NATURALISTIC PAGANISM: A Challenge to the Paradigms of the Overculture
A Presentation to the 2023 Conference on Current Pagan Studies: January 15, 2023
THANKS for inviting me to present to the 19th annual Conference on Current Pagan Studies! I’d like to extend my appreciation to the organizers and co-creators of this event.
We live in times of deep crises:
- Effects of climate change are increasingly evident, as well as the weakness and slowness of political institutions to address the crisis in the face of energy industry and right-wing resistance.
- There is a coordinated war on hard-earned progressive rights for women and marginalized populations, and a rise in anti-democratic authoritarianism generally.
- And then there are the incidentals, like a global pandemic, crashing biodiversity, etc., etc.
Clearly, people who are aware of the challenges we face need to be vocal about their concerns, and work to see them gain traction.
We also live in times of deep religious transition:
- In the United States, people—especially younger people—are flooding away from Christianity (mostly) to become atheists or religiously unaffiliated (the so-called “Nones” and “Dones”). Self-identification as “religious” or belonging to a church has plummeted in recent decades, according to the Pew Research Center, and this decline shows no sign of abating. But especially as they begin to have families, a large cohort of these folks are looking for traditions, values and observances to share with their children.
- Meanwhile, witchcraft and Paganism have seen a surge of interest, also especially among younger people. Only some of this can be put down to a recent media craze for fictional witches and witchcraft.
- And particularly, interest in science-consistent Naturalistic Paganism and Witchcraft has mushroomed since the early Oughts.
These phenomena offer both challenges and opportunities for Pagans.
As stated in the description of this conference, the witch embodies a rebellious archetype, and on the face of it one would expect Pagans and Witches to be front-and-center in resisting the regressive and dangerous trends of these times.
Some activist Pagans are doing that. But far too few of us, in my opinion.
There are estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of a million and a half Pagans in the US, and we are not heard or seen as any kind of force, even though you would expect us to be at the very front of the resistance, especially when environmental issues are on the line. Instead, when we are publicly visible at all, we are either vilified as “Satanic” or held up for amused mockery.
We are NOT viewed as normal people.
Consider: have you EVER seen a Pagan character in a media representation —especially a fictional one—who was not either a villain, a crank or a wielder of absurdly unrealistic Harry-Potter-style fantasy magic? Who was just an ordinary person within a religious tradition like any other?
This is not to say that we “should become normal”. It is to say that we should work to normalize our difference—to make our religious diversity a strength rather than something viewed with suspicion. Despite all the society’s attention to issues of diversity and inclusion in recent years, somehow it never gets around to the Pagans or other religious minorities.
If we were a bit more organized and vocal, we could probably change that.
However, changing times also offer opportunities for us to create change.
The combination of rising interest in Paganism and Witchcraft and rapidly declining subscription to established patriarchal religions presents our community with an opportunity not only to grow, but to influence the future. There are multiple ways in which values generally embraced by Pagans and Witches defy and resist the Christian Overculture’s paradigms: ways that younger generations are happy to embrace.
While there are certainly exceptions, by and large in the Pagan community…
- We are affirmative of diversity (as opposed to conformist): sexual orientation, skin tone, ethnicity, gender, ability, body shape.
- We affirm the inherent worth of every person (rather than believing in “original sin”)
- We are body, pleasure and sexuality positive (as opposed to shame-based)
- Our relations are consent based (as opposed to authoritarian or violent)
- Our values are about attainment of joy and wisdom in THIS life, not transcending “sin” or achieving “salvation” in another.
- We actively pursue personal growth to be wiser and better people.
Each of these is a radical position in the context of the Overculture. We Pagans and Witches truly do live in ways the dominant Christians find abhorrent because they are so joyous, so full of life.
We don’t live fearful, timid lives. We Pagans eat our juicy lives with both hands, and without shame.
Unfortunately, there are also aspects of the overall value schema of the Paganism/ Witchcraft community which tend to reinforce the Overculture and contribute to its hegemony:
- Lack of broadly adopted and explicitly articulated values, which opens the door to incursions by fascists and bigots and leaves ambiguity that opponents fill in with accusations of Satanism or lunacy. When you don’t say outright, in detail and in writing what you stand for, others will invent it and say it for you. (The “don’t tell me what to do” problem. Examples: Halstead’s statement, Druidic statement of values.)
- A broad suspicion and dismissal of institutions (like governments, NGOs and voting) that actually have significant impacts on issues of concern as hopelessly corrupt, “straight”, prone to insufficient half measures, or unswayable—and therefore failing to engage them. (The “damn The Man” problem).
- Excessive emphasis on the goals and intentions of the individual practitioner, as opposed to responsibility for the collective good. Our current Pagan culture fails to expect of us that as a part of our practices, we act to improve the world, presenting this as a personal option rather than a religious obligation. Consider by contrast the expectations of charity, good works and activism found in so many other religious traditions. (the “Do as thou wilt” problem)
Which brings me to Naturalistic Paganism.
Naturalism is the philosophical position that the Universe is entirely comprised of physical energy and matter, obeying physical laws. Naturalists revere Nature as Sacred, and it is the focus of our spirituality. Generally speaking, we believe in no supernatural, Otherworld, afterlife, or noncorporeal beings. Our rituals and observances are characteristically Pagan in nature, generally celebrating the stations of the wheel of the year, but defining these individually based on what is happening in the local environment of the practitioner at the time of each holiday.
I like to say that ours is the spirituality of the verifiably real.
While there have always been naturalists in the Pagan community, Naturalistic Paganism has arisen as a visible sector of the community in the past 15 years or so—not an insignificant tenure, given that modern Paganism is less than a century old.
While forms of Naturalistic Paganism vary, some of them, such as the path I follow, Atheopaganism, defy the Overculture not only by rejecting its value axioms, but by clearly defining in writing a set of shared ethics which contravene conventional values and include ascription to the practitioner of responsibility for one another, the Earth and humanity writ large. The 13 Atheopagan Principles—which we require people to affirm before joining our events or online communities—clearly stipulate our responsibilities to be inclusive, respectful, socially responsible, kind and compassionate, etc. Activism and community-mindedness are not optional add-ons to our path—they are intrinsic to it.
I believe that the simultaneous rise in visibility of Naturalistic Paganism and the growing demographic of “Nones” and “Dones” is no coincidence. Whether or not there is any truth in magical thinking and supernatural belief, a great many of the “Nones” are not interested in swapping one set of unverifiable claims for another. They’ve been burned by religion rooted in supernaturalism. Of those who are looking for something to replace what they abandoned, a great many want grounded, scientifically validated fact on which to base their spirituality, as well as egalitarian, inclusive and progressive ethics. I know this, because people meeting this description are flooding into the Atheopagan community. They are re-enchanting their lives and worlds while remaining cosmologically grounded in verifiable facts.
Naturalistic Paganism embraces social responsibility and activism as intrinsic to our paths, as well as giving practitioners the growth, life experiences and psychological benefits that we all know Pagan ritual practices and observances can provide. Naturalistic Paganism presents an opportunity for the “Nones” to experience meaningful spirituality and community, framed by a worldview supported by evidence, and values that resist the Overculture.
In short, Naturalistic Paganism is a social movement of values transformation. As the Atheopagan Society motto says, we not only revere the Earth, but work to advance humanity.
Speaking generally, the world needs the values broadly embraced by the paths under the Pagan umbrella, and we can all be proud of that.
But if we want to contribute significantly to solutions for the challenges before us and engage the rising tide of the next generation in the effort, we must clearly state what we stand for, focus more on the common good, and offer spiritually what younger people are looking for so they are engaged in the fight.
Naturalistic Paganism offers some examples of how we can do exactly that.