Pagan, what does it mean? Is Paganism a religion? What is a Neo-Pagan? While the Pagan community cannot agree 100%, there are widely accepted answers to each of these questions. I will present the widely accepted views and then my own. Please note that even the widely accepted views are not accepted by all.
Pagan is, and is not, a term easily defined. The origin of the word is Latin and was first used to describe the people who lived away from the cities and refused to embrace the new Christian religion. The original meaning was country-dweller or peasant and was not complimentary.
Over the years another definition of Pagan evolved and again, is not complimentary. This evolved definition is used mostly by followers of Abrahamic religions and is meant as a derogatory description of anyone who does not follow an Abrahamic system of belief. This definition is meant to convey someone who is immoral, has no religion or follows an ‘evil’ religious path.
Pagans are not people without religion, evil or depraved. While not all Pagan pathways share moral standards, beliefs and practices, most Pagan religions do adhere to strict codes of conduct and do have moral guidelines. Asatru has Nine Noble Virtues, Wicca has the Three Fold Law and Wiccan Rede and Druids have a Code of Honor.
In the Pagan world, the word Pagan is most often used as an umbrella term to categorize the many diverse minority religions that follow or attempt to reconstruct ancient pre-Christian religious paths or folkways, and their followers. Included under this umbrella are the religions of Wicca, Witchcraft, Asatru, Druidry, Celtic Reconstructionist, Norse Paganism, Odinism, Scottish Reconstructionist, etc. Some would also add Native American Spirituality, Shamanism, Vodun (Voodoo) and Santeria to the list.
It is important to note that while Wicca is most certainly a new religion invented in the 1950’s by Gerald Gardner, there are, woven within its framework, ancient beliefs, mythologies and fragmentary practices from many folkways, that survived until this day.
Neo-Pagan simply means New Pagan, referring to the revival of these ancient paths in the modern form, as well as the people that follow them. I am not sure we need this new term, as I do not believe any ‘old Pagans’ are still alive today. Some believe this term separates modern Pagans practicing positive systems of belief, from the old derogatory ‘Pagan’ term; but Pagan is still there and adding the ‘neo’ fools no one.
While everyone can agree that Pagan is an umbrella term covering many diverse paths, not everyone agrees that Paganism can be a path unto itself. What then of those people who do not follow a defined path such as Wicca or Asatru but still follow fragmentary ancient beliefs and practices interwoven with new? I say they too are Pagans and their religion is Paganism.
As our world evolves so too do the words that define our religious and spiritual paths. As new thought forms and beliefs emerge we need to update our thinking and shed our old ways of thought. Why not change the meaning of the word Pagan? Why not claim, as another definition, that Pagan can also mean an eclectic follower of a number of paths with no name?
People are ever changing and evolving and so too does our language. What was called a horseless carriage around 100 years ago is now called a car. Does this mean that the horseless carriage and car are two different things? Is using the new word ‘car’ less valid than using horseless carriage? Does it make the car less of a car? I think not.
In the same way, Pagan should be embraced as the definition of a religious path as well as an umbrella term. Why should those of us who follow the Pagan path allow others to define our beliefs and practices for us? Why should we be restricted to neatly defined little boxes of belief? What if I believe in and follow the Nine Noble Virtues as well as the Wiccan Rede and Three Fold law? What if Kali-Ma speaks to me as strongly as does Pan? Am I not then a “true” Pagan because I do not follow a defined path?
There is no one religious or spiritual path in which all of the practices resonate with me. There are many paths where only one or two practices or tenets ‘feel’ right for ME. I will not follow a belief system simply because it has an accepted definition and label if that system holds no meaning for me. Religion is personal. Religion should make you feel whole and content, not empty and frustrated, as I would feel following a system whose practices made no connection to who I am as a spiritual being.
With that in mind I take from many places, mostly from paths that do fall under the Pagan umbrella, but also from Eastern systems and Native American teachings. I believe in many Goddesses and Gods. I believe in Magick but do not practice rituals. My Magicks are simple and Earthy. I believe in reincarnation and the Summerlands. I fit into no formally defined Pagan belief system, so does that mean I have no ‘religion’?
I don’t think so. What that means is: I have created my own religious path using what is most meaningful to me and what helps me to grow as a spiritual being. It matters not that my path happens to have elements from dozens of other belief systems, there is no cosmic rule saying I must have a label that fits a box. So in terms of spirituality, my particular path of Paganism is a religion!
I am Pagan. That is my religious path. I choose to define it as the name of my religious path. It is a firmly held belief and infuses every aspect of my life, every day. I honor deity, have a set of beliefs similar in form to other religious paths and adhere to them. Under those terms, the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes my religious path as a religion. So I say yes, Paganism is a religion!
Note: In order to be a recognized religion in the U.S you do NOT need a Supreme Court decision. As long as your religious path falls within the definition of a religion that the courts have set- your path is a legally recognized religion!