Ian Edwards is not naturalistic, but this week he explores what those who follow such paths contribute to the Pagan community.
Most followers of Paganism follow it as their preferred way to connect with the Divine. However there are a significant number who, although they do not believe in Divinity either as a single force or a particular pantheon, still find that Paganism is an important part of their personality and day to day life. They tend to base their beliefs on science, Jungian psychology, and the latest findings in neuropsychology and neuropsychiatry.
An existentialist Pagan
Interestingly, most of the practitioners of this branch of Paganism still believe in magick. Usually this is based on synchronicity as encountered by Jung, and commented on in his case notes and autobiography and backed up by practical experience.
One Pagan I know who follows this path first became interested in it when he read Scott Adams’ The Dilbert Future, in which Scott, an atheist and trained hypnotist, mentions experimenting with both affirmations (successfully) and having an experienced Tarot reader predict the order of Tarot cards drawn randomly from the pack whilst in a trance.
My acquaintance tried some similar experiments, particularly with the affirmations, and got good results. Following on from this, he looked for a system that would explain why this sort of thing worked. After a brief flirtation with Chaos Magick he realised that Paganism was the path most in tune with his psychology and his love of nature.
Instead of the Divine, he works successfully with the inner Archetypes as described by Jung. He certainly gets the results he wants with his magick and, over all, is a pleasant person to be with, and respects all living things.
The latter to the extent that he is vegetarian, believing that as there is no afterlife it is particularly cruel to deprive an animal of its life – and subject it to a potentially unkind lifestyle when growing up – purely so he can eat it. He doesn’t even wear animal sourced items such as leather and is the only person other than myself I know of to help worms out of puddles so they don’t drown.
A neutral party
He isn’t alone. Even my friend, a Witch whose Pagan shop I helped out at back in the 80’s and 90’s, is an existentialist Pagan. Because she had no particular ties to any of the many spiritual paths that people who visited her shop followed, she was respected by all as a neutral party. Her magick too was based on synchronicity and she was a skilled Tarot counselor.
The shop was a magnet for Pagans of all persuasions and prospered, only closing when the building it was based in closed down. Rather than continue in a new shop my friend became a fine arts teacher and still follows a Pagan path.
The gadfly that spurs reflection
Personally I have learned a lot from my existential friends and atheists such as Jonathan Miller, mainly because they make you think.
I’ll always remember seeing Miller on “The Late Show” hosted by Gay Burne sometime in the early 1990’s carving very large holes in the arguments of an invited audience of various spiritual persuasions. They were saying things such as “Of course there’s life after death – look at all the people who’ve come back to life after dying on the operating table and told us their experiences”. To which Miller pointed out “How do you know they just didn’t die, and the hypoxia and natural endorphins released by the body just gave the illusion of an afterlife?”
Then they mentioned reincarnation and people remembering past lives. Millers’ response was to explain how much a person’s personality depends on their biology. Different biology = a different personality, and therefore a different person. Thus, the personality could not survive death.
His arguments were so good I rang up a couple of fellow Pagans while the program was on and suggested they watch it too. “This is the sort of thing we should be looking into” I said. “Also if near death experiences and reincarnation are real, these are the sort of facts we should be able to explain to show our side of the debate with equal clarity and evidence”
What I liked was the way Miller was showing up the gaps in the reasoning and knowledge of the people he was debating with rather than disputing the existence of the Divine.
This is exactly the sort of reasoning that makes existential Pagans such a vital part of the Pagan community as a whole – they encourage critical thinking rather than just blindly accepting dogma. It’s the Pagan equivalent of the Buddhist Kalama Sutta on discerning religious teachings
Dialoguing with the Other
My being comfortable in discussing Paganism from the existentialist viewpoint has always drawn comment from my more traditional Pagan friends. “You’ve had personal encounters with different Gods and Goddesses, and even channeled them on occasion.” They say “How can you take someone seriously who doesn’t believe they exist?!”
My reply is that there is a lot more to the Divine than the limited view that many people have of it, and by looking into the existentialist worldview and dialoguing with them, both sides learn a lot more about nature, the foundations of the multiverse, and our place in it.
First published at BellaOnline.
Ian Edwards is the Pagan editor for the on-line magazine “Bellaonline”. He has been practising magick since he lived in Mexico in 1979, and following the Pagan path since the mid 1980s. Ian spent most of his early life travelling as his father was first in the British Royal Navy and later part of the British Embassy staff in various parts of the world.
During his travels he saw and learned about the indigenous spiritual paths of many countries and also trained in several martial arts with strong psycho/spiritual roots including Aikido, Fung Sau Kung Fu, and Ninjutsu. He is a third degree black belt in the latter which he was presented with by the Grandmaster of the Bujinkan system after studying the art in Japan.
He also helped out at a Pagan shop called “Broomsticks” in his natal city of Portsmouth (UK) run buy an existentialist Pagan. Ian learned a lot about that path in addition to appreciating the many different spiritual systems that used the shop for supplies and discussing esoteric matters.
He is the author of The Wizard’s Way to Wealth published by Cappel Bann Publishers.
Thanks for posting. I really enjoyed that.
That was a really good read. And what a background!
Fun Fact: Worms don’t drown. The reason why they come up when it rains, is because they can without drying out 🙂
Here is a fun wildlife show that goes into the details – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPrCgkj9pF4
I still pick them up out of puddles though, as they usually have a hard time getting back into the soil when the sun comes out again. Especially if they are on the sidewalk. After all, we are all related (even though it is very distant) ^_^
Good to know, I was starting to feel bad for all those poor worms in puddles I had passed by over the years! 😉
Ian, I am still a little confused about your self-definition. Why do you choose the term “existentialist”? What relation does it have to the existentialism of Sartre etc.?
I’d like to hear more about “existential paganism” as well. 🙂
For whatever reason “existential paganism” was the phrase of choice for a panel discussion sponsored by a local pagan group which I attended a while back — It turned out to mean a naturalistic perspective. I don’t think it’s the most accurate term but it’ll do.
It was great to read this essay for a little perspective on how others see us, and I’m very heartened by the positive take. I only took issue with the assertion that “most” of us practice magic. Maybe it’s true, I really don’t know, but I would assume that the evidence is strictly anecdotal. Change “most” to “many” and this quibble evaporates. Well done.
I agree on the magic thing. I haven’t encountered many yet who disbelieve in literal gods while believing in literal magic, but I suppose it depends what you mean by magic. I have heard many Pagans say that producing concrete worldly spell effects (e.g. love spells, money spells, weather magic, etc.) is “low magic”, whereas the real goodies are in “high magic”, which is more about magically attuning one to deities or the elements or the earth or stuff like that. I could imagine a naturalistic interpretation of the latter as a kind of technique of personal transformation.
Also, I do practice a naturalistic form of tarot reading, where the cards offer no predictive power but rather stimulate a kind of creative problem solving or lateral thinking through their rich and suggestive symbolism. I guess you could call that magic of a naturalistic kind.
I’ve often heard magic defined as changing consciousness according to will. That’s a pretty broad definition that could include Buddhist meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, Stoicism, etc. I suppose most mages would rather keep the definition narrower, to point specifically to practices handed down from magical lodges and such, but if changing consciousness is the aim of magic, then I can see many avenues to pursue naturalistic magic.
Indeed. The art of changing consciousness at will sounds very naturalistic. I remember reading that in my early researches into Paganism and thinking “oh I get it now”, and figured all Paganism was really about consciousness, i.e. psychology, and proceeded from that frame of mind. It turns out that was a fortuitous misunderstanding on my part. A misunderstanding because the psychological view seems to be in the minority among Pagans, but fortuitous because it led me to to the insights that found my view today.
Reading through this made me think of a line in a science fiction book that explained it well. “Just because you can explain it doesn’t mean it is no longer magic” referring to how magic works as a form of psychology – or as I like to say “Headology” (Terry Pratchett Reference). It made me think quite a bit on that and agree that there can be forms of ‘naturalistic magic’ in that regard. Much like your tarot reading method Brandon. That is how I’ve always liked the cards as – a method to encourage contemplation. Not to mention my total fascination with symbolism. They never really appealed to me as a fortune telling tool and had refused many offers for readings (free ones too) when they were read in that manner. Enjoyed watching others get readings though – just to see what kind of symbolisms were in that person’s deck without being too much of a snoop ^_^
You (and other humanistic pagans) may be interested in this guy’s work:
How is a belief in magic “existential”? And what does it have to do with non-theism? I have to admit to being really confused by this article.
I personally prefer to not use the term magic. Adding “naturalistic” would help separate it from the supernatural, but even so it’s just not a particularly useful word for me. I feel like it would only serve to add more confusion when trying to articulate where I’m coming from as a naturalistic pagan.
Me neither, honestly. “Magic” doesn’t resonate with me the way “gods” does. I only use it when talking to Neopagans who do use it, or with reference to that worldview. But I can see some resonating more with “magic” than with “gods.” To each their own, I guess. 🙂
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