Defining Paganism

Michael York

Bath Spa University College

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

"Religion and Transnationalism: Challenges of the 21st Century"

18-22 October 2000

In the process of studying religion, it would seem obvious that the object of study ought to be defined from the beginning – at least tentatively. However, understanding what religion is in its myriad of forms and expressions remains among the most elusive and debatable of concerns. There is as of yet no universally accepted definition of religion. We have instead a range of substantial and functional definitions from which one selects as befits the occasion. While I will insist that in its essence, a religion represents a shared positing of the identity of, and relationship between, the world, humanity and the supernatural in terms of meaning assignment, value allocation and validation enactment, the matter of defining religion in general and any specific religion in particular is not merely an academic question but one whose answer, however tentative, has real social and legal implications and consequences. This appears above all to be the case in reaching an acceptable and identifiable definition of paganism.

In my own ongoing study of religion qua religion, I increasingly find that beside whatever other purposes it can be applied toward – social integration, validation of social hierarchy, political influence, etc., from a psychological perspective, religion serves to provide a gateway of emancipation from what can be perceived as empirical imprisonment. Religions open one to something beyond the here and the now, to something beyond what can only be known through our senses, and this remains the case even when a chief preoccupation of the religious mind-set is to become fully conscious of the here and the now. Religion takes us beyond the merely mechanical world of cause and effect. In a word, religion delineates purpose.

The panorama of the world's different major, minor, old and new religions is a kaleidoscope of various worldviews that provide their particular adherents a raison d'être. Through any study of the rich fabric comprising religions as a whole, we are constantly confronted with different perspectives, different ways of assessing significance, and different goals and objectives. If our world is becoming increasing homogenised through globalisation and whatever other factors that reduce us to a logic of the same, the transnational communication systems of our electronic age are, at the same time, allowing us to become more aware of difference. Our world as a whole is, in fact, becoming evermore cosmopolitan in which its pluralism is increasingly affirmed as a celebration of cultural and religious difference. Nevertheless, there are still limits to how much innovation and divergence from established norms we can tolerate – at least as a regional and more local concern. Germany currently resists Scientology in a manner since superseded in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. The Assemblée Nationale of France has enacted its comprehensive Rapport Parlementaire sur les sectes et religions nouveaux in which, essentially, any religious non-conformity is automatically suspect and subject to state-sponsored harassment – even liquidation. And, of course, even closer to home here in the great state of Texas, the notorious siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco by the BATF and FBI made us all the more aware of the consequences contingent from non-conformity in a context of biased and limited understanding.

In general, contemporary western paganism represents a different kind of spiritual expression – both culturally and sociologically – than the more notorious and instantly identifiable new religious movements that have made news headlines (Jonestown's Peoples Temple, Waco's Mt. Carmel, Switzerland and Canada's Solar Temple, San Diego's Heaven's Gate or Japan's Aum Shinreikyo.) There is an absence of any single charismatic leader and an absence of virtually any hierarchical institutionalisation. Rather than the church, sect, denomination and cult models, the construct that perhaps comes closest to describing the way contemporary western paganism is currently organised is Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine's understanding of the segmented, polycentric, integrated network. While the SPIN may represent an advantageous strategy for survival in a hostile environment, it also presents and bequeaths difficulties toward eventual cultural and political acceptance. This acceptance problem is clearly witnessed in the manifestation and growth of paganism in the west in general and, more specifically, in the British pagan umbrella organisation known as the Pagan Federation and its bid for charity status.

The Pagan Federation has applied to the Charity Commission for a number of years now. The first application was rejected on the basis that there is no commonly accepted definition of paganism and therefore it could not be a religion. On the 30th of September 1999, I wrote Philip White at the Charity Commission's St. Alban's House in London and pointed out the similarity of the Commission's position with the French parliament's Rapport and Germany's proceedings against the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Scientology. I cited in this context the words of the US Navy chaplain, Captain R.O. Gunter (personal letter: 29/6/99), who, in replying to a query over the controversy earlier in the year concerning the right of Wiccans to practice their religion on US military installations, claimed that the US was "proud to be in the forefront of the struggle to safeguard … precious [religious] freedoms." I asked why the UK was not equally "a beacon for democratic principles throughout the world."

Mr. White's letter to which I was responding had been dated 21/7/99. In his letter, he had stated that "It does not seem to me that it is at all the case that Paganism is a religion, in the sense that, say, Christianity is." He continued,

"For the purposes of the law of charity, I suggest that a religion is a system
which involves belief in a supreme or supernatural being (ie a personal
creator deity standing outside the world) and which carries out a coherent
and organised form of worship of that being in the traditional forms of
supplication, veneration, praise and intercession/mediation and requiring
faith in and the observance of particular common standards, practices or
codes of conduct or beliefs, as stipulated in particular scriptures or
teachings; and [religion] is engaged in both the practice and in the
advancement of its beliefs; and which is established for the public benefit.
By contrast, Paganism is not so much a religion in this sense but is rather
`a spiritual way of life' embracing a great variety of hues within a broad

Mr. White concluded by saying, "It does not appear to be a single structured religion but an indistinct form of loosely related nature spiritualities deriving from a number of different traditions and giving rise to an enormous variety of organisations of extreme diversity."

In my response to Mr. White, I challenged the Commission's subjective evaluation by contrasting it with the effort toward objective assessment characteristic of both science and democracy. I signaled that paganism is a different religion to Christianity and therefore that it was inappropriate to judge it on the basis of Christianity. Even further, to judge a non-Christian religion against a Christian expectation contravenes the variety of religion taught within the schools of the land as mandated by law in the 1988 Education Act for England and Wales and enshrined in the Model Syllabuses of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and in the Agreed Syllabuses for county, community and voluntary controlled and maintained schools of the Local Education Authorities' Standing Advisory Committees on Religious Education (SACREs). The Education Department in Great Britain stresses a multicultural or pluralistic approach to the teaching about religions. In the Faith Communities' Working Groups Reports of the QCA's Religious Education Model Syllabuses, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism are included as acceptable religions along with Christianity – some of which do not necessarily entail belief in a personal creator deity standing outside the natural world.

Mr. White responded to my letter on April 14, 2000. He proclaims that

"What I have to apply is the law of England and Wales, handed down in
decisions of the court, as to the essential characteristics of a charity
directed to the advancement of religion. That does not coincide with the
criteria which others will or will wish to apply. Decisions of other persons
or bodies for their purposes may provide evidence whether they (or the
public at large) would regard the particular belief system as a religion. But
this does not provide us with sound indicators as to the determination
whether a belief system is religious for the purposes of charity law."

For the purposes of the Charities Act of 1993 for England and Wales, a charity must have an exclusive charitable purpose that provides some demonstrable useful and beneficial service for a sufficiently wide class to be regarded as public.

While Mr. White is correct in affirming that the Commission must decide the issue on its own and without consideration of how others in other domains have defined paganism, he here understates the activism of the Commission itself. The Framework for the Review of the Register of Charities of 1988 states that "the Charity Commission has the same powers as the court." In other words, the role of Commission as a law-maker is affirmed. Moreover, in some instances, the Commissioners have even departed from decisions of the courts.

But as Philip White argues: "We at the Commission will adopt a constructive approach in adapting the concept of charity to the needs of modern society, whilst remaining within the law as the courts have prescribed it for us. But we can only make decisions on the terms of the governing instrument supplied in the light of the information supplied to us." Of the three objectives of the Pagan Federation, namely, to relieve suffering and/or poverty of pagans, to advance public education about paganism, and to facilitate access to the religion of paganism, the first and last are rejected by Mr. White as not clearly and legally charitable – the first does not demonstrate a sufficiently public character; the last is not backed by evidence so the at the Charity Commission can conclude that "a legally charitable purpose is in fact meant."

With regard to the advancement of religion in charity law, all bodies claiming charitable status must (a) promote belief in a supreme being, (b) express that belief through both teaching and worship, and (c) operate for public benefit. At this point, White reiterates the Commission's earlier stance, namely, that the terms `Pagan' and `Paganism' "do not yet have a sufficiently defined meaning in ordinary speech to enable a conclusion to be reached as to what their tenets and practices are." He refers to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (fourth edition, 1993) which defines pagan as "a person holding religious beliefs other than those of any of the main religions of the world, a follower of a polytheistic or pantheistic religion" and paganism as "the belief and practices of pagans, pagan character or quality." He also supplies Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1986) definition of a pagan as a "heathen, especially a follower of a polytheistic religion (as in ancient Rome)" but also as "one that has little or no religion and that is marked by a frank delight in and uninhibited seeking after sensual pleasures and material goods." The reasons why the promotion of paganism cannot be charitable are obvious to Mr. White:

"The principles advocated need involve neither the recognition of a
supreme being nor a benefit to the public in a way recognised as
charitable. Further, the subject matter may refer to socially harmful beliefs
or practices."

In other words, the advocated principles referred to are those of the second Webster's definition alone – one in which `little or no religion' is a subjective assessment of a different religious practice and one that does not exalt the same transcendent values implicitly held by the assessor. For religion to be religion, it cannot involve delight, uninhibited behaviour, sensual pleasure or the things of this world.

The objections to the arguments provided revolve around the fact that while there is some case-law to support limiting religious charity status to orientations that promote belief in a supreme being, it is not one which the Charity Commission has accepted in general and as seen in the specific cases of Hinduism, Buddhism and Odinism. Moreover, Mr. White cites no authority concerning the expression of belief in a supreme being through both teaching and worship. This criterion is less established in English case-law, although it did provide the basis for the Commission's rejection of the Church of Scientology as a religious system. Nevertheless, problems remain in that the Commissioners do not demonstrate why worship should be so important in the qualification of religious status. It remains unclear whether worship is in fact always present in Buddhism. The Commissioners clearly rely here on a subset of religious systems in formulating a requirement applicable universally. The use of non-specialist dictionaries is highly suspect as a means to ascertain what is meant by a particular religious description.

For Mr. White, paganism is not religion but "a spiritual way of life" – one which embraces a great variety of hues within a broad spectrum. "It caters for … an indistinct form of loosely related nature spiritualities deriving from a number of different traditions and giving rise to an enormous variety of organisations of extreme diversity." He also states that there are apparently "a number of spiritual movements loosely associated with the reconstruction of the cult of ancient gods and rituals or with practices relating to ritual magic or witchcraft having roots in a variety of sources (including ancient celtic, scandinavian, greek and egyptian cultures)." Mr. White does acknowledge that there is some element of worship in paganism, but, for worship to be charitable or recognised as `religion in law', it must involve the recognition, reverence and veneration of a theistic supreme being. Moreover, "[w]orship typically manifests itself in submission, veneration, praise, thanksgiving and prayer and intercession." The implication here is that if it is not typical, it is not religious worship, but the key issue remains concerning whether a broad based religious system with a minimum set of doctrines constitutes a religion or not.

Despite the problematic emphasis on cohesion, hierarchy and specific organizational norms, for the British Charity Commission, there must be a coherent system exhibiting belief in a supreme being with the expression of that belief through worship. It is argued that the Pagan Federation is simply a federation of disparate groups – some promoting spiritualities but not necessarily a religion. Moreover, "promoting an organisation which may be related to religion is not the same as promoting religion." And, finally, for the purpose to be operative for the public benefit, it cannot be adverse to the very foundations of all religion or subversive of morality. It cannot be too narrowly focused on its adherents and nor can its "practices be substantially the promotion of socialising or entertainment," and, in this connection, Mr. White adds, "I wonder what the practice of pub moots comprises."

There are three major flaws in Mr. White's insistence on public benefit. (1) While he contends that it must extend to more than the personal development of private individuals, this contention is not fully compatible with case-law. The courts have assumed a public benefit once a degree of public contact has been established. In Neville Estates Ltd. versus Madden, a gift to a synagogue was judged charitable because the congregation members lived in the world at large and could thereby presumably extend religious example to the public. (2) The Commissioners have stated that they will not allow public opinion to be used as an obstacle to charity status.1 They recognize that there are no coherent structures upon which to ascertain public opinion and, further, that there is no viable and non-prejudicial means to distinguish enlightened from unenlightened opinion. (3) The Commission precludes metaphysical claims by a system in ascertaining public benefit.2 In the 1946 case of Gilmour versus Coates, the House of Lords rejected all spiritual benefits as a determinate for acceptance. In other words, the legal system chose not to exercise jurisdiction over spiritual truth and its alleged reality or unreality. This decision ought equally to apply to metaphysical claims of magic as real. In a 1974 case concerning the Exclusive Bretheren, the Charity Commission acknowledged that it had no means to determine a demonstrable public spiritual detriment against an unproven presumption of public spiritual benefit.3 The proof or disproof of spiritual benefit or harm is beyond the evaluative means of the Commissioners.

Mr. White, however, is the most revealing on the fifth page of his letter and here underscores the historical bias and limited understanding that the Pagan Federation must overcome in securing an acceptable definition of paganism as a religion. He also contravenes the Commission's own recognition that metaphysical claims are beyond its means for ascertaining empirical proof. The Charity Commission lawyer states:

"It is not the fact that the beliefs and practices within the dictionary
definitions I quote above could theoretically extend to bizarre and harmful
practices. But it is such facts as that even a casual inquiry about paganism
and witchcraft generally will uncover the existence of bodies peddling
spells, hexes and curses (including ones designed to place a curse on those
considered enemies or to manipulate the actions or emotional attachments
of people or improving one's love life at the expense of others or
otherwise seeking after sensual pleasure and material goods). I have no
doubt that a more determined search would reveal the existence of more
sinister bodies dealing with even less salubrious aspects of the occult.
These contemporary bodies would fall within the current understanding of
paganism. I would have doubts about the public benefit of organisations
claiming to employ paranormal forces underpinning the universe in order
to produce effects desired by them individually at will. It seems to me
obvious that bodies and organisations such as these are not for the benefit
of the public."

There is here of course a confusion between paganism as a religion and the Pagan Federation as an organisation. While the Pagan Federation may be a co-ordinating body of disparate groups, every individual Pagan Federation member must subscribe to belief in the gender polarity of godhead, the reverence and protection of nature and not to harm another.4 On these counts alone, most of Mr. White's objections are inapplicable.

But this being said, the definition of paganism and the definition of paganism as a religion remain. While I still argue that paganism is a religion in the sense that I have already outlined, my current feeling is that it is less a religion as such as it is an internal dialogue between and within different but related religious frameworks – one that affirms organic roots in the distant past but is equally commensurate with the vanguard of contemporary growth, change and discovery. Its very flexibility and ability to adjust make it as much at home in a nature largely untouched by human civilisation or in the rural community as it is in the urban cosmopolitan metropolis, the unfolding parameters of cyberspace or the expanding zones of cosmic imagination. It is largely a dialogue of affirmation and one that reflects or develops from the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. It does not seek to escape or obliterate the great round of nature but to work within it and to celebrate it.

If there is a single concept or practice that encapsulates the essential orientation and identity of paganism it is celebration. If the basic notion beneath eastern spirituality is release and that beneath Christianity is preparation or salvation, pagan celebration is a festive rejoicing that also embraces service because service is likewise a fundamental affirmation of humanity, the world and divinity. Paganism views the human, nature and whatever the supernatural may or may not be as essentially divine. It is this very perception of the divine ubiquity or perpetual possibility that is the link between the various individual expressions of pagan religiosities. In place of the Charity Commission's position as expressed by Philip White that doubts and rejects paganism as a religion, I will argue that paganism comprises `root-religion'. We could even call it `spiritual radicalism'. All other religions historically are offshoots and/or counter-developments of the root-religion. And I will even argue that if we wish to understand any religion, we must also understand paganism as the root from which the tree of all religions grows. But at the same time, this religion of the root or radix, this spiritual radicalism, represents in today's society and historical development a radical challenge to understand spirituality in both its primordial and most innovative dimensions.5


Framework for the Review of the Register of Charities Annex E p. 33 paras. 3 & 4.

Re Jay (1889) 60 L.T. 175; AG versus Delaney (1876) Ir.R. 10 C.L. 104; Gilmour
versus Coates (1949) AC 426. See also F.H. Newark, "Public Benefits and Religious
Trusts," Law Quarterly Review 62 (1946:234).

The Kingston Meeting Rooms Trust (Feltham, Holmes & Others) versus Attorney
General (The Exclusive Bretheren)
in The Times (12 February 1981) and the Charity
Commission Report
1981, paras. 26-30, as well as Charity Commission Report 1974
para. 81 and 1976:36 para. 8 of Press Release.

The three principles:

"Love for and kinship with Nature: rather than the more customary attitude of
aggression and domination over Nature; reverence for the life force and its ever-
renewing cycles of life and death.

"The Pagan Ethic: `Do what thou wilt, but harm none'. This is a positive morality,
not a list of thou-shalt-nots. Each individual is responsible for discovering his or her
own true nature and developing it fully, in harmony with the outer world.

"The concept of the Goddess and God as expressions of the Divine reality; an active
participation in the cosmic dance of Goddess and God, female and male, rather than
the suppression of either the female or male principle."

(From The Pagan Federation flyer: `Working together for the Pagan Community'.)

Nevertheless, it would be amiss in a paper on `Defining Paganism' not to offer at least a tentative and pragmatic definition of the subject at hand. To this end, I offer two definitions. The first seeks to allow a definition that can include all forms of paganism – both generic and nominal. The second excludes the nominal forms of paganism such as Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Neo-platonism, Cabalism and even Theosophy. The first definition holds that:

"Paganism is an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred
relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient and/or

The second definition allows that:

"Paganism is an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred
relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient and

The only difference between the two definitions, in fact, is in the use of the `and/or' conjunction/disjunction in the first and its replacement with the simple conjunction `and' in the second. In the re-wording, simply nominal forms of paganism are excluded, and paganism becomes understood as an endorsement of relationship between physical and supernatural realities as well as human (and possibly other forms of) consciousness. It may accept the supernatural as only approachable through metaphor (religious icons and symbols), or it may also entertain that the supernatural appears and is accessible through the miraculous. But along with its supernaturalism or proclivity for the nonempirical, its humanism and naturism are equally weighted. In other words, even if paganism or particular pagan identities may exalt the special or the numinously distinguishable over the whole, or the theistic or even polytheistic over the pantheistic, the divine or sacred is found ubiquitously. Paganism, therefore, allows the divine to manifest in and as the material, whatever else it may be. But paganism eschews any true hierarchy between the temporal and permanent, between the physical and spiritual, or between this-world and the otherworld. In paganism, all realms of being and possibly non-being partake in a dynamic partnership or colloquium that functions between potential equals.