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:
- 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.
- 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."
- "Indigenous European" is already in use as a White-supremacist codeword (see http://www.stormfront.org/ 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,