wicca (especially BTW) and some forms of Druidry (OBOD), the second would cover groups like the Church of All Worlds or Pagan Druidry (ADF), and the third would cover primarily non-Pagan reconstructionism (Hellenion) and primarily non-Pagan but not-necessarily-recon groups (Heathenry – although I know they’re more recon than not, at least usually).

        It’s interesting to consider how they’re all related and their interactions but I don’t think we need to call them all “pagan” to do that. Especially not when many of the first and third categories either are at best indifferent to the word while many are actively opposed to it. That having been said I feel that much the same could be said of the term “polytheist”. There are probably-but-not-necessarily polytheist religions, primarily-but-not-entirely-polytheist religions and pretty exclusively polytheist religions. To me the key is to take an opt in approach to either “pagan” or “polytheist” while considering what possibly related groups may have members who use those terms.

        I don’t know how I feel about defining the term “Pagan” exactly. I’m pretty convinced it already is synonymous with “Neo-Pagan” but there’s resistance from people who hate the latter term and people who wish it meant something else. Whether they want a more or less broad definition usually depends on their political circumstances and motivations, in the sense of the best interests of their trad or group. Nothing wrong with that self-interested advocacy as long as we’re honest about it. As for myself? I’m probably culturally a big “P” Pagan, religiously little “p” pagan, and sympathetic to primarily polytheist-identified groups although I’m neither a recon nor a hard polytheist.

        And no, I don’t think you’re being impolite. I just don’t know how clear I’ve made myself, but I guess I’ll find out.

        • I agree that we need to provide an opt-in approach to the community, but we also need the opt-out as well. To often we (myself included) get a sense of betrayal when someone who was Pagan decides to stop calling themselves that. We need to stop that.

          Thanks for your thoughts on this one, I need to ruminate on things a bit more, but I’ll be returning to this definition. I’m still not really happy with the word choices….

  • Dave

    I forgot to mention – you said, “Pagans often think that the divine is both a part of and within its creation but also different from it.” I know Pagans who view nature as uncreated with divinity arising from within nature. But they also view the gods as being external (they exist independently of humans) and not-necessarily-physical (their “personhood” is thought to revolve around an immaterial aspect). However, they reject the idea that the gods (or anything else including other divines and even their conception of “immaterial reality”) exists outside of nature. What’s the term for that? 

    • Firstly, the philosophical/academic terms that describe various religious traditions are fairly general so sometimes you just have to pick the one you think describes you the best and run with it.

      TL;DR:  Isaac Bonewitz provided short definitions for pantheism and panentheism as “divinity is all” and “divinity is in all” respectively.  The former implies a common baseline level of divinity to everything while the latter provides that same baseline level of divinity but believes there’s also somehting else within that divinity that is special. 

      Long version:

      That said, the uncreated nature with divinity rising from within it is likely still fairly panentheist.  Panentheism is essentially Pantheism + Transcendence.  In other words, if someone feels that everything its self is divine then it could be said that nothing is especially divine (i.e. no real gods) because everything is at a common baseline level of divinity.  The +transcendence part of panentheism implies that out of this common baseline level of divinity, there is also something else, but that this something else is interconnected and a necessary part that arises from the common baseline level of divinity. 

      I’ve heard it compared to how science doesn’t 100% understand how the brain works.  We get how neurons fire and how the signal pathways of the body work with respect to the central nervous system.  But, regardless of all these little individual neuronal pieces, some how the sum of the brain’s parts create a mind capable of memory, consciousness, meta-cognition, etc.  Granted, I’m not a scientist, so the analogy may no longer be accurate but hopefully it helps.

      • Dave

        I appreciate your analogy. I’m a cognitive neuroscientist and I appreciate the parallel you were trying to draw. In very broad terms what you said is not inaccurate although I suspect we may belong to different schools of thought in the philosophy of mind.

        That said I’m not sure I understand the nuances of the terminology well enough to feel comfortable using it. If it’s that ambiguous you’re probably going to have to be OK with being misunderstood or further clarify yourself anyway. For myself, I’d rather just discuss things in my own terms with those interested than create preconceived notions of what I meant and try to work around them.

        Thanks for the clarification.

        • It’s not so much the ambiguity, it’s that in a lot of ways things are very much overlapping. What’s the difference really between a pantheist and an animist? I know a lot of people, at least one of which was a philosophy major so he knows all about rhetoric and the use of language, that would say there really isn’t one other than the misconceived notion that animism is some how primitive.

          • Ian Phanes

            Traditional animism is very much not the same as pantheism. As a simple example, most indigenous animist traditions see spirits of place as present in only some places. To use a familiar example, the Trojans worshiped Scamander (their river and the god thereof) but–as far as I know–they didn’t personify or worship the Sea of Marmara. To put it in language you will certainly be familiar with, pantheism sees divinity as continuous, while animism sees it as discrete.

          • Vry well put. Thanks for the clarification.

  • I’m just finishing a novel, The Acts of Simon Magus, and I think you and your followers may find it of interest. It’s an epic historical fantasy from the point of view of Christianity’s greatest enemy, the pagan sorcerer who became the founder of Gnosticism, examining the events and characters responsible for the rise of Christianity and its consequences for the world. It has been an exhilarating trip trying to get inside the mind of people from that time, so different from and so alike ourselves, with an eye to providing a unique perspective on modern issues such as abortion ( ) and same-sex passion and repression ( ). Here is a draft for my upcoming Indiegogo campaign, including video and link to some readings. All comments and suggestions welcome!