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What is Naturalistic Paganism?
Ours is a path both inspiring and, to the best of human ability, true.
Ours is a naturalistic path rooted in ancient Paganism and contemporary science. This path integrates mythic, meditative, and ritual practices with a worldview based on the current most compelling scientific evidence.
What defines us?
First, we are Pagans. Our spiritual practices are inspired by ancient non-Abrahamic cultural-religious traditions, such as the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Norse, Celts, Indians, Chinese, and various native tribes*, as well as corresponding modern traditions such as Neopaganism. We acknowledge there is no way to recreate ancient religions in every detail, nor would we want to. Rather, we draw inspiration from old ways while embracing modernity. We find ancient traditions continue to speak to us just as they did our ancestors, even as they continue to evolve.
Second, we are naturalists. This worldview unites our many varieties, and makes us unique among Pagans. Good technical definitions of naturalism are available here and here, but what most Naturalistic Pagans mean by it can be summed up simply:
- only natural causes affect the universe; if there are supernatural causes, there is no reliable evidence yet to support that idea.
To clarify what counts as “natural”, we look to contemporary science:
- natural causes are best discovered via the current most compelling scientific evidence
In other words, we adopt an appropriate skepticism toward any supposed divine or magical causes outside nature, i.e. super-natural causes, as well as those within nature unsupported by the best evidence.**
While we find little evidence to support most of the metaphysical claims made for deities and magic, we find plenty of evidence for the capacity of Pagan myth, meditation, and ritual to affect psychology. That is why we find Pagan ways powerful. By shaping human minds, they motivate change through human hands.
As a result of our reliance on demonstrable evidence, a few tendencies emerge:
- We tend to view deities as metaphorical, poetic, or psychological in some sense, and not as causal agents external to and independent of the individual. Thunder is external and independent, but the personification of thunder as Zeus, for example, is not.
- We tend to view magic as manipulating the world indirectly through the individual’s own psychology, for example by motivating her or him to action, and not as manipulating “energies” to produce effects with no known physical causal relation to the individual.
- We tend to ground our practices and beliefs in experience, accurate history, and mainstream scientific evidence.
- Our focus on evidence as the primary source of knowledge leads many of us to an awareness of, and gratitude for, the long evolutionary process which has resulted in our existence today.
- Because our worldview doesn’t include afterlives or hidden realms, we tend to be focused on this body, this life, and this earth, cherishing each moment and improving the world for all life on Earth.
How do we practice?
Our style of practice is much like that of other kinds of Pagans. It may or may not be noticeably different, and we work happily alongside other kinds of Pagans. This is often aided by the fact that Pagans usually don’t believe in a literal Hell for those who don’t hold the “correct” belief.
There is great variation, but some of our most common practices include:
- celebrating the Neopagan Wheel of the Year
- performing rituals
- exploring mythology for inspiration and insight
- discovering our world through experience, accurate history, and scientific inquiry
- cultivating insight
- changing ourselves and our society through responsible action
In our practices, we may invoke deities, spirits, and ancestors. If we do, the meaning may be allegorical, archetypal, or cultural. In so doing, we carry on a long tradition going back to ancient times.
Were there Naturalistic Pagans in the ancient world?
Many assume that Naturalistic Paganism is an exclusively modern phenomenon. However, evidence suggests traditions resembling Naturalistic Paganism date at least as far back as the Axial Age (roughly 800-200 BCE) in Greece and elsewhere. A detailed presentation of research on this subject will be coming out over the course of this year at Naturalistic Traditions, the first essay of which is here.
What is the role of science?
When it comes down to it, there’s one simple fact we must all face:
The universe is as it is whether we like it or not.
The only question is, when evidence shows the universe out of accord with cherished beliefs, will we be humble enough to accept it?
We take a humble approach to knowledge claims. Faith claims, extra-sensory perceptions, personal visions, and the like have proven unreliable as guides to reality. Meanwhile, scientific method, though imperfect, has proven the most reliable to date. That’s why a path based on it may be considered most probably true, to the best of human ability.
Others may differ in their approach to truth, and we wish them well. Meanwhile, we look to the current most compelling scientific evidence.
What is the role of Paganism?
There is another fact we must all face:
Everyone experiences reality from a different subjective vantage point.
While scientific evidence provides our best cue for what’s real, there are many valid ways to experience reality and behave within it. Paganism is one way.
First, Pagan myth, meditation, and ritual cultivate a culturally-rooted, nature-based, richly-symbolic subjective experience. Many find this appealing in our age of individualism, environmental crisis, and consumerist alienation.
Second, subjective experience has consequences for behavior. For example, those who come to feel more akin to the environment are more likely to protect it. Pagan myth, meditation, and ritual change behavior by shaping its underlying motivations.
For more on this question, see the recent collaborative list of reasons for why naturalists do ritual.
Others may differ in their approach to experience and behavior, and we wish them well. Meanwhile, we cultivate connection to our natural roots, wider human family, and our unconscious minds through Pagan practices.
Why follow this path?
For many of us, the realization that natural forces have resulted in the immense journey of life, over billions of years, shaped by natural selection, parental love, and community bonds, fills us with awe, wonder and gratitude. This overwhelming feeling can be expressed as so many humans have done for thousands of years – through Pagan practices, connecting us to our ancient ancestors, today’s human family, and future generations of all life on Earth. Pagan practices have often served to embed people within the wider web of all existence, and still do so today.
Most of all, this path offers a way to live responsibly in this world.
On the one hand, naturalism grounded in scientific evidence offers a means of intellectual responsibility. Through it, we cultivate right relationship to objective reality.
On the other hand, Paganism offers a means for taking responsibility for one’s subjective experience and behavior. Through it, we cultivate right relationship to subjective reality.
Altogether, ours is a path rich with truth, meaning, and responsibility.
How do I get started?
There’s no initiation to undergo or organization to join. If you feel this path is right for you, all you need do is put it into action. Granted, that’s easier said than done, but many resources are available to support you.
- First of all, check out the articles and pages on this site. Comment on articles, and share them on social media.
- Second, support the efforts of the many prolific authors in our movement.
- Third, consider taking advantage of the many opportunities for community, or start a group yourself.
- Finally, never miss a chance to live in right relationship to reality. Every moment is an opportunity to discover or blaze a path both inspiring and, to the best of human ability, true.
This essay supercedes the original post of the same name, which is now outdated. Thanks to Jon Cleland Host and members of the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group for comments used in the preparation of this article. This article first appeared at HumanisticPaganism.com.
*Pagan. Hitherto, HumanisticPaganism defined Pagan by focusing on a Euro-Mediterranean culture zone. This was intended to a) maintain integrity of the term by including a limited range of inter-related cultures, and b) avoid issues of cultural appropriation. Recently, the community has questioned whether this focus may be unnecessarily restrictive, hence the broader definition extending Pagan to include all non-Abrahamic traditions. This inevitably begs the question of what so many cultures could actually have in common; on the other hand, it opens the door to naturalistic aspects of Daoism, Confucianism, Carvaka, and so on. Meanwhile, we continue to affirm the importance of cultural appropriation issues. An excellent resource on this is Lupa’s Talking About the Elephant.
**Outside nature/within nature. Pagans vary in their acceptance of the term “supernatural.” A few consider their deities and/or magic to be outside nature, but most consider them to exist within it. Naturalistic Pagans affirm neither: either deities and magic are outside nature and thus not naturalistic, or within nature but unsupported by reliable evidence. Either way, we find no good reason to affirm either gods or magic in any literal sense. Mis-applied science grants no support either. For example, quantum physics is often touted as “evidence” for magic, but this turns out to be a red herring, since it is highly improbable that quantum effects would ever occur at large enough scales to generate so-called magical effects (for an entertaining presentation of why this is, check out Brian Cox’s A Night With the Stars). If evidence were to change in the future, magic might become a legitimately “natural” cause, but there is no reason to hold out for such an unlikely development. The same goes for deities claimed to exist within nature, but with no compelling relation to currently known physical laws. Another common red herring is the argument that science is insufficient, because some things that clearly exist, like love, cannot be easily tested in a laboratory. This too is fallacious, for several reasons. First, laboratory experiments are only one form of scientific testing; thought experiments, consistency with established facts, and other forms also play a part. Second, love, unlike divinity or magic, violates no known physical laws or facts of biology. Third, love can in fact be tested in the laboratory, indirectly, by measuring associated physical responses. Finally, even if science ultimately could not test things like love, that would have no bearing whatsoever on the truth content of beliefs in deities or magic, which would remain entirely dependent on evidence to support them.