[The Dionysian Naturalist] “Dancing with Dionysus: Ecstasy and Religion in the Age of the Anthropocene, Part 1” by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

“A religion, new or old, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reference and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”  — Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (1994) 

My goal in this essay is to explore a form of “Godless Paganism” I refer to as Dionysian Naturalism—an approach to religion ground in scientific evidence but imbued with reverence and awe, and centered around spiritual ecstasy.  I contextualize this “earth-centered” spirituality and search for sacred ways to experience altered states of consciousness within the contours of my autobiography.  The importance of ecstatic experiences in religious behavior is highlighted and I briefly mine the history of what has been called the “Western Mystery Tradition” (by Caitlin and John Matthews) for shamanic elements, mystical experiences and consciousness-transforming practices to briefly summarize their “base elements”.  The interests of Dionysian Naturalists in reclaiming embodied ecstatic rituals is not just to infuse intense pleasure and passion into their religious lives.  Through such mystical experiences pre-established ways of seeing the world are dissolved, ego-less realms of becoming are entered and spiritual connections with the natural world are greatly enhanced.  These new-found spiritual connections with nature and fresh ways of thinking are essential if we are to develop sustainable ways of living on our planet as we enter the age of the Anthropocene.


The New England Congregationalism in which I was raised was rather staid and proper, and terribly emotionally restrained. The only time when a touch of theatricality entered my religious upbringing was during my grandfather’s festive Christmas pageants at his church in Chicopee, Massachusetts.  Rev. Asa Wright Mellinger (1897-1976) was my idol as a child, with the booked-lined study of his colonial-era parsonage, degree from Harvard Divinity School and fluency in most of the Biblical languages (including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac).  He and my grandmother lived radically simple lives inspired by the Great Depression and made necessary by his meager salary.  He was a kind and loving shepherd to his dwindling Yankee flock in this small mill city  along the Connecticut River, then being filled with Catholic immigrants.  To be sure, when I came of age no shaman took me to the nearby Mount Sugarloaf for a vision quest or tribal initiation.

As a young adolescent I discovered science in general and ecology in particular.  I put aside my childish ways (or so I thought) and embraced the secular life. Of course, I still loved my Grandfather dearly, yet had no need for his or any other religion (or so I thought).  I was almost 12 years old when the first Earth Day was celebrated (1970), and even then, we knew the Earth was in grave trouble, and I had no doubt that serious and scientific minds were needed to face these environmental challenges.  Much later, I entered the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with plans to study the biological sciences.

But while in Amherst I discovered the Arts (first performing and then visual) and was floored by the powerful emotional effects they had on me.  Live theater and dance enthralled me.  I fell in love with the visual arts (and much later became a painter).  And music, which had long been a part of my life, became even more important as I played clarinet in the University’s symphony band.  I spent my fifth undergraduate year at the University of Paris—Sorbonne studying theater and fine art.

Yet, the pressing problems of our social world also weighed heavily upon my heart and mind—economic inequality, environmental devastation, gender and racial oppression, psychological alienation.  I decided I must do doctoral work in Sociology, although I had never taken a Sociology class before, because it was the only discipline able to bridge all these diverse topics.  I moved to San Francisco in 1981 to gain California residency and access to the plum University of California system.

I am 22 years old,  living in San Francisco, when I suddenly find myself surrounded by people calling themselves Witches, Pagans and shamans.  Back in Massachusetts I had never met any people involved in what initially seem like bizarre pursuits.  I am intrigued by their do-it-yourself approach to spirituality, their wholesome environmental integrity and their anarchic sensibilities to establishment religion.  I am particularly interested in their quest to create a non-patriarchal approach to divinity and their new ways of conceiving of gender and sexuality.  It is here in San Francisco that the Greek god of ecstasy, Dionysus, first enters my life.  I read Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, Michael Harner’s The Shaman’s Way and Arthur Evan’s Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture.  I joined a group of Radical Faeries (a gay male variation of Pagan traditions founded by Harry Hay) active in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in which I live.  I experiment with hallucinogens and see such mind-altering activities as Pagan sacraments—as “dancing with Dionysus”.

I decide that I have found a important and timely topic for my Master’s thesis in this Pagan resurgence and I enter the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1983 intending to do an ethnography of the emergence of feminist spirituality, reclaimed Paganism and Wicca in the Bay Area.  After arriving at UCSB I learn that here in this program ongoing graduate school funding is dependent upon attaching oneself to a viable mentor who offers a employable methodology and research domain.  To be unaffiliated is to risk loosing all the financial support one needs to do the 5-6 years of graduate study required for the Ph.D.  After six months I realize that no veteran Sociology faculty support my planned study, and I accept that I must re-align myself with other academic interests in the department.

Many years later I am a successful young college professor (I specialized in Critical Social Theories, the Social Psychology of Everyday Life, and Qualitative Methodologies) buying a home in Ventura, California and settled into a suburban life with my partner of 19 years.  When this relationship comes to a crashing end, I fall into a deep depression and experience a mental breakdown verging on suicide.  While previously a pretty regular marijuana user (with some brief forays into the experimental use of other substances), I then begin using crack cocaine very heavily each day to numb the intense pain I feel.  A middle-class white guy with no street smarts I enter a social world of gang members, felons and hard-core dysfunctional addicts.  Within about six months I loose everything in my life—my good-paying teaching positions, my suburban house with the pool, my network of friends and colleagues, and my self-respect.

Eventually, I get off of crack cocaine.  I start teaching again and resume a somewhat normal life.  Episodes of depression still haunt me and I find that small doses of methamphetamine seem to ease my drastic mood swings and allow me the focused attention I need to paint glorious works of art.  I consider myself a “functional user” because I successfully lead a double life of teaching eight very popular classes a year while smoking small amounts of crystal meth daily.  I rationalize these practices as attempts to insert ecstasy into my otherwise overly rational life—a pattern I sometimes drift into off and on for a decade.  In my mind I am still “dancing with Dionysus”.

But even $30 a day of meth adds up quickly and to cover my growing expenses I begin to sell to a small network of friends.   This continues for about two years until one very fateful day.  To get himself out of jail and to have a very minor possession charge dropped, an acquaintance sets me up for a police bust.  On April 23, 2005 I am arrested on the streets of downtown Ventura for sales of methamphetamine.  I again loose my teaching position and everything else in my life.  I am devastated and very depressed.  I move back to Santa Barbara to get treatment at the Rescue Mission—a year-long Christ-based recovery program centered around the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous.  I am forced to go to church each Sunday and after a couple months of church-shopping, in which I explore Episcopal, Quaker and other forms of liberal Christianity, I settle on the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, where I have happily made my religious home for more than ten years now.  As a non-theist it was the option that made the most sense (although the liberal Quaker congregation in Santa Barbara was seemed open to religious rebels and non-theists like myself!).  Subsequently I begin to get treatment for bi-polar disorder—a chronic and severe mental health challenge in which often wild and sudden fluctuations in moods create havoc to one’s life.  I learn that between 40 – 60% of those with bi-polar disorder “self-medicate” with alcohol and street drugs.

To be continued …

About the Author

lSslgGSWayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world.  Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues.  He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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