28 May 2011

The Word “Pagan” and Abrahamic Privilege


It's a loaded term. People have many different opinions about it. I’d like to contribute mine.

According to the YSEE (Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes) FAQ,
The term “Pagan,” which in the original Latin is derived from Paganus (peasant), is yet another insult used by the victorious Christians since the 4th Century, to belittle what remained of the Native Religions.

They used this to label all those remaining loyal to their Ethnic Traditions, to imply that they were uneducated and uncouth villagers. The term was used for centuries in most European languages to refer to the Ethnikoi. In the 20th Century, it was reintroduced with the suffix neo (viz. Neopaganism), by various Christian-inspired devotees of Esotericism and the New Age. “Neopaganism” doesn't concern us. It may even be a manufactured ploy to detract from the current world rule of the so-called “Monotheists.”
One has to question some aspects of this — mostly the conspiracy-driven rhetoric in the last three sentences — but the other parts make complete sense. “Pagan” as applied to religious practices has a long history as a slur used by Christians, and it is tied to a system of Abrahamic privilege that has gripped the West since the days of Constantine (who strongly supported Christians and spent most of his life as an unbaptised convert).

Now, the definition I am using for privilege is the one provided by Google Dictionary. Privilege is a special status, set of rights, or immunity given to a particular group and taken for granted by that group. In this definition, privilege is not something that is earned, but something that socioeconomic, political, and social mores set as an ideal — such as heterosexuality, gender matching physical sex, lighter skin, or male behavior. Feminists use this term a lot to describe how American culture prioritizes traditionally masculine jobs, stories, and sexuality at the expense of women. The LGBTQAI community uses this to describe severe anti-LGBTQAI bias in addition to the microaggressive actions of allies and even other people in the LGBTQAI community that undermine equality.

The word pagan becomes problematic from this perspective because the term originates from a privilege system, and our continued acceptance of it means the continued acceptance of Christianity’s supremacy. We should all be allowed to define ourselves based on our OWN terminology and our OWN religious systems, using words that more appropriately describe our relationship with the Gods.

The Abrahamic privilege system is the same one that accepts the concept of Christian scholars commenting on their own religion, but not polytheistic or Wiccan individuals doing the same to their own; that makes journalists seek anti-pagan quotes on pieces about Pagan Pride Day; that negatively skews or ignores important aspects of both Western polytheism and traditions such as Hinduism, Shintō, and Santería; and that has taken children away from loving parents during child custody cases. We need to be vocal about dismantling this system. We need to make sure that people do not assume we come from Christian backgrounds or that our children will receive a Christian baptism, and we sure as Horkos can’t let them define ethics and morality for us.

For this reason, I tend to call myself a Hellenist or a polytheist. When explaining my religion to outsiders, their lack of familiarity means that I can describe the religion I practice without facing any of the fluffbunny baggage or assumptions of Wiccan practice that clouds pagan. When I am in a situation where applying the word makes more sense, I will do so, but it should only be applied sparingly, like salt or truffle seasoning.

I still want to engage with other polytheists, and sometimes the only way to do that is to grudgingly accept that we need to unite under a giant umbrella to make connections. It bothers me, though, that by entering into the broader pagan community, I am losing my religious identity.

My primary form of contact with Wheel-of-the-Year pagans is through the blogosphere. Our blogosphere is very integrated. Heathens, Celtic recons, Wiccans, Feri, Hellenists, and many other different faiths interact in the same broader bubble. However, my experiences in real-world communities have not been the same. Few people have exposure to reconstructionist methodologies, many are suspicious of academia, and my scientific disposition and vocal criticism of conspiracy theories make it difficult to deal with some people. Additionally, we may even have different ideas of what being religious means. One conflict I had while co-chairing an undergraduate pagan group involved a disagreement over whether or not aromatherapy and psychic tests were religious.

I'm worried that all of these things will make me feel alienated and that, if I try to compromise, I will have to pretend to be someone I am not and do things in public rituals that I would never, ever do alone. On the other hand, I have found some amazing Wiccans, Witches, Heathens, and other people who, while not coreligionists, make excellent people to share a meal or intense discussion with.

So these are my thoughts on the word. They are a bit political and subversive, but I hope that some of these ideas enrich the discussion.

UPDATE: Many others have weighed in on this discussion. You can find an incomplete list at Patheos.

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