Words Need Meanings

In 2006 the International Astronomical Union clarified the definition of the word “planet” for the first time. Scientists do this all the time. You might even say that one of the main tasks in science is to define words. Once you have come up with a word for something and a definition of that word, you have made a classification. And classifying things is how we organize knowledge.

To my surprise, there was a huge public outcry. You see, the new, much more precise definition of “planet” now included Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, but left out the “ninth planet” Pluto.

Many of the hysterics seemed incredibly silly to scientists. “But there have always been nine planets!” Um, no, Pluto was only discovered in 1930. Others acted like it was some sort of insult to Pluto, as if a chunk rock millions of miles away from us cares what some monkeys on the third rock from the sun calls it. OK, so maybe “dwarf planet” implies it’s not as good as a “true planet”, but come on, compared to the other planets, it’s tiny. But if you must, you can also call it a Kuiper Belt Object. Maybe that sounds cooler.

And if Pluto is a planet, then so is Eris, Haumea, Makemake, and Sedna. If you make Pluto a planet, then the word “planet” is a much vaguer term, and includes many more objects in our solar system than just nine. I mean, where do you stop? Are asteroids and comets also planets? They orbit the sun too. Ceres is an asteroid big enough to be rounded by its own gravity, and it’s between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres was discovered back in 1801, but was never included in the “planets.” Why not?

Scientists don’t like vague terms. We like words to have precise definitions. Calling the eight planets something different than the Kuiper Belt objects and calling the asteroid belt something else conveys information. It lets you know that those categories of objects have properties that they share with objects in the same categories but not with objects in other categories.

Now, whenever you categorize something, you are also generalizing. The planets are still all unique. Calling them all the same thing doesn’t imply they are identical. It just means they share some things in common. Naming things and categorizing things has limitations, but if we didn’t attach labels to things, we wouldn’t be able to communicate. We need the name “planet” to mean something, or else the word is useless.

Scientists understand this, because labeling things is such a big part of our job. The controversy of “demoting” Pluto showed us that the general public doesn’t understand how this works. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too annoyed that the pagan community doesn’t understand how words work either, but it still annoys me anyway.

Ever since I first became a pagan 15 years or so ago, it’s annoyed me that people can’t even decide what the word “pagan” means. If you’re going to call yourself something, it would seem to me that it’s pretty important to know what that label means, but to so many pagans, it seems like the word “pagan” can mean pretty much anything. Calling yourself a “pagan” then conveys absolutely no information whatsoever.

Now, the meanings of words can evolve over time. In fact, language being an aspect of culture, they evolve in a way that’s similar enough to how living organisms evolve that Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe how culture evolves to go along with “gene” which is how living things evolve. Take the word “planet” for example. It originally meant “wanderer” and referred to the shiny dots in the sky that moved in a way that was different from the other shiny dots in the sky which were called “stars”. Originally there were five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This all made sense to people who only had their naked eyes to observe the universe.

Once we got telescopes, everything changed. We realized that the definition we had for “planet” was no longer adequate and had to be updated. Now a planet was a thing that orbited the sun, the Earth was one of them, and the sun was actually one of the stars. Then we found three more things that orbited the sun: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

Reclassifying Pluto was just the next step in the evolution of the word “planet” as we get more and more information about the solar system.

Now, I realize that’s a bit simpler, because the planets never changed, it’s just our understanding of the planets that change. With words that have to do with cultural phenomena, sometimes the culture itself does change, and then the words have to change. So let’s look at the word “pagan”. Originally it meant “country dweller,” but pretty soon it was being used to distinguish between people who still worshiped the old gods (who were mostly rural) and people who worshiped the new god (who were mostly urban). Before Christianity came along, everyone just worshiped “the gods” and didn’t really need to be classified. Christianity is what made a distinction between their one “true god,” and all those other “false gods,” and “pagans” were worshipping the false gods, and being a pagan was bad.

As Christianity spread, the Christians converted those bad, evil “pagans” worshiping the false gods to the religion of the True God. From the Roman Empire they spread to the rest of Europe, and then to the Americas and Africa and Australia. (Islam is just about identical in its attitude about other religions and just grabbed some different areas of the world, getting more of the Middle East and Asia and parts of Africa.)

So for a very, very long time, the word “pagan” has meant “a person who worships gods other than the One God of Abrahamic monotheism.” As Christianity and Islam spread, it became a very useful word to describe people who hadn’t yet been converted. It didn’t mean that all those people were exactly the same, but a word to categorize them was useful because they were all in a similar situation: targeted for conversion by monotheism.

By the twentieth century, monotheism had come to dominate the world. There were only a few countries left where the original polytheistic religions are still prominent, such as India and Japan. There were pockets of indigenous religion still trying to hang on despite monotheistic domination, like among the Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, some areas of Africa and Asia. In Europe and the Middle East, the traditions of worshiping the old gods and mostly vanished.

But then some of those Europeans and people of European descent started to think maybe we should go back to worshiping the old gods. And it made perfect sense for them to call themselves “pagans” just like the people back in the old days who hadn’t yet converted to Christianity were called. And yes, I understand that we’re trying to reconstruct a broken tradition, so of course it’s not going to be exactly the same as it would have been if the tradition hadn’t been broken. I always thought that Isaac Bonewits’s terminology of paleo-pagan, meso-pagan, and neo-pagan made a lot of sense. Those terms aren’t used much anymore, but I think those three categories still make sense: indigenous traditions that were never broken, traditions that came from a syncretism of indigenous traditions and monotheism, and revivals of indigenous traditions that were broken.

I suppose you could say that “pagan” only applies to European traditions, or maybe even Mediterranean traditions, since it’s a Latin word. I know that some Native Americans, Hindus, etc. don’t like to be called “pagan” because they see it as a European thing, and they don’t want Europeans defining them. And that’s fair, but if you do that, I think you’d still need a word that is more general and encompasses all those old religions to set them apart from the new religions of the Abrahamic god.

OK, then comes the confusion. Worshiping gods other than the Abrahamic God was considered to be a bad thing ever since monotheism took control. It’s “idolatry” and it’s a sin. It’s bad and naughty and you shouldn’t do it. It’s still that way today. Maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a more tolerant area, but I live in Texas, so I still live a life where my religion is seen by most of my neighbors as being a horrible sin that is very, very bad for society. Worshiping false gods is Devil worship!

And I think that’s maybe where people got the idea that “pagan” could mean anything we want. More specifically, it seems to me like a lot of people think paganism is all about doing things that Christianity considers to be sins. The occult, witchcraft, polyamory, homosexuality (shoot, sexually in general), nudity, doing drugs, anti-Capitalism, environmentalism, atheism, vegetarianism, all these things get “dumped” into paganism because they’re things mainstream Christianity rejects.

None of that stuff, in my opinion, makes you a pagan. Sure, that stuff isn’t prohibited in paganism, but I really don’t think that the word “pagan” should mean “everything that Christianity or mainstream culture rejects.”  Widening the definition of pagan this way actually makes the situation much more complicated. Suddenly it’s not enough to worship pre-Christian gods anymore, being a pagan means conforming to a certain stereotype.

Paganism is a type of religion. Paganism is the worship of those other gods that Abraham’s god told him not to worship. It’s a nice, simple definition. It includes a lot of different people, but it also excludes some people. I don’t think that makes it “intolerant.” If I say paganism actually means something, and that means some people don’t fit the definition, I don’t automatically hate people who don’t fit the definition. It also means that a lot of people fit the definition that I’m not going to like or get along with or agree with on anything else.

I just think that the word “pagan” needs to mean something, so that when I show up to a pagan event or get on a pagan website, I know what to expect, and I’d like to expect something having to do with the Old Religion(s). Unfortunately it seems like what I should really expect are a bunch of people who see themselves as being rebellious or non-mainstream, but think actually worshiping those old gods is dumb.

Where is an idolater supposed to go then? Everyone else in society thinks worshiping the old gods is dumb too! (At best they think it’s dumb; at worst they think it’s evil.) Monotheists think worshiping any gods besides their one is bad, and atheists think worshiping any gods is bad.

Having to constantly clarify what being a pagan even means seems like a distraction from the work of trying to help rebuild The Old Religion(s), which is the whole reason why I call myself a pagan. It’s what makes paganism distinct from other counter-cultural movements. Pagans aren’t just generic weirdos, Pagans are a specific type of weirdo!


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