Defining Paganism (1.5)

The first definition of Paganism that I offered, that of Prof. Michael York, should be placed in its context, which was primarily the academic study of religion. (Amazon link to York’s published books.)

When it was published in 2003, academic interest in the study of contemporary (or neo-) Paganism had been growing, but primarily from the point of  view of Paganism as a new religious movement.

Within the academy — and here I speak mainly of the American Academy of Religion, the largest body for such study on this continent (it includes many Canadians too) — even the study of new religious movements was way off to the side. Those scholars themselves were relative newcomers to the AAR, which had its origins in the study of Christianity and which devoted most of its program sessions to textual matters.

York not only situated Paganism  as “a religion, a behavior, and a theology,” he argued that Pagan elements were found in other “world religions” too — not just “Pagan survivals” but behaviors, primarily.

I don’t mean to suggest cause and effect — one book did not do that  — but it was at about the same time that the AAR’s leadership, which had rejected a proposed Pagan Studies program unit — a permanent slot, in other words — in 1997,  relented in 2004 and granted it.

So York helped to forge a sort of non-sectarian (not Wiccan, not Asatru, not Roman reconstructionist, etc.) definition that would change people’s minds to where they no longer thought that the P-word meant “having no religion” or “follower of an obsolete religion from long ago.”

Instead, it would be a type of religion or a way of being religious. Paganism (academic definition) was everywhere.


  1. Piitch313 says:

    Insofar as I toted up religions as “obsolete” when it seemed appropriate for me to adhere to one which was pretty much the opposite, Western not-so-Pagan ones got that label from me.

    Pagan struck me as meandering in the Avante Garde parade among whose krewes I numbered myself. Bay Area coffeeshops, bookstores, galleries, and such felt far more spiritual to me than any established churches, temples, or congregations of the faithful. With Paganism, I could sorta drop in, spread out, and get at connecting with that many/one. A volunteer of direct magical practical trips.

  2. Is this the definition you would recommend? I have to admit, I’m personally very uncomfortable with the way it seems to erase the difference between contemporary Paganism and indigenous traditions around the world. I don’t think we’re as similar as many North Americans would like to imagine.

    • Chas Clifton says:

      Were you at the joint session at last year’s AAR between the Indigenous Religious Traditions and Pagan Studies groups? “Erasing differences” might be less of a problem than you suggest. (Dogs and cats living together!)

      Rather than wrapping ourselves in Cloaks of Separateness, perhaps we as scholars can expand our horizons and our fields by looking also at what different traditions have in common. Koenraad Elst’s paper, published as a field report in the current Pomegranate begins to address that issue.

      • > Rather than wrapping ourselves in Cloaks of Separateness, perhaps we as scholars can expand our horizons and our fields by looking also at what different traditions have in common.

        Well, I don’t disagree with that — and in a scholarly context, the definition is less problematic because people are coming to the discussion with much more information. From a practitioner perspective, though, I think York’s definition can be used to justify some fairly exploitative behavior. Thus all the ink that’s been spilled about cultural appropriation over the past twenty years. (Did the Lakota ever withdraw their declaration of war against the Pagans? :> )