How can a naturalist emerge in Paganism?

As in the animation above, multiple currents move in the Pagan community, often in seemingly opposite directions.

– by B. T. Newberg

Tanya Lurhmann, in her anthropological study Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, asks how an otherwise mainstream person can be persuaded by magic.  Today, I want to ask the opposite question: how can a person take part in the Pagan community and not be persuaded to a literal belief in magic or gods?  In other words, how can a naturalist emerge in Paganism?

There is such variety among Pagans that generalization is extremely difficult, but I can at least speak for myself.  How did I manage to find myself a Pagan naturalist?  Why wasn’t I persuaded to join the majority opinion, preferring instead a minority one?

Different experiences?

One possibility might be that I haven’t had the same experiences that others have had.  That can’t be ruled out, as there is no way to compare subjective experiences with any precision.  However, it certainly seems likely that our experiences are at least similar*:

  • Once, when it was lightly raining, I made an incense offering to Zeus to honor the rain, and within a few minutes it began to rain cats and dogs.  Compare this to the rain coinciding with Michael J Dangler’s ordination ritual.
  • Once, at the precise moment that I invoked Demeter to be present in a ritual beside a river, a duck floating by suddenly bolted off in flight like it saw something that scared the bejeezes out of it.  Compare this to Teo Bishop’s experience offering to Manannan by the seashore.
  • Once, after watching The Last Temptation of Christ at a friend’s house, I felt moved to go into the backyard, where I fell down in violent sobbing beneath a tree and saw – in my mind’s eye, but completely without conscious intention – all those who had ever been an influence in my life, including those who’d put me through hell, and I confessed to each “you too have loved me.”  Compare this to Gus diZerega’s experience of “love beyond conception”, as told in his book Pagans and Christians.
  • Once, in ritual I suddenly felt a distinct presence other than myself, who appeared in my mind’s eye as an American Indian woman with blue eyes; she invited me to become her lover.  Compare this to Literata’s experience of a presence, a “specific awareness of a particular personality” (mentioned in the comments of this post).
  • Once, when exhausted and lying down for a nap, beneath the scrunched bedspread pulled over me I saw – not in my mind’s eye but with eyes open, as if with normal vision – the lower half of the face of an ex-girlfriend chanting in some unknown language.  Compare this with the smoke wisps seen by Euandros.

I don’t want to get bogged down in analysis of these events at the moment; suffice to say I found naturalistic explanations the most persuasive for my experiences.

In light of these comparisons, it seems unlikely that my experiences have been all that terribly different.

Different biases?

Was I biased toward naturalism from the start?  Maybe.  When I left the Lutheranism of my upbringing I was not eager to replace one implausible deity with another.  I was ready to see any kind of literal belief in magic or deities as nonsense.

Yet experience broke down my biases upon meeting non-naturalists of extraordinary intelligence.  I’m pretty sure Drew Jacob has a few IQ points over me.  Euandros is also a damn smart guy.  No, there’s no way to dismiss other views so easily – some pretty impressive people adhere to them.

Nor was it that I didn’t give hard polytheism a fair chance.  As a member of ADF, I opened myself to the possibility of real-existing independent deities, listened carefully to other ADF members, poured my heart into rituals and devotions, and had powerful experiences (see above).  I even wrote a manual on ADF liturgy that is still used today.  Yet I ultimately realized – in ritual, no less – that I was thoroughly naturalistic.

So, I don’t think it was a result of biases, or not giving other views a chance.

Different socialization?

Another possibility is that the social route by which I came to Paganism influenced me.  After a brief face-to-face class in Contemporary Shamanism, I quickly found myself a solitary.  Books and the Internet were my primary means of interacting with other Pagans.

This may well have been significant, as the Jungian view seems disproportionately represented in the literature.  Two of the most commonly-read foundational books, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, both display a distinctly Jungian flare.

In addition, metaphorical interpretations tend to be disproportionately explicit.  Whenever Pagans choose to make their meanings explicit, it’s more likely to be metaphorical than literal, if only because literal meanings don’t usually call for extra comment.  You don’t say “This is an apple, and by the way I mean that literally.”

Primed thus to see metaphorical meanings everywhere, I came to interpret virtually all Pagan talk as referring symbolically in one way or another to inner experience.  Whatever I couldn’t interpret this way only seemed like a failure to grasp the symbolism, not evidence that I was over-interpreting a literally-intended meaning.

So, maybe I misinterpreted some meanings.  But I couldn’t have done so for years on end if there weren’t something else going on that facilitated it.  There must be something else encouraging naturalistic persuasions to emerge.

Is it something inherent to the Pagan community itself?

Lurhmann suggests that the process of coming to be persuaded by magic** exploits a certain ambiguity in magical discourse, in which both literal and metaphorical meanings may be implied, without commitment to either.

“The Goddess”, for example, may operate metaphorically as a personification of the Earth, but may also refer literally to a personality capable of communication, caring, and causal agency.  Which meaning is meant at any given time is ambiguous.

Magicians are free to believe either way, and may flip back and forth depending on the situation.  This is not felt as uncomfortable, since emphasis is placed more on practice than on belief.

The suspicion is that this ambiguity allows new practitioners of magic a long period of experimentation during which positive emotional experiences are built up before committing to literal claims of magic’s efficacy.  Many then gradually move away from mainstream Western beliefs (which deny magic’s efficacy) and toward the majority beliefs of the magical community (which affirm it).  This process is called interpretive drift.

While Lurhmann’s study focuses on drift toward belief in the efficacy of magic, other currents and undertows may be possible.  I visualize two ocean currents, hard polytheism and naturalism, moving in apparently opposite directions.  It might look something like this:

Ocean Currents; image source: NASA/JPL

Ocean Currents; image source: NASA/JPL

How two currents emerge

So, how can a naturalist emerge in Paganism?  Many factors may be involved, but foremost among them seems to be an ambiguity inherent in Pagan discourse.

But why does this ambiguity currently seem to lead in two different directions, hard polytheism and naturalism?

Alison Leigh Lilly suggests the hard polytheist current may be motivated by a desire for legitimacy in the eyes of the mainstream, and I suspect that is true of the naturalist one as well.  While the former moves toward what is perceived as historical accuracy and resemblance to mainstream American religious views, the latter moves toward what is perceived as factual accuracy and resemblance to mainstream science.

Do the two currents ultimately lead to different shores, or are they part of some still larger swirling pattern?

*I can’t say all of these people in these comparisons are hard polytheists, since there is too much variety among individuals (even those one knows personally!) to assign such categories.  Nevertheless, I’ve attempted to draw comparisons with people who appear to interpret their experiences as evidence of something considerably more than psychology alone.
**The subject of Lurhmann’s study was the magical community, which I take to map pretty closely onto the Contemporary Pagan community, though some differences may remain.  She studied belief in the efficacy of magic (not just psychology, but literal external effects).  The literal existence of deities was not the main subject of her study, but the factors involved seem similar enough to warrant extending her conclusion to questions of deity as well.

42 Comments on “How can a naturalist emerge in Paganism?

  1. Fascinating thoughts. I’ve been working on a similar essay though from a different angle. One thing that intrigues me is one of your initial premises — that we are in the minority. I wonder if that’s true. It doesn’t really affect the rest of your analysis.

    • >One thing that intrigues me is one of your initial premises — that we are in the minority. I wonder if that’s true.

      You don’t think so? If there is any majority, I think it might be the wide space of ambiguity between the two poles described here, where a lot of people say they don’t know whether or how the gods are literally real but pretty much go on as if they were.

      Do you suspect otherwise?

      • I suspect the ambiguous gulf is indeed the majority. But I also suspect the naturalistic perspective is more common than we might realize. I suspect it’s rhetorically submerged for a variety of reasons, chiefly among them the “buzzkill factor.” I suspect a lot of things.

        • >I suspect it’s rhetorically submerged for a variety of reasons, chiefly among them the “buzzkill factor.”

          Interesting. Yeah, I get it. Like that phrase too. 🙂

        • John, “rhetorically submerged” is just my fancy way of saying that people don’t talk about it for sociopolitical reasons. But the “buzzkill” question is interesting to me. You have divined the essence of the essay I’ve been working on. Maybe you will read it here some day.

  2. I was initially puzzled by some of this, until I realized that you’re using “hard polytheism” in a different way than I do. I’ve always considered it a reference to how distinct you consider the gods from each other, i.e. “all gods are individuals” is hard polytheism, whereas “all gods are aspects of the One God” would be soft. And by that definition, I’m definitely a hard polytheist, but by your definition, not so much. I definitely think that the gods have some reality outside of my own head, but that their actions can be explained by reasons other than “they are exactly as real as the legends say they are”. Time to come up with new terms?

    • Rob, I know what you mean. I’ve noticed both definitions floating around out there. Sometimes they are conflated, but as you note I don’t think they have to be.

    • I know, that’s how I was introduced to the term too. But this seems to be the direction that “hard polytheism” is headed. I started out using “literalistic” to mean what I mean here, but no one uses that term to describe themselves and I began to worry it might be insulting. My adoption of the “hard polytheism” is intended to reflect what people actually call themselves, using one of the two meanings for which it is commonly used (you point out the other).

      In any case, even if there is a semantic difference, the two meanings of hard polytheism usually seem to go together these days (both external to the individual and distinct personalities).

      >“they are exactly as real as the legends say they are”

      Maybe it wasn’t the best characterization.

      • >>“they are exactly as real as the legends say they are”
        >Maybe it wasn’t the best characterization.

        Oh, wait, sorry! When I read that, I thought you were quoting something I’d written and I was attempting to defer to you by acknowledging I might not have phrased it best, since I’m not a hard polytheist myself. Now I see actually that was your wording. Didn’t mean to criticize. 😦

        In any case, I get the feeling that hard polytheists do allow some interpretive leeway from how things are depicted in myth and legend, but the key points as I understand them are: a) distinct personalities, and b) that includes distinct from *my* personality (i.e. not an aspect or projection of my psychology, but fully and truly external to the individual). Would you agree with that?

  3. BT: I think your insight about both groups seeking a kind of legitimacy — albeit from different segments of society — is spot on. But I suspect that personal biography is the dominant determinative as you seem to suggest. I think your imagery of two currents in a larger pattern is helpful. I suspect there are important similarities with evangelical Christianity on the one hand and more liberal Christian faiths on the other. They may not like to acknowledge one another, but I suspect each side has important things to learn from the other.

    • >But I suspect that personal biography is the dominant determinative as you seem to suggest.

      Can you say a little more about what you mean?

      • I recently had some insight into how some of my issues with my religion of origin had more to do with my own parental issues and my projection of those issues on the religion’s conception of God (ie father), and less to do with the dogma of the church as an objective phenomenon. My wife grew up in the same religion but experienced it in a very different way. Her parents were very different than mine and hence her projections were different.
        When I came to Paganism, I was (like you, I think) looking for something different than a literalistic theism. More importantly, I had come to the realization that the harsh Old Testament god of my youth was just the overly self-critical part of myself. Claiming my own power was critical at that stage of my development. So it was natural I would embrace an archetypal conception of deity.
        Now that I feel more empowered, I am looking for more of an experiencd of self-transcendence, and so I am emphasizing the otherness of deity — although I still understand them archetypally.

  4. Pingback: A “Legitimate” Paganism Experiement: What Do You Spiritually Need?

  5. Pingback: A “Legitimate” Paganism Experiment: What Do You Spiritually Need?

  6. Must we continually be presented with ‘either’ ‘or’ options?

    I would argue that many “Pagans” fit into a single category that embraces both Naturalism and Polytheism/Theism and there’s no reason why these should be seen as mutually exclusive Pagan faith expressions.

    Magic(k) and it’s waded up relationship with Worship with modern Paganism is another topic – one that would take volumes to comment upon.:) But thank you for raising it as a topic.


    P.S I still love ‘Ancient Symbols Modern Rites.’

    • I think I agree, Todd. But I’m not sure B.T. is really making the opposition you ascribe. He wasn’t talking about a dichotomy between naturalism and polytheism — rather between naturalism and “hard” polytheism, meaning belief in literal supernatural beings.

      • Editor B is right – the distinction is specifically between naturalism and *hard* polytheism, which are mutually exclusive. These two form extremes at either end of a spectrum, with a lot of ambiguity between. There may be forms of polytheism that are fully naturalistic.

  7. Here we have another one of modern Paganisms problems…the problem of term, semantics, and usage.

    I think the distinction between ‘hard’ polytheism and polytheism is at this point a difference in preference and phrase. I am a polytheist, ‘hard’ or otherwise – By the terms of your post I would be in the ‘hard’ category, but I am certainly, also, very naturalist in my ‘Pagan’ orientation.

    As Rob and Editor B pointed out, there is confusion at this point as to what ‘hard’ actually means. I would say that it means very little.
    Certainly this ‘hard’ term was not created in this post, but care should be taken when creating or using new delineations that we don’t end up crafting categories that are meaningless.


    • >By the terms of your post I would be in the ‘hard’ category, but I am certainly, also, very naturalist in my ‘Pagan’ orientation.

      What do you mean by naturalist?

    • The fact that the margins of these terms are fuzzy is not a reason to discontinue their use. Nor does disagreement over definitions render terms ipso facto meaningless. Categorization is necessarily artificial, but it is one way we can understand a thing better.

  8. What I mean by Naturalist – One who does not need to rely upon the transcendent to explain the wonder of existence. But then again this is my definition, because you asked for it.
    The dictionary definition may be different:

    Being a thinking and free individual it is quite possible for me to hold a polytheistic view of the gods while holding onto a Naturalist perspective and I dare say even a scientific one.


    • >What I mean by Naturalist – One who does not need to rely upon the transcendent to explain the wonder of existence.

      Thanks, that’s an interesting way to put it. So do you mean to say that you feel no need to invoke literal external divine beings in order to explain any events? That sounds pretty naturalistic to me.

      My next question, then, is why you say you “would be in the ‘hard’ category” according to the terms of the post?

      For my part, what I mean by naturalist would correspond to the philosophy and theology sections of the dictionary link you gave. Also, the article links to a wikipedia page giving two standard definitions of the kind of naturalism I’m talking about (methodological and metaphysical naturalism).

      • Belief in “literal external divine beings” is theism. If we define naturalism as a disbelief in transcendent deities, then I think I agree with Todd that the two need not be mutually exclusive. I realize now that the difficulty I have had in speaking to polytheist Pagans is that I have been assuming that they are. But if we understand naturalism to mean more than a rejection of the transcendent, to include a commitment to the scientific method, then they are exclusive. I think this is where “naturalistic” pagans and polytheistic pagans really part company.

  9. Pingback: Upcoming work « Humanistic Paganism

  10. The two currents you mentioned are not just about paganism, but are the major currents in our society at large. Why does a person take on one religious/metaphysical orientation and not another? I definitely agree it is not a question of intelligence (or exposure to information/science). The experience question is a really tricky one, since many religious people claim extraordinary experiences. Still I think you are right, the difference is mostly in interpretation and emphasis. Devotees of every religion claim to have had experiences that confirm for them their religious beliefs and in our current world these beliefs can vary widely. The diversity of beliefs about gods, spirits, and magic in modern paganism/polytheism is really staggering. When I step back and look at all the religious beliefs, I can’t see any reason for accepting one as true/real over another. I don’t understand how people can be so confident in their religious beliefs, including pagans; so sure they are right and their neighbors are wrong. For me this diversity of views within and among religions pushes me toward a naturalistic view.

    I am currently reading a book by Adrian Kuzminski which compares Pyrrhonian skepticism to Madhyamaka Buddhism (Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism). In this book Kuzminski argues that both Pyrrhonism and Madhyamaka Buddhism taught that one should suspend both belief and disbelief in the non-evident and that this leads to tranquility of mind (ataraxia or nirvana). Pyhrro apparently divided the world into dogmatists and non-dogmatists (those who claim knowledge of the non-evident and those who do not.)

    I wish modern paganism could move more toward a Pyrrhonian orientation. Religion so often seems to be about affirming knowledge of the non-evident, the super-structure of reality. Can a religion be viable which neither affirms nor denies the non-evident, but instead focuses on the evident? I just finished reading PaGaian Cosmology and actually I think Glenys Livingstone does a great of this, of focusing on the evident (the sacredness of the shared world) without losing the sense of mystery. This sort of middle-way is really hard to articulate to conventional believers.

    • Your comment made me think of this:

      “I pray that we will know the Awe
      And not fall into the pit of intellectual arrogance
      In attempting to explain it all away.

      “The Mystery CAN be our substance.
      May we have the faith to accept this wonderful Mystery
      And build upon its everlasting Truth.”

      — Rev. David H. Eaton, “A Common Destiny”

    • Kuzminski’s book is fantastic! My only beef is that (so far as I recall, it’s been a few years) it doesn’t do such a great job of clarifying how one distinguishes the evident from the non-evident. The ancient Pyrrhonists were truly radical skeptics, questioning not just religious dogmas but knowledge of just about everything.

      • I am about 1/3 of the way through Kuzminski’s book and so far I would have to agree, he has not done a great job of defining evident verse non-evident (at least outside of obvious cases). I really wonder especially about how evident verses non-evident would work in regard to modern science. Science is based on the observable, testable, repeatable world – the evident, but modern science really deals with things which are not observable and testable by the average human but are only observable and testable to a select few who are highly trained and have access to very high tech equipment. So for most people science deals with the non-evident and we common people must take much of what science teaches on faith – we must trust in the process of science (which I do but others don’t). It is true that science has produced technologies which demonstrably work, but that does not mean the beliefs (theories) of science are necessarily right or does it? I wonder how all this squares with Pyrrhonism and I am hoping that Kuzminski will eventually at least touch on this, but I fear he may prefer to stay on the safer shores of antiquity.

        Also, Tanya Lurhmann’s work looks fascinating. I read a little bit of the first chapter of her new book “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God” and I definitely want to read this one too. So many books, so little time.

        • >So for most people science deals with the non-evident and we common people must take much of what science teaches on faith – we must trust in the process of science (which I do but others don’t).

          That’s where I distinguish sharply between faith and trust. Faith, IMO, is believing something is true without evidence or in contradiction to the evidence. Trust, on the other hand, is believing something is *probably* true based on what evidence is available, especially when that evidence is not sufficient to clinch the case.

          We do not have faith in the arcane-seeming findings of scientists, but we do trust them because we know the structures by which scientists operate (i.e. double-blind studies, peer review, and all the rest) weed out biases and fraud as much as humanly possible.

          So we do have good reason to trust the findings of scientists, even while we know they are always subject to revision.

        • I have to say, I strongly disagree. Faith does not mean believing without evidence. Faith has been defined this way by secular naturalists as a way of diminishing and dismissing the convictions of conventionally religious people. Faith means having a hopeful trust.

          When someone says, “I have faith in my spouse/friend”, they mean they have trust in that person. This trust/faith may be justified based on past experience or not. When a Christian says they have faith in Jesus or the Bible, they do not mean they believe in Jesus or the Bible despite the fact that there is no evidence. If you ask a Christian why they have faith they will almost always provide reasons (evidence) such as personal experience and in addition many will site what I would characterize as Christian propaganda (a string of misconstrued “facts” about the Bible). That we naturalistic types don’t accept their evidence as valid does not mean they don’t believe they have evidence. I certainly don’t think when pre-Enlightenment folks talked about faith in God they meant they believed without evidence. In the Middle Ages no doubt many felt the evidence of the providence of God was all around them, undeniably true. When a Christian says they have faith in Jesus or the Bible, they mean they trust in Jesus, that they trust in the guidance of the Bible.

          Yes faith and trust are largely synonymies and no doubt they have different origins. The English language is full of words like that. I think the word faith needs to be reclaimed.

        • The argument is about what should count as evidence, then. Which I think is more or less the same disagreement naturalists generally have with hard polytheists. It’s not about who’s more intelligent or rational, but about what counts as good evidence.

          I totally acknowledge the secular uses of “faith” and can understand a desire to reclaim it. Personally, though, I’d rather go with trust.

          P.S. It’s certainly not just secularists who have defined faith the way I just did. Look up Fideism, Kierkegaard, and possibly even Tertullian’s famous phrase “I believe because it is absurd” depending on how you understand the context of what he said.

        • I heard Luhrmann interviewed on NPR about her new book and I found most interesting her discussion of evangelicals having coffee with Jesus — literally setting a place and pouring coffee for him. My mind went immediately to polytheists making offerings to the gods. Although neither side would appreciate the comparison, I think there are some interesting similarities there.

        • I’m glad to hear that. I wonder how many evangelicals would be so open minded. How do you think the two compare?

  11. My point is really that faith is a feeling, a hopeful trusting feeling. This feeling may or may not be justified. People may or may not be able to come up with good reasons why they have this feeling.

    People like Kierkegaard were reacting to the Enlightenment and the rise of science which weakened the old justifications for faith in God. I certainly have not studied Kierkegaard, but what I think he and others of his ilk are saying is that cultivating faith, a hopeful trusting relationship with God, is important even if it cannot be justified by reason or evidence. It is of value in and of itself.

    Faith is a “hot button” word, and because of this I think you are right, we are better off using trust. But in some ways faith has a deeper tone.

    • >But in some ways faith has a deeper tone.

      I agree, it does. And that is exactly the same reason why I stick by words like “gods”, “spirit”, and “religion.”

      It’s a partly arbitrary decision on my part to not include “faith” as well. I do have reasons for that decision (namely, I think “faith in religion” and “faith in science” gives too much of an impression of a level playing field, like the evidence for the one is as good as for the other, and it’s just a matter of which you choose to have “faith” in), but there are good reasons to try to reclaim “faith” as well.

      A person’s got to choose their battles, and I’ve decided I can do without “faith”, but I see your point.

  12. In my experience those who are naturalists and those who are polytheists are often found under the same umbrella term of Paganism mostly due to a love of nature that is expressed through symbolism and ritual each expressing this love in their own way. In my mind, its that plain and simple.

  13. Pingback: Saturday Musings | musings of a kitchen witch

%d bloggers like this: