As you know, there has recently been a kerfuffle in the blogging sphere between Naturalistic/ Humanistic Pagans and Hard Polytheist Pagans. Now I follow many bloggers both Naturalistic Pagan and Polytheist Pagan, and a Heathen blogger has recently written a blog addressed to John Halstead (and any other Naturalistic Pagans) asking why we identify as Pagans, rather than just atheists/ humanists e.t.c. This is a very valid question and so I’d like to respond with my own story and thoughts..
Why am I a Naturalistic Pagan?
Let’s start off with why I don’t call myself an atheist. I was most definitely an atheist for a while after I left fundamentalist Christianity. In the immediate aftermath of the death of a friend and the searching it led me to engage in, I was first a liberal Christian and then very soon became atheist thanks to watching many Youtube videos and reading books by prominent atheists. But that wasn’t the end of my religious journey. I was hungry for more.
When I found the World Pantheist Movement, I became a Pantheist – one who sees the universe as divine and the earth as sacred. This was religion without the supernatural. I still consider myself a Pantheist. I see the Earth as Mother Nature, something to be honoured, revered and yes, worshipped. I even pray to the Earth. It is our duty as children of the earth to honour and look after her. This to me is the essence of Paganism.
I am an animist. Like many in the new animist and deep ecology movements, I see all living things (and perhaps even non living things) as “persons” we have a duty to respect. Persons who deserve rights. Persons who we can develop relationships with. Humans are not the superior species on earth, we are just one of many species with no more right to be here than any other. Philosophically I find the ideas within Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism i.e. that mind is not something that “emerges” from brains/ matter, but is something that is inherent all the way down and up – the smallest electron experiences, just as the largest galaxy does. There is no scientific proof for this, it is more an argument from philosophy, and if science ever does prove it wrong I’ll have to change my ideas.
Ancestor veneration is also a sacred duty in my opinion. Learning to cope with the death of my close friend and then my grandmother, and without the “comforts” of heaven to believe in, I found the Pagan emphasis on honouring our ancestors to be very helpful and useful. I honour my ancestors regularly. I research them. I have an altar to them. I pray to them. I give them offerings. Can they hear me and are they conscious beyond the grave? I doubt it. The scientific evidence against the existence of a soul is pretty strong. But I venerate them anyway – it helps me remember them, it helps me feel closer to them, it teaches me values like reverence and filial piety. It allows me to feel connected. And if by some miracle there is some kind of consciousness beyond the grave then I’m simply doing my duty as any Pagan should.
What about the gods? First, it is important to acknowledge that modern paganism has always emphasised that orthopraxy not orthodoxy is what matters. When we stray from this tenet, we only have to look at monotheistic fundamentalism to see what happens. I don’t truly know how I view the gods but I have trouble believing there are supernatural gods. I suppose I’m slightly on the agnostic side rather than fully atheist. My religious practice involves regularly praying to the gods, particularly the Anglo-Saxon ones. I give offerings and do devotions. I also follow the Celtic-inspired practice of giving an offering to my local river each Beltane and addressing her as a goddess. When I see the moon each night, I bow my head and say “Hail Mona.” When I hear a thunderstorm or see lightning, I say “Hail Thunor” and when I see the North Star I say “Hail Tiw.” I was a member of the hard polytheist organisation, ADF, until recently (I will join again once my travels are over), and so my religious practices and rituals are very polytheistic. In fact, I would say my religious practices are probably barely distinguishable from any polytheist. I would have no problem taking part in a religious ceremony with hard polytheists, praying to the gods, giving offerings or any other Pagan practice. In fact I find the Celtic and Norse/ Saxon Reconstructionist religions to be one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me when putting together my religious practices. But do I believe in powerful literal existing beings somewhere in the universe who are the gods of Paganism – I don’t currently see enough evidence to back up such a claim. That said, having read “A world full of gods” by John Michael Greer, I am open to the idea that because millions have had religious experiences from a variety of faiths, there could well be something I am not seeing.
I follow the Neo-Pagan wheel of the year – the eight festivals/ sabbats. These help me to stay in tune with nature, to feel more of a sense of the cyclical nature of time, to be aware of the changes taking place in the world around me each season. I love celebrating these festivals, of feeling connected with nature, of the way they ground my spirituality in the reality of daily life. And that is another reason I consider myself a Pagan.
If these things don’t make me a Pagan, I have no idea what would.
Finally, I think it is important to say that I owe a debt of gratitude to hard polytheism. I follow hundreds of pagan blogs, and most of them are written by polytheists. And that is great! Because I am regularly challenged, made to think and I learn so much from them. I base a lot of my religious practice on what I read on those blogs, especially those who emphasise scholarship. In a time when it seems like the Pagan blogosphere is becoming more polarised, there is so much we can learn from each other that will improve our religious lives and it saddens me to see the regular arguments. We need each other. We are better together.
I hope this blog post has answered the question of why I personally identify as a Pagan, rather than just a humanist, even though my worldview is primarily naturalistic.