No Nonsense Paganism: The baby and the bathwater

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

I’ve heard that phrase a lot, especially in the context of talking about Religious Naturalism and Naturalistic Paganism. I’ve said it a fair number of times as well. It means: don’t lose the good stuff while you’re trying to get rid of the bad stuff. The problem is, one person’s “baby” is another person’s “bathwater” and vice versa.

So, what is the “bathwater” for me? As I wrote in the introduction to this series, the bathwater is “occultist make-believe, New Age sloppy thinking, adolescent rebelliousness, capitalist exploitation of all this, and any excuse to dress up like a goth fairy.” It’s supernatural belief, literalistic theism, anthropocentrism, instrumental magic, dogmatic historical reconstuctionism, poorly planned and poorly executed rituals, and pointless silliness.

But when I say I want to throw out supernaturalism, I don’t mean embracing a strictly objectified view of reality. Any account of reality which leaves out our subjective experience is an incomplete account of reality. When I say I want to throw out “literalistic theism”, I don’t mean embracing a literalistic atheism instead. And I don’t necessarily mean getting rid of theistic language or “god-talk” where it can be an effective “ritual technology”. (See here, here, here, and here.) When I say I want to get rid of dogmatic historical reconstructionism, I don’t mean getting rid of all references to the pagan past. I mean drawing on ancient sources the same way we draw from contemporary sources: ecclecticly, and yet selectively and conscientiously.

And when I say I want to get rid of poorly planned and poorly executed rituals, I don’t mean getting rid of ritual altogether. And I also don’t mean the kind of half-hearted embrace of ritual that I see in a lot of Religious Naturalist circles. An example of this comes from a 2012 article from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, in which Greg Epstein documented the critical reaction from other humanists to his idea of creating humanist rituals:

“Even the most seemingly innocuous forms of ritualized practice, like starting each meeting of a group with the reading of a poem of significance to a member of the community, came in for heated criticism. Lighting candles to represent the Humanist values of reason, compassion and hope … was declared strictly off-limits. And singing songs celebrating Humanist narratives and principles was, by some, never to be considered. These ideas are, we are told, ’empty’, ‘senseless’, ‘a distraction’, even ‘nauseating’.”

I have heard similar sentiments in my Unitarian Universalist congregation. For me, that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Human beings aren’t just walking brain vats. We have bodies and emotions, and though some humanists would disagree with me, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Regardless, I think we ignore our physical and emotional selves at our peril. What ritual does, in the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffie[FN1], is to “seduce us into the sacred.” And it does this by by-passing our rational minds.

Ritual speaks to the body through bodily movement. In my mind, any ritual that doesn’t have some bodily movement isn’t really a ritual. In an interview with the theologian, Walter Brueggemann, about thepower of poetry, NPR host Krista Tippett explains[FN2]:

“For most of history, religion was a full-body experience, a primary space in common life where we danced and sang and laughed and cried and ritualized the passages of our lives. Rituals are sophisticated ancient intelligence about the body. Kneeling, folding hands in prayer, and breaking bread; liturgies of grieving, gathering, and celebration–such actions create visceral containers of time and posture. They are like physical corollaries to poetry–condensed, economical gestures that carry inordinate meaning and import.”

One of my perennial concerns is why liberal and naturalistic religion often seems to lack what Brueggemann calls “transformative power.” I think at least part of the reason naturalistic religion often lacks this power is because of its ambivalent attitude toward ritual. A lot of ritual in naturalistic religions is discursive, rather than poetic. It can be verbose and, at worst, didactic. Think of those rituals where the culmination of the experience is someone giving a sermon or homily. In those cases, the “ritual” takes the form of talking about an experience, rather than having an experience.

This is not entirely surprising, since Religious Naturalists tend to be skeptical of anything that reminds them of theistic religion–and that includes ritual. Rituals can be a bad thing, as when dogmatic and authoritarian institutions use them to maintain their power. But there are also rituals which can cause us question structures of oppression.

“What separates good ritual from bad?” asks Greg Epstein, “What makes some regular symbolic practices rich and life-affirming, and others stultifying, void and degenerative of critical thought and individual freedom? How can we harness the positive aspects of ritual without encouraging its darker side?” Epstein recommends that communities make a commitment to experimenting with ritual in a reflective and critical way, remaining open to changing or discarding any ritual practices that doesn’t prove beneficial. That is what I am trying to do here.

It’s true that, unchecked by critical thought, religious enthusiasm tends toward dogmatism and abuse. But it’s also true that critical thought, cut off from flesh and blood reality, has a tendency to kill the thing which it is trying to describe. We can’t have religious experiences while our rational minds are on high alert. As D.T. Strain has written, “We cannot achieve greater subjective intuitive experience through greater objective intellectual knowledge alone. We are still holding on to the edge of the pool, scared to float.”

But neither should we abandon rationality altogether. The trick is not to confuse one with the other … and not to try to do both at the same time. The founder of, B.T. Newberg, says need to “Dive deep and let rationality be our lifeguard.” There are those who readily jump into the pool of religious experience with both feet, but some of them forget to return to the edge from time to time, and they risk drowning in a sea of superstition and fanaticism. 

Religious Naturalists, on the other hand, have a tendency to sit on the edge of the pool of religious experience and dangle our feet in the water, refusing to let go of the edge. We can’t have the experience of swimming in the waters of religious experience until we let go of the side of the pool and make the leap. The key is to periodically return to terra firma in order to analyze our experience before jumping in again. This experience of “letting go” is, for me, the “baby” that too often gets thrown out with the bathwater by Religious Naturalists. And this series is my attempt to hold on to that “baby” while letting the “bathwater” drain away.


[FN 1] From Rabbi Eric Yoffie, “The Coming Renaissance of Liberal Religious Life”:

“religions ultimately shape, inspire, and console with day-to-day sacred acts. It is these acts that build community, give structure to the holy, and provide religion with its true power. But liberal religion has often favored doctrine while ignoring liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals. It has often assumed that belief is enough, without recognizing that we need rituals to seduce us and to draw us to the sacred. … Liberal religion must therefore build for itself a rich ritual life.”

[FN 2] From Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (2016)


John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism.  John has written for numerous online platforms, including PatheosHuffington PostPrayWithYourFeet.orgGods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at

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