Defining Paganism

Tom Chapin

Paganism has (at least) three general features that distinguish it from other forms of religion:

  1. Polytheism - Ultimacy is plural rather than singular (monotheism) or dual (Zoroastrianism).
  2. Immanence - Ultimate reality is found in this world rather than in a transcendent world to which this world is subordinate.
  3. 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:

For me, Paganism is the modern attempt to find a way to cope with diversity in the world by accepting diversity and pluralism rather than by trying to exterminate it in the atempt to create a vast, cosmic, homogeneous, plain-vanilla One. The Christian Church tried to deal with diversity through extermination. Parts of Islam have been devoutly following the 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 --
rev: 2005-Feb-01