The first definition that I offered was created by a scholar of religion, Michael York. It facilitates the ability to talk about Paganism not as a set of doctrines, but as a way of being religious.
In an essay that he published in The Pomegranate in 2004 (behind paywall) called “Paganism as Root Religion,” he wrote,
Deep paganism or natural paganism is that recognisable communal and individual religiosity that would appear to be humanity’s spontaneous response to nature, the world about us and our unaffected sense of the animistic or numinous. It is how we respond before we become increasingly conditioned by any theological construct. It survives in our subliminal and automatic behaviours, such as tossing a coin into a water source or fountain, in being awe-inspired by watching a sunrise or sunset, or when we are drawn to a bonfire on a beach at night. This primordial paganism is atavistic and, as such, I am calling it root-religion, the root of religion, the root of all religions.
Whereas York is arguing here for the ability to find Pagan elements in various religious traditions, cutting across doctrinal boundaries, a historian must work within boundaries. No one can write The Compleat History of Everything. Thus historians tend to focus, for example, on social history, political history, military history, economic history, or even religious history. Within those sub-disciplines there is focus on a particular problem, era, culture, whatever.
This definition, an historian’s definition, comes from doctoral student Sam Webster’s blog:
(January 2013) But, as an apprentice historian (I’m working on my Ph.D.), I am aware that Christianity destroyed the ancient religiosity of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, while Islam destroyed the Mesopotamian, the Persian, and many of the African branches. There is no historical continuity, but we do have books that inspired our rebirth in the Renaissance, and we have been growing and developing ever since. In fact, it is not respectful to call the ancient peoples ‘Pagan,’ lumping together the religious activities of vastly disparate peoples who never called themselves Pagan, nor saw themselves as a single religious tradition, however much they had in common. Religion wasn’t even a separate cultural category until Christianity impacted the Romans. But the main point is that the old ways need to be rebuilt, but in a manner in accord with contemporary needs and knowledge. Paganism will be something new and different, rooted in the ancient and fulfilling the needs of today.
And as refined in March 2013:
In short, the term “Pagan” only applies to that complex of religions that develop starting with the Renaissance and eventually call themselves Pagan. It does not apply to the ancients, or to cultures outside the European, Mediterranean, and Mesopotamian region. Neither the ancient pre-Christian religions nor those foreign to the aforesaid region call themselves “pagan,” and while they have much in common, they are each distinct and should be referred to by their proper names. Contemporary Paganism is derived from the occult revival that began with the Florentine Renaissance and is a uniquely modern phenomenon. We are a very different people from the ancients and do not share their worldview even as we reconstruct their religions.
I see his mentor’s fingerprints on that second paragraph, I think.
That definition is useful to the historian, but I think “respectful” is a red herring and a dead end. If you define Paganism in York’s way, then it is not a “single religious tradition,” and arguing that it is such is misleading.
In fact, historians, anthropologists, etc. “lump together” ancient peoples all the time. Are we not to call earlier cultures by such descriptors as agrarian, matrilineal, expansionist, peaceful, warlike, patriarchal, pastoral, or whatever?
Terms such as “Neolithic” describe cultural stages that occur in different times and places across the globe. I argue that those are merely descriptive and not disrespectful. Archaeologists may speak of Neolithic cultures in what is now Iraq or in what is now Japan without someone jumping up and saying, “That’s not respectful! You must refer to them by their proper names!”
“Neolithic” refers to a set of cultural accomplishments and markers (e.g., pottery, agriculture, domestication of animals, some social hierarchies), not always developed in the same order. By analogy, why not consider “Pagan” to describe a cluster of attitudes, practices, and concerns?
The value in each of these definitions — and they are not the only definitions — depends on the intellectual field in which is deployed.