A Case for Culture…
By and large, when discussing “Paganism”, we are discussing “20th Century Neo-Paganism” and its developments, (not 2000+ years of non-Abrahamic religion).
This is itself shorthand for “[20th Century] Neo-Pagan Culture in America”.
“Big Tent” and “Big Umbrella” terms are in most cases used effectively as synonyms for “Neo-Pagan Culture”, referencing the inclusive and collectivist form that Neo-Paganism has grown into since its inception in the 1970s. Neo-Pagan Culture is a fairly specific thing, which while defined internally in ambiguous and difficult to hammer down fashion, is nonetheless clearly documented with unambiguous histories, dates, publications, and named founding voices and participants.
I didn’t realize people weren’t realizing this. In one conversation with a particular Neo-Pagan the other day, the word “Pagan” was used in not less than three different (contradicting) contexts and meanings, switched out without obvious intention in such a manner as to maximize the defensible ground in what was being defensively interpreted as a debate. (In my mind this was not a debate: I was literally agreeing, verbatim, with several of this person’s statements, and yet each contribution that I made in carefully worded agreement was met with an insecure defensive push-back, and each push-back drew on a different meaning of the word Paganism.)
“Words have meanings” gets thrown around a lot here, and let’s face it, a lot of people were sick of hearing it the first time. Here’s why: if words have meaning, than we have to stop equating 20th Century Pagan Culture with “2000 years of resistance against Abrahamism” or whatever, and recognize — as academia did decades ago — that a religion coming out of Neo-Pagan Culture phenomenon (or intersecting with it in preceding form) is classified as a New Religious Movement, the same as any religion less than two hundred years in age.
Now there are two things to note emphatically here:
- “religion coming out of Neo-Pagan Culture“, by which I mean “Neo-Pagan Religion” as opposed to just unqualified “Neo-Paganism” (which as a term must be assumed to refer to the collective broad grouping of the culture, not specific religions, as there is no religious consensus within the culture), which would be similar in reality to discussing “Neo-Pagan Magical Practices” as distinct from other non-Neo-Pagan magical practices throughout the world and its storied history.
- Neo-Pagan practices enjoy, in the United States of America, religious protections in terms of calendar observances, rights to congregate and practice, and such things as symbols held sacred and identifying for those within the collective mentioned. This is a relatively recent (and ongoing) development for the Neo-Pagan (and Wiccan) worlds, which is awesome and holy and ultimately precedent setting for marginalized and minority religions of all kinds. As a concern was brought up by two people in personal discussions around this topic, I want to be clear that denoting the accurate and rational “Cultural” descriptor to Neo-Pagan considerations as I am in this writing, rather than exclusively considering it a religion, is not a challenge to these rights and freedoms. For example, a secular Jew who does not practice their religion but nonetheless is identified in embodied fashion with the Jewish Culture at large is still protected in their observances of wearing certain symbols or having certain after-death funerary customs; they do not magically lose their religious protections because they are not “as religious” as others within their established culture may be.
Life Begins in the Forties…
When Paganism is being discussed, unless qualified to mean “historic pagan religions or culture expressions” or specifically “geo-politically relevant world religions which were not influenced by metropolitan religio-political shifts of the state conversion sort” or something to that nature, what is really meant and must be assumed to be intended is Neo-Pagan Culture specifically as it is expressed in the West from the 1970s on. This makes Neo-Pagan Culture at best around 45 years old now. Thankfully, as the saying goes, “life begins at forty, and everything before that was just practice”.
(If this is still unclear, take a look at the “Wiccan Privilege” discussion last year: obviously nobody involved in that, while stating that “Paganism has a defined and permeated Wiccan Privilege of assumed Wiccamorphic structure and practice”, was stating that Hinduism and Shinto have been so-too afflicted. Context, people. It’s a thing.)
So the problematic behavior in the discussion of “polytheism is a sub-stratum of Paganism” which keeps coming up, wherein those affiliated with Neo-Pagan Culture in some manner or another attempt to subordinate polytheistic religious developments and discussions beneath the “Big Tent” of Neo-Paganism, now makes complete sense. People using the term Paganism don’t seem to recognize in its usage that they (at least should) mean “Neo-Pagan Culture“.
Suggesting that “polytheism is a sub-stratum of Neo-Pagan Culture” is ridiculous, as obviously one of these has only existed since the 1970s and the other for around 130,000 some-odd years. So many of us on “this” side of the discussion have been ripping our hair out trying to understand what is preventing people from seeing how ridiculous this is, often assuming that we were just being trolled because it makes absolutely no sense. (In many cases, we have been getting trolled, but that’s an aside. Humanist Paganism and other offshoot sects and sub-cultures exist on the internet, in viewing their trending behaviors and topical considerations, for little reason other than to troll other groups and peoples.)
Therefore all of my discussions on how they are different — “Pagan groups or persons may have, or not have, polytheistic characteristics or affirmations and practices, without either compromising or increasing their Pagan-ness”, and so forth — all still basically assumed that people “grok’d” the cultural component.
To state that “Pagan Polytheism is a subordinate-stratum of Neo-Pagan Culture in America” would be accurate and reasonable, because it draws forth necessary qualifying language, and describes expressions of polytheism within Neo-Pagan Culture, which again is a specific and defined thing (and does not apply, for example, to new Shinto practices or lineages that may happen to emerge in urban Japan, for a random global example). This qualified statement is not in violation of any rational identification issue, just as it would be fair and reasonable to say that “Jewish religion as a subordinate-stratum of Jewish Culture”. The one exists within the context of the other, thus, rationally and literally, is a subordinate consideration. (Practitioners of Jewish Religion, e.g. Religiously Observant Jews, are probably not going to protest the rational discussion of Jewish Culture. Admittedly they may well argue that Jewish Culture is an offshoot of Jewish Religion, not the posed inverse, however this would be misapplication of the term “Culture” in the academic sense, which is defined in such a way as to encompass religions, often without applying them a requisite assumption to those grouped within.)
However, stating that “Monotheistic religion is a subordinate stratum to Jewish culture” makes zero sense, as does the assertion of polytheism with Neo-Paganism.
Years and years and countless hours and thousands of pages of writing have been offered toward the goal of defining for others (as it was ever clear to those who already “did” and “were” it) just what “polytheism” is, and what it meant to be “a Polytheist”. These definitions have disproportionally been geared toward helping identified Pagans to understand these distinctions, whether those Pagans were also Polytheists or not, due to the (unfortunate, for the purposes of exploring distinctly what polytheism is…) intersectionality between Neo-Pagan Culture and polytheistic religious discourse. It never occurred to me that the real thing that needed a definition reminder was, rather than polytheistic religion, the fact that there is a culture of Neo-Paganism.
I made the error of assuming people already knew that is what they were defending erroneously.