It isn’t only contemporary politicians who are masters of spin, the Romans were masters of propaganda. You only have to look at Imperial Rome’s surviving architecture to understand that. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that as soon as the Empire had converted to Christianity, the name they chose for non-Christians was a distinctly unflattering one. To the Roman, a pagan was a “country dweller”, which on the face of it doesn’t sound too bad, until you realise it was the equivalent of calling somebody a “hillbilly” today. To the metropolitan Christian Romans pagans were stupid. They believed that they were backwards, uncultured and incapable of critical thinking, as this was the only explanation for their not having the truth of the gospel and turned to Christ. In short, pagan wasn’t a nice word.
As Christianity, and more importantly, Western Christian Imperialism, spread across the globe pagan (along with its sister word heathen) was coercively applied to people to whom the word was meaningless. That was until Christianity, armed with guns and missionary schools, arrived and started to forcibly reshape their lives. Its doubtful whether the majority of people who used the word after the fall of the Roman Empire knew how it came about or its original meaning, but this no longer mattered. Pagan had become a proper noun, one which still carried the original connotations of barbarism and stupidity, but had also managed to pick up “evil” along the way. This new vision of the pagan had chosen to worship manifestations of Satan on earth since they were not just too stupid to see the truth, but had wilfully rejected virtue for the sake of hedonism.
Christianity was integral to the construction of the white man’s burden. Along with civilisation, Christianity was something that white people had a duty to bring to the rest of the world (and never mind that the oldest forms of Christianity aren’t found in the West, to the white Christian imperialist they didn’t count – God was an Englishman after all, and less facetiously, the monarch was head of the church). If that required a degree of brutality well, just like burning heretics in the middle ages, what was earthly violence to the immortal soul? More than that, pagan peoples couldn’t be trusted on their own. Their paganism became a sign of some innate flaw, a reduced humanity that left them moral children in need of guidance from White Christians – and they had to be white because whiteness and Christianity had become conflated in the colonial mind, with paganism a symptom of non-whiteness (never mind that the first Christians were anything but white, facts have never mattered to ideology).
However while all this was going on in Africa, Asia, and other colonised lands, back at home interest in pre-Christian religions and the supernatural had well and truly taken root. Neo-Druidism, interest in the occult, Theosophy and Spiritualism arose, providing more forgiving and less repressive forms of spirituality. Paganism for these practitioners was an alternative to orthodox Christianity and the cultural values that went along with it, providing a gentler and more forgiving spirituality and sometimes the welcome freedom to engage in taboo sexuality. At the same time many of these people cultivated an interest in Buddhism, Hinduism and other living Eastern religions, some even converting and blending their practise with Theosophy as in the case of Helena Blavatsky. For these white people an interest or even attempt to practise Eastern religions was viewed quite differently by society than the continued practise of these faiths by indigenous persons. White pagans could be subject to disapproval, even outright condemnation from many circles, but they were also fashionable in others and thanks to their wealth and white skin shielded from the
negative consequences suffered by the native practitioners. There was something interesting about an Englishman studying Buddhism, something that showed he was sensitive and spiritually enlightened, while an Indian Buddhist was merely a foreigner practicing alien customs.
Fast forward a hundred years or so and we can see that this still going on today. White people are still picking and choosing the parts of non white cultures that they like and being credited as intellectual, interesting or unique for doing so while the people who actually come from those cultures are often derided for doing the exact same thing. The modern pagan community is not exempt from this having inherited the traditions of Victorian alternative spirituality and the New Age beliefs of the 1970s; whether its lifting aspects of Buddhism and merging them with European polytheism or taking on closed practices they have no connection to, non Abrahamic religion is often treated as a grab bag that is open to everyone in any way that they choose. They’re all pagan, people will argue, and according to the Victorian colonisers that’s right. But is the Victorian colonial perspective one we want to share and embrace or do we want to stop using Christianity as the lodestone for how we should think about religion, faith and the default human?
I’m not the first person to say this. There’s considerable dialogue about it out there in the pagan community right now; discussions of what a closed religion is and what it means, of respectful ways to approach non-western religions versus shallow appropriation. The blanket categorisation of non-Western religion as pagan and the desire of many members of these faiths for it not to be has become a recurring issue.
For some its a rejection of the Christian and European centrism of the term, for others its that they do not feel that they and the reconstructed or newly created polytheism of the West have anything in common nevermind being subtypes of the same religion (because there is also a tendency to class all the faiths categorized as pagan as being part of one over-faith, Pagan with a capital P). And, when lack of Christianity is taken away as a unifying factor, they’re right. This isn’t a black or white rule of course. There are members of non Western religions who consider themselves pagans, some of whom blend traditional practises with neopaganism, and there are non Western religions, like the Kemetics, who specifically do think of themselves as pagan.
The key here is respect and receptivity, a willingness to listen and allow people to define themselves as they wish, and to respect the boundaries of closed religions and cultures. As a historian I try to avoid using the word pagan to describe peoples, especially outside of the Roman Empire, because it was not a word they would have used themselves or even found meaningful. When speaking about people who are alive today I use pagan only for people who actively claim it for themselves, or to refer to faiths that self describe as pagan. I believe that this is the only respectful way to apply the word, that the definition of a pagan has to include “identifies as such.” Like witch, or queer, pagan is a reclaimed term, something once used to hurt that now empowers, but not everyone will want to reclaim it. Going on to call them pagan after they’ve rejected it does nothing but reinforce a Western, Christian-centric vision of the world, one that we’re trying to move away from.
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