Defining Paganism (1)

A couple of a weeks ago, on another blog, a commenter, wishing to insist that his sort of Paganism was different from some other people’s Paganism, concluded his comment by asserting that there was no overall definition of Paganism anyway.

I decided to step in and disagree, since I could think of at least two non-sectarian definitions. I offered the broad, relationship-focused definition that Michel York offered a few years ago in Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion.

An affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient and/or nonempirical.”

But what about atheist Pagans!? the commenter responded, thinking that he had me cornered.

Not a problem, I said, they fit under the umbrella too. York offered it as a definition that allows not only polytheism but non-theistic humanism and naturism/naturalism.

The commenter responded with something about “gobbledegook,” which I translate as “You are asking me to think too much and to question my position.”

But even though I know that reading comprehension is low online, I am going to break down York’s definition and talk briefly abut what I like it from a religious-studies perspective. Then in a future post, I will look at another definition, one perhaps more suited to a historian.

“An affirmation” — Not a “belief” or a “creed,” but just an understanding by practitioners that this sacred relationship exists.

“interactive and polymorphic” — whatever Pagans do, they treat as flowing both ways: “We need the gods, and the gods need us.” “We respond to the world, and the world responds to us.”  These relationships are polymorphic because they can take many shapes—not just formal worship, but all kinds of interactions.

“sacred relationship” — now here we hit rough water. The existence of “the sacred” or any “agent beyond the purview of science” is debatable in religious studies. One contingent sees the term “sacred” as meaningless (or of “mixed empirical utility”) and asserts that every action or attitude described as “sacred” can be explained within the the realms of human power games, economic games, gender games, etc. Or else it is just an accidental product of brain wiring of dubious evolutionary value.

But for now, let assume a sacred realm, as most religious people do, with which one can  have a relationship. That does not necessarily mean a theistic relationship. For more than anything, this definition treats “Pagan” as a way of being religious, not as a set of rituals or beliefs or creeds.

“by the individual or community” — Solitary Pagans, you’re covered.

“with the tangible, sentient and/or nonempirical” — this phrase covers “green religion” in Bron Taylor’s sense. Your relationship might be with Mother Ocean, as his is. Or a mountain? Or a work of art — all tangible. It may be with persons, human or other-than-human, but still characterized as sacred.

It might be with the “nonempirical,” those “agents beyond the purview of science”: spirits, gods, wights, whatever you want to call them. But the “or” still leaves room for non-theistic Pagans.

In the book, York differentiates Paganism from other ideal types of religion: Abrahamic, dharmic, and secular. But he also sees “paganism” (he does not capitalize) as appearing in other religions, for example, if Christian pilgrims visit a sacred mountain (the tangible), that is a Pagan element in their practice.

Certainly some Sunni Muslims would agree: hence the Saudi government’s destruction of sites from the time of the prophet Muhammed, including what many think was a house he lived in — these tangible elements might distract believers from The Book.

This definition, unlike the next one that I will discuss, is set out independent of culture, history, ethnicity, and so forth. It does put what seem like disparate groups into one basket — and it largely ignores groups’ claims about their own origins, lineages, and so forth.

But to return to the idea of “a way of being religious,” it does seem useful in discussing earth- and body-centered  practices (such as pilgrimage) that were previously shoved to the side in favor of textual criticism and the study of hierarchies and religious transmission from one leader to the next.

21 thoughts on “Defining Paganism (1)

  1. Medeine Ragana

    Very interesting post.

    This is going to sound like stupid questions, nevertheless, how would you define “sacred” and “religious”?

  2. Medeine, there are many ways scholars define the term “religious” and “sacred.” For example, many trace the term religion back into the Latin “religare,” which is usually translated as “to bind” or “to connect.” “Sacred” is hotly contested of course, but I tend to define it as “Power,” as in the ‘ability to do work.’ Certainly many scholars talk about “the Sacred,” but others (like myself) tend to criticize that notion as merely weasel-worded watered down monotheism. I do think Rudolf Otto was onto something when he suggested that a fundamental quality of “sacredness” is an experience of ‘something mysterious that at the same time both attracts and repels us. (‘mysterium tremendum et facinans’). That is to say, there is a destablizing element of what Freud might call the ‘uncanny’ or Kant the “sublime.”

  3. Very interesting post, Chas. However, I think that when using York’s definition, it is important to clarify that a lot of scholars in Pagan studies have been critical of it. Of course I am partisan here, because I am myself one of those critics (as my upcoming piece in The Pomegranate articulates), but nevertheless, I think it worth mentioning, lest any readers assume that it is free from controversy. I doubt that it is intentional, but there is an underlying Eurocentric and wider Western-centric bias to the definition, and as someone with a focus on historical development, I find it uncomfortably universalist.

    1. If a scholar from a Korean university wrote about my Pagan practice, should I expect his categories and definitions to look like my own? Or should I bash him for being Korea- and Asia-centric?


      As an archaeologist, don’t you think it is hegemonic and chrono-colonialist to refer to the Middle Ages or the medieval period? Certainly people living then would never have applied those categories to themselves. 😉

      1. Of course, every scholar (and indeed every human being) looks at the world through the prism of their own experience and background. That’s a given. When I look at any society or culture (whether past or contemporary), I look at it from my very own, subjective perspective, itself a product of everything I have ever experienced. My use of terminology in turn reflects that. But we, as scholars and human beings, have no other option; we cannot ever be truly objective. So of course the Korean scholar will look at the world through their own, Korean-centric perspective, and of course Mr York will look at the world through his own, unique, Anglo-centric perspective. But this is not the sort of western-centrism that I object to, because it’s impossible to escape.

        With all due respect to Mr. York, I think that his definition imposes a very contentious and controversial western term onto many non-western peoples, who have themselves long been subjugated by European colonialists and imperialists. Michael Strmiska explains it best in his excellent volume on “Modern Paganism in World Cultures” when he states that “blurring together the religious identities of these many different peoples, with their vastly different historical and contemporary situations, does a disservice to Indigenous peoples’ struggles for postcolonial self-determination by conflating them with the very peoples they see as their oppressors and colonizers.” That’s the western-centrism I oppose in this instance. Although Strmiska doesn’t say it himself, I think that the clear beneficiaries of this use of terminology are contemporary Pagans, who are themselves almost all the descendants of Europeans… But you know my stance on this issue (as per The Pom opinion piece). :p

        If York had used a word other than “paganism”, maybe even devising an entirely new term, then I would be happy to use it. I think his concept of *a way of being religious* is a very good one. But from a historical perspective, the act of conflating all these many different beliefs and practices from across time and space under such a contentious and loaded term is just too problematic for me to get behind. Well, that’s my two cents anyway :p

        1. You will need to read the article “The Gatherings of the Elders: The Beginnings of a Pagan International,” in the issue of The Pomegranate now in press.

          Events may have already moved along to the point where people of different continents — at least some of them — are accepting “Pagan” as a descriptor. Issues of its being “contentious” may be fading away, and I might go so far as to suggest that the academic field of Pagan studies has contributed to that fading.

  4. Wendy

    Thank you for writing this.

    I’ve always considered “sacred” to be the opposite or counterpart to “profane” like so:

    “profane” == things one does for money

    “sacred” == things one does for love

    At least that’s how I’ve seen art categorized, and I’ve expanded on that definition because it works for me.

  5. “insist that his sort of Paganism was different from some other people’s Paganism”

    Ummm… no. I was asserting that *everyone’s* Paganism is different from other people’s Paganism. (Perhaps you do have a point after all about low reading comprehension.)

    I stand by my assertion that your definition is untenable for several reasons. First, the mere fact that it requires hundreds of words of parsing (or an entire book!) just to make it intelligible goes against the primary purpose of any definition; to explain what it is that it purports to define.

    In addition, your definition casts far too wide a net. A definition must, by definition (ahem) reflect reality. There are many Heathens who consciously eschew the label of Paganism, not to mention Hindus, Amerindians, Saami, African animists, and many others (including even those who participate in cults of Catholic saints!) who would take great offense at being thus labeled, because they have no interest in reclaiming the term from the negative associations that Christianity has placed upon it over the years. I raised that objection in the original post, but you chose to gloss over it.

    Over at PaganSquare, where the original discussion took place, we seemed to be having a fairly cordial, if contentious, discussion. I am frankly disappointed that you felt it necessary to launch this attack over here (with snipes about “reading comprehension”, “asking me to think too much” and generally casting aspersions which are completely unnecessary if you want to engage in a discussion of York’s definition), as I have previously found your posts to be interesting even if I don’t agree with everything you say. Disappointed is indeed the word.

    1. Saying that my exposition is too long is like your referring to Prof. York’s definition as “gobbledegook.” I am looking for someone to engage it in a thoughtful, reasoned, intellectual way beyond “I don’t like it,” but I am not seeing that here.

      If there are “Heathens who consciously eschew the label of Paganism,” let us ask why that is. Is it just a matter of boundary-maintenance? If so, who is being kept out — and why?

      Is it a visceral feeling that the term Pagan is somehow too Mediterranean, too “soft,” even perhaps effeminate? Please elaborate.

      I will move on to other definitions, but the point here is that Prof. York attempted to define a “way of being religious” that covers a number of religions or traditions or what-have-you that display a family resemblance.

      Yes, like “Abrahamic” and “dharmic” these are broad-brush, ideal types. But we have to start somewhere.

      To engage with his definition, you would have to show how it does not work for you, for example, if you do not have a relationship with the “non-empirical” (gods, wights, etc.)

      1. Rombald

        I get the impression that Heathens primarily dissapprove of Wiccans, and insist they are not Pagans for that reason. A lot of this is politics: Wicca = Left; Heathenism = Right (to oversimplify).

        1. Yet I have heard people accuse the original Wiccans — Gardner & Friends — of being (shock!) Tories and monarchists. I don’t really care, because I do not think that these political categories map neatly (or even crudely) onto Pagan religions.

  6. Rombald

    In truth, York’s definition does strike me as leaning towards gobbledygook.

    I have come across quite a few people trying to exclude others from the category of “Pagan”. Over on Wildhunt, there have been people insisting that one must be polytheist, in some sense at least; one cannot be an atheist or monotheist Pagan.

    I also once saw a Wiccan website that stated that Paganism means nonoppressive religion, and the Greeks and Romans, being intrinsically oppressive people, were therefore not Pagan. It seemed to identify “Paganism” as either Celtic or Native American.

    I don’t really think the term “Paganism” is all that helpful, except as a catch-all for someone who is not a Western scientific materialist, and does not follow an Abrahamic religion or Buddhism.

    1. I should also mention that York’s terminology was worked out partly on the old NATREL (nature religions) email list, as he attempted to develop language that would cover both theistic and non-theistic Paganisms.

      As it turns out, “spiritual but not religious” and “green religion” are both contenders for the second grouping.

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  8. Piitch313

    In regard to York’s definition, I can cheerfully say that yeah! I do that! I regularly and routinely affirm that sort of relationship with that sort of field of being or whatever. What’s more I prefer a diffusely extensive definition like this to a a narrower and denser one.

    These days, I pretty much regard paganism/Paganism as a fandom (without trying to be very specific about what a fandom is or does).

    Behold a galaxy of story systems populated by a diversity of species, beings, and entities, some powerfully attracting your interest, others not so much. Among the legions of those so attracted (and not so much), certain qualities (even meta-qualities) of being so attracted give rise to acknowledgement of that shared connection. Voila! A Fandom! (But, of course, you’ll never catch me browsing at that Trad’s table or attending his/her workshop! I know what’s involved in my true home Trad fan loyalty!)

    Go! Go! Go! Nor-Cal Earthlings!!!

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