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Religion Library: Paganism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Carl McColman

Many Pagans would maintain that humans are, both individually and collectively, free to chart their own course, to determine their own purpose. Without a pre-given, "supernatural" way of understanding life's meaning, or even a consensus within the mythologies of the world, Pagans are free to create their own meaning or sense of purpose. Although such freedom can be abused (for some, the purpose of life can mean little more than selfish pleasure seeking, even at the expense of others), most Pagans would argue that one's own freedom to decide meaning is more important than efforts to judge or evaluate the meaning-choices of others.

Within the freedom to chart one's own purpose, resources exist that can help along the way. Mythology often teaches core values (honor and virtue are good, lying and stealing are bad) that can help one to function in social contexts and can shape an understanding of happiness and well-being. History, likewise, offers examples of heroism, creativity, wisdom, and other qualities worth emulating, while society establishes parameters of rights and responsibilities within which one's purpose may be forged. Science (biology, psychology, and sociology) all offer clues to help differentiate between lives that are more (or less) productive, effective, and happy. All these resources are available to help each individual chart his or her sense of purpose and meaning.

Rather than one unchanging purpose being handed down from an otherworldly god, the purpose of humankind as a whole emerges from the combined individual purposes of all people. One could say, then, that the purpose of being human is to live a free and self-directed life, in pursuit of happiness, recognizing nature-imposed limitations but also choosing to struggle against them, whether through science, spirituality, or art. It is on the continuum between finding happiness and contentment with the way things are, and striving to make things better, that the ultimate purpose of being human is revealed.

For many Pagans, maintaining balance between humanity and nature is also an important purpose of being human. Humans exist not merely to enjoy the bounty of the environment, but also to serve and protect the environment, not only for future generations of humans, but indeed for the sake of nature itself. Although such a values-driven understanding of life's purpose is far from universally held within the Pagan community, for many this is an important part of their chosen spirituality. In a spirit of noblesse oblige, humanity's intelligence and vision carry with them a responsibility to care for the well-being of nature as a whole.

Finally, some Pagans do accept a metaphysical understanding of life's purpose, derived from mythology and spiritual beliefs. Living a good life can create positive karma, which can lead to a blessed afterlife existence and/or a favorable reincarnation.

Study Questions:
     1.    What is the role of the individual in defining existence?
     2.    What can the laws of nature teach about existence?
     3.    Why is there no unified Pagan belief about the purpose of existence?
     4.    What resources exist to help Pagans understand their human nature?
     5.    How should humans interact with nature?


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