CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

Paganism, a Problematic Umbrella Concept

by Frederic E. Lamond
(independent lecturer and author)
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

For the last 30 years the term "Paganism" has been adopted in English-speaking countries as an umbrella concept by a number of new religious movements: Wicca, some new Druid orders, Feri, the Church of All Worlds, Reclaiming, the Fellowship of Isis, the Dianics, The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUP) and doubtless a number of others. What all these movements share are common postulates of:

  1. a pantheist immanence of the divine in all living beings - and therefore women as much as men - and even all that is, including stones, which leads to:
  2. religious and moral individualism, since every individual can relate to his or her deities directly, with no need for gurus, prophets, divine avatars or holy scriptures as intermediaries,
  3. the reaffirmation of the divine feminine, and therefore - for those who like to anthropomorphise all pervasive energies - one or more Goddess(es) on a par with one or more God(s), or even in Wicca of a slightly higher position,
  4. the resanctification of the human body and of sexual love, seen in Wicca at least as . one of many means to ego-transcendence into cosmic consciousness.

As part of this, Pagans happily sunbathe in the nude in their summer camps, and affirm the legitimacy of alternative consensual sexual lifestyles, including not just homosexual and lesbian partnerships but also polyamorous households, group marriages, and even sacred prostitution, though mainly in California.

The English-speaking Pagan movement attributes the militarism of recent centuries and the contemporary rampant consumerism that threatens the ecology of the planet to a suppression of the divine feminine in the patriarchal monotheistic religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - and the consequent alienation of the Western human consciousness from nature. Politically conscious Pagans thus strongly support the Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Earth First and are generally ranked on the left.

Pagan Imperialism

A number of American leaders claim to have been the first to self-describe themselves as Pagans. They are all wrong, because the first group to do so in the 20th century were the adherents of Roman Traditional Religion, founded in the first decade of the 20th century, who sought to reestablish the cult of the Roman civil deities - Jupiter, Minerva, etc - as truer expression of Italian identity than the Roman Catholic Church which had been hostile to Italian reunification.

The best known member of this group was the Italian philosopher Julius Evola. In his "Rebellion against the Modern World" published in 1935 he castigated capitalism, liberal democracy and communism as symptoms of Western decadence. His ideal was ancient Roman "Pagan Imperialism", to which Italian fascism did not measure up in his eyes but only German National Socialism with its disciplined militarisation of the whole of German society. Unsurprisingly the German translation of this and his other works sold ten times more copies than the Italian original. Evola supported the tripartite division of Indo-European societies into priests, warriors and common people that Georges Dumézil publicised, and to which Europe had also conformed up to the French Revolution. He may well have been the authority on which Pope Pius XII based his 1945 statement that National Socialism had been a Pagan ideology..


Evola’s ideas were taken up in a more moderate form in the 1970s by the French movement GRECE, which besides meaning Greece in French is also an acronym for the French title which means Research and Study Group into European Civilisation, one of whose mission statements was to "defend European culture against Anglo-American egalitarianism and democracy". In his book "What does it mean to be a Pagan?" published in 1980 its leader Alain de Benoist contrasts the immanent Pagan deities with the transcendent Jewish-Christian God, and strongly condemns all ideological totalitarianisms which he sees as secular versions of the mediaeval totalitarian Christian church. But he also supports the tripartite division of society, since all the great European works of art - be it in architecture, sculpture, painting or music - were sponsored by religious or aristocratic oligarchies, though to be fair he sees belonging to the ruling priestly and warrior castes as more a matter of mental attitude and discipline than of heredity. He sees Christian inspired universalism and egalitarianism as leading straight to a cultural dumbing down to the level of Hollywood soaps and McDonald’s hamburgers. He is also one of the ideologists of the "Nouvelle Droite": the new political right.

If, therefore, you describe yourself as a "paien" in France or a "pagano" in Italy, those who understand the term at all will assume you belong to the extreme political right.


The same goes in Germany for self-described "Heiden" or heathens, the term adopted by the adherents of the Nordic religion, mostly called Asatru. This is unfair because only a small minority of Nordic religion followers, notably the Armanen Orden in Germany, are racist and overlap with with Neo-Nazi movements.

Thanks to Tacitus and the 13th century Icelandic monk Snorri Sturlusson we know a great deal about this interesting syncretist religion and its myths. It has two classes of gods and goddesses: the Aesir, divine ancestors of the socially dominant .Indo-European warrior caste, and the Vanir, chtonic fertility deities of the original neolithic inhabitants of Northern and Central Europe. A mythic war between these two groups probably reflects the wars between Indo-European invaders and the original inhabitants, but this was settled by a peace in which the Aesa Father-God Odin married the Vana Earth Mother Goddess Frigg.

If Pagans of German or Scandinavian descent concentrated on invoking the Vanir in a Vanatru movement their values would be the same as those of Wicca or Feri. But they honour both groups of deities and give the same primacy to the Aesir and Odin as the Ancient Germans and Vikings did, and are thus strongly patriarchal. The "Nine Noble Virtues" of Asatru are Courage, Truth, Honour, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self-Reliance and Perseverance. I am not scoffing at these quite admirable ideals, which are calculated to keep young people off drugs and give them the self-respect to become productive members of society: but they are masculine warrior ideals that contrast sharply with the feminine values of Love of Life, Sensual Joy and mystical Ego-transcendence promoted by Wicca or the Church of All Worlds. When dressing up in SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) fashion Asatruar wear old Germanic tunics and a prominent sword.

The Fellowship of Frigg is a movement for female members of the Nordic tradition. They emphasise the equality of women with men, but see no need for women to compete with men in traditional male professions to affirm this. They see the ideal of a Frigg daughter as providing her husband and children with a good home. Homosexuality and lesbianism are strongly condemned as unnatural and marital fidelity emphasised. Some though not all Asatruar also oppose inter-ethnic unions. Non-Christian theology apart, there is nothing in Asatru ideals to which the Rev Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan or President Bush could object.

Other Ethnic Religions

The same in somewhat attenuated form is true of the revivals of pre-Christian Lithuanian, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish religions that have occurred since the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. All offer pantheons of gods and goddesses seen as immanent energies, which in Lithuania at least are all national earth, fertility and weather deities rather than warrior gods, but all propose somewhat conservative family values.

An Elastic Negative Concept

How can a single term "Pagan" be so elastic as to cover both:

I believe because it is an essentially negative concept.

‘Pagan’ is derived from the Latin paganus, which meant originally a countryman: hence its attraction to English speaking advocates of a return to harmony with Nature. In the mouths of sophisticated Roman townspeople it became, however, a derisory term equivalent to the English yokel or the American redneck. In the Roman army it was also used to refer to civilians. The later city dwelling Christians used it for non-Christians, both because they had not yet enrolled in Christ’s army and because the country people remained faithful to their Earth deities and elementals much longer. The contemporary churches regard as Pagan anyone who does not practise one of the three Abrahamic religions, including atheists and agnostics.

But at all times in the last two millenia the non-Abrahamic religions have had little in common except that they were not monotheistic or transcendental. They have included aristocratic warrior ancestor worship, fertility cults, conversations with elemental spirits and with guardians of sacred wells in the countryside, not to mention propitiation of malevolent demons in parts of India and Africa.

The motives of those who rejected patriarchal monotheism in the last 100 years and defiantly put the pejorative term ‘Pagan’ on their banner were and are equally varied.. The adherents of Roman Traditional Religion, German Asatruar, Lithuanian Romuvans and their Russian, Ukrainian and Polish fellows reject above all the Christian universalism that deprived them of their national folk myths and substituted the alien myths of a Semitic desert tribe. They reject also the Communist universalism and now the capitalist globalism into which Christian universalism has morphed. They want to reclaim their individual national identities through their pre-Christian national gods, goddesses and myths.

Among Lithuanians at least this antedates the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union. In 1987 I was shown a book entitled Ancient Lithuanian Folk Traditions printed by a Lithuanian press in Cleveland, Ohio On its cover was the Sun goddess Saule in Lithuanian national costume, zapping two serpents with thunderbolts in each of her hands. One of the serpents had the hammer and sickle, the other the Christian cross on its head.

If the family values of these ethnic religions are fairly conservative it is partly because those were the values of their pre-Christian ancestors, but also because those have been the traditional values of all those who had to work hard to scratch a living from the soil or to better themselves economically and socially like the urban middle classes since the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. They are thus probably the values that the people from the impoverished ex-Communist countries need above all else to raise their standards of productivity and living to Westerm levels.

English speaking North Americans, West Europeans and Australians are in a different situation. The universalist culture that others are rejecting is our culture: we are the new Roman Empire. We belong to the rich of the contemporary world, who do not need iron Puritan values anymore to enrich ourselves further. If we do not like the mass consumption culture in which we live our only remedy is to transform it from within, by replacing Puritan predatory consumerism with a mystical affirmation of our identity with the forces of the Earth and of hedonistic joy in living sensually as well as spiritually. These values are as universalist as the global capitalism and consumerism against which they react.

New Classification Terms

Be that as it may, the spiritual needs and contemporary aims of those who have called themselves Pagans seem to be too diverse for the term to be of any use to religious sociologists and anthropologists. We need new terms to define the two groups.

The Asatruar have already done so and call themselves Heathens in preference to Pagans to distance themselves from Wicca and related groups. They as well as the Romuvans, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish traditionalists have grouped themselves into the World Council of Ethnic Religions (www.wcer.org) in which they have already been joined by some Hindus and are preparing to welcome Japanese Shinto, Native American and African Traditional religions. Those Western Druid orders who affirm primarily an identity with the pre-Christian Celtic past would probably be welcome as well.

On the other side of the fence, Germans practising one of the branches of the duotheistic Earth religion don’t want to call themselves Heiden, to distinguish themselves from the adherents of the Nordic tradition who have appropriated this term. Instead they call themselves Wiccans, even when they have not been initiated into the coven-based mystery cult that carries this name in England. In America too Wicca has become a much broader umbrella term, synonymous with witchcraft, that covers not only Gardnerian Wicca, but Feri, Reclaiming, the Church of All Worlds and all those who share its duotheistic Earth revering theology. So it looks as if Wicca is the emerging term for all non-ethnic Earth revering religions, which unlike Paganism does not carry the risk of being confused with the extreme rightwing disciples of Julius Evola.

Of course, there is no mutual exclusiveness between seeking to defend the Earth’s ecology and honouring one’s ancestral religious traditions: Native Americans, Romuvans and most Hindus do both; but there is no necessary identity between the two aims either. And even those who hold both aims may differ in their priorities.


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