What is a Pagan?

This is an argument I’ve been following and I thought I would wade in because I have a different perspective. As a former classics student, my starting point with this question would not be to consult Google or a dictionary, but instead my Wheelock’s Latin textbook, where the word “paganus” is described as “a countryman, peasant.” It is also used as an adjective to mean someone that is from the country.

And this is where the word “pagan” comes from. But what did it actually mean? Like any language, words have connotations as well as denotations, and the connotation of “paganus” was more akin to “bumpkin” than simply “someone who happens to live outside the city.” Pagani were differentiated from the urban elites who considered themselves more intelligent, more educated, more cultured, and more worthy, and therefore when urban Romans referred to a “paganus,” it was not a complimentary word. And when they used the word to refer to religious worship, they likely referred to specific deities or epithets that were honored more by the country folk than by those in the cities, or specific practices and rites that differed from the “proper” urban practice.

So saying that “pagans” are defined by a nature-based religion isn’t exactly correct because by most modern definitions, they were all pagans before the 4th century CE. Of course, when Emperor Constantine began the process of legitimizing Christianity and pulling it into mainstream Roman society, and later Theodosius made it the official religion of the Empire, “pagan” would refer to anyone who wasn’t Christian, which was mostly outlying rural areas and those areas newly conquered by Rome. It more akin to the difference between Episcopalians and Baptists than Christians and polytheists.

But this word “paganus” didn’t refer to Jews, not because the Roman Christians felt any kinship with the Jews — in fact, most of Constantine’s contribution to the early Christian church was to explicitly separate it from Jewish tradition. It was simply that Judaism predates the founding of Rome by a thousand years (at least) and therefore was just considered separate from the issues related to Romans. Jews weren’t considered Romans, so it didn’t make sense to divide them into urban or pagan. And, of course, the word “paganus” didn’t include Muslims because they wouldn’t exist for another couple hundred years after the adoption of Christianity as the official Roman religion. So the distinction of “pagan” as “non-Abrahamic” is meaningless in the context of the original word, since there was no such thing (and really, still isn’t) a concept of unified “Abrahamic” religions. There were the ruling Christians and the peasant or conquered Christians.

Then, there is the fact that using the word “pagan,” which derives from an empire that primarily focused its rule on modern-day Europe, western Asia, and a little bit of northern Africa does not take into account a large swath of the earth’s population. The word “paganus” didn’t refer to Hindus, Buddhists, or Taoists, despite the fact that they absolutely existed at the same time as the Roman Empire because they were never conquered by the Romans, and so were not part of the dichotomy of ruling urban elites vs. country bumpkins. It didn’t include a large portion of traditional African religions, and it certainly wouldn’t include any of the practices of what we now call the Americas. So why do we cling to a naming convention that is defined in relation to an empire that fell over a thousand years before the modern pagan revival?

Well, a lot of that has to do with the European Enlightenment era idolization of classical Rome, and by extension classical Greece. Because they grew disillusioned with medieval Church domination of knowledge and philosophy, they sought to return to pre-Christian traditions, and of course looked to ancient Rome and Greece for philosophical guidance. And in their minds, reclaiming the word “pagan” further separated them from medieval Christianity, which had stuck to its Roman roots by using the word “pagan” pejoratively to refer to any non-Christian.

So where does that leave us with the word today? Dictionaries will say that “pagan” is anyone who holds beliefs “outside those of the main world religions,” which is a laughably broad definition, since there is no indication what constitutes a “major” world religion. Many define it as Abrahamic religions, which is both a false conflation of three religions that have historically been at odds, as well as inappropriate on a strictly statistical level, since there are more Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs than Jews in the world. Plus, there are many religions with non-European origins that would be frankly offended to be called “pagan.”

Here is my suggestion: a pagan is someone who identifies as a pagan.

I see no reason to insist upon labeling someone else’s religion in a way that is contrary to how they label themselves. If someone wants to call themselves an animist, but not a pagan, that is their business. And, after all, this was originally used as a pejorative, and reclamation of a pejorative should be up to the population reclaiming it. We don’t insist women appreciate being called bimbos simply because some women have reclaimed the word. And we should not insist on calling others pagans who haven’t claimed that word for themselves.

And if you meet someone who seems to have the exact same worship as you, but doesn’t want to be called a pagan when you do? That isn’t your problem, or theirs. In fact, it isn’t a problem. Their identification has nothing to do with you. So, while it may differ from the dictionary and many “official” sources, there is my definition of a pagn.

But am I a pagan? I call myself that, as it suits me. I call myself witch as it suits me. I call myself animist as it suits me. Honestly, in my personal belief system, spirituality is something personal, a relationship between myself and the powers I believe in and honor. I hope that satisfies you, but if it doesn’t, I don’t know what to tell you.