Paganism (from Latin paganus, meaning "country dweller, rustic") is a word used to refer to various religions and religious beliefs from across the world. It is a term which, from a Western perspective, has modern connotations of spiritualist, animistic or shamanic practices or beliefs of any folk religion, and of historical and contemporary polytheistic religions in particular.
The term can be defined broadly, to encompass the faith traditions outside the Abrahamic monotheistic group of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The group so defined includes many of the Eastern religions, Native American religions and mythologies, as well as non-Abrahamic ethnic religions in general. More narrow definitions will not include any of the world religions and restrict the term to local or rural currents not organized as civil religions. Characteristic of pagan traditions is the absence of proselytism and the presence of a living mythology which explains religious practice.
The term "pagan" is a Christian adaptation of the "gentile" of Judaism, and as such has an inherent Abrahamic bias, and pejorative connotations among Western monotheists, comparable to heathen, and infidel, mushrik and kafir (كافر) in Islam. For this reason, ethnologists avoid the term "paganism," with its uncertain and varied meanings, in referring to traditional or historic faiths, preferring more precise categories such as polytheism, shamanism, pantheism, or animism; however others criticise the use of these terms, claiming that these are only aspects that different faiths may share and do not denote the religions themselves.
Since the later 20th century, "Pagan" or "Paganism" has become widely used as a self-designation by adherents of Neopaganism. As such, various modern scholars have begun to apply the term to three separate groups of faiths: Historical Polytheism (such as Celtic polytheism and Norse paganism), Folk/ethnic/Indigenous religions (such as Chinese folk religion and African traditional religion), and Neo-paganism (such as Wicca and Germanic Neopaganism).
The post-classical Latin paganismus gave rise to both paganism and to its synonym paynimry. Paynimry may be used of paganism, its practises, and pagans, as well as for the domain or realm of pagans.
In their distant origins, these usages derived from pagus, "province, countryside", cognate to Greek πάγος "rocky hill", and, even earlier, "something stuck in the ground", as a landmark: the Proto-Indo-European root *pag- means "fixed" and is also the source of the words page, pale (stake), and pole, as well as pact and peace.
While pagan is attested in English from the 14th century, there is no evidence that the term paganism was in use in English before the 17th century. The OED instances Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): "The divisions of Christianity suspended the ruin of paganism." The term was not a neologism, however, as paganismus was already used by Augustine.
Less than twenty years after the last vestiges of paganism were crushed with great severity by the emperor Theodosius I Rome was seized by Alaric in 410. This led to murmuring that the gods of paganism had taken greater care of the city than that of the Christian God, inspiring St Augustine to write The City of God, alternative title "De Civitate Dei contra Paganos: The City of God against the Pagans", in which he claimed that whilst the great 'city of Man' had fallen, Christians were ultimately citizens of the 'city of God.'
Both "pagan" and "heathen" have historically been used as a pejorative by adherents of monotheistic religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to indicate a disbeliever in their religion. Although, in modern times it is not always used as a pejorative. "Paganism" frequently refers to the religions of classical antiquity, most notably Greek mythology or Roman religion, and can be used neutrally or admiringly by those who refer to those complexes of belief. However, until the rise of Romanticism and the general acceptance of freedom of religion in Western civilization, "Paganism" was almost always used disparagingly of heterodox beliefs falling outside the established political framework of the Christian Church. "Pagan" came to be equated with a Christianized sense of "epicurian" to signify a person who is sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, unconcerned with the future and uninterested in sophisticated religion. The word was usually used in this worldly and stereotypical sense, particularly among those who were drawing attention to what they perceived as being the limitations of paganism, for example, as when G. K. Chesterton wrote: "The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else." In sharp contrast Swinburne the poet would comment on this same theme: "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
Christianity itself has been perceived at times as a form of paganism by followers of the other Abrahamic religionsbecause of, for example, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the celebration of pagan feast days, and other practices – through a process described as "baptisingor "christianization". Even between Christians there have been similar charges of paganism levelled, especially by Protestants, towards the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches for their veneration of the saints and images.
There are many surviving traditions of ethnic religion. Organized ethnic religions that achieved the status of a civil religion are Shinto, tied to Japanese identity, and Judaism, tied to Jewish identity. In nationalist definitions, Hinduism may be tied to Indian identity.
Uninstitutionalized folk religion is found mainly in rural and sparsely populated areas. These include Animism, ancestor worship and Shamanism of Asia, Africa, the Americas, as well as New Guinea and other Pacific islands. Chinese folk religion is an umbrella term for uninstitutionalized folk traditions under a secular regime.
All world religions, however, also include folk religious aspects, as opposed to their theological or philosophical aspects, see folk Christianity, or local institutions of revealed religions may become strongly tied to ethnic identity, e.g. Yazdânism (Kurdish faiths descending from Zoroastrianism), Tibetan Buddhism, or various Christian national churches such as the Armenian Apostolic Church, the various Syriac churches, and the various branches of the Orthodox Church, e.g., Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and other non-Roman churches.
Many of the "revivals", Wicca and Neo-druidism in particular, have their roots in 19th century Romanticism and retain noticeable elements of occultism or theosophy that were current then, setting them apart from historical rural (paganus) folk religion. The Íslenska Ásatrúarfélagið is a notable exception in that it was derived more or less directly from remnants in rural folklore.
Neopaganism in the United States accounts for roughly a third of all neopagans worldwide, and for some 0.2% of US population, figuring as the sixth largest non-Christian denomination in the US, after Judaism (1.4%), Islam (0.6%), Buddhism (0.5%), Hinduism (0.3%) and Unitarian Universalism (0.3%).
In one well-established sense, paganism is the belief in any non-monotheistic religion, which would mean that the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece would not be considered Pagan in that sense, since they were monotheist, but not in the Abrahamic tradition. In an extreme sense, and like the pejorative sense below, any belief, ritual or pastime not sanctioned by a religion accepted as orthodox by those doing the describing, such as Burning Man, Halloween, or even Christmas, can be described as "pagan" by the person or people who object to them and the individuals who choose to claim this title.
The term has also been used more narrowly, however, to refer only to religions outside the very large group of so-called Axial Age faiths that encompass both the Abrahamic religions and the chief Indian religions. Under this narrower definition, which differs from that historically used by many (though by no means all) Christians and other Westerners, contemporary paganism is a relatively smaller and more marginal numerical phenomenon. According to Encyclopedia Britannica estimates (as of 2005), adherents of Chinese folk religion account for some 6.3% of world population, and adherents of tribal religions ("ethnoreligionists") for another 4.0%. The number of adherents of neopaganism is insignificant in comparison, amounting to 0.02% of world population at the most, or some 0.4% of the "ethnoreligious" population.