In a comment on another post Yvonne Aburrow writes:
Small grumble… why do Christians (even lovely ones such as your good self) always insist on the “Neo-” prefix? Is it to emphasise that you don’t believe we have continuity with pagans of the past? Sure, we don’t have the equivalent of apostolic succession (we call it initiatory lineage), but there is a continuity of ideas via the Western Mystery Tradition, and many another strand of thought and feeling. Also, the pagans of the classical world didn’t call themselves Pagans, so I don’t give them a capital P – but I do give it to modern Pagans because they identify as such.
Of course, given that you belong to a tradition with unbroken apostolic succession, maybe you should call all other forms of Christianity Neo-Christian…
This post is an attempt to respond to that.
I should say right at the start that in addition to being a Christian I am a curmudgeonly language pedant. I tend to be fussy about language and usage, and distinctions between the meanings of words that some might think hair splitting.
And for me, “pagan” is a general term, whereas “neopagan” is a more specific one.
“Pagan” started off as Christian slang for non-Christians. As the historian Robin Lane Fox puts it in his book Pagans and Christians:
In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani… In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians’ usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians’ view of life.
“Pagan” continued to be used as Christian slang for non-Christians right up to the middle of the 20th century. Paganism was not a religion. It was the state of not being a Christian. In Europe, perceptions of religion began to change with the growth of modernity. I don’t want to go into that in too much detail here, but should just point out that modernity gave rise to the modern conception of “religion” and “religions”, and the idea that Christianity was one instance of something that belonged to a wider category, one religion among many. Such a notion would probably never have occurred to anyone before the 17th century. What it led to was a notion among some people that the term “pagans” applied to adherents of non-monotheistic religions, so that anyone who was not a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim was a pagan. But still, no one was a self-described pagan.
In the 19th century, though, some people did begin to describe themselves as pagans. They accepted the Christian understanding, with an extension. Not only were they not Christian, they were not religious. Those who accepted “pagan” as a self-description were secular humanists.
An example of this usage can be seen in a book by Rosalind Murray, The Good Pagan’s failure. It was a book of Christian apologetics written by one who had been a Good Pagan, but had become a Christian. I used to have a copy, but can’t find it. The following excerpt from a review, however, should make it clear what the book is about, and how the word “pagan” is used in it.
The Good Pagan’s Failure. By Rosalind Murray. (Longmans, Green, 7s. 6d. net.)
Miss ROSALIND MURRAY has attempted to interpret liberal humanism to the Christian, and Christianity to the humanist, to examine the misunderstandings which inevitably arise between the supernatural outlook of the “totalitarian” Christian, and the cultivated, “moderate”, humanitarian worldliness of the Good Pagan. Miss Murray is singularly equipped to make this attempt, having known both worlds, and she has achieved a work of immediate value.
At its best (and Miss Murray knew it at its best) that humanism possessed qualities of culture, moral refinement, honour, and humane sensibility which were remarkable; today its essential weaknesses have worked themselves out, and the Good Pagan stands back in hurt surprise at the sight of a world in ruins. His intentions were so good, his heart so kind; what has gone wrong? Miss Murray examines his failure with intelligence and sympathetic insight, and shows how by his exclusive preoccupation with this world, his confidence that with bread (and kindness) alone man could be happy, the Good Pagan was forced to shut his eyes to the world’s imperfections, to the facts of suffering, poverty and sin. But “by excluding Heaven we have not abolished Hell, by denying redemption we have not been redeemed, the sinner is still there, in the world and in ourselves”.
Rosalind Murray, as the reviewer points out, was a member of both worlds. Her father, Gilbert Murray, was a well-known advocate of secular humanism. And Rosalind Murray’s use of the term “pagan” was fairly widespread and well understood for the first two-thirds of the 20th century.
When I was teaching in the theology faculty of the University of South Africa (Unisa) in the 1990s, the faculty issued formal tutorial letters to students to say that they should not use words like “non-Christian” and “pagan”. Their intentions were good. The people who compiled the letters thought that these terms were insulting, and that it was not good to be rude to people. The problem was that they were a little naive, and did not see how their own prohibition was actually a manifestation of an attitude of superiority. If it is bad to call someone a pagan or a non-Christian, that implies that one thinks that Christians are superior to non-Christians, the therefore it is rude to imply that a person is so inferior as not to be a Christian. I doubt that many pagans would be fooled by this disingenuousness. It actually patronising condescension at its worst.
At the same time, and especially since the mid-1960s, many people were happy to call themselves pagans, not because they were irreligious, but because they were religious. Many of them were consciously trying to revive the ancient pre-Christian religions of Europe. But even in this sense, “paganism” did not refer to a single religion, but to a group of religions, some of which had their own names. Asatru, for example, as the revival of ancient Norse religions, Hellenism was the revival of the pre-Christian religion of the Olympian gods. There were new composite religions like Wicca.
Yvonne objects to the term on the grounds that it implies a lack of continuity, and in a sense it does: Asatru is not a continuation of ancient Norse religion. Hellenism is not a continuation of ancient Greek religion. They are revivals. The term “paganism” also covers what some have called “paleopaganism”, which includes not only the ancient religions of Greece and Rome, but also religions that are still practised at the present day, including African and American traditional religions. And many modern pagans themselves have come up with, and are happy to use, terms like “neopaganism” and “paleopaganism” and indeed have helped to define them. While I don’t agree with everything in that article, I think it does help to clarify the definitions of the terms.
Perhaps, as a postscript, I should say a little more about the question of “superiority”, as manifested in both the Unisa tutorial letters and in the article referred to in the previous paragraph. After all, I remain a Christian — doesn’t that mean that I regard myself as superior to pagans, whether neo-, meso- or paleo-?
And the answer for me, at least, is no.
Someone once likened Christian evangelism to “one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread”.
It’s a good analogy. A beggar who finds bread is not necessarily better than one who has not. He may be “better off“, but he is not “better”. That is the point of the discussion of the Good Pagan’s failure. Why the epithet “good”? The point is that the failure is not necessarily a failure of ethics or morality. Many pagans live better and more moral lives than many Christians, and some indeed have higher ethical and moral standards than some Christians. The moment that Christians assume that they are morally superior to others simply because they are Christians, they’ve lost the plot. And, as Isaac Bonewits points out in his article cited above, that has happened quite often, There is nothing in the Christian faith to justify such attitudes of moral superiority. And when we do adopt those attitudes, we simply show how much we are still sinners.