Paganism is a term often associated with the Wiccan religion, but it actually encompasses far more religions and philosophies than that. Depending on who is using the term, Paganism can classify any religion outside of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; or any religion outside of the major world religions like the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
The source of the word pagan has Latin roots that refer to country dwellers or people who live off of the land as opposed to city dwellers. This adaptation of the Latin word for peasants and dwellers of rural areas probably came from the fact that ancient Roman cities accepted the Christianity well before the surrounding countryside did. This was probably caused by a combination of the fact that rural people have always been more conservative and therefore slower to embrace new religions than urbanites and the fact that early Christian missionaries tended to focus their efforts on population centers.
Another interesting interpretation of the word pagan is that it refers to people who are civilians. This application of the word pagan to followers of non Abrahamic religions might have come from the tendency of early Christians to consider themselves part of an army with the goal of promoting the following of Christ. By contrast, people who weren't part of that army could very easily be considered civilians.
In the context of the spread of Christianity through the Roman empire, the Pagans that hadn't adopted the new religion still largely subscribed to the older polytheistic Roman religion, which of course was an adaptation of Greek mythology with all of its multiple gods. Because of the fact that these early Pagans were polytheistic, polytheism in general came to be associated with Paganism. This association caused the followers of some brands of Christianity to label each other as being pagan. For example, Catholicism was sometimes called a pagan religion because of all of its saints. Protestants were sometimes labeled as pagans because of their belief in the Trinity. Of course, Islam and Judaism could make the same argument about Christianity because of the worship of Christ as well as God.
Because of the association between Paganism and polytheism, it's also easy t see how many other religions could be classified as pagan as well. For example, Hinduism worships a variety of gods as do some branches of Buddhism (which grew out of Hinduism). The ancient Norse religion and many branches of Wicca also worship multiple gods and therefore fall under the umbrella of Paganism by this definition. Naturally, the various aboriginal religions of North America, South America, Africa, and Australia with their belief in various spirits all fall under the term paganism as well.
One thing that's interesting to note is that the number of people in the industrialized world who are considered to be pagans has grown enormously in recent decades and Paganism is considered to be the fastest growing religion in Canada right now. However, as demonstrated in the above paragraphs, given the enormous number of religions that can be encompassed by the definition of Paganism, those statistics should be taken with some skepticism. After all, it's easy to interpret the data to support the idea that Paganism is rampant if one were to define every religion but their own as being Pagan!
Vidonia Von Ulf has been a practitioner and teacher of Wicca for over 15 years. She is a professional artist and believes in using her magick in her art and her art in her magick. Vidonia teaches and practices cross-cultural healing techniques from Celtic, Native American, South American, and Greek shamanic traditions, among others.