Postpaganry draws on spiritual naturalism by applying reason to spiritual and religious1 matters. This includes science, but also the application of my own reason in interpreting my subjective spiritual experiences.
From the beginning of my Pagan spiritual awakening 15 years ago, I was — and continue to be — driven by a desire for connection with nature and with my own heritage. During my studies of, and training within, British Traditional Wicca and modern Druidry, a dissonance emerged for me. This dissonance was caused by trying to reconcile what I was learning from independent study about the history of Wicca and Druidry, on the one hand, and feeling that they were not being represented accurately, on the other. Neither Wicca nor Druidry were meeting my spiritual needs. Celebrating the Neopagan wheel, which was designed with British seasons in mind, felt incongruent with living in the high desert of the U.S. Southwest. Reason lead me to believe that an earth-based religion would be one that was in sync with the seasons where I actually lived. In addition, the projections of human qualities onto nature in the form of anthropomorphic, engendered gods — which gods had originated in a culture impacted by different ecological conditions than where I was currently living — felt forced.
I became fascinated by the study of ecology. I began to see familiar sights and locations in a new light (which I will touch more upon in the next installment). Though, I would not discover the term “spiritual naturalist” until years later, this was the direction which my spiritual practice was taking. I questioned the usefulness of worshiping gods and began to be more attentive to the flora and fauna around me. I discovered that, without anthropomorphic engendered interpersonal gods, and without a dependency upon both ceremonial magic and folk magic, the natural world become more alive to me. I found a new power in the knowledge that I and everything around me was made of star-stuff and that, if evolution had diverged from the course it took, then life on Earth would be different2.
A basic understanding of evolution, physics, and biology were now the central narrative of my cosmology. Building my own personal ceremony based on this knowledge added a sense of reality to my spirituality that had eluded me before. Some say this method serves to demystify our experience of the world, but for me it had the exact opposite effect. Reason allowed me to discover more nuanced spiritual meaning and further deepen my connection to the world around me. By doing so, I was confronting two common misconceptions which are deeply embedded in Western culture and which spiritual naturalism challenges:
- Spirituality and religion are defined by belief.
- Spiritual experience needs to be real to be meaningful.
One of the more common values in Western Christianity is that of shared belief, specifically in God, often derived from scripture. However, the value of shared belief in God is not universal among religious groups. Most notable examples emerge from modern liberal religious movements such as liberal Quakers5, Unitarian Universalism6, and Neopaganism7. The philosophies of humanism and naturalism are gaining ground within religious and spiritual communities. Humanistic Paganism and Atheopaganism are examples of these philosophies being explored in new ways. Likewise, Postpaganry emphasizes the value of reason in the search for spiritual meaning.
The second assumption is Western society’s conflation of the real (in an objective or empirical sense) with the meaningful. Having studyied literature and poetry in college, and learned the art of poetry and fiction from seasoned, accomplished writers, it is plain to me that something does not need to exist in objective/empirical reality to be meaningful. But when I first explored polytheism, I thought that, because I experienced something it had to be real. I had feared that, by scrutinizing my experiences, I would find them to be products of my mind and that would invalidate their meaningfulness.
However, once I adopted a naturalistic perspective, I could see my experiences as a product of my mind, in combination with my environment and the variables of my biology, and incapable of being observed outside of my subjective experience. What I have since learned is that it doesn’t matter. These experience are still as meaningful to me now, as they where then. As a naturalist and non-theist, I am comfortable with the fact that my senses are fallible. In fact, I seek out ceremony and other practices which distort my senses for the purpose of creating meaningful subjective experiences. Except now, these experiences are not accompanied by human-like projections. Over time, I stopped integrating human-like deities from ancient narratives and began evolving a non-theistic cosmology (which will be discussed in a later installment of this series).
The idea of postpaganry evolved as in self-conscious contrast to certain trends in Neopaganism. For example, occult practices (including, but not limited to astrology, tarot, runes, ceremonial and folk magic) common in many forms of Neopaganism are absent from Postpaganry. Instead, a contemplative and improvisational approach to celebrating the natural world is the cornerstone of Postpaganry. Postpagan ceremony emerges from deep contemplation of the meaning found in the natural world, and often bursts forth in spontaneous, song, dance, poetry, stories, art, or other expressive activities. Scheduled ceremonies draw out these spontaneous expressions, which are inspired by naturalist interpretations of my spiritual experiences.
Postpaganry was never meant to be a set of beliefs and practices, but a method to construct naturalistic religious and spiritual traditions from the primordial experience of being human in the exact time and place we find ourselves.
1. For simplicity of this article “religious” and “spiritual” are considered synonyms herein.
2. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter
3. Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America by Robert C. Fuller (2001)
4. “Religion as a Cultural System” by Clifford Geertz (1973)
6. Unitarian Universalist Association
7. Drawing Down the Moon by Margret Adler (1979)
Glen Gordon was introduced to Paganism by friends while living overseas in Europe during the late 90’s. He underwent both Wiccan and Neodruidic training during his formative years, but had not self-identified as a Pagan when his path diverged into land-centered spiritual naturalism ten years ago. His focus has been on cultivating beneficial relationships with the natural living world surrounding him wherever he lives. During this time, he discovered Unitarian Universalism and has been active in his local congregations for many years. Since 2007, he has worked on varied projects regarding BioRegional Animism, including this 5 minute video, the words of which came from a short UU sermon he gave. He has spoken on the topic of ecology and the land on a few occasions for his local congregation and facilitated a now-disbanded group of UU Pagans and spiritual naturalists. In the past, he maintained the blog, Postpagan, and is excited to share some of that material at HumanisticPaganism.
See Postpagan Ceremony & Ecology posts.
Glen, interesting article.
One of the things that resonated with me was the trajectory you described of coming from a more mythic with anthropomorphic projections to a direct appreciation and awe of nature:
I experienced a similar trajectory, and what stands out to me is that it was the more mythic period that allowed me to know what it was I needed from a more direct approach to nature. That is, I used to find nature, science, and the cosmos fairly dull and uninteresting, but having experienced the subjective sense of enrichment and meaning in mythic Paganism, I began looking for that in nature. I had some clue as to what to be “attentive” to in terms of my own subjective response to nature. Then, I finally found it there, and could experience it directly in nature without needing myth. In some sense, I needed to go through that mythic phase in order to fully appreciate nature directly. Now I can (and do) use both mythic and direct approaches to nature.
Does that resemble your experience in any way?
Yes this does. Part 3 is about how I learned to connect with the “Genis Loci” of where I lived in a simlar method.
I’m glad you expanded on the notion of the real. In many ways, stuff without any objective or empirical reality is the most important stuff there is.
Thanks for articulating so many important points in a concise and clear format. Highly quotable!
Great article, Glen.
Seems this subject of the objective “real” vs. the subjective/experiential “real” is coming up a lot lately.