I’ve seen some articles posted on the use of the term “Pagan” (several of them here), a debate which was started by this post by Drew Jacob. I’ve thought about the term Pagan a bit since I started reading them. For me, the word “Pagan” works as an umbrella term. Part of the problem I’ve run into with using it, is that while it is useful as an umbrella term, it is woefully inadequate in explaining what the hell we do, are about, or even what our basic tenants of belief are.
I recently had to try to fit my religious identity into what amounted to a 5 minute sound bite so someone could learn a bit about my path. It didn’t work. I found myself having to do a lot more explaining on what I believed around the term “Pagan”. That, along with the articles I’ve been reading, has been pushing me to think about how I relate to the word “Pagan.” Mostly, I use it as a generic descriptor and identifier for the spiritual/religious communities I tend to be associated with. I have a very definitive idea of my iteration of “Paganism”. I use the term Northern Tradition Pagan because it at least gets closer to where my Gods are from and where I derive my practices than just “Pagan”, and I agree with the way Raven Kaldera, from whom I first read of the term, uses it. I use the term shaman, not because I hail from the Tungus or similar tribes, but because it is the closest word my language has for the kind of work I have been called to do.
I see the word Pagan as useful from a community organization standpoint. There are so many disparate groups in Wicca alone that to try to even shuffle “Pagan” to mean “Wiccan” is on-its-face ridiculous. Many Wiccans cannot even agree on what is Wiccan, and some do not recognize others not initiated into their path. Besides, the term Pagan, to me, is an umbrella term whereas I see Wiccan as more descriptive, just as I might Heathen or Hellenoi. It might not detail all the practitioner’s spirituality, but it definitely brings you closer than “Pagan”.
I don’t see paring ourselves down to our practices as a bad thing. I see that there is a lot to learn from those who differentiate themselves with their own titles or descriptors of their spiritual path, even if they claim they are not “Pagan”. I don’t see difference, including hard ones, as a bad thing. I see differences as good things, and differentiating ourselves keeps us from become some homogeneous blob of mixed beliefs that are ill-defined, poorly represented, and worse, innaccurate in their depiction and description of what we actually do in our own communities. I am not a Heathen; I work with Gods that every Heathen organization I have found actively shuns, denigrates, and tends to take the same stance with Their followers. My practices, my spirituality, my relationships with my Gods, are not reflective of Heathen teachings as I understand them, so I don’t use it.
I also don’t expect people who do not see themselves as Pagan to call themselves that, nor do I expect that my using the term for them should have any weight with them. I can say that I count them as a Pagan, but ultimately the acceptance of that label is theirs. To me, honoring them would be respecting their decision, and calling them by what they would be called by. Their rejection of the term Pagan is their business. My rejection of using the term Heathen may quirk eyebrows; perhaps some of my spiritual practice is very similar to those who practice Heathenry. At the end of the day, it is still my decision to use or reject a term.
There are a few issues I have with how “Pagan” has come to automatically mean “earth-based spirituality”, or “reconstructed indigenous European spirituality”. There are so many approaches to the Gods alone within Paganism that there are few hard-and-fast rules about the community. Not all Pagan religions or spiritualities are “earth-based”, nor are all “reconstructed” or even “indigenous European spirituality”. There are several different pantheons from whom people bring themselves, or are brought, to worship, serve, or recognize. Some may not recognize one at all. I do believe that atheists can and do have as much of a right as myself to call themselves Pagan. Again, as I see it, the word “Pagan” being used as anything other than an umbrella term, to me, becomes unwieldy and not descriptive enough to be useful as a description of an individual path.
Let’s unite under the Pagan umbrella, and have a thousand thousand names to describe ourselves with. Let’s unite as a community for our common interests, and appreciate our differences without stifling them. I do not need to believe as another does to work with hir, to benefit from hir experiences, or to share my spirituality with hir. I do see a lot of similarities between myself and Pagans of all stripes, and see the need for a community networking and helping one another to overcome obstacles, celebrate our spiritual lives, and to rally together when times are really tough.