Was Paganism Left Out of the New AP Stylebook Religion Chapter?

Heather Greene —  June 15, 2014 — 31 Comments

In May 2014 The Associated Press (AP) published the latest version of the AP Stylebook – the go-to writing guide for journalists and editors. The updated edition includes a new religion chapter, which, as AP describes,”pulls in some existing terms from the Stylebook’s A – Z entries and adds many new ones, covering the world’s major denominations.” In its announcement, AP expressed an interest in reflecting America’s “changing religious landscape” by including minority faiths.

For “Godbeat” or religion-based journalism, this is big news – more style standards in more detail for more religions. What were the changes and additions? And, more importantly, how will they affect mainstream news reports on stories involving Pagans and Heathens? Will “Pagan” and “Paganism” finally be capitalized?

If you are not a writer, you may ask, “Why should I care?” The AP Stylebook does not affect you directly. However, it does affect you indirectly. The guide is used by journalists and editors all over the country as a writer’s “bible,” if you will. While the AP Stylebook is not the only guide of its kind, it is one of the front-runners that establishes a style standard for journalism that is dependable and regular.

The guide, for example, solves those ever-frustrating grammatical debates over commas and semi-colons. It recommends date and time abbreviations, fixes transition words, and clarifies what should be or should not be capitalized. All of its suggested rules and information are absorbed into the articles published in American newspapers and magazines since the 1950s.

Within the “Godbeat” journalism world, the word “Pagan,” when referring to modern religious practice, is rarely capitalized. In October 2013, Oberon Zell reached the tipping point on this issue after seeing the word “paganism” in a CNN Religion Blog news article entitled, “For Some Wiccans Halloween is a Real Witch.” As noted in Circle Magazine, Oberon said, “The issue has annoyed me for decades, and I have tried to launch this campaign numerous times over the years.” When he questioned the CNN journalist, Oberon was told to “contact AP and Webster.” (Circle Magazine, Issue 116, February 2014)*

So Oberon did just that. In November, he launched a campaign to change journalism standards. With the help of friends and colleagues, he formed the Coalition to Capitalize Pagan. The group, then, drafted a letter to the editors of the AP Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style and Religion Newswriter’s Association Style Guide. After the Coalition finalized the letter, 61 Pagan writers, teachers, scholars and authors signed it. Those signatories included recognizable names like Raymond Buckland, Vivianne Crowley, Starhawk, Margot Adler, Patrick McCollum and Selena Fox.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  @Doug88888

[Photo Credit: Doug88888/Flickr]

The letter was mailed in January but received little to no acknowledgement from the organizations. The University of Chicago Press responded with the following: “Thank You for your message. I am forwarding it to the reference department, which oversees the revision of The Chicago Manual of Style.”

During that process, the Coalition also decided to turn to the public for help. It launched a change.org petition that eventually garnered over 450 signatures from people around the world. In February, Circle Magazine published the article entitled “Quest to Capitalize Pagan” including a call-to-action that read:

If we cannot offer linguistic respect to our own labels, how can we continue our quest to demand that respect from outsiders? Circle Magazine asks that you consider making this simple personal change in your daily work. Be part of the quest by always capitalizing Pagan and Paganism.

Oberon eventually purchased his own copy of the 2013 AP Stylebook only to discover a bigger problem. The guide makes no reference to the word Pagan at all. He said:

I am completely mystified … For the past 45 years I have been giving interviews on Paganism to newspaper journalists, always emphasizing that “Pagan” and “Paganism” are the proper names for our religion, and should thus be capitalized in that context. The interviewing reporters always understand this, and agree. But every single time, when the story appears in the paper, “pagan” and “paganism” are printed in lowercase. When we have gotten back to the reporters who did the interview, they are always apologetic, and they tell us that the copy editors changed the capitalization, “because that’s what the AP Stylebook said.”

Since that time, the AP Stylebook has been updated with a new chapter meant to reflect the modern religious experience. Did Oberon’s quest have any effect?  Did the word “Pagan” make the cut?

The answer is no.

The 2014 AP Stylebook does indeed have an expansive in-depth chapter on religion which includes definitions and details on a variety of minority religion terminology such as Brahmin (Hindu) or gurdwara (Sikh). The guide includes short informational entries on Baha’i, Buddhism and other non-Abrahamic faiths as well as minority sects of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It says that Christmastime is one word and suggests using Hanukkah as the standard spelling for the Jewish holiday. However, it says nothing about “Paganism.”

In fact the updated religion chapter makes no mention at all of modern Pagan or Heathen religions. It does not include Druidry or Druidism, Wicca or Asatru. With the exception of Yule, it does not recognize the names of Pagan sabbats or other important festivals and holy days. The word “pagan” only appears once in a recommendation to capitalize the names of mythological gods and goddesses such as Zeus, Athena and Poseidon.

When asked if the inclusion of modern Paganism had been considered for the chapter, the editors responded immediately saying that the Stylebook uses the dictionary for such groups. So what does Webster say? The online version includes a definition for Neo-Pagan and Neo-Paganism both of which use a capital letter. The same dictionary, however, does not include an individual entry for the term “Pagan” with capitalization. The two “pagan” entries define the term as those people who are anti-religious or polytheists from ancient Greek or Rome. Webster does include an entry for Wicca but no other practice.

Merriam-Webster-logoBut that is only Webster. Other dictionaries have different entries with varying suggestions on capitalization and meaning.  Adding to the confusion is the free Religion Newswriter’s Association Stylebook, which does include references to modern Paganism including associated terminology and practices. However, across the board, the editors do not capitalize the word “Pagan.”

Due to the general lack of clarity and style specification, news editors and journalists are left to their own devices when writing about Pagan and Heathen religions. The editor must decide on which book, entry or guide to rely on for his or her media outlet. The issue facing the Coalition and the quest for consistent representation of Paganism in the media is far more complicated than originally thought.

On June 24 at 2:30pm, AP religion writer Rachel Zoll, who assisted Stylebook editors in creating the new AP Stylebook chapter, will be hosting a Twitter chat to discuss the changes to the guide, the inclusions and exclusions, and about religion journalism in general. Go to Twitter and follow the #APStyleChat hashtag to hear what she has to say.


* Editorial Note: I wrote the original Circle Magazine article published in February and personally interviewed Oberon Zell about his work on this subject. That article and every one of my Wild Hunt articles uses the AP Stylebook. I have also developed my own style guidelines on usage and capitalization of religion-specific terms which are all based on my growing knowledge of Pagan and Heathen practices rather than on any given book or guide. That standard is and will continued to be applied here at The Wild Hunt. However I do look forward to a day when my AP Style Guard application forces me to capitalize ‘Pagan’ and tells me what it means in modern terms. 



Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Joseph

    In fairness, 450 signatures on a petition is minuscule. I don’t blame them for not being moved by such a weak show of support for the idea.

    • kenofken

      How many signatures did they require for the Baha’is and Sikhs?

      • Joseph

        I’m going to guess that when the Guide was first published, there were already millions of adherents of both of those faiths, and their position as established religions worthy of proper names was already generally acknowledged.

        Too, they do not have a name for their religion which also doubles as a regular adjective in the English language. (I daresay that there are many folks even within “the Pagan community” who don’t use the term “Pagan” as a proper name for their faith.) It’s not nearly as cut-and-dried as many make it out to be.

  • Feedthemtolions

    How is it in fairness that a religion that is older than christianity is not even mentioned?

    • terryinindy

      Because it’s NOT older than Christianity. Paganism and Pagan are not religions, they are religious classifications. Some are quite probably well older than Christianity, many more are not. This article is correct as far as it goes but the usage of the word Pagan and Paganism in all reality isn’t being used correctly and this i feel quite strongly is part of the reason.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        “Abrahamic” is a religious classification and it gets capped.

        • Folcwald

          It’s named after a guy. Abraham is a proper noun.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            OK, Buddhist then. And it’s not after a given name; Buddha is an honorific. (So, for that matter, is Christ.)

        • terryinindy

          it’ll be on my things to worry about when they actually decide to change Our nomenclature to the proper form.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            It’s not on my top five Pagan issues, but it is on my top ten, and is also the subject of the post.

    • kenofken

      The MSM doesn’t want to engage us as real religion. They want us as characters for the Freak of the Week feature on Halloween.

  • Terraluna

    Why would anyone follow writing advice from the author of this sentence: “I am forwarding it to the reference department, which over seas the
    revision of The Chicago Manual of Style.” ?

    • Thanks the comment. That word error was actually an MS Word auto-correction that I did not catch when posting. To be certain, I verified with my original text and compared to my interview. Oberon quoted Univ. of Chicago Press as using the word: “oversees.” I have fixed it in the article.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        Concerning another typo:

        I do look forward to a day when my AP Style Guard application forces me to capitalize ‘Pagan’

        I’m guessing you mean Guide. :p

        • Thanks for asking. No, I did mean Style Guard. This is the name of the AP Stylebook application for word processors. It operates like the MS Word’s own correction modules but adheres to APs style guidelines. It was just updated as well with all the new additions.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Fair. I’d not heard of that before.

      • Terraluna

        Oh, good. I’m glad it was a machine that did that and not a person who is involved in instructing others how to write.

        I turn off auto-correct on every program I use. It creates more errors than it fixes.

        • Charles Cosimano

          So do I and grammar and style check as well. No damned machine is going to tell me how to write.

          • Deborah Bender

            I like auto pointing out. Even when editing for print publication, my experience is that nitpickers with excellent skills in formal written English can miss a few typos. An extra eye that isn’t mentally filling in the gaps can catch cut-and-paste mistakes.

            Auto-correcting, certainly not. Not only is machine intelligence not up to the job, but I’m a better writer than most of the people who wrote the machine’s program, or so I’d like to think.

  • TPW

    I think it would be helpful if you would share your personal style guide on religion. Myself and other journalists would surely welcome any sort of guide, and once more of us start using it, we may get AP to change from the ground up. Groundswell and grassroots work well with Earth-centered religions.

    • Deborah Bender

      I agree with you. Establishing conventions within our community would create a de facto standard which we could point out to outsiders, and that would be helpful. This is already starting to happen. Members of our community who don’t follow the conventions should not be browbeaten, merely offered suggestions. I rarely capitalize witch and would not take kindly to being told that I must.

      Speaking of style, myself is a reflexive pronoun which should not be used as a genteel substitute for the other first person singular pronouns. I asked myself how I would edit your second sentence, and my reply was that it should begin, “Other journalists and I would surely welcome . . .”

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Whatever definition(s) they put in, there would almost certainly be someone complaining.

    • ChristopherBlackwell

      But not mention religios that have been practiced in the United States for decades seems more than a bit weird. They used to mention pagan with the small p. Now it is just not mentioned at all. Curious.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        It absolves them of responsibility. Quite sensible, really. By removing it entirely, any controversial usage is down to the journalist/editor, not the Stylebook.

        Paganism has resisted a concise, meaningful and positive definition for quite some time now, would you want to be in their position of writing one?

        Especially when you still have many people using the term (and similar ones) as a slur?

        I cannot help but think of a recent controversy in Northern Ireland concerning the word “heathen”:


        You may notice how there was no mention of an apology to Heathens…

  • Creedism isn’t in official dictionaries either.

  • Exposure to the arts, sciences, other lifestyles, gender equality and other religions that exist outside proscribed boundaries of reality can break the spell that the religisized political right has over this country. The more the political right becomes theocratic and entwined with big business, and mainstream journalism is big business, the more entries in the AP Stylebook might limit entries on Paganism and the less likely the word creedism will finally be included in official dictionaries. Even so, they only have so much control so things like gay marriage rights do start breaking through. And the TV show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. On the Fox channel no less.

    • Deborah Bender

      Perhaps you mean prescribed, not proscribed.

      • Sorry…prescribed. I have a toddler running around and sometimes even trying to climb on me while I try to type and I often don’t get enough sleep. The toddler part is much more fun. Anyway, thanks for the correction.

  • Charles Cosimano

    No real writer even owns a style manual.

    • Really? If you write (non-fiction) for journals, newspapers, and scientific papers, you are very likely to have one. There may be online versions, but a backup hardcopy is strongly suggested.

      In 1989, I was trying to edit-to-galley-proof a selection of papers for a multi-disciplinary conference, three years after the conference. I spoke to the publisher’s line editor when I discovered that American Institute of Physics had several contradictory styles, and because the conference organizers apparently didn’t know that, and thus hadn’t specified WHICH of those styles to stick to, compliance was impossible. I asked which of the sub-styles I should use, and she said, Just pick one, and force compliance (through editing) to that one throughout the papers.

      What seems to be happening is a blind reliance on a source that is imperfect for the job, and no single “standard” everyone looks to.


  • Wolfsbane

    Here’s a suggestion. Every state in the union has a human rights commission of some sort. Every time a paper fails to capitalize the word Pagan make a discrimination complaint against them.