Updated: Nov 5, 2020
The past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how the pagan/witchy/magical community has a problem with using language accurately. This post draws heavily on this post by December F. Bryant, on this one from Lady Althaea, on several conversations on Twitter, and on several personal conversations with friends. Many of the ideas here come from these posts and conversations, and I can’t take credit for all of the thoughts expressed here. (I will, however, accept any blame for mistakes or poorly expressed points. All the errors are my own, I promise.)
I must begin with a little disclaimer. I am not a perfect user of the English language. I’m a writer, but I often miss typos and I’m sure there are words I think I understand but don’t. It happens to all of us from time to time.
That is not, however, what this post is about. Honest mistakes and errors are … well, honest.
This post is intended to address ignorance - perhaps willful, perhaps unintentional - of the actual meaning of many of the words we toss around on a daily basis, and a refusal on the part of many members of our community to amend their terminology when accurate definitions are presented to them. Particularly when the terminology has to do with spiritual practice and how we approach the Gods.
Another little disclaimer: it’s impossible in a post of this length to have a nuanced, in-depth discussion of spiritual practices and religious beliefs. I’m writing this post to encourage clarity of thought and words when discussing how we relate to (or DON’T relate to) the Gods as pagans. I’m not any kind of authority, I’m not a scholar, and I’m not pretending to be the last word on theistic definitions. I encourage everyone to do their own research and formulate their own thoughts on the subject.
One last disclaimer: I know we liberal minded magical people like to talk about the evil of “isms”, but not all “isms" are bad. Even a super radical, no-rules or regulations individual might have use for an “ism” or two, such as disestablishmentarianism (which I include here because I think it is such a fantastic mouthful of syllables, not because it has any bearing on the subject). And I do understand how, as a general rule, too much labeling can cause damage. But I also know that words, if they are used properly, can help us discuss complicated concepts more clearly and succinctly. By contrast, when words are used inaccurately, they sow confusion and conflict.
Which is why I believe, strongly, in using the agreed upon definitions of words that are an established part of the English language for the sake of clarity. So today I would like to share some definitions. I did not make up these definitions. They are from the dictionary. I will include links to the sources of each definition in case you don’t believe me. I will also share my thoughts on the definitions. Those you can totally disagree with if you like.
“broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god
“2 : a person who is unwilling to commit to an opinion about something political”
I don’t have any particular thoughts on this, but I’m including the term for those who might be trying to find words to express their thoughts and feelings on the concept of deity.
Moving on to:
Now then. My understanding of this word suggests to me that if a person doesn’t believe the Gods are real - if that person thinks, for example, that They are archetypes, magical correspondences, manifestations of the human psyche, or some other nebulous but not literal being - then technically that person is an atheist, or perhaps a pantheist (see below). This is not a criticism. There are many atheists in the world. It’s okay. There are atheist witches and pagans. Some may prefer the term nontheist: “a person who does not believe that there is a god or gods : a person who is not a believer in theism". This term, to me, feels a little gentler and more open to being a spiritual person who still doesn’t believe in the Gods, though as you can see, the definition is almost identical to that of atheist (which is why I haven't given it a separate entry in this post).
Henotheism: “the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods”
I include this word just because I’d never heard it before, find it fascinating, and appreciate that there is a term for a person who is devoted to only one Deity but respects the existence and validity of many others. Language is so cool you guys.
Monotheism: “the doctrine or belief that there is but one God” :
My understanding of THIS word suggests to me that if a person believes all Gods are manifestations, faces, or aspects of one God, then that person is, by definition, practicing a form of monotheism. I'd love to hear if there's another term to describe someone who believes all gods are one god BESIDES soft polytheism, which I feel is a misleading term.
Panentheism: “the doctrine that God includes the world as a part though not the whole of his being”
This word and its definition actually make my head spin a little (see "not a scholar", above), but I include it because it's an interesting concept that might resonate for someone.
Pantheism: “a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe
“2 : the worship of all gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently also : toleration of worship of all gods (as at certain periods of the Roman empire)”
I think some people who call themselves polytheists are more accurately pantheists. Pantheism allows for reverence and appreciation without belief or worship of literal Gods as individual people with agency. I think it would include the practice of “working with the gods” as “correspondences” in magic. I encourage further reading on the concept of both panentheism and pantheism, because they are fascinating ideas that incorporate far more than their dictionary definitions can express.
Polytheism: “belief in or worship of more than one god”
This definition suggests to me that if a person doesn’t believe in or worship multiple Gods, then that person is not, by definition, a polytheist. And to me it doesn’t seem possible to worship a being you don’t believe exists. One might really enjoy stories about Them, really love the energy or concepts They represent, really think They are fascinating and magical concepts … but without belief, I don’t believe worship is possible. In my experience, worship involves relationship, service, and often some form of sacrifice or offering (and more, all of it hard to express). I think it’s impossible to have a relationship with Someone you don’t actually believe in, even if you think They’re a nice idea. I might love and appreciate and even be in awe of the characters in my favorite novels, but I don’t worship them, because I don’t believe they are real. If a person works with the gods as energies and archetypes, they might more accurately call themselves a pantheist. See above.
“specifically : one who believes in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race”
This word, too, is one I’m just including for the sake of being thorough and contributing to an understanding of the meanings of words.
So there’s my brief theistic lexicon, and my thoughts on how we use the words. I hope it's helpful for people who aren’t sure how to describe their practice or are trying to figure out how to find other people who approach the Gods in similar ways.