Branches of the Deep Ecology Tree: Nature Religion: Reuniting religion and nature

Neo-Paganism is a nature religion which, like other nature religions, perceives nature as both sacred and interconnected. From this perspective, humans in the developed world have become tragically disconnected from nature, which has been desacralized in both thought and deed. Healing this rift is possible only through a profound shift in our collective consciousness. This constellation of ideas can be called “Deep Ecology”. This is the sixth in a 6-part series about some of “branches” of Deep Ecology. This essay was originally published in parts at Neo-Paganism.com.

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by Katerina Plotnikova

What is a Nature Religion?

The terms “nature religion”, “earth religion” and “earth-centered religions” are used more or less interchangeably to refer to those religions which are defined primarily by their relationship to the natural environment. Not all forms of Paganism are nature religions. The category of nature religions includes many indigenous religious, those forms of Paganism and feminist spirituality which are concerned primarily with nature generally or with the local bioregions specifically, those forms of neo-animism and neo-shamanism which view humans as a non-privileged part of a more-than-human community of beings, and those forms of environmental protest that Bron Taylor calls “Deep Green Religion”.

Michael York writes that nature religions share “a this-worldly focus and deep reverence for the earth as something sacred and something to be cherished.” According to York, nature religion is part of a wider post-modern protest against the modernist separation of nature and the sacred. There is a fundamental theological divide running through most religions separating matter from spirit. York calls these “gnostic” religions, which he contrasts with “nature religions”. In the latter case, nature is neither fallen nor a prison from which we must escape.

Nature religionists perceive nature as both sacred and interconnected. By “sacred”, we mean that nature has intrinsic value apart from its utility as a resource for human beings. By “interconnected”, we mean that our very being is determined by our ecology, by the material and cultural environment which we share with all other living beings. We are immersed in a web of life which is our true community.

Nature religionists perceive that humans in the developed world have become tragically disconnected from nature. Nature in the developed world has been desacralized in both our thoughts and our deeds. Healing this rift is possible only through a profound shift in our collective consciousness which will enable us to reconnect to the material conditions of our lives. Richard Roberts calls this urge to reconnect with the earth the “chthonic imperative”. Many Neo-Pagans refer to this new consciousness as the “re-enchantment of the world”. Deep ecologists call this the realization of one’s “ecological Self”, which is distinguished from one’s “ego-self”. Neo-Pagans seek to effect this “re-enchantment” through education, ritual, worship of Mother Earth, and other practices designed to reconnect us with nature.

Gus DiZerega has identified several common attributes which most nature religions share, including:

  • focus on this world
  • perceive the inherent goodness of embodied/physical existence
  • focus on the immanent dimension of the sacred
  • the sacred is potentially accessible to all
  • emphasize experience over belief
  • emphasize living in harmony in the natural world
  • teach spiritual truths found in natural cycles and nature processes
  • birth, death, and sexuality are treated as sacraments
  • focus on relationships over mastery
  • tend not to have sacred texts
  • tend not to have institutionalized hierarchies
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“Ascension” by Nick Keller

Neo-Paganism and the “Gnostic Temptation”

Neo-Paganism represents a challenge to the “Gnosticism” of much of contemporary Western and Eastern religion. The “Gnostic temptation” refers to a tendency in religious thought toward denying the goodness, or even the reality, of physical existence. Michael York explains that most world religions have a transcendental or “gnostic” bias, by which he means that they see the material world as an illusion or as having less value than the spiritual world. In much of Christianity, for example, physical reality is seen something fallen from which we need to be redeemed.

In contrast, in the Neo-Pagan understanding, the spiritual is intertwined with the physical. Divinity is more immanent than transcendent (pantheism). To the extent the Neo-Pagan divinity is transcendent, it is a lateral transcendence, rather than a vertical one: the divine encompasses physical reality (panentheism), rather than being separate from it.

The Gnostic temptation in Christianity is expressed as the condemnation the body, sex, and the material world as the kingdom of the devil. Christians seek to escape this world either returning to an Edenic state of atonement or (re-)ascending of the ladder of being to a heavenly realm. The Gnostic temptation in Eastern religions is expressed in the view of physical reality as a mask or a veil concealing the divine Reality behind it. In many Eastern religions, the body is seen as a prison for our spirits.

Neo-Paganism, in contrast, has a this-worldly focus. For Neo-Pagans, this world is real, not illusory. Nor is it fallen. Neo-Pagans do not seek to escape or transcend the world, but rather seek to deepen their experience of it. Neo-Pagans are skeptical of spiritual abstraction or otherworldliness. While some Pagans believe in reincarnation, they embrace rebirth and celebrate the great round of nature, unlike the Eastern religions in which the wheel of reincarnation is something to be escaped from.

As Graham Harvey has observed, the Gnostic temptation does sometimes find its way into Neo-Pagan discourse too. This is due, in part to the influence of Western esotericism on Wicca, and through Wicca on Neo-Paganism. This can be seen most readily in ritual forms, like the casting of a ritual circle, which seem to separate participants from their physical environment, rather than re-connect them with it. Another source of the Gnostic temptation in Neo-Paganism is the New Age, which is sometimes conflated with Neo-Paganism. In contrast to Neo-Paganism, the New Age looks to spirit rather than earth and denigrates matter and darkness.

Recommended Links:

“Nature Religion as a Contemporary Sectarian Development” by Michael York

Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World, eds. Joanne Pearson et al.

COMING UP: A 5-part series on the “Fruits of the Deep Ecology Tree”

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