How can a naturalist emerge in Paganism?
As in the animation above, multiple currents move in the Pagan community, often in seemingly opposite directions.
- by B. T. Newberg
Tanya Lurhmann, in her anthropological study Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, asks how an otherwise mainstream person can be persuaded by magic. Today, I want to ask the opposite question: how can a person take part in the Pagan community and not be persuaded to a literal belief in magic or gods? In other words, how can a naturalist emerge in Paganism?
There is such variety among Pagans that generalization is extremely difficult, but I can at least speak for myself. How did I manage to find myself a Pagan naturalist? Why wasn’t I persuaded to join the majority opinion, preferring instead a minority one?
One possibility might be that I haven’t had the same experiences that others have had. That can’t be ruled out, as there is no way to compare subjective experiences with any precision. However, it certainly seems likely that our experiences are at least similar*:
- Once, when it was lightly raining, I made an incense offering to Zeus to honor the rain, and within a few minutes it began to rain cats and dogs. Compare this to the rain coinciding with Michael J Dangler’s ordination ritual.
- Once, at the precise moment that I invoked Demeter to be present in a ritual beside a river, a duck floating by suddenly bolted off in flight like it saw something that scared the bejeezes out of it. Compare this to Teo Bishop’s experience offering to Manannan by the seashore.
- Once, after watching The Last Temptation of Christ at a friend’s house, I felt moved to go into the backyard, where I fell down in violent sobbing beneath a tree and saw – in my mind’s eye, but completely without conscious intention – all those who had ever been an influence in my life, including those who’d put me through hell, and I confessed to each “you too have loved me.” Compare this to Gus diZerega’s experience of “love beyond conception”, as told in his book Pagans and Christians.
- Once, in ritual I suddenly felt a distinct presence other than myself, who appeared in my mind’s eye as an American Indian woman with blue eyes; she invited me to become her lover. Compare this to Literata’s experience of a presence, a “specific awareness of a particular personality” (mentioned in the comments of this post).
- Once, when exhausted and lying down for a nap, beneath the scrunched bedspread pulled over me I saw – not in my mind’s eye but with eyes open, as if with normal vision – the lower half of the face of an ex-girlfriend chanting in some unknown language. Compare this with the smoke wisps seen by Euandros.
I don’t want to get bogged down in analysis of these events at the moment; suffice to say I found naturalistic explanations the most persuasive for my experiences.
In light of these comparisons, it seems unlikely that my experiences have been all that terribly different.
Was I biased toward naturalism from the start? Maybe. When I left the Lutheranism of my upbringing I was not eager to replace one implausible deity with another. I was ready to see any kind of literal belief in magic or deities as nonsense.
Yet experience broke down my biases upon meeting non-naturalists of extraordinary intelligence. I’m pretty sure Drew Jacob has a few IQ points over me. Euandros is also a damn smart guy. No, there’s no way to dismiss other views so easily – some pretty impressive people adhere to them.
Nor was it that I didn’t give hard polytheism a fair chance. As a member of ADF, I opened myself to the possibility of real-existing independent deities, listened carefully to other ADF members, poured my heart into rituals and devotions, and had powerful experiences (see above). I even wrote a manual on ADF liturgy that is still used today. Yet I ultimately realized – in ritual, no less – that I was thoroughly naturalistic.
So, I don’t think it was a result of biases, or not giving other views a chance.
Another possibility is that the social route by which I came to Paganism influenced me. After a brief face-to-face class in Contemporary Shamanism, I quickly found myself a solitary. Books and the Internet were my primary means of interacting with other Pagans.
This may well have been significant, as the Jungian view seems disproportionately represented in the literature. Two of the most commonly-read foundational books, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, both display a distinctly Jungian flare.
In addition, metaphorical interpretations tend to be disproportionately explicit. Whenever Pagans choose to make their meanings explicit, it’s more likely to be metaphorical than literal, if only because literal meanings don’t usually call for extra comment. You don’t say “This is an apple, and by the way I mean that literally.”
Primed thus to see metaphorical meanings everywhere, I came to interpret virtually all Pagan talk as referring symbolically in one way or another to inner experience. Whatever I couldn’t interpret this way only seemed like a failure to grasp the symbolism, not evidence that I was over-interpreting a literally-intended meaning.
So, maybe I misinterpreted some meanings. But I couldn’t have done so for years on end if there weren’t something else going on that facilitated it. There must be something else encouraging naturalistic persuasions to emerge.
Is it something inherent to the Pagan community itself?
Lurhmann suggests that the process of coming to be persuaded by magic** exploits a certain ambiguity in magical discourse, in which both literal and metaphorical meanings may be implied, without commitment to either.
“The Goddess”, for example, may operate metaphorically as a personification of the Earth, but may also refer literally to a personality capable of communication, caring, and causal agency. Which meaning is meant at any given time is ambiguous.
Magicians are free to believe either way, and may flip back and forth depending on the situation. This is not felt as uncomfortable, since emphasis is placed more on practice than on belief.
The suspicion is that this ambiguity allows new practitioners of magic a long period of experimentation during which positive emotional experiences are built up before committing to literal claims of magic’s efficacy. Many then gradually move away from mainstream Western beliefs (which deny magic’s efficacy) and toward the majority beliefs of the magical community (which affirm it). This process is called interpretive drift.
While Lurhmann’s study focuses on drift toward belief in the efficacy of magic, other currents and undertows may be possible. I visualize two ocean currents, hard polytheism and naturalism, moving in apparently opposite directions. It might look something like this:
How two currents emerge
So, how can a naturalist emerge in Paganism? Many factors may be involved, but foremost among them seems to be an ambiguity inherent in Pagan discourse.
But why does this ambiguity currently seem to lead in two different directions, hard polytheism and naturalism?
Alison Leigh Lilly suggests the hard polytheist current may be motivated by a desire for legitimacy in the eyes of the mainstream, and I suspect that is true of the naturalist one as well. While the former moves toward what is perceived as historical accuracy and resemblance to mainstream American religious views, the latter moves toward what is perceived as factual accuracy and resemblance to mainstream science.
Do the two currents ultimately lead to different shores, or are they part of some still larger swirling pattern?