pa·​gan·​ism ˈpā-gə-ˌni-zəm How to pronounce paganism (audio)
: spiritual beliefs and practices other than those of Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity: such as
: the spiritual beliefs and practices of ancient polytheistic religions
: the beliefs and practices of contemporary religions or spiritual movements based on ancient paganism
: a religion based on paganism
: the quality or state of being a pagan

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The Uses and Origins of Heathen and Pagan

Heathen is a dated term used primarily of someone who is not religious, or whose religion is not Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity. It is also sometimes used disapprovingly of someone who is not cultured; this use is also dated.

In current use, pagan is most commonly used of someone who practices a contemporary form of paganism, such as Wicca, making the word synonymous with neo-pagan. But pagan also has meanings identical to those of heathen; in those uses it too is dated. Additionally, pagan has literary use referring to a nonreligious person who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods.

The origins of heathen and pagan are semantically similar. Heathen likely comes from a term for a country inhabitant—in particular, a “heath dweller.” The Latin source of pagan, paganus, originally meant “country dweller” or “civilian;” it was used at the end of the Roman Empire to refer to people who practiced a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, and especially to those who worshiped multiple deities. It’s believed that the religious meanings of paganus developed either from the enduring non-Christian religious practices of those who lived far from the Roman cities where Christianity was more quickly adopted, or from the fact that early Christians referred to themselves as “soldiers of Christ,” making nonbelievers “civilians.”

Examples of paganism in a Sentence

the paganism of early Rome He is a practitioner of Paganism.
Recent Examples on the Web Arguably both Zoroastrianism and Hinduism derive from Indo-European paganism, the former as a negation, the latter as an evolution. Razib Khan, Discover Magazine, 19 Nov. 2019 Her collections flowed from a place which talked poetically about nature, female stories, ancient legends, paganism, and gardens. Sarah Mower, Vogue, 30 Sep. 2023 Promising themes begin to take shape around the third episode, like the tension between traditional paganism and newfangled Christianity, or the weight of destiny. Angie Han, The Hollywood Reporter, 15 Aug. 2023 This week’s speakers and presenters will represent Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Baha’i, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Indigenous religions, paganism and other beliefs. David Crary, Chicago Tribune, 14 Aug. 2023 The numbers of Americans who identify with Wicca or paganism has risen from 134,000 in 2001 to nearly 2 million, Helen Berger, a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center, told the USA TODAY Network at the time. Francisco Guzman, USA TODAY, 30 May 2023 Our lessons leapt from rare mentions of Lakota rituals to astrology to paganism to Toltec beliefs, giving me the feeling of having been plunged into a self-help soup. Sierra Crane Murdoch, Harper's Magazine, 3 May 2023 Books on mystical topics — paganism, witchcraft, dreams, crystals, past life regression, runes — are sold, as well as journals to record mystical experiments. Susan Dunne, Hartford Courant, 12 Aug. 2022 Additionally, shifting a society from an institutional religion back toward tribal paganism, as occurred in Britain, seems to also be implausible. Razib Khan, Discover Magazine, 18 June 2011 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'paganism.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of paganism was in the 15th century

Dictionary Entries Near paganism

Cite this Entry

“Paganism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 5 Mar. 2024.

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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