Home > Religion, Spiritual Experience, Spirituality, Standards and Terms in Paganism > Defining Terms and Setting Boundaries

Defining Terms and Setting Boundaries

In reading a good deal of blog posts I am in agreement that part of the core problem of communication between different Pagan traditions and religions is that there is a sloppy use of words.  To help with this I first list the dictionary definition from the online Oxford English Dictionary as a starting point for discussion.  Then I will dig into the words and what they mean from my perspective if I have any perspective to add.  From there, I’ll go into where I see boundary lines in Paganism, and ask questions I find there.

Polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than one god.

This is pretty straightforward.  Each polytheist relates to the many Gods in a number of ways, some as son or daughter, some as servant, some as a worshiper, or a combination of these or something beyond this simple breakdown.

Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one God.

Atheism: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

Agnosticism: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

Henotheism: adherence to one particular god out of several, especially by a family, tribe, or other group.

This is a term I came across during my Religious Studies core courses, and it came up again in a Hinduism course.  It is a term rooted in polytheism in that it recognizes many Gods and worships only one.  Some bhakti worshipers are henotheists, and some Pagans devoted to one God are henotheist.  For instance, a Lokian may be a henotheist in that they believe in many Gods as Beings unto Themselves but only worship Loki.

Pantheism: a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.

Panentheism: the belief or doctrine that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.

Monism: a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in a particular sphere, such as that between matter and mind, or God and the world.  The doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

Monism started off as a philosophical term and used in philosophy by Christian von Wolff which purported there is a unity to all thing, lacking a mind/body divide.  Religiously speaking the term monism has been used to mean that there is no divide between ourselves and God/the Gods.  So a person who believes we ‘are all part of the body of God’ or ‘we are all part of the Goddess’ is a monist.

Humanism: a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Naturalistic: the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.

Rationalism: the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.

Archetype Psychoanalysis (in Jungian theory) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.

Pagan: a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.

Neopagan: a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or ritual practices from traditions outside the main world religions, especially those of pre-Christian Europe and North America.

Most of these definitions are fairly straightforward.  A polytheist is one who believes in and may worship one or more Gods.  A monotheist is one who believes there is a single God.  Henotheists believe in many Gods and worship just one of Them.

When I see these terms in this context it boggles my mind how archetypes are supposed to work in Paganism.  Archetypes are essential symbol sets we are supposed to have inherited from the Collective Unconscious.  While they may be full of meaning they are, boiled down, symbols, not Gods.  They are reflection of psyche rather than inputs from the Gods Themselves.  That said, I do not understand how one builds a religion around the notion of archetypes.  It is one thing to recognize something as archetypal, i.e. a fertility symbol being strewn out across many cultures and recognized by each culture as a fertility symbol.  It is quite another to boil a God, Goddess, or other Being down to an archetype, i.e. Odin is a Warrior, Loki is a Trickster.  While it may be true that Odin is a Warrior and Loki is a Trickster, that is not all they are.  Odin has up to 300 heiti.  How could one archetype possibly encompass all He is with so many heiti?  What does an archetypal Pagan cosmology look like?  How does it function?  What does it teach about the relationship one has with the world?  It would seem to me to be very hard to build a religion out of archetypalism, as it first stems from psychology and not religion, and its insights are geared toward the psychological rather than the religious.  That is not to say the two may not learn from one another, but describing deities, spirits, and people in merely archetypal terms belies the whole Being behind such categorizing.  It does not delve into the why of a God, or even into details, but what the God as a whole might represent to a person, i.e. Odin as a Warrior God or Dead-and-Risen God.  In viewing Gods through such archetypal lenses, while it may be useful to bridge a viewpoint or gain insight, it does disservice to the God or Goddess as a whole as it boils their Being down to this single facet.   It would be like someone boiling my whole identity down to a Psychology major or just my job title.

Where does atheism take its place in Paganism?  Do they hold religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions?  Well, considering all the followers of the major world religions, with the exception of Buddhists, believes in some sort of God, then the answer is yes in a basic sense.  But do atheists hold religious belief?  The hallmark of atheism is that, as the above definition shows, there is disbelief or lack of belief.  That is, that there is no belief in the Gods.  An affirmative belief from an atheist would then be “There are no Gods.”  What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.?  What kind of religious foundation can be placed here, in unbelief?  Again, I do not understand how one can be an atheist and a Pagan from these definitions and the understandings I have of Pagan and atheist.  If an atheist does not believe in the Gods, how does one have a cosmology?  If one does have a cosmology, how is it Pagan?  

Monism purports that there is no separation between the physical and spiritual.  One can take that to mean in the materialistic sense, that all things are part of the physical world, or in the more pro-spiritual sense, that physical reality and spiritual reality are on in the same.  Either way, the physical is it, all there is, encompassing all of reality.  How does this work within Pagan religion?  I do not see how a philosophy that would deny something as fundamental to Pagan religion as the Otherworld, the Summerlands, Helheim, etc. would effectively fit Paganism at all.  If the physical world is all there is, there is no Asgard, and Asgard’s usefulness from the view of cosmology is completely limited to symbolism or abstraction.  Accordingly, so is all that is told of the place to us from myth, legend, experience, etc.

I have many of the same questions for humanism, naturalism, and rationalism as I do for atheism as it relates to Paganism.  How do any of these engage Paganism within its own bounds rather than imposing its own philosophy on Paganism?  How does humanism, naturalism, or rationalism fit into any Pagan belief structures, many of which are deity-centric?  How does, as the Humanistic Paganism blog states “we carry on a long tradition going back to ancient times” if it actually denies the central tenets of many of those traditions?

I am a polytheist, and there is a great deal of unpacking that so simple a label now asks us to do.  Am I a ‘soft polytheist’?  Am I a ‘hard’ polytheist?  This seeming dichotomy is actually what I view as an improper use of language.  If you believe that everything is part of a single God in the end you are a monist,  pantheist, or a panentheist (depending on the particulars of your belief(s)), not a polytheist, no matter how many permutations of ‘God’ you feel and/or believe there are.

During the last few months I have read a great deal of posts and responses, and there is a pretty consistent question that comes up: why should we be so discerning or heavy handed in dissecting what Paganism means?  I won’t speak on anyone else’s behalf, but share my own answers.

First, the boundaries of my religion are sacred to me.  There are ways to properly believe and engage in my path.  There is such a thing as a blasphemy within polytheist Paganism, and every time I see the Gods called ‘nothing more than archetypes’ or the ancient traditions used as a medium for what I consider to be vacuous religion and/or spirituality, I see blasphemy being committed.  Can the Gods punish blasphemers?  Certainly, if They care to.  That said, as a member of the Pagan community it is also on me to say ‘this is not acceptable within my religion’.  If I am silent in the face of blasphemy I am giving it my tacit acceptance.

Second, the sloppy use or intentional misuse of language is often a way of erasure for minority paths in Paganism.  Statements such as ‘all Pagans believe’ are, like most blanket statements, incorrect.  Far too often have I heard this, whether from fellow Pagans, academics, or any number of well-meaning souls who are trying to speak on my behalf.  I may not agree with Atheistic Paganism, Humanistic Paganism, but I will not speak on their behalf.  The perspective I speak of is my own, from my own tradition and in my own voice. I recognize there will be polytheists who are just fine with Atheist Pagans, Humanist Pagans, and accept them as Pagan as they are.  Given my beliefs on the Gods I cannot do this.  I may not agree with you, and I will do my best to avoid characterizing you and your words wrong, but I will not speak for you.  

Third, I like my words to have concrete meaning.  Atheist Pagan, as with Humanist Pagan, leaves me with too many questions that are unanswered.  It, as a religious path from within Paganism, makes little sense to me, even on a baseline reading of the words without digging into the theology, or lack thereof.  If one does not believe in the Gods, and/or has a lack of belief in religion and/or spirituality it makes no sense to me to claim to be, in any way, shape, or form religious and/or to claim a religious title.  Archetypal Paganism leaves me with as many question, maybe more; are you worshiping images from the Collective Unconscious?  Are the Gods nothing more than thought/image symbols?  Is such a thing worthy of worship, or worth your time to worship?  If you are not worshiping, what is it one does with an archetype, religiously or spiritually speaking?

Fourth, I believe that having a better Pan-Pagan community means that we will run up against one another’s boundaries, and rather than pretend they are not there, I would rather acknowledge them.  You might hold the opinion that because I am opposed to including Humanist Pagans, Atheist Pagans and others in the Pagan community, that I am close-minded or a bigot.  Granted, you are entitled to your opinion.  This is not some decision I made overnight.  I’ve bandied this about back and forth for a significant amount of time both in my own head and with others.  I’ve thought on this a lot, prayed on it, and spent some time sussing out how I feel, and how best to talk about this subject.  You do not have to respect my opinion, or even my beliefs on this matter.  Acceptance, for me, does not change how I feel, or what my beliefs are in this.  I will respect your right to an opinion even if I cannot bring myself to respect the opinion itself.  In this, I am treating you no different than Christian friends or family, who feel much the same way toward me.

I know that, given the demographics, and overall feeling that is in the Pan-Pagan community the kind of boundary setting and exclusion I am speaking of will probably not happen.  There are too many people who accept Atheist Pagans, Humanistic Pagans, and so on as part of the community.  That is, after all, their right.  It is also mine as a polytheist Pagan to speak up and out against it, and against the marginalization of our voices in Pagan circles when and where it happens.  May the Gods be hailed, the Ancestors praised, and the spirits honored.

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  1. Betty Prat
    June 18, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Well said and written!!!!!

  2. June 18, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    About the archetype thing – I’ve wondered sometimes if what happens with -some- people (not all of them, certainly) is that the way the deities have presented Themselves is not at the “more human-like” level but at a higher level of Themselves, something more abstract, and people don’t have the right terminology to discuss that way of understanding deities, so they use the word “archetype” to attempt to describe it. Or if their experiences with deities have been – not quite sure how to put this – vague enough? that they can’t easily put a specific identity to Whoever it was, other than “Death” or “Love” or something that really doesn’t come across as an Individual.

    • June 18, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      I think that it is possible to have a numinous experience and lack the wording or ability to process the experience into words. Yet, this is why I push that cosmology is deeply important: it provides frames of reference, language for understanding the experiences one engages in, and provides a means for meaning that is not found otherwise. Lacking a cosmology one lacks the ability to put one’s experience into proper context, identity, and so on.

  3. June 18, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    >How does, as the Humanistic Paganism blog states “we carry on a long tradition going back to ancient times” if it actually denies the central tenets of many of those traditions?

    Good question. For a (very) introductory answer, see my article “Naturalistic Traditions: Exploring the Roots of Historical Paganism” at Patheos. It’s the introductory post of a much longer and more in-depth series that is coming out monthly.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2013/02/naturalistic-traditions-exploring-the-historical-roots-of-naturalistic-paganism/

    >It is one thing to recognize something as archetypal, i.e. a fertility symbol being strewn out across many cultures and recognized by each culture as a fertility symbol. It is quite another to boil a God, Goddess, or other Being down to an archetype, i.e. Odin is a Warrior, Loki is a Trickster.

    Another good point. I don’t think that’s what most Archetypal Pagans are doing, or if they are then it doesn’t do much justice to Jung. Jungian Pagan John Halstead has grappled with this same issue:
    http://humanisticpaganism.com/2011/09/18/the-archetypes-are-gods-re-godding-the-archetypes-by-john-h-halstead/

    • June 18, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      I will keep watching the first link’s column for more information, but I am not convinced yet that it is addressing my core question.

      Unfortunately, in regards to archetypalism, what I have written about in regards to it is what I have found. I appreciate the links, and I have read them, but I still feel my questions are yet to be addressed or are needing to be dug into deeper. I hope as time goes on they will be.

      • June 29, 2013 at 11:54 am

        >I will keep watching the first link’s column for more information, but I am not convinced yet that it is addressing my core question

        I’m currently working on more upcoming articles for the series. What specifically is the core question you’d like to see addressed?

      • June 29, 2013 at 12:12 pm

        My core question should have read ‘core questions’, my apologies.

        What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.? How/why would one claim the word Pagan?

        What kind of religious foundation can be placed here, in unbelief? Again, I do not understand how one can be an atheist and a Pagan from these definitions and the understandings I have of Pagan and atheist. If an atheist does not believe in the Gods, how does one have a cosmology? If one does have a cosmology, how is it Pagan? If one has a God-less cosmology is there any place for spirits? If so, how?

      • June 29, 2013 at 1:27 pm

        >What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.? How/why would one claim the word Pagan? What kind of religious foundation can be placed here, in unbelief? Again, I do not understand how one can be an atheist and a Pagan from these definitions and the understandings I have of Pagan and atheist. If an atheist does not believe in the Gods, how does one have a cosmology? If one does have a cosmology, how is it Pagan? If one has a God-less cosmology is there any place for spirits? If so, how?

        I see. Those sorts of questions are probably better addressed by looking into the different conceptions of religion and cosmology put forth not only by Naturalistic Pagans but also by Religious Naturalists, Spiritual Naturalists, Humanistic Judaism, Secular Buddhism, and a variety of other such traditions. I suspect the disconnect arises from differences in defining religion and what is considered essential to it.

        Thanks for sharing your core questions. 🙂

      • June 29, 2013 at 1:36 pm

        Thank you for reading them. In talking/writing with others I got the feeling that there is a kind of Buddhist-like bend to the thoughts here, as well as others you mentioned. I am curious how this works within the context of Paganism without relying on other religious resources, so I am curious to see how the column comes about.

  4. June 19, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I’ve done my best to respond to your definitions and questions. I don’t necessarily agree with the rigidity of your boundaries, but perhaps as a Lokian that is my job. 🙂 http://solinoxenterprises.com/2013/06/19/definitions-and-my-beliefs/

    • June 19, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      Thank you. This has given me a great deal to think about, and it has brought up something that I have to encounter again and again as a priest of Odin and Anubis, namely the creation myths and how they fit together, if they do, and in what ways.

      I appreciate that boundary-crossing and examination; it is as much needed as boundaries are.

  5. thelettuceman
    June 19, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Excellent article, thank you.

    I think a lot of this would be avoided if the majority of people clinging to the terminology of Pagan would be a bit more open minded in respects to education. I’ve run into far too many people who flatly do not want to educate themselves. Misinformation and misuse of terminology is one of the biggest issues in the modern community, I feel. Mankey once said that Pagans were “People of the Library” (as opposed to “People of the Book”), but for being such a well-read grouping of religions, a lot of people really don’t look past that initial perusal.

    In my experience, most atheists aren’t atheists in the true sense, but anti-theists on some sort of agenda or crusade against the concept of a higher spiritualism or religion. They’re the other side of the coin of dogmatism. I have dealt with entirely too many of this type, and the few self-identified atheists that I’ve met that I can get along with like to point out that they’re not a part of the larger atheist movement for many of those same reasons. Again, in my experience. I’m not painting everyone with the same brush strokes.

    I’m edging closer to an interpretation of the term “Pagan” that I’m not entirely comfortable with saying yet, mostly because I am under-equipped to defend it. I have a lot more thinking to do, and it seems, very little actual drive to sit down and do it. It’s irritating to say the least.

  6. kiya_nicoll
    June 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    What does it mean if one carries on the word Pagan, but does not believe in the Gods, Ancestors, or spirits that one may go through the motions of worshiping, hailing, venerating, etc.?

    It struck me, reading this, that there is a leap here, a rather massive one, equating “atheism” with “does not believe in the the gods, ancestors, or spirits”. (Personally, I would find someone who does not believe in the ancestors to be … confused about biology, not about religion.)

    I’ve known a few atheistic and nontheistic pagans over the years, and pretty much all of them fall into that vast gap: people who deal with spirits rather than gods, people who approach the cosmos as an animate system, people who consider mythology a guide to understanding the sacred without feeling a need to speculate about whether or not the beings thus described are “real” given that the stories are themselves true statements about the cosmos, and so on.

    Most of the atheists I know don’t consider atheism or nontheism to be terribly important about them. (Unlike the New Atheist crowd.) Someone else blowing that up into an essential feature of their religious practices (or lack of religious practices for that matter) can come across a bit as missing the point; it looks a bit like someone responding to a dislike for brassicas with “You can’t make a cuisine out of not eating broccoli!”

    Here is a thing that has defined my non-participation in this discussion, and my desire to comment on this particular thing right now: the more I do the work of the gods, the more the gods tell me to stop focusing on the gods. Sometimes that is “go heal your ancestors”, sometimes that is “deal with the spirits of your place”, and sometimes that is “clean your fucking room already, child”. My god-related practices are increasingly paradoxical in that way. The more I am compelled to do honor to the gods, the more I am required to not talk about the gods. I cannot treat “deity-centred” as essential to paganism, because that is a form of practice that the gods have forbidden me.

    • September 12, 2013 at 10:33 pm

      In thinking about your post it has come to my attention that it is delightfully paradoxical, but still deity-centered in its focus. After all, the Gods, from what I am gathering from your post, directly telling you to go do things that do not have much, in your view, to do with Them. I think this speaks to the multiplicities of paths our Gods can put us onto, though it is not one I’ve heard of. In the end, if you’re doing the work the Gods have asked you to do, even if it is not focused on Them, you’re still deity-focused in my view.

      The majority of atheists I have run into are often of the New Atheist stripe. I have rarely seen, let alone met an atheist who would entertain an idea like a God, Goddess, Ancestor, and/or spirit as a Being unto Themselves. My experience, from reading here, seems to be utterly different to yours.

  7. June 25, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Something that has always struck me as interesting, since we are on the topic of word use and terminology, is how often “pagan community” is thrown around. First off, I don’t find the word “pagan” to be of very much use, even as an umbrella term. There is no set of characteristics or traits that I have seen that can be universally considered pagan, aside from the non-adherence to main religions. . My question is this, is it even accurate to talk of a pagan community in the singular?

    I think it is more accurate to think of them as pagan communities, allowing for the grand diversity and often local, small-group nature of spiritual groups. Honestly, from my experience with various groups, I can’t seem to get ten people to agree, much less the countless numbers that may fall under the “pagan” umbrella.

    You could say, that a Heathen, a Wiccan and a Druid walk into a bar, and none of them can agree on what to order! Ok, the jokes sucks, but the point being that even those that claim same traditions cannot always agree on fundamental points. If this post serves to illustrate anything, it is that there is a huge diversity of fundamental philosophies out there. I think it is erroneous to consider a singular community, as it is a plurality, a great multitude, of unique and diverse communities.

    • June 25, 2013 at 10:58 pm

      That is a totally valid question. I go back and forth on whether to use Pagan community or Pagan communities, given all the points you have raised here. Pagan communities seems to be more accurate and honest, given the deep divides and theological differences between a great many Pagan traditions.

  8. July 11, 2014 at 6:26 pm

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  1. June 19, 2013 at 1:09 pm

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