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.