Musings of a Pagan Mythicist, by Maggie Jay Lee: “Circle Around: Individuality, Community and Creating Religion”

Why are so many Naturalistic Pagans “circling alone”?

I still consider myself a pantheist because Nature is for me equivalent to God. Nature, or more precisely our relationship with Nature, is at the center of my religious life. But what separates me from many other naturalistic pantheists is my belief in the central importance of a shared liturgical calendar of holy days for which the community comes together to celebrate with some type of ceremonial observation. To me this is what makes a shared belief and value system into a religion.

Like a lot of secular folks, many naturalistic pantheists just don’t see the point in religious ceremony. At best religious ritual is seen as a discretionary recreational activity and at worst a slippery slope to magical thinking and group coercion. I think the disinterest and sometimes disdain for ritual among many pantheists is a symptom of something much larger, a cultural bias toward individualism that ends up devaluing social connectedness.

According to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, there has been a drastic decline in social connectedness in the U.S. since the 1950’s. People spend less face-to-face time with friends and family and participate far less in all kinds of social and civic organizations than they did 40 years ago. Social connectedness has declined in all segments of American society, but is largest among non-church attending secular Americans.

Some may argue that with Facebook, blogs, Twitter and texting that we are now becoming more not less connected, but there is a big difference between interacting through screens and interacting in person. The mind is engaged, but the body is alone. According to Barbara Fredrickson in Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, when two people connect there is a literal syncing up of the brain waves and chemistry, and these micro-moments of “positive resonance”, as she calls it, can have a profound impact on our health and happiness, like a vitamin for the soul.

If more people are connecting virtually or not at all, it will be hard for developing a new religion centered on communal religious observations. One reason I am so keen on ritual is because of the way I think about religion. If you think about religion like William James, who defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”(1),  then group ritual is superfluous. For James, religion is really about individual psychology, which I call “spirituality”. But if you look at religion more from the perspective of Emile Durkheim, as I do, then religion is all about community. Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”(2)

According to Durkheim: “The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.”(3) He believed that the collective emotions generated by group ritual could pull humans up for a time from the realm of the profane, with its self-centered concerns, to the realm of the sacred, where the self disappears and collective interests predominate. In other words ritual, has the potential to create “positive resonance” on a communal scale.

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, religion is in our genes, and it is there because our more religious ancestors had an advantage over our less religious kin. Religion helped our ancestors suppress selfishness and bond together into cohesive and cooperative teams. Even in modern times, religion still provides powerful and measurable benefits. According to Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, religiosity in the U.S. is positively correlated with greater health, happiness, and generosity, including giving a greater portion of time and money to secular organizations compared to secular people. These positive attributes were not correlated with religious belief, but religious belonging, the social connectedness of religious people. Religious social connecting was a stronger predictor of these benefits than secular connecting. Putnam and Campbell describe religious relationships as being supercharged. There really is something special about religious community.

According to Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, happiness cannot be grasped directly, but comes from “between”; it emerges like a blossom when we get our relationships with self, others, and that something larger-than-self right. I think the other benefits of religion are like this to. Most religious people don’t set out to create cohesive groups; they don’t go to church as a means to health and happiness. Rather, they seek to connect with and get right with that something higher-than-self within a tradition of collective worship, and from this the benefits of religion naturally flow.

I think part of the success of modern Paganism comes from its tradition of collective ritual. Pagans are very individualistic, maybe even more so than most people in our highly individualistic western culture, and there is often a lot of tensions between sticking together and splintering off. There is in fact a lot of splintering going on, and this I believe keeps Paganism at a low level on the order and structure hierarchy, inhibiting it from evolving into a multi-generational established religion. But still the desire to do rituals with others is strong in the Pagan movement and this brings people together. Pagans who leave one tradition are likely to seek or create new associations with people with whom they can do group rituals. In comparison, amongst pantheists, the most common religious practice is to take a solitary walk in nature. Despite the efforts of groups like the World Pantheist Movement, explicitly pantheist community remains almost exclusively an internet affair.

To me, collective religious ceremony and shared devotional practice is not something peripheral, but is the very center of religion. It is the core that holds everything together. I believe without such shared practices, religious community will fall apart, but there are still enormous challenges to developing religion centered on communal ceremony. As Haidt says: “You can’t just invent a good ritual through reasoning about symbolism. You need a tradition within which the symbols are embedded, and you need to invoke bodily feelings that have some appropriate associations. Then you need a community to endorse and practice it over time.”(4) This all takes time and attention. But I think it is more than necessary; it’s worth it.

For Conversation

In the comments below, say whether you would like to have more in person contact with other Naturalistic Pagans.  Why or why not?  What kind of in person interaction you would like to have?  Would you like to do ritual together?


(1) The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, as quoted in The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, note 11 from page 350.
(2) Elementary Forms of Religious Life by Emile Durkheim, as quoted in The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, page 248.
(3) Elementary Forms of Religious Life by Emile Durkheim, as as quoted in The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, page 226.
(4) The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, page 229.

The Author

M. J. Lee

In addition to writing the Musings of a Pagan Mythicist column here at HumanisticPaganism, Maggie Jay Lee is interested in growing a new religious culture grounded in the everyday shared world and the public revelations of science, that celebrates our relationship with Cosmos, Earth and each other, and strives to bring us into right relationship with the Nature inside and outside of us.  She draws inspiration from modern cosmology, evolutionary psychology, and the myths and wisdom traditions of ancient Hellas.  M. Jay is a member of the Universal Pantheists Society  and the Spiritual Naturalist Society, and she has studied with Glenys Livingston author of PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. She celebrates the creative unfolding of Gaia in west Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, two dogs and cat.

See all of Musings of a Pagan Mythicist posts.

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4 Comments on “Musings of a Pagan Mythicist, by Maggie Jay Lee: “Circle Around: Individuality, Community and Creating Religion”

  1. Well-said. I especially liked the juxtaposition of James and Durkheim, and of religious belief vs. religious belonging.

    I would like more in-person interaction. I think the Twin Cities (where I am) is just awaiting a particularly social person who can meld the locals together. I’m not that person, but I’d like to meet someone who is. 🙂

  2. I began by practicing with my family. I have been slowly attempting to broaden our circle of inclusion by inviting friends over to participate in our celebrations. I’ve gone into my daughter’s school and shared practices with her classmates. I had the honor and privilege of conducting a ceremonial blessing at a civic tree planting last November, with dozens of people in attendance, including friends and neighbors and acquaintances and complete strangers.

    I’ve also connected to a local group, not naturalistic but welcoming of many approaches, and that has been a great experience.

    (I feel like I should note that the practice I’ve been developing is not what I’d call “high ritual.” That is, it’s not highly formalized. There’s no calling of quarters or casting of circles, no concept of sacred space. It’s more earthy and folksy and fun. I’m sure it would not even seem like religion to some. And indeed, my perspective is such that religion practiced rightly becomes impossible to separate from just “living life,” and life lived rightly becomes inseparable from spiritual practice.)

    Yet in spite of all this I’ve sometimes felt like I’m “all alone.” I’ve often felt the urge to expand our circle more quickly, to start a group which is more explicit and formal and intentional. I remind myself to be patient and go slowly. I see many pitfalls in attempting to establish a religious group too quickly. I have many fears in that regard.

    • >”Yet in spite of all this I’ve sometimes felt like I’m “all alone.” I’ve often felt the urge to expand our circle more quickly, to start a group which is more explicit and formal and intentional. I remind myself to be patient and go slowly. I see many pitfalls in attempting to establish a religious group too quickly. I have many fears in that regard.”

      There are tremendous challenges for developing in-person naturalistic pagan community. For one thing, we are so very widely dispersed. And then there is the fact that most people who are interested in religious ceremony are not naturalistic, and those that are naturalistic tend to not be interested in ceremony.

      I have been celebrating the Wheel of Year following the scripts from PaGaian Cosmology for a little over a year now with a small group from a New Thought church I attend. They are not quite naturalistic, but they are pantheistic (although they don’t use that word). Doing these rituals with this community has been tremendously rewarding. I would never put out all the effort involved for just me or even just me and my husband, but for the community … well I want to make it beautiful and special for all and I am so rewarded for the effort.

      I think naturalistic paganism has such great depth, so much to offer our times. I think it has the potential to be something really special, something important in our world, but I don’t know the best way to go about all this, like you said there are a lot of pitfalls. It takes time, but I do think the potential of religion can only be fully realized in community and I think we should hold this in mind as our ultimate goal.

  3. This is a fantastic post. I have had these same thoughts myself. I think community is so key, and have often been frustrated when I look for it, for the same reasons as you and others – the humanists are not interested in ritual and the people who are interested in ritual are theists.

    I joined my local grove of ADF, and I’ve found them to be a pretty welcoming community. They are explicitly interested in practice, not orthodoxy, so our group has people who run the gamut belief-wise. No one is interested in telling other people there what they _should_ think, so we don’t all have to agree about our beliefs in order to have a functioning spiritual community. It might not be the perfect solution, but it works.

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