The perception of Paganism has changed over the years. Pagans remain a religious minority in most places, and we find different opinions about Paganism as a spiritual path. In advanced countries it is rare and probably illegal to publicly disrespect or, especially, harass someone because they are Pagans or NeoPagans.
But it wasn’t always this way.
The term pagan has roots in 4th century early Christianity. The early Christians took a dim view of Pagans. At best, believers in many gods or those outside the Christian fold were stock to be converted to the Christian understanding of the One True God. At worst, they were victims of harsh insults and cruel persecution.
This disturbing trend came to a fever pitch in the Middle Ages. Many so-called heretics and witches suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of their Christian “saviors” (irony intended).
The Latin term paganismus was first used in the 4th century, by early Christian community, in reference to populations of the Roman world who worshipped many deities, either because they were increasingly rural and provincial relative to the Christian population or else because they were not milites Christi (soldiers of Christ).¹
In Medieval and early modern times the Christian Church sanctioned successive waves of barbaric torture and killing under the guise of purifying individual souls – and the Earth – of Satan’s demons, which included Pagan deities. Catholics weren’t the only sadistic psychopaths doing this. Protestants burnt people alive too—something many Catholic-detractors downplay or simply don’t know about.
But it didn’t begin in the Middle Ages. The mistrust of Paganism stems back to Biblical times. Competing with the term pagan is polytheism, which the Hellenistic Jew Philo had been using since the 1st century to denote those who didn’t believe in Jewish monotheism. And if we browse through the Christian Old Testament, it’s not too hard to see what unspeakable violence and plunder took place in the name of God before the coming of Christ.
Today the Catholic Church has softened its stand on Paganism, along with most non-Christian religions. Not accepting all aspects of non-Catholic faiths, Catholics do profess to accept all that is from God within non-Catholic belief and practice. There is some truth among the ‘shadows’ of error, is how the Catholic Catechism tends to put it.
Sounds good to some. However, Catholics remain cautious when dealing with Pagan religions. They claim that Pagan beliefs contain elements of error.
Funnily enough, many Protestants – especially Fundamentalists – believe that Catholicism has lapsed into Paganism. After all, Catholics believe in intercession and venerate the saints (to include the Virgin Mary, the Queen of all saints). And not only Catholics. Orthodox believers too.
Most contemporary scholars cleverly conceal or make ambiguous any negative connotations around the word Paganism. For better or for worse, universities are bastions of political correctness. And to not fall in line can cost you your job. Nevertheless, some scholars still denounce Pagan belief, especially those on the payroll of Christian fundamentalist publishers. They see it as their holy duty to “set the record straight.”
Like most, perhaps, all aspects of life, scholarship, does not enjoy a magical banner of objectivity. The misguided belief in objectivity arguably is a kind of religious folly. But the folly is not about religion, as in Erasmus‘ day. The folly is the belief that human research and analysis should be elevated to a lofty position that, in reality, is often undeserved.²
Peter Gay traces the development of contemporary Paganism to the European Enlightenment and Renaissance, where new ideas and fresh ways of seeing things apparently enabled mankind to deconstruct its dogmatic Christian heritage.³ By way of contrast, Dinesh D’Souza argues that Christianity, itself, is the core of all that is good in contemporary culture (for him, American society).4
Wikipedia outlines what the term Paganism means today:
Modern Paganism, or Neopaganism, can include reconstructed religions such as the Cultus Deorum Romanorum, Hellenic polytheism, Slavic neopaganism (Rodnovery), Celtic reconstructionist paganism, or Germanic neopaganism, as well as modern eclectic traditions such as Wicca and its many offshoots, Druidry, Heathenry, and Discordianism.
However, there often exists a distinction or separation between some… [groups] over numerous issues such as; the importance of accurate orthopraxy according to ancient sources available, the use and concept of magic, which calendar to use and which holidays to observe, as well as the use of the term pagan itself.
Many of the “revivals”, Wicca and Neo-druidism in particular, have their roots in 19th century Romanticism and retain noticeable elements of occultism or theosophy that were current then, setting them apart from historical rural (paganus) folk religion. Most modern pagans, however, believe in the divine character of the natural world and paganism is often described as an “Earth religion.”5
Some scholars point out similarities between aspects of Christianity and Paganism. What matters is how we interpret these similarities.
Here are three examples in Catholicism:
- With the Eucharistic Celebration, Catholicism claims to have finalized and transformed the previously barbaric acts of sacrifice and atonement
- Many Catholic (and Christian) feast days fall on the dates of older Pagan festivals—for example, Saturnalia and Christmas
- Catholics say their religion transforms and ennobles all that is good in the annals of mankind. So the Vatican collects priceless Pagan statues because these represent artistic ‘greatness.’ God must have been present, they argue, because the statues were so superbly conceived and executed.
On this last point, some non-Catholics take this as rank idolatry, greed and hypocrisy masked as piety. For the critics, it is false to see God working through non-Christian pathways. The Catholic replies that the heavenly Jesus exists in all of time so can influence historical periods that took place – or some might say that are taking place – before his earthly manifestation.
This is interesting. So many perceive Catholics as narrow-minded, brainwashed traditionalists. But considering Einstein’s empirically supported ideas about the relativity of space and time, we can safely say that Catholic theology was centuries ahead on this one.6
² Academics often use special words and speech patterns to try, arguably in part, to legitimize their brand of thinking. But when we look closer or just think for ourselves, we often see how arrogant, small and uninspiring this can be. (The overuse of the word “magisterial” comes to mind). Recently reading one sociological piece, I had to wade through miles of gobbledygook to get to the main points. And these were so obvious and pedantic, it made me wonder why the author was such a big shot in the first place.
4 D’Souza is a great writer. He reminds me of some hip Indian intellectuals and artists whom I met in India. But he simplifies and misrepresents Canada so terribly, I can only wonder what blunders and omissions he commits in other areas. Reading his stuff and watching his films makes me feel like I’m looking at a very bright 15-year-old’s connect the dots picture. The artwork is well above average for a 15-year-old. But an adult gets the sense that too many dots are left out. In short, entertaining but be sure to fact check. See https://www.amazon.ca/Whats-So-Great-about-Christianity/dp/1414326017
6 Plato too, one could argue.
† Entry title: https://youtu.be/tfXGt2MtSs8
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