01 February 2008

Pagans and Neopagans

In a comment on another post Yvonne Aburrow writes:
Small grumble... why do Christians (even lovely ones such as your good self) always insist on the "Neo-" prefix? Is it to emphasise that you don't believe we have continuity with pagans of the past? Sure, we don't have the equivalent of apostolic succession (we call it initiatory lineage), but there is a continuity of ideas via the Western Mystery Tradition, and many another strand of thought and feeling. Also, the pagans of the classical world didn't call themselves Pagans, so I don't give them a capital P - but I do give it to modern Pagans because they identify as such.

Of course, given that you belong to a tradition with unbroken apostolic succession, maybe you should call all other forms of Christianity Neo-Christian...

This post is an attempt to respond to that.

I should say right at the start that in addition to being a Christian I am a curmudgeonly language pedant. I tend to be fussy about language and usage, and distinctions between the meanings of words that some might think hair splitting.

And for me, "pagan" is a general term, whereas "neopagan" is a more specific one.

"Pagan" started off as Christian slang for non-Christians. As the historian Robin Lane Fox puts it in his book Pagans and Christians:
In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani... In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians' usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians' view of life.

"Pagan" continued to be used as Christian slang for non-Christians right up to the middle of the 20th century. Paganism was not a religion. It was the state of not being a Christian. In Europe, perceptions of religion began to change with the growth of modernity. I don't want to go into that in too much detail here, but should just point out that modernity gave rise to the modern conception of "religion" and "religions", and the idea that Christianity was one instance of something that belonged to a wider category, one religion among many. Such a notion would probably never have occurred to anyone before the 17th century. What it led to was a notion among some people that the term "pagans" applied to adherents of non-monotheistic religions, so that anyone who was not a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim was a pagan. But still, no one was a self-described pagan.

In the 19th century, though, some people did begin to describe themselves as pagans. They accepted the Christian understanding, with an extension. Not only were they not Christian, they were not religious. Those who accepted "pagan" as a self-description were secular humanists.

An example of this usage can be seen in a book by Rosalind Murray, The Good Pagan's failure. It was a book of Christian apologetics written by one who had been a Good Pagan, but had become a Christian. I used to have a copy, but can't find it. The following excerpt from a review, however, should make it clear what the book is about, and how the word "pagan" is used in it.
The Good Pagan's Failure. By Rosalind Murray. (Longmans, Green, 7s. 6d. net.)

Miss ROSALIND MURRAY has attempted to interpret liberal humanism to the Christian, and Christianity to the humanist, to examine the misunderstandings which inevitably arise between the supernatural outlook of the "totalitarian" Christian, and the cultivated, "moderate", humanitarian worldliness of the Good Pagan. Miss Murray is singularly equipped to make this attempt, having known both worlds, and she has achieved a work of immediate value.

At its best (and Miss Murray knew it at its best) that humanism possessed qualities of culture, moral refinement, honour, and humane sensibility which were remarkable; today its essential weaknesses have worked themselves out, and the Good Pagan stands back in hurt surprise at the sight of a world in ruins. His intentions were so good, his heart so kind; what has gone wrong? Miss Murray examines his failure with intelligence and sympathetic insight, and shows how by his exclusive preoccupation with this world, his confidence that with bread (and kindness) alone man could be happy, the Good Pagan was forced to shut his eyes to the world's imperfections, to the facts of suffering, poverty and sin. But "by excluding Heaven we have not abolished Hell, by denying redemption we have not been redeemed, the sinner is still there, in the world and in ourselves".

Rosalind Murray, as the reviewer points out, was a member of both worlds. Her father, Gilbert Murray, was a well-known advocate of secular humanism. And Rosalind Murray's use of the term "pagan" was fairly widespread and well understood for the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

When I was teaching in the theology faculty of the University of South Africa (Unisa) in the 1990s, the faculty issued formal tutorial letters to students to say that they should not use words like "non-Christian" and "pagan". Their intentions were good. The people who compiled the letters thought that these terms were insulting, and that it was not good to be rude to people. The problem was that they were a little naive, and did not see how their own prohibition was actually a manifestation of an attitude of superiority. If it is bad to call someone a pagan or a non-Christian, that implies that one thinks that Christians are superior to non-Christians, the therefore it is rude to imply that a person is so inferior as not to be a Christian. I doubt that many pagans would be fooled by this disingenuousness. It actually patronising condescension at its worst.

At the same time, and especially since the mid-1960s, many people were happy to call themselves pagans, not because they were irreligious, but because they were religious. Many of them were consciously trying to revive the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe. But even in this sense, "paganism" did not refer to a single religion, but to a group of religions, some of which had their own names. Asatru, for example, as the revival of ancient Norse religions, Hellenism was the revival of the pre-Christian religion of the Olympian gods. There were new composite religions like Wicca.

Yvonne objects to the term on the grounds that it implies a lack of continuity, and in a sense it does: Asatru is not a continuation of ancient Norse religion. Hellenism is not a continuation of ancient Greek religion. They are revivals. The term "paganism" also covers what some have called "paleopaganism", which includes not only the ancient religions of Greece and Rome, but also religions that are still practised at the present day, including African and American traditional religions. And many modern pagans themselves have come up with, and are happy to use, terms like "neopaganism" and "paleopaganism" and indeed have helped to define them. While I don't agree with everything in that article, I think it does help to clarify the definitions of the terms.

Perhaps, as a postscript, I should say a little more about the question of "superiority", as manifested in both the Unisa tutorial letters and in the article referred to in the previous paragraph. After all, I remain a Christian -- doesn't that mean that I regard myself as superior to pagans, whether neo-, meso- or paleo-?

And the answer for me, at least, is no.

Someone once likened Christian evangelism to "one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread".

It's a good analogy. A beggar who finds bread is not necessarily better than one who has not. He may be "better off", but he is not "better". That is the point of the discussion of the Good Pagan's failure. Why the epithet "good"? The point is that the failure is not necessarily a failure of ethics or morality. Many pagans live better and more moral lives than many Christians, and some indeed have higher ethical and moral standards than some Christians. The moment that Christians assume that they are morally superior to others simply because they are Christians, they've lost the plot. And, as Isaac Bonewits points out in his article cited above, that has happened quite often, There is nothing in the Christian faith to justify such attitudes of moral superiority. And when we do adopt those attitudes, we simply show how much we are still sinners.


Yvonne said...

Oh, looks like you ran out of steam, or space - the end of the post seems to have got chopped off somehow.

Yes, the new versions of Pagan religions are revivals and not continuations (though it is arguable that they might have evolved into something similar - who knows?) Indeed, some Pagan reconstructionists are suspicious of the term "Pagan" with a capital P, because they see it as an attempt to conflate their views with those of Wiccans (because Wiccans got started earlier, our festivals are better-known and there's more of us in Pagan organisations).

I am familiar with the use of the word "pagan" to describe secular humanists or people of no religion, but I've always objected to it, and it seems to have largely fallen from use now.

Hindus got their name from needing a word to describe what they do (it seems the word was first used by Rammohun Roy in about 1818 - previously they had been referred to as Gentoos). But nobody spells Hindu with a lower-case h, or refers to neo-Hindus.

In a way we are new, in the sense that most (though by no means all) contemporary Paganism is not about propitiating deities, but about communing with Nature.

Yvonne said...

PS - Happy Imbolc. And Happy Forefeast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, and of course Happy St Bridget's Day.

Malcolm said...

A fascinating reminder of how words change their meaning and re-creation is confused with continuity.

Yvonne said...

Ah, I can see the rest of the article now (the bit that got chopped off).

That's one of the things that I totally respect about Orthodoxy - that humility is a core article of faith (as in the bit in the Liturgy where it says words to effect of "may I not be the only person in Heaven", and the doctrine of apokatastasis). As mentioned previously, I also really liked your article in Theandros about the Orthodox approach to mission.

There are other things that I disagree with in Orthodoxy (attitude to LGBT, glorification of celibacy, especially of the Theotokos, lack of women priests, etc), but there is a great deal of common ground in the concept of theosis (insofar as I understood it).

The young fogey said...

In a way we are new, in the sense that most (though by no means all) contemporary Paganism is not about propitiating deities, but about communing with Nature.


I still find useful this quick and dirty explanation (from a Christian from a secular Jewish background) of the difference between pagans and neos:

Not only is there no continuity with old European pagans but neos are obviously former Christians: like secular humanists they've kept much of the Christian worldview including ethics ('harm no-one', their expression of the golden rule and not a bad summary of my politics) only they've substituted some god old or new for the Christian triune one including Christ.

As this person described it a real pagan really believes in the gods he's sacrificing animals on rocks to in order to appease them (propitiation)/get them to do his bidding (magic).

The nice 'white magic' ones who see the gods as reflections of the self/Jungian archetypes or something are really poseurs if they claim to be a revival or continuation of old European paganisms.

An American priest of Irish heritage who in fact has lived in Ireland for many years is, like other orthodox Christians (he's under Rome), particularly annoyed at the pseudo-Celtic versions of all this. (A lot of that is projection from people who know little about the subject: they're angry at Rome, gay, feminist and so on so guess what the Celts were!) A second-language Irish (Gaelige) speaker, he separates the people who really know his culture from the New Age pseuds on the basis of speaking one of the languages.

The only thing anybody knows about the Druids is they existed.

K.W. Leslie said...

Bear with the following scenario. I do have a point.

Let us say I decided to start a religion; say, a selfish one that was all about pleasuring the id. Let's say, in order to get some notoriety, i decided to name the adherents of my religion "idiots." And let's also say, which is less likely, that the general public was largely unfamiliar with what an idiot is.

Some years pass, my religion of "idiots" is trying to mainstream itself, and my loyal followers suddenly take issue with those people out there who are using the term "idiot" properly. They hop on the blogs and go on the chat shows and complain, "An idiot is a person who believes in self-fulfillment. It is not a person who has below-average intelligence. That's arrogant, ignorant hate speech. That's offensive. Stop that. Use the word properly."

This is the scenario we have with neopagans and the term "pagan," Wiccans and the term "witch," Laveyan Satanists and the term "Satanist," and other groups that have appropriated terms, redefined them for their own purposes, and insist on the rest of us adopting their redefinitions.

If people wish to redefine terms for the sake of their religion, that's their right. But they shouldn't expect it to catch on with non-adherents. If the word already has a commonly used meaning, it's gonna get changed on you. Fr'instance: Mormons originally called themselves "saints" but the rest of the world called them "Mormons" until it stuck and they accepted it. The first Christians called ourselves "followers of the Way" but the pagans called us "Christians" until that term stuck. As for "pagans," the reason I call them "neopagans" is 'cause we Christians are still using the word pagan.

If you don't like it, I can't help it. We had the word first.

Steve Hayes said...


People do, however, refer to Neohinduism (or neo-Hinduism) though they are probably not all agreed on what it refers to. Something similar happens with Neopentecostalism.

"Hinduism" is, in a sense a modernist construct, like "religion". Ancient Greek and Roman paganism never thought of itself as "a religion" -- it was more like Hinduism today -- a mixture of various sometimes overlapping cults and philosophies.

Steve Hayes said...

An explanation for the truncated ending: at noon Blogger turns into a pumpkin, and dates articles 12 hours earlier. So to avoid that I published the article before I'd finished writing it, then edited it.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Hayes said...

cat and kw

I agree with Cat that the choice of "idiot" as example does not contribute to dialogue. If you don't want to discuss an actual example, but want to use a hypothetical example, then at least choose a more neutral one, otherwise the point you are making tends to be obscured by the way in which you are making it. And that would be a pity, because it some ways it is a valid point.

Cat, I'm sorry if you find this series of posts unwelcome. Does that include my plug for your comment in Metapagan? If you find such things unwelcome, I'll try to avoid them in future.

Julie said...

I read the post, but I've only skimmed the comments. But to add my $.02...

Was not the term "christian" a slangish term applied to "followers of the way" by outsiders? Yet it is a term we have accepted and embraced.

I am a fan of accepting descriptive (as opposed to proscriptive) grammar. Language evolves, new words are created, and old words take on new meanings. (I blogged about that here last summer). Even over short periods of time words and names take on drastically different meanings. In the US the terms Democrat and Republican used to mean the exact opposite of what they do today (for "republican" a mere twenty years ago it meant something completely different - but most of them don't like the neo-conservative label others are trying to stick on them these days).

So I have no issue with the term "Pagan" taking on a distinct identity these days, no matter its history. Sure it has to cope with the connotation it evokes, but in broader society it won't take long for the new meaning to take hold of the collective social consciousness. That's just the nature of language. - it may bug a few (especially the French who attempt to make laws against that sort of thing) but it is a hard cultural phenomenon to stop.

Steve Hayes said...

After reading some of the comments, perhaps there is one thing I should clarify.

I don't have a problem with anyone calling themselves pagan or Pagan.

I was dealing with the question of the word "neopagan", which some pagans have said they dislike. I was trying to explain why I used it -- because to me "pagan" has a wider meaning; "neopagan" a narrower one. And many Pagans I've discussed it with have no objection to the term, which Isaac Bonewits had clarified.

So I was explaining how I understood and used the terms, and was inviting others, especially those whose understanding differed from mine, to explain how they understood them. Knowing the different ways in which people understand words can help to avoid miscommunication, and can alert one to situations where explanations and clarifications may be needed.

Tim said...


This was a very well written and thoughtful post. Especially well written coming from a Christian. There are even very few "Neopagans" take the time to create such a thorough understanding of these two words, and the history behind them.

I would disagree on the point the early Christians used the word to mean "civilians" in the war between good and evil. My understanding was that it more leaned towards "country dweller." That the cities fell more quickly to Christianity, for a variety of reasons, and pagan (or paganus) was more of a slur to imply uneducated and unsophisticated. It would be like calling a rural person today the name a country-bumpkin for not conforming to more cosmopolitan ideals or fashions.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Steve, I'd like to apologize to you and to your readers for the tone of my previous post. I allowed an emotional response to run away with me when I posted, and I really am sorry for that. I'm conscious that my own tone contributed far more heat than light.

I'd have posted my apology sooner, but I've been away for the weekend, so all that has been possible is regret.

I do think that dialog between faith--or any group in disagreement--is not really aided by condescension. But it's not aided much by ire, either. Mea culpa!

And, Steve, I thank you particularly for your comments, both on MetaPagan and here. While I may draw different conclusions than you do--well, clearly I do, on some topics--your kind intentions are clear.

My own were badly served by my last post. I would not regard it as censorship to delete it--but I'm not going to trash it myself, because I think it would be a bit unfair for me to pull it from the record, like an unflattering photograph. If you feel that keeping it in the record, at this point, serves the dialog, then it should stay there, unflattering as it is.

But if not, I'd be happy to have my words disappear--from the web, if not from the memories I spoke to so hastily.

Again, my apologies.

Steve Hayes said...


I left a message from you on MyBlogLog -- perhaps you didn't see it, and more recently I've had problems with my e-mail being bounced.

I think there is still more to be said on the topic, and I'd like to take some aspects further, but perhaps blog comments is not the best medium for it. I've rasied it in the New Religious Movements discussion forum -- you can find a link to it in the sidebar of my blog if you are interested.


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