What is Paganism?

Paganism is an umbrella term covering an array of beliefs and practices, some of which are heavily informed by older civilisations, others of which are largely modern innovations. The trouble with the label is as soon as you say ‘this is Pagan’ there’s an implication of not-Pagan, which can be used to hurt and exclude. All too often what I see is people saying ‘I do this and I am Pagan and you do something different so you aren’t a proper Pagan’. And then we get bogged down in arguments, sucking up time and energy.

The logic of saying ‘you aren’t a true believer’ goes with recruiting religions based around authoritarian structures. These are, for the greater part not set up to be about spiritual experience, but designed to give power to a few. Most religions have aspects that are all about serving an elite, and every religion has spiritual people who aren’t primarily motivated by power. If you aren’t interested in controlling and manipulating people, why would it matter if what they do is not what you do? Historical Paganism was as much guilty of power wielding to herd the masses as any other set up, but we don’t need to recreate that aspect.

There are reasons we might want other people to agree with us. We may feel threatened by difference, and more comfortable when our beliefs and habits are reflected back by those around us. We may want to be in charge and so must get everyone onboard for our way of doing things. We may have bought into the idea of one true way – perhaps a legacy from the faith we were raised in. We may be so excited about our personal truth that we think it’s bound to work for everyone. While sharing ideas and experiences is good, dogma is suffocating, and if we feel the need to say ‘you’re not a proper Pagan’ it’s worth asking what our problem is, not theirs.

What is Paganism? It isn’t in books, it isn’t a single coherent tradition, it does not have rules. There’s no racial or cultural barrier to membership, there’s nothing to swear, nothing to sign. Dedications are a personal thing. There are no specific gods you have to worship. You don’t even have to believe in gods to be Pagan. What does that leave? How can we make sense of the term when there’s nothing familiar to pin it to?

Let me suggest a thing. Paganism is a human response to the experience of being alive that finds sacredness in being alive. It’s a response to the seasons, life changes, the moon and tides, the agricultural year, the land, the weather. It’s a response to living and dying and to the constant cycles of life and death in this world. Anything that comes from a human response to life, is inherently Pagan. So the urge to make light and festivity at the darkest time of the year – that’s a Pagan urge. The urge to dance and party in the summer evenings, that’s a Pagan urge too. Celebrating the harvest, singing about the dear departed, honouring relationships, respecting the land we live on – no one needs telling how to do this. Every last one of us could come up with a way of being Pagan in response to life with no reference to anyone else.  Solstices, equinoxes, shifts in the season – these things are self evident.

How can we get this wrong? Because if we’re inspired by other people to celebrate our human experience of being alive, that’s fine. We can find inspiration in each other for sacred expression. If we get it from a book, that’s fine too. If we make it up, it’s still humanity responding in a spiritual way to life.

Look at it this way, and the only thing a person could do that could be readily labelled as non-Pagan is telling another Pagan that they’re doing it wrong. Perhaps we could all be a bit gentler with each other.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

26 responses to “What is Paganism?

  • Blodeuwedd

    While there are themes or ideas that run through most Paganisms, the working definition I go with (as a researcher as well as a Pagan) is that if someone self-identifies as a Pagan they are a Pagan.

    By the way, may I take part of your definition here to use in my introduction? (fully referenced and credited, obviously!)

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I was reading a comment of Pagans and Radicals by a Polytheist that pointed out that saying Paganism gives the false impression that all Pagan religions are similar, which is not the case .

    Not all Pagan religions are Nature-Oriented, not all Pagans cast a circle or care about which direction that they face, not all of the believe in gods or goddesses, not all of them do magic, not all of the do animal sacrifice, and so forth. The differences are very important to distinguish what makes one religion, and what makes another religions.

    To end the argument of what makes a person Pagan and express the fact of there being differences he suggested that we use the term Paganisms. He may have a point.

    • Nimue Brown

      I know not all witches and magic users are Pagans or nature orientated – fair enough, but I struggle a bit with people who want to self identify with the word ‘pagan’ but do not honour any aspect of the natural world. That confuses me. 🙂

      • Ryan

        Just wait until you come across Druids who not only don’t honour nature, but see it as irrelevant. That one made my head spin!

      • Nimue Brown

        What with the fraternal druids, and the cultural druids, it does all get a bit confusing. I am going to quietly hope that the non-naturey druids were from those schools of thought.

      • Ryan

        Nope. Pagan, hard-polytheist “the gods are nothing to do with nature, and they’re the only things I care about” sort. Sigh. I hasten to point out this was a one-off incident with a very small minority, but I’m with you in being confused about non-nature based Pagans.

      • Nimue Brown

        Wow. I cant begin to imagine how that works! As I see it, the gods who are more about human civilization, are also nature because we are not separate from nature, but there we go.

      • Blodeuwedd

        I think the term ‘nature’ may be unhelpful here in that it suggests something separate and opposed to ‘culture’. This is a strong theme running through French Anthropology in particular. Also because of the way we use the word in language it tends to suggest something ‘out there’ that we use for leisure. Personally I find the term ‘the land’ more helpful. It does not enscapsulate all that we mean by ‘nature’ but for me it comes with less baggage. I can imagine some forms of Paganism arising out of the magical systems in particular being less concerned with the land but I confess it does surprise me to find it in Druidry!

    • Blodeuwedd

      For what it may be worth, ‘Paganisms’ is becoming a fairly standard term in academic study. I think this is probably a Good Thing!

      • Nimue Brown

        I like the idea of paganisms, that may be more useful, although whether I’ll shift over I’m not sure. I’m using ‘nature’ to cover a wide array of things – not just the land, but the waters and the sky and everything living on and in them over time – that might be worth blogging about separately. It’s just less clunky than listing all the things, but i mean it as an expression of a vast array of things, not as a nature versus culture, but i should work on clarifying that, thank you!

      • Blodeuwedd

        Oddly, I think all of those things are covered in what zI mean by ‘land’, although that is a highly personalised use! Nature just feels like something you ‘go to’ as ‘leisure’. Also worth consider that in the UK at least the ‘natural environment ‘ is pretty much entirely shaped by man, which adds a layer of complexity to the relationship!

  • stoneofdestiny

    I understand that, these days, it is vogue to think of defining things as a bad habit, forced upon us by the patriarchy, but really…, the defining of things is the whole point of language. If anyone can believe anything and call themselves pagan (as long as they don’t assert that what they believe is true of course), then the word has no actual value.

    I am Pagan = I am anything.

    So my question, I guess, is if a word means nothing, why would you want to use it?

    • Nimue Brown

      I don’t think I suggested it means nothing. Go into a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon and you will not see people responding in a spiritual way to the experience of being alive, just for example. I think responding spiritually to the experience of life is actually quite rare in our wider culture, but very profound when it happens. it’s also only about belief in so far as believing that life, and the experience of life is sacred. With most world religions treating life as something to transcend to get to something better in the afterlife, i think that’s a significant distinction and focus. I think I’ve offered a very precise definition – very roomy in terms of how you practice, but really very definite in terms of what underlies that practice and makes it tick. I perhaps did not word it strongly enough to make that clear.

      • stoneofdestiny

        And that’s fine as far as it goes. But I know Christians who respond to being alive in as spiritual a way as any pagan I’ve ever known. And I’ve known self-identifying pagans, born, raised, and living entirely within urban environments, for whom the rhythms of life that you and I respond to, are a foreign concept, but still they honor their gods.

        I’m not opposed to “big-tent paganism,” but when the only requirement that we can legitimately point to for membership is self-identification, the tent may have outgrown its usefulness.

      • Nimue Brown

        I think ‘Paganism’ has to be a fairly hefty tent just to get all the defined Pagan paths into it. I think its well worth being a lot more specific within a path about what that means. Someone who self identifies as a contemplative druid is going to have a whole other way of doing things from an activist pagan who has identified resistance as their ritual – and rightly so. But its also possible that this could be just the one person working in two completely different ways depending on the situation they are in.

    • Blodeuwedd

      The fact that people do want to identify themselves with it, and the fact that those who do tend to have certain ideas in common prevents the term from becoming meaningless. Not just anybody chooses the word for themselves. How do you say that someone who does ( usually not lightly) is wrong?

      • stoneofdestiny

        But what are they identifying themselves with? That’s my question. I can paste a label on myself for many reasons. Maybe I do it because it sounds kewl. Maybe I’m rebelling against my elders or a society that doesn’t seem to care. So great, I’ll look up some misinformation on the Internet and I’ll start calling myself Pagan, aaaand done, I’m in the club, because that’s all it takes. I don’t have to actually know anything. I don’t have to actually believe anything. Oh, it helps if I have squishy feelings toward nature, but no one is even willing to put their foot down and say I’ve got to put in any actual tree-hugging time. Nope, I just slap a label on myself (wait, we don’t like labels, right?) and I’m in like Flynn.

        To be clear, I’m not arguing for strict standards. Given that the word “pagan” has, for 99% of its history, been a loosely applied derogatory term, it would be impossible to place more than a few criteria upon the term. However, this linguistic meaninglessness spreads in our community, like a plague. If ‘pagan’ means nothing (as I contend), than Druid and Shaman (words with VERY specific cultural meanings) now mean next to nothing. We’ve got to be able to draw some lines, somewhere.

      • Nimue Brown

        But I’m not saying it means nothing, I’m saying its what you do when you make a spiritual response to the experience of being alive, and as there are clearly things that cannot be recognised as being that, it’s not an empty definition.

      • Blodeuwedd

        And I suspect that for many, particularly the young, your description is exactly where the journey begins. I wonder how many people of my age felt their first stirrings watching Robin of Sherwood? Some stick around and go deeper, some drift away.

  • Ooh Chiara

    “Paganism is a human response to the experience of being alive that finds sacredness in being alive.”

    That is such a beautiful expression!

  • Ooh Chiara

    Reblogged this on Book of Eucalypt and commented:
    “Paganism is a human response to the experience of being alive that finds sacredness in being alive.”

    Such beautiful words expressing such thoughtful truth.

  • Sheila North

    Personally, I feel Pagans who don’t practice magic or believe in magic are missing out on a really good thing. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re “not real Pagans”.

    Truly, there are better things to do with my time.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I misstated where the article was, but it is worth reading.

    It’s Not All The Same And That’s OK
    December 13, 2015 by John Beckett 60 Comments

    What if I told you it’s possible to articulate strongly held religious opinions and still respect those who believe differently? What if I told you it’s possible to believe deeply and practice devoutly without assuming everyone else is categorically wrong?


  • Art and Paganism | Druid Life

    […] recent blog of mine on the question, What is Paganism? provoked some interesting responses here and on social media. So I think it’s worth carrying on […]

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