Who Is, and Who Is Not a Pagan? Struggles in Defining Contemporary Paganism

A Response to Ethan Doyle White


  • Pavel Horák Czech Academy of Sciences




Contemporary Paganism, religion definition, theology, polytheism, animism


The article deals with Pagan studies’ attempts to define contemporary Paganism and claims that definition-building is not a fruitful way of getting to a better understanding of the phenomenon. The article (i) introduces the ways that Pagan studies have tacked the issue of defining contemporary Paganism, (ii) providing particular examples, and (iii) scrutinizing them with a help of classificatory and referential optics. Some scholars in the field have suggested employing family resemblance and polythetic definition for solving the definitional issues. The article (iv) analyzes these propositions and argues why these proposals are not feasible ways of conducting the inquiry. Instead, (v) it proposes a completely different research approach: to formulate a hypothesis, pick a point of reference of contemporary Paganism and test its self-representation against the hypothesis, together with scrutinizing the history of Paganism conceptualizations during the centuries to find out how much these conceptualizations influence our present inquiries and insider self-representations.

Author Biography

Pavel Horák, Czech Academy of Sciences

Pavel Horák is a postdoctoral researcher, Department of Critical Heritage Studies, Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences. This research was funded with the Support for the Long-Term Conceptual Development of the Research Organization RVO: 68378076, Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences.


Aitamurto, Kaarina, and Scott Simpson. Introduction to Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson. Durham: Acumen, 2013. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315729008

Balagangadhara, S. N. “The Heathen in His Blindness...”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion. New Delhi: Manohar, 2005.

Berger, Helen A., Evan A. Leach, and Leigh S. Shaffer. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States. Studies in Comparative Religion. Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What Is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006812X634881. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/157006812X634881

Doyle White, Ethan. “Theoretical, Terminological, and Taxonomic Trouble in the Academic Study of Contemporary Paganism: A Case for Reform.” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. https://doi.org/10.1558/pome.v18i1.28457. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1558/pome.v18i1.28457

Fitzgerald, Timothy. “Religion, Philosophy and Family Resemblances.” Religion. https://doi.org/10.1006/reli.1996.0017. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1006/reli.1996.0017

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010 [1998].

Giere, Ronald N. “Theories.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, edited by W. H. Newton-Smith, 515–25. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy 18. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 2000.

Greenwood, Susan. Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld: An Anthropology. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

Harrison, Peter. “Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511627972. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511627972

Harvey, Graham. Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism. London: Hurst, 1997.

Magliocco, Sabina. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Contemporary Ethnography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. DOI: https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812202700

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226922621.001.0001

Pike, Sarah M. New Age and Neopagan Religions in America. Columbia Contemporary American Religion Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/nr.2006.9.3.125

Pizza, Murphy, and James R Lewis. Introduction to The Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, edited by Murphy Pizza and James R. Lewis, 1–12. Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion. Leiden: Brill, 2009. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/ej.9789004163737.i-650

Rountree, Kathryn. Crafting Contemporary Pagan Identities in a Catholic Society. Vitality of Indigenous Religions Series. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.

Saler, Benson. Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories. New York: Berghahn Books, 2000 [1993].

Saler, Benson. “Family Resemblance and the Definition of Religion.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques.

Smart, Ninian. The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge: Some Methodological Questions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Religion, Religions, Religious.” In Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark Taylor, 269–84. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Strmiska, Michael. “Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives.” In Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Michael Strmiska, 1–54. Religion in Contemporary Cultures Series. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2005.

Wiench, Piotr. “A Postcolonial Key to Understanding Central and Eastern European Neopaganisms.” In Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson, 10–26. Durham: Acumen, 2013.

Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2nd ed. The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge, 2009. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203428474

Wilson, Brian C. “From the Lexical to the Polythetic: A Brief History of Religion.” In What Is Religion? Origins, Definitions, and Explanations, edited by Thomas A. Idinopulos and Brian C. Wilson, 141–62. Leiden: Brill, 1998. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004379046_012. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004379046_012



How to Cite

Horák, P. (2021). Who Is, and Who Is Not a Pagan? Struggles in Defining Contemporary Paganism: A Response to Ethan Doyle White. Pomegranate, 22(2), 125–145. https://doi.org/10.1558/pome.39673