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Warning: Rant Ahead! I wasn’t going to touch this with a ten foot pole other than my comment on Facebook, but I couldn’t resist.  Maybe its the caffeine, as I’m on my second pot of tea and normally I only bring this topic up when I’m sick of floating through my blogroll and feel my eye start to twitch.  Either way, I am totally sick of this circular debate about who should or shouldn’t call themselves Pagan, and why (or why not) certain BNP (Big Name Pagans) are (or are not) calling themselves Pagan anymore.

And what do I do when I’m bored with a debate?

I poke it with a stick!!

If you don’t want to be Pagan, stop being Pagan.  Stop calling yourself Pagan, and go have fun doing your own thing!  No one is holding your feet to the fire. Call yourself whatever you want to…but for the ever loving gods, please don’t be the guy/gal that continuously needs to be bitching about it.  Because then, it sort of sounds like you’re protesting too much.  It sounds less like you have moved on spiritually, and more like the problem isn’t that you don’t want to be Pagan, but really that you don’t like sharing your toys with those Other People that also want to be Pagan.

And Pagans, if someone doesn’t want to call themselves Pagan, then that should be cool too.  Even if you seem a ton of similarity between what you do and believe and what they do…maybe they think the differences are deeply significant and don’t feel that the label fits them.  Leave the cage door open so they can fly away.

But really internet, this isn’t a new debate.  Heck, this is probably the 4th or 5th (or 20th) incarnation of the debate* rolling around in the blogopshere in just the past three or four years…usually as an offshoot of the “defining Paganism” debate, and occasionally when someone reasonably known declares themselves to no longer be Pagan.  People have been arguing about who is or is not Pagan ever since Paganism has been on the internet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the argument has been going on for even longer…ideas might change, but egos don’t.  Although, there is part of me that suspects this is really an internet debate more than anything else.  After all, I can verify that in 1992 I was there (a bright and shiny new penny Pagan) in an AOL chat room watching two (according to their profiles) grown-ups (I was 12) play “more Pagan than thou” like a train wreck next to a highway…meanwhile, I all I had wanted was to find out how the heck to pronounce Lughnasadh because Webcrawler wasn’t exactly forthcoming on the matter (back in the day, there were only a handful of Pagan sites).

I think that perhaps part of the problem here is that people are looking for too much of a cut-and-dried, black-and-white, here’s the definition (whatever the heck that definition might be), sort of an answer.  And I don’t think that has ever existed any more than this mythical age of “Pagans” knowing exactly what “Paganism” *is* and what (real, true) “Pagans” really *believe/do*.

It could be my background in biology, but I don’t feel all that threatened when things don’t follow precise definitions…

Biology can be a pretty fuzzy field from time to time (I like biology, so I like fuzzy). There are ideas that most people are taught in school as a cut-and-dried, black-and-white, here’s the definition, sort of thing…that really don’t end up that way, once you know more about biology and take a look at them under a microscope. For example, most people are taught some variety of the idea that a species is just a group of organisms that can potentially interbreed in nature. But the reality is that that definition only one of many definitions–at least 32, the last time I remember having to memorize a darn list (this blogger lists 26)! Or, the idea of a ring species–is it one species, or ten, or sub-species, or diverging species, or none of the above, and its some BS hypothetical construct that doesn’t hold up in nature?

Because Nature is tricky sometimes, there’s an concept called a polythetic classification, which can be used to define ideas and things that can’t be defined with univocal criteria.  When you make a polythetic classification, it means that you use shared commonalities that are not universal–meaning the things in question have a number of shared characteristics, but not all of the characteristics are shared, but enough of them are overlapped within the group to classify them together.  To explain it most simply, think about what solitaire, Marco Polo, chess, charades, Monopoly, Mancala, Farmville, and dodgeball all have in common.

They are all games, right?  So…define a game in a way that describes what all those games have in common. Its not as easy as one might think.  They all have rules, and they are entertainment, and sometimes competition, and some of them have a board, some of them have pieces to play with, some of them are physically active, while others are more mentally challenging, some depend on luck, others logic, still others skill or creativity.  They don’t really have all that much in common, do they?

There’s an idea that sounds familiar…

Polythetic classification is based in the idea of a checklist.  Using the game analogy, a checklist might look something like this:

  1. competition between individuals or teams
  2. competition with self or for mastery
  3. object of play is entertainment rather than competition
  4. physically active
  5. success dependent on mental acuity (creativity, logic, etc)
  6. success dependent on skill (pantomime, good aim, drawing, etc)
  7. success dependent on chance (dice, card shuffle, etc)
  8. success dependent of physical ability (running speed, swimming skill, etc)
  9. score is kept to determine the “winner”
  10. played in a particular game space–a board, field, etc
  11. played with special game pieces as a sort of avatar
  12. requires specialized clothing or gear

To further the example… Solitaire checks out on number 3, 5, 7, and 12.  Monopoly checks out with 1, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11.  Charades has sometimes 1, but usually 3, 4, 6, and sometimes 9.  Dodgeball with 1, 4, 8, 10, and 12.  Monopoly and solitaire have some things in common, charades and solitaire have somethings in common, solitaire and Dodgeball have one thing in common, and Monopoly and Dodgeball have some things in common.  But charades and Monopoly and charades and Dodgeball only have something in common if its being played as a competition.  And, since I’ve heard it before (by someone being deliberately obtuse), I’ll address the “Well, my religion isn’t some game” criticism–using the idea of  “what is a game” to describe the idea of polythetic classification is pretty much the classic example that originates from a guy named Ludwig Wittgenstein to illustrate the idea (Yay, Wikipedia even has an article about it!).

If we applied this check list idea to Paganism , listing the traits of a variety of Pagan belief systems, someone that is Pagan will be able to check a number of the boxes off in the list…but not all of them.  And, when compared globally, these beliefs share similarly, overlapping traits…even if two randomly selected beliefs do not share any traits at all.  Being Pagan may not matter to some people, but for those that it does matter to, the term is not (as I have seen it described) “meaningless” (as its detractors complain) because it includes so much diversity, but rather it is full of more meaning than a single, limited monothetic definition would be.

I won’t hold my breath, but maybe we could all use this idea to start a dialog that actually contributes what we think the most important and defining features of our individual traditions and beliefs are…rather than detracting from one another’s beliefs and complaining about what Paganism is or is not.  Maybe we could use these ideas to make a list of the ideas and beliefs and practices central to a variety of Pagan religions.  And then, maybe…just maybe, we can start checking boxes and comparing notes instead of pointing fingers.

And even then, if you don’t want to call yourself a Pagan, don’t! And if you do, go for it!  As TJ once said regarding religion,  “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Perhaps one of the criteria should be “self-identifies as Pagan”.