Pagan with a Capital P

In editing the current issue of The Pomegranate, one of my “favorite” issues came up again: whether or not Pagan is capitalized.

American scholars and Pagan authors tend to say yes. There has been a small campaign to convince the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook, widely used in the news media, and the Chicago Manual of Style, widely used by university presses and serious nonfiction publisher.

It’s a matter of accurate labeling and of respect. If Muslim, Hindu, etc. get capital letters, so should Pagan.

This is not an issue that will be settled in a year, or even two or three. But I have hope.

Meanwhile, “pagan” can be used in direct quotation, particularly when it has the sense of “irreligious,” as in C. S. Lewis‘s reference to the Roman poet Ovid as “that jolly old pagan.” (But he was also a cap-P Pagan, in my view.)

On the other hand, writers in the UK tend to lowercase “pagan.” Others try to split the difference, using “pagan” for the ancients and “Pagan” for practitioners of post-1900 Pagan traditions, i.e. “Neo-Pagans.”((And that term, popular in the 1970s–80s, is more and more supplanted by “contemporary Pagan” or “modern Pagan.”))

To my editorial eye, this approach is worse than no capital P at all. Imagine someone writing this: “Ancient pagans and today’s Pagans differ in their attitudes toward animal sacrifice.”

The reader might think that someone had either forgotten to capitalize one “pagan” or mistakenly capitalized the other. Confusing.

I was happy to see recently that Koenrad Elst, a Belgian scholar of Hinduism, was using the capital-P in a broad sense.((Although he has a PhD in the study of Hindu nationalism, he is in fact is a civil servant, not an academic, which gives him certain advantages.)) Here, interviewed in the Hindu Post, he implies that “Pagan” is like “Hindu”—a label imposed by outsiders that nevertheless has been adopted today:((This is a pro-BJP (ruling party) website.))

The historical definition of the term “Hindu”, brought by the Muslim invaders[1], does not define a specific worldview and practice, as the definitions of Christianity and Islam do. “Hindu” is a geographically defined slice of Paganism, viz. all Pagan (=non-Christian, non-Muslim) traditions coming from Bharat (India). This means every possible belief or practice that does not conform to either Christianity or Islam. It includes the Brahmins, the upper and lower castes, the ex-Untouchables, the Tribals, the Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), the Jains, and many sects that didn’t even exist yet but satisfy the definition: Lingayats, Sikhs, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, ISKCon. I am aware that many now refuse to be called “Hindu”, but since they satisfy the definition, they are Hindu, period. Elephants are not first asked whether they agree to being called elephants either.

My preference, too, is to use capital-P Pagan for all non-monotheists, ancient or modern. It is a simple and orthographically uncomplicated solution. And if anyone questions it, just refer them to the umbrella term “Hindu,” now accepted by (almost all) Hindus.