“Are the Gods Natural?” by B. T. Newberg

Author’s Note: This was among my first essays, published at the Witch’s Voice at the inception of HumanisticPaganism.com, and bears the stamp of an earlier and perhaps less-mature voice. I am republishing a select few of those early essays here. The “we” referred to is the larger Pagan community.

Gods, ghosts, spirits, and magic – are these supernatural? Nine out of ten Americans would likely say “yes.” And yet Pagans defy the norm.

“No,” we Pagans say, “our gods are natural.” Is this a joke? A semantic game? A gimmick to get a “100% natural” label on the bottle? What do we Pagans mean when we say our gods are natural?

Natural and Supernatural

natural (adj) : of, relating to, or operating in the physical as opposed to the spiritual world.

supernatural (adj) : of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil. – (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary; 2011)

According to the definitions above, the natural is identified as that which is of the observable, physical universe, while the supernatural belongs to a realm beyond that. These conventional definitions, however, don’t sit well with many Pagans, as we’ll soon see.

When a Pagan invokes a storm god in hopes of bringing rain that certainly sounds like a supernatural proposition by normal standards. But many a Pagan would argue that the gods are part of nature, we have a natural ability to communicate with them, and the whole process of producing rain in this way is no more unnatural than any other technology.

Margot Adler (1986) observes in her classic review of Neopaganism, Drawing Down the Moon, “this naturalistic definition of magic … is common in one form or another” across the Pagan spectrum. In my experience, this is true also of attitudes toward gods.

But you have to admit: calling on gods certainly seems supernatural. So what do we mean when we say it isn’t? How can our gods possibly be natural?

Why we say the gods are natural

Three things must be understood before this claim begins to make any sense.

1. Nature Religion

The first thing to understand is that Pagans are children of Nature with a capital “N”. Earth-centered spirituality is our life-blood. Like followers of Shinto, Taoism, and other indigenous faiths, Pagans practice nature religion. The Goddess and the Horned God of Wicca intertwine with the cycles of nature, and the deities of Polytheist pantheons burst from land, sky, and sea. Given this, it would hardly be fitting for Pagan gods to be called supernatural. They are not above, beyond, or outside nature. No, they emerge from the very heart of it.

Some of us go even further to say the gods are nature. The wholly-immanent view of deity sees no distinction between the natural universe and the divine. The universe is the divine, and the divine is the universe. The Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome held this view, as did Spinoza in the Renaissance. Humanistic Pagans and Pantheists do the same today. In the wholly-immanent view, gods are certainly not supernatural by any definition.

Yet the majority of Pagans, I would hazard to guess, feel that the gods are both immanent and transcendent (e.g. Starhawk, 1979, as judged by Cooper, 2006)*. In other words, there is some part of the divine that goes beyond the empirical universe revealed by the five senses. It goes beyond the observable, physical universe described in Merriam-Webster’s definitions. Beyond what the most powerful telescopes and microscopes can detect is something else — a spiritual energy transcending matter. How can this part be natural? Isn’t this by definition supernatural?

2. The Undiscovered Science

This brings us to the second thing that must be understood. Many Pagans feel they work on the edges of science, embracing it but pushing the envelope of what is currently accepted. Gods are natural, they say; science just hasn’t discovered them yet. In a similar vein, Isaac Bonewits calls magic an art and a science that “deals with a body of knowledge that, for one reason or another, has not yet been fully investigated or confirmed by the other arts and sciences” (Bonewits, 1979)**. The concept of the undiscovered science serves to justify the claim of Pagans that the objects of their belief are indeed natural. One day, science will vindicate that claim. Till then, the burden of proof is postponed.

3. Convenient Ambiguity

The third and final thing that needs to be acknowledged is that Pagans are comfortable with ambiguity. Are the gods natural or supernatural? “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. Unlike creedal religions, Paganism places emphasis on practice, not beliefs. This allows Pagans to remain open to speculation and even day-to-day re-evaluation of beliefs. “I’m an atheist on Tuesdays and Thursdays” is a joke you might hear. This ambiguity of belief allows one to interpret the gods according to scientific naturalism one moment and spiritual transcendence the next. According to Luhrmann (1989)***, it allows the newcomer a long period of trial and experimentation without committing to any specific beliefs.

So, deities can be considered “natural” because anything not immediately fitting that description can simply be stamped “pending review.” Ambiguity allows claims to be advanced by way of hypothesis, without binding the person to the claim.

These three things — nature religion, undiscovered science, and ambiguity — help us understand the Pagan claim that god, ghost, and magic are natural, and not supernatural.

But “natural”? Really?

Beware of house prices that go bump in the night.Yet the skeptic may not be persuaded. Are these arguments satisfying? Or are they just apologetics, rationalizations that explain away what really ought to be considered supernatural? Let’s investigate them one by one, starting with the last.

The notion of ambiguity appears on first sight to be nothing more than intellectual laziness. However, there’s more to it than that. Pyrrhonian Skepticism, one of the great philosophies of Classical Greece, proposes that in the absence of compelling evidence for or against a proposition, the rational thing to do is carry on in the spirit of inquiry. So, if there isn’t enough hard evidence gathered yet to prove or rule out the existence of gods in the natural world, the smartest thing really is to admit, “I don’t know.”

However, there is a key provision in the Pyrrhonist principle: “and carry on in the spirit of inquiry.” That is to say, we shouldn’t stop at “I don’t know.” We should be looking for the necessary evidence.

That leads us right into the notion of the undiscovered science. This argument seems justifiable on the face of it, but may in fact be less than genuine. There have been numerous instances of fringe theories later vindicated by evidence in the eyes of Western science — chiropractics is one, and acupuncture appears set to become another. So, why not believe science will eventually discover magic, energy, and gods lurking in the natural universe too? Why not hope that quantum theory or chaos theory or whatever else will eventually prove it all true?

The simple answer is, if we really believe that will happen, then why aren’t we making it happen? If mainstream scientists don’t take our claims seriously, then why aren’t we doing the work ourselves? I know a lot of Pagans, but I don’t know any yet who are seriously trying to make the undiscovered science discovered. If they’re out there, I would very much like to meet them. (Seriously, I could be way off, so please let me know!) Suffice to say that I have not yet heard debates about the best methodologies that minimize bias, attempts to formulate falsifiable hypotheses, or experiments designed to decide between two competing theories. That’s what is expected from a scientific community, so why aren’t we doing that? It makes me suspect even Pagans do not take the undiscovered science claim seriously. Until we develop rigorous methods to prove our claim that our gods are natural, it seems disingenuous to place much stock in the undiscovered science argument.

That leaves us with the argument of nature religion: Pagan gods can’t be supernatural because it just wouldn’t be fitting. They emerge out of nature, so they must be natural, plain and simple. We define nature to include gods. This leaves a relativistic taste in one’s mouth. Non-Pagans may as well say, “Okay, I get why you say your gods are part of nature, but just the same what you call natural I’d call supernatural.”

Ultimately, the Pagan claim that our gods are natural remains on shaky ground. It is not indefensible, but not particularly compelling either.

Are there arguments that I’ve missed?

Toward truly natural gods…

yalta-skazka-3-foto

The claim could be made completely compelling in an instant. If we adopt a wholly-immanent view, where the gods are identical with the natural universe or aspects of it, the controversy melts away. Whether the gods are seen as archetypes, metaphors, cultural traditions, or some other aspect of the observable, physical universe, the issue is resolved. There’s nothing supernatural about these things; they’re perfectly natural by any definition. They may not support the effectiveness of magic, but that’s another issue that can be settled by scientific experimentation. On the whole, the view of immanence easily renders the gods natural.

So why don’t more Pagans take this view? Why do the majority today insist that gods are natural when they really seem quite supernatural? In a sense, Pagans want to have it both ways. They want to have a religion of the natural, but they also want to have the numinous feeling of the supernatural.

At this point, I refer to the nascent work of John H. Halstead (2011)****. In his view, the crux of the matter lies in a fear of losing the numinous. Identifying gods as archetypes threatens to reduce them to “just” archetypes. This is why Pagans, after flirting with archetypes for some time, have begun to turn their back on them. We don’t want our gods to become mere things, mere mental stuff. As archetypes, the gods are no longer godlike. Their “numinousness” is lost.

The same argument could be made for gods as metaphors or cultural traditions. However you frame it, the mystery is lost. The gods become known quantities.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. What we need to do, according to Halstead, is “re-god” the archetypes. We need to recognize the power, the mysterium tremendem, of these natural forces. We need to feel the god in them. Then we can have a natural religion of the numinous, without resorting to the quasi-supernatural.

Can we learn to see the awesomeness of archetypes, the mystery of metaphors, and the tremendem of traditions? And what of the sun, moon, and seas? Are they not godlike enough just as they are, without us granting them quasi-supernatural powers? Can we accept our gods as both fully natural and fully godlike?

Paganism is supposedly nature religion. Our gods ought to be natural, right? We claim so.

But until we can feel the gods in nature without making them supernatural, that claim remains in jeopardy.


Notes

*Adler, M. (1986). Drawing Down the Moon. New York: Penguin.

**Bonewits, I. (1979). Real Magic. Berkely, CA: Creative Arts Book Co.

***Lurhmann, T. M. (1989). Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

**** Halstead, J. (2011). “The Archetypes Are Gods: Re-godding the Archetypes.” Humanistic Paganism. Retrieved Nov. 9, 2014, from:


The Author

B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg founded HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011, and served as managing editor till 2013.  His writings on naturalistic spirituality can be found at PatheosPagan Square, the Spiritual Naturalist Society, as well as right here on HP.  Since the year 2000, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective.  After leaving the Lutheranism of his raising, he experimented with Agnosticism, Buddhism, Contemporary Paganism, and Spiritual Humanism.  Currently he combines the latter two into a dynamic path embracing both science and myth.  He headed the Google Group Polytheist Charity, and organized the international interfaith event The Genocide Prevention Ritual.

In 2009, he completed a 365-day challenge recorded at One Good Deed Per Day.  As a Pagan, he has published frequently at The Witch’s Voice as well as Oak Leaves and the podcast Tribeways, and has written a book on the ritual order of Druid organization Ar nDriocht Fein called Ancient Symbols, Modern Rites.  Several of his ebooks sell at GoodReads.com, including a volume of creative nonfiction set in Malaysia called Love and the Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu.

Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language.  He also researches the relation between religion, psychology, and evolution at www.BTNewberg.com.  After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea, B. T. Newberg currently resides in St Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and cat.

B. T. currently serves as the treasurer and advising editor for HP.

See B. T. Newberg’s other posts

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3 Comments on ““Are the Gods Natural?” by B. T. Newberg

  1. I don’t think I’ve seen this before; thanks for re-publishing. I’ve asked very similar questions. I’ve found that if I say I revere Earth, just as she is, as a goddess, some reply that I’m using the term “goddess” in a novel and unothodox way. Then we get into the whole Humpty-Dumpty debate (see Carroll).

  2. On Natural Gods
    “The universe is the divine, and the divine is the universe.”
    Is casting Einstein’s equation in metaphysical terms.
    In other apologetic jargon One might imagine the same concept being phrased,
    “The Alpha the Omega the Beginning and the End”
    I like this, “Paganism places emphasis on actions, not beliefs.” I have a Tshirt from the United Methodist Commission on Communication with the words, “Putting your Faith into Action” on the back. Followed by the underscored words, “That’s Church!” I can certainly see a similarity between these twin concepts.
    To the statement, “The notion of ambiguity appears on first sight to be nothing more than intellectual laziness.”
    I’d like to reply, “Perhaps, yet to the best of my knowledge no one has ever seen Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as a work of mental sloth”. One man who certainly takes the concept of undiscovered science seriously is Sir Roger Penrose. He posited the existence of naturally occurring tessellation about a decade before it was actually discovered and received a Nobel for his trouble. He published a book a couple of years ago on the subject titled, “The Road to Reality.” Another was Isaac Newton who famously said, “To myself it seems I am but a lad playing on the beach finding a pretty sea shell now and then while the vast ocean of undiscovered scientific knowledge stretches before me undiscovered”. Robert A. Heinlein issued a little book, in the ’70s I think, it may have been earlier, containing a couple of novelettes titled, “Waldo and Magic Inc.”. Magic Inc. was about regleaning the magic lost during the development of empirical science. A few movies I’ve enjoyed along these lines are, “Down the Rabbit Hole: What the (Bleep) do We Really Know”, “The Sacred Geometry Movie”, and “Thrive”. “Spirit Science” is a good site on the subject. You may find merit in them also. I suppose if I can be a Christological Neoplatonist I can certainly make an attempt at being a Pagan Methodist. The Baptists have been accusing me of that for decades anyway.

    P.S. I’ll leave you with this tantalizing taste of tessellation.

    I enjoyed your work, B. T. Newberg.

  3. I really enjoyed this, and agree with your solution to the natural/supernatural problem. I may not believe in supernatural gods, but I believe in the fact and experience of sacredness. Since humans have an inborn capacity/need for this experience, it seems irrelevant to me if there is a supernatural correlative for it. I think we want this because we are unwilling to own our own “bright shadow” as the Jungians call it. Luckily, what I take metaphorically and others take literally can still feel and act like the same thing during a ritual. And that’s just fine, since ours is said to be a religion of “custom and not belief.”

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