Do You Call Yourself “Pagan?”

Fellow Druid and blogger, A Fundamentalist Druid in America, posted an intriguing and thought-provoking entry this morning. Entilted “Why I am not a Pagan,” he explores the many negative connotations associated with the word such as its historical usage, derivation, and the groups of people who use it to describe themselves. He quotes several well-known “Pagans” on the subject, such as Zsuzsanna Budapest, who are equally wary of the word. Although I honestly told him in his comments that some of his language could be too condescending to generate meaningful discussion on such a worthy topic, I encourage you to head over and read it.

So where do I stand on this issue? I will try to put my opinion into words as best as I can.

I always feel a bit awkward when someone questions me about my religious beliefs. The most accurate way to describe myself would be to say that I am an American Druid of the ADF tradition who ascribes to Celtic Reconstructionist methods and practices some traditional folk magic. If pressed for further explanation, perhaps by someone who practices another religion, I would explain that I am a polytheistic animist who practices magic and ritual within an Irish and occasionally Pan-Celtic cultural context. These are as accurate descriptors as I can think of, but my Gods, they are a mouthful aren’t they?!

Like many others, “Pagan” is just the easiest explanation for those on the outside looking in. Yes it is a terribly loaded word full of negative connotations both within and without the community it describes, but it is the best we have at the moment to refer to a general group of people who are not strictly monotheistic. Fundamentalist Druid states:

Because the word isn’t explanatory or even defining (hell, it doesn’t even state what side you’re on when it comes to animism, polytheism, monotheism…), and all in all, it’s an entirely extraneous word, only really of use in scaring Christians or feeling superior. Paul Beyerl hits on the same notion, calling it “a lifestyle word“. If somebody asks what religion I have, I can say I’m a druid if I want to be direct, or I’m a mystic if I want to take the long route, or I can launch into a shamanic litany of all the things I am and have been and could be, if I want to be obscure and truthful. But what can you or anyone assume about the addition of pagan?

I definitely agree that the word is not very helpful in truly understanding a person’s spiritual beliefs. (I don’t agree that it’s only use is to scare Christians or feel superior. For some, sure, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Truly, this could be said of “Druid,” “witch,” or “heathen” as well.) “Pagan” is very general to the point of being misleading. How many in the Druidic, Heathen, Recon, etc communities have gone to a “Pagan” meetup, CUUPs meeting, or moot only to discover that it’s really not some general, multi-path group at all! It’s really a bunch of people who, despite their insistence that they are an eclectic group, are really practicing some form of Neo-Wicca. One of the more negative aspects of the word is that it’s s0 open-ended and so inclusive that it’s almost implying eclectic these days. People who can’t or don’t commit to one path tend to embrace the title “Pagan” which can cause some confusion within and without of our communities. Those of us looking for something very specific can become discouraged by the word.

But without that word, what do we have? Some embrace the term “witch” which is fine and dandy, but that doesn’t cover all of us. Some “Pagans” reject that title for various reasons. Fundamentalist Druid suggests “heathen,” but that is generally used by people who follow a Norse path so, again, not useful to all of us. (If you’re interested in spiritual descriptors in Celtic tongues, do check out this link for the CR FAQ.) Not all of us are animists. Not all of us are polytheistic (I won’t even touch the hard vs. soft issues in this post). We’re not all magicians. “Mystic”, in my opinion, is far too broad because there are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim mystics as well. “Magician,” again, is not applicable to all and tends to make one sound like a stage performer. The way I see it, “Pagan” is the best we have right now.

I do understand that the title can be offensive to some. It could be particularly offensive to those who follow a hearth culture conquered by the Romans. It’s no wonder many Celtic Reconstructionists use names in their hearth language of choice! That said, linguistically, I’m a descriptivist. I know and accept the fact that language changes, thus the meaning of words change. It seems that a majority of us within the community are comfortable using “Pagan” as an umbrella term to describe a variety of non-monotheistic beliefs. It might not be the first word we choose to describe ourselves (heck some of us, like the Feral Druid, are still trying to figure that bit out), but it is helpful when it comes to organizing larger gatherings (Pagan Pride events), multi-denominational education (Cherry Hill Seminary), news (The Pagan Newswire Collective), or civil rights initiatives. When the meaning of a word changes and is accepted, it’s very hard to change – especially when a majority of the group it describes accept it.

Whether Fundamentalist Druid intended it or not, I think his post could be a springboard of discussion for this topic.  I was really inspired by his thoughts and wanted to share my own on this blog.  I hope some of you will share your own feelings, either in my comments section, his, or on your own blog.

Published by M. A. Phillips

An author and Druid living in Northern NY.

8 thoughts on “Do You Call Yourself “Pagan?”

  1. I do agree that the tone used in his article was enough off-putting as to discredit the whole point. For myself, I am not big on labels, but sometimes they are necessary. I don’t consider myself Wiccan, but more of a Celtic-leaning kitchen witch. And that is how I generally refer to myself, as a kitchen witch. I think “pagan” is a more universally recognized term, though, with those who are not pagan. I really don’t care so much about the historical bias of the word because, like most language, it has evolved over time and isn’t as negative a word as it once was. And, frankly, I believe it is a less controversial term to, for the lack of a better term, outsiders than is “witch” or “heathen”. I use both of those from time to time, although the latter tends to breed suppositions from outsiders that are completely inaccurate.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kim! I didn’t realize you were interested in Celtic cultures and kitchen witchcraft. I do a lot of hearth magic myself. I’d love to talk to you more about that sometime!

  2. I think you have to look at Pagan as a term used to describe a commonality. Like referring to someone as Christian, the word generalises that this person believes in Christ in some way. It doesn’t identify denomination but is that a bad thing? My Catholic friend refers to himself as a christian and hates it when people assume because he’s catholic that he’s separate to christianity.

    The same applies for Pagan. By referring to ourselves as Pagan we are saying we believe in the old ways, the ancient religions and cultures of mankind. We are not identifying anything more because if we wanted to, we would give more detail.

    I am Pagan. I follow a path of animism, norse, native american, polytheism… and I group these within my Druidic practices. There are countless people who refer themselves as believing in God but not Jesus, Angels but not God, Celtic Gods and an Abrahamic God… the fact is trying to label someones deep and personal spiritual beliefs in one word is exactly what is wrong with the world. We shouldn’t be trying to conform or find a place with our views but simply hold them for us to enjoy and enrich our lives. I fear trying to identify specifically what we are will lead to doctrine and leaders… something that paganism does not have and why I am attracted to it so much. I am proud to be pagan and say I am pagan because it instantly informs the person I talk to that I believe in the ancient views… and that, in all honesty, is all they need to know about me.

    Thanks for the post, good to stir the thoughts.

    (Green Band Druid

    1. Thank you for the comment, GBD! Great reply. I really like your explanation of Pagan as shorthand for a belief in ancient ways. I know not all Pagan paths are ancient. Some are proud to be brand new, but most, I think, would agree that they derive from older ways.

      I was really hopeful that someone would chime in about the necessity to even worry about labels. I’m a fan of titles because they help organize my own thinking, but they can become a hindrance socially and spiritually.

  3. I’ve been trying to make a label fit myself for others to understand for years, I went to moots spoke about what I did and what I believed and was usually met with a ‘Oh okay…’ and a vast amount of silence.
    Myself I’ve been labelled a ‘Neo-Wiccan’ a ‘Hearthwitch’, a ‘Hedgewitch’, an ‘English Revivalist’, but the easiest I’ve found is ‘Animist’.

    I’m a shaman of sorts, I speak to and ask for help from spirits both local and ancestral for the work I do. I have no calendar of ritual like others do, I just do what is needed when I’m asked or ‘told’. My relationship with the greater ‘Pagan’ (sorry have to use the word here) community often has others scratching their heads when we get onto the basic tenets they follow.

    I agree the label of ‘Pagan’ doesn’t cover all of us and there’s bound to be thousands of us that don’t even use the term to describe what we do on a daily basis. But it’s a guide just as the rest of the ‘labels’ are, even ‘christian’ is a label, there’s many many branches on that tree and more often than not they have just as much difference as we do to each other.

    But we need the guiding words of a new language, the awakening of the spirits of people will not wait for a language to be built around it, we have to use what people understand now. Yes it’s annoying, yes it’s condescending to both people who are using it but it’s understood and it’s better than ‘devil-worshipper’. And yes I have been called that before in the middle of a town centre by a ‘Born Again’.

    Pagan is a way in to the language of the personality your talking to, and it will change as society does and one day we’ll be able to put it back in the box of tools called ‘words’. But for now I think it’s a necessary tool for understanding, because until everyone knows what one is without prejudice, we need to own it.

  4. “Pagan” is such a useful term of convenience for me that I never even question its use.

    I use it in much the same way that I respond when asked what I do for a living; I am an information security professional but such a concept means absolutely nothing to about 90% of the population. Usually if I tell someone my job title they assume it has something to do with finance since the best correlation they can make is that “security” must be something to do with “securities”. So generally I say that I am “in I.T.”. However, even this usually only satisfies people who work in office environments. I’m often reduced to the rather sad “I work with computers”.

    “Pagan” is the same as that “I work with computers”; it is an abstraction to bring the specifics down to a level that most people can understand without a whole lot of extra explanation.

  5. Really interesting post! I think you touched upon a lot of good ideas here. I’ve been on the fence and re-evaluating the word pagan recently myself (along with every other title, lol). In the end I decided that it fits, It does not fit perfectly, but not much does. It fits well enough, for many of the reasons everyone commented on above, ie people generally know what you mean when you say it and I don’t have to go into a 10 min explanation of my belief system.

    But also, because there are strength in numbers. When things go bad, there is discrimination, etc, the pagan community is generally good about banding together for one another. If we fragment ourselves we are weakened as a general movement in the eyes of society. I want to be able to lend my support to build up further, what so many before us have had to struggle for. If that means that I get lumped in with a bunch of people who may or may not share my beliefs so be it. To me there are more similarities than differences and I will gladly call them brothers and sisters, Wiccan, Heathen, Druid, Recon, etc alike.

    (Besides I think it’s a bit of a fad right now to declare “I’m not a pagan I’m a polytheist” and to me it smacks just a bit of a sense of elitism or “better than thou” mentality)

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