Pagan Intrafaith: A Patheos Pagan Panel

This year at PantheaCon, I was pleased to moderate a panel on “Pagan Intrafaith,” discussing how interfaith models might benefit the Pagan community if applied internally. If you’d like to listen to the audio, proceed! Or, scroll down to see the list of presenters and the text of my opening remarks.

Pagan Intrafaith
Patheos Pagan Writers
Panel Presentation, PantheaCon 2013
February 15, 2013 – San Jose, California 

Pagan Intrafaith panel, Feb. 2013. Photo by Jason Pitzl-Waters.

Moderator: Christine Hoff Kraemer
Participants: Eric Scott, Sarah Twichell, Crystal Blanton, Jason Mankey, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, Steven Abell


Thank you all for coming to this panel on Pagan Intrafaith. I’m Christine Kraemer, managing editor of the Patheos Pagan channel, and I’m excited that I’ve been able to gather some of our most thoughtful writers for this discussion.

Before we begin, I’d like to address the question of what “intrafaith” work might be for Pagans. Many of you are familiar with the concept of interfaith work, which involves dialogue between different religious traditions. Interfaith work assumes the following:

First, that diversity is actively desirable. Interfaith work isn’t about tolerating each other, it’s about interacting with and learning from each other for mutual benefit.

Second, that when we are ignorant of other faiths, the assumptions and stereotyped thinking lead to unnecessary conflict. Interfaith work is thought to be a necessary part of peacebuilding and coalition building.

Third, that interfaith work is NOT about assimilation or abandoning our own religious commitments. Ideally, encountering other faiths should help us understand and commit more deeply to our own religions.

And finally, that the core of interfaith work is based on genuine dialogue, which consists of both speaking and listening, agreeing and disagreeing. The purpose is not for everyone in dialogue to resolve their differences, but rather to act on an ongoing commitment to understand those differences.

Interfaith dialogue makes it much more possible for diverse groups to work together on issues they care about. For instance, the Hindu American Foundation has sent representatives to PantheaCon for the past two years: they’re interested in lobbying for minority religious rights, and so are many Pagans. While there are some important differences between Paganism and Hinduism, and some issues on which we will probably never agree, minority religious rights are one area in which we can stand together and protect each other.

This panel proposes that the same kind of work could be done WITHIN Paganism. Paganism is an extremely diverse movement, more of an umbrella for a collection of loosely related religions than a single religion. It seems the more we try to pin down what “Paganism” is, the more tension we create in our communities as people worry about where the lines of inclusion and exclusion will be drawn.

Many of our communities also experience tension around accidental exclusion. So far, many of our groups don’t do a good job about setting newcomers’ expectations around what they’re about. It’s possible for a Pagan to show up at a public Pagan circle expecting a Goddess- and nature-oriented ritual, only to be entirely thrown when the ritual focuses on urban-oriented gods. Paganism has very different threads, and it’s hard to find our commonalities if we don’t have a vocabulary to talk about – and APPRECIATE – our differences.

I’m in favor of a “big tent” definition of Paganism that is inclusive and welcoming – but if Paganism is going to survive as a diverse movement, we need to improve communication between different traditions and paths. I know that meeting Pagans with radically different beliefs and practices has helped me a great deal in developing my own, and I want my community to continue to be a place where that kind of inter-tradition communication can happen.


One additional note: one participant raised the question of how “diversity” is defined versus “pluralism,” and I’m not sure we ever gave a completely clear definition. Here are mine:

Diversity is the fact of having variety, such as a group containing people of many different religious paths or ethnic backgrounds.

Pluralism is a social state where groups of different ethnic origins, religions, cultures/subcultures, etc. maintain their separate identities. A weak pluralism is one where diversity is tolerated. A strong pluralism is one where diversity is celebrated and positive relationships between groups are cultivated.

Both “diversity” and “pluralism” have come to have connotations of deliberately nurturing a pluralistic social state, but I think that connotation may be relatively new, beginning in the twentieth century. Would love to hear from anyone who knows for sure.


[Many thanks to those who participated in the discussion, including Peter Dybing, Jason Pitzl-Waters, Teo Bishop, and Glenn Turner — and apologies to those participants whose names I did not know.]


Dispatch from PantheaCon: Preparing for Our Future

Greetings from PantheaCon! My con has not been quite all I hoped. Although our Patheos Pagan panel on Pagan Intrafaith went really well (and I look forward to sharing the recording with you all soon), Friday night I came down with a nasty cold, and since then I’ve only been able to do one or two events a day. I have gotten some very good social time with those who don’t fear the plague, though, for which I’m grateful.

Happily, I was able to attend Wild Hunt writer/editor Jason Pitzl-Waters’ presentation on “Preserving Our Past, Preparing for Our Future.” It seems obvious to me that, however we feel about it, the Pagan movement is going to develop institutions—schools, libraries, temples, community centers, and more. Pagans have some valid fears about this process, such as the idea that with sustainable institutions may come rigidity of belief and practice. If institutionalization is inevitable, it becomes very important to think deeply about the structures we’re adopting. Creatively structuring our institutions to express a pluralistic, process-oriented perspective may help us combat rigidity if we think innovatively.

Jason began with an overview of contemporary Paganism that emphasized its successes: its rapid growth and its effectiveness in shaping media perception of Pagans. He noted that the interest of American Hindu groups in Pagan interfaith work has, in fact, been driven by Pagans’ media success; although American Hindus have built far more infrastructure in the past thirty years than Pagans have, we have far greater visibility and are better positioned for effective advocacy. Our persistent media presence has also shaped representations of Pagans in popular culture: as Jason pointed out, even in terrible movies like the recent Hansel and Gretel, the traditional narrative of the evil witch is now inevitably paired with a contrasting counternarrative about “good witches.”

Despite these successes, as our elders pass on, we are losing opportunities to record our history. Although some universities archive papers and letters from Pagan leaders, Jason believes it’s essential for us to create our own libraries to make sure these materials are accessible to both researchers and non-academics. (Two Pagan libraries are in development right now, the New Alexandrian Library in Delaware and the Adocentyn Research Library in California.) Several organizations are supporting oral history projects, including Earth Medicine Alliance and one additional Pagan-specific project whose website is due to launch in the next few weeks. Jason feels strongly that as these materials are collected, they should be archived in an open-source, publicly-accessible format. Additionally, Jason echoes Chas Clifton’s call for more memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies of Pagan leaders.

Jason next turned to the strategies that will help us move forward. Firstly, he advocates a stronger Pagan ecumenicism—opportunities for Pagans and those of related faiths to encounter each other in person and reaffirm community connections. Jason sees recent battles over defining “Pagan” as a good thing—he feels that being able to challenge the term is, counterintuitively, a sign that the community feels safe in re-examining itself. He emphasized, however, that it’s important not to alienate anyone by forcing labels on them, and that we should acknowledge that many of the emerging new Paganisms and polytheisms are quite unlike Wicca and its derivatives. We need to stop demanding “Pagan unity” and focus instead on our shared interests and on understanding one another. Rather than trying to find a common belief or practice, we can concentrate on building relationships, especially through face-to-face interaction.

To prepare for the future, Jason says, Pagans must solve our community’s money problem. He believes that the narrative of the impoverished, selfish Pagan who won’t give to community causes is actually false. Listing examples of successfully crowdfunded projects, including his own Wild Hunt, Jason suggested that the key is to take full advantage of internet fundraising technologies. Additionally, Pagan groups need to be clear in their fundraising pitch, specifying how a given project will benefit the movement as a whole, not just the group that receives the money. Organizations must also understand that before they can raise money, they must win the trust of donors by doing good work over a significant period of time and deliberately building networks of relationships. Successful fundraising can require months and years of preparation, but it is possible for Pagans.

Next, Jason was critical of many Pagan organizations’ failure to bring in the younger generation. In many organizations, forty is considered young; those in their twenties and early thirties are largely not active, especially in decision-making. One audience member remarked that despite being an initiate in her tradition and a leader in other organizations, she is still treated as a child and dismissed when she expresses an opinion at some Pagan gatherings. Pagan organizations must focus on welcoming younger Pagans into leadership and soliciting their input.

Finally, Jason argued that the Pagan community must be proactive about facing future challenges. One example raised was the issue of sexual abuse in our communities. Largely, Pagans do not yet have systematic community sex education, clear and nuanced ethical guidelines that reflect sex-positive values, or structures for ethical accountability around this issue. The community needs to lay groundwork to proactively address such problems, rather than waiting for a highly publicized tragedy.

I find almost nothing to disagree with in Jason’s talk. As I listened, I found myself thinking about Pagan organizations I have been involved with that struggled to raise funds, yet continued to use fundraising strategies that were a decade old. I thought of areas I’m already trying to address in my own work, such as the issue of Pagan erotic ethics that my upcoming book is focused on. And I found myself excited by the growing push to record our history—particularly because this is the perfect time to take the lessons of the past and integrate them deliberately into our evolving organizational structures.

Underlying Jason’s remarks, I heard a call that it is time for us to take ourselves seriously. We are no longer a movement of rebellious adolescents, rejecting the faiths of our birth to forge experimental and alternative religious identities. We are coming to a point where our innovations will produce structures to sustain a continued and steadier evolution, an ongoing process of development that takes our Pagan values as a starting point, not the rejected values of the culture from which we emerged. I very much appreciate Jason Pitzl-Waters’ faith that we are up to the task.

All errors and misstatements in this summary are my own.

Theology Is Hard; Let’s Go Shopping

As those of you who have been reading along know, I’ve spent the past three and a half years on an academic theology that’s going to be called Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective. I’m at the teeth-pulling phase, where I’m trying to revise the introduction to give the right amount of context to a diverse readership (college-educated people with interest in GLBT issues, body theology, and/or Pagan studies, none of whom have the same starting vocabulary) without boring anyone to death.

For those of you who want to write books: woe to you if you desire an interdisciplinary audience! The various segments of my audience will all look for something different in this book, and I suspect all will have complaints. I refuse to learn my lesson, though; to me, big picture issues like ethics can’t be dealt with from only one disciplinary perspective and only one methodology. I’m not the person who does most of the primary thinking and research here, though; I’m the synthesizer who tries to bring innovative ideas together, and I’d like to think I’m necessary. (I hope!)

Anyway, since this is what I’m putting all my effort into right now, I thought I’d share a snapshot of my progress (some or all of which may be revised away in the next few weeks). And next week, expect at least one live report from PantheaCon!

Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective has several aims. First, I will bring together the perspectives of theologians, GLBT advocates, and bodyworkers who might never otherwise encounter each other’s work. Second, I will speak openly of controversial issues (such as kink, transgender and queer identity, and adolescent sexuality) that most Christian theologians do not address, and of which some feminist and Pagan writers lack a sophisticated understanding. Finally, I will respond to the ethical perspectives of sex-positive activists and bodyworkers, many of whom speak from a secular viewpoint, with an ethical framework that is both broadly spiritual and grounded in a coherent religious practice. Although I speak as a Pagan, I address liberal religious people of many faiths, bodyworkers, and the many communities that include spiritual-but-not-religious sexual minorities (including the queer, polyamorous, and kink communities).

Because of the writing that these communities have already produced, I feel able to propose an ethics of touch without including a systematic critique of mainstream American society’s sexual mores. This task has been covered by others, and covered thoroughly. In this book, I wish to look to the future. I have lived in communities that are actively raising children with an ethic of sacred eroticism. This book is particularly for those who are exploring the social and community consequences of individual erotic liberation.

Throughout this book, I use the term “erotic” as a category of intimate, embodied, sensual—but not necessarily sexual—contact. Satisfying sex with one’s spouse is both broadly erotic and specifically sexual; breastfeeding a baby, on the other hand, is not sexual, but may be intensely erotic. The confusion between the sexual and the erotic is endemic in American culture, and that confusion is one of the reasons most Americans do not get enough affectionate touch. When any sensual, connected touch can potentially be read as sexual, many people refrain from touching for fear of violating personal boundaries. Although one might expect the problem to be less pronounced in more sexually-permissive, progressive communities, in some cases it is actually exaggerated: since progressive communities tend to be more aware of the widespread presence of sexual assault survivors, even appropriate touch may be withheld out of a desire to respect others’ healing processes. Distinctions between the erotic and the sexual are often problematically conflated, and so this book will return to the concept of the erotic repeatedly, with special attention to what “eroticism” means in a theological context.

In writing this theology, I find myself seeking a difficult balance. Many popular sex-positive books and websites disappoint me by glossing over the risks of defying social norms about sexuality and touch. Accordingly, I have tried to be practical and realistic, rather than assuring my readers that all consensual touch is good and a perfect sex life is just one self-help book away. On the other hand, speaking too much about what is practical and realistic, rather envisioning what would be ideal, makes for an uninspiring theology that is weighed down by the particularities of the moment. As poet Robert Browning puts it, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s heaven for?”—or as Ralph Waldo Emerson says, more pragmatically, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

The principles below form the basis of an erotic ethics, or an ethics of touch. These principles attempt to balance individual rights and needs with collective ones, with the conviction that in a society that cultivates empathy, individual and collective needs can be brought into a productive balance. They are not meant as rigid rules; ethical decisions are complex and informed by individual life experiences, and the decision-maker may be called upon to prioritize conflicting principles. For me, however, these principles flow naturally from the belief that pleasure is a human birthright. I offer them as guiding principles for individuals and communities seeking to express that belief in their spiritual practices and relationship structures.

A society based around an erotic ethics:

  1. Sees touch as a sacrament, a way of manifesting divine presence that occurs in a context of self-responsibility, honesty, empathy, and mutuality;
  2. Values diversity of erotic taste and expression, as well as diversity of gender expression and relationship structure;
  3. Prioritizes pleasure, beauty, and health in both individual and collective decision-making;
  4. Maintains community norms that balance individual freedoms with community well-being and support economic and social justice work;
  5. Supports personal autonomy through the practices of negotiation, informed consent, and affirmation of individuals’ accounts of their experiences.

Addendum: For those of you who are too young to remember or not American, the title is a bit of self-deprecating humor, referring to a talking Barbie doll that was famously made to say, “Math is hard.” “Let’s go shopping.”

Realism and non-realism

There are several ways in which to construe the relationship of religious discourse to the world it attempts to describe, and with other (possibly competing, possibly complementary) interpretations such as science and philosophy.

The NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) position, put forward by Stephen Jay Gould, is that science and religion deal with two different domains, and therefore share no common ground for either agreement or argument; science deals with empirical matters and religion deals with ‘questions of ultimate meaning’ (McGrath, 2007: 18).  Richard Dawkins disagrees with NOMA because he argues that a universe with a creator deity would be a very different place to a universe without one, and therefore discussion of this does fall within the domain of science (Dawkins, 2006: 55).

The POMA (partially overlapping magisteria) position is that there is some overlap, and that they are two complementary ways of viewing the world (McGrath, 2007: 19).

Naturalists argue that only the physical realm exists, and phenomena such as consciousness are emergent properties of complex biological systems (

Bienkowski (2006: 2) identifies four possible belief positions for adherents of religions: materialism, the belief that only the material plane exists (this is similar to Naturalism, atheism, and humanism); idealism, the belief that the material plane is illusory; dualism, the belief that both material and spiritual realms exist, but are separate (similar to Luhrmann’s two worlds view); and animism, the belief that the spiritual world is immanent in the material world. The ideas discussed are very broad in scope, however, as they are intended to represent a range of religions and philosophies, and something more specific is needed to identify the nuances of Pagan discourse.

Tania Luhrmann (1989: 285-293) outlines four possible positions which magical practitioners take in justifying their views to sceptics. The first is realism, the idea that ‘there is a knowable objective reality and that magic reveals more of it than science’.  The second position that she identifies is the two worlds view, that ‘the objective referent of magical claims is unknowable within the terms of an ordinary, scientific world’ (this is similar to the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ or NOMA position).  The third position is relativism, which ‘defines all truth as relative and contingent’ (which Luhrmann found to be quite a common view).  The final position is the metaphorical view, that magic is metaphorical and is probably objectively not true, but is nevertheless a creative and enjoyable practice.  Luhrmann (1989: 293) says that she rarely encountered this position except among those who had come to magic through political concerns such as environmentalism and feminism.  This metaphorical view is embraced by Starhawk (1999: 219), who says that ‘[s]cientific knowledge, like religious knowledge, is a set of metaphors for a reality that can never be completely described or comprehended.’  However, Starhawk (1999: 7) is one of those Pagans who are deeply involved in environmental and feminist activism, as predicted by Luhrmann.

Luhrmann (1989: 284) states that the four positions are not mutually exclusive; she senses that ‘most magicians will give most of these arguments at some time during their magical career’.

In contrast, Dawkins (2006: 50) identifies seven possible belief positions on the existence of God, from strong theism to strong atheism, with agnosticism in the middle.  However, these are not very useful for the purpose of discussing Paganism, because they only relate to the existence of a supernatural creator deity, and not to the possible ways in which the spiritual and material realms could interact.  Belief in a creator is largely irrelevant to Pagans, since we are more interested in relating to Nature (Harvey, 1997: 145).

Other possible discursive positions include deep ecology, the view that the human order is not separate from the natural order, which implies that all life is sacred (Livingstone, 2002: 347).  This is similar to the animism proposed by Graham Harvey, who advocates an embodied awareness and ‘listening neighbourliness’ towards other species (Harvey, 1997: 141).  The Gaia Hypothesis goes further than this, arguing that the entire planet is such a complex system that it should be regarded as a living organism (Livingstone, 2002: 347).  All of these views can be found in Pagan views of relationship with Nature.

Michael York suggests that, rather than talking about the “supernatural”, which implies that the Divine, deities, and spirits are somehow outside and beyond the material realm, we should use the term “preternatural”:

The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.

This is an important distinction; much of the criticism of religion offered by new atheists and skeptics is aimed at the supernatural elements of theology – the assumption that the supernatural exists outside the physical world, and that is why it is undetectable by science; whereas atheists would argue that it is undetectable by science because it does not exist.

Another approach to distinguishing between different models of the world is offered by Nuyen (2001: 394), who discusses realism and antirealism in religion.  Religious realism (like Luhrmann’s realist position) asserts that there is an external referent of religious language; religious antirealism asserts that ‘there is no transcendent being or reality to which religious languages and practices refer, and that the source of religious meaning and value lies in us, human beings’ (Nuyen, 2001: 394).  This antirealism is very similar to Luhrmann’s metaphorical position.

There is also a debate within science itself over whether scientific discourse actually has any objective referents in reality, or whether scientific understandings are necessarily metaphors.

Folse (1986: 96) describes the classic scientific realist position as holding that at least some terms in theoretical statements correspond to the properties of entities to which these terms refer.  Another form of realism is ‘the quest for knowledge about the reality producing the phenomena we experience’, which does not necessarily insist that that reality is entirely comprehensible.  This is comparable to religious realism, which also asserts that descriptions of deities have objective external referents.

Muller and Livingston (1995: 16) describe scientific antirealism as the view that scientific terms are merely ‘terminological abstraction(s) designed to account for the… results of a particular set of experiments’ and do not necessarily have any objective referents.  They note that much of the debate between realists and antirealists in science hinges on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which posits that the observer affects the observed, thereby calling into question the notion of an objective external reality.  Magicians often quote this in defence of the ‘relativist’ position (Luhrmann, 1989: 291); it is interesting because it implies that some scientists understand their descriptions of reality to be metaphorical.

The various positions available in both scientific and religious discourse show that the debate is not simply happening between science and religion, but also within both those discourses, and so it is not accurate to talk about either discourse as if it were a monolithic entity engaged in a titanic struggle for truth and authority with the other discourse; the whole picture is far more complex.


Bienkowski, P. (2006) ‘Persons, things and archaeology: contrasting world-views of minds, bodies and death’, Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. [online] Available from: Manchester Museum, (accessed 25.08.2008)

Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.

Folse, H.J. (1986) ‘Niels Bohr, Complementarity, and Realism’. Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1, pp. 96-104 [online] Available from: (accessed 07.09.2008)

Harvey, G. (1997) Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press.

Livingstone, D. N. (2002) ‘Ecology and the Evironment.’ In: Ferngren, G. B., Science & Religion: a historical introduction. Baltimore andLondon:JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press.

Luhrmann, T. (1989) Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGrath, A. E. (2007) The Dawkins Delusion? London: SPCK.

Muller, A. and Livingston, P. (1995) ‘Realism/Anti-Realism: A Debate’. Cultural Critique, No. 30, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part I, pp. 15-32 [online] Available from: (accessed 07.09.2008)

Nuyen, A.T. (2001) ‘Realism, Anti-Realism, and Emmanuel Levinas.’ The Journal of Religion, 81, (3), pp. 394-409 [online] Available from: (accessed 07.09.2008)

Starhawk (1999), The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco.

York, M. (2008), ‘A Pagan Defence of Theism’. Theologies of Immanence.  [online] Available from: (accessed 30.01.2013)

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

The sacred and the holy

Interestingly, many Pagans (including myself) seem to prefer the word “sacred” to the word “holy”.

To me, ‘sacred’ implies something that celebrates the sanctity of being alive, and it can include the erotic and the wild.

‘Holy’, on the other hand, implies abstinence from the erotic and embracing ‘civilisation’.

Interestingly, the first sense of ‘sacred’ offered by the Merriam-Webster dictionary uses a Pagan-sounding example:

Definition of SACRED

  1. a : dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity <a tree sacred to the gods>
    b : devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) <a fund sacred to charity>
  2. a : worthy of religious veneration : holy
    b : entitled to reverence and respect
  3. : of or relating to religion : not secular or profane <sacred music>
  4. archaic : accursed
  5. a : unassailableinviolable
    b : highly valued and important <a sacred responsibility>

Whereas ‘holy‘ is defined using Christian and monotheistic examples:

Definition of HOLY

  1. : exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
  2. : divine <for the Lord our God is holy — Psalms 99:9 (Authorized Version)>
  3. : devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity <a holy temple> <holy prophets>
  4.  a : having a divine quality <holy love>
    b : venerated as or as if sacred <holy scripture> <a holy relic>
  5.  —used as an intensive <this is a holy mess> <he was a holy terror when he drank — Thomas Wolfe> ; often used in combination as a mild oath <holy smoke>

Of course, some Pagans do use the word ‘holy’ occasionally. Here are a couple of examples.

  • How to make Pagan holy water. Once the author has established that holy water was used by the ancient Greeks and is not restricted to Christian practice, the author subsequently refers to blessed water.
  • Pagan sacred space. This article by Carl McColman (now a Catholic, but presumably still a Pagan when he wrote it) uses the term holy as synonymous with sacred at one point, but then reverts to using sacred throughout the rest of the article.

However, the word ‘sacred’ is much more frequently used in contemporary Pagan discourse. (Google for Pagan + sacred versus Pagan + holy if you don’t believe me!)

Wiktionary unpacks the etymology of ‘holy’:

From Middle English holihali, from Old English hāliġhāleġ (“holy, consecrated, sacred, venerated, godly, saintly, ecclesiastical, pacific, tame”), from Proto-Germanic*hailagaz (“holy, bringing health”), from Proto-Germanic *hailaz (“healthy, whole”), from Proto-Indo-European *koil- (“healthy, whole”). Cognate with Scots haly (“holy”), Dutch heilig (“holy”), German heilig (“holy”), Swedish helig (“holy”). More at whole.

The Old English connotation of ‘tame’ bears out my idea that  the term ‘sacred’ can include wildness, but ‘holy’ cannot.

Interestingly, when an Anglo-Saxon Heathen set out to create sacred space, it was space set apart from the surrounding land, which was inhabited by spirits regarded as malevolent.

The etymology of sacred comes from Middle English, but ultimately from Latin.

From Middle English sacredisacred, past participle of Middle English sacrensakeren (“to make holy, hallow”), equivalent to sacre +‎ -ed.

Wikipedia defines ‘holy’ as associated with the Divine, whereas ‘sacred‘ is associated with something more generally consecrated for ritual use:

holy (perceived by religious individuals as associated with the divine) or sacred (considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers in a given set of spiritual ideas).

So ‘sacred’ is used as a more general term without reference to the Divine.

Pagans use the term ‘sacred’ to refer to sacred space (usually a place consecrated for ritual), sacred sites (usually places that feel special and numinous, often because they were used for ritual in the past, such as stone circles, burial mounds, and holy wells), and sacred sexuality (consensual sexual activity for a spiritual purpose).

The word ‘holy’ is generally used only when it would be more easily understood by a general audience, in phrases which are already in general usage like ‘holy book‘, ‘holy well’, ‘holy water’.

Initially, I thought that the Pagan aversion to the term ‘holy’ was just an adverse reaction to its usage in Christian discourse, but I think the avoidance of it may be due to something deeper — the widespread Pagan view that everything is sacred in its own right, and does not depend on divinity to sanctify it. In addition to this, the connotations of ‘holy’ include abstinence from sex, whereas ‘sacred’ can include sexuality. In Christian discourse, ‘holy’ appears to mean something directly affected by God, whereas ‘sacred’ appears to mean something consecrated by humans. In Pagan usage, the sacredness of a thing or place can be either an inherent quality, or something conferred on it by using it in a ritual, or consecrating it. If we wanted to say that something was directly affected by, or associated with, a deity, perhaps we might use the term ‘holy’. The phrase ‘Holy Names’ appears in a Gardnerian Book of Shadows dating from 1957.

What do you think? Do you prefer ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and why?

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.