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A Practical Definition of Pagan

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The word 'pagan' is often misunderstood. The meaning of this word is dependent on many factors; namely, who is saying the word, and to whom the word is being applied. The goal of this entry covers the myriad ways in which this word is used, and comes up with a practical definition that can work for everyone.


The word 'pagan' is derived from a Middle English word, which itself comes from the from the Latin word paganus, which means 'country dweller'. This is derived from the Latin word pagus, which means 'country' or 'rural area'.

Soon a nice little word that described nice people who lived outside the cities began to have all sorts of connotations. Today, people who live in metropolitan areas usually look upon those who do not with disdain. The same was probably true in the days of the Roman Empire as well.

Back then, as now, things always seemed to begin in the cities, and eventually trickled down into the country villages. The country villages were always behind in the latest news, fashion and spiritual revolutions. Whatever religion that may have been sweeping across the cities probably was not practised out in the country right away. Therefore the pagani were probably out of step whenever a new religion came along. It just took longer for the missionaries to convert the farmers who were spread out in the country than it did the centralised population centres of the cities. So the result was the pagani would continue practising the old religion after the new religion had supplanted it in the cities.

From their point of view, the metropolitan population had many reasons to disdain a pagan. For them, a pagan dressed strangely, worked in the dirt all day, was ignorant, illiterate, and uneducated. To top it off a pagan even worshipped the wrong gods.

Official Definitions

If one would look up the word pagan in a dictionary, you could find definitions like these:

  • n. One who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew
  • n. A heathen
  • n. One who has no religion
  • n. A non-Christian
  • n. A hedonist
  • n. One who worships false gods
  • n. An idolater
  • n. One who does not acknowledge God
  • adj. Not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish
  • adj. Professing no religion
  • adj. Not acknowledging God

There are two things that are wrong with going with a dictionary definition:

  • They are biased towards the predominantly Judeo-Christian Western culture.

  • They are too broad to be a definition.

The Judeo-Christian bias continues the derogatory use of this word. It has been shown that the origin of the word had developed outside Judeo-Christian culture, yet this adoption of it continues to this day. Also the broadness of the definition is a problem. Since it is an exclusionary definition, many who would take umbrage at being labelled as 'pagan' are labelled nonetheless. Using a dictionary definition of the word pagan, it would include Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Traditional Native Americans, Agnostics and Atheists.

The Practical Definition

There are those who would not take umbrage at having the label 'Pagan'1 applied to them. In fact, some would revel in it.

The Neo-Pagan subculture is a quickly growing one. Neo-Paganism covers a variety of beliefs, practices and lifestyles. What connects them all is that they accept the same label of Pagan.

Neo-Pagan beliefs are typically, but not exclusively, oriented on the seasonal cycle. Most are polytheistic, but just as many are pantheistic, and some are even monotheistic. Many have animist beliefs. Many paths combine some or all of these elements. There are countless manifestations of beliefs and world views that can be considered Pagan. The beliefs shared by Pagans today are so wide and varied, it is impossible to name a single belief or group of beliefs that connect them all.

What does connect the far-flung community of Pagans with the variety of beliefs is the fact that they have beliefs. Pagans have not merely excused themselves from Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, but have embraced beliefs and a world-view outside of those religions long ago established. Paganism is not defined by a lack of beliefs as many dictionaries would lead us to believe but for embracing a belief that is outside that of the established Orthodoxy2.

It appears that the most practical definition that could be applied is:

Pagan: n. One who adheres to a belief system outside that of established Orthodoxy.

1Notice the capitalisation of the word here. A capital 'P' denotes the use of the word when it applies specifically to a person with Pagan beliefs in the same way Christian, Jew, and Muslim are capitalised.2It is likely that Paganism will always be a minority religion. If a specific path grows to such a point where it becomes integrated into the dominant culture, it is no longer that which is 'outside the city walls' but another established orthodoxy and no longer a Pagan path. On reflection, pagus could translate as 'someone on the outside', 'outside' being literal as well as figurative, but that is being poetic, not scholarly.

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