Culture Blogs

For Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means and how to experience it first hand involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this autistic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Paganism is a nature religion and always has been

UPDATE BELOW

Joseph Bloch has made an interesting case that Pagan religion cannot always be labeled a “nature religion”  because  historically most weren’t. Instead they were concerned primarily with human affairs. I argue here that he is wrong, and do so in three steps. The first two explore crucial concepts he ignores. The third looks at errors of fact.  Grasping how he is mistaken deepens our understanding of what Paganism is and how we relate to the world today. 

The issues he does not examine are what we mean by “religion” and how Paganism reflects the times in which it exists. 

Religion is always a community affair.  I can be spiritual without having a religion and many people practice a religion without considering themselves particularly spiritual.  But they value highly the link it makes with their broader community as defined by that religion. 

The Gardnerian coven of which I was long a member consisted of many people with varied Pagan theologies.  Some were basically animist, some Neoplatonic, some understood what they did in Jungian terms, and likely there were other understandings as well. We rarely discussed such issues of personal spirituality. Instead we practiced ritual together, including having common meals and celebrations as well as providing a place for advice during crises and receiving healing when needed.

The quotations Bloch provides of Heathen perspectives on the human community could be mirrored in almost any religious community, certainly including Wicca. They describe common human conditions but within a context of greater than secular meaning. He writes “When I hold my daughter in my arms, that is sacred. When I hold high a horn of blessed mead and toast to an ancestors, that is sacred. When I grasp the oath-ring and swear an oath to do something on behalf of my family or my tribe, that is sacred. When I make offerings to the landvættir in thanks for all they have done and continue to do for myself, my family, and my tribe; that is sacred.”  The same is true for equivalent actions among Wiccans. The sacred is expressed in the world of relationships.

Then there is the issue of time.  Before the rise of the modern world nature was obviously the senior partner in human existence. As hunter-gatherers people had to adapt to Her rhythms or suffer dire consequences.  When we shifted to agriculture we partially freed ourselves from nature’s most immediate pressures, but at the cost of increasing our vulnerability to more long-term concerns.  Normally food was more abundant if not better, but when a drought struck, hailstorms destroyed crops, or a flood ruined fields, an agricultural people could not easily move.  Nor could they simply revert to hunting again, given their increased population

In both cases the all-encompassing presence of sea and land, of sky and all that live in and on it was undeniable.

With modernity’s rise we are not only freer from this immediate dependence, we are also divorced from the intimate awareness of the natural world within which we arose and on which our own still ultimately depends.  Light bulbs have liberated us from subordination to cycles of day and night but also increasingly drown out the stars.  Modern transportation ended famines, which were mostly local affairs, but ultimately destroyed local agriculture and with it the awareness of many of their dependence on the natural world.  Modern medicine freed women from fear of death in childbirth and helped most children to outlive their parents, but staving off death at progressively higher costs created profound problems regarding when it is appropriate to die rather then spend ever more putting off the inevitable.  Cities increase our opportunities for creativity, friendship, and material prosperity, but at the cost of isolation from the living world which has been shown to increase physical health   Nature also has a noticeable impact on psychological health.  The collective impact of our numbers and power is now destroying many of the natural systems on which our human world rests.

Across time the Pagan nature religions have praised harmony and balance as their ideal. It is our equivalent to the Christians’ emphasis on salvation or the Buddhist focus on enlightenment. In their rituals tribal religions seek to acknowledge, celebrate, or restore harmony.  In a place and time when the natural world seemed secure from major human impact, this usually took the form of harmony within the human world, especially within the tribe. But even then, the natural world was hardly ignored. My examples are from Native American peoples, but it is my understanding these patterns are almost universal.

The "Navajo Blessing Way” prayer goes as follows: 

In beauty may I walk.

All day long may I walk.

Through the returning seasons may I walk.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.

With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.

With dew about my feet may I walk.

With beauty may I walk.

With beauty before me, may I walk.

                                   With beauty behind me, may I walk. 

With beauty above me, may I walk.

With beauty below me, may I walk.

With beauty all around me, may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.

                  In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

It is finished in beauty.

It is finished in beauty

When a Lakota enters a sweat lodge he or she touches the ground and says “Mitakuye Oyasin,” “all my relations. “  The focus is not just on the human world. The sweat lodge is not only one of the most universal practices among Indian peoples, it exists throughout the northern hemisphere and is likely the origin of the sauna. 

Today, when the natural world is in serious disharmony with the human world destroying all around it that does not immediately serve its purposes, the focus has shifted, and not just for Wiccans. As illustrated by an example from Guatemala, indigenous people across the world are united with us on the issue of preserving the natural world from destruction.

Mr. Bloch grants Wicca is a nature religion.  It is therefore illuminating to see that our Wheel of the Year links the natural cycle of the seasons with the cycle of individual life.  It recognizes each dimension of this cycle as ideally being in balance and our ritual year can be understood as a year-long meditation on these themes so universal in virtually all that lives.

Mr. Bloch argues that native peoples used the natural world. And of course they did, and not always wisely.  Religion seeks to encourage wisdom in every society and succeeds fully in none.  But another Native American, Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday explains how to interpret their using the world: “You say I use the land and I say that is true. It is not the first truth. The first truth and the final truth is that I love the land and I see that it is beautiful. I delight in it. I am alive in it.”

Momaday writes about the land the way many of us would write about someone we loved.

Out here on the West Coast, up in salmon country, the First Salmon Ceremony was common among the tribes.  The first fish of the season was eaten collectively and its bones returned to the water, to ensure that the salmon would continue to come and nourish the tribe.  Other stories explained that if the fish were treated without respect disaster would befall the people.  Similar kinds of stories existed among other tribes. I know of others in interior Alaska and also among the pueblo peoples of the southwest which do not deal with salmon. What these tribes shared was a understanding they lived in a more-than-human world where they would prosper if relations were kept harmonious with the other “nations” with and among which we two leggeds lived.

Bloch’s own example of  giving thanks to the landvættir  seems to me an echo of this recognition, although from his description the relationship seems to be one of them serving humans rather than reciprocity. But I doubt this is how they were conceived in old times for these spirits of the land are spirits of place in a way any nature religion would find familiar. 

 Today human power recognizes no obligations of reciprocity to spirits and powers recognized by Pagans then and now as independent entities and forces that we wisely treat with respect and with which we can even enter into relationship.  Pagans from contemporary indigenous peoples to modern Neopagans are largely united in opposing the brutal and immoral ethic of domination that looks at everything in the other-than-human world in terms of its utility to us, or even worse, its utility to the most powerful among us.  This common attitude grows from our seeing and often directly experiencing the natural world’s sacred dimensions.  I think it is clear that a deep understanding of Pagan traditions, including those of earlier tribes as well as modern Neopagans indicates that yes, we are a nature religion, it is one of our most distinguishing traits, and this aspect of who we are is particularly important today when our civilization treats the rest of the world with an amorality that is as blind to others as it is short sighted in understanding its own interests.

I think that Mr. Bloch's confusion comes from setting the human world over against the natural.  This is something the nature religions have never done, and so would not recognize the spiritual dichotomy he, and our society as a whole, has created.

UPDATE:

Anne Niven suggested I add a word to my opening sentence, from "...Paganism cannot be a nautre religion..." to "...Paganism cannot always be a nature religion..."  She is right that the point is more clear, but it is no different.  If there are exceptions, and Bloch claimed there were many, Paganism as a class cannot be labeled a nature religion.

Last modified on
Rate this blog entry:
10

Gus diZerega is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca. He studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

Dr. diZerega has published widely on the social sciences in the academic press as well as on spirituality.  His second book Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources.  His third, coauthored with Philip Johnson, is Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue. His art frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter.

DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing.

His next book, Faultlines: The Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine, will appear in 2013. 

Comments

  • Joseph Merlin Nichter
    Joseph Merlin Nichter Thursday, 21 March 2013

    Bravo! I found your indigenous examples to be perfect.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Friday, 22 March 2013

    Actually I never said, "Paganism cannot be labeled a nature religion."

    What I actually said was, "while I think it’s entirely proper and fair to say that Paganism can be a nature religion, it is certainly not proper to say that it must be so."

    Again you feel the need to try to tell people they can't be Pagans because they don't agree with you. Please don't tell flat-out lies in order to try to make your case.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 22 March 2013

    You wrote "Many Pagans (and, I would argue, the majority of Heathens) find sacredness not in "nature" as a whole, but within the interpersonal, family, and tribal structure." You also write that most tribal religions are of that character as well. It follows as a matter of simple logic that "Paganism" cannot be labeled a nature religion though you helpfully say Wicca can. Take responsibility for your words and their meaning to a reasonable reader.

    I have explicitly said that Pagans can be deeply mistaken in their understanding of Pagan religion and still be Pagans. As many Christians are about theirs. I wrote it repeatedly on your own site in responding to your initial criticism of me. Rather than dealing with my arguments you deliberately misinterpret me to make it seem as if I am picking on you.

  • Constance Tippett Chandler
    Constance Tippett Chandler Friday, 22 March 2013

    We do get tied up in our word and terms, pagans, heathens, whatever. Sometimes I can't or don't know what to call what I believe. I honor the natural elements, earth, water, fire, air. But first and formost, I honor the earth and nature. What else is there...for sure. And, who else is a better teacher. Nature teaches us to be still and watch and listen. Most people that are Christians or Muslims, or Jews, don't feel the same way I do about nature, so I must be a Pagan. Honoring and loving nature, I feel, is Paganism 101.
    And, Dear Gus, when is your book coming out, it sound wonderful.
    Blessings to the bees,
    Constance

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 22 March 2013

    Thank you Constance. My book "Faultlines" The Sixties, the Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine" will be out from Quest publishers in November if all goes as they think it will.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Saturday, 23 March 2013

    What I like most about this post is that you defeat your own point in your update:

    "If there are exceptions, and Bloch claimed there were many, Paganism as a class cannot be labeled a nature religion."

    Exactly.

    Look, I get where you're coming from, and it's incredibly hard to look past one's own path when looking at the overarching 'Paganism'. It's important to do so, however, as many beautiful paths--like mine--fall under the Pagan label, and while certain spots in nature are sacred (as in: a holy place to a God, Goddess, or other nature being) to us, we don't worship 'nature as a whole' in Hellenismos.

    The problem I have with this post is that it equates Paganism with Wicca and other (mostly) Celtic religions. This is plainly wrong, at least in the eyes of the greater Pagan landscape. If you would have stated in your introduction that 'Paganism = Wicca' for you, I would have rolled my eyes and moved on without commenting. You are entitled to your opinions, after all. If you state, however, that 'this is how it is', not just to you, but to everyone, I will vehemently disagree. Because my Paganism is not Wicca, not Celtic, nor anything else but Hellenistic, and according to most, I have every right to label myself 'Pagan', even if I don't worship nature.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Saturday, 23 March 2013

    Elani-
    Did you ever notice that almost every example and every quotation I gave was NOT from Wicca or Celtic religions but from the kinds of tribal religions that were claimed not to be nature religions because they made use of nature? American Indians are not Celts. I could give similar examples from African diasporic religion where the Orishas are usually interpreted as forces of nature. Europe, North America, and Africa- three continents and a common underlying pattern. If you disagree it seems to me you should not just ignore most of what I wrote.

    The Classical Pagans most certainly had senses of the whole world as a goddess or as divine, and not just a local tree with its dryad. Sallustius said the world as a whole could be interpreted as a myth, a carrier of divine meaning that could not be put entirely into words. Remember Gaia? Read about Socrates encounter and his going into trance with an earth entity in the Phaedrus and Plato's myth of the cave in the Republic and think about the implications. Thales wrote the whole world was "full of Gods." The world is alive and not what we see on the surface from the most intimate local entity to all of existence.

    My argument was not that he did not say what he obviously said, but that the "many" were misidentified. They were mistaken extrapolations based on interpretations some modern reconstructionists made about their reconstructions of traditions where now lost oral lore was critical since most people did not read. I imagine those claims were made to defend his argument that his religion was Pagan and not a nature religion.

    I also TRIED to explain why earlier Pagan religions gave less attention to nature than today. Nature was not threatened then as it is now. People were more confined to particular places then than now, and so in more intimate connection. I thought my point obvious. If this is a misreading I invite your rebuttal.

    I am struck that so far those who argue Paganism need not be a nature religion are from reconstructionist traditions where most all oral tradition has been lost and has yet to be replaced. As such, and they should be aware of this, reconstructionists, like the rest of us, carry a modern mentality shaped by monopolistic monotheism and modern secularism into the revival of old traditions. As Christian history should demonstrate, attempting to grasp meaning from surviving texts alone leads to insoluble disagreements. It seems to me one of the strengths of Paganism is its emphasis on the importance of direct encounter and relationship rather than faith in texts or authorities.

    I of course have an equally modern mind. My arguments have NOTHING to do with philosophy or theology and everything to do with actual encounters. Philosophy and theology came later, from trying to make some sense of the encounters. In my judgment I was literally incapable of imagining the most important of those encounters before they happened.

    In my case my view of nature as divine comes from direct explicit and overwhelming encounters with such powers. Those who have not had such encounters are free to believe or disbelieve in them, I do not much care, but when Pagan religions from time immemorial regard the world as enspirited and sacred they should be careful about lecturing us about what they have not experienced themselves. I would think they would have learned from observing the same mistake in Richard Dawkins.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Sunday, 24 March 2013

    Dear Gus,

    Thank you for your reply. I will get to your points in a second, but I must first get something off of my chest that I see in others with your views on Paganism as well: are you aware you are speaking from a point of privilege? You, and those of like minded practice, are the majority. The books about your practice are on the shelves, Pagan festivals cater mostly to you. For me, looking inwards from the fringes of Paganism, it becomes personal when the majority within Paganism tries to undermine a minority even more. You, as a voice of that privileged position, get this reply right now, but it's true for many, many more.

    I did notice that your examples were from Native American culture, but I have never met a Native American who considered him or herself a modern Pagan because of his or her heritage. And even if they did, my practice, philosophical thoughts and ethical system in no way resemble that beautiful poem.

    As for the indigenous tribes you mentions: passing off their desire to save their home as a spiritual, Pagan, desire that supports your point if conflated at best. I can not speak for these peoples, but I'm quite certain that their primary reason for trying to save the spot of nature they live in, is to protect their home. Period. Of course, we would have to ask them--the minority--before we can be sure.

    Note that this is what I meant with that privilege: you seemed to have interpreted the actions of a large variety of groups in a way that fits your current, modern, religious, ethical, and spiritual system. Perhaps subconsciously. I hope you understand that this can be perceived as hurtful by those who practice and live those Traditions, Pagan or not.

    I understand what you tried to explain about the early peoples and nature, but I still disagree with it. The 'early peoples' are another conflation I can't speak for, so I will limit my reply to the Hellenic. The ancient Hellens--Greeks--worshiped the Theoi--the Greek Gods--with extreme reverence. They (generally!) considered the Gods as guardians over the various building blocks of nature. Like Selene personified the moon, and Gaea personified the earth, they understood that if they needed anything of either, these were the Goddesses to pray to. Of course, people picked up after themselves, but pollution was already a thing in ancient Hellas.

    As a modern reconstructionist of that religion, I don't care all too much about nature as a whole, and even less about its pollution. You might find this impossible to belief, but it's true. I never have, honestly. I don't take part in Earth Hour, and I don't regularly meditate to send good thoughts to the earth (an event I get invited to every month).

    I will agree with you that much information about the ancient religions have been lost, but I disagree with you when you implicate there is not enough there to create a basic ethical, philosophical and religious framework from. While some modern mentality might sneak in now and then--mostly forced upon by modern society who has made laws against many of the ancient ways--Reconstructionists make it a life long job to recognize these influences, and refine them. In short, I reject your short-sighted and disrespectful view of us as lazy, beguiled Christian clones, trying to invent a religion where ancient sources fail. If that is what you think of us--and that is what your reply screams--I doubt anything I say could make you reevaluate your viewpoints in any way.

    Also, you seem under the impression that those who practice Recon Traditions do not have close connections to the divine, or at least not as personal as you. I'm not a big fan of 'The Truth (tm)', and I also disagree with you. I ahve a very personal and deep connection to the Theoi, and I know many, many, Recons who have the same. We see signs of our Gods everywhere, much like you, I would wager, but we divorce those experience from 'nature', and place them firmly in the hands of the Gods. Again, the implication that your way is better than my way is not only privileged, but hurtful.

    I wish you a wonderful life, and I hope you get everything out of your religion you possibly can, as I think Wicca and its kin are beautiful paths. I wish you happiness, love, and a deep connection to the Gods, as I do think you are and have. All I ask for is that you (re)consider the many generalizations and conflations you make for everyone else to fit into your thought patterns. We do not, nor do we wish to. That is why we practice something different than you and yours.

  • Trine
    Trine Monday, 25 March 2013

    "As a modern reconstructionist of that religion, I don't care all too much about nature as a whole, and even less about its pollution."

    I am curious - would you be interested in writing a blog post on your Hellenistic view on the reverence of (or indifference to) nature and on pollution? What I read above is that oil spills, trash in the woods, bee hive death due to insecticides, etc. does not really concern you as much as other topics may, because Hellenism is not a nature-based religion. My question, or curiosity, regards how you would approach this in terms of your Gods - is an oil spill offensive to Poseidon? Is littering in the wild and limiting the natural habitats of wildlife offensive to Pan, or Artemis? And how did the Hellenes approach this?

    I really hope this does not come across judgmental, as I am genuinely interested in a Hellenist's perspective on the above. I freely admit that as a Nature-Lover(tm) I was a bit baffled by your statement, but it's always interesting to hear what people on the other side of the fence are thinking.

    Thanks for reading.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Tuesday, 26 March 2013

    Dear Trine,

    I will most certainly write that post. It has been on my mind since I read this post, but I need to get my thoughts together first. I will say now, that nature does have a role in Hellenismos, but different than Gus implies. As such, the statement you took from my post is true, in a way, but not the whole truth. I will try to explain this better in my post.

    Thank you for your question, I greatly appreciate it, as well as the tome in which it was asked. I never took it as an insult, or in a negative way, but I appreciate you took the time to make sure I would not interpret it as such.

    Gods bless,
    Elani

  • Trine
    Trine Monday, 25 March 2013

    (A quick note/edit: I forgot to add that I don't expect, or want, everyone to be woo-woo fluffy Nature-Lovers(tm) who spend the majority of their time sending the earth healing thoughts; if nothing else, I consider concern about pollution at the very least an act of self-preservation. Polluted soil, seas and skies may/will mean less food, less clean air to breathe, chemicals in the water to make it drinkable, etc., and possibly offensive to the Gods who rule these realms. I realize that nature is not the focal point of every religion, and that the Gods' domains vary in interpretation, but I really would love to hear your perspective on this. :D )

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 24 March 2013

    Dear Elani-
    The points you raise require more space to reply than this format makes comfortable for readers. I think I might do an entire piece on the ‘privilege’ issue you bring up. Suffice it to say I think you are wrong insofar as your point describes anything other than some very troubling currents of modern thought.

    I will give short statements regarding your other points. If you want to discuss them further here I am happy to do so, but please make one point per post.

    I have written books that make a major distinction between "Pagan" as a broad classification of religions and "NeoPagan" as a modern revival of Pagan spirituality by people coming from within modern society. And I am not alone. So your point about Indians not being “modern pagans’ seems 100% irrelevant to the issue I was raising. Again: Africa, pre-conquest North America, Europe - three different cultures, same basic insight.

    In all honesty you do not appear to know anything much about why traditional indigenous people are fighting for their lands. I work with people who do, and who work with them in an interfaith context. I suggest you learn before imposing modern categories of thought onto them.

    The only difference I noticed between your description of the Greek Gods and my own view of Paganism in general is that you seem to treat the world in and through which they manifest as a kind of immense Santa Claus giving us goodies with no expectation of reciprocity let along obligations on out part. In this you are importing a secular or Protestant modern worldview onto a culture that did not have one. To me this is not reconstruction, it is putting icing from one cake on top of a different cake and calling it the same cake. What academics label "nature religions" hold the relationship is a two way street. It's a very big tent, but it does leave some things out.

    I never said or implied that there is not enough surviving material to seek to revive an old tradition. Nor did I ever imply I have a stronger personal connection with the Gods than Reconstructionists. That is not for me to say. I dare you to find passages where I do. After you have discovered that I do not, ask yourself why whenever you can give a negative or arrogant interpretation to what I write, you invariably do even when the charges are surrounded by nice words.

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Tuesday, 26 March 2013

    Dear Gus,

    I think this is the time I will bow out of this conversation. I see the value in your points, but disagree with them. You may or may not see the value in my points, but disagree with them as well. It is, I am afraid, as it will remain. So thank you for this conversation, and good luck with everything.

    Gods bless,
    Elani

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Tuesday, 26 March 2013

    And to you Elani.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Tuesday, 26 March 2013

    I just posted a discussion of how a Pagan perspective gives us insight into the nature of our protected wilderness areas over at Patheos. It touches on how being a nature religion relates with living in and using the earth. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pointedlypagan/2013/03/a-pagan-perspective-on-wilderness/

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Tuesday, 26 March 2013

    I just posted a discussion of how a Pagan perspective gives us insight into the nature of our protected wilderness areas over at Patheos. It touches on how being a nature religion relates with living in and using the earth. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pointedlypagan/2013/03/a-pagan-perspective-on-wilderness/

  • Please login first in order for you to submit comments

Additional information