Tyranny of definition: Part One…..deconstructing paganism from an Africa-centred perspective


THIS article is provoked by reference to paganism in a number of submissions on Easter last week.
I must begin by saying while I agree with a number of my colleagues on Easter as fundamentally non-Christian; I was a bit unsettled by their innocent use of the term ‘pagan’.
I had a feeling there was little interrogation of the term in their reference to Easter as a pagan holiday and I thought I could further enrich their submissions by unmasking the hideous meaning attached to it by ethnocentric coiners.
In other words, I content that Easter is neither pagan nor Christian.
It is what it is. The other point is to disabuse our African brothers and sisters of the ‘tyranny of definition’ to which they have been subjected by our erstwhile colonisers for almost five centuries.
You will remember that in my first reference to ‘tyranny of definition’, I made the point that it is about using words in a manner that appropriates other people, defining them and in the process objectifying them. Who is a pagan? Who is a heathen? Who is a gentile? And the bigger corrective question is according to whom?
The word ‘pagan’ comes from the Latin word ‘paganus’ which meant ‘related to the country side’ or ‘village dweller’. It came to mean a person with little or no knowledge or what is popularly called ‘village bumpkin’.
But the word ‘pagan’ wasn’t used until the early Christian Church began using it to describe people from distant rural places who were considered backward because they did not practise monotheism.
During the Roman Empire, the belief in one God was considered to be more civilised than polytheism by the early Christians. But you can understand that, that is ‘normal’ of any colonising ideology.
If you want to subjugate a people, you can’t justify your action by acknowledging the merits of their belief system. Rather you make no effort to understand their logic. You simply rubbish the people and their religion as dark and barbaric. The same happened with the re-appropriation of the word ‘pagan’.
In its innocence, it referred to rural folks and their simple lives. When Christianity claimed monopoly of God and His Heavenly Kingdom, it had to systematically denigrate all other alternative ways of knowing God as paganism or rural idiocy.
This negative attitude towards the rural or country life has been contagious since then. Don’t you look down upon people of strong rural backgrounds (SRBs) to date?
‘Pagan’ was therefore considered a derogatory term until the early 20th Century when it was re-branded as neo-paganism. Neo-paganism is a group of new religious movements inspired by historical pagan beliefs of pre-Christian Europe.
Polytheism and animism is common among all these movements which have maintained separate identities
I further contest that the word ‘pagan’ has a vague and confusing definition that keeps us from understanding who we are and our importance at this time in history. Deconstruction thus becomes a necessary process for us to attain to our rightful place in the world.
Africans should refuse to be described as pagans and they too should shun using it to describe others. Before the birth of Abrahamic religions and other monotheistic cultures, most parts of the world followed a variety of religions.
These were mostly polytheistic religious practices with deities representing forces of nature as that is what man feared most.
The so-called pagan cultures existed across the world. In fact, most traditional Indian religions that were brought under the umbrella of the common Hindu way of life as we know it today shared many similarities with the so-called pagan religions from regions as far as Greece and Africa.
You are now too familiar by now that Greek philosophy/religion is in fact African philosophy/religion. You know also that even Hinduism and Buddhism trace their roots to African religion.
I invite you to take a moment and set aside your preconceptions.
Deconstruction of normative ideas can be unsettling. The main problem with how we try to define who is pagan is that we tend to use Christian thinking and ask: ‘What do we believe in?’
The term ‘pagan’ is itself problematic, rooted in a Roman military insult for non-military people and adopted by Christians for all not enrolled in the Army of Christ.
With that term, a huge swath of humanity gets called ‘pagan’, but we all know that most of them are not us, even if we have common cause with those who still exist today.