Catholics Versus Pagans

Last week saw the word pagan make it’s way back into public conversation in Ireland.  On Monday, the Irish Times and the Irish Examiner carried an article about a new report from the Association of Catholic Priests which claims that Irish people are becoming increasingly pagan.  (The following day, Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times reported that the leadership of the organisation rejected this claim).

Looking back over the statements about the supposed paganisation of Irish society, I recalled a paper* I delivered to the Irish Association for the Academic Study of Religion‘s annual conference in May this year.

In brief, the way the word ‘Pagan’ has been used in Ireland doesn’t appear to have changed much over the past 100 or so years.  Last week’s commentary on the ACP report projected  materialism, consumerism, and atheism onto the term pagan.

Part of my research involves researching with people who identify as ‘eco-spiritual’.  Some of these explicitly identify as pagan and none of the terms which have been batted around for the last century could be less descriptive of them.

Over the last 100 years or so the term ‘pagan’ has been utilised to variously refer to :

  • Atheism,
  • Satanism,
  • debauched lifestyles,
  • Nazism,
  • Communism
  • anything ‘foreign’ , or
  • anything un-Catholic.

All of which is interesting given that over the course of it’s development Irish Catholicism has, according to Tom Inglis‘ fascinating Moral Monopoly ‘many traditional pagan practices have been successfully incorporated in formal Church rituals’ (1998; p. 25).  In a recent interview in the Guardian the director Ben Wheatley commented on how A Field in England addressed the Puritan project of wringing ‘the paganism and magic out of Catholicism’.

Although we have been presented with the idea of Catholicism driving paganism out of Ireland from the time of Saint Patrick on, the truth is that the Catholic faith’s growth in Ireland may have been more of one of syncretisation, rather than conversion.  In other words, the Roman Catholicism that was practiced in this country for a long-time was deeply respectful of many local pagan traditions.

My research for my ISASR paper didn’t solely unearth stories of the Catholic Church attacking it’s opponents with the word pagan.  Just as frequent were attacks on the Church who accused it of ‘pagan’ practices.

Jennifer Butler, perhaps the foremost authority on neopaganism in Ireland highlights that we cannot speak of one single pagan community in the country, given the hugely diverse nature of people who chose to engage in nature-based spirituality.

Pagans are a vastly diverse group who share a deep respect for the natural world and emphasise the need for us to behave responsibly to each other.  From meeting many of them it appears highly inappropriate that their faith tradition is used a by-word for materialism and nihilism.  Perhaps it is time that other religious groups found a new word to to discuss the negative impact of a lack of spiritual direction in society?

* ‘Pagans in the Irish Print Media: A tropological analysis; 1900- Present’


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