Post-Christianity, Political Solidarity, and the Pagan Paradigm

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 31, 2013 — 66 Comments

In ways the various founders, visionaries, and clergy could never have anticipated, modern Pagan faiths have thrived and become world religions. In many instances our faiths have entered the mainstream. Sometimes, embedded within the interconnected Pagan communities, dealing with the day-to-day controversies and obstacles, it’s hard to see just how far we’ve come. This isn’t to say that no challenges remain, or that we enjoy complete parity with other, more dominant, faiths, but we have reached a place that few could have initially hoped for. Further, larger shifts in Western culture towards a post-Christian social and political reality, along with important advances in interfaith initiatives, create a fertile soil for a number of religious minorities to grow at impressive rates in relative peace.

Pagans at Stonehenge.

Pagans at Stonehenge.

This relative safety, this freedom to venture outside the dominant monotheistic paradigm, has seen our community grow and change faster than its already established leaders and clergy have prepared for. Changes that in other contexts could have taken decades, even generations, are now happening in a matter of years. This has caused increasing tensions among different generations, religious groups, and schools of thought. It has caused many to critique, and in some cases completely abandon, the label “Pagan,” finding the term too limiting, too burdened with preconceptions as to what one might find under the Pagan “umbrella.” These debates over the term “Paganism” are not new. You could argue they began with the emergence of modern Heathenry in the 1970s, and grew only more heated as the second wave of modern polytheistic reconstructionism coalesced in the 1990s. A compelling argument could be made, looking at Chas Clifton’s “Her Hidden Children,” that the limitations of creating a “Pagan” community were apparent from the very beginning.

“Much of the credit for the popularization of Pagan and Neo-Pagan goes to Church of All Worlds (CAW). In a tract published in the 1970s, “Neo-Paganism: An Old Religion for a New Age,” Tim Zell, who was chief CAW spokesman, makes all the popular, if sometimes historically inaccurate, arguments that characterized the movement at the time […] by the early 1970s, with Green Egg serving as the official journal of the Council of Earth Religions – a brief successor to an earlier pan-Pagan group, the Council of Themis – the utility of Pagan and Neo-Pagan as umbrella terms has become well established […] the word Pagan, with its overtones of nature religion, was a good fit for these groups, and it rapidly shouldered aside its only competition, Aquarian (as in “Age of Aquarius”), which has been chiefly used in the title of the Aquarian Anti-Defamation League (AADL).”

Those early “councils” faced the problems of how big (or small) to make one’s umbrella, and often suffered for it, usually imploding over personal conflicts and arguments over who could and couldn’t be included in their ranks. Meanwhile, the very groups that would challenge the effectiveness of Pagan as a political label were already emerging, as a growing number of Witchcraft Traditions, Druid groups, and organizations like CAW, were settling on Pagan as a descriptor for the larger religious movement that they all saw themselves as a part of. For twenty years or so this accord largely held, as Heathens at that time had their own internal issues to sort out, and the second wave of polytheistic reconstructionism was still largely pre-formative. Long enough for Paganism (with and without the “Neo”) to be adopted by religious scholars (instead of “New Age”), and for the movement to establish a number of important wins in the realm of equal treatment under the law. To seep its way into our pop-cultural consciousness, and in some ways, to become something out of the control of the groups that adopted it as an umbrella term.

Which brings us to the present day. As I mentioned earlier, the climate today is very different than what it was in the 1970s. Wiccans and Pagans in the United States number anywhere from 700,000 to over a million, depending on how you crunch the available data. In England and Wales, official numbers for Pagan faiths jumped from around 40,000 to around 80,000, with many thinking the true number is larger still. Likewise, Australia also saw census counts rise, though more modestly than in the UK. This is all good news for us, but perhaps more importantly the number of religiously unaffiliated individuals, the “spiritual but not religious,” has exploded in the West, and non-Christian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism have seen ongoing strong growth. The unaffiliated and “other” non-Christian religions made up 32% of Barack Obama’s winning coalition in his recent re-election to the presidency. The unaffiliated are now on statistical parity with evangelical Christianity in America, creating new paths to victory that don’t depend on courting Christian culturally conservative issue stances. It’s natural in such a climate to perhaps reevaluate the Pagan label, and for groups dissatisfied to voice displeasures that were before muted due to more pressing political considerations.

Erynn Rowan Laurie and some anonymous blogger.

A Wiccan and a Celtic Reconstructionist.

This brings us to the issue of solidarity. When we say “the Pagan community,” that is a form of solidarity in action: several discrete groups (Wiccans, Druids, etc), with their own identities, banding together for a common purpose. Similarly, the initialism “LGBT” is another term of solidarity, showing the political alliance of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals (expanded in various permutations, like “QUILTBAG”). While there are a growing number of people who identify their religion simply as “Pagan,” we must remember that this term started as an umbrella that could be used for shorthand when encountering groups outside the established (albeit permeable) boundaries. It was a way to say, We are allies in a common struggle, and an injustice against one is an injustice against all of us. However, solidarity is not unity. Too many battles have been fought over well-meaning but wrong-headed initiatives to get us all singing from the same choir book (so to speak).

In the last twenty years a growing number of Pagans have allied themselves with, and sometimes even joined, a variety of faiths outside the Pagan umbrella as it was understood in the 1970s, including African Diasporic and African Traditional Religions, Dharmic faiths like Hindusim and Buddhism, and, to a lesser degree, Native American and other indigenous religious expressions. This tendency finds its perfect expression at a convention like PantheaCon in San Jose, which while a “Pagan” event, also draws polytheistic reconstructionists, practitioners and initiates of Palo, Vodou, Hoodoo, and Santeria, Hindu converts along with representatives from Hindu groups, and a good number of Pagans who have embraced or converted to Buddhism over the years. In short, it’s a place where new ideas of solidarity are being negotiated in real time, and the utility of the Pagan label is both strengthened and regularly questioned. PantheaCon isn’t necessarily unique in this, but its size and proximity to large urban areas facilitate more diversity than at some of the outdoor festivals or smaller conventions.

Zan Fraser (Second row, far left) at NYC's Pride Parade.

Zan Fraser (Second row, far left) at NYC’s Pride Parade.

So should the Pagan label be scrapped for something better? Something more inclusive and flexible? I’m certainly open to the notion, and perhaps it could even come to pass as the next generation who embraced, or were raised in, Paganism comes into their full power and leadership. Until then, perhaps we can acknowledge that we are doing solidarity differently in 2013 than we are in 1970. That “Paganism” and the “Pagan Community” may still work for a large number of individuals, but feels stifling to some who would be our allies and friends. We should encompass an expanding Venn diagram of coalitions that have overlapping goals and features, but are still distinct in identity. There can still be a “Pagan Community,” but it will exist in a constellation with the “Polytheistic Reconstructionist Community” and the “Hindu Community” and the “African Diasporic Community.” There will be a growing number of individuals who have a foot in more than one of these communities, and we can attend each other’s open events without the expectation that we will also be forced to adopt the labels of those gatherings. More importantly, we can work on the many issues that still face non-Christian religious minorities in the West (and elsewhere) without re-litigating who is and isn’t a Pagan.

Finally, speaking personally, I think that the act of leaving the Pagan label behind casts a new light for those who want to keep being “Pagan.” It should inspire us to think, to reevaluate, to constantly question our goals. The debates over terminology and theology within the Pagan umbrella have led me to view my membership within the Covenant of the Goddess very differently than when I first started the process, over a year ago. I now see that COG needs to revitalize and strengthen its place as an explicitly Wiccan voice and advocacy organization. While I may be comfortable being called a Pagan, I need to spend more time existing within a Wiccan frame of reference. By enriching Wicca, I better prepare it collectively for what the future may bring.

Our models of solidarity are only as strong and vital as those who use them, and the component parts need to be strong enough to shift and reform should we change, or our needs change. None of us has clairvoyance enough to fully anticipate what our culture will be like in another twenty years, but I can guess that we will still have political and cultural goals to rally around, and that our movement’s name will shape itself to the times. Who can say if Paganism will be that name?

I am happy for my Polytheist brothers and sisters for emerging into and finding their preferred collective identity, just as I am happy for any group or individual that realizes itself and acts to claim the power in naming. This time does not need to be rancorous, and we all need to rise above the fear and anger that can come so easily when these shifts happen. There is still much we can share, can have in common, and can work together to achieve; we just have to do so differently, with greater mutual respect and consideration — with more outreach, and more listening. If these developments result in the Pagan umbrella shrinking, I find solace in the fact that my faith is still there, my conception of the sacred is still there, and my friends are still there.

I have much more to say on this issue, but I will save the rest for a talk I’ll be giving at PantheaCon this February entitled “Preserving our past, Preparing for our Future.” There I will lay out some suggestions, and some thoughts as to how we, how Pagans, how our friends and allies, should confront our successes and the challenges ahead of us. I’ll make sure to have an audio recording for those of you unable to come, and hopefully will have even more to share once I’ve given the talk. If you are attending, I hope you’ll come and share your own thoughts.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    I’m a Pagan.

  • I leave the fact that the Church of All Worlds is a fan religion directly derived from Robert A Heinlein’s “Stranger In A Strange Land” as an exercise for the reader…

    • PhaedraHPS

      It may have started there, but it evolved into something quite beyond the original source.

  • I frequently find myself disagreeing with stuff that other Pagans say, but still the Pagan umbrella just about covers me. I find it easier to say “I’m a Wiccan” pure and simple though (despite often disagreeing profoundly with stuff that other Wiccans say) as it’s rare for collective statements to be made on behalf of the Wiccan community.

  • LunaLauren

    I personally find the broadness of the term “Pagan” to be positive in my life. I find that under this particular umbrella there is so much room to expand my connection or withdraw into solitude, to explore pathways to truth that others different from me have forged before – different, but connected. For an eclectic, ever-growing witch like me, I find comfort and solace in a term that’s permeable.

    I don’t suppose that the term “Pagan” is perfect – I’d be hard-pressed to find a word in language that would serve as a perfect descriptor for millions of individuals. But I like it, for now. 🙂

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Nice article.

    Honestly, I don’t know if I am a Pagan. I don’t know if I am a Heathen. I am, more or less, an omnitheist, but I am not too much a fan of the term. I prefer Ēalgodan – I have belief in all the gods (if not respect.)

    Of course, that mentions only my belief in the existence of gods, it doesn’t really say anything about my personal philosophies, which is where religious labels usually come in.

  • The fact that a Wiccan and a Celtic Reconstructionist can “totally get along” is irrelevant. Asatruar and Catholics can “totally get along”, Druids and Muslims can “totally get along”, etc. Getting along is not a requisite of being categorized under the same “Pagan” umbrella. On most levels, Hellenismos and Wicca have almost nothing in common (to take but one example). Why try to cram them into some sort of solidarity that doesn’t make any sense theologically, culturally, or sociologically? The term “Pagan” isn’t the problem. It’s the whole concept of trying to cobble together a community out of disparate elements that don’t really have anything in common other than “we’re not Christian”.

    • The photo caption was a bit of levity in a very serious article. Why not discuss my actual conclusions instead? Here, since that caption was so distracting for you, I’ll change it.

      • Tara

        Aww I liked the original caption. It made me giggle.

    • Since that caption was so distracting that it prevented you from discussing my actual conclusions I’ve had it changed.

      • The original caption was fine; it encapsulated the point you were trying to make. I just don’t agree with it.

        • No, you don’t agree with the point you’ve decided to assign my essay. That you responded to a photo caption and not the actual essay says a lot about how you view my writing.

          • I disagree. That certainly came off as the point you were trying to make, to me, and I didn’t even see the original caption. Your whole point seems to be “the words may change, but we’re all in this together”, with implications that the presence of recons, Hindus, and so forth at, for example, Pantheacon, is enough common ground to be unifying. Maybe that’s not your intention, but Mary Shelley didn’t intend the meaning in FRANKENSTEIN that it ended up having, either.

          • I don’t say that. My article clearly says that I’m fine with those dissatisfied with the Pagan label going off and finding their own labels and coalitions, with the acknowledgment/hope that we can still interact and that there will be overlap between communities. I point to PantheaCon because it shows that we do have things to say to each other, and possibly some goals in common we want to work on.

            I in fact advise against striving for “unity”.

    • Yes, this. The term itself is the least of the problems. The problem is the fact that a negative trait (what we are not) is assumed to be more important to making up a collective’s identity than the positive traits (what we are) that make up the groups and individuals within the collective. A single negative trait is not enough to define the mission statements of more formal umbrella groups, yet somehow that’s the only “common ground” necessary in putting dozens of religions and religious groups in the same bag. This is a massive disservice to all religions involved. It’s not diversity in any real sense, it’s just a frail illusion of homogeny.

  • Rory

    I vaguely recall hearing some lesbians discussing object to the term “gay” in the 1980’s as too male-identified. Apparently the larger goal led to an acceptance of this *and* an expansion of other terms which included that and were more inclusive: GLBT, QUILTBAG and other variations on “the gay BLT.” I am fairly sure that this kerfuffle will have a similar resolution, especially if folks keep their eyes on progress for all toward the horizon ahead.

  • Sherry In DC

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and relevant piece. The question of what comprises the “Pagan Community” has been much on my mind these days, as I am working with a core group of volunteers to firmly establish an independent nonprofit community center in Washington, DC for “Pagans of all paths.” Your comment that “solidarity is not unity” pinpoints one of the many challenges we are facing in growing the support (both money and volunteers) that will allow the center to thrive. We have already survived one incident in which a DC-area group decided they would withdraw their support for the center rather than work toward a mutually acceptable solution to their complaints. On a personal level, I find myself asking whether we as a spiritual/religious community/movement really have grown up enough to support a large community endeavor like this.

    • Cat C-B

      I don’t know if _any_ religious community ever “grows up” to the point where there will be no more divisions within groups. While thealogy is an easy fault line to find, it has been my experience that the unwillingness to work through differences is at least as often about personalities as it is about religious ideas and practices–probably more so. And I don’t think any spiritual path is ever truly free of those who have not yet worked through the personal quirks that make it hard for them to work through differences.

      That’s not to say that anyone who ever leaves a group is somehow spiritually immature. But spiritual immaturity is a feature in every path, every organization, and every tradition.

      In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’d like us to be slower to point to differences in thealogy or practice as the sources of our conflicts. Often there are deeper lessons to be learned, if we are only open to them…

      • Sherry In DC

        I wasn’t referring to divisions within groups – and yes, I agree with what you say about that. What we are facing is an unwillingness or inability of individuals and groups in the “community” to support (or, at the very least, not set out to destroy) a resource that serves the entire community and not just their group.

  • I am not a Heathen, although I follow many Northern Traditions. I am not a true reconstructionist, although I used reconstructionist-derived practices and am beginning studies in Roman reconstruction. I am not an eclectic, yet I recognize both the syncretic nature and the cultural diffusion of pre-Christian, Classical religions which are a basis of my own philosophy. I am most definitely not a Wiccan, Druid, or High Magician. I do not follow an agricultural calendar. I am thoroughly Solitary, yet I make use of a brainstorming network of colleagues and idea-sharers. I am not a dualist, monist, or soft Polytheist. What then am I?

    I choose to retain the use of Pagan, unrepentantly, because it is the easiest way to define myself without going into a list full of modifiers. I could just as easily say that I am a Hard Polytheist, but I feel that term will soon be suffering the same fate as Pagan is now. Or if you want, I could give the full appellation: I am a Solitary Hard Polytheistic Shamanic/Reconstructionist-derived Practitioner straddling Northern (Germanic) and Romanist Traditions. Ehh…

    And I think that the biggest reason I choose to retain the use of Pagan is specifically to show that the “Pagan community” is more than Wiccan or Wiccan/Celtic-inspired practices. Because I feel that diversity in an organization or demographic prevents it from dogmatic tendencies. I find it to be one of the most lamentable experiences in American alternative religions (and the one that I’m going to catch the most flak for) that so many groups schism because of differences in opinion, ego-trips, or drama, and go off to form splinter groups which usually, inevitably, wither and die and weaken the whole for it. I know that is not the case for many, but on the surface it is one of the things that strikes me the most. Truly, do not stay where you are unhappy.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven

    I consider myself to be a Pagan (a general term much like “Democrat”) polytheist (this describes my faith orientation to belief in many deities) Witch (because I use magick, although I am not Wiccan.) I respectfully disagree with those that say that the first word has no meaning. If nothing else, identifying oneself as outside the dominant Abrahamic paradigm is at least as useful as saying “I’m not straight” (which is most of what I understand the label LGBT to do). Identifying as a member of a minority group (even an amalgamated one) is perhaps more useful for those who are outside your group than to members of the group itself.

    • Except that many transsexual individuals *do* consider themselves “straight”.

  • The very definition of the word pagan has changed and changed dramatically. I have an old dictionary that describes paganism as being irreligious or heathen. A person who is not Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Even an atheist fit under that definition. Now when people try to describe that demographic we’re called “nones”. Not a term I care for personally. Many of the current definitions of pagan includes the word Wiccan and often mentions earth-based religions. We have caused the confusion with the label. It went from being irreligious to being dogmatic. The term pagan has become synonymous with Wiccan thereby invalidating it for many.

  • I’m keeping the pagan label and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Mwa ha ha ha ha…

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      This best expresses my attitude. I became Pagan in an epiphanal flash a quarter century ago, and “Pagan” (more precisely, “neoPagan”) was and is the name of what I turned into. After discovering the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans I adjusted my label to “UU Pagan” but at the moment of my conversion the question of how I was going to be UU and Pagan all at once wasn’t even on my mind.

  • Kilmrnock

    In all reality most CRs or other recons don’t really have much in common with Wiccans , but we all still fall under a pagan umbrella. I would even like to see the Heathens come back into the pagan fold, greater numbers . I am a proponent of pagan unity whatever overeaching term we agree or disagree apon now or in the future . I am a CR, many within our ranks donot like or use the terms pagan or neo pagan . i personaly don’t prefer the term neo pagan , due to the age of our beliefs , and being associated with new agers and fluff bunnies .Altho i will still use the term pagan to discribe myself particularly when i don’t want or need to go into details .I more often refer to myself as Druid , recon , or a polytheist for those who understand the difference. Getting back to the origonal point i do think there are times and issues where solidarity would be usefull within the pagan community as a whole . Such as the recent Penticle Quest involving the VA and pagan Veterans .Larger groups . a more united front is useful when dealing with such things as Pagan Civil Rights . At this time with the current administration we’re ok now , but things can just as easily swing back the other way next time. I believe our larger organisations can be pivotal in this , COG , OBOD , ADF , Lady Liberty Legue, Wiccan coven groups like ASW , etc . A way to organise large numbers of pagans into loose coalitions when a need arises .

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      We’re OK now at the federal level but most violations of Pagan rights occur at the state and local levels — zoning boards, school districts and the like. One improvement I see in recent years is the Internet getting better at bringing help to bear where needed. We still need each other’s backs.
      I think as a large community we’re pretty good at reaching across creedal barriers in the face of that kind of emergency. Argument about names is for times when we’ve nothing better to do.

      • Kilmrnock

        Agreed BD

  • Someone else …. it might have been the Allergic Pagan blog ….
    commented that one thing that can tie us together is the fact that we’re
    modern people seeking spiritual inspiration from cultures of the past.
    When you consider things in this light, it’s fairly easy to see how the
    various recon paths can easily exist within that space next to Wiccans,
    Eclectics, Witches, and other non-recon traditions.

    The beauty, as I see it, of this concept is that it doesn’t require any of those within the space to practice in the same way, worship or work with the same powers, or agree about the same metaphysical concepts. This provides each of us the freedom to live, grow, and leave the space as we see fit.

    I wish I could Google up the source of the concept; if it’s author is here, speak up if you’re willing. If anyone else finds it, let me know.

    • Elysia

      I think I read that somewhere too…the main problem with that definition is that it doesn’t fit the bill for post-Christian Pagan religions, only pre-Christian Pagan-based religions. For example, someone who, having seen scientific research on how the universe works, and feels that Earth is a sentient being and worships her, would not necessarily say that they are seeking spiritual inspiration from cultures of the past. CAW started out as a science fiction / futuristic utopian religion. Yet they may still self-define as Pagan. Another example – are Thelemites Pagan? That is a question for a different day, but I would say they do not seek spiritual inspiration from the past, even though nominally they look to “Egyptian” deities.

  • For what it’s worth, the Evangelical Christian community is having similar debates over just who and what is “Evangelical”. They don’t seem to be having much more success with definitions than we are.

    • Who cares?

      • The point is that if two religious groups as different in beliefs, practices, and in demographics as Pagans and Evangelicals are both having trouble with defining the boundaries of their labels, maybe the problem isn’t with either group. Maybe it’s with the idea of defining the boundaries of religious labels.

        • Or maybe the problem is that there are more than enough people who don’t understand that words mean things? Or maybe there isn’t any problem at all, and this is just one of many ways that language evolves? Or maybe a little from each column, or none of the above?

          Bringing up what xians do is still irrelevant. Again: Who cares?

  • Elysia

    When I moderated a panel at PantheaCon last year about the label (titled “Are YOU a Pagan? Are we?”) I thought one of the most interesting conclusions the panelists came to was that one can claim different labels for oneself, depending on whether it is meant for insiders and outsiders. (Because, as opposed to outsiders labelling you, we start by claiming our right to label ourselves.) In other words, if you have a curious friend at work, you might just tell them “I’m Pagan” or “I’m Wiccan” because these are things that (now) can be grasped by a good number of outsiders. If not, you just give them a nutshell summary and leave it at that. On the other hand, when we are talking to insiders, other types of “Pagans” – we have the luxury of being more specific, and saying things like “I am a polytheistic witch” or “I am a Solitary Hard Polytheistic Shamanic/Reconstructionist-derived Practitioner straddling Northern (Germanic) and Romanist Traditions” or even “I am an animist panentheist who doesn’t anthropomorphize deities except when doing ritual with other Pagans or polytheists” etc.

    I think there is a TON of room under the Pagan umbrella for everyone who elects to use that term when talking to outsiders (even if it means presenting a unified front for a non-unified body), and that’s why we must also treat the word with respect when using it among ourselves, for example when advertising events – do NOT say an event is Pagan when in reality it’s Wiccan, etc. because then you are mistreating the insiders who believe you’re being inclusive.

    Also, as at least one panelist pointed out – when meeting or conversing with other Pagans, “what I do” is often a more important way of talking about it than “what I am, what I call myself”; most Pagans follow a religion where right practice/action/conduct (orthopraxy) is more important than right words/beliefs/teachings (orthodoxy).

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      “most Pagans follow a religion where right practice/action/conduct (orthopraxy) is more important than right words/beliefs/teachings (orthodoxy).”
      Yay, I’m the minority. -.-

      • Kilmrnock

        LS , my freind atleast here in the US , to most Recons , both ways are important . orthrproxy and orthodoxy. Or as i”ve heard it stated …….walk the walk and talk the talk.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          I mostly believe without veneration, so I technically lack the praxy. (Great example: I believe in YHWH, as he was in ancient, polytheistic times, but I do not worship him or otherwise show him any respect.)

  • Cat C-B

    I have been an initiated Witch since 1986, and I have lost count of the number of students I have trained. I am no dabbler.

    I have also been a practicing Quaker since 2001, with a monist polytheist theology and Druidic and animist leanings. I have also found important insights and spiritual deepening through interactions with Asatru, shamans, and Hellenic reconstructionists. All of these have added vital, vibrant strains to the symphony that is my spiritual vision of my life.

    I do not call myself Wiccan, not because I no longer am, but because my experiences are rooted in so much more than my tradition of origin. I do not view myself as a “former” Wiccan, but as a Pagan whose experiences, shaped by the gods, have found expression through a host of Pagan and Pagan-friendly disciplines.

    To some, that can only be an adulteration of some mythical pure strain of something more specific. But for myself, I call myself Pagan because it honors an eclecticism that I was led to by the Spirits that called me to become Wiccan in the first place.

    Nor do I consider either myself or the student of mine who left my coven years ago to be a failure, because she found that there were mysteries within Asatru that called to her more powerfully than those our coven celebrated. Actually, I think our coven was a shining success for her, and she in it, because it was the gate that led her deeper into the places her gods were calling her to go.

    I think of myself as a Pagan, and I think of my student as a Pagan, and I’m delighted to have a term that honors what we share, at the same time that I fully understand that we’re not meant to share everything.

    I am not Martha Stewart. I don’t really care if my silver or my china matches all around the table. And the word Pagan allows me to name both my breadth of understanding and its depth.

  • Uloboridae

    “This time does not need to be rancorous, and we all need to rise above the fear and anger that can come so easily when these shifts happen”

    Exactly. You can call yourself a Purple Zebraman for all I care, it doesn’t bother me or mean that I can no longer be around you, nor does it mean we can’t fight for rights that benefit the both of us. Granted, if you do actually call yourself a Purple Zebraman (or any label that has established definitions and baggage) I may make some assumptions about you, but that’s a personal and separate situation.

    • Thanks for getting out of this post what I did. I didn’t *think* itvwas a roll call for who is and isn’t “pagan”.

  • Erynn

    Now I’m all curious about what your original caption was…

    That said, I still use “Pagan” as a descriptor. It covers a lot of ground, even if it can be problematic at times.

    • Cat

      “A Wiccan and a Celtic Reconstructionist, totally getting along.”

      I thought it was funny, and obvious from the diction (“totally getting along?” Seriously?) that it was said with humor. But apparently some people had a hard time parsing that…

  • kenneth

    The pagan term has the potential to serve well as an umbrella identity IF we can unburden it from its historical connotation of “Wicca and Associates.” I think that has happened to a large degree in the last several years. Most of us know not to read too much into the term or assume too much about the beliefs and practices of others who come to “pagan” functions or discussions.

    I can’t blame others if they feel its too burdened to be useful and abandon it. However, I think they will find the same problem recurring with whatever other umbrella term they may adopt. That term will become strongly defined by whatever demographic first sets up house there, and then the problem will begin anew with more diverse people later chaffing under the label. Pagan works well enough for me for now, and if someone else doesn’t like it, that’s cool too.

    • I can’t blame others if they feel its too burdened to be useful and abandon it. However, I think they will find the same problem recurring with whatever other umbrella term they may adopt.

      But I don’t *want* another “umbrella term” beyond “Hellenismos” or “Hellenic Polytheism”. Nothing else is necessary. If I need not be Jewish or Black to protest, say, a KKK march, then I don’t have to call myself “pagan” to support the community of pagans and polytheists.

  • Anna Munda

    While what I do, and believe, remain the same, I find my throat sticking at the term “Pagan” in the same way it stuck 30 years ago when reciting the Nicene Creed. My priest advised me to simply keep silent on the parts that I had problems with. Eventually, I had to keep silent on almost the whole thing. I left the church on good terms.

    The collective that is “Paganism” increasingly excludes (with derision) practices and beliefs that I have found valuable and useful – practices sourced form the New Age, for instance – and increasingly includes practices that I find as foreign as a fundamentalist monotheism – hard polytheism, atheism, and reconstruction. To each their own, and that’s fine; whatever gets you through the night, as the old song says. But it’s not too much to ask that any labels I wear are reasonably accurate. I have decided to use the term “occultist” because it encompasses all my beliefs and practices and does not exclude any that I might find useful or interesting because they are not sourced from Western pre-Christian history. And also because that suffix “-ist” connotes more of an activity and less of a brand.

  • Last year I wrote the following essay and posted it on a few facebook groups. I think it has some relevence to this topic:

    Three Phases Of Development In Ethics.

    I’ve been thinking about the issue of paganism and its definition, and how
    the term causes various misunderstandings through the lack of a
    coherent definition. After giving the subject some thought, I’ve come
    up with a preliminary scheme for classifying religious systems
    according to certain characteristics of their implicit or explicit
    ethical systems. I think this approach has the potential to clear up
    certain quandaries in classifying and relating different belief
    systems currently subsumed under the banner of ‘paganism’.

    Let me be clear that this is a preliminary exercise in a particular
    conceptualisation of this topic. I don’t want to pretend that this is
    the whole story, or exhaustive in its definitions, or that there
    aren’t many exceptions to be found to the broad strokes I’m about to
    make. The categories here described are intended as aids to thought,
    not binding dogma. I feel they will be useful, and I hope that proves
    to be the case.

    Phase I Ethical Systems:

    Phase I ethical systems are those generated by the needs of tribal or
    clan-based cultures . They come in many different varieties, and are
    often highly specific to a particular group. While all humans tend to
    have broadly similar needs, specifics of environment, technology
    level, resource base and particular paths of historical development
    lead to idiosyncratic cultural mores and modes of interaction. Ethics
    are often seen in terms of duty to the family, clan or tribe.
    Consideration of humans outside the group is very often non-existent,
    and interactions with them don’t fall under the field of ethics at
    all. When outsiders are dealt with fairly or honourably, it’s usually
    due to a pragmatic calculation rather than a perceived ethical

    The overarching theme in Phase I ethical systems is the survival of the
    cultural unit before all other considerations. A set of customs and
    lore specify how to act under various circumstances. The customs of
    one cultural unit concerning a particular situation may vary greatly
    to those of another cultural unit in the same circumstances.

    Phase II Ethical Systems:

    Phase II ethical systems are characterised by the abstraction of the
    positive and negative facets of experience into archetypal concepts
    of good and evil, usually personified in particular mythological
    characters. Survival of the cultural unit continues to be an
    important theme, but it is now relegated to a subordinate role in the
    spreading of the ethical system itself. Adherents are expected to
    govern themselves according to the precepts of the system. One major
    effect of this change (and probably the main reason it became so
    successful) is that the details on how to behave in a given situation
    are delegated out to the individuals at the scene of the action
    rather than being micromanaged by an extensive body of customary
    prescriptions. Imposing a smaller set of generalised rules of conduct
    across extensive regions means that people are able to interact more
    confidently, knowing more or less what they can reasonably expect
    from nearly anyone they encounter.

    The role of phase II systems in simplifying relations between smaller
    cultural units to facilitate trade and economic development is most
    likely responsible for the expansionist nature of most such systems.
    Phase I cultures might or might not be particularly expansionist, but
    Phase II cultures almost always are. To a Phase I adherent you are
    either a member of their cultural unit with a well-defined nature, or
    you are an outsider to be ignored, disposed of, or exploited. To a
    Phase II adherent you are a potential member of the system and must
    be either taken into the fold, or taken right out of the equation.
    They’re the original Borg. If you remain outside the system, you are
    a component that doesn’t fit, a potential source of dissension and
    trouble. Phase II is ultra-inclusive, and it sees nothing as falling
    outside the purview of its dogma.

    Phase II dawned approximately 3500 years ago with the development of the
    religious system of the prophet known in the west as Zoroaster. This
    great man’s insight led to the creation of the first Phase II
    spiritual and ethical system in history (in my present opinion, at
    any rate). He managed to create a framework which would lead in the
    fullness of time to the founding of the great desert monotheisms
    (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). In doing so, Zoroaster managed to
    perform significant feats of cross-cultural unification and even some
    degree of human liberation, although it often doesn’t seem that way
    to us today, when the Phase II systems are perceived more as sources
    of oppression than of liberation. Nonetheless, the introduction of
    Phase II ethics did have a profound effect on subsequent human
    cultural evolution which were often positive in ways not easily
    appreciated today. It was not for no reason that many rulers
    throughout history were often happy to introduce phase II ethics into
    the lives of their Phase I subjects.

    The particular manner in which Phase II ethics were first conceived,
    however, contained certain flaws which have become only too obvious
    since that time. They’re usually founded on the myth of a supremely
    powerful creator god who is all good and who is opposed by a separate
    powerful being of evil who has somehow corrupted the world, or
    humanity, or both. History is seen as a battle between these two
    spirits, with humans playing an important role. They are historical
    rather than cyclical, with a narrative including the creation of the
    universe, the subsequent unfolding of world history according to a
    pre-ordained plan, and an end in which judgement takes place, the
    good are rewarded and the evil are punished, the spirit of evil is
    defeated, and the universe is made perfect. Messianic saviour figures
    are usually included as well.

    One problem with all these variants of the Zoroastrian pattern is that
    only one of them at most can be literally true, so there is a certain
    element of mutual exclusivity to these systems. This directly
    contradicts the main function and virtue of them, which is the
    unification of different cultures under one universally applicable
    ‘operating system’. This has led to a Highlander-style “There can
    only be one!” ideological battle between the feuding children of
    Zoroastrianism down through the centuries, familiar to all students
    of history. Another major problem has been the misconception of the
    nature of evil, and its personification as a personal adversary. This
    has led to a huge focus on ‘Evil’, and many a cultural obsession with
    its extirpation, usually by identifying some hapless person or group
    with that enemy, and doing many horrible things to them. So while
    Phase II has certainly had its successes, it has also had its
    failings, and the further a society develops under phase II tutelage,
    the more counter-productive those failings become. Much of the
    motivation for the modern development of the Phase III ethical
    systems which have been formulated since the Renaissance has been the
    direct experience of those Phase II failings. Which brings us to
    Phase III.

    Phase III Ethical Systems:

    Phase III ethical systems were mainly developed in Europe over the last 400
    or so years in response to the restrictions imposed by the dominant
    Phase II ethical system of the time (Christianity in its various
    forms). The precepts of phase III systems largely consist of
    maintaining a stripped-down Phase II framework for ensuring a
    workable civil society (maintaining prohibitions on such antisocial
    activities as murder and robbery) while eliminating culture-specific
    commandments and sanctions on which gods to worship and which
    cultural institutions to compel adherence to. This evolutionary
    process is currently ongoing in our society, and the final shape of a
    mature Phase III ethical system is still a matter of some debate. I
    have my own ideas on this matter which I shall expound in the future.
    For the moment, let’s consider what characteristics a
    spiritual/religious path should possess in order to be considered a
    Phase III system.

    I’m not so certain of a precise definition for Phase III. That’s still a
    work in progress for me. What follows are some of my personal ideas
    on the subject, which may change.

    I think that a Phase III ethical system should foster the growth of
    useful organised complexity as much as possible. In order to do this,
    there needs to be tolerance for different approaches to achieving the
    overall goals seen as worthwhile, which stands in direct contrast to
    the ‘One-True-Pathism’ of Phase II systems. It should also be
    inclusive in its ethical treatment of outsiders, in contrast to Phase
    I systems. There needs to be active encouragement of that which is
    seen as positive. Perhaps the prime commandment should be “Foster
    Complexity!”, or to put it another way, “Do your best to
    encourage the growth of that which furthers the goals of life”. But
    there is a lot of debate which can yet occur to determine the make-up
    of Phase III ethical systems.

    The categorisation of paganism:

    So now we come to the question of just where paganism fits into the
    above classification scheme. I’d say most of the ‘pagan’ cultures
    spoken of in history prior to the Phase II Zoroastrian revolution
    fall into the Phase I category. But what about modern neopaganism?

    The answer as I see it is that it depends. From my knowledge of the
    philosophy and implicit style of British Traditional Wicca, I would
    classify it as Phase III. The same with modern Druidry, and many
    styles of eclectic witchcraft. Some re-constructionist paths are a
    bit more difficult to categorise. Some re-constructionists are said
    to see their efforts in nationalistic or culturally insular terms,
    which would make them Phase I, while others in the same
    re-constructionist traditions have a more inclusive view. Asatru is
    an interesting case. I would initially classify it as Phase I, but
    one good friend of mine who is a leading figure in the AET suggests
    to me that it does have a modern approach. I don’t know if I’m
    convinced by this assertion, but the matter could be debated.

    Satanism is an interesting one. I think it’s clearly Phase III, but the
    trouble is that so much of it is defined in reaction to a Phase II

    Much of the New Age movement shares the language of neopaganism (inherited
    from occultism), and may be initially classified as Phase III, but
    when you look closely, they seem to have a lot of Phase II
    Zoroastrian-style eschatology happening. I personally think of them
    as parasitic on Phase II systems.

    That’s all for the moment. Anyone have any ideas on this?

    That’s the end of the original essay. Since writing it I’ve refined my notions
    on various things. The following text represents some of my recent
    thoughts on Phase III:
    The biggest hole (in my opinion, anyway) in my essay on the three ethical
    phases was the description for phase III. I spent quite some time
    wondering what the anchor for that phase was (Phase I is anchored in the
    need to preserve the culture, Phase II in the ethical system itself). I
    considered features such as liberty, individual rights, scientific
    enquiry, material production, political inclusiveness and so on. But
    really, these aren’t the heart of Phase III, they’re its consequences.
    As far as I can currently see, the heart, foundation and anchor of Phase
    III is the elevation of freely contending ongoing discourse, with
    conclusions always tested against reality and always subject to change
    if new results warrant it, to the pinnacle of regard as the method by
    which both individuals and groups should govern themselves.

    This development has consequences right across the board. When you apply it
    to ‘natural philosophy’, you get the scientific method. Applied to
    politics, inclusive democratic and parliamentary systems result, which
    have critical discourse at the heart of their operations. Applied to
    economics and material production, various forms of competitive
    capitalism result. All these systems have critical discourse resulting
    in a self-correcting mental model of reality which is continually
    checked against external reality at the very core of their operation (or
    at least that’s how it’s supposed to work ideally…).

    It’s my position that much of Wicca and modern neopaganism are implicitly
    Phase III systems. Not all of them. Some are more inclined to Phase I or
    Phase II, but on the whole, modern neopaganism is phase III in nature.
    Given that this is so, there should be a corrective mechanism which
    enables practitioners to challenge the claims put forward by some about
    how things work and what should be done, and examine the assumptions
    that seem to be implicit in these claims. For example, the spiritual
    systems of the people who like to put on New Age workshops at
    exhorbitant prices often look more like Phase II than Phase III.

    • I see i’ve got two ‘down’ votes. Any feedback criticising my classification scheme will be received gratefully (although not necessarily passively).

      I’ve noted in the past that people most likely to reject it coincidentally happen to be those whose path would be classified as Phase I or II.

  • the14thguest

    I think the word “Pagan” is THE best term we could use to identify us as one group. In my opinion, none of the traditions that make up contemporary Paganism have a name that is better suited to describe all of us We already have an impressive body of work, both theological and scholarly, that has embraced the word “Pagan” as THE umbrella term and I think that it would be a shame to drop the word “Pagan” just to start over now again, wasting time and effort explaining a change that was never needed in the first place. Pagans are starting to be viewed as a true force of change in this world. Now is not the time to sabotage ourselves.

  • To me, the term ‘polytheist’ doesn’t necessarily indicate a person aligned with me as a Pagan. My mother has been a devout Catholic all her life and she’s a polytheist. She believes in the existence of orishas, Hindu deities, and so forth. Her take on it is simply that these are other people’s gods, not hers, and so she doesn’t honor them in any way. I know many Christians who take this approach especially in Miami. To them, “You shall have no other gods before me” doesn’t mean there are no other gods at all.

    On a different note, Jason, COG is not a Wiccan organization, but rather one for those who identify as Witches. COG has members that are not Wiccan.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I used to be a polytheistic Christian. That was pretty much the same stance I had.

      It is more or less the same stance I have now – belief in deities without veneration – but without the veneration of the Christian pantheon (or any other, if I am honest.)

    • Deborah Bender

      I have written a long comment on the question of whether CoG is a Wiccan organization farther down, in a reply to Heather Greene, the current CoG National Public Information Officer. You can see from our exchange that even among CoG members there are differing views.

      Which goes to show how difficult it is to agree on labels.

      • I was the membership officer for the local council I served, Everglades Moon, a few years ago. There are always differing views (especially in COG!), but I refer to the bylaws. It’s been a while since I read up on them, but I believe they are pretty specific about this point. It can definitely feel Wiccan and some of the language of the criteria for joining seems to reinforce that, but it doesn’t go so far as use the term. Instead it’s an organization for Witches and it’s not generally open to people that identify as “Pagan” in general and other forms of Pagans, at least, not for the purpose of the application. I think that just reflects the era in which they were written.

        • Deborah Bender

          I agree on all points.

          I believe some of CoG’s current public information refers to it as a Wiccan organization. One rationale for this is that the way this term is currently understood by the general public includes all the types of witches who belong to CoG, despite the fact that some CoG members do not regard themselves as Wiccan, or wouldn’t be regarded as Wiccan by other members. I would prefer sticking to the original witch terminology, but that water has long since passed under the bridge and out to sea.

          Referring to the bylaws is a good idea, especially for officers of the organization. A lot of work went into drafting and revising them.

  • Covenant of the Goddess is indeed a Wiccan advocacy organization. It was conceived as such and has always been for almost 38 years. “The Covenant of the Goddess is one of the largest and oldest Wiccan religious organizations.” (

    With that said, CoG does support “Wiccans and Witches.” This statement allows for flexibility of tradition and practice. Not all members identify specifically as Wiccan as long as they meet the required membership criteria.

    In addition, the work done by members and local councils often helps or incorporates the greater Pagan community; similar to other larger national Pagan organizations.

    (speaking as NPIO of Covenant of the Goddess)

    • Deborah Bender

      Heather, I’ve been involved with CoG since its founding and you’ve got the cart before the horse on terminology. CoG was not conceived as “a Wiccan advocacy organization” because fewer than half of its original members called themselves Wiccan.

      When CoG was founded in 1975, the words Wicca and Wiccan did not appear in any of CoG’s internal documents or its publicity materials. CoG was founded as an organization of witches and covens who shared compatible codes of ethics and devotion to the Goddess. The Bylaws required applicants to state that they were witches. CoG’s original charter and bylaws use the term Our Religion without explaining what that religion is. Various traditions from Gardnerian to Dianic to Fairy to NROOGD to eclectic gave input to the structure of the organization and were represented among the first thirteen covens to join in 1975. Wiccans in the narrow sense of the word were a significant minority among its original members.

      At that time, people applied the word Wicca to the Gardnerian tradition and its nearest relations. Later the word Wicca began to be applied more broadly both by the general public and among witches themselves. CoG’s bylaws were amended a couple of decades ago to permit applicants to state that they are Wiccan, if they prefer that term to witch. That was the first time that CoG began to use Wicca and Wiccan in any official way.

      CoG also began using the terms Wicca and Wiccan in its self description when interacting with the public, because those words have caught on as the most widely understood label for religious, Goddess-oriented, ethical witchcraft in the interfaith community and among people in places of authority. This happened partly because Wicca has fewer negative connotations than witch for people doing public work, so they began favoring that term. The differences between various traditions are usually not important when representing our religion to the outside world.

      CoG’s orientation has not changed, but the terminology applied to our religion in ordinary English has shifted, and CoG has accommodated to that language shift by using Witch and Wiccan pretty interchangeably in its communications with the public in recent years.

      No one has written a history of CoG and its older documents are not readily available even to CoG members, while many of CoG’s early members have died or moved on, so it is understandable that this information is not widely known to people who joined in recent decades.

  • Peg Aloi

    These days, if you ask a youngish person in a band what kind of music they play, there is a good chance they’ll say something like “Oh, it’s kind of a neo-tribal trance rockabilly wryd folk thing, with African percussion and hurdy-gurdy.” Now, that may be an accurate description of the music, but it’s a tiresome, pretentious and precious way to answer the question. I feel much the same way when discussing pagan pathways and forms of identity. One the one hand, I hate being called a “Wiccan” by some well-meaning person, but I also feel a bit silly saying, “well, actually I’m more of a non-deist shamanic hedgewitch” or whatever…

    In recent years we have seen many attempts across our (wonderfully diverse) community to differentiate our varied paths in picayunish ways, and often this is supported in publishing: think of the trendy bandwagons some of our popular pagan publishers jumped on, a given period would see a glut of books on Celtic ways, then Native American, then Strega, then Voodoo, then some made-up word that isn’t even a bona fide tradition, all in the interest of being in the cutting edge of the next “thing,” or, on another level, showing an engagement with something very few people knew about, that’s how ancient/authentic/powerful/awesome it was!

    I have heard people do this, too; I have had people introduce themselves in ways that were head-scratching (like the guy who said he was a “Moorish Druid” and I had to ask him to explain that). Then again I think people introducing themselves with their titles or their traditions before they are asked, are kind of obnoxious. Sorry, but it does seem as though all these little sub-divisions that are really just Wicca with different trappings (I have NEVER been to any kind of circle or ritual that proclaimed to be something other than Wicca, that did not resemble a Wicca circle on almost every level) are a forced attempt to stand out, to be “more authentic than thou,” and it’s every bit as offensive to me as people who claim to have been “initiated” by their “grandmother” or some other such nonsense.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, while the word “pagan” (I do not capitalize it because to my thinking, it is not a religion, but a descriptive umbrella term) may not be exacting enough to describe what we do/think/believe/identify as, the idea of coming up with something new that somehow works better seems to be to be something that would need to happen in a more organic way. The notion of referring to myself as a “polytheist” is distasteful; it sounds too academic and cold. Calling myself a “witch” (again, lower case) seems to fit, but then of course I risk having the “weirdo” label slapped on me by those who think it’s a whacky way to refer to yourself. But I am well used to that.

    • Cat C-B

      With you on the reasonableness of avoiding preciousness and pretension in our self-labeling. But for what it’s worth, Peg, I’ve been to a number of very non-Wiccan non-Wiccan rituals. *smile*

      Having participated in both Athenian-style Hellenic recon processions and Norse blots, I’m here to testify: there are many profound differences between that and even the most broadly defined versions of Wicca I know. I’ve seen more overlap in some Druid traditions… but less in others, and less still in Celtic reconstructionism (which is so unlike Celtic Wicca it makes my teeth hurt! *laughing*).

      I _do_ capitalize Pagan, though, because I feel that there is, for those of us whose practice is shaped at least as much by our encounters with gods and spirits as by training and initiations, a common spiritual understanding that can flow between us. It may not be a formal religious tradition in the way that scholars like to define them… but still, when we listen carefully to one another, there are some important commonalities out there.

      After all, Hera is still Hera, whether I call upon her as a Hellenic reconstructionist or a Wiccan. What we are taught may be different, but for those of us who recognize a more than theoretical existence of some sort for the spiritual beings we honor, it stands to reason that they will remain constant, even if the assumptions and rites we approach them through vary wildly.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      At 33, I am not that old, but I play Doom-Death. 😀

  • cernowain greenman

    Another label that is in use these days is “Earth-Centered Religions”. This forms another loop with all those faiths that honor the Earth. Over 10 years ago when I first started on this path I was introduced to “Earth-based”, so being “Earth-Centered” is an easy one for me to relate to.

    I am looking forward, Jason, to hearing a recording of your talk at Pantheacon.

    • Except that the implications of “Earth based” and “Earth centred” often is “rural and woodlands centred”. That actively excludes a lot of polytheism reconstructionists, whose religions tend to be urban and household based.

  • Lydia M N Crabtree

    Thank you for bring this up! I have been teaching this history (CAW) and it’s influence upon our current practices for a long time. Most of my students start out thinking I am loosing it and then eventually “get it.” I was fortunate enough to know someone who was involved in the original CAW who taught me witchcraft/Wicca. I utilize the term Wicca for the mere fact that is under Wicca that our religious freedoms are recognized. I am an avid reader and appreciate your hard work! It is soo important to recognize and honor the elders who let us to the place we are today!

  • Genexs

    Groups that suffer (or have suffered) marginalization often change their names periodically. Such groups often feel a degree of uncomfortableness among themselves for many reasons, much of it due to the tensions they feel and experience
    directed against them by the larger society. Over time, as the members in the minority group begin to finally experience justification in their beliefs and lifestyles, and the larger society no longer perceives them as being strange or a threat, tensions of
    what the smaller groups should call themselves (or be called by
    others) begin to dissipate. Racial and religions minorities have
    undergone this time and time again. The thing is, at this point in
    time, “Pagan” and “Wiccan” both seem to be receiving some
    degree of acceptance in the larger society (in the USA). Not only
    that, many many people here seem OK with calling themselves either
    term. This is a major accomplishment. It shows a huge amount of
    growth among ourselves, and something of a sea-change in the larger

  • I say again, if you want to get to the heart of what a religion or other sort of system offering some kind of implicit or explicit ethical system is about, discern what it is that the system holds most dear through the way it shapes the perceptions and behaviour of its adherents. Systems with widely differing objectives can still show close similarities in praxis, and whether or not a practitioner thinks that they are contacting an individualised deity or a general neoplatonic archetype also makes little difference in the end. What does make a difference in the end is the end at which you finally arrive.