Actually, there is no problem with paganism itself, I’m becoming concerned with the term, in particular the “ism” part.
A long while back, when I was first getting started on this Medieval History thing, I read Susan Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals. This was very much a revision of what was often called feudalism or the feudal system. To contract a book of over 500 pages into a couple of sentences, she argued that there was no such thing as a feudal system, or feudalism. Land tenure arrangements varied widely from place to place and over time, making use of terminology such as “system or “ism” flawed. Good book and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Or at least read Elizabeth Brown’s 1974 American Historical Review article. I consider Reynolds one of the most influential Medieval History books I’ve read.
I’m just getting started on reading on Early Christianity but before I even get going on this, it seems to me that the term “paganism” suffers from the same problem. First, there was no “ism” about it. Different people revered different Gods and Goddesses and each of these cults had their own rituals (though I’m certain some were very similar). Some pagans revered one deity, such as Sol Invictus, others several. Some pagan cults engaged in ritual sacrifice (animal — claims of Human sacrifice, at least during the period of the Empire — should be considered baseless accusations, often by Christians who misinterpreted what went on at games) others used incense and/or wore laurel wreaths. An initiate into the cult of Mercury would have undergone a very different ritual from one entering that of Mithras. And this is before we get into all of the local cults and designated Gods for specific cities, or private ritual.
The only time this “ism” seems to be appropriate is in a discussion of how contemporary Christians viewed things. They do not seem to have made much of a distinction between one form of pagan practice and another. Otherwise, lumping all pagan practices under one label is a gross oversimplification of the multiple cults and practices that were followed and engaged in during the Roman Empire.
This is a problem, but IMO it isn’t the largest one. This “ism” infers, at least to me, that there was some sort of cohesiveness to pagan practice. In my mind, the term suggests the concept of large pagan congregations highly involved in their cult, receiving lessons in doctrine and worship and actively promoting their beliefs.
This wasn’t the case. Active paganism was largely the concern of the elites who were selected for various offices and priesthoods within their respective cults. State support was used for maintenance of temples and the “professionals” involved in promoting the cults (Vestal Virgins are probably the most well-known of these – their maintenance wasn’t free, or cheap). Until the later 4th century state funds supported temples and rituals. Large-scale participation among the populace was largely restricted to festivals. One of the reasons paganism (see — I’m doing it too — tried substituting pagan practices and it just didn’t seem right) sort of just faded away without any sort of epic battle against Christianity is that large numbers of the populace weren’t that concerned with it. This contrasts with Christianity with its organizational system based on bishops, involving the widespread teaching of doctrine and practice, and the ability to influence large numbers of people. The large scale religious responses seen in the fourth and fifth century were largely restricted to Christianity, an ancient form of “get out the vote” which could be translated to “take it to the streets.” The populace was very capable of demonstrating about other things. Food shortages, closure of games (they didn’t seem to much care if games were to honor a God or not so long as they were held), and opposition to/support for an Emperor all brought people out. But paganism was unable to inspire this sort of reaction.
I don’t have a substitute term for paganism — I wish I did. As I learn more about this I may find that someone has written on this, an Ancient History version of Elizabeth Brown’s article. For me the use of the term paganism carries the risk of oversimplifying the wide range of polytheistic and monotheistic practices carried out in the Empire as well as implying that there was a high degree of cohesiveness among practitioners and followers. Neither of these is true. There should be something better, or, unless used in the context of what contemporary Christians believed about non-Christians, these beliefs should be explained in more detail rather than being summed up with an imprecise 8-word term.1
I shall now tell my pedantic self to go sit in a corner. He may escape again though. Unfortunately, I’m reasonably certain I’ll use paganism myself from time to time, as I have in this very post. Might be a case where I’ll need to resurrect my self-policing through fines.
1 There are a couple of exceptions to this. A statement such as “Symmachus wrote a letter defending paganism and urging Theodosius to restore state support for the temples as well as the Altar of Victory.” seems OK because it would be an instance of referring to the entire scope of practice, where the specifics are relatively unimportant. Another acceptable use would be if used in a discussion of specifics. For example, “Paganism associated with Jupiter included …” or “The form of paganism most strongly favored by the Symmachi involved …” However even in these cases, substituting “pagan practices” (or something) for “paganism” seems preferable to me.
Brown, Elizabeth A. R., (1974). “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe”, The American Historical Review 79, 1063-1088.
Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996). ISBN: 9780198-206484.