There are many misconceptions on what Paganism is. It is important to first point out what it is not. It is not eclectic New Age religions. It is not vague, undefined “earth-based” spirituality. Nor is it “religion without rules.”
Instead, we can understand Paganism by looking at it etymologically. In the Greek New Testament, those ascribing to pre-Christian religions, are called ta ethnē, “the nations” (Luke 24:47, Matthew 25:32, Matthew 28:19). As such, religions of “the nations” were deemed ethnikos, as pertaining to a nation, in opposition to katholikos, “catholic” or “universal,” like Christianity. In the Latin West, the term Paganus, or Pagan, was coined in the religious sense by Christians in Late Antiquity. The term paganus, coming from Latin pagus, “district,” also relates to the idea of nationhood. This word continues to have this meaning in the derived French word pays, which implies “a nation” or “country.” As such, Pagan religions are concerned with the ethnos. An ethnos has nothing to do with one’s blood or anything remotely similar to contemporary social constructs invented by European imperialists such as “race,” but instead means a group of people who share a common ethos (meaning “character” or culture; including literature, history, philosophy, science and so on).
Another word synonymous with Paganism is ethnism, not to be confused with chauvinist “ethnicism.”
Pagan Religions are Universal
One does not become part of a Pagan religion by mere birth— they become a Pagan religion through work. This is a clear understanding from the ancient world, as the divine Emperor Julian tells us: “though my family [the Constantinian dynasty] is Thracian, [I] am a Greek in my habits,” or in other words, logos displaces genos (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 501). Participating within a Pagan tradition does not designate a people of common descent (genos), but a mindset (logoi) (Libanios, Or. II.184) (Kaldellis 2011, 54). One becomes part of Pagan tradition because they share in a culture which was attained through education (such as paideia) rather than “common stock (physis)” (Elm 2012, 378-379). So while Pagan religions are ethnic because they originated with a group of people, they are at the same time katholikos, or universal, because by their very nature they reflect the reality and universal principles of the Cosmos itself.
Over the decades Contemporary Paganism has moved further away from the New Age movement until it became distinctly separate. As such, this website uses Michael York’s categorization of “Pagan” from his book Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion: an umbrella term for many different contemporary religions that are either inspired by (e.g., Wicca or Druidism) or revivalisms of (as in reconstructionist polytheism, e.g., Heathenry, Kemeticism, Hellenism, etc) the ancient cultures in the European-Mediterranean-Near East cultural basin that were displaced by Abrahamic religions.
Indigenous non-Abrahamic religions outside of this cultural basin often possess their own identity, especially if conversion or attacks haven’t eradicated them. For example, it would be offensive if you called a Hindu, Zoroastrian or Nahua a pagan, and unless they explicitly said that they’re okay with it, do not do it.
Note: The terms “Neo-Pagan,” “Neopagan,” or any derivation will not be used on this website. At its best these terms are misrepresentative, implying a “new” pre-Abrahamic, and at worse these terms are derogatory, implying contemporary Paganism is merely reactionary.
Elm, Susanna. Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome. University of California Press, 2012.
Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave. Wright. The works of emperor Julian. London: Heinemann etc., 1962.
Kaldellēs, Antōnios Emm. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011.
TheLettuceMan. “Paganism as a Religion.” Of Axe and Plough. June 18, 2017. Accessed February 15, 2018. https://thelettuceman.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/paganism-as-a-religion/.
York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion. New York: New York University Press, 2005.