Is Neo-Paganism Really a Nature Religion?

The Greening of Paganism (Revisited)

(Note, this is a reworking of a 2016 paper for presentation at the 2022 Harvard Ecological Spiritualities Conference.)

According to Religious Studies scholar, Michael York, a “nature religion” is one which has “a this-worldly focus and deep reverence for the earth as something sacred and something to be cherished.” Many contemporary Pagan traditions and groups explicitly style themselves as “nature religions” or “earth religions,” and many individual Pagans describe their spirituality as “nature-centered” or “earth-centered.” And yet, the question of whether Paganism is a “nature religion” is a complex one. This complexity is often glossed over in academic descriptions of Pagan beliefs and practices.

(For the sake of space, I’m going to skip the outline of the history of Paganism’s claim to be a nature religion, which is well documented and oft-repeated, and skip ahead to the critique of that claim.)

Even in its first decades, not all Pagans understood Paganism as a nature religion. For some, like Fritz Muntean, one of the founders of the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn, Paganism was not primarily a nature religion, but rather a hedonistic religion, one centered on an ethic of free and responsible self-expression.[1]

Nor were all early Pagans environmental activists. In the first edition of Drawing Down the Moon published in 1979, NPR correspondent and Wiccan priestess, Margot Adler, documented a worrying lack of political will among Neo-Pagans.[2] Later, in the 1986 edition of her book, Adler records one of the leaders in the Neo-Druidric movement, Isaac Bonewits, the founder of ADF, saying that while many Neo-Pagans were very concerned about environmental matters, “Most Neo-Pagans are too loose and liberal to be fanatic about anything, including their own survival.”[3]

Neo-Pagans have inherited ritual forms and theology from British Traditional Wicca, which did not itself begin as a nature religion, but as an esoteric mystery cult.[4] Wouter Hanegraaff observes “that Wicca is a neopagan development of traditional occultist ritual magic, but that the later movement is not itself pagan.” And as Esme Partridge explains,

“Western occultism came hand-in-hand with the founding principle of the modern age: Man’s domination over nature. [I intentionally kept the gender-specific language here.] […] Liberal capitalism and occultism are both fruits of the Enlightenment. Both place man at the very centre of the universe, attempting to emancipate him from the constraints of tradition and the natural world itself. Both also attempt to manipulate nature, be that with magic or brute force.”[5]

The ritual and symbolic forms resulting from this merger sometimes bear an ambiguous relationship to nature. Consider how Pagans living in myriad climatic zones may follow a universalist Wheel of the Year derived from the climate of Great Britain, which may or may not correspond with the local environmental conditions, or the fact that there was even a discussion about whether Pagans in the southern hemisphere should celebrate the beginning of winter during their summer solstice. As Jo Pearson has observed, the Pagan Wheel of the Year sometimes turns the seasons, rather than the other way around.[6]

Similarly, when Pagans invoke the “elements,” often in indoor settings, these may take the form of abstract Neo-Platonic essences, rather than the actual earth beneath our feet and the air and water flowing around us. Pagan Ritualist, Steven Posch, relates one instance, for example, when a Pagan group, invoked the element of water in the traditional cardinal direction of the west, while nearby the great Mississippi River flowed by unnoticed in the east.[7]

And as a centerpiece of such a ritual, Pagans might undertake an imaginal “journey” to a grove or other sacred natural site to converse with spirits or deities — without ever having to experience the inconveniences and harsher realities of the natural world or appreciate directly the connection between our actions and their effect on that world. Posch questions whether Pagans, as they gather in their circles, are “standing with our backs to the world,” figuratively as well as literally.[8]

This raises the question what exactly the word “nature” really means to Pagans.[9] In his study of the rise of Paganism in America, Chas Clifton, distinguishes what he calls “Cosmic Nature” from “Gaian Nature.”[10] The former is a symbolic “nature”, the value of which lies in the esoteric truths it holds for humanity, whereas the latter is an embodied nature, which has its own intrinsic value, apart from its usefulness to humans.

Many Pagans’ conception of nature is located more on the Cosmic end of this spectrum, with only a tenuous connection to Gaian Nature. In other words, “nature” for some Pagans may be more of a social construct than a direct experience, a romanticized or idealized “nature” which serves as little more than a backdrop to esoteric rituals.

Peg Aloi, who studies Paganism in the media, seriously questions whether Pagans have lived up to that challenge:

“There are now hundreds of thousands of people who identify as ‘pagan’ or ‘Wiccan’ or ‘Druid’ … who have never conducted a ritual out of doors, who have never attended a festival at a campground, who have never planted a garden in honor of the Eternal Return of the Earth Mother in spring. Do they discuss the gods and their ritual practices and spells and theology [and, I would add, go to academic conferences]? Sure! But do they get their hands dirty, in actual dirt?”[11]

There have been and still are many Pagans who are shining lights of sustainable living and environmental activism. Starhawk and the Dragon Environmental Network are just a couple of obvious examples that come to mind. And yet, in some ways the symbolic prominence of these examples may obscure a lack of ecological commitment among Pagans at large. Anecdotal and impressionistic evidence suggests that there is a mismatch between the story Pagans tell about ourselves and our level of ecological engagement.[12] 

Jonathan Woolley, who reported from the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, contrasted the presence of other faith traditions to Paganism’s relative absence from the event:

Many “Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. … Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of traveling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).

“Pagans, by contrast, have yet to engage in this organised fashion. Though we may be active participants as individuals, our organisations have shown a puzzling lack of initiative; failing to capitalise upon the almost unique relevance of our philosophies to climate change. While it has taken a seed-change in Christian theology, and a harnessing of long-neglected (but nonetheless orthodox) parts of Christian thought to respond to this Great Challenge of our Age, no such shift is necessary within Pagan religions — we share a common, compelling reverence for Nature; either as the body of the goddess, as an utterly animate cosmos, or as the province of many deities. It should be the easiest thing in the world for us to take our place in spaces like COP, and to command great power and respect when we do so: and yet, this has not happened.”[13]

There are several possible reasons for this. Perhaps the most obvious explanation is Paganism’s small numbers and lack of organization or intentional dis-organization. However, as Woolley points out, lack of centralizing institutions has not prevented other faith communities from organizing for direct action, a conspicuous example being indigenous peoples. And in the age of social media, lack of formal institutions is not the barrier to organizing that it used to be.

Other factors include many Pagans’ suspicion of interfaith or their ambivalence toward the “politicization” of religion.

Another possible explanation, one external to Paganism, is that Pagans might be discouraged, implicitly or explicitly from joining environmental actions by secular activists or other faith groups who are concerned that association with Paganism may damage their credibility. Considering how environmentalism is often slurred with the epithet of “pagan” by some political conservatives[14], this concern may not be entirely unfounded. Those who malign environmentalists for their “paganism” are probably already convinced that environmentalism is evil, and the association with “paganism” is a post hoc rationalization. However, it is possible that even more liberal monotheists and secularist, who are sympathetic to earth stewardship, might be put off by an association with contemporary Paganism.

Note, I witnessed this myself when we attempted to get the Pagan Community Statement on the Environment included on nominally interfaith sites which featured faith statements of other religions. Oftentimes, professed interfaith environmental groups are only interested in working with the Abrahamic faiths or with those faiths considered “World Religions.”

This suggests that Pagans have more work to do, not just in environmental activism, but also in the area of interfaith.[15] Because of the courage and dedication of many Pagans working over decades, many people no longer see Paganism as something to be feared. Unfortunately, many continue to see Paganism as something to be ridiculed or dismissed.[16]

One way Pagans might increase their credibility in the interfaith community would be for us to find ways to speak with harmonious voices on the critical issues of our day, like climate change. While many Pagans are no strangers to political action, the effectiveness of our actions may sometimes be diminished by the cacophony of our diverse voices. If we could join our voices in protest as well as we can join our bodies and spirits in ritual, then our actions would carry that much more weight. We must appreciate that speaking “in harmony” with each other does not necessitate us all being of one mind or agreeing on every point. Pagans often speak of attuning ourselves to nature and the cycles of the Earth. Similarly, we need to strive to “attune” with one another, temporarily setting aside our egos and prioritizing our individual disagreements, when a collective voice is urgently needed to effect change, as it is now. If there is any issue on which Pagans should be able to speak harmoniously, it is in response to the desecration of the environment.

It was in response to this perceived need that led to the creation of A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, written over a period of 6 months by a group of 40 individuals, and concluding with a pledge to individual and collective action.

After a period of public comment and revision, the Statement was published in its final form on Earth Day, April 22, 2015, at ecopagan.com. Signatures have come from 100 countries. And the statement has been translated into 16 languages. Virtually every prominent Pagan organization has signed as well.

To date, the Statement has collected just under 10,000 signatures. That number appears insignificant in contrast to the estimated number of Pagans in the world at over 1 million. However, it remains the single most successful attempt to organize Pagans to speak with a single voice on any matter.

That being said, there was opposition to the Statement from within the Pagan community. Though we often speak of the Pagan community as a monolithic thing, it is more helpful to consider it as having three overlapping centers of religious focus: Earth, Magic, and Deity.[17] Individual Pagans may identify more or less with one or more of these centers.

Earth-centered Paganism includes those forms of Paganism con­cerned primarily with nature and ecology, the more local forms of Paganism, and the many forms of neo-animism. Magic-centered Paganism includes many Wiccans, Witches, and others focused primarily on the development of the self. Deity-centered Pagan­ism includes many forms of devotional polytheism and “hard” polytheism, and many reconstructionist forms of Paganism.

Much of the work writing and promoting the Pagan Community Statement on the Environment was done by Pagans who identified as earth-centered, while much of the opposition to the statement came from Pagans for whom gods and/or magic are more central to their religiosity than the earth.

Two beliefs which are common among contemporary Pagans can potentially act as distractions from the natural world. The first is the belief in practical or instrumen­tal magic—the idea that we can cause physical change at a dis­tance without corresponding physical action. Seen in this way, magic becomes just another form of “technol­ogy” which contributes to the disenchantment of the world.

As Trudy Frisk as written in her essay, “Paganism, Magic, and the Control of Nature”: the instrumental view of magic “perpetuates the utilitarian view of nature. Expecting natural objects to fulfill human desires leads to disregard for maintaining nature in all its complexity.” Frisk goes on:

“Paganism has an unparalleled opportunity to evolve spir­itual ceremonies compatible with ecological knowledge; to create a new sense of sacredness to set against destruction. The message of humanist material­ism is hollow. People yearn for something greater. … Pagan­ism, if it reconsiders magic, may be the faith of the future. … The world urgently needs eco-centered, not ego-centered, religions, blending reverence for nature with knowledge of its complexity. Paganism, if it treats magic as an expression of wonder and not a means of con­trol, could be one of these religions.”[18]

Fortunately, there are Pagans who already have and continue to develop alternative, non-instrumental conceptions of magic: from Starhawk’s classic formulation of magic as the art of transforming consciousness to Julie Schutten and Richard Rogers, authors of “Magic as an Alternative Symbolic: Enacting Transhuman Dialogue”, in which they describe magic as a way of communing with other-than-human beings.[19]

Another potential distraction is the belief in invisible supernatural beings, including literal gods, spirits, fairies, and so on.[20] Without a visible and physical pres­ence, these may function as distractions from the visible, physical Earth. As Susan Greenwood explains in The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness:

“A focus on inner nature and on the ritual invocation of anthropomorphic deities appears to direct attention away from seeing nature as including other sentient beings. Nature can thus become an abstract force consisting of impersonal energies, not as other human persons and beings within a particular relationship of contiguity within the natural world.”[21]

Again, though, there are Pagans who have developed alternative, naturalistic understandings of gods[22], such as Steven Posch, who invites us to make the “radical leap out of our own internal dialogue and into actual relationship with real, non-human others”: sun, moon, earth, storm, sea, wind, fire, plants and animals.[23]

I continue to identify as Pagan, because I believe Paganism has the potential to re-en­chant the world, to expand our consciousness of the radically interconnected nature of our relationship to the world. The challenge for Paganism moving forward will be to figure out how we regain the sense of “magic” without resorting to superstition, how to incorporate the wisdom of pre-scientific cultures without losing the rigor of the scientific method, how to restore a sense of life and even personhood to our experience of the world without projecting our own imaginings onto nature, and how to awaken to other modes of consciousness without regressing into psychological infantilism and wishful thinking.

To conclude, the use of terms like “Paganism”, “gods” and “goddesses” (even so-called “earth gods”/“earth goddesses”), and magic, etc. needs to be interrogated closely by academics and participants alike to determine whether the cultural phenomena being described are truly earth-centered. And rather than thinking of Paganism as a “green religion”, or not, it is more accurate to think of the “greening” of Paganism, as a process which is never complete and always subject to critique.


Notes:

[1] Muntean, Fritz. “Are We Really a ‘Nature’ Religion?” (Jan. 29, 2014) http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-culture-blogs/are-we-really-a-nature-religion.html

[2] Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America (1979). 

[3] Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America, 2nd ed. (1986). 

[4] Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (1997); Pearson, Jo. “Demarcating the Field: Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft,” DISKUS Volume 6 (2000). http://basr.ac.uk/diskus_old/diskus1-6/Pearson6.txt

[5] Partridge, Esme. “Witchcraft Isn’t Subversive”, UnHerd, (Feb. 15, 2022) https://unherd.com/2022/02/witchcraft-isnt-subversive/

[6] Pearson, Joanne. Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World (1998). 

[7] Personal communication, Pagan Spirit Gathering 2014. 

[8] Posch, Steven. “Standing with Our Backs to the World” (Apr. 27, 2014). http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-culture-blogs/paganistan/staning-with-our-backs-to-the-world.html

[9] Bowman, Marion. “Nature, the Natural and Pagan Identity,” DISKUS Volume 6 (2000). http://basr.ac.uk/diskus_old/diskus1-6/bowman6.txt%20%EF%BF%BC

[10] Clifton, Chas. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America (2006). 

[11] Aloi, Peg. “Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed? Yes, Yes, A Resounding Yes.” (July 25, 2014). https://www.patheos.com/blogs/themediawitches/2014/07/has-pagan-environmentalism-failed-yes-yes-a-resounding-yes/?repeat=w3tc%20%EF%BF%BC

[12] Letcher, Andy. “‘Virtual Paganism’ or Direct Action? The Implications of Road Protesting for Modern Paganism,” DISKUS Volume 6 (2000). http://basr.ac.uk/diskus_old/diskus1-6/letcher6.txt%20%EF%BF%BC

[13] Woolley, Jonathan. “I’ll meet you on the Field of Mars – A Druid’s view of COP21” (Dec. 28, 2015). http://godsandradicals.org/2015/12/28/ill-meet-you-on-the-field-of-mars-a-druids-view-of-cop21/%20%EF%BF%BC

[14] Pitzl-Waters, Jason. “Paganism as Slur, Paganism as the Other” (July 2, 2013); Harris, Grove. “Pagan Involvement in the Interfaith Movement: Exclusions, Dualities, and Contributions,” Cross Currents, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Spring 2005). http://www.crosscurrents.org/HarrisSpring2005.htm%20%EF%BF%BC

[15] Pitzl-Waters, Jason. “Modern Paganism’s Role in Interfaith” (Jan. 24, 2012).

[16] “Dude, Pagans don’t have an agenda. They’re Pagans. Organizational skills, eh, not their strong suit.” — Comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show responding to an open letter by the Bob Jones University president referring to “the agenda of paganism.”

[17] Halstead, John. Neo-Paganism: Historic Inspiration & Contemporary Creativity (2019).

[18] Frisk, Trudy. “Paganism, Magic, and the Control of Nature”, Trumpeter (1997).

[19] Schutten, Julie & Rogers, Richard. “Magic as an Alternative Symbolic: Enacting Transhuman Dialogue”, Environmental Communication 3(3) (2011).

[20] Halstead, John. “Escaping the Otherworld: The Reenchantment of Paganism” (Oct. 2, 2017). https://abeautifulresistance.org/site/2017/10/02/escaping-the-otherworld-the-false-enchantment-of-pagan-escapism

[21] Greenwood, Susan. The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness (2005).

[22] Halstead, John. Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans (2016).

[23] Posch, Steven. “Lost Gods of the Witches”, Pentacle (2009).

6 thoughts on “Is Neo-Paganism Really a Nature Religion?

Add yours

  1. I agree completely.

    This is why Atheopaganism is fully naturalistic, revering the biosphere of Earth as The Most Sacred, and considers activism for the environment and a just society to be integral, and not extraneous to its practice.

  2. John is great at marrying the Earth (dirt, fire, water, plant, animal, minerals) into the spiritual and calling us to action in activism as part of a spiritual practice. I loved this critic to all who identify as Pagans (and all religious that claim to love nature) to use our spirituality to motivate us to create internal healing and external healing in nature. Nature heals us and we need to heal nature.

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