Defining Paganism (2)

Previous: “Defining Paganism (1)” and “Defining Paganism (1.5)

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.

11 Comments

  1. Ah, a definition much more to my liking! I find myself very much in accordance with Webster’s ideas on the issue. I am currently only acquainted with his book on “Tantric Thelema”, but I look forward to any academic publications that he has in store for us. Nevertheless, I think it worth stressing that when dealing with many of the pre-Christian religions of Europe, the term “paganism” is still widely used within academia. Within my own area of focus, Anglo-Saxon England, I am only aware of a singular scholar – Chris Skull – who has argued that that term should be rejected. The same isn’t true across all the fields of European prehistory and early history (I don’t think I’ve ever come across a Palaeolithicist who refers to the peoples of the Old Stone Age as “pagan”), but in those that it is widely used I suspect that it will prove very difficult to uproot.

    As an archaeologist by training, I do not personally think the terms “Neolithic” and “paganism” are particularly comparable when talking about prehistoric Europe. The latter was a term with negative connotations long before it was used with any academic precision or appropriated by NRMs. The former was devised as a scholarly term to refer to certain societies at similar technological levels of development and subsistence. In that respect “Neolithic” doesn’t really carry the many connotations that “paganism” does. You don’t have people pejoratively calling others “Neolithic” or contemporary communities describing themselves as such. I agree that there is much validity in highlighting similarities in the beliefs and praxes of pre-Christian spiritual traditions across Europe, but I remain fundamentally sceptical of the utility of “paganism” as a term in this context, particularly when pushing it back to the misty realms of the Palaeolithic in search of a “root religion.”

    • Chas Clifton says:

      While small-p pagan might have been pejorative — and obviously still in in some religion-speak — I can already see it becoming a more neutral descriptor in academia, a trend that I applaud. And I dare to think that other realms of discourse will be affected by what we do.

      • I would certainly agree that it would be good were the term to lose its pejorative associations among academics; indeed in Anglo-Saxon studies I believe that it already has done so, decades ago. However, there still lies the problem of explaining our research to a wider public, many of whom will still hold to older, pejorative connotations.

        On an aside, I might suggest that in Britain at least, when most archaeologists hear the word “pagan”, they think first and foremost of the contemporary NRMs, which they are typically (and unfortunately) ill-disposed to. When discussing Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age religions, the term “paganism” is certainly not widely used, if ever, which might explain why they think of the contemporary movements

  2. Medeine Ragana says:

    Okay, so to you academics (which I am not), what term would you prefer to see used to describe non-Abrahamic religions/beliefs instead?

    • Chas Clifton says:

      Medeine, one of the points that I am trying to make is that different disciplines might favor different definitions. Think of it as rugby football and American football are both played on large field and have ovoid balls, but different rules. That’s one metaphor, anyway.

      • Medeine Ragana says:

        Thanks for that clarification. Now that I think more on this, maybe we shouldn’t be “lumping” any non-Abrahamic religions in the same group. Maybe, like ethnic groups, we should be just referring to the different beliefs by whatever name the adherents decide to call it, if they call it anything at all. E.g., the Lithuanians call their pre-Catholic revived religion “Romuva.”

    • Broadly, within religious studies generally there isn’t a staunch division into “Abrahamic religions” and “non-Abrahamic religions” as I think your post implies. Instead the “Abrahamic religions” are seen as one of multiple different groupings, such as “Dharmic/Indian religions”, “Daoic/East Asian religions”, “indigenous/ethnic/folk religions”, and “new religious movements”.

      Of course there is also overlap; groups like Rastafari and the Bah’ai Faith can be seen as both new religious movements (despite both getting rather old now) and Abrahamic faiths (both monotheistic, tracing their lineage back through Quranic/Bible scripture). So there’s quite a lot of multivocality on this issue, and different academics subscribe to different forms of categorisation. That division is further exacerbated by the fact that academics studying religion are divided up among religious studies, theology, anthropology of religion, history of religion, sociology of religion, archaeology of religion, psychology of religion etc.

      So to answer your question more directly, I don’t believe that a single term should be used in reference to all non-Abrahamic beliefs and practices. I think that there’s just too much disparity between say, a contemporary teen Wiccan, an Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer, and a Medieval Vaishnavite brahmin, to lump them all together in one singular category. In part that’s why I’m not particularly favourable to York’s inclusive definition of “paganism” that Chas discussed in his earlier post.

  3. Piitch313 says:

    I find that I am unwilling to draw a Pagan definitional line in the sands of Florentine Renaissance time. I suspect that more meaningful connections exists with the religions, mythologies, and magical lore of some earlier human cultures. And some not-Western cultures.

    Frankly, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart’s paleo-, meso-, neo- Pagan schema probably distinguishes among broad periods of Pagan endeavor. Ancient Paganisms make more sense to me than pre-Renaissance not-Paganisms. Pre-Paganisms. Proto-Paganisms.

    It makes me itch when a historical definition doesn’t account for some of what it leaves out. If ancient non-Abrahamic religions aren’t Pagan, what shall we call them?

    I cheerfully call myself Neo-Pagan because that term suits my world view pretty well. The newness of it doesn’t bother me all that much. But could adopt a different tag, if somebody comes up with one that suits my world view better.

    • Forgive me for being impertinent, but unless I am mistaken, the individual responsible for the paleo/meso/neo terminological division was the late Isaac Bonewits, not Oberon Zell-Ravenheart. I think that there is some value in that particular division, but it has certainly never received widespread adoption within Pagan studies or any other academic field, nor do I think it will in future.

      In response to your comment “If ancient non-Abrahamic religions aren’t Pagan, what shall we call them?”, I would have to point to the rich and varied archaeological and historical literature on the subject. In some contexts where we see Christianity encroaching on pre-Christian communities (i.e. Anglo-Saxon England), the term “paganism” does indeed continue to see academic usage. In most others, such as Neolithic Britain, it is never used, and instead terms such as “ritual” and “ceremony” are commonly utilised to reference those beliefs and related praxes that we today would call “religious.”

  4. Medeine Ragana says:

    I’m not sure what my Byelorussian grandfather would’ve called what he did in the “old country”, but I sure know what my Polish Catholic grandmother called it – blasphemy. :)