Is Paganism a Religion? Exploring the Historical and Contemporary Relevance of Paganism

By Betsy C. Chadbourn
2013, Vol. 5 No. 12 | pg. 1/2 |

Years of adversity and oppression have pushed the once thriving practice of Paganism into the shadows. Even in our contemporary world of so-called religious freedom, some are still afraid to admit to their beliefs or to identify as a Pagan. To many, it may come as a surprise to find groups of otherwise ordinary people who refer to themselves as Witches and ask to be treated seriously as members of a religion, on a par with Jews, Methodists, Catholics, and the like. Should we bypass our ignorance as such a traditional society and embrace these alternative movements? Is this contemporarily revived religion one of pure modern creation, or influenced by the past? Is Paganism even a religion at all? In this paper I will be exploring the historiographical relevance of Paganism, looking particularly at the subcategory of Wicca, and whether we can define it as a "religion."

To aid in addressing these questions, I interviewed three self-identified Pagans, two in the UK and one a citizen of the U.S. I asked them fifteen questions concerning Paganism and whether or not they believe Paganism ought to be classified as a religion. Their answers proved surprisingly similar. I will summarise the most important findings throughout.

It is necessary to define what we mean by the term "Paganism." By studying the etymology, we can see how the terms and their associated religions have developed over time. There have been many claims about the original meaning of the term Pagan. However, it is more useful to understand the role these ideas have played than to insist on a historically accurate interpretation.1 When we translate from the Latin – "Paganus," "Pagana" and "Paganum" – we reach definitions closer to those of antiquity – rustic, unlearned, heathen. Originally, "Pagan" meant country-dweller, neutrally referring to those people who lived rurally, close to nature. However, it later took on a pejorative connotation that these people were unlearned. This set the scene for Christian usage of the term to refer to people who wilfully refused to join the new religion.2 In modernity, 'neopagan' is used to denote the group of movements claiming influence from historical Pagan beliefs.

Slavic Neopaganism

A Slavic neopagan ritual in modern Russia.

"Wicca," or "Wicce," also held considerably more negative connotations in antiquity than it does contemporarily. "Wicce" literally translates as sorceress or witch; an ugly old hag, an alluring or charming woman, one that is credited with malignant supernatural powers, and a practitioner of Wicca.3 Our problem here is that each definition contradicts the next. However, for our uses in this paper, we shall be looking at the fourth definition only, as this is what we view the term to mean today.

We can see that problems with definition arise because of such heavily negative connotations. So why did Pagans choose to adopt these terms as descriptors for their religion? Surely they would want to move away from the burden of their past? In truth, Pagans decided on such a term because they wanted to reclaim it for themselves. Only when the Christian missionaries of antiquity settled the Pagan communities with plans of conversion and indoctrination, did the term "Pagan" become one of negativity. It was used as an identifier for those who refused conversion. Today, there is far more acceptance and understanding associated with the term. Wicca offers a similar explanation. Many witches prefer to call themselves Wiccans rather than Witches, and say that they practice Wicca, rather than Witchcraft, because the words do not carry the negative stereotypes attached to Witch and Witchcraft.4 It is all well and good defining what the term Pagan means to us contemporarily, but the real question still stands of how to categorise Paganism itself; where does it lie on the religious spectrum?

If we are to be deciphering whether Paganism is a religion itself, it seems logical to first examine religion as a broader topic. What is religion? How do we define religion today? Religion is most commonly understood as a system of beliefs and practices focused on an ultimate being, such as gods or angels, or ultimate realms that are thought to be beyond the physical, like heaven; supernatural rather than natural.5

Michael York suggests that something can only be defined as a religion if it is officially recognized by government standards.6 Fortunately, Paganism now falls into this category, both by the National Board of Religion in the UK, and under the First Amendment clause of freedom of religious practice, in the USA. This means that large federations and Pagan communities are exempt from paying taxes on places of worship.

For me, religion means something quite different to the majority definition. It is the connection between both the spiritual and the self; the way one chooses to live their life, the moral code they do this by, their beliefs, the way one keeps grounded and at peace in times of crisis. Religion is a very personal thing, in my eyes. Only we can define what religion is, because it is vastly different for each individual. It is not something that can be "officially recognized" or categorized under one umbrella definition. Status is certainly not something that is important to me, as a religious individual. Research suggests that many Pagans feel much the same way.

There is much debate to whether Paganism is an official "religion" or more of a "life path"; a loosely outlined way in which certain individuals choose to live their lives, much like vegetarianism, or celibacy. Academically categorized as a new religious movement, this label often suggests connotations of being less serious, respectable, spiritual, or valid than longer established traditions.7 Yes, religion, conventionally, is taken to mean a set of beliefs or a system of values and practices that relate to some kind of "ultimate meaning." However, Paganism is not a revealed, scriptural, priestly, supernatural or dogmatic religion. Its chief sources of authority are in the observable cycles of the planet and the experienced cycles of the body.8 Many Pagan movements also adamantly oppose the idea of a paid, professional clergy, and unlike "traditional" religions, are non-hierarchical or dominated by males. In this sense, then, Paganism does not fit into the category of religion. But it also seems too organised, as we will see from the evidence, to be considered a "life path." At this point, we can speculate that Paganism is very much in between these two definitions, which does not offer any helpful conclusions. Therefore, we should delve a little deeper into Paganism both historically, and as it appears in modernity. Let us begin with the origins.

Pagans often emphasize their affinity with ancestral religions. They address deities from the literature of ancient Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, alongside deities referred to in Icelandic, Scandinavian, and Anglo-Saxon sagas, poetry and histories. They insist on the value of literal inheritance from ancestors and places.9 Neopaganism, and more specifically Wicca, was developed in the UK in the 1950s as a highly ritualistic, nature venerating, polytheistic, magical and religious system, operating within a predominantly western framework like that which emerged during the occult revival from the 1880s onwards.10 It was cultivated by a descendent of the original Witches of antiquity, Gerald Gardner, who insisted that there were a small number of Wiccans who had survived the witch trials and continued practicing in secret. Along with Margaret Murray, he formulated the beliefs and practices that are used today, adapting ancient ideas to fit with modernity. Despite these assertions of linkages to ancestral, pre-Christian religions, most Pagans are happy to acknowledge that Paganism is a new religion. The term "reconstruction" rather than "revival" is gaining in popularity as a way of expressing the dynamic link between old and new origins.11

Gardner and Murray, amongst others like Aleister Crowley and Doreen Valiente, have worked hard to develop Paganism as a "religion"; to move past initial definitions like "movement" or "spirituality." Lewis suggests that because most Neopagans are first generation, it seems like a community of converts, and therefore may seem dubious as a religion. However, he says: "you don't become Pagan, you discover that you always were. Our experience is that of finding a name for this spirituality that has moved us all our lives."12 It is clear that Lewis sees Paganism as a religion; as something magical that sets itself apart from everything else and that has developed from its origins. The contemporary resurgence of magical religion can be seen, then, as an attempt to enrich the "psychic ecology" of contemporary culture by remythicizing our world and the living beings that make it up. It is part of a collective effort whose ultimate goal is to end the divorce between conscious and unconscious, psyche and techne, culture and nature, empathetic identification and critical distance, faith and skepsis.13 What has fuelled this development is another story. On the social side of religion, at the level at which Wicca interacts with popular culture, there appears to be a certain amount of "trendiness" attached to identifying oneself as Pagan and, especially, Wiccan. Historically, Wicca has been regarded as a core group around which Paganism has emerged.14

It is this "newness," relaxed attitude, and movement away from the norms of religion that has helped Paganism to adapt to modernity, and spread universally. It slowly became more widespread and public after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, meaning that individuals could not be prosecuted for its practice. But the instant spread of Paganism came about almost wholly because of Wicca; Gardner himself was convinced from the outset that publicity was the key to the survival and spread of the religion, and it was Wicca's ability to intertwine well-defined practices and beliefs with a trendy image, that helped make this idea a reality. Witchcraft can represent a religion designed to suit the needs of the religious consumer15; the modern individual, so to speak. According to Waldron, the public profile of Witchcraft as a religious movement is becoming defined in terms of its "manifestation in purchasable products and its representations in popular culture and the mass media."16 The internet, popular culture, and teen culture have taken Witchcraft far beyond its esoteric sources; sites like WitchVox, films like The Craft, and television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, have propelled Wicca into the spotlight. The movement has united exclusively with a series of powerful cultural trends in a current that has carried neo-Witchcraft to the verge of mainstream acceptability. And as Witchcraft becomes more mainstream, Witches have used that status to link their religion with the international inter-faith movement – a connection that has helped witchcraft gain "worldwide acceptance as a legitimate religious expression."17

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