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Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009, 01:38 pm
The Tempest in a Parliament

Contemporary Pagans taking sides in Semantic Squabble

Defining contemporary Paganism is essentially impossible, or it would already have been done. I took a shot at it years ago during a spell of online wrangling; I thought my attempt was fairly precise, but it was also more than 50 words long with no clear way to reduce it. Since then, I have contented myself with a Potter Stewart definition of Paganism (can't define it but I know it when I see it). The main thing to note is that any definition of contemporary Paganism which defines it as "a religion" is on the wrong track, as it denotes a wide variety of religious traditions under one very large and perhaps odd-shaped umbrella.

Some of the Pagan attendees at the latest Parliament of the World's Religions figured that their ability to network with leaders of other faith groups was hindered by this fuzziness, so they put forth Andras Corben-Arthan's definition, that Paganism consists of revivals of "indigenous European" religions, explaining away all of the non-indigenous components like Wicca as "New Religious Movements" and utterly ignoring any non-European components.

I haven't seen any feedback from non-Pagan PWR attendees or their co-religionists on whether this helps them understand contemporary Paganism better or respect it more. It would be especially interesting to hear candid responses from the significant Indigenous delegation.

There are three components to even the simplest communication: the speaker's intent, the signal itself, and the hearer's understanding. A good communicator has a reasonable model in mind of how the message will be heard, whereas a poor communicator expects the words to be understood the same by all hearers, or otherwise mis-estimates the impact of the message.

Depending on how you assess such things, I am either highly qualified, or disqualified by reason of subjectivity, to testify in this matter, as I am Indigenous (enrolled Cherokee), a follower of Mesopotamian (distinctly non-Euro) deities, and part Euro-mutt by heritage.

My first issue was with the word "indigenous" itself, for three reasons:

  1. As applied to Neopagans, it's not correct. All of contemporary Paganism is either newly synthesized or revived from what is known of pre-Christian ways. Some reconstructions have more to work with than others, as I have been reminded many times by Heathen brethren.

  2. If you want to know why it's a bad idea for a bunch of mostly-very-White folks to be encroaching on the "Indigenous" label, do a Google search for "Wanabi," and for extra credit, "twinkie."

  3. "Indigenous European" is already in use as a White-supremacist codeword (see for example). I really don't think we need to be invoking this sort of thing in our terminology. And, yes, I already knew this, it's not just a revelation from Google-fu.

As if that weren't enough, we have the Eurocentric piece to introduce more dissonance. All of you people whose Gods were first revered by people uncomfortably far East, or by people with dark faces or other undesirable features can just consider yourselves defined away. Please find another term to describe your religion.

And, of course, the indigenous vs. NRM sort-out is just the old "reconstructionists are purer than thou" debate of which I thought most of us were heartily tired. I have already seen one Heathen blog where the writer was crowing about this great victory at the PWR, you know, finally some recognition of our claim to be the "natural religion" of persons of Teutonic blood, and ... ewwwww.

I have heard a lot of responses from Pagans who may not have immersed themselves in the discussion but who honestly resent being redefined, and a fair number of others who file the whole thing under "Who cares? I know what I am."

I would be doing the latter if this hadn't made its way to the PWR and therefore to a much wider public than our usual internal debates. We'll all be getting negative feedback from this for years,
perhaps longer.

Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC)

Thank you for this--I agree with nearly all that you've said above, and had comments on this issue a few weeks ago in my own LJ (locked post, alas, because certain pagans have been in the habit of attempting to hound and troll me online).

Because I'm heavily involved in several recon movements that either have difficult backgrounds in regards to sources and survivals (Celtic Recon), or are in one case pagan deity cults that emerged after Christianity's existence (Ekklesía Antínoou), this particular "indigenous European" definition could (and I feel does) potentially exclude me and much of what I do, not to mention many members of my communities. I don't see what's wrong with being considered an NRM, and in fact most forms of pagan reconstructionist religion are NRMs, because they're not continuous practices...and I don't see anything wrong with admitting that.

In any case, thanks for posting this, and for your comments on the Pagans at the Parliament blog!

Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)

I wish Corben-Arthan and the Pagans at PWR had thought through these issues as thoroughly and well as you have. Sigh.

Mon, Dec. 28th, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)

Indeed. I was heartened to read what you wrote at the time.

Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)

Gods yes, on all counts. I hadn't realized that Stormfront was using "indigenous European" but that's really just the icing on the cake for the anti-"indigenous" Neopagan argument. I'd rather spork my eyes out with a rusty chainsaw than be in any way connected with them.

Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)

I don't understand why Pagans and people presenting themselves as spokespeople for Pagans are so desperate to "fit in" that they feel the need for a single, simple definition. I also fail to understand why people work so hard to claim to be the voice of all Pagans (they can't and don't). What's wrong with representing their segment of Paganism, admit they are speaking only for that segment, and let the rest of us speak for ourselves, assuming we want to?

What's happening at the PWR is one reason why we can't let anyone emerge as the voice of Paganism. They will always leave out or disenfranchise a sizable portion of Pagans and those who are truly indigenous.

Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 09:31 pm (UTC)

Seconded. Also seconding the OP.
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Wed, Dec. 30th, 2009 07:15 am (UTC)
ulbh: Re: Unity in Singularity

Let's not forget the illegitimate recognition function assumed by the DVA, dictating what symbols can be placed on grave markers in National cemeteries. This is, of course, off the beaten path of this particular topic.

Mon, Dec. 28th, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)

It is apparently difficult to do that. Several of them disclaimed any intent to speak for all Pagans, and then spoke as if they were doing so.

Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 10:16 pm (UTC) eurocentrism, etc.

Thanks for your very interesting post. I think it's very important to emphasize, as you have done, the problems with trying to "define" modern Paganism as somehow "European". And you are very right in pointing out that, regardless of what people intend, any kind of "European", or other form of "ethnic" or "racial" definition for Paganism is much too close for comfort with folks like those over at

You are wrong, however, in you over-emphasis of the "newly synthesized" aspects of modern Paganism. ALL modern religious traditions, by definition, are adapted somehow or another to current societies and individuals. Paganism is no different in this respect. Like all other religious traditions it is a blend of old and new. But the vast majority of modern Pagans worship Deities that were worshipped long before Christianity came along. And even in pre-Christian cultures, the worship of these Goddesses and Gods was always changing, and was always different from one place to the next.


Mon, Dec. 28th, 2009 04:08 am (UTC)
ulbh: Re: eurocentrism, etc.

"You are wrong, however, in you over-emphasis of the "newly synthesized" aspects of modern Paganism."

If there was over-emphasis there it was more a matter of the route I took than the view from the end. I thought I was saying that none of us have the sort of seamless connection to past practice that would be implied by "indigenous." But then, I did make a big deal out of the need to consider one's reader's reactions, so if I revise this, I'll try to balance out that aspect.

Mon, Dec. 28th, 2009 01:45 am (UTC)

Thanks for writing up your thoughts.

Tue, Dec. 29th, 2009 05:55 am (UTC)

And thank you for prodding me to it; I need that, too often.

Sat, Jan. 23rd, 2010 02:49 am (UTC)

Good article