What is a Pagan?

“Paganism” is a term fraught with all sorts of connotations. It originally meant something like “country dweller”, “rustic”, or even “hick”. That’s because (contrary to popular myth) Christianity did not spread among the Hee Haw-watchers of antiquity, but among the city dwellers and urban folk. The very last people to receive the Faith were the rural folk who clung to the worship of the old gods and the customs of their ancestors long after Christianity had become thoroughly established in the cities. So the term originally referred only to “country folk”.

However, because the country folk were devoted to the various gods of the Gentiles, “pagan” came to mean something else: a worshipper of non-Christian deities. And as those deities receded into the past and became conflated with the demons of both revelation and of the medieval imagination, “pagan” came to take on a much darker significance. It became fraught with imagery of devils, horned gods, and all manner of wild witchery (which paganism was sometimes, in fact, fraught with). To call somebody a “pagan” in this sense was no longer to describe where they lived, but to say something desperately dark about their soul.

Finally, in these latter days, “pagan” has taken yet another turn and is now used in some circles as a compliment. Among a growing number of people, “pagan” now means “post-Christian religionist who is attempting to rescue reverence for Nature from the hands of evil Judeo-Christian earth rapists”. The notion behind this version of “pagan” is that there was once a magical far-off time when humans dwelt in harmony with Mother Earth, everybody was comfortable with their various Jungian archetypes, and all was well as we worshipped the “gods” and “goddesses” who both expressed the beauty of Nature and got us in touch with our inmost selves (and lots of libido to boot). Who needs all that stuff about sin, dying to self and the need for redemption? The great blunder of the human race was when the old gods were swept away by the evil Judeo-Christian God. We have to return to our natural state of innocence with the gods (and especially the goddesses) of Nature that reigned before God mucked everything up. Then we will find the happiness we are all seeking.

The first thing to note about paganism, is the last thing that I note: it is seeking something. Paganism is, according to G.K. Chesterton, a search. Chesterton had a very high regard for pre-Christian paganism. He famously said that paganism was the attempt to reach God through the imagination. He declared, “Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger; and everything else has been comparatively small.” The thing it is seeking is the thing we all seek: the thing St. Thomas says we can’t not seek—happiness.

But that brings us to our second point, namely that paganism takes two basic forms: pre-Christian and post-Christian. Pre-Christian paganism was, says philosopher Peter Kreeft, a virgin. Post-Christian paganism is, he adds, a divorcee. And that matters enormously because there are two basic reasons people ask questions: to find something out and to keep from finding something out.

Pre-Christian paganism was (for the most part) an attempt to find God. It was (as we shall see in our next discussion) often alloyed with all sorts of error and hampered by original sin. But the fundamental goal was a search for God. As such, it was ordered toward reality, though much hampered in the pursuit by the effects of sin.

Post-Christian paganism is, first and foremost, a search for an escape from God. It is a hunt for the blessings of heaven without the trouble of submitting to heaven. As such, it is ordered toward unreality, though much hampered in the pursuit by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Now it should be noted here that merely living in the 21st Century does not automatically make you a post-Christian pagan. It is quite possible for pre-Christian pagans to exist in this day and age. I well remember a woman I worked with who was spurred by  Joan Osborne’s song “One of Us” to remark: “Wouldn’t that be a cool idea for a story?”

“What?” I queried.

“Well, suppose God became a human being. Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a story?”

I remarked, “Yeah! You could call it ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ or something.”

She had no clue that this was what Christianity taught. It was, even at this date, news. And she was amazed.

But others are, in Chesterton’s phrase, “weary of hearing what they have never yet heard”. These divorcee post-Christians are looking, not for God, but for something—anything—else.

Understanding that is the essential first step. Next time, we will discuss the next step.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • LarryW2LJ

    Mark – Great article; but the song was a hit by Joan Osbourne – not Tori Amos.

  • Mary Kochan

    Thanks, Larry — this has been corrected.

  • dkpalaska

    I am loving this well-written series of articles on modern-day paganism. They are entertaining and informative both. The discussion of “virgin” pre-Christian paganism is excellent, and I am revelling in the quotes and clever compare/contrast, particularly: “As such, it is ordered toward unreality, though much hampered in the pursuit by the work of the Holy Spirit.” Hee! Very nice.

    I’m looking forward to the next installment. Thank you for writing these.


  • goral

    “If God Was One of Us”
    Two thousand years of Christian civilization and schooling and this is
    a novel idea.
    Can you think of a better definition of Paganism?
    We are told that we went through the Dark Ages.
    Those who really analized that era know that it wasn’t dark at all.
    Could we be entering the real dark ages before the end comes?

  • laurak

    This is an excellent article and I really liked the way that Mr. Shea illustrated pre-christian paganism and post-christian paganism.

    However, I think it is a good thing when people explore other religions and viewpoints on God or life in general. St. Augustine did and he became a doctor of the church in the “post-christian era”. I am not very good at explaining this, but St. Augustine explored several different philosophies that are contrary to christianity. His capacity to search, think, reason and question different belief systems, eventually led him to accept the fullness of truth found in the Catholic church. St. Augustine then took christian thought into deeper levels of understanding than we ever dreamed possible. But, that didn’t happen overnight.

    There are many people today that are genuinely searching for the truth, too. But, they need to find it for themselves in order for their beliefs to be validated. When these people eventually find the truth in the teachings of the Catholic church, they do not become mediocre christians, either. The passion of their faith inspires us all.

    I think we should follow the example of St. Monica and pray for our modern day pagans, but also to respectfully challenge what they believe. Not to prove a point, but to simply encourage them to think about what they believe and why they believe it. Someday everything may “click” into place like a light bulb going off and the truth will set them free.

  • jmtfh

    Hey Mark!

    I too, encountered a present day pagan a few years ago. She had grown up in the Colorado public school system, where her dad was a superintendent of schools. One day she saw me at the zoo, with my kids, say our Catholic meal prayer (complete with the Sign of the Cross).

    It startled her and when she asked what we were doing, I just told her “praying meal prayer before our picnic”–never meaning to evangelize her.

    She had only heard the name of Jesus Christ as a swear word and had heard of something called “a bible” but was unaware of it having even an Old and New Testament!

    I was shocked, having assumed that most non-Christians had simply rejected their faith at some point in time if they weren’t one of the other 7 major world religions.

    This led to many discussions and eventually she and her husband became Christian, he had his vasectomy reversed and they had 3 more children and a miscarriage (to add to their 3 already born kids)! He eventually left his well-paying job and he and his wife became pastors of a small church!

    Unfortunately, that was years ago, and they have not joined the Catholic Church but now they are at least Christian!

  • kirfy

    You have no idea what you are talking about. Do you know any Pagans? Where is your evidence that supports your assertion that “present day” Pagans are “looking for anything else, but God. That is factually untrue. I have been a Pagan for 24 years and have never wavered in my beliefs. I have been open to learning about other beliefs, but the understanding I have that God is in everything natural in the universe is stronger than ever. And we do not believe that things are as black & white as you would have them in our categorization. We believe that our ancient Pagan ancestors had some good basic ideas, but were limited by the information they had at the time. We believe we have kept the good parts of ancient beliefs and have added our modern knowledge to it. That is something that Christianity would be well to do, given that it seems to react to our spiritual evolution as human beings as a threat. The real threat is the rigidity, blame, divisiveness that equating one religion with the only truth and goodness does to those who do not share the “faith”. Our old/new religion is compatible with the first principle of physics & science, is devoid of guilt, blame & shame, engenders a respect for all living things, and does not askew critical thinking in order to have deep faith. In fact, we are allowed to grow, learn, challenge & evolve from our critical thinking, which deepens our understanding. We are among the few who are able to say that we believe we are right, but there is no harm if we are wrong, and we have no need to say we are the one true religion. It is enough for us to believe.