Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why We're Touchy About Defining Paganism

"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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