Five questions about Paganism

From Michael York:

In preparation for a paper for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s annual conference, I am seeking answers from pagan practitioners to the following questions. The title of my presentation is “Religion and Theology: A Contemporary Western Pagan Perspective on Identity Formation and Modern Policy.” The analytical framework I propose to use is one that differentiates paganism (broadly of course) from Abrahamic, dharmic and secular religions or perspectives, but for the questionnaire itself that differentiation need not be considered if it does not seem to be relevant for any respondent. There are five questions overall and concern theological and other distinctions of paganism from other religions. I welcome any and all answers that anyone wishes to supply. These answers will be presented anonymously in my paper unless a respondent explicitly allows me to use her or his name.

The questions are:

(1) How is paganism different?

(2) What is the significance of its difference?

(3) What are the key issues in a modernity project?

(4) What can paganism contribute to these issues in contrast to contributions from other religions?

(5) How can or does paganism work with other religions in addressing issues of economic imbalance, corporate power, industrial pollution, global warming, disaster relief and constructive cooperation?

I am most appreciative for any responses anyone is able to return to me. My email address is

Here are my personal responses to these questions:

(1) How is paganism different? 

Paganism is different from non-indigenous religions in that its goal is to integrate spirit and matter, not for spirit to escape matter. Indeed, whilst many religions have succumbed to the Cartesian split between mind and body, it could be argued that Paganism has resisted this split (though not entirely escaped it).

Paganism is different from indigenous religions in that they are specific to a particular culture and people; Paganism tends to include specific ethnic elements, such as Celtic, Norse, Hellenic, Roman, etc, but is not restricted to a particular ethnic group.

Paganism does not claim to be “cosmically necessary” (in other words it is not needed for an individual to have a pleasant afterlife); nor does it claim a monopoly on the truth. Paganism does claim to provide a way for individuals to relate to the world around them.

Paganism is an umbrella term for a number of different religious traditions, but it is possible to belong to more than one of them without conflict with the others.

Pagan traditions don’t have a single canonical text like the Bible.

Most Pagan traditions affirm the sacredness of (consensual) sex.

(2) What is the significance of its difference?

The differences are significant in that Paganism(s) offer(s) a way of being in the world that is life-affirming, sexuality-affirming, and LGBT-inclusive.

Pagans can regard deities as a metaphor and perform rituals with other Pagans who believe more literally in the existence of deities.

(3) What are the key issues in a modernity project? 

I am not sure what the phrase “modernity project” is intended to signify. if you mean the relationship between modern life and Paganism, I think there is no conflict, because the Pagan revival occurred in a modern context.

Pagans don’t have a problem with modern life being in conflict with the commandments of a canonical text, because we don’t have a canonical text, and because the source of our ethics is reason, conscience, and empirical evidence. 

Many of us do have a problem with rampant consumerism, capitalism, and corporate greed, because we want to live sustainably and in a way that respects the planet and the other beings with whom we share it.

However, the question does not take account of postmodernism. I would define modernism as the tendency to assume that facts can be objectively known, that it is possible to take an objective stance on any given issue, and that economic and social progress are inevitable.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, assumes that all knowledge is subjective, that everyone’s perspective is coloured by their circumstances, and that progress is not inevitable, and not automatically desirable if it leads to living social injustice or environmental destruction.

(4) What can paganism contribute to these issues in contrast to contributions from other religions? 

Pagans are particularly well-placed to discuss environmental ethics and sustainability, because our outlook is very similar to that of deep ecology. Other religions may have the theology and the ethics to cope with these issues, but they don’t necessarily have the mythology and the stories to illustrate them.

(5) How can or does paganism work with other religions in addressing issues of economic imbalance, corporate power, industrial pollution, global warming, disaster relief and constructive cooperation?

Pagans can and do participate in interfaith dialogue and other work (usually as individuals rather than as Pagans). These efforts are sometimes hampered by other religions’ prejudice against Pagans; sometimes by the relatively small size of the Pagan community; and sometimes by Pagans’ suspicions that interfaith dialogue is thinly-disguised proselytising (not a view that I personally hold, but it is widespread in the Pagan community).

A great set of answers to the five questions was posted by Ian C.  at Into the Mound.

Eco-spirituality in practice

Paganism is often said to be a Nature religion, but often Pagans are not very immersed in Nature. This could be because we get distracted by shiny things like mythology, or because many of us live in cities and so are more familiar with brand names than tree species, or because connecting with Nature is just too hard.

One thing that is often suggested as a way to connect with Nature is celebrating the seasonal festivals. I have certainly found it helpful to have the seasonal festivals in my life as markers of time, and they have made me more aware of the passing seasons, but I don’t know if they have made me more connected with Nature. I also worry that we sometimes impose our own patterns on Nature, rather than listening and looking to see what’s there.

Another way to connect with Nature is to get out more, and walk in the woods, by the sea, in the mountains. Meditating in Nature is excellent, and is a very old pagan practice called “sitting out”. Adrian Harris writes, over at Bodymind Place:

The principle of the sit spot could hardly be simpler: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes.  Though it’s generally traced to Native American teachers, this ancient practise is cross-cultural. What modern Pagans call ‘sitting out’ has a more explicitly spiritual purpose, but is essentially the same thing.

Cultivating a sense of place is important too. The excellent book The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci by Barry Patterson is one that I recommend highly, because it offers specific techniques for engaging with place, including learning about its history, geology, flora and fauna, mythology, archaeology, and so on.

This approach is also recommended in a bioregional quiz, “Where You At?”, originally developed by Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley, and updated by Connected by Nature. Learn about your local flora and fauna, what flowers, fruits and vegetables are in season at what time.

We also need to be in right relationship with Nature, so reducing your carbon footprint and your ecological footprint and auditing your lifestyle are important.

Eating food that is local and in season helps the environment, but it also makes you more aware of your surroundings. It’s very hard to eat seasonally in some places, but we should at least be aware of the air miles on what we eat, and try to buy more local produce.


Eco-spirituality and theology

Eco-spirituality is a new name for a set of ideas that goes back a long way.

Baruch Spinoza and Giordano Bruno both viewed the universe as divine. Their ideas were broadly pantheistic. The implications of the idea that the universe itself is divine are explored by Sam Webster, who prefers immediacy to immanence. The universe is a theophany, the manifestation of the Divine. The implication here is that everything is sacred, and we should take care of the Earth and other beings; we certainly don’t have dominion over them.

A common trope in Western views of reality is the idea that there is an underlying essence to everything, a pure state of being, and that everything else emanates from that. This is a very pervasive idea, from Plato’s concept of Ideal Forms, all the way to Cartesian dualismProcess theology was an attempt to correct this thinking; its basic premise is that everything is always changing. It also views the Divine as involved in the process of change, and developing as a result of the changes:

For both Whitehead and Hartshorne, it is an essential attribute of God to be fully involved in and affected by temporal processes, an idea that conflicts with traditional forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable), and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theology does not deny that God is in some respects eternal, immutable, and impassible, but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible. (Wikipedia)

As Pagans usually view our deities as neither infinite nor perfect, and many of us regard them as beings on their own spiritual journeys, this makes a lot of sense. Cyclicity and change are regarded as positive in Paganism, so process theology fits in well with that. Indigenous traditions also affirm that process and becoming are natural and inevitable; many indigenous American languages do not translate well into English, because English refers to everything as a fixed state (nouns), whereas they refer to everything as a process.

Gaia theology & theory affirms the idea of the Divine as living, and therefore changing. Gaea theology was developed by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart in 1970, independently of James Lovelock‘s better-known Gaia Theory. Oberon Zell-Ravenheart derived his ideas in part from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic palaeontologist and geologist. Both Zell and Lovelock regarded the Earth as Gaia, a living organism, and named the idea after the Greek Goddess Gaia.

According to Wikipedia:

According to James Kirchner there is a spectrum of Gaia hypotheses, ranging from the undeniable to radical. At one end is the undeniable statement that the organisms on the Earth have radically altered its composition. A stronger position is that the Earth’s biosphere effectively acts as if it is a self-organizing system which works in such a way as to keep its systems in some kind of equilibrium that is conducive to life. Biologists usually view this activity as an undirected emergent property of the ecosystem; as each individual species pursues its own self-interest, their combined actions tend to have counterbalancing effects on environmental change. Proponents of this view sometimes point to examples of life’s actions in the past that have resulted in dramatic change rather than stable equilibrium, such as the conversion of the Earth’s atmosphere from a reducing environment to an oxygen-rich one.

An even stronger claim is that all lifeforms are part of a single planetary being, called Gaia. In this view, the atmosphere, the seas, the terrestrial crust would be the result of interventions carried out by Gaia, through the coevolving diversity of living organisms.

Eco-spirituality embraces an ethic of non-violence and sustainability. Non-violence includes respect for life in all its manifestations (human, non-human, animal, vegetable and mineral); harmonious use of natural resources, with respect for the natural order and cycles of the environment, and development compatible with the ecosystem; and listening to Nature, not dictating to it. In Hinduism, non-violence is known as ahimsaSustainability means not using up or depleting the resources available, and maintaining the diversity of ecosystems. Reducing the diversity of an ecosystem, or doing something that creates an imbalance in it, upsets the food web (what eats what in a specific ecosystem).

A key idea in eco-spirituality is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their usefulness to humans. Deep ecology argues that the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the organisms depend on each other for their existence within ecosystems. This philosophy was named “deep ecology” by Arne Næss in 1973. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a deep ecological approach is needed to ensure sustainability, biodiversity and the continued existence of the human species. Vandana Shiva writes:

‘Deep ecological solutions are the only viable solutions to ensuring that every person on this planet has enough food, has enough water, has adequate shelter, has dignity and has a cultural meaning in life. If we don’t follow the path of living in ways that we leave enough space for other species, that paradigm also ensures that most human beings will be denied their right to existence. A system that denies the intrinsic value of other species denies eighty percent of humanity, their right to a dignified survival and a dignified life. It only pretends that is solving the problems of poverty, it is actually at the root of poverty. And the only real solution to poverty is to embrace the right to life of all on this planet, all humans and all species.’

Another important strand of eco-spirituality is eco-feminism, the idea that the exploitation of the Earth is symbolically linked to the domination of women, with talk of conquest, dominion, and so on; whereas respect for the Earth can be equated with respect for women. This is a big part of contemporary Goddess spirituality, and is obviously related to Gaia theology. In Ecofeminism (1993) authors Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies point out that modern science is not a universal and value-free form of knowledge, regarding the dominant scientific discourse as a projection of Western men’s values.

Another green precept is “Think global, act local“, the idea that before acting, we should look at consequences for the whole biosphere, as well as for the local environment. This is consistent with the Wiccan ethic “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”, which encourages us to look at the consequences of our actions. It also relates to the idea of spirit of place. The Romans honoured the genius loci, and the Greeks honoured the daemon (both terms mean ‘spirit of place’). This was the consciousness inhabiting wood and grove, tree and well, river and lake. Pagans have found that specific locations have a different atmosphere, a sense of presence. Christians have started to talk about ‘thin places’ – liminal places where the numinous can readily be encountered.

One of the things that keeps me Pagan is the importance of wildness. For me, this concept includes the erotic, the instinctive, the intuitive, a sense of connection to Nature, intimacy, freedom, and solitude. It also links in with deep ecology – the valuing of wild places and wild beings for themselves and not for their utility. An excellent book on the subject of reclaiming wildness is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychotherapist and traditional storyteller.

Ancient cultures regarded the landscape itself as sacred, and devised sacred geography to describe it. This includes the concept of the four cardinal directions and their associated symbolism; the idea of the World Tree at the centre; and cosmologies with the heavens above, the underworld below, and the Earth in the middle.

So, how do we put these ideas into practice? That will be the topic of the next post.