What's a Pagan

I frequently see posts where someone mentions that a friend or relative is a “pagan.” Then they go on with a discussion that presents this pagan in a negative light. It seems, however, that some folks define “pagan” differently than others. So…what exactly is a pagan? Does the Church have a clear definition?

Edit: Just noticed that there is a thread entitled “Ask a Pagan” down below. Maybe I should ask down there.

I don’t think the Church has an “official” definition of pagan. The word can have several different meanings depending on context and who’s using it. Fr. John Hardon S.J. gives the following definition in his Modern Catholic Dictionary:

A heathen. In general one who practices idolatry. Formerly used to describe anyone who did not profess monotheism, and still used by Christians, Jews, and Moslems to identify a person who does not believe in one God, Creator of heaven and earth. More properly a pagan is a person who has abandoned all religious belief, i.e., an irreligious person. (Etym. Latin paganus, countryman, villager, civilian; from pagus, district, province, village.)

You can see that even within this scholar’s definition there are several different meanings. Today some people self-identify as pagan, even capitalizing it, but I don’t think there’s a single organized religion called Paganism. Rather, it would be a general category of persons who practice some form of spirituality, but who do not exclusively worship the God of Abraham.

By definition, a pagan is someone who believes in more than one God. I know a pagan that wants to convert to Catholicism. Praise the Lord! :signofcross:

While “pagan” is often used as a synonymous term for polytheist (as opposed to monotheist), it is not always used as such. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, paganism is defined as:

*Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. The term is also used as the equivalent of Polytheism.

It is derived from the Latin pagus, whence pagani (i.e. those who live in the country), a name given to the country folk who remained heathen after the cities had become Christian. Various forms of Paganism are described in special articles (e.g. Brahminism, Buddhism, Mithraism); the present article deals only with certain aspects of Paganism in general which will be helpful in studying its details and in judging its value.*

Using this definition, several religions may be identified as “pagan”: Buddhism (as mentioned), Hinduism, as well as (obviously) Wicca and Neo-Paganism.

A pagan is simply someone who doesn’t make any connections with the Judeo-Christian-Muslim Religions and believe in the worship of polytheistic gods. Greeks, Hindus, Buddhists are all pagans.

Following up on how others have defined it, I’m not sure I’d consider Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, etc. “pagan.” They are monotheistic religions that AFAIK don’t share much if anything in common with “paganism” apart from simply being non-Abrahamic. Interestingly, the three wise men (“magi”) are commonly believed to have been Zoroastrian and I wouldn’t imagine them being called pagan.

Regarding Sikhism, no, it’s in no way pagan. It’s merely a different form of religion to the Abrahamic, typically called a Dharmic religion. Ditto Hinduism and Jainism.

Paganism in its typical usage now refers to a series of differing but similar religions focused on worship of nature, of earth deities and of the earth itself. It can also refer to a number of reconstructionist religions focused on worship of Egyptian (Kemeticism), Greek (Hellenistai) or Norse (Asatru) deities.

I think some groups in Hinduism might be classified pagan by many Christians and Muslims as being analogous to ancient Greek or Roman paganism, but I agree with your comment insofar as the individual type of Hinduism or Jainism doesn’t incorporate pagan elements like that often found in folk/indigenous religion. Like some of the Chinese or Japanese Buddhists for example. It seems like some of them can get into nature worship or “earth deities” like you mention below, but that’s probably just because they tend to be more syncretistic.

Paganism in its typical usage now refers to a series of differing but similar religions focused on worship of nature, of earth deities and of the earth itself. It can also refer to a number of reconstructionist religions focused on worship of Egyptian (Kemeticism), Greek (Hellenistai) or Norse (Asatru) deities.

I couldn’t have described it better myself. I’d say that the neo-pagans would also include witchcraft-based groups, which, admittedly, do sometimes incorporate nature worship. I’d consider Wicca pagan even though I don’t think they always include nature/earth worship or worship of ancient deities, unless “Goddess worship” counts as the latter.

Anyway, as an aside, I really admire the little I know of Sikhism. I’m glad to see a Sikh here on CAF. :slight_smile:

Problem with Hinduism is that there’s many different schools and interpretations, and what is true in one group isn’t necessarily the case in another. Even the whole polytheism aspect is up for debate as to whether it’s ‘true’ polytheism or something else.

I couldn’t have described it better myself. I’d say that the neo-pagans would also include witchcraft-based groups, which, admittedly, do sometimes incorporate nature worship. I’d consider Wicca pagan even though I don’t think they always include nature/earth worship or worship of ancient deities, unless “Goddess worship” counts as the latter.

I realized after posting that I’d made no mention of witchcraft-based religions. Thank you for reminding me.

Anyway, as an aside, I really admire the little I know of Sikhism. I’m glad to see a Sikh here on CAF. :slight_smile:

Thank you for your kind words.

Waheguru ji ki khalsa, Waheguru ji ki fateh!

If I were to define it, a Pagan is someone religious **EITHER **not of the Abrahamic Religions
(Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) **OR **of any Major World Religion (such as Zoroastrianism,
Hinduism, Buddhism, etc). That really is difficult for me to define without being politically

Those who worship Isis, Pagan.
Those who worship Zeus, Pagan.
Reconstructionist Worshipers of the Mesoamerican gods, Pagan.
Witches, Pagan (are at least typically spiritual).
Atheists, NOT Pagan (as not religious).
Native Americans of Tribal *Traditions … (not sure if Pagan is the right word, um…?).
*(Despite a host of beliefs, stories, rituals, etc,
“Tradition” is more appropriate than “Religion”)

I, as a Pagan and a Wiccan, do identify with what you’ve said here. More information abut the term follows here from an on-line dictionary:

Etymology: Middle English pagan “heathen,” from Latin **paganus **(same meaning), from earlier paganus “person who lives in a rural area,” from *pagus *“village, district”

Word History: In ancient Rome a person living in a rural area or village was called paganus, a word derived from the Latin noun pagus, meaning “village, district.” In time paganus came to refer to a civilian as opposed to a soldier. When Christianity became generally accepted in the towns and cities of the empire, paganus was used to refer to a villager who continued to worship the old gods. Christians used the term for anyone not of their faith or of the Jewish faith. The word in Old English for such a person was what is now heathen. In the 14th century, English borrowed the Latin paganus as pagan, and used it with the same meaning. In time both heathen and pagan also took on the meaning of “a person having no religion.”

However, James J. O’Donnell of the The Catholic University of America in Washington DC delves deeper still. Here is a link to a very detailed article regarding his analysis surrounding the term:


Wikipedia states that:

EXCERPT (link below): “. . . Paganism is a broad group of indigenous and historical polytheistic religious traditions—primarily those of cultures known to the classical world. In a wider sense, it has also been understood to include any non-Abrahamic folk/ethnic religion. The term pagan was historically used as one of several pejorative Christian counterparts to “gentile” (גוי / נכרי) as used in the Hebrew Bible—comparable to “infidel” or “heretic”. Modern ethnologists often avoid this broad usage in favour of more specific and less potentially offensive terms such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism when referring to traditional or historical faiths. Since the 20th century, “Paganism” (or “Neopaganism”) has become the identifier for a collection of new religious movements attempting to continue, revive, or reconstruct historical pre-Abrahamic religion. There are roughly 300 million pagans worldwide.” (footnotes omitted herein)(bolded portion very similar to Mr. O’Donnell’s analysis, of which I did not quote an excerpt as to do so would be too limiting)

And lest we forget, ". . . Christianity itself has been perceived at times as a form of polytheism by followers of the other Abrahamic religions because of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (which at first glance might suggest Tritheism,) or the celebration of Pagan feast days and other practices – through a process described as “baptizing” or “Christianization”. Even between Christians there have been similar charges of idolatry levelled, especially by Protestants, towards the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches for their veneration of the saints and images. . . " (footnotes omitted herein)

Wiki also includes a section entitled Contemporary Paganism which is quite good and very detailed.


So, what is a Pagan? :confused: It entirely depends upon whom you ask… and what the asker actually seeks. :thumbsup:


This is the way I usually describe it to people:

Paganism - a nebulous group of usually aboriginal, often polytheistic or animistic, nature-based religions, most often decentralized in practice without a rigid dogma or social structure. Many often include magical elements or a practice of witchcraft (although that’s a loaded term, really).
Ancient/Pre-Modern Paganism - pagan faiths that existed in antiquity.
[INDENT]Discontinued Ancient Paganism - religions which existed in antiquity and which have no dedicated modern followers. Minoan religion, for instance, or the original un-reconstructed Germanic and Celtic faiths
Continued Ancient Paganism - ancient religions that have maintained a clear chain of continuity without interruption into modern times. Tribal African and Pacific Island religions, for instance.
Modern/Neo-Paganism - faiths that have arisen by syncretism in the modern era (personally, I date this according to the end of the middle ages) or which are extensions of ancient pagan religions that have undergone a period where there were no living in-the-plain practitioners and therefore require some level of reconstruction. Examples would include Santeria (a syncretism of several different faiths), Wicca, Germanic Heathenism and so on

[INDENT]Reconstructive/Revivalist Neo-Paganism - neo-pagan faiths that try to adhere as closely as possible to archaeological, anthropological, and historical information about their faith when reconstructing lost practices. Examples: Germanic Heathenism, Hellenic Revival, and Nova Roma.
Non-Reconstructive Neo-Paganism - neo-pagan faiths that are either highly syncretic or which do not emphasize exact ancient historical practice over personal gnosis. Santeria, Wicca, and your average American “eclectic” neo-pagan would be examples of this.[/INDENT]

Personally, my experience is that when people say they have a pagan family member, they usually mean some form of Wicca-based eclectic neo-paganism, they just use the generic term “pagan” for short-hand.

Greetings, Gullveig. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.

You wrote:

Everything you’ve said quite interests me. I’d like to offer you some information. What you do with it is, of course, up to you, but I would very much like your opinion as to where this info falls, most particularly within the sub-divisions posted above… and so, the link below is to a website for the Maetreum of Cybele, with an especially-interesting page entitled “The Phygianum.” (That page does not have a link, per se, but you can find it in the left-hand column by going through the home page.) Those who participate in this religion, especially those who performed research and wrote a book about it, seem to have reached far back in history. Some of what the Rev. Mother says is this:

". . . We are sometimes called the “scholarly Cybelines” because we have invested many years of strict historical research in order to embrace the essence of what proved to be literally the oldest surviving religion in the world. We embraced the essence and then stepped away from “Pagan Reconstructism” by bringing those essences into the modern world. We re-introduced to the world a model for Pagan Monasticism. . . . "


I, myself, am not a member of their particular belief system, but I don’t discredit or disrespect their beliefs, either. I enjoyed reading about it, and actually visiting the women at the Maetreum. I am looking for the educated opinions of others, no matter if they are Pagan, Christian, Jewish, etc., for the love of learning, and for education (for its own sake). I would very much like to hear from you - actually all of you - who may read this because “Paganism” is loosely-knit, far-flung, broadly-defined and widespread, yet these ladies put forth their claims as linked back to historical events. Facinating.

NOTE: If an Admin or Mod thinks that this post is not in the right place, please notify me and/or move it. Many thanks.

I would define Paganism mainly with the believe system of polytheism and nature gods. That being said other monotheist religions are still considered Pagan such as Akhenaten religion of worshiping the sun god.

as stated numerous times above a pagan is someone of a Non-Abrahamic faith.

However, if someone uses the term self descriptively they are almost certainly a Neo-Pagan, which means they are either a Wiccan or a reconstructionist of some form of European-Near East form of paganism. I myself am a Germanic pagan. While by the christian definition religions like Hinduism and Shinto are pagan ive never heard one of them ascribe that title to themselvs. Thats because those religions have names, where as pagan religions from classical antiquity and the middle ages rarely had names, being tribal/cultural beliefs.

Reconstructionists typically don’t self-identify as either “Pagan” or “Neopagan”, they prefer “Polytheist”. Some for the sake brevity and in a mixed group will tolerate “pagan” in a general discussion insomuch as acknowledging that they are modern (‘neo’) polytheists, and that others use “pagan” to imply polytheism. However “pagan” is a derogatory term hurled at ancient polytheists and not a label they used for themselves or their religions, which are the religions Recons follow. And “Neopagan” is rejected because the majority of Neopagan religions do not revive or reconstruct ancient practices, rather they are often modern and eclectic, formed by a multitude of influences, taken from not only ancient polytheistic religions but various Western Esotericisim and New Age practices.

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