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Paganism (or "Heathenism") is a catch-all term which has come to bundle together (by extension from its original classical meaning of a non-Christian religion) a very broad set of not necessarily compatible religious beliefs and practices that are usually, but not necessarily, characterized by polytheism and, less commonly, animism.

Table of contents
1 Origins and meanings of the term
2 Nature Religion
3 Pejorative
4 Heathenry
5 Neopaganism
6 External link
7 See also

Origins and meanings of the term

The Latin word paganus is an adjective meaning "rural", "rustic" or "of the country" and in the 4th century AD had developed a negative connotation of "rustically unsophisticated" ie "country bumpkin" in line with Classical civilization's high valuation of urban life. In the 5th century, as Christianity began to take hold in the cities, for example in ancient Gaul, the phagani were as yet untouched by this new religion, and so the negative connotation of the word combined with the religious difference to give the then-new meaning to the word pagan.

Christianity also became a major religion in the Roman army. Here pagani has meanings of non-combatant, pacifist, with attendant derision. From the widespread popularity of Christianity among slaves, the most numerous class in the Roman Empire, by contrast pagani acquired connotations of "uppity", "religious dissident" and so on to "heretic."

Certain scholarly fashions from the medieval period onwards, attempted to assert the value of sophisticated Pagans such as Aristotle and Plato and Ovid. This had some influence among upper class educated people but did little to counter a more general prejudice.

Nature Religion

It is the current popular fashion to insist that many pagan religions are based on nature, which presupposes a universal division between "nature" and "not nature" that might not actually apply to all cultures and religions. Paganism predates modern monotheism, although its origins are lost in prehistory. Ancient paganism tended in many cases to be a deification of the political process, with "state divinities" assigned to various localities (Athena in Athens, for example). Many ancient regimes would claim to be the representative on earth of these gods, and would depend on more or less elaborate bureaucracies of state-supported priests and scribes to lend public support to their claims. In one well-established sense, paganism is the belief in any non-monotheistic religion, which would mean that the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece would not be considered pagan in that sense, since they were monotheist, but not in the Abrahamic tradition. In an extreme sense, and like the pejorative sense below, any belief, ritual or pastime not sanctioned by a religion accepted as orthodox by those doing the describing, such as Burning Man, Halloween, or even Christmas, can be described as pagan by the person or people who object to them.


The word is used as a generic derogatory term for an unruly (usually young) person.

The term has historically been used as a pejorative by adherents of monotheistic religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to indicate a person who doesn't believe in their religion. "Paganism" is also sometimes used to mean the lack of (an accepted monotheistic) religion, and therefore sometimes means essentially the same as atheism. "Paganism" frequently refers to the religions of classical antiquity, most notably Greek mythology or Roman religion, and can be used neutrally or admiringly by those who refer to those complexes of belief. However, until the rise of Romanticism and the general acceptance of freedom of religion in Western civilization, "paganism" was almost always used disparagingly of heterodox beliefs falling outside of the established political framework of the Christian Church. It has more recently been used admiringly by those who believe the monotheistic religions to be confining or colourless.


Heathen, in English and Scots originally meaning someone who lived in the wild, uncultivated heath that was outside the village system and not covered by the parish boundary nor blessed by the protective presence of a local priest, was often used as a synonym of "pagan." Like the word pagan, it came to mean a person holding onto pre-Christian customs and beliefs, often used in a pejorative sense of an unbaptized savage (as opposed to a heretic). Viking raiders were "heathens."

A general term, sometimes still referring to (often in a pejorative sense) non-adherents to a certain religion. It may have originally applied only to those who lived "on the heath," (though this etymology is disputed) or in the underpopulated areas of Europe which were slow to convert to Christianity during its period of expansion.

In more modern, neopagan circles, it often refers specifically to the ancient religion of the Germanic peoples, which in its modern form is in the US more widely known by the term Asatru. In Britain "Heathenry" is the most widely used term for those who are re-creating the old religion and worldview from the literary and archaeological sources and who describe themselves as "Heathen" in part to distinguish themselves from other pagans whose rituals come from other sources.

Heathen is also the name of an album by David Bowie.


In another sense, as used by modern practitioners, paganism is a polytheistic, panentheistic or pantheistic often nature-based religious practice. This includes reconstructed religions such as Hellenismos, Asatru as well as more recently founded religions such as Wicca, and these are normally categorised as "Neopaganism". Although Neopagans often refer to themselves simply as "Pagan", for purposes of clarity this article will focus on the ancient religion, while Neopaganism is discussed in its own article.

This also includes religions such as Forn Sed and Romuva that claim to revive an ancient religion rather than reconstruct it, though in general the difference is not absolutely fixed. Practitioners of these tend to object to the term "Neopaganism" for their religion as they consider what they are doing not to be a new thing.

External link

Anthropological terms for Pagan

This system of classification completely leaves out any possibility of classifying Hindu religions or Shinto as "paganism". Likewise, it would exclude the state religion of the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

See also