What I am seeking are personal perspectives/answers to the question, "Why do you consider yourself pagan? What is it about paganism that speaks to you? Why "pagan"?These questions got me thinking about how people use words to describe their spiritual paths. In their best moments words have a practical utility for defining a group consensus of reality. At their worst moments words divide people’s views of reality. The muddled mean of the two has words just making a confused mess of reality. There are several reasons this happens. Some words unfortunately lend themselves to divided or confused realities. Not all words are created equally for the use in spiritual discussions.
Before I continue I want to state that those who firmly believe themselves to be Pagan, and have a complete conviction and comfort with this statement, are fully excluded from the wide area generalizations (W.A.G.) statements I will make. I conclude this article with a estimation of why people may loudly proclaim themselves to be Pagans. Kudos for knowing yourself.
IMO the word "pagan" has become a poor tool for clearly defining people’s spiritual paths and motivations. This is especially true if there is an attempt to apply it, with consensus, across diverse spiritual traditions. “Pagan” is not alone in this challenge. I will focus on this word as I explore the challenges to effective communication.
Some words come with a lot of pre-loaded energy. The desire to use the word in a dispassionate neutral way is frustrated by the pre-existing definitions and uses. An example of this would be the word “blond”. The mention of this word to a crowd will immediately solicit the possible responses:
The person trying to talk about hair coloring products has to fight to regain the focus of the conversation.
The dispassionate modern use of the word “pagan” is frustrated by its centuries of diverse sociological and religious history.
Some words become the footballs and hand grenades of political fights. Any subsequent use of the word drags in all of the wounds of the previously heated exchanges. An example of this would be the word “liberal”. The conservative right has attempted to make “liberal” laden with negative connotations. Their efforts have been met with partial success. Now the phrase “liberal tax policies” has an immediate derogatory ring. The dispassionate use of the word “liberal” requires that the user’s intentions be defined, the context of the usage be examined, and vetting of the final meaning be performed. When all of this effort is expended, the other words used are forgotten.
For years the word “pagan” has been used as a weapon by groups seeking to discredit or smear the reputations of others. The past frequent and energetic use of the word casts doubt on specific groups using it in a neutral way. There is little immediate faith that a Christian speaker can use the word “pagan” without it being in a besmirched light. The speaker may not intend this, but the political baggage makes a full explanation of intention necessary, just so the listeners can get past this one word. At that point the overall conversation is compromised by the distraction.
A word tainted by emotional or political baggage is avoided by those who don’t want the attention, negative or otherwise. I can hold myself up as an example. I easily proclaim myself to be pagan on LJ. I would VERY reluctantly do the same at my workplace. Those with strong alternative label will seek to use that label instead of the tainted word. At work, if pressed, I would probably say that I was Buddhist or pursued a Native American spiritual path.
Strong Alternate Identity
The word “pagan”, by some definitions, means “non-Abrahamic”. This definition would put the eastern religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Sufi, etc) into the “pagan” category. The people from these groups rightfully resist being labeled as “pagan” by outsiders. They will stand proudly and say, “I am Buddhist and not a Pagan”. They have an identity that does supersedes any definition an outside party may attempt to apply to them. Another example of this would be the attempted labeling of Wiccans as “satanic worshipers”. The Wiccans would roundly deny this label applied to them by an outside group.
Broadness of Definition
Some words are just REALLY big umbrellas for other concepts. An example would be the word “bag”. There are shopping bags, burlap bags, sandwich bags, coffee bags, large trash bags, tall kitchen bags, freezer bags, paper bags, plastic bags, and so on. The polling question of “which bag do you use” will solicit a very long and complex answer, as the average person uses many types of bags, each type towards on a specific need. A clearer answer would be given for the “sub-umbrella” question, “do you use plastic bags when you go grocery shopping”. At this point the umbrella of bags no longer is the topic. Reduction of terms, for the sake of clarity, can decrease the practical analysis of the original word.
Paganism is an umbrella word too. A “pagan” person can be many different things. The ambiguity of the word can only be reduced by more clearly specifying the definition. While this is useful, at some point the person will cease to be “pagan” and will be defined as something else. The finer the definition, the less the resulting word will have in common with other words in the larger umbrella. A Dianic is not the same as a Satanist even thought both could fit under the “pagan” umbrella.
So Why Be Pagan???
I’ve listed all of the reasons why a person may resist being called Pagan for the sake of personal identification. Some people will gladly embrace the word, no matter the baggage, political arrows and ambiguity of definition. Why? The answer is directly tied to the reason others are driven away. Those who proudly claim to be pagan do so to (re)claim ownership of the word. The shadow of misuse and misappropriation is transformed by those who fully honor the empowering definition of Pagan. An opponent is disarmed when the sole use of a weapon is removed. Integrous ownership of a word or concept disarms the wicked and arms the pure of heart. The self-application of Pagan is a defining defiance to those who seek to misuse the word’s potential power.
There is a place to use the word pagan. It is a handy umbrella. There are even those who will proudly stand and declare themselves to be Pagans before all other labels. They, however, are in the minority. Most people will seek some more defined label or box to place themselves. Other people flee from the word in it's entirety. Pagan is one of those words that promises much, but delivers much less.