Seemingly the entire Pagan blogosphere is wrestling with the term Pagan this week. I’ve wrestled with the term myself over the years, and I’ve already weighed in with some thoughts on the current dialog. Over the past few days, in between walks on the beach, meals with friends, collecting local and sustainable food for our table, sleeping, bathing, and otherwise living life, I’ve been checking for updates to this ongoing conversation at various sites, not only in the blogs themselves but in the resulting comment threads. (Some suggested posts, threads, and links to other resources worth checking out: Star Foster’s Link Roundup, T. Thorn Coyle’s Can We Share a Common Fire?, Alison Leigh Lilly’s Religious Branding, Ruby Sara’s That Troublesome Term… Again, Resa’s Labeling is Complicated, and two posts at The Wild Hunt: Paganism, Solidarity, and the Way Forward and The Pagan Terminology Discussion Continues.)
There are (to me, at least) a few thoughts coalescing:
- To some, the term Pagan is so ambiguous as to be pointless, because even as an umbrella term it means nothing definitive.
- To others, there are so many Wiccans out there that the terms Pagan and Wiccan are taken at face value by many to be (not accurately) synonymous, so what’s the point?
- To yet others, the term Pagan has been hijacked by the New Agers or the Non Europeans or the [Insert Group Name Here] and because language is apparently an unchanging and not at all dynamic thing, the word Pagan can mean nothing besides what the Group Self-Appointed As Most Authoritative On The Subject desires it to mean.
- To still others, the term Pagan is a dirty word that implies we’re somehow less deserving, because the Abrahamic faiths have so much negative baggage associated with the word and maybe if we found a different word to describe ourselves the people of the Abrahamic faiths would realize we’re okay after all. (Setting aside the fact that no one word will ever inclusively describe all of our belief systems, nor cleanse us in the eyes of the Big Three Religions.)
- To many others, while the term is imperfect, it’s the only way a number of smaller faiths can ever possibly hope to achieve religious freedom in countries dominated by non-Pagan faiths. While this group appreciates why people might want to abandon the term Pagan, as is their right, there is a hope that we can all still work together toward this shared goal.
While the dialog online hasn’t been without its share of heated language, and the occasional but inevitable trolls have reared their heads, I’m very, very thankful for this discussion that’s taken place. For the most part the conversation has been exceptionally mature and very well-thought out, with many interesting points made. Before this week I thought I was pretty much okay with the term Pagan to describe myself, even if it was an imperfect label in some respects. However, I guess deep down there was a part of me that was still waffling on the issue, and having all this excellent discussion and synergy on the topic brought the idea back to the fore, gave me more to think about than ever before, and sped up the pace of that thought process.
So, what have I decided? Does the term Pagan work for me?
Here’s an interesting approach to making decisions that I sometimes use: when I truly can’t decide between two things, when I truly think I have no preference one way or the other, I toss a coin. Seriously. Why not? If you think you’ve weighed both possibilities and considered the potential consequences of each, and you still really don’t have a preference, what harm is there in flipping a coin? And, in fact, there’s an interesting phenomenon that might occur while that coin is flipping side over side through the air: you may suddenly feel the answer in your gut. You may suddenly find that you are really hoping that the coin lands a certain way. Et voila… you’ve found you do indeed have a preference.
And so, as I’ve read through the various thoughts on this, and heard people say that there’s no point in the term Pagan because it’s so often conflated with Wiccan, or that Pagan is such an ambiguous word as to be useless, or how I can’t be Pagan because I live in North America… as I’ve been reading all this stuff, it’s as if I’ve watched the coin flipping through the air. I’ve experienced a feeling in my gut. That feeling screams out, “Don’t take this term away from me. That’s my decision, not yours. It can mean different things, even if that makes it less useful. Do most words ever just have one meaning? I may be sick of people associating Paganism with things I don’t believe, but in the absence of that word, what starting point do I have for explaining my beliefs or finding potential common ground with others?”
Pagan is a term I’m going to continue to use, and a term I don’t want to see taken away from me. Not that anyone can take the term away, but there have certainly been quite a few people stating that they’d like to… just enough to elicit that surprising (to me) response. At the end of the day, explaining my various beliefs out longhand is the only true way to define my faith, but shorthand is helpful, and I’m glad we have the term Pagan to bring us together and help us initiate dialog.
It might not be the perfect term, but it’s the term we’ve got. It’s a term that most of us (at least loosely) define in the same general way. It’s a term that starts conversations, that helps us find one another. It’s a term that facilitates gathering together around the fire when working toward equality and religious freedom.
Pagan actually is a term that can unite us.