02 March 2020

Pagans and heathens and nonchristians; oh my!

PAGAN 'peɪ.gən adjective. Holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. A non-Christian.
2. A neopagan: Adherent of a recent religious movement which incorporates beliefs or rituals from pre-Christian Europe and North America.
[Paganism 'peɪ.gən.ɪz.əm noun.]
HEATHEN 'hi.ðən adjective. Pagan.
2. Uncultured, inappropriate.

Pagan is a Christian word, from the Latin paganus, meaning one who lives in the country, as opposed to one who lives in the city. Ancient Christians figured we live in the “city of God,” his kingdom… and pagans live outside, so let’s invite them in. It was their shorthand way of saying nonchristian. It’s mine too.

I know; a number of people have appropriated the word to mean their religions. The neopagan movement started 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. Largely it’s a backlash to Christianity: They felt we suppressed the pre-Christian nature religions of their ancestors, and wanted to dabble in that, have a little fun, and really bug their parents. Certainly some of ’em take these religions way more seriously than that, ’cause they found something there which was seriously lacking in their lives. But neopagan religions don’t look as much like the ancient pagan religions as neopagans imagine—and ancient pagans never called themselves pagans, ’cause like I said, it’s a Christian word. And when they get annoyed with us for using “pagan” generically, it’s because they forget they swiped our word.

Christians use “pagan” to refer to nonchristians in general. Technically it refers to people with no organized religion. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and even neopagans, are organized religions—even though their organizational structure might be extremely messy. Whereas a true pagan isn’t affiliated with any religious group at all, and has no intention of joining any. They’re not religious.

This is not to say pagans have no religious beliefs. Most of ’em totally do; I’ll get to that. But they don’t believe in organized religion: They might visit a church for a wedding or funeral, or because it’s a neat-looking building, but otherwise won’t go to any religious gathering, ’cause they don’t wanna join anything. They wanna be in charge of what they believe, and how they practice it—whether they pray or not, whether they read scriptures or not, what they think about the universe, gods, or the One God. Or what they don’t think: Some of ’em are comfortable with the idea of not knowing anything, and are happy to let it remain a great mystery.

As for the word heathen: It’s always been a more derogatory word for uncivilized people (“What have you little heathens done to my kitchen?” after the kids leave behind a giant mess) and true, some pagans totally are heathens. But I generally don’t use it. Let’s be nice.

What pagans believe.

True, some pagans hold no religious beliefs; they’re nontheist. Ironically, some of ’em get mighty religious about their nontheism, and feel they simply have to bash God and organized religion at every opportunity. Others are agnostic, and functionally act as though they’re atheist… till they’re in a jam and have to pray to some higher power to get ’em out of this.

The rest have generic beliefs about God which are derived from their wider culture. If you’re surrounded by Christians, your pagan beliefs are gonna resemble Christian ones. If you’re surrounded by Hindus, you’re gonna sound more like a Hindu; if Buddhists, more Buddhist; if Jews, more Jewish; and so forth. Stands to reason.

In the United States, pagans tend to look like irreligious Evangelicals. So much so, many of ’em even think they are Christian, but of course they’re not: They won’t go to church, won’t believe what the churches teach anyway, won’t read or believe the bible, and see no reason to change their beliefs or behavior.

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

  • THERE’S A GOD. They might believe all sorts of things about him, and certainly a lot of it will be projection. Depending on how they like to imagine him (and how many ideas they’re borrowed from either Christians or Hindus), he might be the unconscious sum of everything in the universe, or a heavenly Mother; whatever floats their boat.
  • JESUS IS GOD’S SON. A great 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 IS GOD’S POWER. The holy spirit, lowercase, isn’t a person but a force, like the Force in Star Wars, but without a dark side. An “it,” not a “he.”
  • 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, eclectic religion 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!

You might notice, and I gotta emphasize, pagans are particularly self-centered about their beliefs: God wants them to be happy and fulfilled. God only involves himself in their lives when they seek happiness and fulfillment. But 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 ’cause it defines good and evil for itself, and emphasizes good. Therapeutic ’cause it feels good. And deist, ’cause it believes in a God who’s 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 began where we called pagans “prechristians.” We decided we were gonna be optimistic: These people will become Christian someday! They’re not lost; they’re pre-found.

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

The dividing line between Christian and pagan is simple. We Christians do follow Jesus as our 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.) We aren’t in charge of fashioning our own religions from scratch, and cherry-picking our beliefs to suit and appease ourselves. We follow Jesus, and let his Holy Spirit show each individual how to follow him best.

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 our Christianity and turn us into the same selfish jerks we find everywhere. It makes our Christianity impotent. It bears less, or no, fruit. But it’s not necessarily paganism. It’s only paganism when we no longer follow Jesus because our warm fuzzy feelings tell us different.

Following Jesus makes all the difference.