Latin: paganus, villager, rustic
- an expression of early Christians for heathen and heathenism, since the old idolatrous beliefs and practises lingered in country places after Christianity became common in the cities
- one who does not acknowledge the true God and practises idolatry
- natural religion tending to degenerate because unaided by true religion, distorting the knowledge of God and gradually accepting belief in many false gods, resting morality on uncertain principles and therefore degrading it
- condition of humanity with which the Church had to struggle for a thousand years, gradually substituting in the more enlightened world a Christian civilization for what had survived of the old pagan and later Greco-Roman civilizations of more than five thousand years
It is owing chiefly to opposition to the Church, its persecution and suppression in many places since the Reformation that paganism is again asserting itself, and the new or neo-paganism is worse than that which preceded Christianity. The former clung to some distinctions between right and wrong, law and license; the new definitely rejects all such distinction and seeks to be a law unto itself.
Although Christian missionaries have made great progress in thwarting paganism, much of the world is still pagan. There are many and various obstacles to their conversion, e.g., hostile civil governments; strong racial traditions in favor of false religions; prevalence of corrupt moral practises, such as polygamy; but as all these obstacles have often been overcome by devout and courageous Apostles, the greatest difficulty must be considered to be the lack of a sufficient number of missionaries. The reasons of this shortage are easily understood: the vocation must be very select; the training is long and arduous, and includes the mastery of difficult languages that cannot be learned from books; when all this has been surmounted, there are the risks of travel in barbarous lands, disease, and persecution; only the very choicest spirits can successfully encounter these. The maintenance of missionaries is also very expensive; and it is too often the case that the existing bodies of devoted missionary priests are hindered by lack of funds from properly performing even their daily labors.
Pagan systems of morality may be divided into two main schools of thought, that of Hedonism, and that of Cynicism and Stoicism. In general, Hedonism teaches that the highest good and happiness lies in pleasure. Various philosophers differ as to whether this pleasure consists in a perpetually joyous disposition (Democritus), in mere sensuality (Aristippus), or in a combination of rational and sensual enjoyment (Epicurus). The Cynics, on the contrary, taught that pleasure is an evil and that the truly wise man is above human laws. The Stoics endeavored to purify the views of this school. The earlier Stoics, Zeno and his disciples, believed that virtue, to be sought for its own sake, sufficed for human happiness. The later Stoics, the Romans, although influenced by Christianity, differed little from the early Stoics. Midway between these schools are the views of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates believed happiness the ultimate object of human activity, and virtue the necessary means to it; the virtues, however, are only varieties of wisdom. Plato held that the highest good consisted in imitation of God, the Absolute Good, only partly realizable in this life; virtue was the ordering of conduct according to the dictates of right reason, and included justice, temperance, fortitude, and wisdom. Aristotle, founder of systematic ethics, started from experience rather than theory; he maintained that true ultimate happiness could be had only by the most perfect activity of the reason, which springs in turn from virtue.