My Path Begins
Like many before me and many others since, I was baptized into Christianity as an infant. I could barely support my own head, let alone understand the concept of God or the tenets of the Bible, yet I had already undergone a formal initiation rite and been declared an official member of the Catholic Church. Beyond that, however, religion was not a major part of my upbringing, as my parents had separated before my second birthday and my primary residence was with my non-denominationally monotheistic father.
Of course, my mother was only loosely Catholic herself, and even though I spent at least every other weekend and half of all holidays and vacations with her I can still count on one hand how many times we went to a Sunday church service. In fact, the first time I remember Christian doctrine even being mentioned was when I was school age and she told me – as well as my younger sister, whom she did not have baptized – the Abrahamic creation story with Adam and Eve’s disobedience and subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
At roughly the same time, I had been exposed to many Pagan influences as well. My four step-siblings were being raised Pagan by their mother, a number of close friends of the family were Pagans, and my step-father worked for several art galleries and seasonal haunted houses in Salem, Massachusetts – the “Witch City” – so a good portion of my peers, adult role models, and acquaintances from an early age were Pagans of a variety of traditions.
Being young and impressionable, I readily accepted almost any spiritual teaching that was thrown my way regardless of its origins or how well it stood up to logic and saw no conflict in simultaneously identifying as a Catholic and a Pagan. Of course, when I took the time to actually look into basic theology and history as a pre-teen, I realized that not only were many of the core tenets of Christianity and Paganism highly incompatible but also that some of the beliefs and practices of Abrahamic religion were highly oppressive and many of its followers responsible for a great deal of large-scale human suffering throughout the world. As such, I distanced myself from Christianity in favor of a much more purely Pagan system, experimenting and aligning myself with several traditions along the way.
A Slow Awakening…..
Further questioning led me to changes in and relinquishing of other spiritual beliefs I had held, including my theistic perspective, becoming first an agnostic theist, then a pure agnostic for a time, and finally by my late teens an agnostic atheist; a label with which I still identify as I don’t hold a positive belief in any gods but fully admit that I don’t know for certain and could very well be wrong, however doubtful that possibility may seem.
As such, I thought I had no further need for religion. After all, a large portion of the society in which I grew up equates religion with God/gods, so being an atheist meant that I automatically had to give up on religion and spirituality altogether, right? That’s what I was led to believe at least, and for a short while it felt very freeing to not be subject to what many of the more militantly anti-religious refer to condescendingly as delusions that only serve to separate people and lead to extremism and violence.
It was only through abandoning religion for this period, however, that I truly discovered what it meant to me. It was not about devotion to the gods or spirits, following a specific set ritual practice, or living by a certain code out of fear of being judged against some source of inherent higher morality and punished or rewarded accordingly; it was about the feeling of connection to something larger than myself. And once I realized that, I desperately wanted to experience that feeling again.
Returning to Spirituality
Of course, like many both inside and out of the Pagan community, I still thought that the only way to truly be Pagan was to be a hard polytheist, so for me that prospect was off the table in spite of it being what gave me the greatest level of spiritual fulfillment through most of my life. So I searched for other paths to help me rekindle those feelings. Taoism seemed to fit pretty well for the most part, and in studying Buddhism I found a great deal of sense and fulfillment, but in the end it was not for me. By then I thought I had exhausted all possible routes, and that’s when I discovered pantheism.
Unlike other paths I had encountered, pantheism did not prescribe a new set of beliefs and practices but rather described what I had already felt all along: that nature is the supreme source of spirituality, that we humans and all other manifestations of the material universe are inseparably linked to each other and to the whole, and that we don’t need to look to an invisible higher power on a separate plane for fulfillment or wait to join them in some unguaranteed afterlife because “divinity” is inside and all around us here and now.
Unfortunately, one of pantheism’s greatest strengths also seems to be one of its most prominent weaknesses, and that is its lack of ritual. It is a strength because it doesn’t require potentially off-putting conformity to a certain set of practices, thereby allowing for diversity of spiritual expression, but it is also a drawback for ritual has the power to solidify a religious identity and bring people together to put their shared beliefs into practice. This realization is what brought me back full circle to Paganism.
The Importance of Practice
I knew that to fulfill my spiritual needs I had to return to Pagan practice while maintaining my pantheist world-view, but I wanted to go about it as respectfully and mindfully as possible. Upon researching, I found that I was far from the first person to synchronize pantheism – or naturalistic spirituality in general – with Paganism, and thanks to the Information Age it was quite easy to find material on the subject as well as communicate with like-minded individuals that I otherwise would not have been able to, but that alone wasn’t enough to establish a meaningful practice.
When you grow up speaking a language, you don’t generally have to spend a lot of time examining the fundamentals of grammar and syntax; you just speak it. Only when you try to learn another language from scratch do you really begin to understand the essential structure and mechanics of your own language. I had grown up with Paganism, and while I knew how to “speak” it and had learned a great deal about religion in general through my exploration, I felt that I needed to go back to the basics.
So I read up on introductory Pagan material, and while much of it was just refreshment of things I already knew, I also learned a great deal and came to see the Pagan community in a new light. Contemporary Paganism is a very diverse movement whose followers come in every spiritual variety from theists – including monotheists, duotheists, and polytheists of the hard, soft, and archetypal varieties – to animists, ancestor worshipers, faerie folk, and even pantheists. Of course, along my journey, I have encountered many purists who insist that the only way to be a “real Pagan” is to be a hard polytheist, and while at one time I would have agreed, I must say that my experience has now taught me otherwise.
Paganism is not just about worshiping the gods. To many, it is just as much about celebrating the cycle of seasons and harvests in the Wheel of the Year, honoring your ancestors by continuing their traditions, recognizing and embracing your role as part of nature, connecting with your fellow humans and other beings with whom you share space, and of course, being a part of something greater than yourself. And I can securely say that after a long and trying journey, I have finally found my way home.
Me as a pagan and many pagans don’t worship any gods or goddesses. I’m earth honoring and work with spirit realm and work with energies and our ancestors.
Great post! Welcome!
I connected to your loss of the sense of being a part of something larger, as a turning point. I remember recurring phases–I think I was in my 40s, which is a common decade for some of this–when I would feel unsure, at different times, about where my work (teaching) was going, my marriage, my efforts to stay healthy, my relation to my community. About the last, I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to make a greater contribution to something larger but wasn’t sure how, and he said, sounds like you’re looking for religion.
My perspective now (30 years later) is that we are sociable, communal creatures for more deeply and anciently (a word?) than we are aware, and that a feeling of disconnection not just from people but even from a meaningfulness in the world around us really rattles us. Spirituality in many forms helps bring everything back together.
Thanks for reminding me about all this.