ANALYSIS: ‘Pagan’ is getting a makeover. Not everyone got the memo.

Print More
Rev. Patrick McCollum attends a spiritual gathering in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. Photo courtesy Rev. Patrick McCollum

Rev. Patrick McCollum attends a spiritual gathering in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. Photo courtesy Rev. Patrick McCollum

(RNS) Is calling someone a “pagan” a bad thing or a badge of honor? Do we even know what the term means?

Those questions were prompted by a recent speech by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in which he lamented the decline of faith and morals in the modern world. “Even many self-described Christians,” he declared, “are in fact pagan.”

And it doesn’t sound like he meant that as a compliment.

In an email, Chaput declined to elaborate on what he meant by that line, which came near the end of a 3,000-word address delivered in June to an international association of Catholic leaders meeting in Spain. The archbishop said “the words and the context of the words speak for themselves. It is all quite obvious.”

Rev. Patrick McCollum attends a spiritual gathering in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. Photo courtesy Rev. Patrick McCollum

Rev. Patrick McCollum attends a spiritual gathering in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. Photo courtesy Rev. Patrick McCollum

Others, however, aren’t so sure his message is clear given the many meanings of “pagan.”

“It’s kind of a sliding word,” said the Rev. Patrick McCollum, a leading practitioner of pagan religion and a peace activist who promotes religious pluralism.

In its original context in the ancient world, pagan simply meant a “country dweller” and was only mildly derogatory — like “hick” or “redneck,” said McCollum, who lives near San Francisco. A pagan may have been viewed as uncultured, but there was no particular moral or spiritual opprobrium attached to the label.

Yet as the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity, began to spread, “pagan” took on negative connotations as the antithesis of the “true faith” of the monotheists. Pagans were polytheists who believed in various gods and held to questionable moral codes. Buddhists and Hindus and everyone else who were not Christians were labeled as pagans and thus doomed in the afterlife.

Decades ago, Catholic school kids collected money for “pagan babies” — funds that were sent to missionaries in places like Africa to minister to non-Christian children, and perhaps save their souls. (The term was retired long ago, and isn’t coming back — though it did have a brief resurrection as the name of a West Coast band.)

Eventually, a “pagan” turned into something far more problematic — someone “who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods,” as the Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it. “An irreligious or hedonistic person.” It was perhaps no coincidence that when an outlaw motorcycle gang in suburban Washington was looking for a fearsome name, they settled on the Pagans.

Pagans were seen as anti-religious, dangerous people who would lure believers into atheism or even occult practices. But that’s not the case any longer, if it ever was, say contemporary pagans like McCollum.

“What pagan has come to mean in modern times is people who are more attentive to our connection to the Earth, the world we live in, and our interconnectedness with everything in it,” he said. There are even Christo-Pagans who believe in Jesus and don’t think Christianity and pagan beliefs are mutually exclusive.

The Parthenon, the famous Greek temple to the goddess Athena. Photo courtesy Konstantinos Dafalias via Flickr

The Parthenon photo courtesy Konstantinos Dafalias via Flickr The Parthenon is a famous Greek temple to the goddess Athena.

Above all, pagans insist that even if they are not Christians, they nonetheless have strong religious and moral convictions about caring for others and the Earth. They are not, they insist, anti-religious libertines looking to corrupt your soul.

“Except in the rarest instances, I never meet nonspiritual, nonbelieving pagans,” McCollum said.

As far back as the 1950s, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, an icon to many evangelicals today, was extolling pagans as having more in common with traditional Christians than with “post-Christians” who are indifferent about faith.

“The gap between those who worshiped different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who don’t,” Lewis said in a well-known lecture. “I find it a bit hard to have patience with all those Jeremiahs in press or pulpit who warn us that we are relapsing into paganism.”

Since then, pagans have also benefited from a number of other trends.

One is that Christian churches, including some Catholics and evangelicals, have developed a theology that promotes a reverence for the Earth and a spiritual rationale for protecting the environment. That provides important common ground for dialogue and action with pagans.

Paganism is also becoming decidedly mainstream. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey showed dramatic growth among the various communities that come under the pagan umbrella, such as Wiccans and Druids. Those who identified specifically as pagans went from 140,000 in 2001 to 340,000 in 2008.

In addition, the U.S. military in 2007 approved the pagan pentacle as a religious symbol that veterans may request for their tombstones, and pagan groups are continuing to establish seminaries and clergy certification programs across the country.

None of this means, however, that the word pagan can’t be deployed as a critique, the way Chaput seems to have intended.

“In the common currency, words have a certain balance, they have a certain weight and the words that he’s using could broadly be taken as judgmental,” said Lawrence Cunningham, an emeritus professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and a prolific Catholic writer.

“Here’s a little test you could use,” Cunningham told Philadelphia’s NBC affiliate, which produced a detailed story on the archbishop’s speech. “Would Pope Francis use that language? My inclination is to think that he probably wouldn’t.”

  • Kathryn

    I’m glad this discussion is taking place. Thank you. It is my hope that the ‘makeover’ will continue as more and more people learn how to show respect and even acceptance for alternative religions. You could help further by capitalizing the word Pagan just as you have Wiccan, Druid and Christian. When you use the word Pagan to describe a specific group of self-identifying religious people the word becomes a proper noun worthy of the same respect as any other religious people.
    Again, thank you for the article.

  • Doc Anthony


    Oh, no no. No.

  • Katrina Payne

    Actually, I kind of think he might have been using Pagan as a term for country bumpkin.

    The guy is an Archbishop in Philadelphia. A city that generally prefers sophistication to the notion of being a hill billy. Archbishops do tend to get a fair education in the bible… it is how they GET to be Archbishop. There is like exams in Greek and everything. Well, no–but the skills generally make them more likely to get the job.

    If anything, he came up with a wonderful euphemism for the Snake Baptists and a fair amount of the Bible Belt Christians that generally give the worst image of Xtianity of all. He kind of “slammed” the Xtians that the Naytheists tend to attack as their targets saying, “this is the entire faith” sort of stuff.

    Honestly, I would have chose the phrasing, “Heathen-Christians”–but even that would not have sounded proper. But damned… next time I’m dealing with a Naytheist, or a Sciencist (One of those internet Scientists people who talk more Sciencism (Science+Mysticism) than real Science), I’ll have to remember the term “Pagan-Christian” to refer to an unrefined “bumpkin” Christian.

    Well done Arch-Bishop.

  • Have you read “ChristoPaganism: An Inclusive Path” by Joyce and River Higginbotham?

  • Pingback: ‘Pagan’ is getting a makeover. Not everyone got the memo - Syndicated News Services()

  • Fran

    It’s interesting how many of today’s holidays such as Christmas and Easter, have “pagan” origins, yet they are still observed by many religions, even though not celebrated by the first-century Christians. You cannot serve two masters; either you will love one and hate the other; hopefully, our only master will be Almighty God.

  • Terra

    Thank you..I have been telling everyone, Pagan is a proper noun.,.Capitalize it. If Christian is capitalized so should Pagan be.

  • Terra

    Pagans are very educated thank you.

    Call those Christians Mystical Christians..they are not Pagan Christians…
    they are no Pagan.

  • Terra

    Pagans are very educated thank you. Percentage wise we have a high rate of scientists and professional people. And that Pagan might have been used as hillbilly and red neckl, but that was by the Christianized Roman soldiers that were sent out and convert by the sword. What the word comes from is Pagani…Country person..People of the Earth. We are not “unrefined”. But I see you making your judgments are a real modern Christian.

    Call those Christians Mystical Christians..they are not Pagan Christians…
    they are no Pagan.

  • David Thompson

    Don’t kid your self, our only masters (god) are Visa, MasterCard, American Express, home mortgage, and work.

  • Donald Jones

    I must be one of those country bumpkins because I am having a little trouble following this thread. So if you don’t mind, could someone explain in a little bit more detail what the terms “Naytheist” , “Snake Baptist” and ” Sciencism” are. I suspect they are not complimentary, just as my understanding is that Christians don’t care much for the term “Xian”.

    In somewhat the same vein, I don’t see the problem with people calling themselves ChristoPagan or the other variants mentioned. I am a Pagan-Pagan, (which is redundant, but then as we are tossing undefined terms around, I might as well join the fun) but my point is that (in my view) we don’t get to define or judge someone else’s spiritual path or what they want to call it. One can do that, of course, but doesn’t doing so seem to anyone else here to be somewhat obnoxious and perhaps even arrogant?

    That is too bad because what I would much rather do is have a conversation about where we can find common ground.

  • Donald Jones

    Fran, I am sorry that David made that comment. I may have other ideas about the subject you brought up, but I know that you are sincere and I respect that.

  • TheRaginPagan

    I prefer to define “Pagan” and “Paganism” as religions continuing pre-christian European cultural theologies, i.e. Norse, Germanic, Celtic, etc. To me, Buddhism and Hinduism are Eastern traditions, or Eastern Polytheism.

  • Pingback: Monday’s Religion News Roundup: Charismatic Canterbury * Princess Pope * Tweaking Tisha B’Av | SecularNews.Org()

  • Kevan Scott

    As one who still calls himself Christian albeit fed up with how the RWers in this country have used and abused it to make the words of Jesus pretty much null and void. But, I still wear the label somewhat though I find myself somewhere between Christianity and atheism. Sigh. Anyway, I have a wiccan caregiver, and I totally respect her religious beliefs and she is also smart enough to have known what the practice of wiccan came out of and what Paganism means to that practice. A lot of Christians don’t have a clue on that but would rather judge than understand. She has even lost one client because the client saw her wiccan symbol on a sticker on her car and the poor woman wouldn’t even let my caregiver in the house. I’d rather accept than fear or judge and I look to Jesus meeting with the woman at the well as a guide for those sort of things. Speaking of sorting, I’m relatively sure that God, if there is one as we think we know Him I suspect He’ll sort it all out one day!

  • Doc Anthony

    No I haven’t. But I am thoroughly familiar with the Bible, and it does fully support what Beliefnet Pagain blogster Gus Dizerega wrote about ChristoPaganism:

    “…(From) a Pagan perspective Jesus has to be demoted to a wise teacher, Western Christian concepts such as original sin and the fallenness of the world must be abandoned, and the virtually universal Christian claims to exclusivity of worship of either Yahweh or Jesus must be cast aside.

    Is what remains Christianity in any sense? I do not think so. But if any of this remains I do not see how it can be legitimately labeled Pagan.”

  • Donald Jones

    Once upon a time when I was young and a Christian I came to that awkward moment when I decided that the answers I was being given about things like, “What happens to people who never heard of Christianity.” and so on, didn’t make sense anymore. So I just let it all go like I had let go of the myth about Santa Clause and became an atheist. After half a decade of that I let go of that too because while I still thought it was all myth, I did not know for sure. There are some things that one just cannot prove one way or another. Admitting that is intellectual honesty. But there are some things that ARE true even though one just cannot prove them one way or another. Admitting that is spiritual honesty. It took me decades to discover that. If you still feel the pull of Christianity in your life, don’t let it go too easily just because there are people who pollute the word and act badly while professing to believe what you feel.
    The link below expresses one of the best reasoned and philosophical arguments concerning the concept of the Abramic god, including the Christian version of it, which I have heard. It is presented by an atheist to explain why he does not believe in the Christian god. But one does not have to be an atheist or a member of any specific faith to appreciate the ideas presented because the flip side of what he believes about the scenario he suggests sounds pretty good. One only has to be honest about the fact that we tend to project our own needs and fears onto the divine presence, sort of like those on your path who are giving it a bad name. Unfortunately, this is even truer for those who have never really met that presence and/or have reasons for distorting that phenomenon for personal, financial or power advantages.
    My take on what the author of the video has to say is that the god of Abraham has been handed down through thousands of years of changing cultures and thousands of writers who have transformed the image of the divine into something that he and many others find less than inspiring. It is no wonder that people turn away from that image by the millions. I have always had the idea that circumstances and experiences may point us in one direction or another, but if we respond to that which we have experienced for ourselves in the divine presence AS IF the experience matters, then we are on the path for which we are meant. I suggest that all paths by sincere seekers are not that much different. It is just a matter of the scenery along the way. I also suggest that if one has to insist that one’s path is the only true one, then to that extent that someone is doing that, they are walking in circles and not making any real spiritual progress. – but I could be wrong. One always has to take that into account.
    So I have spent a lot of time talking around the main reason I have replied to your input. Perhaps I should get to the point. First: thank you for your willingness to accept others including Wiccans. Second: I think what the author of the video is talking about has a lot to do with what you call “sorting things out one day”.
    Anyway, here is the video. Hope you appreciate it for what it is and not be put off by what he believes:

  • Pingback: ANALYSIS: 'Pagan' is getting a makeover. Not ev...()

  • One of these days, more of us will realize that words and their meanings are as fluid as life and time. Things change–there is no stopping it–regardless of how much some individuals and groups wish to stay buried in a past that makes them feel comfortable.

  • Indigo Opal

    I bet he meant to say heathen. While I am a Pagan and totally okay with all that is Heathenism, I bet he didn’t realize he forgot the word until he was trying to recall it.

  • Talo Kurian, Bangalore

    “pagan” took on negative connotations as the antithesis of the “true faith” of the monotheist. Pagans were polytheists who believed in various gods and held to questionable moral codes. Buddhists and Hindus and everyone else who were not Christians were labeled as pagans and thus doomed in the afterlife.”

    forget Political Correctness, the above is Gospel Truth.
    the matter will be settled on Judgement Day. Please Choose wisely pagans.
    The truth will not be hidden from those seek it prayerfully reading the New Testament. I will be praying for you.

  • Pingback: Unleash the Hounds! (Link Roundup) | Pagan Radio Network()

  • Alas, as much as I admire Pope Francis’ preferential option for the poor, I am horrified that he is now claiming that sex-addicted pedophile priests, prosperity gospel hucksters, and nominal Christians are actually Pagans!

    In fact, the Pagans are generally the very people who were enslaved, conquered, murdered, and brutalized by the Roman Catholic Church and its Two Swords (the threats of damnation by the church and the threat of death by the government with the blessing of the church. Why? Because ACTUAL Pagans worshiped the Divine as embodied in Nature, not radically Other than Nature.

    The religions of the Abrahamic Covenant (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) ALL contend that God is WHOLLY OTHER from Nature.

    Some Pagans are “hard polytheists,” focusing on the diversity of Divine presences, but even they believe that all the Gods and Goddesses and minor local spirits together form a unity Cicero called the Providence of the Gods. Other Pagans believe that what we experience as “the Gods” are Jungian archetypes or what Alfred North Whitehead called “eternal objects.”
    Nearly ALL people who identify as Pagan/Wiccan/Heathen/etc. use the imagery of pre-Christian mythology.

    The Catholic priest pedophile was NOT ever part of this Pagan community; he’s the product of the RCC. The Prosperity Gospel Xian may not have understood Jesus’ preferential option for the poor, but such Xians are NOT influenced by Seneca, Epictetus, or Pythagoras. Whatever Hitler’s later peculiar notions may have been, he was raised as a Christian.

    There is nothing inherently ethical about monotheism.

    When religious identity is used as a warrant for domination over others, it is, in Christian terms, “demonic.”

    Pope Francis owes an apology to the millions of Hindus, Taoists, followers of aboriginal religions, and self-identified Pagans now alive, and to all those who were slaughtered in the name of the Church Triumphal.

    Christa Landon, A.M., D.Min.