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So what, exactly, is a Pagan?

In past articles [1] I have discussed how we know the Gods and Goddesses exist, and how we know about the Gods and Goddesses.  Eclectic Paganism is a big umbrella, encompassing a wide range of concepts and representations of deity.

Unfortunately that can be taken to say you can believe anything you want and be a Pagan.  If you can be anything and be Pagan, then Paganism is either simply synonymous with humanity, or merely a badge or label that is worn by those who choose to wear it. 

Neither of these approaches is inherently satisfying.  If the term is so vague as to be meaningless, I still need a meaningful way of talking about those I share a religion with.  Likewise if its a label that people wear, like a logo on a tee-shirt, then our religion becomes something more like a fashion statement, instead of something that is deeply believed.  Religion also implies community and communal worship.  If we each have our own, independent view, then we are spiritual but not religious. 

And so we arrive at definitions and divisions.  Pagans that I have met, and read, are loath to introduce divisions into our religion.  We want to be a big tent.  Divisions also imply that there is someone who is appointed arbiter, some Pope who decides what is canonical and what is heretical.  We really don’t want that.

We don’t want to be on the runway when Heidi [2] says, “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out”. 

So how do we reconcile the need to tell who we are, when we find ourselves mostly able to tell people who we aren’t?   You could argue that we just don’t need to say who we are.  We are perfectly capable of knowing within ourselves what we are, and we don’t have to declare to others our differences.  I also find that inherently unsatisfying, for many reasons.  Perhaps the greatest reason is that the larger culture seems to need that definition.  From ministerial licenses and gravestones to random discussions in the hall, it is impossible to avoid the question “so what do you believe”?  “Everything and nothing” is not a good answer.  It is neither effective, it does nothing to get us taken seriously or recognition, nor is it satisfying in that it allows us to define the intellectual and moral ground from which we go forth and deal with the rest of the world. 
And it is that intellectual grounding that is important if we are to develop a theology.  It is difficult to develop a “study of” something we cannot well define.

“I can do that defining for myself” Yes, you can, but the question is “what do Pagans believe” not what you believe.  Each of us can construct an individual theology, but for us to have a meaningful religious experience we need to have elements of those theologies that are shared and common. 

Of course if you are a member of a specific Pagan denomination, such as Gardnarian, Alexandrian, or Correllian then you can talk about your denominational beliefs.  But even if Paganism is simply the sum of its different parts, both denominational and individual, there must be some reason that all these disparate groups hang together.  There must be some underlying commonality even for those who claim specific rituals and traditions.  Paganism is not far from eclecticism, as either a movement or a practice.  And so much of our work defining Paganism also goes toward defining eclectic Paganism. 

What’s the definition of a modern Pagan? 

I do not claim to know the answer; I actually think it’s pretty hard to get both the intellectual content and the political reality of a definition correct.  Instead I’d like to approach this problem by asking some cheeky questions, and see where the answers leave me.

Can a Christian be a Pagan? 

This is a common amusement for Pagans and discussion boards.  Some people identify themselves as “Christian Witches,” which might put them into the category of Pagan.

I think we can say that based on history, tradition, and just plain old common sense it doesn’t make any sense to call yourself both Christian and Pagan.  First, the tag of “Pagan” was developed to identify those people who were decidedly not Christian.   Second, Christianity and Judaism [3] do not allow for worship of other Gods or Goddesses outside of the bounds of their own concepts of deity.  Thus it would be difficult to argue by the commonly accepted form of the terms that you were either a Christian or Jew [4] if you did not accept their specific concept of deity, or, in fact, their specific deity. 

That does not necessarily mean that all monotheists come from Christianity, Judaism, or Islam (the “book” religions).  Mithraism [5] during the Roman period and Sun worship during the Egyptian rule of Akhenaton [6] are great examples of a clearly Pagan religion having a monotheistic outlook.  I believe that this is the first of the great sources of confusion on this issue:

Paganism does not imply polytheism. 

But this only serves to confuse the issue more, because now monotheists fall within the category of Paganism.  Meaning a Pagan could claim the Christian god as their own, even if the Christians did not return the favor.   The introduction of monotheism makes things complicated.  

The problem of to include or not include polytheism in the definition of Paganism is hard.  Michael York [7] defines Paganism as:

This places polytheism at the heart of the definition of what it means to be Pagan.  I think polytheism works fine as a way to distinguish Pagans with one, little, change:

By emphasizing acceptance [10] this definition allows for the inclusion of monotheistic Pagans as part of Paganism without the need to include book religions into the definition.  Book religions [11] do not necessarily tolerate other Gods, seeing their Abrahamic, single, god as the only one.  Paganism, on the other hand, has a long tradition of not only tolerating other Gods and Goddesses, but also incorporating them into their ritual life. 

Likewise the concept of acceptance introduces the possibility of an even wider tent for modern Pagans.  Acceptance does not necessarily imply active belief.  You do not have to believe in a specific Pantheon in order to accept other’s beliefs. 

Acceptance leaves room for doubt, for questioning, for uncertainty, and for many different ways to think about the Gods and Goddesses. Acceptance does not mean you can’t question, or say that someone else’s beliefs are not for you.  All acceptance requires is that you be happy that those who do not believe as you do have something that gives them joy and a spiritual life.  Acceptance asks that you be giving and charitable.  Which I suspect we could all use a bit more of. 

Can Christian’s be Witches?

Phrasing it this way makes it provocative, because most of the “issues” that come up about Witches seem to arise from the hostility of some Christians.  A more appropriate way to ask this would be:  “Do Witches have to be Pagan?”  Since most of the “witches” burned during the burning times, and many who have practices “witchcraft” in rural European and American areas since then, would claim to be Christian, one would suspect that the answer is “no” [12].  Witchcraft and Paganism are two things that can be separated.  Which means that not all Witches are Pagan, any more than the converse, that all Pagan’s are Witches.  Witchcraft is a craft, Wicca is a Pagan religion, but neither Witchcraft nor Wicca encompass all that is Pagan any more than Pagans can make an exclusive claim to the label of “Witch” [13]

Instead it is worth asking about the relationship between Pagans’ and magic.  Just because you believe in and use magic does not immediately imply that you follow the Wiccan, or any other, Pagan path.  House magic is common amongst a wide range of Pagan religions, though its frowned on by book religions. [14]   Making charms, or doing small rituals, is a common way to protect against the wide range of spirits included in many Pagan practices, not all of which may be beneficial.  And we need not go into the entire system of Goetic and Hermetic magical traditions. 

Magic as a component of the definition of Pagan implies a particular worldview.  One that incorporates action in the world through our own will, or natures.  A worldview that accepts the wonderful, and in fact seeks it out in the everyday.  In other words, we can make stuff happen in the world that is wonderful, eccentric, and not-to-be believed. 

So how do you know you’re a Pagan?

Well, you could check a list.  Grab a book.  Or hang around with the right crowd.

Or you could get up, go to ritual, and experience the Gods and Goddesses directly.  You could work alone or as part of a group to understand and encounter the Gods and Goddesses directly without ritual or through the world.   You could see magic in the world, and create it in your life. 

If you do those things I would argue that you will find yourself fitting into the category of “Pagan” [15].   An open definition of Paganism would, in my opinion, include the following [16]:

But do Pagans even have to believe in deity?

Notice that none of the above criteria include any statements about existence. 

Any belief system that does not have a clear religious doctrine has to accept that there will be a spectrum of belief.  Some will believe one thing, others will believe something a little different.  Since Paganism almost defines “no clear religious doctrine,” one might expect acceptance of different opinions about deity.  

Within the Pagan movement there is a spectrum of belief. [17] Beliefs range from “I have absolutely no idea if the Gods and Goddesses exist, much less what they look like”, to “the Gods and Goddesses are archetypes, metaphors shall we say, for what goes on inside us” to “they are real beings that exist as part of this world, beings we just don’t see”.   And just about everything in between [18]

In the Higgenbotham’s book Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions, they characterize views on deity as ranging from “concrete” to “abstract.”   Archetypal concepts of deity have a non-specific, conceptual, abstract view of the Gods and Goddesses.  At the most extreme end would be those who see Gods and Goddesses as concepts that we create in order to teach ourselves things about how we feel, believe, and exist in the world. 

At the vague end of the deity spectrum you risk becoming merged into both the general New Age and Theosophist “beings of light” or, even worse, becoming a narcissistic way of looking at ourselves as the center of the universe. 

Because of various dangers involved in a purely abstract concept of deity I think is wise to treat denial of the actual existence of Pagan Gods and Goddesses with caution.  Archetypal concepts of deity can either be very individual, with the individual responsible for their own concept of deity and also generating any meaning associated with that deity, or they can be “social”, in the sense the archetypes are generated from the Jungian collective unconscious and therefore exist as something created by more than just the individual. 

A collective understanding of deity is one of the fundamental aspects of a social religion.  This is different from a personal belief or a spiritual movement.  Religions incorporate individual belief into the collective.  So while Pagan spirituality can draw from an individual dealing with their own archetypal concept of the Gods and Goddesses, for a Pagan religion we need something more.  “Something more” would be an acknowledgement of the Gods and Goddesses as occurring as part of the collective archetype.  This approach would also, by its nature, include any number of more “concrete” belief systems, ones where an independent and present deity occurs as part of nature.

This would place a limit on the extent of the definition of Paganism.  It would mean that those who approach it as exclusively a personal, inward, movement would be moved from the “Pagan” category to the “New Age/spiritual” category [19].   Is this exclusivity a loss?  Is it too defining and confining?  All it says is that you need to believe in deity in some form to claim the term Pagan.  It can be a very undefined form, but it needs to exist, and it needs to exist somewhere outside of yourself. 

So I’ll make a modest proposition, that the definition of Paganism should include the following:

The first part says that we’re theists.  The second part says that we believe in magic, as magic is an effect attributed to our actions, which cannot be explained that happens in the world.  It also says that magic happens in association with deity.  If magic exists in the world, then deity has a place to exist in the world.


[1] All the past articles are collected on my website: 

[2] Taken from Project Runway (

[3] Yes, I understand there are alternative views on both Christianity and Judaism, with the Pagan Jesus, Sophia, and other concepts of deity, as well as innumerable variants of Christian worship, including the argument that the trinity represents a modified polytheism.  Here I’m talking about traditional, mainstream, versions of Christianity and Judaism that you would find if you looked them up in the dictionary or asked some person coming out of a small church in Ohio.   I also understand that there are other religions that claim exclusivity, including Islam.  I’m picking on Judaism and Christianity here because they are the ones most closely interrelated with European Paganism.  And they are the ones for which this question seems to be asked most often.

[4] Of course if you have Jewish heritage you are Jewish, and you don’t have to be religious.  Here I’m talking about someone who is actively involved in the Jewish faith. 

[5] An actual monotheistic competitor for Christianity that could have won out had it had enough sense to admit women into its ranks.  See, for example, Manfred Clauss (Richard Gordon, trans.), The Roman Cult of Mithras, Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2000, p. 33, or Franz Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Dover, 1956.

[6] He rearranged Egyptian religion around the worship of Aten, but it did not last beyond his death.  See, for example, Byron E. Shafer (ed.), Religion in Ancient Egypt, Cornell Univ. Press, 1991, p. 75.

[7] Michael York, Pagan Theology, New York University Press, 2003.   And he has a considerable amount of fuss and difficulty with this problem as well, devoting a number of pages in his book to considering exactly what a Pagan is. 

[8] This is the whole immanence vs. transcendence issue that I briefly discussed in a previous column []

[9] Max Muller coined the term “henotheistic” to refer to monotheists who devote themselves to a single God while accepting the existence of other Gods and Goddesses.  I’m making a slightly different distinction here in that I am claiming that you accept the existence of other Gods and Goddesses while still maintaining focus and practice on your God, Goddess, or Pantheon.  I am not as concerned as some aspects of henotheism are with hierarchal structures within or between Pantheons. 

[10] Note that I am being specific here about “acceptance.” Tolerance implies that what you’re doing it wrong, but I’ll put up with it.  Acceptance means that I am happy that you have found what works for you, and I will support you in your quest even though it is different than mine. 

[11] By defining the book religions to be Christianity, Judaism, and Islam we open up a whole different can o’worms about books.   There are other religious traditions that incorporate writings as sacred (Sikhism) but do not fall within the Abrahamic tradition.  Where, exactly we place these is probably best left for another column. An alternative term for the “big three” would be Abrahamic, but I think that misses the special difference between those who view the written word as sacred, and those who generally do not.  I suspect that we need a new category that includes religions not quite Pagan but definitely not Abrahamic.  Sigh. 

[12] If anyone has not heard of it before, most of the ideas claiming that the witch-hunts were related to a hold over of a Pagan religion have been debunked.  See, for example: Robin Briggs, Witches & Neighbors, Viking, 1996, p. 5, 37; James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, p. 60; Robert Poole (ed.), The Lancashire Witches:  Histories and Stories, Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 124. 

[13] Of course, right now, its more likely for someone claiming to be a Witch to be a Pagan.  But at the same time Wicca and Witchcraft have been so closely associated with neo-Paganism that the terms are often used as if they were the same term. 

[14] Of course this does not stop there from being a flourishing magical industry surrounding Christianity and Judaism.  Ranging from Kabala to some types of Ceremonial magic. 

[15] If you do the other things I suspect you will fall into the Pagan category as well. 

[16] Yes, these do follow Michael York’s construct, but they also deviate in important ways that we will discuss in the future. 

[17] For a great discussion of the spectrum of Pagan belief see Joyce and River Higgenbotham, Paganism An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions, Llewellyn, 2004. 

[18] There is also the “I don’t know, but I like the drumming” category, but I would suggest that you are an agnostic or atheist with a ritual inclination if you deny either understanding or total existence of a God or Goddess.  Again, if anyone who claims the term can be called a Pagan, then we need another, better term for those who believe a relatively narrower set of beliefs. 

[19] I would avoid a more pejorative term: “narcissistic”.   The distinction between “New Age” and “Pagan” is worth a separate column. 




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