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I'm writing an essay right now and I'm deliberating whether or not I should use Pagan gods instead of Greek gods (to provide variation in the essay). I've looked up the word pagan in the dictionary and it mentioned it was a derogatory term.

Would it be acceptable to use it though in an essay or would it be inconsiderate for me to use that term?

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If it's just that you need another term for variation, how about "Hellenic (or Hellenistic) gods"? – Alex Mar 16 '11 at 4:08
I think a consideration of being inconsiderate should be secondary to the fact that it would simply not be accurate to use 'Pagan gods' and 'Greek gods' interchangeably. – jbelacqua Mar 16 '11 at 5:15
That dictionary is suspect - If it flatly says that Pagan is derogatory, I'm not sure I'd have much confidence in its other definitions. – mickeyf Mar 16 '11 at 13:43
@Alex. In Ancient Greek history "Hellenistic" refers to the period when Macedonia took over Greece (i.e Philip II and Alexander and the Diadochi) so that to somebody familiar with the distinction, this could actually be confusing. – Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 16 '11 at 13:49
if you have a look at the etymology of pagan, the derogatory aspect comes from the rural connotation attached to the Late Latin paganism. It's not so important nowadays. However, it takes the christian viewpoint (pagan people being "in the dark") which is not advisable for essays for which a neutral, non emotional viepoint is preferred. – Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 16 '11 at 13:54

I don't agree that pagan has an immoral connotation, except in the minds of some religious adherents. The New Oxford American Dictionary lists the "derogatory" usage as a dated way of referring to a non-Christian. The main listing says

pagan a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.

In other words, pagan is a term often used by people who believe there is a "True Faith" and that they follow it. It's like a religious version of "foreigner" spoken by someone who lives in a country that looks with distaste on outsiders. Ambrose Bierce might have described it as someone who believes the wrong mythology, had he thought to include it in his Devil's Dictionary.

Myself, I would prefer to use the adjective Greek to describe Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite and the other Olympic deities, since that is both more specific and less presumptuous.

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Agreed. Should use Greek gods, because Pagan gods encompasses too many religions. If the essay is only about Greeks, the the word "pagan" would just be confusing. – Vincent McNabb Mar 16 '11 at 4:59
This is exactly right. The wikipedia article on paganism appears to be well-done with respect to the ethnocentric (for want of a better term) assumptions in some usages. – jbelacqua Mar 16 '11 at 5:24

Pagan can be a derogatory term, but it depends on the audience. The word's formal meaning is simply "polytheist," although in more colloquial language, it's also used to refer to someone who is immoral or hedonistic. To some people, the two meanings are synonymous.

As a (very) general rule, I would avoid using pagan in writing aimed at a mass audience, most of whom might only be familiar with the "immoral" connotation and might thus misconstrue your message. But when writing for an academic or specialized audience, I would feel free to use it as a synonym to keep the piece from sounding repetitive.

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All Greek gods are pagan gods, (not Pagan gods unless you want to make a point about them being non-Christian or un-Christian), but not all pagan gods are Greek.

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