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.