With which label do you identify most?

2012 Thing on Thursday #9

After numerous polls on liturgy, we now begin a series returning to fundamental concepts and questions.  This week, let’s revisit debates about what to call ourselves.

This issue is complicated.  Much ink has been spilled over labels in the Pagan community, especially in recent years.  There are problems with every label, and it may be tempting to forgo labels altogether.  Yet without them, it’s awful hard to find each other.

There’s also a difference between what feels right in the privacy of your own heart, and what works best in the public sphere.  The ideal label fulfills both conditions, but it rarely works out so neatly.

Difficulties surrounding each label are detailed after the poll.

Complications notwithstanding, please choose the one that calls to you most.

Naturalistic Pagan.  This seems to be the most widely-used currently, and it links up nicely with larger umbrella movements like Spiritual/Religious Naturalism.  Unfortunately, the definition relies on a natural/supernatural distinction, which works fine in the Abrahamic sphere but runs into problems in the Pagan sphere.  Pagans generally view their deities and magic as part of nature, so aren’t they naturalistic by default?  This seems to necessitate the stipulation of adherence to scientific evidence to distinguish between our community and other kinds of Pagans.  Does this mean we should start calling ourselves “Scientific Naturalistic Pagans?”  You see my point.

Humanistic Pagan.  This is, of course, the name of this site, but it doesn’t mean we’re stuck with that label.  Humanism connotes an emphasis on human concerns as opposed to divine ones, which is accurate.  It also draws a nice analogy to traditions such as Humanistic Judaism, Humanistic Buddhism, and Christian Humanism.  There are two problems, however.  First, there are forms of Religious Humanism that still believe in supernatural deities, even though the emphasis is on the human, so there remains the problem of distinguishing our community from other kinds of Pagans.  Second, the very word “human” connotes to some an exclusion of nature.  Modern Humanism is very green, but it seems the word alone is enough to mislead.

Atheist Pagan.  This is what we often end up getting called by others, regardless of how we choose to identify.  There are numerous problems, though.  First, not all of us are actually atheists.  Second, some Pagans are atheists (no belief in deity) while still believing in magic, energies, crystals, and other unverified notions which our community tends to reject.  Third, atheism only describes what we deny, not what we do believe.  Fourth, atheism is often taken to mean “no gods at all”, when in fact many of us work with deities as metaphors, archetypes, cultural entities, and so forth.  Finally, atheism has always been a term of denigration.  Can we reclaim it?  It would be a hard row to hoe.

Agnostic Pagan.  Agnostic is less negative than Atheist, and more accurate in some cases.  However, it connotes wishy-washiness to many.  More importantly, there is no specification as to what one is agnostic about.  Some Pagans call themselves agnostic because they don’t know the nature of deity, even though they claim to know firmly that deities exist.  Furthermore, some take an agnostic stance to insulate their claims from criticism, but otherwise behave like adamant believers (Tanya Lurhmann calls this “convenient ambiguity”).

Spiritual Naturalist.  This is a larger umbrella term that generally includes our community, among others.  Identifying by it loses specificity, with no reference to any kind of cultural tradition.  It also suffers all the problems of “Naturalistic” (see above).  In addition, some object to the notion of “spirit”, apparently unable to read it as referring to anything other than a metaphysical soul-like force.

Religious Naturalist.  Slightly more popular than its counterpart, “Spiritual Naturalism”, this one avoids issues with the word “spirit”, but at the cost of objections to the word “religion”, which connotes undesirable institutionalism and hierarchy to some.  It also suffers most of the same issues as its counterpart.

Secular Pagan.  “Secular” can be read either as “not religious”, which may be accurate to some but not to others, depending on how you define religion, or it may be defined as “of our times”, following Stephen Batchelor‘s Secular Buddhism.  With regard to the latter, it would be difficult to claim that other kinds of Pagans are not of our times.  A good argument could be made that Neopaganism is a result of modernization, not a retreat from it.

Cultural Pagan.  This may describe someone who considers deities and magic cultural phenomena, in which case it would leave out those who see them as innate psychological phenomena, such as archetypes.  Or, it may describe someone who follows the Wheel of the Year as a cultural phenomenon, like non-Christians celebrating Christmas, which can suggest a certain superficiality.

Existential Pagan.  This describes well the earthy, this-worldly ways of someone like Brendan Myers, but it can be mistaken for the theism of existentialists like Kierkegaard, who advocated radical faith in God even though it can’t be verified.  It might also describe many different kinds of Pagans, far beyond our community.

Scientific Pagan.  I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone use this label before, but it would at least underline the emphasis on scientific evidence which many of us highly value.  The problem is, it may sound a bit cold (due to an unfair but common mis-characterization of science).  Further, many Pagans say they embrace science, and even hold out hope that magic is really an undiscovered science that will one day be vindicated by quantum physics or some such thing. Finally, when I put myself in the shoes of an outsider, the label elicits a certain skepticism in me.  It makes me wonder if this so-called “science” will turn out to be something like Christian Science or Intelligent Design.  Hmm…


Naturalistic Pantheist (added thanks to a comment by RadicalProgress).  This label shifts the focus to pantheism, the view that the universe is identical with divinity, and “naturalistic” specifies the nature of that universe/divinity as non-supernatural.  There are many such pantheists today, the largest organization of which is the World Pantheist Movement (WPM).  The label shares the lack of cultural specificity of Religious/Spiritual Naturalism, no longer attached to Paganism in particular.  It also shares the difficulties surrounding the term “naturalistic.”  Finally, most in the WPM have proven largely uninterested in myth or ritual, though not necessarily hostile to it.  While this difficulty is not inherent in the term, it has been a stumbling block that has led many from the WPM to the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group.  Reportedly the Universal Pantheist Society has been a bit more conducive.

Please share alternative labels and thoughts in the comments.

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week from the Autumn Equinox until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday explores a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

27 Comments on “With which label do you identify most?

  1. I have used the term, “Sciento-Pagan” to refer to myself for awhile now & I gear a certain amount of my writing/journaling to that angle. Being a Sciento-Pagan (IMHO) means looking at what we *do* know/understand & relishing the magic that lies within this spectacular universe. It means seeking, learning & explaining new things for which we will then have greater, deeper, newfound awe. It means saying, “Wow. We can explain that & that makes it still more amazing…& what great new questions it opens up!”
    I personally do not believe that science & the “unexplained” (for lack of a better term while trying to avoid loaded language like “metaphysical”) are not mutually exclusive. I am a literal animist with science degrees who was raised by scientists. My upbringing & education have had a permanent & profound impact on my worldview. Yet, I cannot deny that there is an intangible, as of yet unanalyzed layer to this life of ours which I personally find spiritually compelling. I call it “spirit” because I find that language romantic enough to describe the beauty which inspires such love, reverence & wonder.
    I enjoy the questions & writings here because they speak to me quite often. However, it is peculiar how much of an outsider I feel I am when I look at this list of labels & their description & consider that the primary audience of this “humanistic/naturalistic” site are those who identify as primarily non-theist, or something similar. I feel so in-between — a rational, science-minded creature so deeply enchanted & moved by all that is strange & beautiful, yet accepting that there is so much beyond our senses & ability to rationalize. Thank you as always for some thought-provoking questions.

  2. This is a good one. I like your summary of the pros and cons of each – very well laid out. I personally go by Naturalist to those who don’t know me and a Saegoah to those who do or who show interest.

    “the very word “human” connotes to some an exclusion of nature. Modern Humanism is very green, but it seems the word alone is enough to mislead.”

    I wouldn’t say excludes nature, but is human centered as opposed to eco centric.

  3. Well framed.

    “Naturalistic Pagan” tends to rise to the top for me because it combines Religious Naturalism with Paganism. I feel I’m at the intersection of these two currents.

  4. Reading through this elevated my awareness that my current leading edge is in terms of reclaiming the natural core of religious experience. That is, gods are personifications of religious experience, which I define as a life-altering transition to a fuller sense of grand meaning and purpose. I now think that this is best described as a form of pantheism, though in a non-monist frame. From the choices offered, however, only religious naturalist fits. However, I wonder if pantheism should’ve been included as an option?

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  6. I chose Naturalistic Paganism because that is the community where I’ve found like-minded folks – people who like me view the evident, shared world of nature (the world science elucidates) as the source of sacredness and who share my interest in personal and communal devotional practices. With my vote I am saying yes, naturalistic pagans, are my community, my co-religionists, but really I am feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the label and am not sure this is really a good label under which to grow this movement.

    Naturalistic pagan is an accurate label for what we believe and what we do, but it is certainly a label that needs explaining both to the wider pagan community and the public at large. I would also really like to get away from the naturalist verses supernaturalist dichotomy and the whole issue of epistemology. One of the things I like about humanistic paganism is that it doesn’t include the word naturalism. I think of this term in relation to ancient Hellenic humanism as in the Delphic maxim “Know thyself”, know that you are human, you are not a god. This means accepting the limits of being human, the limits of human knowledge, but I don’t think most people think of the term that way.

    Actually the bigger issue I am having lately is with the second part of the offered labels, the pagan part. Conversations we have had here, at Allergic Pagan and other sites with more mainstream pagans and the new polytheists have left me feeling rather estranged from the larger pagan community. There is really an enormous difference here in worldviews. I have been wondering if we might not be better off under the pantheist umbrella. To me pantheism is inherently monist or maybe I should say unitive (i.e. nature is not composed of mortal bodies and immortal spirits) and focuses on the sacredness of nature. The problem with pantheism as it stands now is that it is really not a religion. It is a philosophy and value system. It tends to be very individualistic with little interest in communal devotional practice. A few of us at the Universal Pantheists Society have started using the term Religious Pantheist to indicate pantheism with shared feast days, liturgy/ritual, sacred spaces and symbols etc. as oppose to secular pantheism which does not include any of these. In my opinion religious pantheism looks a lot like naturalistic/humanistic paganism.

    • >A few of us at the Universal Pantheists Society have started using the term Religious Pantheist to indicate pantheism with shared feast days, liturgy/ritual, sacred spaces and symbols etc.

      Interesting. Has anyone there worked out any shared liturgies, rituals, symbols, etc.?

      • There is nothing popular enough to be called shared, but at least a few of us are talking about the importance of communal devotional practices (i.e. religion). Tor Myrvang has started a group called “The Council of Religious Pantheism” in the UPS ning site to explore these topics. Tor is really the only prominent pantheist I know of who promotes the creation of pantheist ritual/liturgy. One specifically pantheist celebration that Tor has promoted is the Festival of Lights for the Yule time season. Information on this celebration is available on the WPM ning, but unfortunately it is scattered in different threads.

    • Wow, MJ. I love your posts – they are so thought provoking 🙂

      I see no harm in the term naturalistic or naturalism and tend toward religious naturalism for the same reasons you’ve mentioned in favor for religious pantheism. I prefer to avoid any theisms because it emphasizes on what you believe about God or deities and in personally not caring whether or not a deity or deities exist – seeing it as unimportant in the grand scheme of things – I rather focus on what I can confirm in life and deal with that accordingly. Hence liking naturalism.

      I prefer to avoid the label of Pagan for the same reason, because of Paganism being a conglomerate of worldviews that can differ greatly. I mean, if you can’t agree on what it is, then how can you tell when it is not Paganism? If you can’t tell when its not, then how can you tell when it is? A very confusing circumstance. In that I like to hear more direct names of Wicca, or Asatru for example so I then know what they are about, or if I don’t, I can find out easily enough. I think a similar kind of label would do well here.

      As you pointed out, perhaps being under the pantheistic umbrella would fare better. Even with my personal aversion to theisms, it appears that such a fitting would suit HP much better. And I agree that religious pantheism does indeed look a lot like HP. But I also recall a previous debate that concluded that HP was indeed in the umbrella of Religious Naturalism (http://humanisticpaganism.com/2012/02/26/understanding-word-use-and-how-science-relates-to-myth-and-religion-by-rua-lupa/)

      What are your thoughts on Religious Naturalism M. Jay?

      • I agree, HP is certainly a form of religious naturalism (as is naturalistic pantheism), but religious naturalism isn’t a religion per say any more than religious theism. There are also religious naturalists who are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and no doubt from other traditions as well. The term religious naturalist can be useful in some circumstances, but overall I think it is too general.

        I find my own feelings toward labels often depends on who I am talking to and maybe more important who I am trying to define myself against. When I am interacting a lot with pantheists who dislike ritual and other devotional practices, I feel very pagan, but when I interact with conventional pagans, I start feeling more pantheist.

        • That makes sense.

          I don’t see religious naturalism as a religion, just the base philosophy that can be part of a religion. Like how Wicca is a religion with a Polytheism philosophy. Saying you’re a religious naturalist, is similar to saying you’re a polytheist in that it is too general. In that I agree, and why I suggest a specific name under religious naturalism, like there are those with specific names under polytheism.

          I do admit confusion as to how Christian and Jewish individuals can be of the religious naturalism philosophy? Wouldn’t it be something different, like an offshoot from those religions or of a specific separate sect?

  7. No doubt many Christians and Jews would agree that those who do not literally believe in God and the Biblical scriptures are no longer Christians or Jews even if they continue to practice the tradition. Just as some pagans believe that we who do not literally believe in personal deities and magic are not really pagans, even though we celebrate the Wheel and use mythic symbols and language (deities) in our practice. There is such a great depth of meaning to be found when religion is interpreted from the human perspective, when religion is taken seriously but not literally. This is just as true for Christianity as it is for ancient polytheism.

    I consider retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong to be a Christian naturalist (although he does not use that term for himself – he calls himself Christian). I have read several of his books and find his work very inspiring. I think we nature-oriented religious naturalists can learn a lot from Spong and other Christian naturalists. I highly recommend this Evolving Faith podcast in which Michael Dowd, another prominent Christian naturalist, interviews Spong http://evolvingfaith.libsyn.com/1_john_shelby_spong_redeeming_christianity_in_the_21st_century .
    If you do get a chance to listen to this podcast, I’d love to know what you think.

    • That was quite a good listen. I really enjoyed that. From what I see, Spong is quite pantheistic via christian teachings while going about it naturalistically. Very interesting. Its worth listening the whole way though to get his whole perspective which is holistic. I like his point on the idolatry of scripture where the written experience of witnessing epilepsy for example, in the 14th century would be written in how they currently understood the world; and reading it today would be misleading as we see the world quite differently now and would write that experience completely differently. Using this kind of example as a way to explain that scripture is meant to evolve; taking what we know now to adapt what we did know then. I think there is potentially the same problem here with Myths in general.

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  10. I missed the poll. I didn’t know there was one; I would have liked to have participated. Is it still open? I couldn’t find a link.

      • Ah, I was using my other browser and it blocked it! I see it on this browser.

        • I was using Firefox. It wasn’t the browser, but the over-zealous ad-blocker that I use with that browser. It tends to block everything and ask questions later. It’s call No Script. I probably just have to adjust the settings so it doesn’t block so much.

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