Paganism has (at least) three general features that distinguish it
from other forms of religion:
- Polytheism - Ultimacy is plural rather than singular
(monotheism) or dual (Zoroastrianism).
- Immanence - Ultimate reality is found in this world rather than
in a transcendent world to which this world is subordinate.
- Praxis - Human response to ultimacy is seen primarily through
action rather than words, hence a lesser reliance on scriptures and
allegation of their inerrancy.
Virtually all religious expressions of those who call themselves
Pagans have these features.
And I'm willing to say those who don't aren't Pagan,
even if they may have a wonderful religion.
Some folks look at word derivations for insight. "Pagan" has two
possible derivations, from Christian (and earlier) authors.
One contrasts "pagani" versus "civilis", meaning
country-person versus city-person, with the city-dwellers seen as
more likely Christian (and may even have an earlier meaning of
hearth-religion versus city-religion such as emperor-worship).
The other usage contrasts "pagani" versus "milites"
meaning a civilian from the countryside versus a
member of the "army of God". But in either case,
the terms had different
meanings long before Christianity redefined them.
Some folks never quite left Christianity behind when they think they
became Pagan, so they still believe whatever the Church tells them
to, including using the Roman Catholic definition of Paganism:
"Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than
the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except
Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism"
-- Catholic Encyclopedia:
Personally, asking Christians to define my religion is the last
thing I'd do...
Definitions imposed from without are typically
pejorative, having bad connotations but little denotation.
I would define Paganism based on its expression prior to the arising
of non-Pagan religions. Most of what we refer to as "the world's
ten (or however many) Great Religions" all arose after 500BC, and
they define non-Paganism, the sea change from Pagan to
Monotheistic religion. And when I look at religions prior to 500BC
the three features listed above are what I see.
Implications of my definition:
- Eastern religions: Eastern religions have two strands, the Way
Monk, and the Way of the Householder. The Way of the Householder is
Paleo-Paganism, surviving and thriving for many thousands of years.
Way of the Monk is Monotheism or Monism (but non-Christian) (and
Pagan). The religions taken as a whole could be called
- Newage: New Age may be Pagan-Friendly, but it is not Pagan. It
(somewhat pablumized) modern version of the Perennial Philosophy of
Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism and such, that
after the change to monotheism. It is monist or dualist rather than
polytheist. It posits a transcendent realm of perfect existence, of
our material world is an imperfect expression. It sees intellectual
insight rather than actions in the world as the way to transcend the
material. Many self-proclaimed Pagans are actually NewAgers when
begin to "think seriously" and conclude, "those Pagans over there
believe the gods are all different,a but I in my wisdom realize they
all merely different expressions of The One".
- Satanism (Black Sheep and Scapegoats): Satanism looks clearly
Neo-Pagan to me. It is polytheistic (every ego is its own god),
(ain't no transcending reality or god out there), and practical
dogmatic. But it makes people "uncomfortable". So it goes, I have
relatives who make me damned uncomfortable, but however much I may
disowning them would prevent them from ever having been a blood
that don't work. For all too many of us, if the Devil didn't exist
would have to invent one so we could have a scapegoat to attack to
attention away from our own shadow side.
- Wicca: I tend to see Wicca as Hybrid-Pagan, because it has been
developing an as yet unspoken elitist strain of the Way of the
versus the Way of the Novice, where the novices are expected to
believe in polytheism, while the advanced, elite priesthood have
the higher, more superior status of realizing that the gods are
aspects of the All-Transcending One. This is usually accompanied
allied dogmas such as Christianized views of Karma and
have little in common with their Eastern counterparts. It will be
interesting to see if it moves into Paganism or New Age.
For me, Paganism is the modern attempt to find a way to cope with
in the world by accepting diversity and pluralism rather than by
exterminate it in the atempt to create a vast, cosmic, homogeneous,
plain-vanilla One. The Christian Church tried to deal with
through extermination. Parts of Islam have been devoutly following
same path. Wonder how long it will take us to abandon our ancient,
pluralist roots and follow them in their One True Way-ism.
Tom Chapin --