The “P/pagan” ship has sailed, I guess

Over the past few months, I’ve started using the term paganism or paganisms on this blog more often — when I’m not using polytheist or theist, with theist my preferred term. A few blog posts from others have led me to understand that this term is under discussion (or under renunciation?) again, and I want to give my take on this.

First, I dislike the term pagan. Its meaning is too slippery to be of any use. Even when capitalized, it doesn’t refer to anything specific — it’s an open label, and thus a (mostly) meaningless one. I die a little inside every time I realize that it’s the most semantically relevant word in a conversation. I agree with others who say that defining oneself in terms of difference from Christianity, and leaning on a term that has historically been used as a pejorative, raises problems. I even wrote bad poetry half a decade ago about my dislike for this term. I stand by the sentiments in that poem.

However, it’s what historians use. After listening to a SHWEP episode, and following on an email conversation I had with someone about the term, I was reminded that many people — most of those who are Less Online in the United States — don’t actually have a problem with the term. In addition, people in some countries or some “pagan umbrella” religions may have a fuzzy feeling for the term for recent-history heritage reasons or nostalgia or local tradition.

I came to a mental place where I saw the writing on the wall. Historians will use pagan for a long, long time. Even if a group differentiates itself with another term, the literature review of the article, dissertation, or book will include current Pagan Studies discourse (Pagan Studies!!), and scholars of our religions and movements (and anything that remotely looks like our religions and movements) will publish their work there. A reader in 50 years will link whatever is under discussion to pagan in their mind, and they will refer back to things about paganism in the bibliography. It’s similar to how any decent treatment of gay and lesbian history will need to survey time periods when terms like sexual invert, homophile, and so on were used — at the time, they were current terms everyone used, and people didn’t stop using them abruptly. There have always been generational and social movement differences in how people use terminology. (For example, I still use “homosexual,” which some people younger than me view as too medicalized. I’ve never fit into “LGBTQ culture” and eventually had to recognize that failure, ergo I feel most comfortable with a classification label.) It would take a coordinated effort far beyond the capacity of our “pagan” and “definitely not pagan, please stop using that term” religious movements and associations to radically alter how people refer to all of us, especially since we’d have to propose one or more classification terms that we’d all have to agree on. And then we’d have to make “pagan” publishers agree on it, too. Good luck convincing Llewellyn.

A sign of the futility of our efforts to schism was a deflating end to June, as if the Ruling Goddess Herself had looked at us all and done a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And you know what? I’ll listen to that divine sign. I’ve decided to just accept that this is a term that some people may use, including people who may want to read things on this blog. I’ve adjusted my expectations (and, sometimes, language) accordingly.

That is all.

16 thoughts on “The “P/pagan” ship has sailed, I guess

  1. While we come from very different places, I can sympathise with a good deal of your frustration. I’m not terribly bothered by nomenclature. I’m Asatru, many Asatruar have extreme hangups with Pagan/Heathen. But I think they’re all terms of convenience, how can one define what ought not need definition? By definition, ironically, folk religions and their reconstructions are normally defined by the outside.

    My own belief is that the superficial, extreme obsession with the shallowest of titular categorisation is a symptom of the equally ubiquitous thirst for identity which modernisation seems to be offering in spades. However these identities are usually as shallow as the names themselves. But names stick. And why do footwork when you can have slogans and tinsel?

    Sic semper paganismus et in saecula modernum. Or something.

    Some of the Christians have this problem. It might not be as obvious as a Neocatholic, but New Christian is a term, and you see many protestants struggling to define themselves. Even Catholic splinter groups. The thing is more endemic than most want to deal with.

    People want to belong. But not too much. Ergo variations on a spin. Anything you can spin, I can weave better, kinda deal. Whatever.

    Anyway. Differences of opinion aside, this was a refreshing read. Godspeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The term to which I object most is “neopagan.” No one calls Protestants “neo-Catholics,” so why call those of us who worship ancient deities “neo-pagans”?

    As a side note, around 7 years ago I started keeping a file of books and articles misusing “pagan” as a synonym for something else, usually “secular,” “without (Christian) morals,” “atheists,” or “liberals.” The file is growing rather thick.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As stated previously, the biggest issue is that we live in a culture where religion is separate from culture and thus names are necessitated despite how inorganic it is. That being said, I can live with being a Pagan. What I can’t live with is the fact that we’re lumped in with New Agers, Occultists, people that really want this to be an excuse to be all about fantasy, people that think that Iron Man is somehow more worthy of worship than the traditional Gods and heroes, children that want to hex the Moon because they think they can, people that worship Goetic demons, people that want to literally kill the Gods (what the actual fuck?!?!), racists that believe the Gods are blood archetypes, antifa members that only like our religion because they feel they can use it for their own purposes, and really anyone that just thinks crystals and tarot cards are cool. That I cannot stand.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, and in religious studies we are lumped in with NRMs (New Religious Movements) even though we go back to at least the 1940’s in the case of Wicca, perhaps further back for others) This (in addition to monotheist bias) gets used as an excuse to treat us as a religion restricted to the “kids table” & we don’t get to sit with the Real Grown-Up Religions in interfaith groups and such until I don’t what. But Mormonism is a Serious Religion? ™
      Whatever we don’t need their approval.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’mma give you the reason why that is. To quote a famous videogame outlaw, it’s because “We need money, Arthur!” The Mormons have land and social influence. We don’t have any of that because we have a population that’s so jaded that they don’t want to touch anything looking like it’s organized in any way. I strongly suspect that we’re going to go extinct within the next century. The older generations are dying off and a lot of our social energy in the youth is being absorbed by internet engagement focused around a few internet personalities running Discord servers and YouTube channels. Individuals that I strongly suspect will have no interest in really creating anything that’ll last longer than them. It’s either we’ll go extinct or we’ll be in limbo where every generation’s work will die with them and have to be redone by people that somewhat remember watered down versions of what came before. I don’t mean to be a doomer about this but we might end up seeing a very bleak timeline unfold

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes! There is nothing “new” here, and the “NRM” label is deeply problematic for exactly the reasons you mention. Perhaps even moreso than “pagan.”


      3. It’s a replacement for “cult”. “Those weird upstart religions”. Guason is very on the nose, most other so-called “NRM”s actually build institutions. I’m thinking on this & may write something further about it on my blog.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I think NRM is actually somewhat neutral, although I’m sure it’ll eventually be negative like cult because neutral terms tend to take on positive or negative associations, depending on usage … so I use that term. But yes, at some point, after a few generations, it just becomes a younger religion, not a new religious movement. Unless they mean by “movement” a pagan grandma taking her pagan grandchild to a soccer match in her daughter’s pagan family’s minivan.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I have to respectfully disagree. It’s a phrase that’s situated entirely within the Durkheim-style paradigm of sociology/anthropology, where religion is defined entirely with exclusive reference to human communities and what humans do, and no reference whatsoever to the actual Gods themselves. And the phrase only makes sense from with that paradigm.

        It’s because of the Gods that we, as modern worshippers of, say, Dionysos or Eir, are not “new”: we’re honoring the same Gods who have been hailed and praised for millenia, or longer. But as soon as they delete the Gods from their account, the academics have ignored that common thread, and so because I live in a different part of the world, came to these Gods on my own (rather than following the practices of my parents, and their parents, etc.), and so forth, there appears to be no continuity, and so what I’m doing is “new.”

        In other words, the label “new” tacitly assumes and accepts the academic premise that the Gods either don’t exist or don’t matter. I can’t in good conscience go there in my self-description.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I can see your point about that from the history of how the term started, but also because, today, I was catching up on Zoom recordings of things that happened while I was out of the office last week and saw a recording about the “flip-to-OA” monograph initiative called TOME, which I hadn’t heard of before. I was browsing through their catalog while continuing to watch the recording and came across this book about religion. I tend to avoid the “why do people religion even?!” academic discourse and the reviews I saw of the book had me puzzled about why people think religion doesn’t involve Gods as active agents that people are responding to. And then I checked my email and saw your comment!

        For me, “New Religious Movement” has always been about the idea of a movement, a groundswell that shows a shift in the way many people approach religion in general, but then again, I’ve never read any long-winded academic definitions of the term, perhaps for the same reasons I avoid the aforementioned “why do we religion even?” topics. A groundswell can be anywhere on the toxic-to-healthy spectrum, but it does capture how (especially with the opening up of ways to connect with others) what were once isolated experiences of a single person that often lived and died with them have turned into a network of people. I’m thinking in particular of one of the rare insightful Tumblr posts I saw about how a pagan young adult’s grandmother had died, and while cleaning out her home, the girl and her family smelled something rotting and traced the fruit flies to their source. Turned out the kid’s grandma had a shrine to a Norse Goddess all hidden away and had made offerings on her last day before the death process, and nobody in the family had ever even known. Even after reflecting on all of what you said and my experience earlier today, I think it’s an easier term to reclaim into a positive than cult, which has strayed very far from its original meaning.

        Dropping the “new” label is totally another option! There’s also an argument (which I think is embedded in your second and third paragraphs) that adding a temporal adjective binds what is spaceless and timeless to a time and a place in a way that isn’t so. Or maybe calling them “devotional movements” or something else (a novel insider term) would be better.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah. I’ve had to give up the battle for lots of words (although, for me, pagan has never been much of a problematic term although ‘polytheist’ is certainly more clear.)
    Sometimes the world disagrees with me. It’s wrong, but too much effort to fight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. It is such futility. Even with this realization, I’m mostly using it within blog posts alongside a list of other terms … scholars will do whatever they do.


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