Orthography and the Modern Pagan

One thing I did at the recent American Academy of Religion annual meeting was stop by the University of Chicago Press booth and get the name of the managing editor of the press’s Manual of Style, which is the holy book, all 1,028 pages of it, for editors of academic books and journals—plus many publishers of serious nonfiction.

A petition has been sent to her by Oberon Zell of the Church of All Worlds, etc., as well as to the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook, the holy book of American journalists, about the capitalization of the word “Pagan.” Oberon has lined up forty-some writers and academics in support of the petition, which reads in part,

The current journalistic convention of printing lower case for these terms seems to have originated with the Associated Press Stylebook, first published in 1953.  However, a new era of religious pluralism has emerged over the past sixty years. The terms “Pagan” and “Paganism” are now being capitalized in a variety of publications, texts, documents, and references, including religious diversity education resources such as On Common Ground: World Religions in America, The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, and Inmate Religious Beliefs and Practices, Technical Reference Manual, Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Department of Justice.

You can read the full text here.

So far, the University of Chicago Press has acknowledged receiving it and plans to forward it to its Reference Committee.

This is a worthwhile cause, I think, and it is a battle that I have fought since the early 1990s (at least) when I was writing The Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics for the reference book publishers ABC-Clio. (A friend working there at the time commissioned it.) I won the battle on Pagan — even for ancient polytheists — but lost on BCE/CE versus BC/AD.

As editor of The Pomegranate, I have continued to insist on capital P’s except in direct quotations. This has put me in gentle conflict sometimes with British and other European contributors who favor “pagan” or at most use “Pagan” for self-conscious contemporary new religions and “pagan” for pre-Christian practices. I think that bouncing back and forth is confusing for the reader’s eye.

So the movement to change the stylebooks is underway, although I expect the process to be a slow one.


One thought on “Orthography and the Modern Pagan

  1. Ah! Now I realise why you commented on this issue in my chapter! One of the things I dislike about the word full stop is that it’s so soft-focus as to be meaningless when applied to ancient religion. And in my own area of Celtic Studies, I don’t like the idea of writing e.g. ‘late Iron Age Irish Paganism’ because the capital letter brings (to my eye) the sidling insinuation that religious practice was more organised, self-conscious, and unitary than it may have been, given we know so little about it. In other words, I can’t help feeling it slightly weights the evidence, however subliminally. So I’ve gone for the RH approach and used p for ancient and P for modern/neo-, as you observed. But I do take your point that it gives a smooth read to capitalise in every instance.

    I don’t think I’ll ever get with BCE/CE myself, even though I understand the rationale: it’s not used in medieval studies, on the whole, so using it might look a bit affected. On the other hand I’m such a fusty old pedant I’m finding it difficult to give only quotations in translation in the Irish gods book, rather than the usual original text + translation. But what proportion of the readership will have Old, Middle, and Modern Irish?! What would be the point? Gah. Anyway: thanks for this thought-provoking post.

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