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.