With the new year, we are starting a new series called, “What Naturalism Means to Me”. It is an opportunity for our readers, like you, to share what Naturalism means fto you. We are looking for essays between 1000-3000 words. Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism[at]gmail[dot]com.
As a naturalist, I believe that there exists an objective, physical reality, which I call nature, and I doubt that anything other than nature exists. Supernaturalists, in contrast, believe that both nature and other realms outside of nature exist. Many supernaturalists furthermore believe that there exist immaterial beings and/or undetectable forces operating in other realms which may in some way manipulate the physical world. Which of these worldviews to subscribe to was one of the first choices I realized I had to make, when I began the task of creating a meaningful personal spiritual path.
Both naturalists and supernaturalists have spiritual experiences. The experiences themselves are factual, in as much as we can tell in the moment we’re having them. But we diverge when it comes to the meaning of spiritual experiences and the methods for interpreting them, because naturalists and supernaturalists hold radically different epistemological commitments. My purpose in this essay is to describe my own naturalistic worldview and reflect on how it shapes my personal practice of witchcraft.
A naturalistic worldview: metaphysical commitments
My naturalistic worldview is grounded in several metaphysical commitments. The first is an ontological commitment that there exists an objective, physical reality to be perceived, which I call nature. For example, I take it as a given, that when I look up into the night sky and see the full moon, there exists a physical moon to see, independent of my thoughts and perceptions of it. I can validate my perception of the full moon against the perceptions of other observers. If others also report seeing it, it would be nonsensical to think that my act of observing it caused the moon to appear. On this much I think most naturalists and supernaturalists would agree.
But my naturalism also relies on two epistemological commitments: first, that my beliefs about reality should be supported by evidence; and second, that empirical observation of the natural world is the most reliable source of evidence for what reality is like. In other words, direct sensory observations and unbiased, objective methods, such as the scientific method, hold privileged places in my worldview. While undeniably interesting, mystical revelations or insights, even those shared by a number of different people, are inherently biased and neither empirically observable nor repeatable, which suggests that they have more to do with the subjects experiencing them than with the entities perceived.
I do not mean to disparage subjective experience; on the contrary, a certain kind of subjective experience is the goal of my spiritual practice. However, I don’t believe in the existence of other realms apart from the natural world, because there’s no empirically verifiable evidence for their existence. Can anyone irrefutably prove other realms don’t exist? No. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes. But an epistemological commitment to empirical evidence precludes belief in worlds for which I have none.
Note that it’s easy to tangle a debate about naturalism with a debate about theism, because both discussions are relevant to understanding spiritual experience. An exploration of my relationship with gods is outside the scope of this essay, but I want to make explicit that I’m no atheist. What I cannot accept is the idea of gods who stand outside of nature and manipulate it. This has important consequences for my practice of Witchcraft.
As a Witch, I honor Nature, and I practice magic, or the “change of consciousness at will,” following the definition suggested by Dion Fortune, Starhawk, and others. As I understand it, many supernaturalists use magic instrumentally. Their practice involves the collection, containment, and projection of one’s energy or will from some place “between the worlds,” in order to achieve a goal in the real, material world. So what does the practice of magic look like for someone who rejects the idea of otherworlds?
First, my approach has more in common with folk magic than with high ceremonial magic. For example, shortly after my family moved into our current home, I made a witch jar and buried it in the yard, to symbolize protection of the home and those who live here. There was no need to call quarters or deities or cast a circle for the spell. I simply filled a jar with glass shards from a broken window, a few nails, some tangled twine, some prickly pear spines, and fingernail clippings (ew, yes), sealed it with a silver ribbon, charged it, and buried it; that was enough for my purposes.
I also grow my own herbs, use essential oils, and brew wildcrafted teas. I journal. I build altars and shrines. I collect hag stones. I pray. Several times a week I walk my neighborhood “territory” with my beloved dog Poe. As a result, I tend to know what the weather’s like, what’s blooming, what’s dying, and which insects, birds, and human neighbors are active in my part of the world. These workings don’t require the performance of elaborate, otherworldly rituals, nor do they require going out in search of pristine wilderness (although I love to camp and hike). Instead the heart of my practice involves enchanting my practical, everyday routines in this world. I pay attention to my local environment and communities, not as I imagine them to be, but as they actually are.
My naturalistic magic is more expressive than instrumental. It won’t change the weather, levitate objects, summon birds from the spirit world, bring me more money, or cause anyone other than myself to fall in love. The tests of whether my magic works are these: does it deepen my sense of connection with the rest of Nature? Does it help me fully inhabit and appreciate the world as it is, where I am? Does it leave me open to the full range of human experience, including most especially beauty? Does it induce a healthy, empowered mental and emotional state that leads to action?
Back to that witch jar spell. How does it hold up against these subjective tests? I don’t imagine that the jar has protected me or mine from any ill wishes or malefic magic from a distance. But knowing that the jar is buried near the front door has inspired me to enter and leave my home with intention and reminded me to worry less when I leave. Moving through the world with presence and intention helps me to enjoy life more and to cope with daily challenges outside the home as they come. So the jar has helped transform my mental and emotional state. The transformation of my mental and emotional state in turn transforms the world, because I am not separate from it. And curiously, I would have formed a different emotional association with the space around my front door, if I’d filled the jar with cotton balls and marbles. The contents of the jar appear to be magically significant.
On diversity in pagan practice
Nature is nothing if not creative and diverse. Therefore as a naturalist, I feel called to challenge myself toward diverse points of view. Though I don’t interpret my spiritual experiences in the same way supernaturalists do, I read books and blogs authored by supernaturalists, and I join them in ecstatic ritual as often as I get the opportunity, because I admire and respect them and their path. None of us knows everything or has an exclusive angle on absolute truth. We can all benefit from collaboration.
The goal of my naturalistic practice is not to project my will onto the world, but instead to harmonize my will with reality, which is Nature. In other words, I want to fully inhabit my life in this one world just as it is. I have no evidence for an otherworld, but belief in an otherworld is not required, for the meaningful practice of magic.
Anna’s spiritual interests include healing, meditation, the creative process, sacred place, gardening and foraging, poetry, mythology, Reclaiming Witchcraft, and Modern Minoan Paganism. She attends First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin and practices a mostly solitary, mostly naturalistic form of Green Witchcraft. Anna’s work also appears on TejasWeb.org, JustThis, the journal of the Austin Zen Center, and her blog Wildseed Within.
Outside of the circle, she enjoys walking her dog, cooking, and hiking and camping with her husband and school-aged children in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. She makes her living as a registered nurse specializing in maternal and child health.
I like the clarity of your commitments. I too take my epistemology seriously, or I try to. I wonder if that’s what sets naturalists apart? Wait, is that a jerky thing to say? Never mind.
If you have epistemological commitments other than the ones I describe, for example if you don’t need evidence for your beliefs, or if you privilege different kinds of evidence over empirical, experiential information, then you’ll arrive at very different, possibly supernatural, interpretations of your spiritual experiences. I hope it’s not jerky to say so! My intention was not to suggest that supernaturalists don’t take their epistemology seriously, but to reflect my current understanding that their epistemology must be different from my own.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you’ll write on this topic, too, Bart!
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