Ruadhan’s Further Adventures in Over-Thinking Pagan Identity Crisis 2011 — NOW WITH GRAPHS!!!

OK, so I was commenting on some-one (even though it’s likely being screened for no reason I can figure out, but whatever), and I realised something: There are two working definitions of “pagan” that most people seem to use to various degrees.

A couple friends of mine use “scene pagan” and “religious pagan”, but on further consideration, I’m not sure this is wholly accurate for how it works In Real Life™. There’s a bit of overlap for a lot of people, and so it may be dismissive of those who are thoroughly entrenched in the “pagan scene” but are deeply religious.

Basically, there’s the Dictionary Definition™ of “pagan religions” — actually, it’s usually two or three definitions, but you understand what I mean— and then there’s the self-defined “pagan community”:

“Pagan” religions (Wiccan, Feri, Asatru, Hellenismos, Paganachd, Yljeeaghys — to name a few) are just that. They’re religions, old or new, that fit a dictionary definition of “pagan”. Often, this extends to Eastern/Asian or Indigenous American religions that tend to eschew the term “pagan” more than those who practise Western/European-based or Mediterranean religions that fall outside the dominance of Abrahamic faiths — certain Abrahamists may also consider other Abrahamic religions “pagan”, like Gnostics for giving reverence to the books of pre-Nicean Christianity that the Nicean council voted out, or Baha’i for its almost pantheistic approach to and taboos against religious fanaticism, or Rastefarianism for… pretty much everything about it while maintaining a reverence for Christian scripture. Certain flavours of Evangelical Protestant Christian may also consider Catholics as “pagan” for Catholicism’s veneration of Mary on a level very similar to many other “Mother Goddesses” and saints in a manner similar to demi-gods. Then there’s Venezuela’s Maria Lionza cult, many of whose members describe themselves as Catholic, but are also clearly a part of a religion that the local Catholic priests and bishops preach against as being “pagan”. As you can see, “pagan” is not merely synonymous with “polytheism” or “nature religion” — it is a bullying word.

What is and is not a pagan religion is largely subjective, but the word’s history as a Christian “not one of us” slur, even against other Christians, makes many who may apply the term to their religion on the basis of the dictionary hesitant. If adopting it as a “reclaimed word” for one’s own religion, this is best left self-applied — in all honesty, you look like a douche-bag when you tell other people what words they “should” use to describe themselves, including their religion.

There is then the Pagan Community.

Not every-one in the Pagan Community is an adherent of a well-defined religion that may be commonly described as “pagan”. Some members of the Pagan Community are self-styled spiritual, agnostic, atheist tree-huggers who commune with nature, Christo-Pagans, or perhaps even Abrahamic astrologers and mystics or mere “spiritual non-denominational Christians” who feel out-of-place within any pre-defined sect of their religion. Or perhaps they’re Abrahamic “dual-trad” or syncretics. They may not even consider themselves especially spiritual, but instead as one who loves the endorphin rush from drum-circles, and so attends as many as one can. Whether they do or do not define their religious practises as “pagan”, a person may still be a part of the pagan community socially or politically and thus may or may not define their public identity as “pagan”.

That said, the “pagan community” tends to have two distinct types with a lot of over-lap: The social scene and political activists. In my experiences, there is a slightly larger overlap between Religious and Political than Religious and Social — so your mileage may vary, when considering the below Venn Diagram:

Now, what can we learn from this graph?

1) there are a lot of religious people who may be considered “pagan”, even if they do not define themselves as such — as has been explained by the above, and on this post, this one, and Kayleigh’s here, “Pagan” is a relatively new self-definition, it is often a “Not One of Us” word used by Abrahamic religionists —in which case, it is a slur, and we must speak out against such use just like we speak out against homophobes calling people “gay” or “faggot”, and just like we speak out against racist slurs. Not every-one who’s religion may be considered “pagan” by others thinks that term is a good self-descriptive; again: Note the rarity with which Hindus, Shintos, and Buddhists use the word to self-define, in spite of The Dictionary Definotion™ that clearly includes their religions amongst “pagan” ones. Those who do use the term with their identification of their religion are but a small part of that whole — probably smaller than my graph implies.
2) there is considerable overlap with those who consider their religion “pagan”, those who consider themselves a part of the “pagan community” and those who believe in related socio-political goals.
…and also:
3) Ruadhán, you really fupped-up some of this here! (and obviously too lazy to draw it again)
4) Ruadhán, you really can’t draw circles (and obviously couldn’t be arsed to get something for a template)
5) Ruadhán, also, you really, seriouslyneed a new purple marker-pen, (yes, I know, I’m going to Staples tomorrow)

Actually, you know, I think the Teal and Pink circles could stand to be re-sized, and I could have probably stood to but I’m going to leave the whole thing as-is. Why? It’s a visual aid, nothing more, to illustrate the layers I see in the Pagan community and the real-life use I’ve seen of the word “Pagan”.

The reality is, when I recently read the comments to Drew Jacob’s first post (that started all this), I saw quite a few people telling him, in no uncertain terms, that whether he likes it, or thinks it fits, or even will concede to it or not, he and his group? They’re pagans, and they ALL better get used to it, and like it, cos not only does the dictionary say so, THEY DO, TOO! This from apparently self-defined “pagans”.

I have to agree with Mr Jacob’s follow-up post: That’s bullying, and in reality it’s no better than the tactics used by Christians to force conversion of those they declare “pagan” — it always starts so seemingly “reasonable” before getting to the physical violence of old and the withholding of medical aid of today. It starts with words: Look, you Pagan, I’m going to tell YOU what YOU are Pagan, and you have two choices: Accept it and the fate that comes with being a Pagan, or give me a reason to stop calling you that, Pagan!

Has anybody who may be reading this ever been called “fatty”? Sure, maybe you really did fit the dictionary definition of a “fat person”, but you’d still call that bullying, because who is some other person to tell you how to feel about yourself. Or maybe you’re an expat who has thoroughly absorbed your now-local culture, even consider yourself a part of it, but those around you insist on maintaining the idea that you’ll never really be one of them, and tell you as much — again, bullying.

I wish I could say that I’m shocked as well as appalled by what I see, but the reality is that I’m really not. And, at this point, I’m so used to seeing such behaviour, that I’m almost too jaded by it to feel appalled.

Conceding to the term “pagan” when it’s useful is a personal choice I’ve made, even though I feel it doesn’t best describe my religion, for a lot of reasons. It’s really not my place to tell others what words to self-apply — I’m sure they know what the dictionary says, and I’m sure they know what Abrahamists may say, so it seems pretty condescending to remind them for no reason. Some forms of Evangelical Christianity also declare any religion but their kind of Christianity to be “Satanism”, so I know I sure don’t put a lot of stock in what people outside my religion have to say about my religion; they can’t describe it with authority for the simple reason that it is not something they do. Thus, no matter how much I may feel some-one else’s religion looks like X, if they say it’s Y, I’ll take them at their word — to tell a Y-religionist that their religion is “really X” is a tad insulting.

I think a lot of this has to do with a bit of retention of a Christian state of mind: You’re either Black or White — Forget Greys, Forget Colours, and Pick A Side. While I acknowledge that there are some Christians who have un-learned that sort of thinking, or perhaps never thought that way at all, they are severely in a minority. The basic teachings of nearly every Christian church teaches that fundamental aspect of Christianity, and in fact is a false dichotomy, where you’re either Christian/Abrahamist or Pagan, Dead or Alive — ignoring the very reality that you may be Something Else, possibly even Dracula. Not even explicitly “fundamentalist” sects teach this sort of thinking, that’s how deeply ingrained this concept is into Christianity.

This is another reason I admit that I concede to the term only as much as it’s useful to me. A large faction of the pagan community still, to me, seems entrenched in this false dichotomy: You’re either an Abrahamist or a Pagan, and if you object to this, then you’re just wrong.

I find this idea troubling, because while everybody in the pagan community who subscribes to this belief has a real easy time describing what makes the Abrahamic religions —Judaism is the cultural monotheistic religion of the Hebrew people and it has a bunch of dietary laws, Christianity is kinda like Judaism but with fewer dietary restrictions and they regard the mythological figure of Jesus Christ as the son of their God, Islam is kinda like Christianity except Jesus is a prophet, and Mohammed is the Final Prophet, and they’ve gotten back in touch with the dietary law— precious few have as easy time describing what the basic outline is for “pagan” religions. While most “pagan religions” are polytheistic or animistic, not all are — some are monotheistic, agnostic, or atheistic. While many religions that may be described as “pagan” are related to an ancient and often somewhat-surviving culture (like Hellenism or Yljeeaghys ["polytheism" in Manx Gaelic]1), there are newer “pagan” religions that may have no clear ties to any one culture. Some self-styled “pagans” may not even consider themselves religious or spiritual. Some who self-identify as “pagans” feel closest to their gods or spirits in woodlands — others in bustling metropoleis, so even declaring “paganism” to be “nature religion” is to basically tell other self-defined “pagans” that their spiritual realities are wrong. To unite under a term that has no positive meaning puzzles me.

Ultimately, “pagan” is a word of “negative definition”: It defines a religion based on what it is not, not based on what a particular religion IS. It is also a word with an etymology linked to the Latin equivalent of “ignorant country bumpkin” and a history of use deeply absorbed in Abrahamic supremacy. Hindus, Shintoists, indigenous American and Australian tribes who practise their ancestral religions, Buddhists, and others have long-eschewed the term “pagan” on the grounds that it is what missionaries have used to define them; that those practising European-based tribal polytheism and newer paths have been dropping the word in recent years is relatively new — indeed, we’re pretty late to that party, all things considered.

Still, as I’ve said before, I keep the few ties I have to the greater “pagan community” that exists in the Anglosphere on political grounds, primarily, and also on a few overlapping social interests. I also have a hard time finding the incenses and herbs I burn in devotional rituals at ordinary bookstores and markets, and it’s really hard to generate interest in divination-for-hire services outside of, well, the sorts of places that self-defined “pagans” usually go.

So am I pagan?

I can’t call my religion “pagan” when no-one seems to have a concrete definition of what “pagan” means — and I refuse to be bullied by dictionary-thumpers telling me that they’re an authority on what my religion is. I definitely have ties to the “pagan community”, but if I were to make a list of everything I do and am interested in, I wouldn’t be surprised if that suggested I have stronger ties to the Mod Revival scene — going on pure numbers of media-items alone, all the records and books and assorted art-items I own, I’m sure that could be enough to say so. While I can’t deny what the dictionary and most people outside my religion may say about it, and I can’t deny some of the things I read and enjoy listening to and looking at, nor some of the little things I do for extra money, to seriously self-define with a word that I have such a low opinion of and less use for than other words seems a bit much. Even at the moments it suits my purposes to be “pagan”, it feels so hollow — less than a joke, except when it explicitly is a joke. So while I have debatable “pagan” attributes, and certainly some portion of my life is spent in a community that has a far more positive attitude toward the word “pagan”, I’m even more hesitant now than ever to self-apply the word.

It’s like putting my feet, a UK5 (US Men’s 6), into my house-mate’s shoes, sized USM14½ (UK13½): In a pinch, I can slip them on and get the mail, but since anything more than that takes so much effort just to keep the bloody things on my feet —hell, even just going out to get the mail with them on takes so much effort, it hardly seems worth it, when I do— it’s clear that the shoes don’t fit me. Indeed, at half the time I don’t feel arsed to go get my own shoes to fetch the mail, I just go barefoot.

So no, while I am supportive of the socio-political goals of the pagan community, and have respect for several self-defined pagans, both as personal friends and as distant figures I read about, I cannot, in good conscience, say that I or what I do is “pagan” any more than I can apply that term to another person or their religion. There is no real such thing as a “pagan religion” beyond the religions that openly embrace the word, and even then, I can’t help but wonder what it is about the word that attracts them —surely not its history as a slur, I presume, and surely there is more to their religion than “not Abrahamic”. No, I am not a “pagan”, I’m a Boeotian polytheist who participates in a social and political community that often defaults to the word “pagan” as its descriptive. Boeotian polytheism isn’t any more “pagan” than polytheistic Hindu or Buddhist sects. The cult of Eros is open to anybody who wishes to worship Him, and so is therefore no more “pagan” than that of Maria Lionza.

I hope this helps. :-) It’s surely helped me sort out my own thoughts on this.

2: The main reason I know this? I write fiction, and one of my characters is Manx; in developing her character’s background prior to publishing any stories with her, it became apparent that her family were polytheists.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for almost a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros most of that time. He also paints, makes music, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival subculture of the early 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.
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0 Responses to Ruadhan’s Further Adventures in Over-Thinking Pagan Identity Crisis 2011 — NOW WITH GRAPHS!!!

  1. Nornoriel says:

    “I have to agree with Mr Jacob’s follow-up post: That’s bullying,”

    I agree 110%.

    “while I am supportive of the socio-political goals of the pagan community, and have respect for several self-defined pagans, both as personal friends and as distant figures I read about, I cannot, in good conscience, say that I or what I do is “pagan” any more than I can apply that term to another person or their religion.”

    Yep, again why I’ve increasingly been leaving behind “Pagan” as a label and either saying “Druid” or “Brythonic polytheist”, depending on who I’m talking to. The word is too vague to really be useful, it’s ill-fitting for the quirks of my particular practice at best, and if anything, the more people want to push a word on me with bullying tactics the more likely I am to be a contrarian and butt my head that much harder saying “NO I AM NOT X”. The pressure I’ve seen within the Pagan community to get people to unite under some watered-down umbrella label, or jump on the latest bandwagon of “eschew this holiday” or “don’t shop here” if you want to be A Real Pagan – completely stomach-turning. It’s damn time more people said ENOUGH ALREADY.

    • See, I really love etymology and word history, so I never felt especially attached to the word, even in the odd arguments I once-upon-a-time had with Hellenes in modern Hellas who absolutely disown it, I’d always acknowledge that their claims of the word’s history was valid (at least when it actually was), but then concede that all their knowledge of etymology doesn’t add up to a hill of beans when interacting with Abrahamists or those amongst the English-First-Language Hellenes who self-identify with the word. In retrospect, I feel like I was simply an apologist for bullying in those instances, and I feel it was wrong; all I can say in defence of that past behaviour was that I didn’t mean to come across that way, but even I know intent isn’t magical when one’s actions end up contributing to hurt.

      The pagan community is full of faults, and it’s sad that so many will either ignore those faults or simply make lacklustre apologies for them when it’ll do more re-world good to work on changing what’s wrong. I know it’s not all going to get fixed overnight, and in the quest to make improvements, “new problems” will be made apparent —be they genuinely new or just problems that lurked behind the sofa the whole time— but surely some work at change is better than sitting on one’s hands and pretending it’ll all work itself out.

      I definitely think one of the changes that can be for the greater good is for all religions currently “united” under that loosely-defined umbrella word to… what? Ah yes: Stop defining themselves negatively. Define themselves by what they ARE, not by some vague word that simply tells people what they ARE NOT. Especially when the word has such a history of an “Us vs Them” paradigm that it’s practically impossible to divorce that kind of thinking from its use, especially at the point in time.

      • Nornoriel says:

        “Stop defining themselves negatively. Define themselves by what they ARE, not by some vague word that simply tells people what they ARE NOT.”


  2. Drew Jacob says:

    Incredible analysis. This was a fun read, Ruadhan.

  3. Ruby Sara says:

    This is a great post, thank you!

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