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Pagan and paganism

Five more definitions of "Pagan."

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See an earlier essay in this section for the first two definitions.

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Third of seven definitions: Pagans are ancient polytheists:

The term "Pagan" is sometimes used to refer to ancient polytheistic religions. The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines "pagan" as: "belonging to a religion which worships many gods, especially one which existed before the main world religions." 1

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) contain many references to the societies surrounding the Israelites -- Babylonians, Canaanites, Philistines, etc. These are commonly referred to as Pagans:

bullet There are allegations that these societies engaged in human sacrifices:
bullet II Kings 3:26-27: "...the king of Moab...took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall."
bullet Psalms 106:37-38: "Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils, And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood."

bullet Their altars were often referred to as "high places:"
bullet II Kings 16:4: "And he sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree."

bullet Surrounding tribes were viewed as committing idolatry by worshiping golden images of animals:
bullet II Kings 17:16: "And they left all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal."

bullet Ancient faiths of ancient Celtic, Egypt, Greece, Norse, Rome, and other cultures are frequently referred to as Pagan religions. Even though many of these religions had strict social and sexual behavioral codes, their followers were often portrayed as hedonist and immoral:
bullet 1 Peter 4:3: "For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revelings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries."

A recent example of this definition is: 
bullet Referring to sun wheels and obelisks: "...These symbols of pagan sun worship were associated with Baal worship, or Baalim, which is strongly condemned in scripture. So why are they so prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church, if they are associated with paganism and apostasy?" From an anti-Catholic essay on a conservative Protestant Christian web site. 2

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Fourth of seven definitions: Pagans are those who follow Aboriginal religions:

Paganism is occasionally used to refer to animism -- the belief that all natural objects and the universe itself have souls. Animism is common among primitive cultures. 3 Their beliefs are based upon direct perception of the forces of nature and usually involve the use of idols, talismans and taboos in order to convey respect for these forces and beings. Many native, aboriginal religions from all of the continents in the world fit this definition.

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Fifth of seven definitions: Pagans are followers of non-Abrahamic religions:

A rare use of "Pagan" is to describe a person who does not follow an main Abrahamic religion. That is, their faith does not recognize Abraham as a patriarch. The individual is neither Christian, Muslim, Baha'i nor Jew. Pagans under this definition would include Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists, Scientologists, Taoists, Wiccans, etc. About 45% of the people of the world are Pagans, by this definition.

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Sixth of seven definitions: Pagans are those who don't belong to any of the main world religions:

The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary gives an alternative definition of the word  "pagan" as: "relating to religious beliefs that do not belong to any of the main religions of the world" 1 This definition is rather vague, because it does not describe how a "main religion of the world" is defined. If it is any religion with more than, say, 1% of the world's population (i.e. 65 million members), then: Aboriginal religions, Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism would be non-pagan, whereas Judaism, Sikhism, Confucianism, the Baha'i Faith, Wicca, Zoroastrianism etc. would be pagan. I doubt that many members of the latter religions would be happy with their classification.

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Seventh of seven definitions: Pagans are Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, etc:

The term "Pagan" was once widely used by Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, etc. to refer to themselves. The word was also used by others to describe these groups. The usage dropped after the rise of Neopaganism in the middle of the 20th century, and is rarely seen today.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Definition: pagan," Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, at:
  2. "Pagan sun worship and Catholicism: The Pagan sun wheel, the obelisk and Baal," Michael Scheifler's Bible Light Home Page, at:
  3. "Animism," WordNet Search, at:

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Copyright 2000 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUL-28
Latest update: 2010-JAN-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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