Notes from the Coffehouse – Pagan is…

My desire to measure an afternoon out in coffee spoons was once again thwarted this week. There’s just something about this town and this region that attracts religious believers of all types and two of them descended on my favorite coffeehouse this week. May the gods bless them both, they ruined my plan to get some writing done by having a small battle over what is or isn’t pagan. In this corner, a conservative right-wing Christian and in the opposite corner, his opponent, a liberal lesbian New Ager. wasn’t a discussion so much as a raging debt. Their arguments, sadly, both came down to some worn-out cliches and stereotypes.

In the absolute simplest, practical terms, a pagan is someone who does not follow one of the “religions of the book”: Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. This is complicated a bit by the fact that not everyone who is not of a JCI faith calls themselves pagan. There are religious groups who would find the term insulting. So we come to a slightly more specific definition, the one that I use whenever asked… a pagan is someone who is not of a JCI faith and who identifies themselves as pagan.

I find it quite amusing the number of pagans I’ve run across who are bothered by that definition. Mostly it seems that the dislike of this particular definition stems from the fact that it forces people to acknowledge that spiritual paths that they don’t like or necessarily agree with fall under the same umbrella term as their own. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard from the mouths of self-proclaimed pagans that you aren’t pagan if…

  • You celebrate Christmas, even as a secular holiday.
  • You aren’t a reconstructionist (i.e., someone who practices an ancient religion in the closest possible way to how the religion was originally practiced).
  • You have ever thought that [insert neo-pagan author here] might be a good source of information.
  • Your beliefs are not nature-based or goddess-centered.
  • You are a solitary practitioner.
  • Your beliefs are best described as eclectic or DIY.
  • You use crystals or meditate.
  • You don’t own an athame, a wand, or a chalice.
  • You don’t keep a Book of Shadows.
  • You don’t follow the Wheel of the Year.
  • You follow deities from more than one pantheon.
  • You’re a monotheist.

In short, there are a lot of people out there who would elect themselves head of the pagan police task force and gladly tell everyone else that if they don’t believe x, y, and z, then their pagan membership card will be revoked. There are also those pagans who would like to present a united front to the rest of the world and be able to say “We are pagans and all of us believe…”

Frankly, those kinds of attitudes make me sad. Paganism is a very broad umbrella that covers a lot of different beliefs and spiritual paths with enough room to allow each individual to follow the individual path of her or his choosing. In fact that is one of the most beautiful things about being pagan in my eyes… I have the freedom and ability to seek my individual spiritual path without necessarily confining myself to a rigid religious dogma or established tradition. Ultimately, it is to my deities that I answer, not to another pagan nor a pagan group. If my deities grant me the use of the word pagan to describe my beliefs (and they haven’t stated otherwise to date), then what human has the right to tell me differently?

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