Paganism (from Latin paganus, meaning “a country dweller or rustic”) is a term that has been used from antiquity to derogatorily denote polytheistic faiths. Since the term was typically used as a blanket statement to circumscribe all non-Christian (or, more broadly, non-monotheistic) faiths, it served the same pejorative purpose as the Jewish term gentile, the Islamic notions of infidel and kafir, and the multipurpose term heathen. Due to these historically problematic connotations and usages, ethnologists and anthropologists avoid the term “paganism” when referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring to utilize more precise categories (such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism). Thus, the term’s connotations are both stark and polarizing, as it has been used to criticize and demonize the adherents of non-Christian faiths since the first century C.E.

Since the later twentieth century, however, the words “pagan,” “heathen” and “paganism” have been somewhat rehabilitated, as they are now widely used as self-designations by adherents of polytheistic reconstructionism and neo-paganism—traditions that explicitly define themselves as contrary to the dualistic ethos that spawned these terms in the first place. In this new understanding, pagan traditions are defined by the absence of proselytism and the presence of a living mythology that explains and informs religious practice. Neo-pagans generally profess to respect nature, and to hold all life sacred.

Stonehenge Monument Prehistoric Salisbury Britain

Stonehenge Monument, Prehistoric Salisbury Britain


See also: Heathenry


The term pagan is from Latin paganus, an adjective originally meaning “rural,” “rustic” or “of the country.” In its nominal form, paganus could be used to describe a “country dweller or villager” or (more colloquially) a “country bumpkin” or “hillbilly.” The original meaning is reflected in the Old French cognate paisent, from whence the English word “peasant” is derived.

The semantic development of post-classical Latin paganus in the sense “non-Christian, heathen” is unclear. The dating of this sense is controversial, but the fourth century seems most plausible. An earlier example has been suggested in Tertullian De Corona Militis xi“Apud hunc [sc. Christum] tam miles est paganus fidelis quam paganus est miles infidelis,” but here the word paganus may be interpreted in the sense “civilian” rather than “heathen.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, seen by many as the definitive source of lexical knowledge, proposes three explanations for the evolution of the term:

(i) The older sense of classical Latin pāgānus is “of the country, rustic” (also as noun). It has been argued that the transferred use reflects the fact that the ancient idolatry lingered on in the rural villages and hamlets after Christianity had been generally accepted in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire; cf. Orosius Histories 1. Prol. “Ex locorum agrestium compitis et pagis pagani vocantur.” From its earliest beginnings, Christianity spread much more quickly in major urban areas (like Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome) than in the countryside (in fact, the early church was almost entirely urban), and soon the word for “country dweller” became synonymous with someone who was “not a Christian,” giving rise to the modern meaning of “Pagan.” This may, in part, have had to do with the conservative nature of rural people, who may have been more resistant to the new ideas of Christianity than those who lived in major urban centers. However, it may have also resulted from early Christian missionaries focusing their efforts within major population centers (e.g., St. Paul), rather than throughout an expansive, yet sparsely populated, countryside (hence, the Latin term suggesting “uneducated country folk”).

(ii) The more common meaning of classical Latin pāgānus is “civilian, non-militant” (adjective and noun). Christians called themselves mīlitēs, “enrolled soldiers” of Christ, members of his militant church, and applied to non-Christians the term applied by soldiers to all who were “not enrolled in the army.”

(iii) The sense “heathen” arose from an interpretation of paganus as denoting a person who was outside a particular group or community, hence “not of the city” or “rural”; cf. Orosius Histories 1. Prol. “ui alieni a civitate dei..pagani vocantur.” See C. Mohrmann, Vigiliae Christianae 6 (1952) 9ff.

In their distant origins, these usages derived from pagus, “province, countryside,” cognate to Greek πάγος “rocky hill,” and, even earlier, “something stuck in the ground,” as a landmark: the Proto-Indo-European root *pag- means “fixed” and is also the source of the words page, pale (stake), and pole, as well as pact and peace.

While pagan is attested in English from the fourteenth century, there is no evidence that the term paganism was in use in English before the seventeenth century. Specifically, the Oxford English Dictionary cites Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) as its first recorded usage: “The divisions of Christianity suspended the ruin of paganism.” The term was not a neologism, however, as paganismus was already used by Augustine.


Heathen is from Old English hæðen “not Christian or Jewish,” (c.f. Old Norse heiðinn). Historically, the term was probably influenced by Gothic haiþi “dwelling on the heath,” appearing as haiþno in Ulfilas’s Gothic language Bible (fourth century) as “gentile woman,” (translating the “Hellene” in Mark 7:26).

It may have been chosen on the model of the Latin paganus or for resemblance to the Greek ethne, or may in fact be a borrowing of that word, perhaps via Armenian hethanos. Like other words for exclusively Christian ideas (e.g., “church”) it would have come first into Gothic, then spread to other Germanic languages.

“Paganism” and Repression

Both “pagan” and “heathen” (and their analogues “gentile” (Hebrew: goyim] and “infidel” (Arabic: kafir)) have historically been used as pejorative terms by adherents of monotheistic religions (namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to describe unbelievers. A peculiar subset of this usage uses “paganism” to describe the lack of (an accepted monotheistic) religion, becoming somewhat analogous to atheism. Though the Islamic and Jewish terms have led to their share of repression, the Christian church has, throughout history, been the most vocally and violently repressive of these “primitive” forms of religious expression. See the articles on kafir, infidel, gentile, and goyim.

Though Christianity and Greco-Roman religion initially existed in relative harmony (with some Christian apologists, such as Justin Martyr, actually arguing for the compatibility of both visions), this period of peaceful coexistence was relatively short-lived. Once the Christian religion became normalized in the Roman Empire (a process that began with Constantine I and reached its apex under Theodosius I), adherents of indigenous faith traditions came to be extensively and repressively persecuted. These traditions, labeled “pagan superstitions” by the religious authorities, were explicitly identified and prohibited in fourth century legal codes:

After the defeat of Magnentius in A.D. 353, Constantius’ policy toward paganism is expressed more forcefully in the Codex [Theodosianus], reflecting his own growing power as well as that of the Christian Church in the Latin west. In laws dated 356-360, Constantius explicitly prohibited sacrifice and the veneration of pagan images, closed the temples, and prohibited all divination and magic. Taken as a group, Constantius’ attack upon pagan sacrifice, divination and magic were in essence an attack upon superstitio, in the Christian and pagan definitions of the term. … It was largely due to the laws outlawing pagan rites and the efforts of Christian polemicists like Firmicus Maternus that pagans, with ever increasing frequency, found themselves labelled by the term superstitio and were forced, more or less, to identify their common concerns.

This pointed suppression of “erroneous” religious belief led to innumerable iniquities, as the Church “close down the traditional, ‘Pagan’ philosophical schools, persecuted those involved in the various popular Greco-Roman Mystery Religions, burned hundreds of thousands of books, and hurled the charge of heresy with its penalty of excommunication—at any who threatened to question the orthodox party line. Many were put to death.” Unfortunately, these same divisive tendencies can be seen in the historical interactions between Christians and various other religious groups (including Hindus, Chinese religious devotees, and adherents of the world’s indigenous traditions).

In an intriguing theological counterpoint, Christianity itself has been perceived at times as a form of paganism by followers of the other Abrahamic religions due to such uniquely Christian elements as doctrine of the Trinity, the maintenance of pagan feast days (such as Christmas and Easter), and the incorporation of icons into religions practice. This last element, the veneration of saints and icons, has led to similar charges within Christianity, with many groups accusing the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches of paganism for their iconodolatry and “polytheism.”

Paganism as a Trope in the Modern West

With the dawn of the Romantic period in the modern west, paganism (especially in the Greco-Roman context) came to be seen as a form of aesthetic ideal. For adherents to this viewpoint, it came to be equated with a Christianized sense of “epicureanism,” signifying a person who is sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, unconcerned with the future and uninterested in sophisticated religion. At the same time, some intellectuals also came to acknowledge the moral profundities of these pre-Christian belief systems, which led to the notion of the “noble savage”—an individual who exhibits the height of human morality without the deleterious influences of modern society and Christian dogma. Commenting on this theme, Swinburne uses this updated understanding of paganism to critique the “life-denying” elements of Christianity: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.”

Despite this mitigating influence, the term was still typically used in its derogatory sense, particularly among those who were drawing attention to what they saw as the limitations of paganism. For example, G. K. Chesterton writes: “The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else.”

Pagan revivals and new religious movements


Main article: also known Modern Paganism

The broad category termed neopaganism includes a broad subset of modern traditions, including reconstructed iterations of Hellenic, Celtic and Germanic religion, as well as modern eclectic traditions such as Discordianism, and Wicca and its many offshoots.

Five elements with pentagram - Wicca

Five elements with pentagram – Wicca

Many of these “revivals,” Wicca and Neo-Druidism in particular, draw equal inspiration from pre-modern sources and nineteenth century Romanticism, which results in the retention of notable elements of early modern occultism and theosophy. This metaphysical (even pseudo-scientific) tenor sets them apart from historical rural (paganus) folk religion. The Íslenska Ásatrúarfélagið (a folk religion based on Norse mythology) is a notable exception in that it was derived more or less directly from remnants in rural folklore.

Neopaganism in the United States accounts for roughly a third of all neopagans worldwide and represents some 0.2 percent of U.S. population, figuring as the sixth largest non-Christian denomination in the U.S., after Judaism (1.4 percent), Islam (0.6 percent), Buddhism (0.5 percent), Hinduism (0.3 percent) and Unitarian Universalism (0.3 percent).


Historically, paganism has been defined broadly enough to encompass most faiths outside the Abrahamic triad (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). If Indian religions are included into this grouping (as they often were), then approximately 40 percent of the world’s religious adherents could be considered pagan, according to the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

The term has also been used more narrowly to refer only to religions outside the very large group of so-called Axial Age faiths, a heading that encompasses Abrahamic, Indian and Chinese religions. Under this narrower definition, which differs from that historically used by many (though by no means all) Christians and other Westerners, contemporary paganism is a relatively smaller and more marginal numerical phenomenon. In spite of this caveat, American Neopaganism is a growing institution, one which currently accounts for some 0.2 percent of U.S. population (as mentioned above).

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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