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What are contemporary Paganisms?


  • Is 'paganism' one religion or several?
  • Is there a definition that all can agree on?
  • Is there continuity from ancient paganisms?
  • What about so-called 'pagan' practices & beliefs in other cultures? (colonial labelling)


Are Paganisms religions?


According to Chambers Concise Dictionary, religion is defined as “belief in, recognition of, or an awakened sense of, a higher unseen controlling power or powers, with the emotion and morality connected with such; rites or worship; any system of such belief or worship; devoted fidelity; monastic life.”


A comparison of Paganisms with other religions


One religion or several?


  • Ancient Paganisms did not see themselves as one single body of orthodox belief
  • Rather, in the classical world, there were cults of specific deities; initiatory and mystery traditions; a priestly class; and public and private religious practices
  • Modern Hinduism is similarly structured
  • The Celtic and Germanic peoples also had cults of specific deities; a priestly class; and public and private religious practices
  • The orthodox model of religion doesn't fit, so frequently Pagans are not recognised as religious


What constitutes "a" religion?


  • A unified body of practices? But different religions share similar practices; and practices differ within religions.
  • A unified body of beliefs? But different people practising the same religion can believe wildly different ideas
  • A unified body of beliefs and practices? See above.
  • Exclusivity? But some religions don't mind if you belong to another one at the same time (e.g. Shinto & Buddhism)
  • Shared holy books & writings?


Defining Paganism


 Paganism (from Latin paganus, meaning "a country dweller" or "civilian") is a blanket term which has come to connote a broad set of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices of natural or polytheistic religions, as opposed to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions. "Pagan" is the usual translation of the Islamic term mushrik, which refers to 'one who worships something other than God'. Ethnologists do not use the term for these beliefs, which are not necessarily compatible with each other: more useful categories are shamanism, polytheism or animism. Often, the term has pejorative connotations, comparable to heathen, infidel and kafir in Islam.


Within a European Christian context, paganism is a catch-all term which has come to connote a broad set of not necessarily compatible religious beliefs and practices ... of a natural religion (as opposed to a revealed religion of a text), which are usually, but not necessarily, characterized by polytheism and, less commonly, animism. There is little organized "-ism" in paganism.





Another attempt at a definition


  • the nature of deity is unknowable AND/OR there are many gods AND/OR there's a divine feminine and a divine masculine AND/OR there's one god/dess with many aspects AND/OR deity/ies is/are immanent in the world AND/OR there are many beings and spirits/wights AND/OR deities are archetypes;
  • the physical world (this life) is just as good (or better than) the other planes of existence OR the physical world is the the only plane of existence so let's celebrate it;
  • pleasure (sex/food/being alive/general pleasure) is good or sacred or life-enhancing;
  • life is less enjoyable if you don't get a regular experience of nature in some form (e.g. I go a bit doolally if I don't see any trees for a couple of days).
  • Other possibilities which might go on the list (but to which there are more likely to be exceptions):
    • positive attitude to magic & ritual & arcane knowledge
    • not believing in original sin (or similar concepts)


Definitions by Isaac Bonewits


Paleo-Paganism: A retronym coined to contrast with "neopaganism", denoting a pagan culture that has not been disrupted by other cultures. The term applies to Hinduism, Shinto, pre-Migration period Germanic paganism as described by Tacitus, Celtic Polytheism as described by Julius Caesar, and the Greek and Roman religion.

Meso-Paganism: A group, which is, or has been, significantly influenced by monotheistic, dualistic, or nontheistic worldviews, but has been able to maintain an independence of religious practices. This includes Native Americans and Australian Aborigine Bushmen, Viking Age Norse paganism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Spiritualism, as well as Sikhism, and the many Afro-Diasporatic faiths like Haitian Vodou, and Santería.

Neo-Paganism: An attempt by modern people to reconnect with nature, pre-Christian religions, or other nature-based spiritual paths. This definition may include reconstructive or semi-reconstructive as Ásatrú and other groups, as well as New Age and non-reconstructive groups such as Neo-Druidism and Wicca.


Is there continuity between ancient and contemporary Paganisms?



  • emphasis on connection with Nature in modern Paganisms versus emphasis on propitiation of deities in ancient paganisms;
  • ancient pagans did not call themselves pagan (the term was coined by Christians)
  • ancient pagans believed in sin; modern ones do not
  • categories of religio (keeping the human world in good relationship with the divine); pius (exemplary fulfilment of religious duty); superstitio (excessive fear of the supernatural)



  • belief in reincarnation;
  • polytheism & animism;
  • use of magic;
  • both honouring the same deities;
  • contemporary Pagans intend to continue the traditions of ancient pagans (whether they succeed or not is a different question)


What about other cultures?


  • Ethnologists do not use the term 'Pagan' for religion in non-European cultures: more useful categories are shamanism, polytheism or animism. Often, the term has pejorative connotations, comparable to heathen, infidel and kafir in Islam.
  • It depends whether people of similar beliefs in other cultures want to define themselves as Pagan – they may see the term as being purely a legacy of colonialist discourse.
  • Missionaries and colonial administrators used the term in a pejorative sense with racist overtones


19th century discourses about Paganisms


  1. “Pagans are people who bow down to idols, offer up blood sacrifices, and represent the religious aspect of human savagery and ignorance”
  2. Paganism was “a religion which had been associated with magnificent art, literature and philosophy, and was deficient to Christianity only in its ethics and in its lesser component of divine revelation.”
  3. There was once a single revealed religion (and Christianity is merely a garbled version of it); ancient paganisms were closer to this and therefore worthy of respect (Deism, started in 18th century; syncretism)
  4. Ancient Paganisms were “joyous, liberationist and life-affirming traditions, profoundly and valuably connected with both the natural world and with human spiritual creativity” (circa 1800 - 1940)


Source: Ronald Hutton (1999), The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford University Press: Oxford




Further reading



Religious Traditions


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