Naturalistic Paganism

Deities as role models, by Eli Effinger-Weintraub

Haze Sunset Over Moya Village, Aomori, Japan

When trying to get your act together, who better to look to than Apollo, god of light and order?

photo by B. T. Newberg

For months, I’d been trying to develop a relationship with a sun goddess. One day, I looked at the sun and thought, Why am I bothering with sun goddesses, when the sun is real and right there?

In my personal practice, I skip the intermediary and go for the thing, albeit often a highly symbolized “the thing”: the sun isn’t just a miasma of incandescent plasma; it’s a miasma of incandescent plasma with Something to Teach Me about nonjudgmental perception and honest communication.

But deity can have other resonance for me.

Deities as role models

In group ritual and practice, where deities pop up more frequently, I perceive them as über role models of whatever I need to call forth in myself. If I’m having trouble getting my life in order, who better to look to than Apollo, the freakin’ god of order? I have within me everything I need to get my act together – or, at least, I have within me the keys to getting everything I need to get my act together – but sometimes an external metaphor helps me focus.

Embodying the role model

This is how I handle aspecting, of which we do a goodly amount in the Reclaiming tradition. Aspecting, like Drawing Down the Moon, allows ritualists to bring the energy of a deity, spirit, ancestor, or concept (like “Power” or “Community”) into themselves. I’ve done it several times over the years, and, yes, even before I openly identified as a naturalist, it felt like talking to imaginary friends. Amazing sensations of presence filled me, yet I felt that that presence came from within me, rather than being a visitation by an external being.

If invoking a deity in ritual provides external focus for my goals, then aspecting calls forth those qualities within myself and makes them larger than life. It’s “fake it till you make it”: if I want to act more compassionately, wearing the infinitely compassionate face of Kwan Yin for an hour or so may go a long way toward evoking and enhancing the compassion within me.

Participating in the community

This view sometimes creates friction between myself and supernaturalistic Pagans who liken aspecting more to an old-school possession experience, or who give gods and goddesses the same weight of reality as their children and the mayor of their town. But I find the approach beneficial in my personal practice, and it allows me to participate more fully in public ritual and appreciate the diversity of practice and belief that Pagan community offers, rather than staying home, closing myself to the possibilities of deific inclusion, and saying, “Oh, god. Gods.”

The author

Eli Effinger-Weintraub

Eli Effinger-Weintraub is a naturalistic Pagan rooted in the Twin Cities Watershed. She practices a mongrel brand of Reclaiming-tradition hearthwitchery influenced by Gaia theory, naturalistic pantheism, bioregional animism, Zen Buddhism, and the writings of Carl Sagan. But she tries not to think too deeply about any of that and mostly just rides her bicycle, instead. Eli writes plays, creative nonfiction, and short speculative fiction, often inspired by the visual art of her wife, Leora Effinger-Weintraub. She is also a mercenary copyeditor. Find her online at Back Booth and at the Pagan Newswire Collective blog No Unsacred Place, where she writes the Restorying the Sacred column.

Read Eli’s other contributions:

Upcoming work

This Sunday

Eli Effinger-Weintraub

How can naturalists relate to deities?  Eli shares how she makes sense of them while still taking part in her mainstream Pagan community.

Deities as role models, by Eli Effinger-Weintraub

Appearing Sunday, November 20th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W. G. Collingwood

Considering the goals and potential allies we’ve identified in the last two weeks, what are the best methods and projects for moving forward?

Join us for the next council on matters vital to the future of Humanistic Paganism.

The conversation continues this Thursday, November 24th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Next Sunday

Jon Cleland Host

On the weekend of Thanksgiving (for Americans; the Canadians’ was last month), Jon reveals what a marvelous universe we have to appreciate.

Naturalistic meaning and purpose, by Jon Cleland Host

Appearing Sunday, November 27th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Recent Work

Real religion? by B. T. Newberg

Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt

Do we owe gratitude to the universe? by Jonathan Blake

Who are our allies?

Thing on Thursday #8

Last time we identified our goals, now who can help us attain them?  All good movements work in concert with others, mutually enriching each other.  What other movements might be closely aligned enough to make exceptional allies?

When I say allies, I do not mean people from whom to rip off traditions or otherwise appropriate culture.  I do mean people with whom to work, engage in interfaith dialogue where appropriate, cross-fertilize ideas, and from whom to draw inspiration.

The following shortlist of choices doubles as a nice resource list, since every movement here has something valuable to say.  If there are any you’re unfamiliar with, they might be worth checking out.  Examples and links follow after the poll.

Please choose your top three.

Spiritual Naturalists – e.g. Loyal Rue, Ursula Goodenough, Jerome Stone, Chet Raymo, DT Strain

Secular Humanists – e.g. Greg Epstein, Chris Steadman, Paul Kurtz

Stoics – e.g. Keith Seddon, Michel Daw, New Stoa

Pantheists – e.g. Paul Harrison, World Pantheist Movement, Universal Pantheist Society

Epic of Evolution advocates – e.g. Michael Dowd & Connie Barlow, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Glenys Livingstone

New Atheists – e.g. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett

“Liberal” or “Humanistic” religionists – e.g. Bishop Spong, Paul Tillich, Sherwin Wine, Mordecai Kaplan, Stephen Batchelor

Contemporary Pagans and Polytheists – e.g. Starhawk, Janet Ferrar, Chas Clifton, Michael Harner, Isaac Bonewits, Galina Krasskova

Deep Ecologists and Gaians – e.g. Arne Naess, Joanna Macy, John Seed, James Lovelock,

Skeptics – e.g. Michael Shermer, James Randi

Jungians – e.g. Jung, Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, John Ryan Haule

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

Real religion?

Woman lighting candle

How do you know what you’re doing is not a shallow parody of religion?

– by B. T. Newberg

What makes for “real” religion?  How do you know that what you’re doing isn’t just playing dress-up, a shallow parody of religion?

Well, maybe you “just know.”  But aren’t there times when you doubt whether all your beliefs and practices mean anything?  Don’t you ever say to yourself, with Luke Skywalker on Dagobah, “Aw, what am I doing here?”

This question may be especially pertinent for those walking a naturalistic path.  Who are we to strike off the well-trodden trail of traditional theism?  How do we know we’re not headed toward a muddy dead-end?

I struggled with this question.  For a long time I was seeking something, I wasn’t sure what.  Something that would make this alien and hostile world feel like a home.  So I passed through Christianity to Agnosticism to Buddhism to Paganism.  Each gave me something special, but was I really practicing religion?  Or was I just play-acting, trying on different costumes?

“Religion” may not be the best term for what I mean here, so replace it with “spirituality” if it makes more sense to you.  But I don’t want to debate semantics.  I want to get to where the rubber meets the road.

How do you know whether your religious practice is genuine?

A litmus test

One test I’ve found is whether you turn to your religion in times of trouble.  When beset by hardship, does it give you strength, comfort, or solace?

Malinowski was the first to suggest that religion functions to manage anxiety.  Burkert and Armstrong agree.  But let’s leave scholarship aside today and just look at personal experience.

If you find yourself riddled with stress, anxiety, or depression, and the farthest thing from your mind is your religion, it may not have really taken root yet.

On the other hand, if you find yourself going back to your rituals, meditations, walks in nature, or whatever it is that you do, and feeling buoyed up by them, there may be something deeper going on.  When your ego is drowning, and then here comes the lifeguard to keep you afloat, that’s real religion.

My journey

As a young Christian, I never found myself praying to God when under stress, except when I was too little to know what I was doing.  After high school, when I became agnostic, there was a certain confidence in myself that was of benefit, but ultimately agnosticism alone was too vague to provide real support.  Eventually I found Buddhist meditation, and that got me through my college and post-college years.  The ability to calmly and mindfully observe a situation was powerful.  Yet Buddhism, with its notions of karma, rebirth, and enlightenment, just didn’t work for me.  It still felt alien.  Not till I discovered Paganism did I find something that was truly my culture, something that felt like home.

Encountering the gods of myth through ritual and prayer proved surprisingly therapeutic.  Something about reaching out to them, with words on your lips and a gift in your hands, activated something deep inside me.  It may be what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou relationship.  Or, it may be the human instinct for communication responding to the gods as supernormal stimuli, larger-than-life parental figures.  In any case, it worked.  I could talk to them, especially to the one with whom I’d become close, Isis.  In times of stress, kneeling before her altar, I would pour my heart out.  And then some insight would flash through my mind, or a feeling of release would come over me, and with it would be the strength to carry on.

Yet there was still something missing.

Real naturalism, real religion

As much as Paganism relieved stress, it also produced it.  The idea that there were gods “out there” with whom I could communicate went against everything I felt to be true about the universe.  So, why was it working for me?

It wasn’t until I realized where the power was coming from that I felt truly supported.  The gods weren’t “out there”, they were in here.  The therapy I was experiencing was coming from the mind’s ability to project its inner reaches onto the images of the gods. In this way, I was able to make contact with that part of me that possessed the strength to carry on, the “big self.”  Meanwhile, the conscious ego, or “small self”, the one that frets and worries, felt a part of something larger.

I still regularly kneel before my statue of Isis, ring the bell and offer her a cup of life-giving water.  I chant a traditional hymn, then tell her what’s bothering me.  All the while I know I’m talking to myself, but it doesn’t matter because, well, it works.  By the end I feel release and a sense of strength.

That’s how I know what I’m doing is real religion.

So that’s me, but now I’d like to hear from others.  What about you?  Is there something that convinces you that your spirituality is genuine?

Upcoming work

This Sunday

B. T. Newberg

How do you know what you’re doing is not some shallow parody of religion?  B. T. Newberg responds to the moments of self-doubt we all experience.

Real religion? by B. T. Newberg

Appearing Sunday, November 13th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W. G. Collingwood

Last week we debated the goals of our website.  Now it’s time to decide who can help us accomplish them.  What organizations or movements are our close allies?

Join us for the next council on matters vital to the future of Humanistic Paganism.

The conversation continues this Thursday, November 17th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Next Sunday

Eli Effinger-Weintraub

How can naturalists relate to deities?  Eli shares how she makes sense of them while still taking part in her mainstream Pagan community.

Deities as role models, by Eli Effinger-Weintraub

Appearing Sunday, November 20th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Recent Work

Ritual – why bother? by Jake Diebolt

Do we owe gratitude to the universe? by Jonathan Blake

Encounters with the Goddess? by Thomas Schenk

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