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06 October 2015

Pagans and heathens and nonchristians; oh my!

Believe it or don’t, it’s a Christian term for unbelievers.

Pagan /'peɪ.gən/ adj. Holds religious beliefs other than those of Christians (or other major religions).
2. Neo-Pagan: Practices nature religions, magical and occult traditions, or revived ancient polytheistic religions.
Heathen /'hið.ən/ n. (chiefly derogatory) A pagan.
2. An uncultured, inappropriate person.

I tend to use the word pagan to describe nonchristians.

Yeah, I know capital-p Pagans have appropriated the word to mean their religions. It’s just another one of neo-Pagans’ many historical inaccuracies. Ancient pagans never called themselves pagans.

“Pagan” is a Christian word, from the Latin paganus, meaning rustic or country-dweller. As opposed to Christians who live in the “City of God,” his kingdom. It’s not derogatory, nor is it meant to be. It’s just a way to indicate those inside Christendom, and those outside. (Whom we wanna invite inside.)

Heathen, on the other hand, has always meant “uncivilized.” As in “What have you little heathens done to my kitchen?” when the kids have left behind a giant mess. True, some pagans totally are heathens. But let’s be nice.

Anywho, the neo-Pagans began to call themselves “pagan” in the mid-1800s, when British and American mystics started to revive occult religion; and once again in the 1960s and ’70s, when nature religions did likewise. These would be the maguses, practitioners of magick (with a -k), Wiccans, druids, shamans, nonchristian faith healers, followers of various nature gods, and folks who brought back worship of the ancient Egyptian or Norse or Greco-Roman gods. They insist “pagan” refers to them. It does, ’cause they’re definitely not Christian. But some of ’em get annoyed when we Christians use the word “pagan” to describe any and every nonchristian—forgetting they swiped our word.

And properly “pagan” means people with no organized religion. Buddhists, properly, aren’t pagans. Neither are Muslims, Hindus… nor even neo-Pagans, even though they’re as disorganized as any religion can be. A pagan isn’t affiliated with any group: They’re not religious. They may believe in God; in fact most of ’em totally do. But they’re the people who insist, “I’m not religious” (and not in that Evangelical way which really means “I’m not legalistic”). Or “I don’t believe in organized religion.” Meaning they don’t want us to organize ’em, thank you very much.

What pagans believe.

It’s thoroughly incorrect to say pagans have no religious beliefs. Most of ’em totally do.

Some claim they don’t; they’re atheist, and believe in no god at all. Though in practice that’s often a very religious belief: “I must bash God and organized religion at every opportunity, ’cause everyone should be atheist like me. If you’re not, you’re an idiot.” But I’ll discuss atheists another time.

Others are agnostic, which means they’re not sure God exists, and functionally act as though he doesn’t… but reserve the right to change their minds if they’re in a jam and have to pray to someone.

The rest have generic beliefs about God which come from the wider culture. In the United States that’d be Christianity, so pagans in the States look a whole lot like irreligious Christians. So much so, many pagans even believe they are Christian. But they aren’t: They won’t go to church, and don’t believe anything the churches teach. They don’t read or believe the bible; in fact a lot of times they’ll outright reject it. They don’t believe Jesus is coming back. And they see no reason to change their beliefs or behavior, except maybe to conform to the wider society… or, if they wanna be contrary, to deliberately bug the wider society.

Back in 2002, for my theology students, I spelled out pagan beliefs like so.

  • There’s a God. Whether he (or she, or it) is a being, or whether he’s just the unconscious sum of everything in the universe, largely depends on whether the pagan has had more exposure to Christians or Hindus.
  • Jesus is his son. A brilliant moral teacher. A nice guy. Gives great advice. Not God though. Buddha is also God’s son; as is Muhammad, Confucius, Mohandas Gandhi, and pretty much every significant religious leader. (So long that pagans like them. If they don’t like L. Ron Hubbard, he’s not God’s son.)
  • The holy spirit (note the lowercase) is God’s power. Not a person, a power. An “it.” Like the Force in Star Wars. Only without a dark side.
  • God loves everybody. Unless we’re mean. Mean people suck.
  • God wants people to be nice. Pagans believe all religions essentially teach this, so it’s all anyone need do: Be nice. (Unless you’re dealing with mean people. Then you can be mean right back to them. Help karma out.)
  • Death means we go to heaven. And become angels! Again, exceptions are made for mean people. Fr’instance Adolf Hitler definitely went somewhere bad. But if we’re nice, or if enough people love us (or at least the majority doesn’t hate us), we’re probably off to heaven. Of course, many pagans believe in reincarnation, so for them death means we’re reborn as something nice.
  • Organized religion is unnecessary. Disorganized will do them just fine. All that matters is the pagan holds a few spiritual beliefs which make ’em feel good; and do things from time to time which make ’em feel spiritual (i.e. good). It’ll all work out in the end. ’Cause God loves everybody!

I gotta emphasize how paganism is particularly self-centered about all these beliefs. God wants them to be happy and fulfilled. God only involves himself in their lives when they seek happiness and fulfillment. (More accurately: We humans only call out to God when we haven’t achieved happiness and fulfillment on our own. So we figure we’ll give God a try.)

To be fair, a whole lot of Christians are mighty self-centered too.

Christianist pagans.

As I said, some pagans think they’re Christian. ’Cause they like Jesus. They’ll quote bible—not consistently, but when it suits them. Some of ’em will even attend church, and may even get involved—although they certainly don’t feel obligated to believe anything the church teaches, or follow their interpretations of Jesus. You know, like when politicians go to a church hoping to recruit helpers or voters.

I call any belief system which prefers the trappings of Christianity, over Christ Jesus himself, Christianism. But sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, in their book Soul Searching, call this belief system moralistic therapeutic deism. (MTD for short.) It’s moral—it defines good and evil for itself, and emphasizes good. It’s therapeutic—it feels good. And it’s deist, ’cause it believes in God, but as deists do, where God is impersonal and not all that involved in humanity.

Smith and Denton sum up MTD’s beliefs thus.

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith and Denton were the principal investigators in the 2003-05 National Study of Youth and Religion. They concluded

a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that it is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Smith and Denton 262

No, they’re not claiming all irreligious Christians are pagans, not Christians. Neither am I about Christianists. Smith and Denton’s rather valid concern is that, rather than Christianity, a lot of Christian churches are instead teaching MTD. As a result, the kids they raise aren’t always gonna be Christian.

I know from personal experience they’re quite right. A lot of kids in my high school youth group weren’t raised Christian. Their parents expected our youth pastors to take care of the religion parts. As if two hours of Christian instruction a week is gonna put a dent in an unconvicted, irreligious lifestyle. Consequently as soon as we moved out of the house, a lot of us threw away our Christian masks and became the pagans we always secretly were.

And y’know, some parents honestly don’t care. Just so long that we’re good people. ’Cause they’re pagans too, and everybody goes to heaven.


At one church I went to, a new fad suddenly began of calling pagans “prechristians.” Because we were gonna optimistically believe (and for some of us, “name and claim”) these people would become Christian someday. They’re not lost; they’re pre-found.

Meh. They’re lost. There’s a fine line between optimistic and delusional, and I don’t feel like crossing it today. I hope they get found; always do. Till then, they’re pagans.

The dividing line between Christian and pagan is simple. We Christians do believe Jesus is Lord, do expect God to save us from death despite our sin, and do recognize God expects a level of obedience, devotion, worship, and prayer from his people. (Even though we might suck at it.)

Tons of Americans firmly believe the central goal of life is the pursuit of happiness. Christians included. They’re wrong, and believing so will only distort their Christianity and turn them into the same selfish jerks we find everywhere. It makes their Christianity impotent. It bears less, or no, fruit. But it’s not necessarily paganism. It’s only paganism when we don’t trust God because our warm fuzzy feelings tell us different.

Trust, i.e. faith, makes all the difference.