Capitalising Pagans: Oberon’s Tipping Point

An article on The Wild Hunt asks:

‘Was Paganism Left Out of the New AP Stylebook Religion Chapter?’

Writer Heather Greene refers to the new edition of the Associated Press style guide, The AP Stylebook. This is the book that instructs Associated Press journalists in presentation, to ensure an organisational consistency in their output. Most organisations with a written output will have some sort of style guidance document: it’ll outline matters of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and so on – for example, does the company approve of split infinitives? Does it use American or British English spelling? Should dialogue be presented in “double quotes” or ‘single quotes’?

And Heather asks:

‘What were the changes and additions? And, more importantly, how will they affect mainstream news reports on stories involving Pagans and Heathens? Will “Pagan” and “Paganism” finally be capitalized?’

She relates the story of one Oberon Zell who, in 2013, having ‘reached the tipping point’, started a campaign group called The Coalition to Capitalize Pagan (the group’s American – hence the ‘z’.  See?  Style guides are important). Oberon wrote a letter to the editors complaining that paganism as a religion deserves the same respect as other religions and should be capitalised, as they are. He collected sixty-one signatures for his letter, including Raymond Buckland, Vivianne Crowley and Starhawk. An accompanying petition on change.org ‘garnered over 450 signatures’. (Just to put that in context, the change.org petition to put Jane Austen on British banknotes collected 36,161 signatures. A petition to nominate Malala Yousafzai for the Nobel Peace Prize collected a quarter of a million.)

Heather quotes Oberon:

‘For the past 45 years I have been giving interviews on Paganism to newspaper journalists, always emphasizing that “Pagan” and “Paganism” are the proper names for our religion, and should thus be capitalized in that context.’

The trouble is, ‘Pagan’ and ‘Paganism’ aren’t the proper names for our religion, because paganism isn’t a religion. As one of the commenters beneath the Wild Hunt article points out, ‘paganism’ is a religious classification – a category of belief, not a religion in its own right. Comparable terms would be, for example, ‘monotheism’, ‘pantheism’ or ‘atheism’. In response, another commenter suggests ‘Abramism’, which is a religious classification and includes the religions descended from Abraham (aka Abram), such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But the stylistic inconsistency here is that the words Abramic, Abramist and Abramism are based on a proper noun – the name of a person, Abraham – and thus carry a capital letter anyway.

The truth is that this is something of a complex area. The difference between ‘religion’ and ‘religious classification’ can be subtle. Christianity, for example, is accepted as a single religion even while members of its various denominations insult, assault, and occasionally kill each other over doctrinal differences (does the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ, or does it become the body and blood of Christ?). Roman Catholicism, a denomination of Christianity incorporating a single doctrinal tradition, is capitalised, as is Protestantism, which is a sub-classification of traditions including Anglicanism, which is a sub-classification of traditions including the Society of Friends and the Methodists. Yet – and this is very important – the colossal majority of Christians, be they Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, evangelical, or whatever else, live in relative peace with each other and recognise and celebrate their shared values and identity.

Forcing a comparison, as the Wild Hunt article compels us to do, where does the word ‘paganism’ sit in our version of that tree that, in Christian terms, has its root in ‘monotheism’ and branches out to Methodism?

Paganism can be (but is rarely) monotheistic: one God. It can be polytheistic: many gods. It can be pantheistic – that all is deity and deity is all; or it can be non-theistic: without gods. Paganism can be henotheistic, meaning that many gods are recognised but only one is worshipped. It can even be specific variants on this sort of terminology: duotheistic for those who worship the Goddess and the God; or tritheistic for those who recognise only the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone.

Yet while pagans can be included in all these brackets, these brackets do not in themselves denote paganism. Buddhists and Taoists may similarly believe in God, or gods, or they may be non-theistic and consider divinity to be something more conceptual – neither faith would label itself pagan. That said, some branches of Christianity would declare them such, because in that usage, ‘pagan’ means, essentially, ‘non-Christian’.  Even we have difficulty working out precisely what we mean when we say ‘pagan’, and generally seem to adopt the position that ‘you know it when you see it’.

It makes sense that some pagans would wish to assert their ownership of the word used to describe their several religions. They want to establish a difference between ‘Pagan’, which means… well, whatever it is that they believe; and ‘pagan’, which is so readily used to mean ‘someone who believes in something I don’t’. But the trouble is that ‘pagan’ means so many different things to so many different people, even within the pagan community, that it seems premature to be insisting of others that they treat us as one, single, unified faith. A Wiccan might freely identify themselves as a pagan and be happy to be referred to as such. But ask an Asatruar what paganism means to them and they’ll likely explain that actually they’re not pagans or Pagans – they’re Heathens. Yet to an outsider, the difference might be difficult to grasp. Assume Druidry is the same religion as Wicca and you’ll likewise be put straight soon enough. So on what basis, with all this said, does Oberon say, ‘“Pagan” and “Paganism” are the proper names for our religion’?

For myself, I would say that I’m pagan, but I’m not Pagan. I don’t follow a religion called Paganism.  Though, if you ask me what my actual religion is, I’d find it difficult to answer you just now. So maybe I have a flawed viewpoint. What do you think? Would you have signed the change.org petition? Have I missed an important point and misunderstood the issue completely? Put me right in the comments.


PS: Note from the Wild Hunt article:

On June 24 at 2:30pm, AP religion writer Rachel Zoll, who assisted Stylebook editors in creating the new AP Stylebook chapter, will be hosting a Twitter chat to discuss the changes to the guide, the inclusions and exclusions, and about religion journalism in general. Go to Twitter and follow the #APStyleChat hashtag to hear what she has to say.

Might be interesting.

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One thought on “Capitalising Pagans: Oberon’s Tipping Point

  1. Pagan or pagan, mmm, I see where you are coming from, or should that be from where you are coming if we need to keep to correct forms of grammar. I too am pagan and have a belief system not a religion as such. We are all creatures of stardust however we decide to label our creator and the terms Gods and Goddesses to me are just a convenient way of distinguishing beings of a higher order. I don’t worship them in a Roman Catholic way but have reverence for many energy forms that keep existence in a universal balanced form. If only all humans could see the big picture there would be harmony throughout the world and peace would at last reign supreme with which ever name was chosen to represent the Great Architect of the Universe. Blessed Be.

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