I remember when I left the Mormon church, I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I had been a less than perfect Mormon. You see, when you leave the LDS Church, the people who stay start looking for all kinds of reasons why you left, reasons which have to do with your own moral failings. They can’t admit that anything might be wrong with the Church, so something has to be wrong with you.
But I was a less than ideal Mormon. I didn’t obey all the rules, I didn’t pray as often as I was supposed to, and so on. Now I have the perspective and wisdom to recognize that nobody obeyed all the rules or prayed as much as they were supposed to. Well, maybe somebody did. But those people are scary. And they’re also a very small minority.
The same is true of Pagans, I think. I suspect that very few of us are practicing with as much consistency as we claim to. And that’s okay.
I don’t admitting how imperfect my personal practice is. Spiritual discipline has never been my strong suit. But over the years, I’ve read several honest accounts which helped me to come to terms with it. A comment on a blog I read 4 years ago helped to to appreciate that it’s normal that spiritual practice waxes and wanes and to take advantage of the waning periods to reevaluate my practice. A post by Star Foster humorously titled “Slacker Paganism” helped me appreciate the value of at least going through some of the motions every day, no matter how half-assed. And a recent post by Bekah Evie Bel titled “I’m an Armchair Pagan” reminded me not to judge myself when life gets too hectic and practice is just infeasible.
Nevertheless, I’m still a little sensitive to accusations of being “non-practicing”. First, for the reasons I explained above. But second, because there is a confusion among many people about what it means to be a non-theistic or naturalistic Pagan. Many polytheists, for example, can’t seem to imagine what a spiritual practice would look like without gods. And so they wrongly assume that non-theistic Pagans don’t have a spiritual practice.
There are, of course, Pagans of all theological varieties who do not practice at all. I’ve seen them referred to as “cultural Pagans” or “secular Pagans.” But I am neither of these things. And it is a mistake to confuse secular Pagans with non-theistic Pagans. “Non-theistic” does not mean “secular.” The one has to do with religious belief, while the other has to do with religious practice. (See the chart to the right.)
While I am reluctant to respond to suggestions that I prove my Paganism to anyone, I do think it is important to educate people about what a non-theistic Pagan practice might look like. My practice is very idiosyncratic. It evolved over years in an intuitive fashion. It includes morning and evening devotionals at my altar. My morning devotion is more outward-oriented and involves invocations of the air, sun, water, and earth, while my evening devotion is more inward-oriented and involves invocations to personal archetypes. I say a prayer over meals (when I remember) and, at the eight stations of the Wheel of the Year, I pour different libations over the headstone of an ancestor which sits in my backyard garden. I also have written Wheel of the Year rituals for my family, which usually involve song, story, a dramatic reenactment, and a fun activity. I’ve written about all of this many times before on my blog.
I am unabashedly eclectic. Unlike many non-theistic Pagans, my altar does contain images of deities and some of my invocations use theistic language. Some polytheists may find this to be appropriative, but for me these images and language are sacred, and I treat them as such. I also use language and imagery borrowed from popular media and classic literature, anything which I experience as numinous, as evoking that larger dimension of life, may be incorporated into my rituals.
I can’t say, though, that my practice is representative of that of other non-theistic Pagans. If you’re interested in the non-theistic practice of others, I suggest you check out book Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans, which includes essays from non-theistic Pagans describing their practice. Some of the essays have bee published elsewhere. B. T. Newberg has written about why he, a humanistic Pagan, prays to Isis. NaturalPantheist has offered these three reasons why he does ritual. Anna Walther has offered “Four Devotional Practices for Naturalistic Pagans”. Shauna Aura Knight has written a 3-part essay explaining how she works with archetypes in her rituals. I explain here why I pour ritual libations. And Mark Green has written a beautiful “Atheopagan Prayer” here.
Many non-theistic Pagans observe some form of the Neopagan Wheel of the Year. Jon Cleland Host brings science and Paganism together in his unique family celebrations. And some Humanistic Pagans turn seemingly mundane activities–like making stock, crafting or composting–into religious practices.
Through these rituals, we seek to connect to something greater than ourselves, whether that be the cosmos, the earth, the web of life, the human community, or our deeper selves. We also use ritual express our sense of wonder and reverence at the universe. The ritual enactment of Pagan myths can help to transform our rational understanding of the natural world into a religious experience. Ritual also enables us to cultivate subjective states of mind which are personally healing and socially and environmentally integrative. This is especially important in our time of widespread spiritual alienation. Ritual can give rise to experiences which help motivate socially and environmentally responsible action.
So before you call someone a “non-practicing Pagan,” consider some other possibilities. Consider that their practice may just look different from yours. Or consider that, even though you have very different beliefs, their practice may actually look quite a bit like yours.