“Pagan”: Some Musings on Definitions

Footnotes are indicated by a boldfaced number in brackets. Click on this to go to the note. Click on the first words of the note to get back to your place in the text.

There has been such debate on web sites, in forums and mailing lists on how to define “Pagan” and “Neo-Pagan” as a descriptive term for certain modern religions. Some Neo-Pagan sources define “Pagan” as being earth-centric or nature-centric.[1] However, many Reconstructionist religions and many ancient Pagan religions on which modern Pagan religions are based are or were not earth-centric and Reconstructionists have complained that this definition of “Pagan” excludes them. Since I have Reconstructionist leanings, I would like also to have a working definition of “Pagan” includes this religious approach.

ReligiousToleration.org has an excellent discussion on the issues involved in the use of the word “Pagan” at http://www.religioustolerance.org/Paganism.htm. Issac Bonewits also has in interesting discussion on paleo-, meso-, and neo-Pagan at: http://www.neoPagan.net/PaganDefs.html. Other sites with thought-provoking discussions are listed below. [2]

Let us look first at how a much-used dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, defines “Pagan”:[3]

1. One who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, especially a worshiper of a polytheistic religion. 2. One who has no religion. 3. A non-Christian. 4. A hedonist. 5. A Neo-Pagan.

A number of Pagans I know ascribe to part of the first definition of Pagan — one who is not a Christian, Muslim or Jew. This and definition no. 3 are very broad and inclusive, but not very meaningful. Definitions no. 2 and 4 make the word “Pagan” useless for describing a group or type of religion. Definition no. 5 equates Pagans as Neo-Pagans and excludes the very people who have as much right to the term as any Neo-Pagan, the Reconstructionists.

As for defining “Pagan” as “one who is not a Christian, Muslim or Jew,” I personally have a hard time thinking of Buddhists, Hindus or followers of various Native American religions as “Pagans.” Many times, these religions are based on wholly different world views than the Western world view.

Definitions no. 1 and 3 define “Pagan” by what it is not. I would like to see a definition that is based on what “Pagan” is. However, any sufficiently inclusive definition of “Pagan” probably could not include a list of characteristics shared by all, or even most, contemporary Pagan religions.

My Definition of “Pagan” as Used for Contemporary Religions

“Pagan” is a classificatory term for a varied group of religions that are based wholly or in greater part on pre-Judeo/Christian/Islamic European or Mediterranean religions throughout all of Europe and the Middle East and Northern Africa included in the area occupied by the Roman Empire at it greatest extent. This definition includes such religions as those based on various Mesopotamian-area religions or Egyptian religion, but excludes religions of southern Africa, religions of India and eastern Asia, and religions of Native Americans, however similar in nature. In other words, Pagan religions include religions founded in the Western world and Western civilization. Traditionally, the history of Western civilization has usually included Egypt and Mediterranean Asia. Religions outside of this geographic region are not, to me, “Pagan.”

Since the word comes from the Latin paganus, it seems to me that it should apply to religions native to geographic territory of “Western Civilization.” I see it applying to the area covered by the Roman empire at its greatest extent and all the rest of Europe not conquered by Rome, but Christianized by the beginning of the Early Modern Period (about 1500 CE). The Latin term and the subsequent English derivation was applied within the Roman Empire or later, Christendom — Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for 1,000 years or so. It is only relatively recently that “Pagan” has been applied to religions outside that area. This still doesn't tell very much about what Pagan religions are like, but one now has a narrower scope for research and exploration.

Pagan religions tend to be either monotheistic and monistic, polytheistic and monistic, or polytheistic and dualistic. In contrast, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monotheistic and dualistic and Buddhism is not theistic.[4]

There are two subclasses of Pagan religions: Neo-pagan religions and Reconstructionist religions. Neo-pagan religions are modern religions. more or less based on historically Pagan religions. and may incorporate beliefs, ideas, and practices from more than one cultural tradition and from non-European or Abrahamic traditions (e.g., Judeo-Christian magical practices or chakra theory). Definitions of “Pagan” that describe Pagan religions as being earth-centric or nature-centric more closely describe many (but not all) Neo-pagan religions than they describe Pagan religions as a whole. Some Neo-pagan religions include Wicca, other Neo-pagan Witchcraft traditions, forms of Neo-pagan Druidry as ADF, Henge of Keltria, and OBOD [5], and Feri Tradition.

Reconstructionist religions attempt to revive or to recreate ancient native religions from particular places and times. Some attempt to recreate the religious practices strictly as they were known to have been. Others try to envision how that religion may have changed over time if it had been in continuous practice. Yet others, probably the majority, combine these two approaches. Some Reconstructionist religions include Hellenic Polytheism, Religio Romana, various Celtic Reconstructionist groups [6] and Asatru.

My definition generally applies to contemporary religions, not ancient ones. I generally use such terms as “ancient,” “pre-Christian native” or “ancient Pagan” to describe pre-modern European or Middle Eastern religions. For cultures outside of the geographic area, I either use the name the religion uses for itself (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism) or geographically classificatory terms such as “Native American religions” or “Polynesian ethnic religions” or “African-diaspora religions.”

People may define themselves as “Pagan” as they define the term. While in my own mind, I may not feel that another person's religion fits under my definition of “Pagan,” I acknowledge their right to use a variant definition. As we have seen from the American Heritage Dictionary definition above, word meanings can be remarkably fluid.


  1. For example, The Covenant of the Goddess defines “Pagan” as “a practitioner of an Earth Religion; from the Latin Paganus, a country dweller” (http://www.cog.org/general/iabout.html#DEF). Other groups that have similar definitions are: Pagan Education Network (http://www.bloomington.in.us/~pen/mPagan.html) and Circle Sanctuary (http://www.circlesanctuary.org/aboutpagan/guide.htm and http://www.circlesanctuary.org/aboutpagan/iampagan.html).
  2. Other Web Sites Discussing the Definition of “Pagan”:
    • The BBC
    • The Cauldron’s Pagan Primer and Open Letter on Neo-Pagan “Unity”
    • Sannion’s Sanctuary
    • Southern Oregon Pagan Network
    • The Agnostic Witch
    • Pagan Pride Their definition is:
      • A Pagan or NeoPagan is someone who self-identifies as a Pagan, and whose spiritual or religious practice or belief fits into one or more of the following categories:
      • Honoring, revering, or worshipping a Deity or Deities found in pre-Christian, classical, aboriginal, or tribal mythology; and/or
      • Practicing religion or spirituality based upon shamanism, shamanic, or magical practices; and/or
      • Creating new religion based on past Pagan religions and/or futuristic views of society, community, and/or ecology; and/or
      • Focusing religious or spiritual attention primarily on the Divine Feminine.

      This definition is one that I could almost live with; it is inclusive without defining “Pagan” in terms of what it is not.

  3. The online American Heritage Dictionary can be found at http://www.bartleby.com/61/.
  4. Other definitions from the online American Heritage Dictionary:
    • Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is but one God.
    • Polytheism: the worship of or belief in more than one God.
    • Monism: the doctrine that mind and matter are formed from, or reducible to, the same ultimate substance or principle of being.
    • Dualism: (1) philosophy — the view that the world consists of or is explicable as two fundamental entities, such as mind and matter or (2) theology — the concept that humans have two basic natures, the physical and the spiritual.
    • Monotheism can encompass pantheism (a doctrine identifying the Deity with the universe and its phenomena). Dualistic religions often believe that God and the created world are of different substances (or that spirit and matter are different substances), while monistic religions believe that “the all,” including God(s) and the created world is of one unifying substance.
  5. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids considers its druidry to be a spiritual philosophy rather than a religion. Some members do consider themselves Christian or from another non-Pagan religion, but many members seem to consider themselves Pagan and their teachings and writings share characteristics with those of other Neo-Pagan groups.
  6. The classification of Celtic Reconstructionist groups may also include Celtic Traditionalists, although they seem to have different aims and goals. See the Sword and Shield Message Board FAQ on Celtic Reconstruction and Celtic Traditionalism or The Celtic Callings Celtic Pagan FAQ for more information on the differences.