Nature Religion?

Is Paganism a Nature religion? Should it be? The topic comes up periodically and recently we’ve had some thought-provoking and comment-inspiring essays, including this one from Sam Webster and this one from Gus diZerega.

I’ve given up trying to define Paganism – that’s an impossible task. But in this big tent, there are Pagans who explicitly worship Nature as God/dess, Pagans who include Nature in their worship, and Pagans for whom Nature is at best secondary to their worship of the gods. There are those who say that since we’re all a part of Nature we should worship her, and others who say that since Nature doesn’t care if we live or die worshipping her is at best naïve.

sacred

The question of whether or not we are a Nature religion is interesting and can be fun to debate. But the debate can distract us from more important matters. And our relationship with Nature is of extreme importance.

If your religion does not include reverence for Nature then I propose your religion is at best inadequate and may be detrimental to your life and to all life on this planet.

Our mindless use of natural resources has done wonders for humanity… or at least for those of us in “developed” countries. We live longer, easier, more secure lives than ever before. But this “progress” carries high costs and it cannot continue indefinitely.

World human population is near 7 billion and growing daily. We’ve already extracted and burned the easy-to-get fossil fuels and now we’re fracking for gas and trying to extract oil from tar sands. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now exceeds 400 parts per million for the first time in 3 to 5 million years. Bees are dying.

Political conservatives like to complain that American deficit spending is mortgaging our children’s future. They’re right, although I find most of their cures worse than the disease. Yet we are doing the same thing in regards to Nature – few conservatives and not many more liberals will even admit there’s a problem. The future for humans is bleak; the future for many other species is worse.

The modern Western world isn’t going to collapse next week or next year. And that’s the problem. Our evolutionary instincts tell us to worry only about today, because tomorrow we may get eaten by a lion. Every time the price of gasoline goes down sales of SUVs go up – as though the pump price this week is going to remain constant for the six or seven years you’re going to be making payments.

If we depend on our rational self-interest (which is rarely rational or in our best interests) to solve our problems, we will end up with too many people fighting over too few resources in a climate inhospitable to humans.

The answer must be a religious answer. We must learn to see Nature as sacred and treat her with reverence. Only by developing a sacred relationship with Nature will we find the inspiration to change the way we live and build a society that is both compassionate for the present and sustainable for the future.

also sacred

Paganism may or may not be a Nature religion, but we cannot allow the reverence of Nature to be restricted to a Pagan – or pagan – issue. It’s a human issue. Buddhists, Evangelical Christians, Catholics, and members of virtually every religion understand the need to care for the Earth. Some see it as a practical matter, some see it as proper care for God’s creation, and some see it as rendering due honor to our Divine Mother. Why you do it isn’t important – that you do it is.

My religion is more than Nature. The gods and goddesses I follow are of great importance to me. So are my relationships with my ancestors and with the virtues they taught and exemplified. But Nature has been an important part of my life since my childhood days exploring the woods.

Only through a reverence for Nature will we make the changes necessary to insure future generations will actually have a future.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Treeshrew

    Another thought-provoking piece as always, John.

    As an atheist, I see nature as all there is, which makes it absolutely central to my take on druidry or life generally. I hope that this shift in attitude to a sense of nature as sacred can happen soon!

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  • sacredblasphemies

    What is Nature?

    Is Nature only the trees and rivers and rocks? Or are we a part of Nature, rather than apart from it?

    I worship Goddess, but I don’t feel that She is solely the Earth or the Moon. She is also inside of me. I do not believe the Earth or the Moon is a specific deity. To me, that is superstition or even idolatry. We are all, each of us, plants, rocks, animals, pollution, and all…a part of Nature.

    Everything that is..is a part of Nature. Whether it was created by humanity or not.

    Given that definition, I have an issue with the idea of my Paganism as “nature-worship”. All religions, by this metric, worship Nature….in some form.

    I believe in lessening pollution because it affects the survival of humanity, the survival of other species, and aesthetically, it’s just the right choice. Not because I believe it’s harming the planet. The planet was here long before we were and will be here long after we are gone.

    • Joseph Bloch

      This.

      The artificial distinction between mankind and “nature” is harmful and ultimately leads to nonsensical positions couched as “saving the planet”. Humans are as much a part of nature as bees and trees, and setting some idealized “nature” above and apart from humanity is simply wrong.

      • Rylin Mariel

        Yes, as wrong as setting some idealized humanity above and apart from nature! If we destroy it, we’ll find out exactly how “above” it we are!

    • http://www.facebook.com/TommyElf Tommy Elf

      Well put sacredblasphemies. Spot on!

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    “If your religion does not include reverence for Nature then I propose
    your religion is at best inadequate and may be detrimental to your life
    and to all life on this planet.”

    Bravo! Sometimes it is necessary to put aside being overly-sensitive and all-inclusive and to just speak plainly, as you have done here.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      There are very few religious matters I believe are certain enough to declare definitively. This is one of them.

  • Evelyn Rose

    I completely agree with most of your article. Your point of view about respecting nature is a widely spread one and is continuing to spread each and every day. However, I do feel the need to point something out. Paganism is not a single religion, nature-based or otherwise. It is an umbrella term to define many different religions. Some of these religions are nature-based, however many of them are not. Please be careful when “grouping” people together. I have quite a few friends who consider themselves “Pagan” without worshiping nature and they become offended when someone labels them as something they are not.

    –Evee

  • http://www.facebook.com/libby.femina Libby Femina

    So who died and appointed these people the new pagan popes, to determine what is pagan orthodoxy and what is pagan heresy? That’s what I’d like to know.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I don’t think anyone is trying to determine orthodoxy and heresy. Rather, they’re trying to figure out how to describe Paganism as it’s practiced. As I said in the essay, I’ve given up on that – it’s an impossible task.

      But reverence for Nature is of such critical importance to our survival and success as a species that it must be a part of any religion, be that Pagan, Christian, Humanist, or anything else.

      • http://www.facebook.com/libby.femina Libby Femina

        MUST be? I thought we became pagans to get away from people telling us how we MUST do things. If you want the fist of dogma smacking down on you and you’re ok with it, knock yourself out, but you will NOT do that to me. Shove it.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

          We can debate what Paganism is (though as I said, I find that unhelpful), but it clearly isn’t about getting away from anything.

          I made a religious proposition – a rather strong one, though a long way from a “fist of dogma”, particularly considering I have neither the means nor the desire to enforce it. I encourage you to examine my proposition and if you find it lacking, make a counterproposal. But “nobody’s gonna tell me what to do” is a rather weak religious foundation.

          • http://www.facebook.com/TommyElf Tommy Elf

            John – if I might butt in here….

            I can see where the reaction towards your statement might be pointing at a position of “dogma”. I can’t say for certain, since this is just my own perspective — but I believe the usage of the word “must” be the trigger point here. “…that it must be a part of any religion…”

            Wording , in my opinion, can make the difference between someone “getting” the point and someone else “rejecting” the point outright. Exploring that for the moment….perhaps this might be a more palatable point for others:

            “A reverence for Nature should be a part of any religious belief system. From my perspective, this reverence could be considered a critical lynch-pin towards the survival of all species on this planet.”

            I might not be completely on target here with the statement – but the addition of the “my perspective” should be helpful.

            @Libby Femina: I can understand the reaction you’re having here. From where I sit, this seems to be an issue of wording/semantics. Setting the wording aside, would you agree or disagree with John’s perspective on the importance of reverence for Nature being a critical understanding towards taking better care of the planet – not just for humans, but for all species here?

            —–
            Shoot the messenger if you want…it still doesn’t change the message. It merely changes the conveyance it arrives in.

            –Tommy

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

            Tommy, I hear you, and you’re not wrong. I’m normally quite diplomatic, but this is something I feel strongly about. I would hope that anyone who disagrees would take issue with my content and not the strength with which it was expressed… but apparently not.

          • http://www.facebook.com/TommyElf Tommy Elf

            Yeah, I can see how you feel strongly about it. I don’t disagree with you either…at least not on your point. Your wording is not what I would have utilized – but that’s just my perspective. For me, its nothing to get completely over-worked on. I see your meaning, understand, and agree. The rest is just a degree of semantics and/or wording…and in my eyes, that’s just personal choice in the end. For me, going nuclear over wording — all it does is mute the point and draw attention (as has happened here in this thread) to something that wasn’t a front-and-center part of the discussion. ::shrug::

          • http://www.facebook.com/libby.femina Libby Femina

            The devil is in the details.

          • http://www.facebook.com/libby.femina Libby Femina

            Your content is telling people what they MUST do.

            Don’t tell me what to do.

          • http://www.facebook.com/libby.femina Libby Femina

            RE: “the importance of reverence for Nature being a critical understanding towards taking better care of the planet”

            Plenty of people are able to be green without turning ecology into a religion, and a dogmatic one at that.

            And plenty of pagans would much rather focus on things like their culture or ancestor worship. One of the things I resent so fecking hard is the implication that they are somehow “less pagan” or they are “pagan heretics” because of this. Who the hell is to say who is and is not “pagan enough?”

          • http://www.facebook.com/TommyElf Tommy Elf

            “One of the things I resent so fecking hard is the implication that they are somehow “less pagan” or they are “pagan heretics” because of this.”

            (As a momentary aside, I wish this stupid commenting system allowed for a better way of quoting people)

            Ok, I can completely grok your point here. I’m not a Celtic Pagan. I’m not a Wiccan. I’m not a Unitarian Universalist (though some of my thinking borders on Universalist perspectives). I’m not an Asatru. I’m not a heathen. I’m just me. (In fact, I’ve kvatched quite a bit about titles and descriptives on my blog – very similar to the point you’re making here)

            Now, I’m not sure you’ve ever met John face-to-face – so I’m not going to make an assumption one way or the other. I have met John face-to-face, and have had the chance to discuss some aspects of Druidry, and Paganism with him. We’ve also discussed stuff in Email a few times. Yes, I would say that I consider John to be a friend of mine.

            With that caveat out of the way, I don’t think that John is advocating (John feel free to correct me on any point at any time — I can only guess at your own personal thoughts) that anyone that doesn’t follow “x” perspective is any less of a Pagan. I believe his point is something more along the lines of “x” *should be* important to people of *any* belief system or religious practice. In this case, John’s point is about how stewardship (are the lack thereof) of the planet is something that will have an effect on everyone – regardless of religious belief or practice. Therefore, stewardship of the planet should be an important part of someone’s beliefs. If someone chooses to disagree, *John* will be disappointed in that person’s lack of regard for the planet’s fragile environment – but there’s no suggestion that the individual(s) should be black-balled from a Pagan community at large – or be described as someone who is only 20% Pagan or what have you.

            Hopefully, you’ve read through the rest of the thread and noticed what I stated about word usage – and how that could possibly detract from the overall message. I agree with you that the wording wasn’t the best (my opinion), but I also remind myself that I didn’t write the blog posting here either. John’s very much a different person than I am (and we do disagree on quite a few points of view) – thus his word choice can (and will) be different from my own. Setting the word choice issue to the side, I get (and agree with) his point on stewardship of the planet. Adding the word choice to the array, I agree with you that the word choice was not entirely the best. But. John’s being very deliberate in his wording (from what I can surmise here) to express exactly how strong and important this particular point is. Thus, the wording he decided to utilize.

            So, there’s my perspective. A few more pence and a few more Pound Sterling – and we can get some Fish and Chips with a nice Dark Ale to go with my opinion….

            –Tommy

          • http://www.facebook.com/libby.femina Libby Femina

            RE: But “nobody’s gonna tell me what to do” is a rather weak religious foundation.

            BS. It’s the very reason most people became pagan at all. It’s one of the strongest foundations out there. Your WILL. Too many pagan people grew up in fundamentalist Christian homes where they were spiritually abused and not allowed to have their own thoughts and ideas, etc, so as soon as they found a way to get out of it, off they went. Don’t turn into a fundie pagan.

          • Rylin Mariel

            If your only action is reaction, then you live always under the control of others.

          • Gus diZerega

            Will is a very poor foundation for much of any proposition about the nature of the world or what to do. Once you have a sense of the nature of the world and what to do, it is very powerful and valuable. But till then, dangerous.

            We see the will used to justify what cannot be argued for in the ‘pro-life’ movement, exalted by Mussolini and others of his sort as the foundation for a politics of manly life, and praised as a foundation for religion by Kierkegaard. This religion has a long history of violence against people who did not succumb to the will of those who willed it to be true.

            Sorry- I’ll take reason, experience, evidence, and even what faith once meant before it became entirely irrational.

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