I just received news that my abstract has been accepted to the American Academy of Religion West Coast Region 2016 annual conference. I will be presenting on ancient polytheism and the problem of defining Paganism as the cultural and religious “other.” The conference will be taking place at my alma mater–the University of Arizona!
Here is the abstract for the paper that I will be presenting:
“The 4th century CE saw radical change in Mediterranean history, with the rise of Christian monotheism and the decline of polytheist Greco-Roman religion. Initially, Christian conversions occurred more rapidly at urban centers, whereas in rural regions the local populations were slower to abandon traditional polytheistic religion. These rural practitioners of polytheism, therefore, received the title “Pagani,” which originally referred to country dwellers, but came to be associated with non-Christian forms of religion.
What is noteworthy about this development is that the term “Paganism” was an appellation that was originally given from outside of polytheist communities, by Christian monotheists who were describing their theological “other.” In fact, even the term “polytheism” was not coined by practitioners of Greco-Roman religion, but was used by monotheists to describe worshipers of multiple gods. In turn, Pagan polytheists would describe Christians as “atheists,” because of their denial of multiple divinities.
Although Paganism retreated into the background, following the 4th century rise of Christianity, various forms of polytheistic religion were dominant in the Mediterranean for several preceding millennia. These polytheist religions and the mythologies and philosophies that they produce are important pillars of Western culture, and yet few today understand Greco-Roman religion as it was originally practiced. This problem of studying dead religions has lead many Classical scholars to describe ancient polytheism as “desperately foreign” from modern religions. Even today, “Paganism” is often used as an umbrella term to describe non-mainstream religion. If scholars, however, wish to study polytheism with as much seriousness as we study mainstream religions today, the role of the Pagan as the cultural, religious, and spiritual “other” needs to be seriously reevaluated.
This paper aims to break down some of the social and conceptual barriers between polytheism and monotheism, by evaluating parallels in theology, mythos, and community between these seemingly disparate worldviews.”
I look forward to visiting Tucson again after being away for a couple years!