“How Earth-Centered is Neo-Paganism Really?” by John Halstead

cover of Gaia's Gift

“Earth-centered World” by Glynn Gorick

Our late autumn theme here at HP is “Responsibility“.  This is the first in a 3-part series, looking critically at contemporary Neo-Paganism from an earth-centered perspective.  Note: The views expressed in this essay are the author’s and are not necessarily representative of HumanisticPaganism.com or any of its other contributors.

“Until we get our heads out of the clouds and come down to the earth we so love, and get our hands dirty… we won’t be leaders in the environmental movement. It’s time to organize!”

Karen Engelsen, in response to the question why Pagans aren’t the leaders of the environmental movement

Neo-Paganism has been around for almost 50 years, if you date it to 1967, the year Feraferia, the Church of all Worlds, and NROOGD were all organized.  Back then, Neo-Paganism showed real potential as a new “Earth religion”.  Feraferia and the Church of All Worlds in particular styled themselves as nature religions, with ambitious goals short of nothing but saving the world from itself.  Chas Clifton, author of Her Hidden Children, The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, identifies 1970, the same year as the first Earth Day, as the year when Wicca transformed from a “mystery religion” or “metaphorical fertility religion” into a “nature religion”.  That same year, the founder of the Church of All Worlds, Oberon (then Tim) Zell, had a vision of Mother Earth as a living planet several years before James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis was popularized.  A few years later, Margot Adler would describe the Neo-Paganism of the mid- to late-1970s as a “celebratory, ecological nature religion.”  Since then, though, Neo-Paganism has struggled to reconcile its exoteric earth-centered principles with the esoteric Self-centered practices which it inherited from traditional Wicca.  Anthropologist Susan Greenwood reports finding from her research among Pagans in 1990s “that there was more emphasis on ritual and psychospiritual ‘internal’ nature as personal experience rather than a connection to, or even an interest in, the environment.”

This attitude is manifest in our religious practices.  For example, there were decades of confusion and controversy over how the Wheel of the Year should be celebrated in different parts of the world, including whether Neo-Pagans in the Southern Hemisphere should follow a Wheel of the Year that corresponds to the Northern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, or whether Neo-Pagans on the West Coast of the United States should follow a Wheel of the Year that corresponds to the climate of the British Isles, where the Wheel was originally conceived. It is to these and similar questions that Joanne Pearson refers to when she asks, “To what extent does the Wheel turn the seasons instead of the seasons turning the Wheel?”  In other words, do the celebrations of the eight stations of the Wheel of the Year actually bring us any closer to nature?

These questions are part of a broader issue that has haunted nature religion since the time of the Transcendentalists: Is the object of our reverence real, living nature?  Or is it a romanticized or idealized nature that merely reflects our fantasies back to us?  To what extent is Neo-Pagan “nature” a social construction and not a direct experience?

When Neo-Pagans invoke the elements, earth, air, and water, what are we calling to mind?  Neo-Platonic elements or the very ground beneath our feet, the air in our lungs, and the water that we drink?  Are we too busy trying to “draw down” Demeter and Zeus to notice the very real earth and sky that surround us?  Pagan ritualist Steven Posch thinks so:

“The late summer thunderstorm was beating down on us fast. In unearthly silence–the thunder still too far away to hear–the livid northwestern sky juddered with lightning. But in the circle around the bonfire, no one was thinking about the storm. The business at hand was the evening ritual: something to do with (I kid you not), community, popcorn, and the festival organizer’s most recent art project. Thoroughly bored, I watched the storm approach. ‘A god is coming,’ I thought, ‘and we’re too busy doing a ritual to even notice.’”

Posch argues that contemporary Pagan practice has distracted us from becoming real pagans, “pagans for our own time, our own place, our own post-modern, science-driven, Western culture.”  It has gotten in the way of our encountering what inspired the ancient pagans’ worship in the first place: the natural world.  Posch writes that we must make the “radical leap out of our own internal dialogue and into actual relationship with real, non-human others”: sun, moon, earth, storm, sea, wind, fire, plants and animals.

Susan Greenwood has reached a similar conclusion in her book, The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness:

“A focus on inner nature and on the ritual invocation of anthropomorphic deities appears to direct attention away from seeing nature as including other sentient beings. Nature can thus become an abstract force consisting of impersonal energies, not as other human persons and beings within a particular relationship of contiguity within the natural world.”

We Neo-Pagans need to ask ourselves: Does nature merely serve as a backdrop to our rituals which are inwardly focused?  Are we, in the words of Posch, “standing with our backs to the world” — both literally and figuratively?  Do we worship gods of nature or the God(dess) that is nature?  Is our “magic” an expression of wonder, or just another attempt to achieve mastery over the natural world?  (More on this in Part 2.)  Is our religion eco-centered or ego-centered?  To what extent do our religious values translate into ecologically responsible practices, individually and collectively?

To answer the last question, whether nature religion correlates with environmentalism, a study published by Regina Smith Oboler in 2004 found that 72% of Pagans were favorable to the environmental movement, compared to 43% of all Americans (according to Gallup).  Respondents scored higher than average in both environmental commitment and activities like recycling, signing petitions, and contributing financially to environmental causes.  However, another more recent study, conducted by Dr. Kimberly Kirner (and reported by John Beckett), revealed more mixed results:

“While practices related to nature spirituality and connecting to place were statistically correlated to a higher frequency of political action (such as signing petitions or writing letters) and environmental education, initial statistical analysis has not indicated any correlation to household-level actions for sustainability itself (such selecting a smaller home or using less electricity).

“Across Pagan traditions and for both solitary and group practitioners, Pagans’ overall household ecological footprint in the United States is statistically similar to the American average on multiple measurements: house size, meat consumption, transportation use, and other key factors related to a household’s contribution to ecological sustainability.”

More than one observer has noted a disturbing lack of regard for Mother Earth at public Pagan rituals and festivals over the years, from Pagans driving large SUV’s cross-country to events to using styrofoam cups to partake of the ritual ale.  It is clear then that much of the transformative potential of Neo-Paganism remains, as yet, unrealized.  In 1986, Isaac Bonewits told Margot Adler (as reported in Drawing Down the Moon) that, while many Neo-Pagans were very concerned about environmental matters, “Most Neo-Pagans are too loose and liberal to be fanatic about anything, including their own survival” (emphasis original).  Little seems to have changed since then.  If we can’t bring ourselves as a community to oppose the wholesale destruction of everything that makes this planet habitable to human beings, then I wonder by what right we call ourselves “Pagans”, the “people of the land”.

If you would like to know what you can do, you can start here:

Share your own suggestions for how we Pagans can effect change in the comments below.

Humanists join at the 2014 People’s Climate March in NYC.

Pagans also participated in the People’s Climate March.

In the next two parts of this series, I will take a closer look at two aspects of contemporary Paganism: Pagan “magic” and the Pagan taboo against proselytizing.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.com. John currently serves at the Managing Editor here at HumanisticPaganism.com.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

16 Comments on ““How Earth-Centered is Neo-Paganism Really?” by John Halstead

  1. Excellent article that raises a number of good points. For me, environmentalism came before Paganism, so it’s a way of life to eat locally, grow a wildlife garden, cycle instead of drive, recycle etc. I do most of my formal practice indoors for privacy, but I find my most meaningful experiences happen when hiking in the woods, not doing anything particularly ‘Pagan’ at all. I have run into people who say nature has nothing to do with their Paganism, which I find baffling. I’ve always seen Paganism as “earth-centred”.

    I think that too much emphasis on religious “reconstructionism”, deity-worship and trying to do what ancient pagans did can distract people from entering into a living relationship with the land, sea and sky around them. Sometimes maybe you need to put ‘doing Paganism’ to one side and just experience being-in-the-world?

  2. A great topic, and I look forward to the rest, esp. part 3.

    Like what Ryan said, my politics went Green before I got religion. I tend to think a naturalistic Neo-Paganism has great potential for bringing us into a right relation with the Earth and with each other. This article reminds me that this potential is still “unrealized.”

    How important is naturalism to realizing that potential? I think it’s crucial but I wonder if it’s essential.

    Finally, I have some ideas about the Wheel of the Year which may percolate up in a coming column. It’s my feeling that everyone should adapt the Wheel to their local environment. The Wheel represents eight opportunities, eight reminders, to check out the local environment and see what’s going on.

  3. Great Article! These are issues I have been commenting on since the early 90s, and if anything, they seem to be getting worse. As someone who has committed most of his career to environmental activism and land conservation, it has been a great disappointment to me to see Neo-Paganism steadily turning into “self-help”, attempts, as you put it, to exercise mastery over the world, and abstract “worship” of whatever is imagined about pantheons far distant in time and space rather than engagement with the actual climate, natural cycles and landscapes of the places where Pagans actually live.

    This is why when I describe an Atheopagan Wheel of the Year, I stipulate that it is only *one possible* such wheel, for a particular place on the Earth, and encourage those living in other areas to adapt their observances to their own regional climate.

    A part of this challenge is, I believe, that Paganism is an increasingly urban phenomenon. That’s where queer culture is, it’s where diversity is more tolerated, and its where minorities can find enough of one another to create community. But living in the city makes it very difficult to experience “nature” in anything like the ideal way Pagans tend to want to think of it.

    Mark Green

    • True ’nuff ’bout cities. I feel compelled to add that a case can be made for cities as the most ecologically viable arrangement for human living. Also, how much/often we need to “experience ‘nature'” in order to be Earth-centered? A largely urban Earth-centered religion is not only desirable but necessary. That’s our challenge, I guess.

      • Great point Bart about cities being “ecologically viable”. I live in the city of Portland Oregon and sometimes feel that I need to get out to the wilderness to experience nature. I need to remind myself that it isn’t true. We have a wonderful 5100 acre park right next to downtown that has 70ish miles of trails including some patches of Old growth. And 12 blocks from my house is another, admittedly less wild park, that has some giant trees and other ways to connect with nature.

        For a while I was hosting “Seeing nature” meetup events where we’d read a little from a book that challenges us to look more deeply when we are in nature, then we’d spend a contemplative 7 minutes looking closely for nature’s stories before reconvening to share the stories we observed with each other. It’s amazing how much deep connection with nature is possible in that 30 minute event within a very urban park. I’m not sure why I gave up on those events … perhaps it is time to restart them.

  4. Excellent, right on target, this has been driving me crazy too for some time now. Very glad to see the Bioregionalism Quiz show up in Chas’ essay that you linked.

  5. My daily walks are one of my bedrock practices. It gets me out of the cocoon of house-car-work. I also was green long before turning this direction, I mention it because it seems like that’s a trending thing in the comments. Some of what is driving the Pagan average footprint is that it is so hard to escape that average. Society in the US is set up for you to go one direction and going any other way is an uphill battle. I think the footprint of climate scientists also hovers around average, if not higher because they take airplanes to conferences.

    • The carbon footprint of climate scientists — someone’s looked at that, I bet. It would be interesting to compare against the surveys cited here. You are so right about the social pressures. Can we hope to change that dynamic through a religious movement?

  6. I am glad that others are raising this question. I was first attracted to paganism because of the claims of being Earth-centered. However, the more involved I got the clearer it became that few pagans are earth-centered. Not to mean that there are not truly earth-centered pagans or paganism, but it is rather in the minority. It may once have been the norm, but not for the past couple of decades at least. However, earth-centered continues to be a primary identification of paganism by our larger culture and little is done to correct this misconception from pagans. I have to wonder if paganism is a suitable label for scientific minded ecological centered forms of religious naturalism and religious humanism. For my self I prefer to operate outside of paganism but in comfortable orbit around the periphery.

  7. thank you John for putting these brave questions on the table. The key question it raised for me was;

    ‘Is the object of our reverence real, living nature? Or is it a romanticized or idealized nature that merely reflects our fantasies back to us? To what extent is Neo-Pagan “nature” a social construction and not a direct experience?’

    I echo the comments of others about the need for Paganism to be focused on place
    as a means to ensure that we avoid the pitfalls of romanticism and idealism. I have found in my own evolving practice that a geocentric approach to honoring the sacred elements of life, earth, air, fire and water is a means to avoid idealization and abstraction of the elements as was the case in Traditional craft practice with its roots in hermetic/platonic conceptions of the elements.

    An example of this geocentric approach is shown in the work of Aussie Pagans on the eastern seaboard. I live in Sydney so I honor water in the East for the pacific ocean. To the North is the tropics and vast expanses of desert so this aligns with fire. To the west that is the blue mountains and from the south blow the winds from the arctic.

    Also echoing the comments of others re the need to adapt the Wheel of the year this is particularly pertinent for the southern hemisphere folk and my mind boggles when I meet Aussie Pagans who celebrate the wheel northern style. While it does seem to be less common these days it must be admitted that using the wheel of the year is an idealization in and of itself, particularly in Australia. The only way that we can avoid the potential for the over romanticism of the wheel of the year is to use it as a tool, a framework if you will for the exploration of our interactions, observations and relationships with natural rhythms. An effective way that we can do this is to separate ourselves from the the ‘trad’ dates so rather than simply reversing the wheel to ‘fit’ the southern hemisphere climate we can watch for local signs such as the flowering of the wattle to mark Imbolc, the blossoms of the Jacaranda and the increase in the flight of cockatoo to herald high spring/ early summer. These are some starting points inspired by my teachers such as Suzanne Naseby and Glenys Livingstone.

  8. ‘When Neo-Pagans invoke the elements, earth, air, and water, what are we calling to mind? Neo-Platonic elements or the very ground beneath our feet, the air in our lungs, and the water that we drink? Are we too busy trying to “draw down” Demeter and Zeus to notice the very real earth and sky that surround us? Pagan ritualist Steven Posch thinks so:’

    While I believe this may be true in many cases, my time working with the Reclaiming path/’tradition’ has taught me that working the latter is *the* most important aspect of ritual. Most rituals involve invoking the elements in the exact manner, if not more intensly, as stated above and these elements are not only the foundation of all of the rituals, they are an integral part of them. We also have a sense of reverent humor involved that would use something like popcorn in ritual. A sense of humor that understands that something tgat could be considered as mundane can be transformed into a piwerful tool in ritual.

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