written circa 2000-01 while at the University of Redlands.
Let’s start with the word. Checking out the Webster’s Unabridged Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, the “definition” of pagan just gets better and better. Webster says: “1. one of a people or community professing a polytheistic religion, as the ancient Romans, Greeks, etc. 2. a person who is not a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. 3. an irreligious hedonistic person.” The word pagan however, comes from the Latin paganus, and originally meant peasant–still kind of a slanted view, but a bit closer. I think the most common translation I’ve heard is that it meant people, specifically the common people of a particular area. Who could have been peasants, now that I think about it–Where this becomes irreligious and hedonistic happened sometime in the spread of Christianity through Europe.
Historically speaking, pagan has been synonymous with heathen, right? At least in reading most of the texts I grew up with, and things I learned in Catholic school as a kid. Ready for what Webster says heathens are? “1. an irreligious or unenlightened person. 2. an unconverted individual of a people that do not acknowledge the God of the Bible; one who is neither a Jew, Christian, nor Muslim; pagan. 3. (formerly) any person neither Christian nor Jewish, esp. a member of the Islamic faith or of a polytheistic religion; adj 4. irreligious or unenlightened.” Webster also has a special note at the end of the definition that I’m particularly fond of. He says:
“HEATHEN is often distinctively applied to unenlightened or barbaric idolators, esp. to primitive or ancient tribes; PAGAN, though applied to any of the peoples not worshipping according to the three religions mentioned above, is most frequently used in speaking of the ancient Greeks and Romans”
So, to sum up, while heathen and pagan basically mean the exact same thing, pagan is slightly more respected as a word simply because it is used to refer to the Greeks and the Romans who we’re taught about in school, and therefore, they’re okay. Ever wonder about the Greek and Roman mythology? We’re taught that they believed in all these gods and goddesses and learn their mythology, but it wasn’t a mythology to them. That was their religion. You watch Clash of the Titans and they have these ceremonies dedicated to their gods, but it doesn’t really mean anything to us, because of the pluralism of their deities. Our society is so used to thinking in monotheistic terms that we can’t seem to think outside that box. All the stories of Zeus and Hera and Mount Olympus are all just that, stories. I know, growing up, I never thought that people actually could believe all that.
But I digress.
This kind of leads into paganism. Because some of us are into the idea that there’s not just one omniscient God up there who rules over everything. Some pagans pray to some of those aforementioned Greek and Roman gods (no, they’re not dead), some pray to Hindu gods, some to Allah, some to Egyptian gods (and have you ever wondered why we don’t learn about them in school? Despite the fact that they had a really impressive empire that came before the Greeks, and lasted longer–up until the point in which the historic incest finally started wearing the pharaohs’ gene pools down). Some believe in the Goddess. Some believe there’s a God and a Goddess. Some envision god as the Yin and the Yang, in a kind of two-in-one deal.
But I never actually said what paganism was, did I? Or what it means for me anyway.
Basically, I use paganism as an umbrella term, kind of like Christianity. Because it encompasses lots of diverse beliefs and practices. Wicca is just one form of paganism. And there’s offshoots of that, too, like faerie wicca, or goddess wicca. There are Druids, or people who base their spirituality on Celtic beliefs, Norse beliefs, you name it. There’s a great book you can check out from the library called Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler that’s about 2000 pages long, and talks about the hundreds of different ways that paganism is practiced today in America. I think the Peter Ryan Cult qualifies as a pagan religion. So does the Church of the SubGenius, Dyschordianism, and lots of other fun and exciting things you can find on the internet if you look for weird religions.
For me, pagan means that I can pick and choose my philosophies, and that they’re always changing. I get stuff from Hinduism, Buddhism, the Egyptians, aforementioned Peter Ryan Cult–hell, the Universal Life Church plays some kind of role in my spirituality. I believe that one’s religion is a very personal thing; it works on an individual level. It’s something only we as individuals should have a say in, and it’s something we should choose for ourselves. What works for me might not work for anyone other than me, and that’s fine. I’m not going to push my beliefs on anyone else, and that’s something else we, as pagans, are advocates of; not evangelizing, and letting people choose their own paths, and being okay with that.
So where was I? Oh yeah, I was supposed to be talking about what-paganism-means-to-me. I’m going to make a comparison that might seem kind of ridiculous, but it makes perfect sense to me. To me, religion is kind of like Johnston, and I think it’s part of why I like it here so much. I’m a Johnston student, and in being a Johnston student, I control what I study, and what my emphasis is going to be. I know that when I graduate I’m going to get a piece of paper that, in very loose terms, sums up what I studied here, and I know that that piece of paper will never look like any other piece of paper that any other Johnston student leaves here with. I get to grab things from all over the place. Johnston emphasizes “depth and breadth”; depth in your primary emphasis (or emphases), and breadth in other fields of study. I couldn’t have the religious philosophies that I do without first learning about other religions (I was born Jewish and raised Roman Catholic for most of my childhood). I couldn’t have had these ideas without exploring what did and didn’t work. And I’m a firm believer that religion should be active, and it should be something that means and represents some deep, inherent ideals that each of us hold.