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Author Topic: Special Topic: Why We're Touchy About Defining Paganism  (Read 40360 times)
catja6
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« Topic Start: April 10, 2007, 02:28:28 pm »

A brand-new Special Topics discussion!

Over the years at TC, we have had innumerable discussions about "what Paganism means," and have evolved a definition that seems, to most of us here, to be a reasonable stab at this complicated topic.  Star, a longtime TC member, moderator, and all-round good egg, is here to lay out the reasoning behind TC's definition, and to delineate some of the controversies this has caused in the past; Star is dedicated to making new folks feel welcome here, and we at TC feel that explaining the history of our discussions -- and arguments! -- on this topic will be extremely useful for all. 

This discussion will be conducted in accordance with the stricter rules of this folder, which can be found here:   

http://www.ecauldron.net/forum/index.php?topic=57.0

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« Reply #1: April 10, 2007, 02:31:14 pm »

"A Pagan religion is a religion that is not Jewish, Christian, or Islamic and self-identifies as Pagan."

This is the standard definition of Paganism put forth by The Cauldron, as stated in our Pagan Primer.  It's amazing how much controversy has sprung up on the forum, both over this one little sentence and around the act of trying to come up with a definition at all, over the years.  Newcomers to the forum often stumble into it unawares, either by bringing up issues with our standard definition or by stating the definitions they use, which often don't coincide with the one listed above.  They may not even touch the definition issue itself directly, but instead make an incorrect assumption about what Pagans are or do based on their current knowledge of Paganism, and find themselves the recipient of a hostile response they do not understand the reason for.  Even people who have been here for some time may not grasp the driving forces behind these reactions.  It is my hope, in this article, to give some insight into the history of this issue on the Cauldron.  I hope that this will make the general reaction to it more comprehensible.

There is, to begin with, a general history of people in various venues attempting to describe Paganism as "earth-based" or "earth-centered".  Generally, this means that the Earth is held sacred by Pagans or is central to Pagan religion in some way, and/or that the religion's festival dates are determined by the cycle of the seasons.  This is an ongoing problem for many posters at The Cauldron because this is not an accurate way to describe their religions.  While the Earth and the seasons may play a significant role in many of the Wicca-based religions that dominate Paganism in the public eye today, there are also many faiths in which they hold no significance at all.  In some religions, there are harvest festivals and the like which may seem tied to the seasons and thus might appear to qualify them as "earth-based", but often they are only a few festivals among many.  There are earthy deities, but generally they have other spheres of influence as well and again are in the minority.  A few earth-centric qualities does not an earth-centric religion make.

I speak of the "earth-based" problem here because it's a handy example.  It is certainly not the only point of controversy, just one of the most prominent ones.  However, any time a more specific definition than our standard one is brought up, the result tends to be the same.  There is always at least one person on the forum, and usually more, whose religion doesn't fall under the definition given.  They see yet another person in a long line of people trying to tell them (as they see it) that they don't count, that they don't know what their religion "really" is, or that they have no right to use a term they feel describes them.  Tired of being told these things, the "excluded" poster responds in frustration and probably with some anger or sarcasm.  The proposed definition never does quite work out, and everyone involved is left with raw nerves from the incident.

An interesting thing to note is that although we currently focus on who is being excluded by a definition, that was not necessarily how things started out.  Earlier in the history of this issue, more specific definitions such as those including the term "earth-based" (or similar) were not always seen as exclusionary.  Rather, the assumption--apparently on both sides of the argument--was sometimes that everyone involved had the same right to the term, and everyone was included under the proposed definition.  Thus, terms such as "earth-based" were not seen as exclusionary in these cases, but rather as attempts to define people's religion for them.  When a definition was brought forth that said Pagans were earth-based, it was seen as an attempt to tell people using the label "Pagan" that they really were earth-based whether they thought they were or not.  If you have ever been told by a fundie that as a Pagan you "really" worship the devil even though you yourself know you don't, you can probably sympathize with the frustration people felt over this.  In some ways it was even more upsetting than simply being excluded, because it wasn't just telling a person they didn't belong; it was telling them they didn't know the reality of their own religion.  When discussing definitions of Paganism on The Cauldron, this is something that is very important to keep in mind.  For those of us who remember these older discussions, this is part of the history of the issue and something that will color our responses to any new messages on the subject.

As hard as it might be to believe, that's the short version.  To really understand the history of this issue at The Cauldron, though, you probably need to go back to March 2002, when we had a run-in with an American political group called the Pagan Unity Campaign (PUC).  If you have a few hours to sit around and read archives, there are two threads on our old Delphi board you might want to check out:
Pagan Unity Campaign
New Definition of Paganism
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« Reply #2: April 10, 2007, 02:36:53 pm »

One final addendum:  I was going to try to summarize the two threads linked to in the post above, to give people a quicker idea of what they added.  However, they are both long (400+ posts) and complex threads with many side issues that all kind of tangle together, so summarizing them coherently is difficult and summarizing them concisely is downright impossible.  In addition, when I tried, I found that in summarizing I was losing the emotional overtones of the entire thing which were, really, what made these threads significant examples of how frustrating the issue can be.

So in the end, I decided it was better just to point y'all toward the threads and not try a summary.  Sorry, guys; the summary just wasn't being effective at all.  Sad
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« Reply #3: April 10, 2007, 07:11:48 pm »

My current working definition of Paganism is "umbrella term for non-JCI, non-mainstream religions". The inclusion of "non-mainstream" addresses religions such as Hinduism, Shinto, and Buddhism. Those are definitely non-JCI, but don't often fall under the Paganism label because they are a mainstream religion of their culture, even if they may not be the majority religion. Even in the US, saying you're Buddhist will raise less eyebrows than saying you're Pagan.

But honestly, the reason we have such a hard time defining Paganism is because it's an obsolete term. Our paths are a hair's breadth away from not even fitting under a beach umbrella. Every potential commonality has an exception to the rule... we're not all earth-based, though most of us do honor nature in some way. We don't come close to celebrating the same holidays, worshipping the same Gods, using the same ritual form, etc. Christianity works as an umbrella term because Christian sects do share a few commonalities - the largest being, of course, the worship of Jesus as savior.

Perhaps the best way to sidestep controversy is to stop using the term. Perhaps "Pagan" is a good enough explanation to people who didn't even realize witches existed until 5 minutes ago when I stepped out of the broom closet, but "Celtic Witchcraft" would be a generic enough label as well, and have more truth to it.

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« Reply #4: April 10, 2007, 09:47:14 pm »

Quote
Perhaps the best way to sidestep controversy is to stop using the term.

I like this idea for myself.  If I am asked what religion I am, I'd rather answer 'Dianic', and get a chance to explain what that is without any pre-conseived ideas, than to answer 'Pagan' which isnt descriptive enough (for the above reasons) and may give the inquisitor the wrong idea about what I believe.

However, if we throw out the term Pagan, what will we rename the Forum?  'The Cauldron: A religious forum for non-Christian-Judism-Islamic faiths (but everyone is welcome)?'
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« Reply #5: April 11, 2007, 12:43:14 am »

I like this idea for myself.  If I am asked what religion I am, I'd rather answer 'Dianic', and get a chance to explain what that is without any pre-conseived ideas, than to answer 'Pagan' which isnt descriptive enough (for the above reasons) and may give the inquisitor the wrong idea about what I believe.

Out of curiosity, how do you explain what "Dianic" means?  Do you follow it up by discussing Wicca?

I'm especially curious because your post prompted my brain to say, "Maybe I should describe myself as 'Brighidine' because my primary (only, really) deity is Brighid.  That would be precise, but would it be as generally understandable as Celtic Pagan?"
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« Reply #6: April 11, 2007, 04:05:49 am »

I have beeen happy to use the term Pagan ... it is easier than explaining the details of my practices.  But I agree that we have really stretched the word thin. 

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« Reply #7: April 11, 2007, 09:06:10 am »

Out of curiosity, how do you explain what "Dianic" means?  Do you follow it up by discussing Wicca?

I'd say, "It's a religion for women, honoring many Goddesses and celebrating women's lives and bodies."

I think that if your casual inquirer was given that answer, they may be satisfied.  Or they may ask additional questions to which I'd give correct answers.   But I think the simplest answer is the best one.  In this kind of situation, I'm only saying what Dianic is, I'm not trying to define it against any other pagan religion.
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« Reply #8: April 11, 2007, 02:37:32 pm »

"Maybe I should describe myself as 'Brighidine' because my primary (only, really) deity is Brighid.  That would be precise, but would it be as generally understandable as Celtic Pagan?"
I dunno.  When I hear "Brighidine", I think of Catholics devoted to St. Brigid.  Of course, it would depend somewhat on which spelling/pronunciation you used, too. 

I think "Celtic pagan" is more generally understandable, but is that understanding accurate?

Personally, "pagan" works for me fine.  If it's important to me that the person I'm talking to has a deep understanding of my faith, then a longer conversation is in order.  But if they only merit a one word answer, well then, I'm probably not going to care terribly much about any assumptions they choose to make anyway.
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« Reply #9: April 11, 2007, 02:50:08 pm »

If it's important to me that the person I'm talking to has a deep understanding of my faith, then a longer conversation is in order.  But if they only merit a one word answer, well then, I'm probably not going to care terribly much about any assumptions they choose to make anyway.

That sums up how I feel about being called (or more accurately described as (usually by my mother in law )) wiccan as often as I am.
Oddly I usually only call myself pagan around places like here - in life I seem to have fallen into just being known as a witch...
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« Reply #10: April 11, 2007, 03:59:34 pm »

I dunno.  When I hear "Brighidine", I think of Catholics devoted to St. Brigid.  Of course, it would depend somewhat on which spelling/pronunciation you used, too. 

I think "Celtic pagan" is more generally understandable, but is that understanding accurate?

Personally, "pagan" works for me fine.  If it's important to me that the person I'm talking to has a deep understanding of my faith, then a longer conversation is in order.  But if they only merit a one word answer, well then, I'm probably not going to care terribly much about any assumptions they choose to make anyway.

She could say Brighideach, which means Brighidine in Irish. (It's pronounced Bree-yid-ock.)
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« Reply #11: April 11, 2007, 06:01:58 pm »

She could say Brighideach, which means Brighidine in Irish. (It's pronounced Bree-yid-ock.)


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Juni comes through again!

I was about to say that this is really a moot subject for me personally because I almost never actually talk about my religion IRL, so I don't really need a word to describe it.  Then you gave me the perfect word, complete with pronunciation.  Thanks!

(Must be another sign!   Wink  )
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« Reply #12: April 12, 2007, 01:28:48 pm »

It's amazing how much controversy has sprung up on the forum, both over this one little sentence and around the act of trying to come up with a definition at all, over the years.  Newcomers to the forum often stumble into it unawares, either by bringing up issues with our standard definition or by stating the definitions they use, which often don't coincide with the one listed above.  T

I'm really glad you wrote this article Star, I think it will be really helpful to newcomers to the Cauldron.

I remember when I first started posting, I told Illgrace she couldn't be an atheist Pagan.  I still have the bruises...  Wink

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« Reply #13: April 13, 2007, 02:13:39 pm »

"A Pagan religion is a religion that is not Jewish, Christian, or Islamic and self-identifies as Pagan."

A definition is generally a statement that describes what something is. The statement above seems to be describing what Paganism is not.

I do understand how difficult it is to define such a wide variety of beliefs with one short, all-encompassing statement, but that does sound like it says "We don't know what it Paganism exactly, but we do know what it isn't." I guess that's as good a place to start as any.  Smiley
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« Reply #14: April 13, 2007, 02:20:30 pm »

A definition is generally a statement that describes what something is. The statement above seems to be describing what Paganism is not.

*nods*  And that's one of the objections that comes up about that definition quite a bit.  But...  Well, see the article for what happens when you try to get specific about what a Pagan is.  Hasn't worked yet.  And it's not even about trying to find a brief description; it could be pages long and we'd still have these issues.  (Actually, we'd probably have them more, because the more specific you get the more there is that people can and will object to.)  So for the moment we're stuck with defining what we're not.

I'm not sure I really mentioned this in the article, although I should've...  But it might also help to remember that when we talk about "the Cauldron's official definition", we're not necessarily talking about a workable real-world definition that can be used to explain anything to someone who's never heard of a Pagan.  It would be great if we could come up with something like that, but, well, see above.  What we're largely getting at is that this is how it's used here at this forum; that when someone talks about Paganism (without getting more specific) here, this is generally what you can expect them to be talking about.  I suppose in that way it's more of a baseline than an actual definition.
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