The P-word

Since the early 1990s, I have been working in my small way to get the word Pagan capitalized in books and articles — of course, I was not the only one doing that. Ironically, the most resistance seems to come from certain British academics. Neither of the two conflicting editing gangs has published an official statement yet, so it’s up to us. I was looking today at the copyedited ms. of Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, and it looks as though the Brit copyeditor is leaving our capital P’s alone.

When people vocally announce that they are not going to call themselves “Pagan” anymore, they are acting right within the mainstream of contemporary Paganism, where individual choice, transaction-based relationships,  and the voluntary joining and leaving of groups trump any notion of organic community. (That was the point I tried to make when Heather from The Wild Hunt asked me to comment on “solidarity.”)

If I read him right, Peter Dybing suggests that this kind of behavior guarantees that contemporary Paganism is a long way from having oppressive institutions.

Pagan studies scholar Lee Gilmore writes on her Facebook page, “All this hand wringing over terminology is, I think, indicative of both Pagans’ struggle to construct authenticity, and also of larger social anxieties about religious boundaries, which also seem to increasingly locate authenticity outside of ‘religion’ (i.e., the whole ‘spiritual but not etc.’ thing).”

To further complicate things, some people persist in using the word “pagan” — and here I would lowercase it — in ways like this:

Paganism is a sustainable way of life that has existed for thousands of years. Sometimes mistaken as a religious path (true pagans do not worship deities), paganism will appeal to anyone who cares about the environment or is interested in maintaining an organic lifestyle.

You silly people who thought you had a religion! Go cultivate your gardens!

7 Comments

  1. [...] And Chas Clifton just doesn’t want anyone to start uncapitalizing the word “Pagan”… [...]

  2. Soliwo says:

    I had to laugh so loud at the end of it. But of-course it is a serious question. I understand the whole Pagan vs pagan issue about capitalization. Yet, it only works in the English language I think. In Dutch, Christianity is spelled without a capital so I tend to do the same with Paganism. And in German every noun gets a capital.

    • Chas Clifton says:

      Every noun in English got a capital letter too at one point, but the practice seemed to die out around 1800. I do not know why — the question would be worth investigating.

  3. Peter Dybing says:

    Yes, You “read” me right. This is an evolution of community process that will continue. Mostly my point is that there is little cause for some of the “drama” that flows from these changes.

  4. As a British academic (albeit a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of things), I would like to weigh in with some of my own thoughts on this issue; I do not claim that they represent a standard British view of the subject (I doubt such a thing could ever exist), but I do feel that they probably reflect my background in archaeology.

    I think it important when discussing this issue to remember that the term “pagan” means different things in different contexts. It can be used in archaeology and history to refer to the non-Christian, and usually pre-Christian, ritual praxes and magico-religious beliefs of Iron Age, Roman and Early Medieaval Europe (notably it is rarely, if ever used in reference to earlier Stone or Bronze Age belief systems). Although there are of course similarities in theological belief, these worldviews were a very different kettle of fish to the contemporary Pagan faiths that can be found across much of the world today; their contexts were entirely different in many respects.

    I concur with Chas in that I really don’t think that there is much of an excuse for academics continuing to refer to members of the new religious movements in the lower-case. In my experience, most members of these NRMs prefer the capitalised “Paganism”, giving them the grammatical respect accorded to Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in contemporary society. I see it as a matter of courtesy.

    However, I personally feel that the lower-case “paganism” is preferable when it comes to the non-Christian religions of the distant past. Whereas for Neo-Pagans, “Paganism” is a self-affirming label used to differentiate themselves from the Christian mainstream and highlight their affinity with the pre-Christian world, the majority of those adhering to non-Christian faiths in the ancient and Medieaval worlds would almost certainly have never even heard of the word “pagan” or “paganus”. The majority simply believed in what they considered to be true, the beliefs of their society, and of their forefathers. I would have to suspect that most never questioned the existence of the gods; they simply accepted their existence as a fact of life. For these people, “pagan” was not a self-descriptor, it is only a label that we academics have slapped onto them in order to differentiate them from the Christians. In essence, “pagan” usually means “non-Christian” in this context, and as such, I don’t believe that it warrants capitalisation.

  5. [...] distinction also matters, because as Chas Clifton observes, some people persist in using the word ‘pagan’  in ways like [...]

  6. [...] language at least, both deserve a capitalization equally. To distinction also matters, because as Chas Clifton observes, some people persist in using the word ‘pagan’  in ways like [...]