With a quick search, you can find an active discussion--or more likely an argument--on one social media platform or another about the definition of the word "Pagan" at any given moment.
That is the nature of social media and the nature of Paganism. Both are amorphous, unbounded by time and famously light on rules.
I have joined several such discussions over the years--first with mounting excitement as I discovered that the spirituality I was quietly--almost secretly--raised with had a name and then later in increasing irritation as I saw that name gnawed, mauled and fought over like a bone in a dog fight. So many groups lay claim to it or insist that they define it, either for themselves or for others, and it is no wonder that a newcomer just discovering this spiritual movement today might be confused.
Even my mother, who taught me the basic tenants of Pagan spirituality based on nothing but an intuitive reverence for nature and some scattered esoteric reading, is wary of the term Pagan. Living in a conservative rural area, one absorbs the linguistic definitions of the surroundings, and when asked to define what she thought "Pagan" meant, she recently said she got a general impression of "hedonism, promiscuity, disrespect for authority and drugs."
That's a microcosm of what can be observed in the media. Many people, even those who are essentially friendly to Pagan spirituality, have this same general impression.
So, because I write about Paganism and toss the word around here with abandon, I suppose I need to define what I mean by it, both for insiders and for outsiders, unless I want to risk giving the wrong cpnnotation. And in the process I will have to stake a claim of sorts, to take a side in several hot arguments. After considerable thought, discussion and research, I am prepared to take that stand.
What Pagan once meant
The people of ancient Europe may have had a name for their spirituality or they may have just called it some equivalent of "common sense." We don't know and instead we know them by the words used by their conquerors.
The oldest definition of "Pagan" according to Merriam-Webster and every other scholarly source comes from ancient Rome, when it was used to mean "a country dweller." As Christianity moved into Europe, primarily in urban areas, and the rural areas remained largely non-Christian, the term Pagan came to mean simply "non-Christian."
Even today, Google's automatic definition for the word "Paganism" is "a religion other than one of the main world religions, specifically a non-Christian or pre-Christian religion."
This is the historical origin of the term and many Christians as well as Christian, Jewish and Muslim publications use it to mean beliefs outside those three faiths, including atheist and agnostic perspectives which are entirely secular.
This gives rise to the vehement insistence of many of the denizens of the internet that Paganism is not "a" religion at all. Clearly a religion, a tradition or an identity can not be simply defined by what it is not.
What gives a word meaning?
If one insists on a historical and primarily Christian definition of the term, then you are stuck there and in that sense Paganism is almost a meaningless term and one most of us would hesitate to adopt as an identity. But just as many Native Americans call themselves "Indians," when the origin of that term was a rather embarrassing goof made by an outsider, today there are a great many people who have adopted the term Pagan as a positive, meaningful identity.
My argument is essentially the same as that of Native American Indians. Words change. Definitions are first and foremost what they actually mean to most people at this given moment in history. Scholars can argue all they want but we use words to be understood and so while another term may be more academically correct, it makes more sense to use the term that the person hearing or reading your words will actually understand as you intend.
And so, if you want to say that you are Native American but resent having to use a long, cumbersome term dependent on the name of an ancient explorer which many people in your own community don't recognize anyway, you may well use the word "Indian" because it gets the message across correctly and quickly, regardless of its original goofiness and the unfortunate need to specify a continent when discussing it internationally.
The same principle applies to the word "Pagan" today. At least among the vast majority of Pagans, if you say "I'm Pagan" that means something positive and reasonably specific. It is quickly understood--by fellow Pagans at least--and it does not require a pedantic style to express as do many multi-word descriptors.
What Pagan means today
While many dictionaries today try to avoid defining Paganism beyond it's original "country-dweller" and later "non-Christian" meanings, it is enlightening to look at definitions given for the benefit of non-native English speakers. The purpose in this section of a dictionary is not to prove a point but rather to actually allow a traveler to know what is meant in modern society by the term. As a result, these are the most current and practical definitions.
Thus Merriam-Webster gets down off the high-horse of defining Paganism tritely as "a: pagan beliefs or practices, b: a pagan religion," and changes the definition for ESL learners to, "a religion that has many gods or goddesses, considers the earth holy, and does not have a central authority."
There is a definition that almost all Pagans can agree on.
Almost all, but not every last one. That is why there are the endless on-line arguments.
There are some groups who are undoubtedly Pagan in spirit but specifically honor one god or goddess. Some honor only "the god" and "the goddess." Still. it can be safely said that--with only purposefully contrary exceptions--even Pagan religions which honor only one or two gods or goddesses, recognize the validity of religions that honor multiple gods and goddesses (rather than calling them inherently false as some world religions would) and thus in effect give a nod to the existence of multiple gods and goddesses.
Some Pagan religions don't call spiritual energies or forces "gods" at all. Others consider everything or all life to be "divine" or "infused with spirit" and adopt a pantheistic view. However, this view serves essentially the same functions as gods and goddesses. It is simply better understood without the baggage of those terms.
This can be argued endlessly on-line, but it is one claim I am making. At least for the purpose of my writing, Paganism is positively defined as a religion involving many gods and goddesses or other spiritual entities or a universal spiritual connection with many means of approach.
Nature as sacred?
The other point that is most likely to be bickered over is the idea of the earth or nature as "holy." That would depend on the definition of "holy," but to avoid that kettle of fish, I offer the term nature-centered (often said as earth-centered) spirituality.
Paganism is and was connected to nature in its basic forms, beliefs, myths and concepts. Even in the days when Pagan meant "non-Christian," the religions this originally applied to--i.e. indigenous Middle Eastern and European religions--were highly focused on the earth, natural cycles, seasons, the fertility of the land and so forth.
The pantheons of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome, Greece, the Norse and the Celts were made up of gods and goddesses that represented the powers of the sun, sea, fertile land, rivers that brought life-giving water, rain, the moon and many other parts of nature and the cycles of life. By contrast, the focus of these religions was NOT on a world of pure spirit or mental gymnastics. They could have been. But they were not. They may have employed energy healing or a great many other psychic practices, but their focus--the focus of their gods was on nature.
And most Pagans today share this focus. Most, but not all, who claim the term "Pagan."
Staking my own claim
There are those today who see Paganism as primarily an ancestral tradition and racial identity. That is not Paganism but simply the misuse of the concept of respect for ancestors to further a race-divided worldview.
There are others today who confuse Paganism with a craft in which events (or one's own mental processes depending on your take on the craft) can be influenced through the use of psychic discipline and the will. This is commonly referred to as "witchcraft," and is often confused with Paganism by practitioners and outsiders alike. There are however certainly Pagan witches who are both Pagans and practice witchcraft, just as there are Christian witches who are Christian and practice witchcraft. And from my observations, there are also atheist witches.
But there are a great many Pagans who do not practice witchcraft as well.
There may well also be other definitions offered and there are those who insist that all those who claim the term "Pagan" must be included, regardless of how vastly they differ from the accepted definition of the term, because the one part of the definition that everyone agrees on is that there is no central authority with the power to say, "This one belongs and this one does not."
Nor do I claim that there is any such "central" authority. But I do claim that language has meaning. And I do insist upon the real meaning of the term "Pagan," as understood by the vast majority of those who use it.
When I explain the term "Pagan" to an ESL learner, which as an ESL teacher I do have occasion to do, my definition is very similar to that of Merriam-Webster. I do not confuse the issue by saying that some want to say they are Pagan. but claim that nature is not central to their beliefs. The truth is that those groups have other names for themselves as well and have no need to co-opt the term "Pagan."
The Pagan Federation (one of several groups which claim to speak for a broad variety of Pagans) has an excellent, though lengthy definition of Paganism, which recognizes the broad diversity of Pagans in which many deities are not conceived of as either humanoid, super-powered or having an assignable gender. while also giving a clear and constructively stated definition: "A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshiping religion." That works for me.
With a little more depth the PF site continues, "The Pagan outlook can be seen as threefold. Its adherents venerate Nature and worship many deities, both goddesses and gods."
Yes, that actually makes three principles: nature is sacred, there are many deities and at least some of them are female.
When I post this article to social media, there are bound to be arguments and someone who claims to know of a group that is "truly" Pagan, but doesn't subscribe to such a definition. That's okay because my foremost goal here is to define a term for my readers. When you read my writing, you will know what I mean.
Paganism is a vast umbrella term for a religious category, much as Christianity is. To be Christian, one should revere Christ. That is the bare minimum of what it is to be Christian. Sure, Christians will often haggle and say that this or that group isn't the right kind of Christians so they aren't really Christian at all, but from a scholar's perspective, if they revere Christ, they are Christian is some sense.
Paganism conversely requires at a minimum that those who claim the word revere nature and are at least open to the idea of multiple deities/spiritual forces and acknowledge that those deities/forces may--among others--be female. That's the bare minimum.
My beliefs may vastly differ from other Pagans. There are times when I find myself more in accord with certain Christians, Buddhists or Jews on some point of spirituality or ethics. But this has more to do with our sociopolitical stance than it does with the umbrellas of our religious identities.
There is no central authority in Paganism, any more than the Pope dictates the beliefs of all Christians. But there are those who set themselves up as authorities in one group or another. Paganism is very diverse and often democratic. But just as in other religions, there are groups that are more or less formally or informally led.
I am not dictating my definition as a leader. I merely state it as a wordsmith. This is my use of the term.
A respectful nod
A special note should be given regarding indigenous religions with their own names which have not in any formal or informal way adopted the term Paganism themselves, but which nicely fit the definition I have given for Paganism. This includes Native American, African, Siberian, Australian, Hindu and other nature-focused Asian faiths.
I cannot help that in my lexicon, the definition of Pagan fits your religion. I attempt to use the term "Pagan" specifically only in cases where a group has actually expressed a desire to be called Pagan. But when I'm talking in general about all nature-centered, polytheistic/pantheistic religions on earth, I do necessarily include many who have not chosen to be called "Pagan."
I would heartily welcome an understanding between all earth-centered faiths on the planet. If and when a different term comes to encompass all of us in the actual use of the English language, I will gladly embrace it. If those who now fit the definition of Pagan decide to adopt this term, I will wholeheartedly welcome them as my spiritual cousins. For now I respect the decision of each individual or group to make that choice on their own.
And the staves crossed
However, to those who wish to claim the term "Pagan" for purposes that contradict the earth-centered and open values of Paganism--those who wish to use the strength of spiritual seeking in our movement for political, racial or domineering intentions--I say "no."
That is not Paganism. I am not a central authority, but I am my own authority.
I am one Pagan who says "no" to racially defined, authoritarian and earth-disinterested co-opting of my identity. There are plenty others with me. We are our own authority, and those shall not pass.