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There are generally four different uses of “Pagan” floating about, in order from most restricted to most broad:
- Someone belonging to a range of contemporary religions/spiritual paths inspired by pre-Christian Indo-European or Mediterranean traditions, though not necessarily attempting to recreate them exactly as they were. This meaning can be more precisely denoted by “Contemporary Pagan” or “Neopagan”, but Pagan rolls off the tongue better and serves as a nice shorthand.
- Someone belonging to such a contemporary religion or a historical person belonging to said pre-Christian Indo-European/Mediterranean traditions from those times, e.g. Roman polytheists of Classical times, Norse, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, etc. This usage is somewhat anachronistic as the ancient peoples did not call themselves Pagan but were called that derogatorily by Christians in the late Roman era. Nevertheless, the term has been reclaimed by moderns and now serves to emphasize the link between those moderns and their spiritual ancestors.
- Someone belonging to a contemporary religion or path which shares certain things in common with Neopagans, such as an earth-centered nature-based path or an interest in the Occult. E.g. Gaians might be covered under this meaning.
- Anyone belonging to a non-Abrahamic religion.
HP used to use “Pagan” to refer primarily to the first two, and sometimes a little more inclusively to include the third, with the fourth being considered too broad to be of much use. However, in 2013 popular opinion found this usage unnecessarily restrictive, so “Pagan” has now opened up to include the fourth meaning.
Halstead has analyzed Contemporary Paganism in terms of three partially-overlapping centers of interest, resulting in some tension and conflict in the community:
Recently, controversy has raged over the definition of “Pagan”, mainly as a matter of identity in the community. Essential characteristics, as well as who/what to include or exclude have been central issues. There have been notable debates over the appropriateness of Atheist Pagans and “Christo-Pagans” under the Pagan umbrella.
Check out other entries in our HPedia.
The term “Pagan” is a very broad term indeed. Some believe themselves to be Pagan and not follow any theology; Pagan and not follow any theology but feel a higher power exists; Pagan…well the list could go on forever. “Pagan” is Earth-Centered thought. Living among the Earth, with the Earth, working with the Earth and revering it’s bounties. It is a way of life, not necessarily a religion.
Pagan; from Latin “Pagani” originally meant country dweller and was commonly used in a derogatory manner similar to the way we might now say someone is a “hick”. The pagani practiced the old ways and were not “hip” to the way things were being done in the cities.
The Pagaini followed the Earth based religions of their ancestors and worshipped the old Gods and Goddesses. When the “new” religion of Christianity was spreading, it was practiced mostly in the cities. Therefore the Pagani became associated at the time with those who did NOT follow the “new” religion of Christianity. Over time this association was extended to include Judaism and Islam. Therefore, the fourth definition is still applicable.
At the same time, the fourth definition may be two broad for use today. For example; there are many these days who follow Native American religious practices who would feel insulted if they were referred to as “Pagan”, even though they practice a religion which honors the Earth. Likewise, there are many Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others who would NOT consider themselves Pagan, even though they do follow non-Abrahamic faiths.
>At the same time, the fourth definition may be two broad for use today. For example; there are many these days who follow Native American religious practices who would feel insulted if they were referred to as “Pagan”, even though they practice a religion which honors the Earth. Likewise, there are many Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others who would NOT consider themselves Pagan, even though they do follow non-Abrahamic faiths.
I agree. That’s one reason why I chose to hold back on the 4th definition for so long. But… the community has spoken. 😦
Halstead’s model is the best, but I also like Fishbowl’s recognition of three strands within contemporary paganism: Eso, Eco, and Recon. (Eso is my abbreviation for “esoteric,” referring to Wicca, witchcraft, magic, Crowley, Thelema, etc.)
I do think a bit of etymology as Fred suggests would be helpful for this article. I like how Saraswati Rain links her definition to the roots of the words.
‘Just as Christianity is the path following the teachings of Jesus, Judaism is the path following the teachings of the Torah or Talmud, and Buddhism is the path following the teachings of Buddha; Paganism is the path following the teachings of the people, the common folk, and the ways of the Earth. The word Pagan is often interpreted as “not religious” or “not believing in a Judeo-Christian God.” But the word “Pagan” harks back to the Latin “paganus,” which is literally, “peasant” referring to a rural country-dweller (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary). Neo-Paganism, specifically, is the modern version of Pagan ways, the practices of the common folk, the traditional beliefs of the ancestors, adapted and re-constructed by contemporary people, pieced together from ancient lore, from traditional practices, and from the practitioners’ creative imaginings, speculations and inclinations.’
FWIW, a Native American woman who showed up at a meeting of our local group said she’d been raised to identify with the term “Pagan.”