After posting about the McCollum case we have recieved a number of emails asking about the differences between Heathenry and neo-paganism. The following is offered as a response to these queries.
Modern Heathendom and neo-paganism have borne a rather strange and strained relationship since the mid-1970s. Some on both sides see neo-paganism as a broad phenomenon and include Heathendom as one branch of the pagan family tree. Others see Heathenry as a distinct movement with our own history, values and traditions that are not related to neo-paganism or any other socio-spiritual movement. The question of which attitude is more correct is an interesting, if not complicated one.
The term in question comes from the Second World War. The Nazis coined the term Neu-Heiden1 as a derogatory term to describe the various non-christian and anti-christian religious/philisophical movements that had been cropping up in Germany beginning in the late 1800s and through the war era. These movements varied greatly: from spiritualism to Armanenschaft, from Anthroposophy to Gotteserkenntnis, and from theosophy to Ariosophy. That is, there was no one school of thought that united these movements except for the fact that neither the Church nor the Nazi Party approved of them.
It is from the German Neu-Heiden that we derive our anglicized “neo-pagan”2. Neo-Pagan was popularized in the 1970s when a number of fringe religious movements came to identify themselves under one umbrella term. While Wicca3 came to be the most widely recognized of these, the neo-pagan movement embraced a wide variety of movements ranging from neo-druidry4 to Feraferia5 and from Church of the Eternal Source6 to Discordianism7. Some have even produced rather whitewashed forms of tribal and semi-tribal traditions such as Amerindian shamanism and Cuban Santería. Like their German forebears, neo-pagan groups share little in common except for their rejection of organized religion and certain social norms.
Two religious traditions have long vexed the neo-pagan movement, however: Heathenry and Setianism8. As it is not my place to speak on Setianism, however, we will only consider Heathenry here.
Heathenry, unlike neo-paganism, bears a continuous--if fragmented--lineage that spans back to ancient times. In Western society we still see vestiges of our ancestral triuwa in our legal conventions, in public symbolism (such as at courthouses and librarys), in our bank holidays and even the names we use to identify the days of the week. Many of the traditions we now see in institutions such as the christian church and in organized sports find their origins in ancient Heathendom.
History has shown us two significant events—the First and Second Reawakenings—that demonstrate the fact that the Götter have remembered us and that we, in turn, ought to remember them. When one considers the likelihood of either Reawakening occurring without divine intervention the statistics offer an incredible wake-up call! Neo-paganism, on the other hand, has never experienced anything like this.
Aside from history, though, there are two major reasons that I do not identify my Heathenry as having anything to do with the neo-pagan movement:  the comparative definitions of the terms pagan and Heathen (both ancient and modern); and  the socio-spiritual implications of the same two terms.
"Pagan" is derived from the Latin paganus meaning something like “country dweller” but with a very negative connotation – much like our modern English word “hick”. The implication made by early christians was that the “hicks” we too backward to understand their new belief system and would, as a result, remain in a “savage” state.
"Heathen" comes down to us from OE hæðen, which in turn was derived from Goth haiþno meaning something like “gentle country person”. It bore no negative connotations until the Church began to use the terms “heathen” and “pagan” interchangeably.
The historical difference is that “pagan” was a foreign term of derision, whilst “heathen” was an indigenous descriptive. The former was a general term to describe all the “savages” and “barbarians”, whilst the latter was a specific term simply identifying a certain breed of people within the existing culture.
Bringing this to modern times “pagan” has come down to us to mean any religious belief that is not part of the Abrahamic tradition9. That is, any tradition from Buddhism to Voudon might be described as “pagan” (although most people of the various world traditions would be loath to use the term). It does not describe what one believes or practices, but only describes what one is not. “Heathen”, on the other hand, describes a very specific body of beliefs and practices. While there may be a number of variances between the orthopraxy and orthodoxy of assorted Heathenrys, one must believe and practice some certain basic things to be included under this moniker.
As for the socio-spiritual implications, when one thinks of neo-paganism one tends to think of naked dances around a bonfire, of all but non-existent ethical guides, of casting spells, and all sorts of other things that have little or nothing to do with Heathenry. Why would I want to lump myself together with folks who do not share my beliefs, my morals, or my traditions? Let alone the baggage! Many outsiders believe (although inaccurately) that neo-pagans are devil worshippers, perverts, and other wretched things. If I allow myself to be associated with them the assumption is that I too worship devils, am a sexual deviant, or what have you. Heathenry's public image is difficult enough to manage without adding the baggage of neo-paganism to our own!
I am not a neo-pagan, borrowing ideas and notions from all over the world and delving into whatever strikes my fancy. I stand true to the gods of my ancestors! I am a Heathen. It may not mean much to the outside world, but it is something of which I am proud!
1The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity 1919-1945 by Richard Steigmann-Gall; 2003 Cambridge University Press
2Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today by Margot Adler; 1986 Penguin Books
3A would-be revival of witchcraft as a religion
4While these groups claim to practice a revived Celtic tradition the majority practice something much more akin to Wicca than to anything historically accurate. This should come as no surprise considering how little has survived regarding historical Celtic religion.
5A pantheistic approach to nature-worship
6A revival of ancient Egyptian religion – very historically accurate
7A parody of organized religion and, on occasion, going so far as to parody neo-paganism itself
8The Temple of Set began as a break-off from Anton LeVey's Church of Satan alleging that LeVey's version of Satanism was not serious enough. Its teachings have since evolved into something of a “dark side” retelling of world pagan notions.
9Judaism, christianism, mohammedanism and bahái