A Question: Who’s Pagan?

So, obviously you can tell that what is bugging my mind recently are issues of definition. My sense is that in order to set about defining paganism as a concept we need to figure out who we’re trying to talk about when we try to use the word pagan.

I say that we need to establish a clear in-group. So, I have a question for all of you: What groups and individuals can we safely say fall squarely and entirely within the bounds of paganism?

Of course, I plan to problematize these bounds later; so right now I’m just asking for your instincts, based on your interactions with communities and gatherings. We can talk about who may or may NOT be pagans later (Satanists, Voodooists, Thelemites) but right now I want to know who’s unambiguously pagan.

My gut tells me that Wiccans can be considered unambiguously pagan. I’ve never heard of an individual who claims to be a Wiccan, though not a pagan. Thoughts?

My plan, after getting y’all’s help in finding a few more examples (Druids, maybe?) is then to see whether or not these groups stack up against several proposed definitions of “pagan”.

EDIT: Perhaps a more useful way to phrase my question is, “Members of what group or groups unanimously identify as pagan?”

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About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

22 Responses to A Question: Who’s Pagan?

  1. Michelle says:

    I don’t know if I would say it’s unambiguous, but my definition of a pagan religion is “a non-Abrahamic religion whose adherents self-identify as pagan”. It doesn’t exactly match with the dictionary definitions, but hey. I don’t know if I’m misunderstanding your goal, but it seems as though you’re treating paganism as one unified entity, which I don’t consider it to be…I don’t think it will ever be anything more than an umbrella term. I’m a heathen and I know some heathens don’t consider themselves pagan, but I do, and when talking to someone who doesn’t know the term I’ll just say pagan, because it’s something people know (even if they just think of “Wiccan” and then I have to tell them that no, I’m definitely not Wiccan). I know there are people who just call themselves pagan and that’s it for religious identification, and I guess that complicates things – because I think in terms of paganism being a group of multiple religions, including reconstructionist religions (which, again, I know many recons will disagree with me on that).

    Hmm. Super long comment and I think it just went round and round. Either way, I’m liking this series.

  2. cartweel says:

    Hey Michelle, thanks for your comment!

    I’m not exactly asking for a definition of paganism here–really, that’s the whole point of my long term project. You mention that some Heathens identify as pagans, and some don’t; what I’m asking for is examples of traditions in which every participant clearly DOES agrees that their tradition is a pagan tradition. Do all Wiccans think of themselves as pagan? So far, I think so. Do all Druids think of themselves as pagan? I have to think about it more, but I think so (until proven otherwise, obviously!). If you agree, then those are two traditions you could mention. What about Thelemites? Celtic Recons? (or Recons in general?) Tarot readers? Feraferia members? Setians? Raëlians? (My opinion is that NO, none of these groups are unambiguously a part of paganism–but I’m asking for YOUR opinion!)

    I’m glad that you like what I’ve been discussing recently–hopefully this discussion will continue to be productive!

  3. Michelle says:

    Ahh, well see, I’d say Thelemites, Druids, and Recons (umm, I am actually unfamiliar with Feraferia, Setians – wait, is that like Temple of Set?, and Raelians, bad me) are all unambiguously pagan – but I’m going by my definition. Although I guess not every single member of those identify as pagan, ugh, this is rough! Maybe a majority? I don’t think there’s going to be one that fits the requirements you’re looking for, just because at least one person is always going to say “I’m not pagan!”.

    I’ve actually seen more heathens lately be willing to identify themselves as pagan, but oftentimes they make a distinction between neo paganism and paganism. I get frustrated with all the semantic games and in-fighting (not directed at you, just in general), because I understand the frustration with people assuming that all pagans are exactly the same – believe me, I understand (I did a post series at Wicked Whimsy about American Gods/Sandman & depictions of pagan deities and someone told me that I was just upset because I was Wiccan – someone who knew me, nonetheless! *headdesk*). But at the same time, I get frustrated with the bickering that goes on between pagans. I think that’s just kind of the nature of the beast though. If you have a category that has essentially become the equivalent of “other” when it comes to religions, eventually it’s going to become too large to be a completely unified community. Right now, I would prefer sticking together just for safety in numbers, although eventually I see what was once the pagan community becoming the recon community, a community of eclectic pagans, and a community of newer pagan religions (like Wicca).

    Hmm, again, I’m not sure if I said anything worthwhile. Sorry. Watching the Sarah Connor Chronicles on dvd while typing so this is probably all incoherent!

  4. Ali says:

    I’m putting on my “degree in comparative religious studies” hat for a second to ask a question and raise a consideration. The question: what role will self-identity play in your definition? It seems clear from your previous posts that you don’t think merely calling and thinking of oneself as “Pagan” is sufficient (which raises another question: is it necessary? there are quite a few folks out there who would like to establish a definition of “Pagan” that would firmly slap the label onto certain other folks who do not necessarily accept the term for themselves).

    The consideration: while I appreciate how much issues of definition can be troubling and maddeningly engaging, the “religious studies scholar” part of me begins to worry when we start ignoring the role played by self-definition and self-identity. This is not as simple and silly as “Project Pagan Enough” where we turn off our brains and take everyone’s word for it, but it does seem that the ability to describe one’s own spiritual/religious identity is primary when you are trying to study and learn about a spiritual/religious community. Rather than treating Paganism as a system tat has clearly defined parameters and rules, I think we need to approach it more as an organic interplay of certain patterns in contemporary society, and take into consideration how these patterns influence individuals to adopt the name or not.

    I think it’s also important to consider the role of self-naming or self-definition because the adoption of a particular name or label, while perhaps not “enough,” can certainly then have a shaping and guiding influence on how a person grows and changes the way they think about themselves. This is certainly what happened to me when I accepted the label “Druid,” and then began this lifetime process of studying “Druidic” things. The relationship between those who want to be “Pagan Enough” and those who more closely fit your definition of “Pagan” (or at least the definition you’ve been working towards) may be less like the outsider/insider distinction than that between the caterpillar and the butterfly, or the acorn and the oak tree.

    So, while I am not incredibly versed in all of the different groups and communities who might accept the label, or reject it, I stand pretty firmly with the practice of accepting a person’s self-chosen spiritual/religious identity and then moving from there to see what that identity implies about larger cultural patterns. Personally, I think the only reason we feel compelled to have such clear lines between “Pagan” and “not-Pagan, or X and not-X when it comes to any religion, is because we’re coming out of two thousand years of concentrated effort to delineate and define Christianity, and while we can look back and see the history of messy theology that got us here, we have a tendency to see that history in terms of the mostly very clearly defined denominations and sub-groups within the Christian religious tradition as a whole. So we assume all religions must work this way, must gradually winnow themselves down into well-defined communities with clear distinctions and easily articulated overlap. I’m not so sure that we won’t find the opposite happening in modern Paganism, with the tradition and community, such as it is, growing even more complex and confusing as it goes on.

  5. Ali says:

    On a practical note, to answer your question: I wouldn’t lump all Druids together as unequivocally Pagan. Both organizations that I officially belong to, AODA and OBOD, state explicitly that one can be a Druid while also being, say, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Pagan, even an atheist. OBOD approaches Druidry as more like a life philosophy that can be incorporated into many different religious traditions. AODA does think of themselves as a “church” of sorts, if I remember right, and in my experience they tend to be a little more heavy-handed (though I think a bit unconsciously so) on the “let’s make this Chiristian-ish acorn into a healthy Pagan oak” in the way they guide and teach their neophyte members. But they still accept a person’s claim to be a Christian/Buddhist/etc. Druid as far as that goes.

    Druid groups like ADF and Henge of Keltria, as well as most CR groups I think, all explicitly identify themselves as Pagan/Neopagan (though which one they accept, and which they laugh at with disdain, depends on which group you’re talking about – personally, I don’t get the obsession with distinguishing Pagan from Neopagan except as a way of sneering at “newness”…).

    That’s all I can tell you about the Druidic community. Hope it was helpful. 🙂

    • cartweel says:

      Hey Ali. As always, your comments are deeply appreciated!

      You (and Hystery and George in response to my last post) have brought up the hugely important matter of self-definition and personal experience. I plan on addressing your qualms about my approach in a post very soon.

      At the moment let me say this: I see your “religious studies hat” and raise you one history of religion “hat”. I agree that it is important for scholars to be supremely sensitive to the realities of the lived experiences of their subjects. However, as insiders, we must strive to make our communities as viable as possible and, given the post-globalization context of our experiences, this requires attempts at explicit definition. No longer can we rely (as was the case in ancient contexts) on our religious communities being maintained by fiat: Our religious experience is not centered around the place in which we live and the people we interact with on a daily basis, nor is it regulated in largest part by societal expectations or, indeed, by a First Estate. Instead, our religious communities are bounded by ideas. So, to maintain those communities, we must define our ideas, and that is what my project is all about.

      • Ali says:

        When I’m not wearing any hats, which is most of the time, I completely agree with you. And I didn’t mean to sound discouraging or disapproving of the project. I think it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor, especially the more input you’re able to receive from people. I raised those questions just because, in my own experience, the very same technologies and global communications systems that render physical location less important to modern religious community than ideas, are the things which have transformed our culture by and large into one of sound-bytes and catch-phrases. People love nothing better than to latch on to an easy definition and then repeat it, often, many times as a method of silencing or excluding those who do not, in their view, fit the bill. So I’m wary of attempts to too clearly or strictly define a given community, even from the inside, no matter how thoughtful or well-intentioned.

        On the other hand, I am certainly not wary of ideas and their power to become catalysts for community formation. It’s how I came to Druidry in the first place, and it’s why I stick around. I suppose my point is really that, again in my experience at least, talking about your own ideas and tracing their origins carefully and honestly is much more effective than trying to define the ideas of others. For instance, I have been told more times than I can count, by people who do not have clear definitions of either word, that I simply cannot be a Pagan pacifist; hells, I’ve been told often enough that pacifists themselves just “can’t be.” Such accusations are almost always based on poor stereotypes and a few clever bumper stickers; but the rejection and intimidation to which they’re put is frustrating, and no amount of “defining pacifism” will confront the real issue. Such definitions already exist and are well established; nobody reads them. What will begin to change people’s attitudes is a persistent exploration of how things like pacifism, and Paganism, manifest in individuals… and no one can express that better than the individual herself. From what I’ve seen, the people who end up having the most influence on the social conversation of identity and definition are those who know their own ideas most thoroughly, and spend the time to express them and live them over and over again, for others to witness and evaluate for themselves.

        I recently read an article about one of the newer theories in evolutionary biology, which is “ecological niche construction”: it turns on its head the original concept that every organism evolves in a certain way in order to fill an ecological “niche,” and says instead that organisms actually create such “niches,” carving out a place for themselves based on how they engage with their surrounding environment. This theory seems to have relevance popping up all over, and I find it to be a useful metaphor yet again in this discussion: it seems to me that the people who know their own minds, and live integrated lives that express their ideas, are often the forces around which communities construct their own cultural “niche.” Rarely does a community form around ideas alone; even in the digital information age, it is always people living their ideas that act as centers towards which others are drawn. Pagans might not have very many well-defined ideas in common, but I would bet money that, within any given group, everyone has read roughly the same authors, or followed the work of the same teachers and workshop leaders, and that a fairly accurate “map” of the Pagan community could probably be drawn up tracing these types of personal connections. These are people who go plunging ahead saying, “Regardless of how you define it, this is how I define Paganism, and here’s why, and here’s how it works for me.”

        I’d like to see more of that, from others but especially from you, since I know you definitely have your own ideas on the matter. If this project is really just a way for you to organize your own thoughts to better be able to articulate what it is you think Paganism is, or can be, and how that idea works for you… I’m all for it. But I hope the goal isn’t to convince certain people to stop using the term if they don’t meet your definition. It won’t work (others have tried, as I’m sure you know – they’re trying all the time!). I’m even half prepared to tell you to shove off, if it turns out your definition would not include what I do as “Pagan.” 😉 (But that doesn’t mean I’d stop reading, since I always find your posts thought-provoking and interesting.)

      • cartweel says:

        Ali, if it wasn’t also finals week I would respond to everything you’ve just said. Since it *is* finals week for me, and I’ve got to force myself to think about other things, just know that I will keep this comment in mind during all of my subsequent postings!

  6. Psyche says:

    A while ago I wrote an article about this (“Definition of Paganism“), in which I wrote:

    …the definition of Paganism has evolved yet again to become a general term for the followers of magickal, shamanistic, and polytheistic religions which hold a reverence for nature as a central characteristic of their belief system.

    I think that pretty much encompasses everyone who would self-identify as Pagan.

    • cartweel says:

      Hey Psyche, thanks for the comment.

      The problem is, I think, that your definition encompasses everyone else on the planet, too, and is in no way particularly descriptive.

      No distinction between “magic” on the one hand and “religion” on the other has ever been made successfully. Indeed, it has been shown (by, say, Derek Collins in “Magic in the Ancient Greek World”) that the distinction implied by the term “magic” is historically social, not fundamental: “Magic-doers” are women and the otherwise heterodox and disempowered, while the “religious” are the empowered.

      So, since the two are synonymous in denotation, “magickal religions” are tautological. When you find me a religion that is not magical (an impossible task, IMO), I’ll accept that paganism can accurately or usefully be defined as “magickal religion”.

      And if pagan is defined as religion(s) that are polytheistic, then we have to stop any ceremonial magicians, chaos magicians, or *Wiccans* from calling themselves pagan, given that their theologies are fundamentally monotheistic or nontheistic.

      • Psyche says:

        I’m a little thrown off by your conflation of magick and religion, could you please explain why you’re equating the two?

        You say:

        No distinction between “magic” on the one hand and “religion” on the other has ever been made successfully.

        I strongly disagree, and will post more in depth about this on my blog. You’ve raised an interesting issue, but as an atheist and a magickian, I stand firmly outside the religious camp.

        And if pagan is defined as religion(s) that are polytheistic, then we have to stop any ceremonial magicians, chaos magicians, or *Wiccans* from calling themselves pagan, given that their theologies are fundamentally monotheistic or nontheistic.

        Yes, that’s correct: ceremonial magickians and chaotes are decidedly not Pagan.

        However, Wiccans are Pagan, as they worship (at least) two deities, the Goddess and the God. Even Dianics tend to venerate, at minimum, Maiden, Mother and Crone, which places them back on the polytheistic side of things.

      • cartweel says:

        Psyche, as I mentioned to Ali it’s finals week and I’ve stumbled into many important conversations that require lengthy, well-considered responses. So, I wait with great interest to see your arguments for a distinction between religion and magic, and I will post something on my own views once this week is over. Really, I’ve been meaning to post something on just this topic for a while now. Thanks again!

  7. Ali says:

    Awesome! I look forward to reading! (And good luck with finals! 🙂

  8. Pingback: Magick versus religion | Plutonica.net

  9. Hystery says:

    I am pagan in belief but cannot see how I am a member of any Pagan religion. Lately I’ve been considering how I apply the word “pagan” to my life and practice as an adjective rather than as a noun.

    • Psyche says:

      I see it as an umbrella term. Much in the same way “Christian” is used to denote a follower of Christ, to be “Pagan” one has general similarities in terms of polytheism, nature worship, etc., but it does little to describe the specific practices and beliefs that the individual adheres to.

      • Hystery says:

        I would agree that it can be used as an umbrella term but I think its parallel would be “Abrahamic” rather than Christian. Christians are certainly diverse but they do share at least a certain degree of orthodoxy among them even if it is only a general christocentrism. Jews and Muslims are also Abrahamic, share certain beliefs and history with Christians but do not share the same religion. I believe there is enough significant diversity of history, belief, and practice among Pagans to justify the use of the term Pagan as an umbrella term covering a spectrum of related spiritualites and religions rather than as a term signifying a single religion.

    • Ali says:

      I’m inclined to agree with you on this one, Hystery, especially regarding the point you made in another comment about the term “Pagan” being comparable to “Abrahamic.” Intuitively, they seem to me to be comparable in “size,” conceptually speaking, evoking a certain amount of commonality while still leaving room for huge diversity not just in practice but in the interpretation(s) of the core narrative(s) they incorporate.

      Within the Abrahamic traditions, we can see how Jewish Zionism looks vastly different from Muslim Sufism, which looks remarkably unlike Mormonism. If anything, the closer you “zoom in” on any given tradition, the more distinct and different it begins to appear. Even though the Abrahamic traditions all share the same central Story, they interpret them in vastly different ways.

      To me, the term “Pagan” has always functioned in much this way. When I came to Druidry, I considered myself a “Christian” Druid; now, however, I consider myself a “Pagan” Druid. The change was much more a description of changing source material and cultural perspective, than a change of “religion” as we normally think of it. In many ways, my “Pagan” Druidry looks very similar to my “Christian” Druidry, and many of the practices have carried over although they now serve to put me in touch with a different “source” both spiritually and culturally. Still, I think the descriptive purpose served by the term “Pagan” (which naturally gives rise to the noun, however much we want to protest it) is an important one. I understand “Pagan” as a kind of non-Abrahamic Western spiritual descriptor, distinct both from the monotheistic traditions that have their original roots in the deserts and cities of the Middle East, and from traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism (among others) that have roots in the landscapes and cultures of the East. Of course, in recent millennia, there has been a great deal of cultural exchange and cross-pollination, so that even these broad terms aren’t exactly pure and distinct from one another. (The huge influence of Greek philosophy on the Christian tradition is an excellent example, but of course it does not render Christianity as a whole “non-Abrahamic”; in the same way, influences from Eastern or African cultures do not automatically render certain current spiritual traditions “non-Pagan”).

      But now I’m rambling on about my own ideas…. 🙂 I look forward to hearing Johnny’s thoughts on the matter.

  10. Pingback: UnPause, Follow Up and Moving Forward « Pagan Godspell

  11. Fire Lyte says:

    Glad to see you learned something from our little discussion. Good use of the term ‘in-group.’ I hope that the rest of the millions of folks around the world calling themselves ‘pagan’ know you’re deciding who the in-group is.

    This should be fun to watch.

    Love and Lyte,

    Fire Lyte

    aka The creator of the ‘simple and silly’ Project Pagan Enough.

  12. Pingback: On Magic and Religion (Pt. I) | The Great Tininess

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